One evening just a few weeks ago, for example, I was helping our four-year-old, Laura, get ready for bed. We were in the bathroom brushing her teeth and I apparently did something that made her angry. I can’t remember precisely what it was, but I remember that she was fairly worked up over it. At one point she stiffened her whole little body in rage and stared at me with piercing eyes and shouted, “Daddy! You’re such a…genius!” She had no idea what “genius” meant, of course. I suppose she had heard it somewhere and thought it sounded like an insult. Normally we correct them when they misuse a word, but we just let that one slide.
Yet for all the times we all laugh at the improper use of language and words, in our house and elsewhere, we also find ourselves drawn into their power to move and inspire, to call whole worlds into being. I think about the title character in a book by Wendell Berry named Jayber Crow, which is about a boy who grows up as an orphan in rural Kentucky just before and then during the Great Depression. As a child from hardscrabble origins, little Jonah has almost no possessions to speak of except for a small tablet he carries around. Every time he comes across a word or a phrase he likes he gets out his tablet and writes it down. He keeps this list throughout his life and continues to add to it: not simply words that bring him comfort or delight, but words of things and names of people he wants to remember. Some of the words phrases are common and some are rare but together they are words that end up explaining who he is. If you were to keep a tablet of words you want to remember—words you like the sound of and that tell your story—what would be in it?
As it turns out, one of the first things that Luke tells us about Jesus is his use of words and the effect those words have on people. Luke explains how Jesus goes around the region of Galilee, preaching and teaching in their synagogues and drawing attention and praise everywhere he goes. We finally get to see this power in action when he gets to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. He stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah words that are full of grace and hope. He declares release for those in captivity, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor. Then Jesus rolls up the scroll and says the most amazing thing: he announces that all those things are about to take place now that they have heard them from his lips. They think he’s a genius! They are amazed at the gracious words that come out of his mouth. They probably all want to get out their little tablets and scribble down everything he says.
In doing so, Jesus, you see, has named a new reality…. right there in those Galilean synagogues. Fading away is the old time of poverty and despair and captivity and darkness. With the speaking of a few powerful words, God’s new age of freedom and mercy and blessing has begun. That’s an indication of the power that words can have. He has named the new reality of redemption, and it gives them hope. He has named a new world of freedom and peace, where the captive goes free and the poor hear good news, and it moves them. And now that he has spoken this new kingdom into existence, he will go about living it. He will go about calling people to take part in it, to learn to speak it and bear its hope on their own lips. There is a new set of vocabulary to master and believe: one where God’s salvation is made real for each and every human being, one where creation’s brokenness and decay is truly named but also where it is finally rightly healed by grace and put back together.
But just as these new words begin to establish their power, there is immediate pushback, immediate doubt from the hometown crowd. As things sink in, they begin to ask themselves, “Isn’t this just Joseph’s boy? Where’d he learn to talk like that?” Just as quickly as they are amazed at his ability to announce the reign of God, they become suspicious of the things he says. They demand, in fact, that he back up those words of power with deeds or power. They don’t want simply to hear about the new reality be brings; they’re ready to see it, and if he truly is the prophet he makes himself out to be, then they’d like a piece of the action.
|modern day Nazareth|
Jesus’ response to their disbelief involves reminding them of two stories from the Hebrew Bible which seem a little foreign to you or me, but which would have been readily recognizable to them. Both stories, however, are illustrations of times in Israel’s history when deeds of power occurred outside their kingdom’s boundaries and to people who weren’t of the household of Israel. Story one: In Elijah’s day, famine swept all across Israel’s land, creating many a widow and orphan, but the only widow who received food miraculously was an outsider in Sidon. Story two: And during the prophet Elisha’s time, plenty of Israelites had skin diseases, but the one who got healed was a commander in the Syrian army.
The upshot of these stories is that the new reality that Jesus names and then brings about with his life, death, and resurrection is not just intended for one people, or one village, or one nation. When he announces freedom to the captives and sight to the blind, God intends that freedom and sight for all people. When Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, God intends that favor for all folks on earth. And when Jesus breaks the bread of life and pours the cup of forgiveness with his disciples on the night before his death, God intends that life and that forgiveness to extend to everyone. And when Jesus is nailed to the cross, all the words he has ever uttered about God’s justice and God’s peace and God’s mercy will reach their clearest definition…for every person on earth. Sin keeps God’s people captive no more. Death’s darkness keeps us blind no longer.
That crowd in Nazareth has heard enough, however, and in their rage they run Jesus out of the synagogue and attempt to kill him. At least for them, and at least for that moment, the reality of Jesus’ words is too difficult to learn.
However, for the people who do hear and believe, who are transformed by Jesus’ self-giving life, speaking this new reality becomes possible. In fact, it becomes our duty. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be prophets in the manner that Jesus was the day he stood in that synagogue and preached the good news. Beginning with those who “think like a child, reason like a child, and speak like a child” right on up to the ones who speak with tongues of mortals and angels, this is the task: to keep learning a new language that reminds people that God loves them. Now that God has given us those words, they are never to be kept to ourselves. They are for all people. They name a new reality of forgiveness and freedom that we all live into. They become the words in a story that doesn’t just include us and our little tablet. God’s kingdom becomes the story of everyone.
A colleague of mine tells a story about a pastor who came to serve an urban church and quickly came to realize that while the neighborhood around the church was mostly low income and people of color, the congregation was almost exclusively upper middle class folks from the suburbs. So the pastor began some outreach ministries into the neighborhood. Before long there were many community members coming to the church and getting involved in things. Some weeks later, a woman who had been a member of the church for a long time made an appointment to come see the pastor. And she explained to the pastor, "Pastor, there are a lot of members of the congregation who are just not comfortable with all these people from the neighborhood being here in our church."
And the pastor said, "Well, I am doing this because I don't want these people to go to hell."
The woman said, "Now Pastor, don't say that! We know that God loves everybody, including the people in the neighborhood."
And the pastor replied, "No, you don't understand, I'm talking about the members of this church."
By virtue of your baptism you have been given a new vocabulary on which the life of the whole world depends. Open your mouths—for God’s sake!—and begin to speak. Name the reality that Jesus is risen. Death does not win and forgiveness abounds! Give shape to it with your words, your speech, and then live it in your actions.
Like the folks in Nazareth, some may look at this plan to take ordinary, broken people like you and me and enlist them as prophets, proclaimers of the word that changes the fate of the world. They’ll look at our propensity to screw it up and they’ll say that therefore God is foolish, that God’s wasting his time. That God’s starting in the wrong place with the wrong people.
But judging by the hope and release from captivity we can see lived among us, I’ve got just one word for it:
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.