SHAPED BY THE WORD
Luke 4:14-21 – The Rev. Helen Havlik
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 27, 2019
The word epiphany means “revelation” or “manifestation” or “showing forth.” For Christians, epiphany takes on special meaning as we think about the way we know God in the person of Jesus Christ. Through him God’s love, mercy and grace are given flesh and form. The Sundays following Epiphany on January 6 are a time for us to think about what that means as we live as his followers. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is baptized and then spends some time in the wilderness where he’s tempted and tested. After that, his public ministry begins in Galilee. I’m reading from Luke, Ch. 4, beginning with vs. 14. Listen to these words from the book that we love.
My great nephew Marshall and I are buddies—in fact, given that we both wear glasses of a similar style, we sometimes look like twins! Marshall has a condition called “developmental apraxia of speech.” Ronda Rousey, an actress and mixed martial arts fighter, had this condition, which is present from birth and affects a kid’s ability to form sounds and words. Children with speech apraxia often have far greater abilities to understand what’s said to them than to express them-selves with spoken words. Marshall was lucky his mom saw early on that something was wrong and had him tested and into speech therapy. Even so, he couldn’t say his name until he was three—and though he was always good with “Uncle Bill”—he called me “Wen” for the longest time. It was a testimony to the success of his speech therapy when I walked in one day and he said, clear as a bell, “Hi Aunt Helen!” Other kids aren’t so fortunate: speech apraxia shapes their lives and not in a good way. Their language skills don’t develop and they find it frustrating to communicate, sometimes to the point where they become angry and withdrawn. They find them-selves on the outside looking in because they can’t make themselves understood. They get picked on. They get labeled as stupid or uncooperative. Enough people call you dumb, and that’s going to have an effect on what you think about yourself. Turns out, words, the ones we or others use, shape us in ways that we don’t always realize. Words matter.
Words matter and not just any words. Luke tells us that even before Jesus was born, his mother sang a song of liberation that we know as the Magnificat. At age 12, he already was steeped in the words of scripture—on one trip to the Temple, he was found in deep discussion with the teachers—“and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding.” Luke says that after Jesus was baptized he returned to his native Galilee to start his public ministry by teaching in the synagogues, where he was well received. He was a great communicator—able to get people to think and talk about their faith in ways they hadn’t before. He spoke as one with authority—people paid attention to what he was saying because they recognized he spoke the truth to them as maybe no one else ever had. It got around that he was someone worth listening to—his words mattered because they were backed up by who he was and what he did. It was all one package.
When Jesus arrived in Nazareth, those who gathered in that and the other synagogues weren’t exactly at the high point of their lives. They lived in what was effectively a police state, their lives controlled by a foreign government. They paid high taxes. They had no access to proper health care. Many of them were day laborers, working for a subsistence wage—enough for just one day at a time. So they’re eager for some words of hope, some words of encouragement, some good news and the synagogue is literally a lifeline—a place to worship God, just as their ancestors had done for at least the previous 300 years. Maybe they hoped for some-one to share the word that would change their lives forever. In American politics, it’s pretty common for candidates to head home to announce their candidacy and what they believe their job to be. So in front of this hometown crowd, Jesus reads what’s called a “servant song” from the prophet Isaiah, Ch. 61, vs. 1-2. These are the first public words of Jesus that we get to hear, and first and foremost they spell out his calling as a servant who has been “anointed to bring the good news to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed” through his words and his actions. Put simply, Jesus’ job is to tell people the good news they are forgiven—here’s another chance—welcome home! And not just tell, but to invite others to join him in what one commentary has called “release, recovery and liberation.” (Seasons of the Spirit FUSION, 2012-2013, p. 144)
Then Jesus sat down, which was a signal he was about to teach, and the people waited to hear more. Elsewhere he’d been praised for his wisdom and now it’s their turn to hear something worthy of their praise. “Today,” Jesus begins, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not yesterday or tomorrow—but right now, in the hearing of these words, they are fulfilled. In the person and words of Jesus himself, release, recovery and liberation happen at that moment and new life begins. Jesus promised restoration as he literally lived out Isaiah’s words through his healing and his teaching—through his willingness not only to preach but to live and die for what he practiced. Through his words and his work, the blind did really see again; people who had been living in the darkness of Roman oppression really did find hope again. Literal debts were forgiven; tax collectors stopped stealing from people. It’s one thing for Jesus to proclaim all these things, even live all these things —but that’s not our job, too—or is it? We’re not able to do what he did—or are we?
Our parents are the first and most important teachers we have—they teach us a lot on purpose, or at least try to. Their words shape us, but much of what we learn comes from watching what they do rather than listening to what they say. I admit I’ve not always been a willing student, at least when my mom tried to teach me something. Much of the time, I’m sorry to say, I’d push her away with a firm, “I’ll figure it out myself!” Of course, she showed me the basics of laundry and cooking and baking—she taught me how to sew and to write a check—and she used a lot of words to do it. But it wasn’t until after she died that I realized she taught me so much about life just by what she did. She taught me about having courage to try new things; she taught me about accepting people for who they are; she taught me about continually being aware of and engaged with the wider world and not giving in to self-pity. She taught me how important it is to laugh, especially at yourself. She never lectured about these things, but she didn’t have to. I saw her learning to use a computer when she was 75 and convincing her friends to learn so they could e-mail each other. I saw her not only read the newspaper from beginning to end every night, I know she kept up with popular culture by watching Entertainment Tonight. She knew who Bono was before I did! I saw her without question welcome and embrace my cousin’s African-American husband and his family as part of our family when other family members would not. She probably didn’t know how much she actually was able to teach others and me by what she did—how her openness to the world around her and her willingness to live into all the inevitable changes we go through would continue even now to inspire her family and friends.
We can bet that Mary used her words and actions to teach her son. Before Jesus was even born, Mary proclaimed her faith to the angel—“let it be with me according to your word”—and to Elizabeth—“my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… for he has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things…” Words matter, but not just any words have the power to shape us into the people God wants us to be. We all need people we can look up to and learn from. Think about all those people—mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, bosses, co-workers, friends—who have helped to make you the person you are today. Not all words are good ones, of course—but the one Word we can’t go wrong with is Jesus Christ, who shapes us and then calls us to shape others with our words and actions.