The word is spreading. The new rabbi in town is incredible! He is clearly filled with the Spirit. He has become quite the sensation in Galilee and everyone expects his appearance in Nazareth to be impressive – what home town would not love to see their son come home and preach a good word?! Nazareth, expecting to be proud and wowed, sits in the synagogue. And then it happens – Jesus does not preach a scintillating sermon. Instead, he finds a bold text – a text from Isaiah that we all know contains the words that the Messiah will use – reads the text, and then he just sits down. The room is silent. We all just stare. The shock is heavy in the room and words fail us all. Our minds are running amok with questions. Did he just read that text from Isaiah? Is he saying he is the Messiah? Is he the Messiah? What does this mean? What does he mean the scripture is fulfilled? Of course, no one says those words aloud. We just stare. We stare in silence.
Words have mighty power in our lives. As we celebrated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King this past week, I have read countless quotes from his life and ministry. He was a man who knew how to use words powerfully. In an age where we are barraged by words – in media, in politics, in books – we sometimes forget the power of words. We tend to skim words, to gloss over them, looking to quickly glean information because we are inundated with words. In our haste, we forget the power of words.
The catch with words is that words have the power to make both positive change and to get us into trouble. My grandfather always used to say, never put anything in print that you do not want the world to see. We have watched these last months how words can cause trouble. This fall’s political campaign led to many people saying words they regret. Just in the past two weeks, two big athletes, Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, realized the chaos that their words could produce. Teens every week are terrorized by the words of cyberbullying – with reputations ruined worldwide when seemingly private photos or acts are posted on Facebook for all to see.[i]
This is why that silent synagogue is so powerful today. Jesus takes words that everyone knows, and he changes them. The Messiah, the anointed one, has been long awaited: so long awaited, that I doubt many people still believed the Messiah would come in their time. So Joe’s boy rolling up into the synagogue and declaring that he is the anointed Messiah is a big deal. These are words of power and weight – so heavy that the room is completely silent.
Part of the weight of Jesus’ words comes from whom he is claiming to be. The other part of the weight of Jesus words is interpreting what they mean for the world now. For Jesus, and for his followers, these words from Isaiah through Jesus become a mission statement of sorts.[ii] If you remember, in Luke’s gospel Jesus is baptized, goes into the wilderness to be tempted, and this is the first that we really hear from Jesus. These words are not just bold words – these words will define the entire remainder of Luke’s gospel. If you were writing one of those fifth-grade book reports, you can almost hear the introduction, “The theme of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor.” For the rest of this lectionary year we will be hearing stories of Jesus fulfilling these words – good news, release, sight, freedom, favor. This is what Jesus’ ministry is about. Jesus takes the words from Isaiah and he changes them. And through changing them, he changes the world.
A video has been circulating this week called, “The Power of Words.” In it, a blind man is sitting on a sidewalk, with a cardboard sign that reads, “I’m blind. Please help.” As he sits there, two or three of the tens of people who pass by actually drop a coin or two in front of him. He silently feels for the coin and then puts the coin in his tin can. Finally a woman sees him and stops. She silently picks up his sign, turns the piece of cardboard over and writes something else on the sign. Without a word, she walks away. In the next several scenes everyone stops and gives the blind man handfuls of coins. The woman eventually returns, and dumbfounded, the man asks her, “What did you do to my sign?” She simply replies, “I wrote the same, but different words.” As she walks away, we see that what she wrote is, “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.” She took a sign that said, “I’m blind. Please help,” and she changed the words to, “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.” The video ends with these words, “Change your words. Change the world.”[iii] What the woman in this video does is she takes something we see everyday – a man asking for help, and makes him not so “everyday.” By changing the words on his sign, she helps all see with fresh eyes. Suffering and pain no longer seems acceptable simply because of her words. She changes people with her words
This is what Jesus does in that temple. He takes words with a certain set of values and meaning, and he changes them. No longer will good news, release, sight, freedom, and favor be a future dream. They will change now with Jesus Christ. So perhaps part of the silence in that synagogue comes from the joyful realization that this liberation might actually happen in their time. But another part of that silence comes from the implications. If the Messiah is here, offering liberation from poverty, imprisonment, blindness, and oppression, then that means that the people of God will have to start living like the Messiah is here. They too will have to work to bring good news to the poor. They too will have to work to release the captives. They too will have to care for the blind and the oppressed. They too will have to honor the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee Year when debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, and lands are left to rest. Jesus’ words not only change the people of God’s reality, Jesus’ words will change the world, and the people of God’s behavior in that word. This is big, silence-making news.
Jesus’ words change us too. We too are left in silence as the weight of Jesus’ words hit us. If we are to follow Jesus, we too are to be working for the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed. As that reality waves over us, we too are silenced by the questions. What does that mean for us? How will this change my walk with God? How uncomfortable is this work going to be? How joyful will this work be? Pondering these and probably many more questions is a good thing, even more so with Lent on the horizon and the looming of our own Jubilee year here at St. Margaret’s. With the text ending as the text does today, we are invited to tarry in that silent pondering today. But know that the pondering is not indefinite. Jesus’ words hint at the immediacy of the work that is needed. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” So do the pondering you need to do. But know that Jesus is waiting at the back door, ready for you to join him in the messianic work of good news, release, sight, freedom, and favor. Amen.
[i] Idea recently confirmed in this piece on NPR: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/rookies/articles/radio-rookies/2012/dec/28/sexual-cyberbullying-modern-day-letter/.
[ii] Ernest Hess, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 287.