Sunday, December 10, 2023

Sermon: “The X(mas) Files: WHAT?", Isaiah 61:1-4/Luke 4:16-30 (December 10, 2023)

This week, we continue our investigation into the familiar prophecies and stories that inform our understanding of Christmas. If we want our faith and relationship with God to continue to grow throughout our lives, we have to be willing to question what we think we know and to be prepared to discover things we hadn’t considered before. Last week, on the first Sunday of Advent, we asked our first question, “Who?”, and we realized that it’s less important for us to ask WHO the Messiah is than it is to ask who WE are treating as our Messiah. Now, let’s put on our detective hats once again to explore the “What?” of the Christmas story: what is it that the Messiah has been sent to do, or as I like to call it, “The Jesus Agenda”.

Isaiah 61 was written centuries before Jesus’ life, but it’s no surprise that Jesus chooses it to kick off his earthly ministry. The first several verses provide a pretty clear outline of all the things that God has anointed the speaker to do: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. It’s essentially a manifesto, a statement of purpose – or, to put it another way, an agenda. Modern biblical scholars don’t agree about whether or not this passage was originally meant to be about “the” anointed one – the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the Christ at the heart of the Christian faith – but Luke’s version of Jesus obviously believes that it was. The setting and timing of Jesus’ reading, not to mention his speech that follows it, all give the impression of someone reviewing the Messiah’s responsibilities one last time before getting to work on them. He’s laying out his agenda up front, claiming the ancient “To Do” list as his own: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people in the synagogue all would have been familiar with this passage and had collectively been anticipating the events that it describes for centuries. But the thing is, between the time that an agenda is established and the time that it’s scheduled to get started, there’s plenty of opportunity for its original meaning to get lost. It doesn’t necessarily take 700 years for this to happen, either. Have you ever come across an entry in your schedule that must have made sense at once point, but when the day of the event arrived, you couldn’t figure out what it meant? For example:

I found a calendar event back in April reading “Blizzards” that turned out not to be predicting unseasonable weather; it was about a sale at Dairy Queen.

“M&M Dental” had nothing to do with candy; it was a reminder to take my dogs (Maya and Murray) into the vet for a dental cleaning.

A colleague of mine eventually figured out that “Kid Chaos at My House” wasn’t a premonition about misbehavior; it was a placeholder for a children’s Christmas party.

Another had tried to remind herself to “Check if Tuesday is happening,” and is still wondering whether she’s responsible for the occurrence of EVERY Tuesday, or just the upcoming one.

The mysteries of several items marked by initials (like “CC”, “VFP”, and “HGG”) have never been solved.

And finally, my favorite: the entry simply and ominously titled “Blood”. This person spent a whole month wondering if this was a dark omen or some sort of dire warning before she finally realized that it was actually marking the tentative date for a blood drive that didn’t wind up happening.

Agendas are supposed to offer direction and clarity of purpose, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, they do exactly the opposite. And that seems to be the case for the people listening to Jesus in the synagogue. Everyone there would have been hearing this ancient scriptural agenda from the time they were young, but when Jesus tells them that the time had finally come for its words to be fulfilled, they seem to completely misinterpret it’s meaning. Their initial reaction to this agenda is delight and excitement, because they hear it as good news FOR THEMSELVES. They assume that, because Jesus is “one of them,” a Nazarene, they’d be first in line for the good news and liberty on his “To Do” list. It’s like their appointment book just said, “Lord’s Favor”, and after puzzling over it for 700 years, they decided that it must be referring to a personal reward for their faithfulness. They’re completely on board with Jesus’ agenda at first because of what they think it means for them.

But Jesus abruptly and pointedly disabuses them of this misunderstanding. “THAT’S not what the Messiah was sent to do,” he chides them. “God’s agenda is not to play favorites or to hand out rewards, and it never has been.” To prove his point, Jesus offers them evidence from their own history: when there was a famine during Elijah’s time, many widows in Israel were affected, but the prophet was only sent to help one Sidonian widow – an outsider. And in the time of Elisha, many in Israel were afflicted with skin diseases, but he was only sent to cleanse Naaman – a Syrian. The agenda of God – and therefore, of God’s Messiah – is, and always has been, to help those who are THE MOST in need, no matter who they are. Certainly, it still IS good news for God’s people – just not them primarily or exclusively or first.

The people don’t like hearing THAT at all. Although they were singing Jesus’ praises mere moments ago, they’re suddenly filled with rage directed squarely at Nazareth’s favorite Son. THEY’RE the ones who misunderstand the “what” of the Messiah, yet they blame Jesus. Just as with the question of “Who”, the “What” of the Messiah doesn’t turn out to be what they expected, and they don’t take the news very well.

Going from praise to attempted homicide in the space of five sentences is pretty extreme, but it’s also (unfortunately) not an uncommon reaction to the real Jesus Agenda. We all long for divine comfort and deliverance, and we hate the idea that someone else might have a more immediate need for it than us – that’s the reason that movements like “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too” have faced so much pushback. The Jesus Agenda, with its prioritization of the least and the lost, forces us to admit that it’s not, in fact, all about us, that we don’t get special treatment for being faithful, and indeed, that we’re supposed to – *gasp* – care about other people. And in every generation, there are people who simply cannot accept that this is the way that God operates.

But here’s the kicker: God has infinite compassion, infinite mercy, and infinite power. God doesn’t NEED to triage humanity’s rescue; God can do it all. But you know who DOES need to prioritize? Humanity. Human beings require help figuring out which need is the most urgent so that we can focus our efforts there first. Once again, the question we ask about the Messiah whose birth we anxiously await has far less to do with God than it does with humanity. The Jesus Agenda isn’t FOR God. It’s for US.

The “What” of the Messiah matters for the same reason that the Christmas story matters: because God doesn’t choose to exist in isolation, outside of human history and events; God takes on flesh and joins us. We live out the divine story together. We aren’t just passive recipients of God’s grace and love; we are God’s partners in both relationship and kindom-building. And because of that, we need to fully understand what matters to God so that it can matter to us, too. We need to be able to look beyond ourselves so that we can do the holy things God calls us to do in spite of our human limitations.

This is how we do our part, how we participate in the incarnation: we show the world that God’s plan – not our version, but the real Jesus Agenda – works. And we do this, not by pointing to prophecies that we think prove God’s favor, but by taking on the work of the Messiah as our own. The Jesus Agenda, when we live it out the way it was originally intended to be lived out, is the only way for us to see God’s promises in scripture fulfilled for everyone. Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who knows something about how destructive human agendas can be, puts it this way: “You want to prove that the Bible is right? You don’t do this by pointing to self-fulfilling prophecy, or by pointing to world events as prophecy fulfillment. This is not how you prove that the Bible is right. We prove that the Bible is right by radical obedience to the teachings of Jesus, by proving that Jesus’ teachings actually work, and that they can make the world a better place. Let us love our enemies, forgive them which sin against us. Let us feed the poor, care for the oppressed, walk the extra mile, be inclusive not exclusive, turn the other cheek and maybe and only maybe then the world would start taking us seriously and believing in our Bible.”

So, friends, whenever you hear about “God’s plan” or “God’s providence”, be careful not to misinterpret the agenda as favoring one person or group over another. Don’t assume that every divine action must be for your benefit. For that matter, don’t assume that every item on the agenda is meant to be a divine action at all. We don’t celebrate the coming of God’s Messiah as divine tourism or showiness, but as the fulfillment of a promise that paves the way for a better world: a world for which Jesus laid the foundation, but that WE must continue to build. And thanks to the Jesus Agenda, we know exactly where to start. Amen.

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