“Filled With Power”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 24, 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-2, 5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4:12-21
Every year we hear the seemingly benign story from Luke of how Jesus got up in the synagogue one day, read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, then told everyone gathered there that he was the fulfillment, the very one that Isaiah wrote about. Luke says that the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him, and for good reason. Not just anyone can take the sacred scrolls, unroll them, and read from them. And not just anyone can claim that they are one spoken of in the ancient scriptures. What Jesus did that day was shocking, scandalous, even disrespectful to the decorum of the synagogue, not to mention that it was the sabbath. Whispers had already started about this man who couldn’t follow the rules, and though some were whispers of praise, others were whispers of conspiracy that would turn into shouts for crucifixion in a few years.
Jesus unrolled the scroll that day and found in the prophecy of Isaiah the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
These words come from the 61st chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. Remember with me that we hear most often from Isaiah during Christmas and in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This is because Isaiah is the prophet most interested in God’s promise of a Messiah, the coming of one into the world who will make all things right. The last five chapters of Isaiah, including chapter 61, are the crucible of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah. It is here that Isaiah dreams and imagines the day when the Messiah comes: vineyards and farms will be planted and harvested, houses will be rebuilt, cities will blossom and bloom, freedom and salvation and redemption will be in and through all things. Every faithful Jew, and even those who only came to synagogue for the holidays, knew these words, these promises, this hope of the Messiah and what they would do to the world.
Jesus unrolled the scroll that day and found in the prophecy of Isaiah the place where these words were written, and when he was done reading them, he said, “It’s me. I am the one.” You could have probably heard a pin drop. All the longing, all the waiting, all the suffering, all the blurriness and confusion, and Jesus says to them, “It’s me. I am the one.” He tells them that he is the one who has the Spirit of the Lord, who has been anointed by God to start turning things around. He tells them that he will bring good news to the poor. He tells them that he will speak freedom to captives and open the eyes of the blind. He tells them that he will set the oppressed free and announce the year of the Lord’s favor when debt is cancelled and equity and equality become rule rather than exception. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
I tossed this passage around in my head all week and I kept coming back to the same question, “Who does he think he is?” Now usually that question is asked in a not-so-nice-way, but that is not how I mean it. What I mean to ask is, what gave Jesus the nerve, the daring, the desire to read the scroll and tell everyone that he was the one they had been waiting for for centuries? How was he not afraid to reveal who he was? What gave him the courage to upend the social order by saying that the poor get the good news? How could he set prisoners free and open the eyes of the blind? And what gave him the right, the responsibility, whatever you want to call it, to cancel debts and work equity by announcing the year of the Lord’s favor?
The answer to these questions is right there at the beginning, easy to miss if we want to skip ahead to the exciting stuff. Luke opens the chapter with, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.” Listen to it again: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…” Jesus did what he did in the synagogue that day—revealed his identity, upended the social order, challenged the status quo—because he was filled with power…the power of the Spirit.
When you hear the word ‘power’ what comes to mind? Significant influence and wealth; striding down the corridors of politics; great physical strength; OSU’s offensive line? A well-tailored suit or high-heels and a sharp purse? An ivy-league education, a broad knowledge of all things, the ability to say you have seen the world? When you hear the word ‘power’ what comes to mind?
American journalist, Lisa Ling, hosts a documentary series called, “Our America,” and on one episode recently she interviewed parents who have an extreme style of parenting. The first set of parents that Ling interviewed made it very clear that their parenting philosophy is that good-looking, well-dressed, meticulously-educated children are the only ones who will grow into successful, profitable, and powerful adults. It was mind-boggling to watch what these parents were willing to do in order to live out their philosophy of parenting. Every minute of the day was scheduled for their two boys, one going down the path to be a tennis star, the other working to be a champion at chess. Their daytime hours are spent buried in books up to their eyebrows, and there is no such thing as Fall, or Spring, or Summer vacation. All of this is in the pursuit of the idea that success, profit, and power are located in style, looks, education, and the ability to smile even when you are utterly exhausted and stretched too thin.
Aside from the time and money and energy and stress involved in all of this, I think this is a pretty good indicator of where our cultural thinking is on the topic of power. It is interesting because if we put this picture up next to the picture we see today with Jesus reading in the synagogue, the differences are enormous. The power that Jesus has within himself, the power of the Spirit of God, is demonstrated not in accomplishments or attributes or anything that one might claim for his or her own. The power of God in Jesus, the power he had to read and speak that day, is demonstrated only through what it accomplishes for others. Power is power only when it sets others free, only when it builds up others, only when used for the betterment of those around you.
