Sermons That Work

It’s January Now…, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2001

January 21, 2001


It’s January now. Here in New England we’ve hunkered down for whatever contingencies winter might visit upon us. The last needles have fallen off the Christmas trees, costumes from the Nativity pageant are stored away for next year, miniature outdoor lights have been unplugged, and the whole Yuletide season is receding into memory. Outdoors, snowplows have scuttled snow and ice off to the shoulders of sideroads. The tentative, grayish light of winter afternoon yields to the unwelcoming dark of winter nights.

We’ve observed Epiphany. The Wise Men have followed their star to where the Christ child lay. We’ve listened hopefully to stories of God made manifest in Jesus. Jesus steps out into the Jordan to receive baptism from John, formally beginning his ministry. Last Sunday’s Gospel revealed Jesus’ first miracle at the Wedding Feast in Cana. But for us churchgoers nothing much has really happened, and now it’s January – the bleak midwinter.

Well, in today’s Gospel, we might say that, like us, Jesus goes to church. He goes on the Sabbath to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and he stands up to do the reading. The passage Jesus chooses to read is yet one more echo from the poetic book of Isaiah. Handel’s Messiah is replete with related verses: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people (Isaiah 40:1),” and “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (53:4),” all of these foretell of a Suffering Servant, a Messiah who is one of us, in our very midst. And so, up on his feet, among his own in the Nazareth congregation, Jesus reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind.”

Even on the dullest of winter mornings we might interrupt our woolgathering and ponder the words Jesus has spoken. There’s not one of us in this time of winter’s dreariness whose spirit couldn’t use some cheering, whose broken-heartedness couldn’t use some binding up. There is something in that phrase “good tidings” that hearkens back to the keen expectation of Christmastime, something in us that longs to break loose from winter doldrums and be restored to hopefulness.

This whole story from the fourteenth chapter of Luke (verses 14 through 30), generally is regarded as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it’s subtitled in Bible study texts as “Jesus’ Rejection by Nazareth.” He reads; he hands back the scroll; he sits down. And then the rumblings begin: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The concluding verses report: “They rose up, ran him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill… .” Making sense of this rejection will be fodder for the sermons of next Sunday’s preachers. I prefer to dwell right now on these first intimations of the Savior’s glory, as it’s shone forth in verses eighteen and nineteen: good tidings to the poor, sight to the blind, release to captives.

Today, what seems important is that the words of Christ sink in deep to our braced-for-winter, post-Christmas hearts. Christ himself is our welcome news, our anointed one, our promise that God might enter in and liberate us to our fullest humanity.

And, in another sense, to use Saint Paul’s metaphor from today’s Epistle, we are all, through our baptism, God’s anointed ones, one body in Christ … the church. This same metaphor, from First Corinthians, surfaces at the very end of a sermon preached in the Advent season at Washington National Cathedral by the Rev. Frederick Buechner in 1997 (Sunday, November 30, 1997). Buechner describes magical Christmases of his boyhood spent with his brother at his grandparents’ apartment at 940 Park Avenue in New York City. After painting a glimmering picture, he acknowledges forgetting “almost every present I ever got.” What he remembers is being in richest communion with loved ones. “I remember still,” he says, “the dazzling light of it and the presence of all those people I one way or another loved and who one way or another loved me, and the feeling that life simply could never get any better than this and the almost unbearable excitement of it.” Then, in a shocking reversal, Buechner explains: “That was the light of it . . . A month before my tenth Christmas [Christmas of 1936], my father committed suicide, and only a few days later my grandfather . . . died as much of a broken heart as anything else.” Such were the circumstances under which Buechner began to doubt, to use his words, that there would be “Christ enough” to sustain him. And this is where we, as the body of Christ, fit in.

“On this planet at least,” Buechner asserts, “the church is the only body that for the time being Christ has, which is to say that you and I are the only bodies Christ has. He has no hands to reach out to people except our hands, no feet to go to them with except for our feet, no other eyes to see them with, not other faces to show them his love.” If we can do this-show forth Christ in our reaching and our seeing, act as Christ’s body, manifest good tidings-then our lives will be made more bearable.

In this morning’s Gospel, Christ appears in the synagogue proclaiming that he will be Enough to sustain us, to fulfill our longing-to cheer us, to heal us. Jesus does this for us. He stands in our very midst and welcomes us, invites us to join with him as members of one body.

Despite rejection by Nazareth, Jesus does begin his ministry. There is an overwhelming sense that we, the body of the church, are the community to which this ministry was devoted and for which Jesus gave his life. “Give us grace, O Lord,” beseeches the Collect for this Third Sunday After the Epiphany, “to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”

AMEN.

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