Sermons That Work

Attentive to the Word, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2001

January 21, 2001

Our scripture readings are arranged in a three-year Lectionary cycle. The readings themselves were chosen by some committee years ago. Sometimes, the Lectionary is accused of being too rigid. It is not flexible enough, so goes the argument, to be relevant to our daily lives.

Yet, what could be more appropriate than a lesson referring to Ezra standing “before the Water Gate” in an era when we are repeatedly been reminded of that Washington office building and hotel complex that has given a variation on its name to every successive national crisis–most recently, “Election-gate!”

Or, Paul writing to the Corinthians about the church as so many body parts, reminding them that certain body parts must be treated with modesty and remain unpresentable, and reminding us all that whenever one member of the body suffers, we all suffer.

Once again, those seemingly random and rigidly scheduled readings end up sounding strikingly on target.

Even today’s Gospel, known in church circles as the story of Jesus’ “first sermon,” offers us some profound insight for today if we remember where Jesus has been just before delivering this first sermon. He had just spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. And the sermon is probably the right length for most modern congregations: one sentence!

We all live in our individual wildernesses. Our country is continually faced with temptations in the wilderness, year after year. And we know the church, that sacred mystery, wrestles with myriad temptations year-in and year-out in its attempts, in the words of our collect, “to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.”

We are those people, in the church, in our nation, and in our individual lives, who are called to wilderness living. All of life is one big “Outward Bound Experience.”

One important dimension and truth to this Good News we are called to proclaim resides in the fact that when Jesus returns from the wilderness, rather than appearing tired, burned out, scared and confused, he emerges, we are told by Luke, “in the power of the Spirit.”

And this fact suggests to us that when we persevere, as Jesus did, in getting through the wilderness experiences of our lives and our life together, we can, like Jesus, emerge empowered by God’s Spirit of vitality.

Our wilderness experiences can include the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or facing the ideological divides in our church, or in the nation. Our wilderness can also be an interior experience, such as living with depression, chronic pain, disease, and family discord.

God in Christ wants us to know that as we live through our wilderness experiences, we can emerge, with God’s help, “in the power of the Spirit.”

Our lessons are meant to guide us to an understanding of this truth; they can help us understand how we can come to know ourselves to be in the power of the Spirit: through our hearing God’s word.

To become those people who answer God’s call readily, we must first be those people who hear the call in the first place. And we must hear it in the way that Nehemiah describes: “all … could hear it with understanding.”

This “hearing with understanding” is, itself the result of two things writes Nehemiah:

1. Having ears that are attentive.
2. Listening to others (the Levites) interpret God’s word in conversation together, to help “give the sense of it,” so that everyone understands the reading.

Attentiveness and Interpretation arising out of conversation about the Word.

So we read in the Gospel that as Jesus stood to read in the synagogue, the people were attentive: “the eyes of all the synagogue were fixed on him.” And Jesus offers a word of interpretation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In our hearing and understanding of God’s word it comes alive and becomes fulfilled here and now!

And what a word it is!

It is a word of good news for the poor. It is a word of release for those who are bound and captive. It is a word of liberation for those who are oppressed. And at the heart of the passage and the heart of the good news itself is the promise of the recovery of vision.

Our recovery of vision allows us to become a people called to proclaim to all people what it means to be disciples and followers of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It enables us, and the whole world, to perceive, or see (epiphanos), the glory of God’s marvelous works.

We will no doubt be reminded by Jesus in Lent that the only way he was able to come out of the wilderness, empowered by the Spirit, was because of his attentiveness to God’s word. And because Jesus had gone to the synagogue over and over again, “as was his custom,” to discuss that word with others so he might fully understand what God was calling him to do.

Jesus was so attentive to that word, and so faithful in dialogue with others about that word, that he was able to resist every temptation of the devil by quoting Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomy. Jesus then emerges from the wilderness empowered by the Spirit to set about proclaiming God’s word to others in ways that all could understand.

So that the people could capture a sense of God’s Vision for us all, a vision that some have called “God’s Dream for all people.”

For without a clear understanding of God’s Vision and Dream for us, we will, says Jesus elsewhere, have no life within us.

To hear that dream and have it become fulfilled in our hearing is what it means to be baptized, bathed, soaked, and saturated with God’s Holy Spirit. With every one of us having a crucial role to play as part of his body.

Without each of our individual contributions to the life of the church, the whole body suffers. That is why we are here today and every Sunday. To remember that we are those people who can emerge from the wilderness times empowered by the Spirit; to repeatedly renew our Baptismal Vows throughout the church year.

To be attentive to God’s Word. To interpret and discuss that word with one another so that we can understand just what God is calling us to do, individually and as a community of God’s people.

To fulfill God’s word in our hearing of it.

To allow his Word to come alive in our lives in such a way that all people, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, black, white, yellow or brown, will one day eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood to become One Body.

As Paul concludes, in our attentiveness to the hearing of this Word, “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” He dwells in us and we in him, now and forever.

Amen.

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