This is peculiar when you think about it, particularly because it is so very different from the notions of power that surround us. But this is not new, it is not some ground-breaking result of research on the gospels or Christian faith. The power of God at work in Jesus pushes us to reconfigure our notions of power and re-orient our attention away from ourselves to those around us. Power, we are often taught, is about rising to the top even if it means doing so on the broken backs of others. Power, we are often taught, is about being popular and well-liked, highly regarded or influential. Power, we are often taught, is something to wield to our advantage, at the cost of those who might challenge us. Yet the gospel of Jesus, the power of his life and work, flips all that around and says, “It’s not about you”. The gospel of Jesus, the power of his life and work, turns our attention out, to where God is, to where those around us are, to the big and small places where the good news of the Gospel is so desperately necessary.
On Friday I had the opportunity to go on a field trip with some of the folks from Loaves & Fishes here in Enid. We spent all day touring Food Resource Centers in and around Oklahoma City. The first place we visited was south of the city, and the condition of the homes and roads and schools was a indication that this area suffered from great poverty. Rising up in the middle of this, like a great lighthouse, is Skyline Urban Ministry, a partnership between the Methodist Church and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Skyline Urban Ministry has their hands in just about everything: they have a clothing thrift store, a food pantry, a fully working kitchen and dining room, and a rotating outreach that gives out prom dresses to girls at prom season, school uniforms to local kids during the fall, and Christmas gifts to needy families in the winter. Skyline also has a working eye clinic in the building where local optometrists donate their time and services if someone needs new glasses.
From there we went north a bit to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. It is tucked away in an industrial park by the airport, and I guess I didn’t really know what to expect. I was thinking that it was a food pantry, a central place where local Food Resources Centers got their supplies. What I saw when we toured this place was nothing that I could comprehend with my limited mind. 200,000 square feet dedicated to the sole purpose of fighting hunger and feeding hope. There were bags taller than me and six feet in diameter filled with potatoes that didn’t meet grocery store standards; they will be repacked in smaller bags and sent throughout the state. One-ton boxes of bulk cereal—can you fathom how much cereal that is—that will also be repacked and sent throughout the state. A freezer and a refrigerator that could be used as a hanger for several jumbo jets. I could go on. I still can’t wrap my mind around their operation.
Our last stop was in Moore, a Food Resource Center that started as an emergency outpost after the tornado in 2013. It is similar to Loaves & Fishes in size, and they are averaging 135 families a day in the four days they are open each week. Their director said that he only has one wish: a bigger freeze, because they are unable to keep up with the unwanted, reclaimed, or donated food that comes to them each week.
This is power. The 500 million meals that the Regional Food Bank has served since 1980…that’s power. The ability to hand a young woman a dress to wear to her prom, with a purse and jewelry to match…that’s power. Offering school clothing, underwear, socks, and shoes to a kid at the start of the school year so they have a better chance of fitting in…that’s power. Giving someone the ability to make choices on their own when their station in life has stripped all that away…that’s power. Providing a place for a person to eat a hot meal and connect with another human being…that’s power. These places I saw were filled with power, the power of the Spirit, because they were bringing good news to the poor…they were proclaiming freedom to the captive…they were opening the eyes of the blind and setting prisoners free. These place were filled with power because in spite of what the powers and principalities might make us believe, now, today, is the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is power. And it comes back to the truth of the Gospel, the very essence of the being of God, that power is only power when it sets others free, only when it builds up others, only when used for the betterment of those around you. The power came not from their individual accolades and awards, but from how each is accomplishing something amazing, something divine, for the others who stand just outside their doors.
Do you know that it is not just Jesus who has this power? You have this power, I have this power. The Spirit of God descended on Jesus, infused every part of his body, in the waters of baptism at the Jordan river. When you were baptized, the same Spirit infused every part of your body and made you powerful according to God’s great love. In baptism, you and I are set on the same path as Jesus, one where we have been anointed to bring good news to poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. You have the power to feed 500 million meals; you have the power to serve one meal and make a human connection; you have the power to restore someone’s dignity; you have the power to be the face of God for someone who has never seen.
It is never glamorous or popular work; it does not often bring fame or fortune. It is peculiar, odd, and uncomfortable, because it focuses on those the world has overlooked, forgotten, or discarded. But we must remember that at one time, before the forgiveness and grace of Jesus became ours, we were the overlooked, the forgotten, the discarded. It was Jesus who turned outward from himself, with power, and brought us in, fed us, and showed us God’s undeniable love. He now fills us with power and sends us into the world to work with him as he transforms the world and everything that is in it.
Cling to this peculiar power of Jesus today, cling to it and do not let go. With this power there will be freedom, there will be sight, and there will be good news, for you and for me, and for all of creation. Amen.