If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Spirit is Upon Me: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 4:14-30

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2011.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. When I hear those words from Isaiah my immediate thoughts turn to my early charismatic experiences. When I was a 19 year old, long haired Rock musician living in Los Angeles I went to a number of events that made me think that the Spirit of the Lord might be upon me. I had an older friend, Richard Gant, from LA City College who had studied for the priesthood. He was fired up about the Catholic charismatic movement that was burning back in the 60s. Richard dragged me off all across the LA area to various monasteries, cloisters, Jesus Freak gatherings, Teen Challenge, where I met the Christian gospel singer Andre Crouch, a Kathryn Kuhlman healing service, where I was called on stage, received the laying on of hands from Miss Kuhlman, and was “slain in the Spirit,” and attended a bunch of other charismatic and Pentecostal services.

At one charismatic meeting we were coached on how to speak in tongues and pray in the Spirit. As we kneeled in prayer the Pentecostal leaders suggested we stutter out some syllables in order to “prime the pump,” as it were. I told Richard I could easily fake speaking in tongues and upon doing so had an ecstatic experience. I also remember at that time listening to a tape on the story of Pentecost Richard had lent me and all of a sudden I hearing a loud wind rush through the apartment where our Rock group lived, like it was my own personal Pentecost. Richard baptized me into the wild world of the Spirit.

Was the Spirit upon me? Had I been anointed? What was the evidence? Speaking in tongues. Receiving laying on of hands. Being slain in the Spirit. Ecstatic and auditory experiences. Are these the signs of being anointed by the Spirit?

The prophet Isaiah proclaims The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and The Lord has anointed me. The prophet’s words fit in with what is known as the Servant of the Lord tradition. These texts in Isaiah speak of a Servant of the Lord, who at times appears to be Israel and at other times a prophetic or messianic figure. This Servant is, at times, a Suffering Servant who bears the people’s sin, brings salvation, and finally inaugurates the kingdom of God.

Isaiah speaks these Spirit-inspired words to Israel following the exile in Babylon. He offers the people a bold word of hope. In a surprising and even daring manner, the prophet takes on the role of the Servant of the Lord by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” and “The Lord has anointed me.” Anointing with oil as a mark of the Spirit’s appointment and empowerment for a role and was usually reserved for judges, kings, and priests. The prophet Isaiah brazenly proclaims God’s anointing for a role fit for a messianic figure.

The role the prophet envisions fulfilling sounds a lot like the messianic kingdom has come. The Spirit’s anointing is not about speaking in tongues, ecstatic experiences or supernatural phenomena. The descriptions of the Servant’s work, the signs of the kingdom look more like some kind of social transformation ----bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, release to those in debtors’ prison, to proclaim the year of Jubilee, a time of social justice, and comfort for those who mourn.

These are images that reflect God’s coming reign that the messiah inaugurates. The prophet dares to envision his own anointing and empowerment by the Spirit as doing the work of God’s kingdom. In other words, in some sense, the prophet dares to see himself as having been anointed by the Spirit to engage in the messiah’s work, which focuses on the most vulnerable in society, the marginalized, poor, and oppressed. The prophet boldly dares to fulfill this role.

Jesus also dares to place himself in the role of the Servant of the Lord and the Messiah. When Jesus came to Nazareth, his hometown, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, a customary practice, like going to church on Sunday. Homeboy Jesus is asked to read from the prophets, possibly in a cycle of readings. He is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Remember this was before our modern Bible. Books of the Torah and Prophets were handwritten on separate scrolls.

Jesus just happens to read the chosen text for that particular day from the prophet Isaiah. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” and so on and so forth. Notice how Jesus leaves out the part about “the day of God’s vengeance,” which I think is telling. Jesus hands the scroll back to the attendant and sits down, which is an indication that it’s time for the interpretation. Then he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I’m not sure if everyone caught the meaning of Jesus’ interpretation of this text, because they were “amazed at his gracious words!” Now, I’ll have to admit that it’s nice to hear, “Great sermon preacher,” but sometimes if everyone likes your sermon it could mean that they really didn’t understand what in the world you were saying! Jesus continues his little sermon and clearly challenges his own people’s ethnocentricity, their puffed up pride in being God’s chosen people, which reflects a narrow vision of the messianic age and God’s reign.

