Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
RCL – Epiphany 3 C – Sunday 24 January 2010
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The Lord Jesus emerges from the wilderness and is ready to begin his public ministry. He will declare the coming of the kingdom of God. He goes home - to Nazareth, to the synagogue he knew very well, to his family and friends. The community gathers to sing, to pray, to hear the stories and the promises. Perhaps most urgently of all they gather to remember the promise of Messiah who will save and liberate them, who will usher in the reign of God's presence of justice and peace. How they long for justice and peace, how they long for freedom and have longed for it for centuries. It was a normal Sabbath gathering, like hundreds of Sabbaths before, and, for all these Jews of Nazareth knew, like the hundreds of Sabbaths which will follow. An endless horizon of Sabbaths full of this remembering, this longing, this waiting spread out before them. So much in their world would make a hope for liberty folly. Tommorow will be like today: the poor will be poor, the rich will stay rich, the empire will own us, and Caesar will be lord – who or what could change that?
They don't yet know who it is who stands among them to read on this Sabbath, who arrives to utter the most earth-shattering one sentence sermon ever preached. Even the first word would have been incomprehensible. “Today...” They don't yet know that sight is coming from Mary and Joseph's son, that salvation for the world starts in Nazareth with them. They don't yet know that they are staring at the very One they most desire and most long for. The promise is really here. He proclaims his anointed and chosen status. Isaiah was right and today is the day. But even as he announces that the blind can see and the prisoners can walk free people in Nazareth continued to suffer. After Jesus declared that today was the day blindness was still as dark, prisons were still as confining, the Roman soldiers patrolling the streets of Nazareth carried swords that still reminded the people of their oppression. Those hanging on crosses for defying Caesar were still as dead – Caesar always wins.
Whatever fulfillment means it does not mean that justice and peace spring up instantly. Jesus does not fix everything. From the stories given to us in the Gospels Jesus will indeed leave the synagogue in Nazareth and go about preaching and healing. He will open a few blind eyes and liberate some in spiritual oppression, he will free captives and feed the poor and the Good News will begin to spread around the world. But this Good News will not, has not, been instant or easy or welcomed by everyone. Whatever fulfillment means, it is not finished yet.
After Jesus went up and the Holy Spirit came down the first Christians preserved and embodied Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom coming among us. They shared and taught the faith, cared for the orphan and widow, fed the hungry. And what did they get for their embrace of the Savior? Our faithful forebears were thrown out of the synagogues, persecuted, many tortured and killed, oppressed and deprived and tormented – not exactly what we would call Good News. And in the two millenia since this declaration of freedom was proclaimed how many around the world have remained blind and in prison, oppressed and mistreated? How many have died alone, unloved, and unmourned? How many children have been abused, how many have faced hopelessness, how many have spent their last moments trapped under a collapsed building, alone, afraid, in darkness and despair? To those for whom there is no rescue, in the realization that no one is coming to save them, what is the use of this Good News? In moments of honesty we look around the world and demand “If this is the world that God envisioned, if this is the Good News that Jesus preaches, it is either the biggest joke in the history of the world or it is a hard Good News and who can bear it.”
And yet Christ proclaims the promise fulfilled. And it is fulfilled. Despite the pain, the violence, the earthquakes, the disease - the promise of Isaiah is fulfilled because Messiah has come. The message of the kingdom is the ultimate Good News because it offers the gift that within and beyond the pain, within and beyond the violence, in the midst of rubble and destruction, though our bodies decay and die, Messiah is with us and we can have hope. Indeed the Good News that Jesus proclaims is to be free from injustice and oppression but it is also to be free when we are the victims of injustice and oppression. It is to see with our eyes but it is also to glimpse what no eye has seen. It is to know Christ in blessed times of health and plenty and contentment but also to know Christ in the inevitability of disease and distress and death that attends this temporal journey – fulfillment is real because we rest in the peace that no suffering, no oppression, no Caesar can touch our hope or steal our life. Our brief momentary afflictions are not the last word, our struggle is temporal, our liberation is secured.
But we don't just sit back and wait for heaven. Because God's reign is embodied in people, in us, the kingdom comes when we live its life and do its work and act as if it is already here today among us because it is. Our longing translated into acts of revolution usher in the kingdom among us. We become the Good News to one another. As Jesus leaves the synagogue in Nazareth, he is looking for us, or, more accurately, looking within us. He is listening for our hearts, for the longing and hope that reside deep within us. He is testing the sincerity of our love. Our desire for new life joins us to Jesus' proclaimation of “Today in your hearing...” and makes it real. We meet them as we journey into the story: desire lived in the heart of blind Bartimaeus, the bleeding woman, the lepers – it lived in the hearts of those who pleaded on behalf of others – the Roman official, the demoniac's father, the friends of the lame and dying and dead. Their physical healing was for their temporal existence but the spiritual life they received sustains them even now at this very moment as they look upon the face of the One who healed and saved them. These are they who lived Epiphany, who welcomed the Light, who faced the crisis of freedom with hope planted and grounded in Christ. These and countless others like them are our models for fulfilling the Good News in our own lives.
Still it is a hard Good News that we proclaim. We live with the violent, unjust and fractured state of our world – a world of promise yet still fallen and groaning for its salvation. Our hope is fulfilled but not yet complete. It is a hard Good News that we proclaim. Too hard, a foolish nonsense, to those who want a quick fix, an easy out, pleasure now. Even as Jesus loved and forgave and healed there were scoffers, enemies are present in the story as well - the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, the Sadducees, the religious, the comfortable, the arrogantly powerful, the selfishly rich – unable to surrender control, unwilling to let go of a fleeting safety and comfort for eternal peace. Those who reject hope remind us that we are often tempted to do the same. . Jesus announces but does not impose, he proclaims but does not coerce. Our will is like a door that can open to liberation or close itself up in the prison of self-delusion. Our own struggles with arrogance, selfishness, judgment, apathy can humble us and confront us with the choice of life or death. The light of Good News attracts some and repels others and we are all on the hook and must respond. Jesus continues to fulfill today in our hearing, to announce, to invite, to preach the foolishness of sight and freedom, even and especially in a world so full of blindness and despair.
In his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, Cistertian monk Thomas Merton expressed the essence of Epiphany, the essence of our longing for what is already here, with these words:
We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life and that is why we are travelling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore in that sense we have arrived and are dwelling in the light. But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived.