Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Trinity, JacksonvilleLuke 4:14-21

Every year, toward the end of the year, the various news outlets publish lists of celebrities who died during that year. Whenever I read these lists, I come away wondering whether there are any famous people left alive! Seeing all the names in one place is staggering. I find myself particularly sobered when the cause of death is suicide. I don’t think there were any top-tier suicides in 2015, but 2014 had one that many people found shattering: Robin Williams—an immensely talented actor and comedian, with an astonishingly distinguished body of work, seemingly at the top of his game, with the wind at his back. I don’t know all the details, but when a man takes his own life, you have to assume that he was in some profound pain. He must have felt somehow so oppressed, so afflicted, so trapped by the circumstances and conditions of his life, and so blind to any source of hope, that the option of suicide seemed preferable to living one more day.

The great majority of us, of course, will leave this world other than by our own hand. In that detail, we differ from Robin Williams. But that difference is only one of degree, not of kind. We are all afflicted, oppressed, and feel ourselves to be trapped by one thing or another, and blind to the potential for positive change. Many of us in affluent North America feel trapped by eating habits that include way too much food that jeopardizes our health. Many others are trapped by a compulsive attachment to work that robs us of family relationships and drives us to an early grave. Even more, perhaps, are trapped by the need to make a living, even though at times it means persisting in work that is boring and meaningless at best, and frequently dangerous and repulsive. More of us than we would care to admit are trapped in marital and family dysfunction that there seems no way out of. If the popular media are to be believed, depression is virtually epidemic in our society, and all of us, of course, are getting older every day, trapped in bodies that will gradually decay until they just quit working. And often we hasten the decay of our bodies through addiction to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, or whatever. We are trapped by the very limitations of our unique personalities: those who are emotionally in tune with their experience wish they could be more disciplined and objective; those who are cool and rational wish they could express their feelings more freely. The truth is, there is heartache aplenty to go around, isn’t there? Some of it is profound and some of it is trivial. Some of it is temporary and some of it is permanent. But all of it makes us feel trapped. All of it robs us of our capacity to see possibilities for positive change, reasons to keep hope alive. The description of human life as “nasty, brutish, and short” that was first applied to the Dark Ages seems equally applicable to our own experience.

Luke’s gospel places the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in his home town of Nazareth. It’s the Sabbath, and Jesus, like the good observant Jew that he is, attends the synagogue. It was the custom in synagogue worship that any adult male—that is any male who’d had his bar mitzvah—could be asked to read the scripture lessons and then comment on them in a brief homily, an impromptu sermon. (Would it not be interesting if we had that custom in the church? But I digress!) On that occasion Jesus was handed the scroll which contained what we would call the Book of Isaiah. It was a short selection, only three verses, a passage that had originally been written to encourage the Jews who felt themselves trapped in Babylon, exiled far from their homeland, and longing to return.

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.

When he finished reading, Jesus sat down, as was the custom, to deliver his homily, and it was even shorter than the reading! All he said was, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus was declaring himself to be the agent of change—change for the better. Jesus is not just news; Jesus is good news—good news to all who feel themselves afflicted or trapped. Jesus is about release from captivity to addictions and compulsions. Jesus is about freedom from the dehumanizing expectations that others put on us and we put on ourselves, expectations that our worth is found in how we look or what condition our body is in or how much money we have or how smart we are. Jesus is about recovery: recovery of sight, recovery of hope, recovery of purposeful living under the gracious rule of God. Jesus wants to lift our burdens, set us free, and open our eyes. He wants to deal with my poverty, my captivity, and my blindness; your poverty, your captivity, and your blindness. Paine Webber used to advertise that they make money for “one investor at a time.” Well, Jesus was their inspiration, because he wants to change our lives, one sinner at a time.

The heavier our burdens are and the more profound our blindness is, of course, the more spectacular is the redeeming work of Christ. If the legend is true that Mary Magdalene was a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession, then how marvelous it is that after meeting Jesus her life was so changed that she was one of the first witnesses of the resurrection and we now call her a saint and put her in stained glass windows. Saul of Tarsus was a fire-breathing persecutor of Christians until he met the risen Christ one day on the road to Damascus, and his life was altered at its very foundation, and he became the St Paul whose conversion we remember liturgically tomorrow. Augustine of Hippo was a wild-living party animal, dissipating his life in sexual frenzy and undisciplined philosophical speculation until, through the persistent prayers of his holy mother Monnica, he met Jesus, and he became a bishop and the greatest influence on Christian thought after St Paul himself. John Newton was an English slave trader in the eighteenth century until he met Jesus and his life was changed so profoundly that he wrote the lines “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Charles Colson was a cynical and hard-driving aide to President Nixon, publicly boasting that he would walk over his own grandmother if he would benefit from it. He was deeply involved in the immorality of the Watergate scandal and did some prison time as a result. While there, he met Jesus. The federal government eventually set Charles Colson free from that prison, but it was Jesus who set him free from his interior prison and called him to a dynamic ministry within the Body of Christ. There are thousands upon thousands of such stories of men and women and young people whose lives are turned up on end after encountering Christ. Maybe you personally know some of them. Maybe one of them is your story! Jesus doesn’t want to just “help” us. Jesus wants to liberate us by changing us from within.

Those most to be pitied are perhaps the ones whose burdens are comparatively light, whose prison is minimum security, whose blindness is only partial. If you are crushed by life, there is no question about relying on your own resources. You know you need, as Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, a “higher power.” But if life is not devastating, just irritating, if our sins are just garden variety, and rather dull, we can easily be seduced by the notion that all we need is a helping hand, a little assistance. It’s easy for Anglicans, in particular, to get the wrong impression from Prayer Book language that asks God “so to assist us with thy grace,” as we will pray after communion. At the beginning of a day’s hike, rested from a night’s sleep and nourished by a hearty breakfast, a thirty-pound backpack may not seem like that much of a burden. With a little assistance from time to time, we’ll be just fine. We put it on with a smile, and set out confidently, arrogantly. But in the heat of the day, when we’re hungry and thirsty and fatigued, it may as well be a ton of bricks. The good news today is that Jesus isn’t very interested in the size of our burden; he only wants to lift it. Jesus doesn’t care much about the security rating of our imprisonment; he only wants to set us free. Jesus isn’t all that concerned about the degree of our blindness; he just wants to restore our sight.

Are you dejected and depressed today? Jesus has good news for you. Are you held captive by something over which you are powerless? Jesus wants to release you. Are you oppressed by a burden you cannot bear? Jesus wants to lift that burden from your back. Have you lost sight of who you are and what your purpose in this life is? Jesus wants to restore your sight. This is all risky business, you know. When we turn our lives over to Jesus, nothing is ever the same. When we invite him inside the door, he cleans house. Some of what he finds he’ll want to throw out.  He will doubtless want to re-arrange the furniture. We will not necessarily find it easy or pleasant. But it will be worth it. Generation upon generation of saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs tell us that it is worth it.

When we place the bread and wine on the altar a few minutes from now, place yourself there also. As we break the bread and pour out the wine, tell Jesus that you are willing to be broken and poured out by him and for his sake. What do you have to lose: you’re already broken and poured out; it may as well be done his way. Then, when you reach across in the communion rail into Heaven itself to receive the gifts of God for the people of God, know that you have been broken only in order to be made whole. Know that in that sacrament, you are receiving gospel-proclaiming, prisoner-releasing, sight-restoring grace, grace that will change your life forever.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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