1 Cor 12:12-31 & Luke 4:14-21 – More than just good intentions

A reflection by Dan Spragg

It’s a new year. I always think that new years are wonderful things. One gets to start, in a new year, with wonderful idealistic intentions. For me, in the first week at least the calendar is pretty clear, all the clutter in my head from the end of last year is gone, there’s a certain sense of clarity about what’s important and in that first week or so I feel as though I get to do things how I want to and it is wonderful… for a time… you know what’s coming… it is my experience, and most likely yours as well, that these great intentions don’t last long! New year’s resolutions, we all know that 90% of these won’t last beyond the end of January! They just don’t last. A quote that I heard near the end of last year from a book called ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear goes like this: “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome, your system is the collection of daily habits.” Doesn’t this sum things up well?! We will never achieve what we hope to if the collection of the things we do each day don’t point us in the direction of what we want to achieve. We might have a big goal that we want to achieve, but we will never achieve it if our daily actions don’t set us on a path to actually reaching it. It’s a powerful thing, these daily actions. We simply cannot fight ourselves on this! Try and try as we might, apparently it takes much more than just announcing our goal to the world (or even just to ourselves) to make the goal a reality. It’s almost like we have to be grabbed by something bigger than ourselves for the long lasting change to occur. A change on a fundamental level is needed.

Did you know it’s been estimated that Poverty at the time of Jesus sat at around 80-90% of the total population? Of course, that means too the stuff that is associated with that. The Israelites are living under the oppressive Roman Empire with unsustainable tax rates, economic ruin, health problems, food shortages, it all goes hand in hand together. You know, as resilient as the Jewish people seemed to have been up until this point I do wonder about what being a victim for so long does to a people group? It was pretty clear that a new thing was needed. Despite their hopes that a messiah would come and free them from the oppressive Roman Empire, what was actually needed was a whole new system. There is only so much to be achieved by a violent revolution I imagine. Doesn’t it tend to go that one dictator is often simply replaced by another, even in the name of justice and freedom? A new system was needed for their material existence and I would argue for their spiritual and community life as well. Nothing was going to change unless transformation happened at a fundamental level. And it is at this point, that in comes Jesus with a declaration of release and freedom and abundance that contained promise of significant change.

Who does Jesus think he is? Let’s remind ourselves of who he was for a moment. Jesus, our tradition tells us, is the son of God, one member of the Trinity, one part of how we experience God and see God as being present and acting in the world. As we celebrated at Christmas, Jesus is God coming and dwelling with us, Emmanuel, God with us. So what was it for this Jesus to make the statement he made as his first ever recorded ‘sermon’ of a sort. Karoline Lewis, a preacher I took note of this week says of this passage, “Those to whom Jesus preached [this] first sermon? They don’t need a better life. A rehabilitated life. An improved life. They need their lives to be turned upside down so that what was old knows only newness again. They don’t need a new diet, a new regimen, a new commitment to good habits that for various and sundry reasons have gone by the wayside. They need to know that God sees them, God regards them, God looks with favor [sic] upon them, because when that happens, it is life-changing. And when you are poor and oppressed, when you are disregarded and discriminated against, when you are regularly rejected and reviled you don’t need a life-improvement plan, but a life-change. And that’s what the Gospel is all about.”[1]

Jesus, God’s name and face among us, the embodiment of the gospel, this is who had arrived and was making these claims. Our tradition tells us that as we see the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry play out, and as we’ve seen over the past 2000 years, Jesus was a life changing experience for all of humanity. It’s not much of a leap to say that God is about transformation. The stories tell us, don’t they? Old to new. Last to first. Hate to Love. Law to Grace. Despair to Hope. Rejection to Acceptance. Oppression to Freedom. That is what God is about and that is what we see in Jesus.

I do think it was a bold statement for Jesus to make after he’d read from the book of Isaiah. He says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Is this arrogance or insight? Perhaps, it suggests, he was making a statement from a different starting point? From our perspective it’s obvious Jesus wasn’t saying, today it is ‘completed’. We need to understand it more as Jesus’ arrival as the embodiment of God, anointed by the Spirit, to enact God’s way of transformation. The embodiment of God to enact God’s transformation in the world was now present. This, of course, is the great purpose that we step into as followers of Jesus in generation upon generation throughout history.

I often look ahead 10 years, even only 5 years, and I really hope that The Village as a church community is still making an active contribution to God’s story of transformation. We have our interpretation of the gospel as we see it working in our place with our people. Our vision statement …to be an open, vibrant, multifaceted, God-filled presence in our communities… This picks up very well on God’s transformational nature I believe. But, we know, a lot like new year’s resolutions, that these vision statements and good intentions don’t often last the test of time. However, there’s one phrase in our passage today that’s the key for Jesus’ confidence in his declaration of fulfillment. It’s right at the start, and it says, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit…” Jesus came, filled with the power of the Spirit. I think this is the key to understanding the ‘engine room’ of the whole thing. As we’ve said, God is about transformation, and here we get a glimpse of what is in the engine room making it happen. The power of the Spirit. This is the substance that gives life and meaning to Jesus’ words and actions.

I read the following this week which I thought was a great way to tie the Corinthians reading together with our reading from Luke. “Animated by the Spirit, the church, the body of Christ, has a huge mission as well as the personnel, resources, skills and energy to work hard to change the world. Everyone has a contribution to make to this mission.”[2] Animated by the Spirit, the body of Christ, is able to step into this embodiment of God’s way in the world and everyone has a contribution to make in this story of transformation.

We’ve used that word, ‘Animated’ before when talking of the Spirit. The Spirit as animator. Would Jesus be able to stand up and say what he said, to claim what he had claimed if it was simply his words and actions? Well, perhaps for a time, but the scriptures are pretty clear that it is the Spirit, the breath, the life, the active presence of God with Jesus that enabled him to embody the Gospel and enact the transformation of God’s way. Just as we step into the fulfillment of Jesus as his followers, Jesus in fact was simply stepping into something that was already at work, the activity and presence of God in and with humanity and all things. This is important for us to remember for the sake of those who are to come after us and step into the work that we are doing here and now. We are not just making this all up. We are stepping into the activity and presence of God in us and through us. But in order to achieve what we want we have to believe that God is indeed active and alive as a dynamic conversation partner in this with us. We cannot do this on our own; we actually have to believe that we can be and that we are animated by the Spirit, by God, who is alive in our midst.

Change on a fundamental level is always the most significant kind of change. Transformation occurs when things are fundamentally changed. Jesus came, as God with us, and changed the way we knew God to be. But it wasn’t just Jesus as a person who achieved this. It was through the active presence of God, ‘God’s Spirit’ as it is traditionally known, that humanity truly experienced this fundamental shift. The great news is that God’s active presence in all things hasn’t disappeared. And it is in looking for this, joining with this, and trusting in this that we truly step into embodying the gospel here and now, not for our sake, but for the sake of those around us, those who we are still yet to meet, perhaps even those who come along 5 or 10 years from now. Our trust in the dynamic presence of God now, makes a difference for them. 

[1] See, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/a-life-changing-epiphany

[2] Warren Carter, in, Connections: Year C, Vol 1, 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, p206.