First Congregational Church
January 24, 2015
Third Sunday after Epiphany, Annual Meeting Sunday
Isaiah 61 & Luke 4:14-21
“The Hidden Hand of God”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I got an email this week that listed some of the things we learn at various ages, like the child, at age seven, who said, “I've learned that our dog doesn't want to eat my broccoli either.” There is the fifteen-year-old who said, “I've learned that although it's hard to admit it, I'm secretly glad my parents are strict with me.” There is the aged wisdom of the 29-year-old in realizing, “I've learned that wherever I go, the world's worst drivers have followed me there.” Then there’s the 47-year-old sage who said, “I've learned that children and grandparents are natural allies.” I particularly like the 66-year-old’s realization “I've learned that whenever I decide something with kindness, I usually make the right decision.” And the icing on the cake comes from the 92-year-old, who said, “I've learned that I still have a lot to learn.”
For the folks that call this place home, today is the day we look back - and forward - to see some of what we’ve learned and to make sure we are headed in the right direction. After I read the scripture passage for this morning, thinking about looking ahead, I needed to take a look back, to the book of Isaiah, to chapter 61, to set the scene for the gospel reading and message.
Isaiah lived roughly seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, and this chapter comes out of the dashed hopes of those who first returned from exile in Babylon, and things were not what the Hebrew people had hoped. Amidst their grief and disappointment, Isaiah shocks their world with these words.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. 5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards. 6 And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. 7 Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours 8 “For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.” 10 I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Thank you, Phil. Imagine when the Pilgrims set foot on the wilderness and severity of their new, forever homes in this country, and one among them offered this prediction: that the day would come when every person in the country would have healthcare provided free and at no cost to them, when every unemployed person would find meaningful and fulfilling work, when every addict would recover from his or her addiction and when every broken down inner-city tenement would get an “extreme makeover” such that every such hovel would shine and gleam like some multi-million-dollar New York City penthouse overlooking Central Park - never having to worry about the deficit or drinkability of their water.”
Crazier still, imagine a woman, maybe dressed in dark Goth clothing and make-up, coming into our church, up the pulpit, reading that prophecy and then saying, “Today, this comes true in your hearing.” - and then left. While half of us would be trying to determine just what sort of nut this was, the other half would probably be wondering where this utopia was.
It’s interesting that the prison doors in the vicinity didn’t spring open at that moment; that the historic records from the time don’t record a mysterious mass healing of the blind folks in the area. I think those “miracles” are missing because Jesus wasn’t going to be a flashy savior. In the passage of Luke that comes right before today’s, Jesus again and again refused the temptations to do showy, big, flashy things in the desert. Even when healing others, it was lowly mud, or common words.
Jesus wasn’t interested in parlor tricks, miracles-on-demand or being hailed as the new Caesar. He was interested in the Word of God, serving God quietly, letting God’s slow-kingdom-coming reveal itself in God’s own time. It’s that hidden hand of God, doing the miraculous and other-worldly, coming in everyday events that we recognize as miracles when we look behind us.
One of my favorite preacher-story-tellers is Tom Long, from Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He tells a ‘hidden hand of God story from a gig he was to preach at that was billed as a special “family worship service.” The notion was to hold the worship service - not in the sanctuary - but in the fellowship hall. There families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, Rev. Long would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used in a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart. But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to make up anything else, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and said, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
I may not be the brightest star in the sky, but I know how long bread takes to bake and I know that giving people something like flour and water is not going to turn out well, no matter how cool the idea sounds. If nothing else, I have learned to be very careful in executing or initiating things like “family services that have endless potential for that which can go wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we stop looking forward - to ways of worshiping better and deepening our spiritual lives.
As we look forward to those things that may happen in our future, we do well to make sure that we are moving in the same direction as our forefathers and mothers had envisioned all those years ago, when they decided to start meeting as a church family. We may not track exactly like them, but we can continue to point to God, continue to do what we can so that God’s message of a future kingdom of peace can belong to each one who comes this way.
I admit that sometimes I change what the lectionary proposes for a text. (That’s part of the beauty of being Congregational, that we are not “tied” to any specific patterns for preaching. We go where we feel the Spirit leads.) I will also admit that it was tempting to add another few verses to the gospel passage, because it leaves us in suspense-mode.
But this story doesn’t end there in verse 21. The ultimate reaction of the crowd is yet to come. But in another sense, there is also spiritual suspense at the end of verse 21: we are suspended between hearing Jesus’ promise that this goodness was going to be fulfilled - and experiencing that fullness. It’s coming, Jesus says, the kingdom is near, you can proclaim it to those longing and thirsting the most to hear it. But it’s not quite here yet. Not completely. Just like those Hebrew people in Isaiah’s day, and those from Jesus’ day, we know full well that there is much that remains broken, incomplete, wounding.
Still, in this suspenseful state, we keep looking for glimmers of the kingdom even as we do our best to let the Holy Spirit work in us to show us the kingdom and its grace-laden ways.
We may be in a state of suspense. But it’s a good suspense, bristling as it is with the coming of so very many good things! The best part is that it’s not about what we have done, are doing or will do, but about what Christ has done and continues to do. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
So shall we pray? Gracious, kind God, we thank you for this time in this world - for our lives and the missions that you have for us. Help us to continue to look for your hidden hand in the life around us, that we can go into the future with more certainty of your presence in our next life. Thank you for the ability to look back - to learn - that we may look forward and fully trust. For all those hidden-hand actions you do for us and through us, we are all truly grateful. Grow us into great oaks of righteousness as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.