“We Are Not Alone”
January 27, 2013
Is it true that, as our anthem beautifully proclaimed, we are not alone? Is it true that there is something or someone divine, at our side, throughout all the moments of my life and your life? Throughout the moments of joy, and the moments of desperation? Throughout the moments when it seems the goodness flows like wine at a wedding, and the moments when the world seems parched and dry?
If it is not true, then I’ve been lying to people for many years as I prayed with them. If it is not true, then as Paul said, we are a people most to be pitied. If it is not true then we are on our own, in a trackless land, without a compass. That is too gruesome a prospect for me to contemplate, and I hope that it is also unimaginable to you.
I think we come here, Sunday after Sunday, to ask the question: is the good news true? Is it believable that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected to save us from a life of aimlessness and sin? That he not only came for us, but came for everyone so that all would know abundant and eternal life.
Jesus stands in front of a hometown crowd and tells them not only is the good news of Isaiah true, today it has been fulfilled in your hearing. The possibility has become the reality. The words that Isaiah spoke became even more beautiful as Jesus spoke them. One commentator wonders if in reading these words from scripture, even Jesus is really hearing them for the first time. Is it possible that as the words came from his mouth, he realized the words pointed to him? Fresh from his baptism, fresh from his testing in the wilderness, does Jesus hear these words and realize that they refer to his anointing, his emergence into the world?
If so, these words become Jesus’ inaugural address…an announcement of what he plans to do, and the way in which he means to do it. Kate Huey observes that this pericope falls on the heels of our own presidential inauguration last Monday. An inaugural address is to provide a road map for the next 4 years…to let the people know the direction in which we will be heading.
The inaugural speech of a second term president is typically quite different from that of a first term president. The difference lies in the fact that the second term president will not be running in any more elections. And as many political pundits noted this week, this second term president set forth an unabashedly progressive agenda that hit upon several very hot button topics. And it’s unlikely that the words of President Obama’s second inaugural address could have comfortably been part of a presidential campaign speech. We have too many factions for whom those words run counter to closely held beliefs.
Jesus would not get elected for office, running on the agenda presented in the words of Isiaiah. It also proclaimed a very hot button topic for his time…God’s grace even for the Gentiles. In a few more lines of scripture here in the 4th chapter we see the hometown crowd so angered that they are ready to throw him off a cliff. But then Jesus is not running for president, he is the anointed Son of God come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And that message is not always popular, especially among those who thought they were the Lord’s favored ones, and the only ones at that.
But what hope must have been ignited amongst the poor, the rejected, the powerless upon hearing this inaugural address! These words are not brand new, but as Richard Swanson puts it, “Jesus has rung a bell that echoes back to their first entry into the land.” Back to when the Israelites were a nomadic people, wandering through the wilderness looking for a home. And later, back to when they were a displaced people longing to go back home.
Jesus claims that he is God’s agent of salvation. He is now the way through the wilderness, he is the way back home. And he is not alone, because the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. That same Spirit was with him at his baptism, and with him during his time of testing in the wilderness. He came up from the water of baptism as the anointed one.
We also come out of the water of baptism changed. Raewynne Whitely states that we go in the water as an individual, independent and self-contained. But we come out of the water a member of a community, part of a body, and we can only be known with reference to the community. We are not alone. We are never alone. We have Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit, and we have each other. And moreover, we have the Church. Jesus didn’t have that!
Robert Brearly, in commentary on this text, quotes the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Joan Gray, “When you really think about it, this dunamis (power) of the Holy Spirit is the only thing the early church had going for it. It had no buildings, no budget, no paid staff, and very few members.” Then Brearley continues that line of thought by observing that the opposite situation faces the modern church. We have paid staff, buildings and budgets, but do we have the Spirit?
I think we have the Spirit here at Zion. I was not looking ahead to this week’s gospel lesson when I used these words from Luke as the basis for my letter in the Annual Report. It was entirely coincidental, or maybe we could say it was the Spirit moving. And in case you have not gotten or not yet looked at the Annual Report, it indicates a very healthy church. We very nearly made budget last year, and that is after raising an additional $12,000 for the new SS building windows. We took in 9 new members, gave away $41,000 in mission dollars, and spent almost 600 hours in mission activities as a church. We developed some new small group ministries, and had a bang up year in our children’s Sunday School. Well done, Zion. We are in a comfortable place that would be the envy of many of our sister churches.
As we recorded those achievements in the report, I could hear the words in my ear, “to those who much has been given, much more is required.” I hope I don’t get thrown off a cliff for saying it, but I think that the Spirit is beckoning us in a new direction. And that new direction may take us out of our comfort zone. But remember, we are not alone! At our Unbinding your Soul group this past week, we were reviewing the difference it was making in our lives to be engaged in regular prayer and devotions. And as one of you observed, we were told at the outset that things would start happening if we got engaged with the Spirit! So why should we be surprised that it feels like new possibilities are present to us?
At our Consistory retreat, we began the process of ministry assignments. And it became clear that the interests and gifts of our consistory members were not fitting neatly into the old ministry structure. It reminded me of the scriptural analogy of old wineskins and new wine. But really if we believe in a God of ever fresh possibilities for new life, why should we be surprised if a church structure has to adapt to new work being done by the Spirit? We are still fully fleshing out this new direction, but I think I can say it will include more outreach of the type proclaimed in the Jesus’ inaugural address.
As we do God’s work of bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, we are drawn into the very heart of God. If one suffers all suffer with that one, if one rejoices, all rejoice with that one. That is the mission of the church, the way in which we make disciples and the way in which we live as disciples. Churches that have fallen away from missional outreach decline in health, vitality, and numbers. Churches that live close to the mission proclaimed at the heart of this passage will grow in both vitality and hope.
Paul uses the analogy of a body to explain the way in which every member of the body is important and vital to the health of the whole body. There are many members, but one body. We each have a gift to share, and each one of us is anointed by virtue of our baptism. That means the Spirit runs through us all and each of us is a vessel by which the good news is proclaimed. How beautiful is that!
We are the Body of Christ all made to drink of one Spirit. And that means we are never alone.