And Jesus makes his case from their own scripture. He points to God’s compassion for a foreign widow and God’s healing of an enemy. In doing so, Jesus implies that instead of a messianic age when God’s vengeance will be poured out on their enemies, God’s liberating kingdom will look different. God’s reign is already evident in that all along God has loved, healed, and cared for the foreigner, stranger, and enemy as much as God has loved, healed, and cared for God’s own chosen people.

Now, they clearly understand the theme of his sermon! I can almost hear the people saying, “Shiver me timbers, dem is fightin’ woids!” Jesus’ homeboys are ready to take him on a long walk off a short cliff! At times good sermons can get you in trouble!

Jesus boldly dares to proclaim that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…” to do the messianic work of God’s reign. In the very person of Jesus the Isaiah prophecy has been fulfilled, not so much as a prediction of Isaiah, but in the manner of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, Jesus dares to take on the role of the messiah, who does the work associated with God’s kingdom; proclaiming, healing, liberating, comforting the least of these. In his ministry Jesus will liberate the oppressed, give sight to the blind, including religious people who just can’t seem to see, and live as if the time of God’s justice has already come. For this he had been anointed by the Spirit.

That is why we speak of Jesus as “the Christ.” Christ is not a cuss word or Jesus’ last name. It means “the anointed one.” Jesus was baptized, anointed by the Spirit for his messianic mission. He fulfilled the role of the Spirit-anointed Servant of God, the messiah. That is why he fulfills the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…”

There is a real sense in which we as Christians, as the messianic community, take on the role of the Servant of the Lord who does God’s kingdom work. To be a “Christ-ian,” an anointed one, is to have received the Spirit’s appointment and anointment for the work of God’s kingdom. Isn’t that what our baptism was all about? It wasn’t just so we could take a bath and get our names on the church membership role. In our baptism we dared to take on the role of a servant of the Lord. In our baptism we risked being appointed and anointed to do the work of the Messiah, to do the work of God’s kingdom. That’s the boldness of baptism. That’s the boldness we all need to say for ourselves, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me…”

That boldness, that daring to proclaim our own Spirit anointment and appointment will be for us to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation for the oppressed, and the time of God’s joyful justice.

What does that look like for us… today… in this place? What are the signs that we are anointed by the Spirit? For us it probably will not look like speaking in tongues or wild visions or ecstatic experiences. But, it will probably look deeper than charity for the poor from our own opulence and abundance, wider than offering our money to the poor detached from our presence. It will mean boldly taking the risk of building relationships with the vulnerable and marginalized in society. It will look like direct involvement in our communities, outside our own church structures. It will feel as uncomfortable as rubbing shoulders with those left out and dropped out, forgotten and forsaken, lost and lonely. It may smell of poverty and sickness.

Signs of the Spirit’s anointing at work will probably look less like a quick e-mail sent off to someone who is ill, depressed or lonely and more like a visit, a cup of soup, or anointing with oil for healing. It may sound like the giggle of a child you are watching play in your living room because her young mother is out looking for work. Or it could sound like the cheers of friends as they welcome an Occupy protestor released from jail.

And, praise be to God, it may just feel like our own already busy lives have been disrupted, disoriented and even turned upside down by our anointing as servants of God coming kingdom. It may feel like my life is not my own…but the Lord’s. And it could also feel like tears of joy streaming down our cheeks as lives are changed, as hope is renewed, as comfort blankets the mournful. It can feel like the oil of gladness poured upon us as a gift from doing what God has called us, empowered us, anointed us to do.

To boldly proclaim for ourselves that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us and has anointed us…” may just look a bit like…like the messiah has come. And my Advent friends…. he has!

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

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