When the lector comes to the lectern to read, they will almost always end the reading with “the Word of the Lord,” and we respond “Amen”—which is a Hebrew word that most closely means, “So let it be.” We use this terminology, “the Word of the Lord,” or “the Word of God,” a good bit—so much so that it’s almost lost some of its significance for us, I believe—at least for many Christians. Without active consideration or reflection, we can become too comfortable with hearing such phrases and grown numb to them. But what do we mean by “the Word of the Lord?”
For us Christians, words are significant—very significant. After all, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Somehow, “the Word of God” becomes a human being in Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God incarnated, that is, a human being with a body as real as the body you or I have. But Jesus is still, nonetheless, the Word of God. The words read from Scripture are called the Word of God, or the Word of the Lord, and they also are Jesus—insofar as they reveal to us the truth of who we are and who God is and what difference that makes for us. Likewise, preaching—public proclamation the truth of who we are and who God is and what difference that makes for us in light of the words of Scripture—that is also God’s Word.
Whatever words break down the barriers that stand between us and God and then create and sustain relationship with us and God—that is the Word of God. It’s much more complex that merely a scribble on a page, but it’s also as simple as hearing “God loves you and nothing can ever take that away from you.” Simple words, yet so utterly complex. And so as we go into the sermon today, I want you to consider how on one hand words can appear so mundane while at the same time possessing unimaginable power. For that’s what they do…these simple, little things have untold power.
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.
There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.
Does anyone recognize that description?
Where it comes from?
Those are the opening lines from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I read that book in Mrs. Lenig’s ninth grade English class, ninth period. And I loved it. Steinbeck is known as one of America’s greatest author’s, called the “giant of American letters.” what with a long list of American classics attributed to him—Of Mice and Men, as I just quoted, East of Eden, and, perhaps his most famous piece, The Grapes of Wrath, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Steinbeck is remembered for how he intimately explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially they affected downtrodden or everyday characters that so-called “normal” people could identify with. Some might even call him a literary genius how he wrote.
Steinbeck, like so many other authors, was able to take a story and bring it to life. Any good storyteller can do that—that’s what makes them, well, good. It’s one thing to say, “There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores,” full stop, and a wholly other to go to tell us that that that path is “a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.” We can picture that in our mind’s eye. We can hear it in our mind’s ear. We maybe even smell it, the “tramps who come wearily down from the highway” in our mind’s nose. A good storyteller can paint a image in our mind that transport us into the world of the story—so much so that we feel like we’re part of it. We’re whisked away to a place without even going anywhere—be it Middle Earth, the Hogwarts Castle, twenty-thousand leagues under the sea, to London, Rome, Tibet, Cairo, or even into some far flung place such as Vogsphere. A good storyteller takes us there with the words they use, with the descriptions the words create—and for a while we place ourselves in a world different from the one we’re in right now.
In today’s gospel text, we have a story within a story. The story we’re told is Jesus entering into the synagogue and he sits down with the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He opens it up, and he reads it aloud—“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.” Those are the words that we’re told that Jesus read. And those words are the words from the life story of the Jewish people. That is to say, those are the words that the prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of God who promises the people of Israel redemption from their captivity, at the time of Isaiah, during the great Babylonian Captivity.
That story became the story of God’s deliverance of his people from the hand of oppression, and so it became woven into their life story, once they returned from exile. But now, years out from that exile, the Jews find themselves once more forlorn and troubled—this time under new occupation, the occupation of the Romans—much worse than the Babylonians. Jesus comes on the scene, opens this scroll, reads it. And how does the story for us end? “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…Well, what does that mean?
For one, it didn’t mean, and it still doesn’t mean, what those who heard then thought it meant. Many who were interested to Jesus thought he was going to overthrow the Romans—somehow lead a revolt. Many scholars today think that Judas Iscariot was one such person, a member of the zealots—zealots being a sect of Judaism who aimed at resisting the Romans and establishing a Jewish theocracy. And so, when Jesus comes into the temple and reads this passage from Isaiah, this iconic piece of the story of the Jewish people delivered from captivity, and he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” they think he’s saying he’s come to usher in a new world order. What they don’t realize is that, yes, Jesus has come to usher in a new world order, but it’s not going to happen the way they think. This scripture is fulfilled in their hearing, on this day, but they misunderstand how. They think they know how the story ends, but they’re in for a surprise.
God has sent Jesus to declare the message of good news to the poor—not only to the poor in material things, but to the poor in spirit, those who’ve sold out our soul for false comfort in the lie of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, not only in this life, but the next. God has sent Jesus to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind—that is to say, to announce to all who are tied up by anything and everything that holds us bound from the full and abundant life God intended for us, to open our eyes to the truth that we cannot do it on our own and need God and one another. God has sent Jesus to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “God’s time is now!”
Jesus has come to tell us that though we feel forgotten, though we’ve been knocked down, though trial after trial and temptation after temptation come our way, God is with us through it all. God’s time is now. God’s new world order begins now—right now, in this time, in this place—in the story of our lives, not in the overthrowing of world governments. God’s new world order happens in our own life story, and God is a major character in it¬—a character with a real body, like you and me. And God’s life story becomes intimately tied up with our own story—so much so that our life stories, that is, God’s story and our own stories, are one and the same. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…
But what difference does that make for us today? For us who realize that we’re characters in God’s life story and God is a character in our life story, our shared story? That God’s new world order is something that happens in our everyday lives?
It means that just as on that day, when Jesus went into the temple and the words he read from the story of his people became alive again in their hearing, so too do they become alive again for us today in our hearing. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…Today this story is reawakened and becomes real. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you—each and every one of you whom God has anointed with the Holy Spirit in baptism, tied to Jesus in death and resurrection, crucified to the world and raised by the glory of God to newness of life.
Each and every one of you is a character in the story—the story of God’s mighty acts of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of pardon, of death and new birth. God has anointed you with the Spirit to bring the good news of God’s unsurrendering love to those who are rejected by society and to welcome them as God has welcomed you in Jesus. God has anointed you to work peace where animosity, enmity, and rancor are amok. In our world today, rife with its political and social polarization—God has anointed you to live out what love in action looks like in the face of difficulty and bitterness, perhaps beginning in your own family, telling the story of God’s dogged desire to unite all things in one with him. In that, God has anointed you to see your own shortcoming, your own limitedness, to open your eyes to your own need for humility, while also using you to open the eyes of others to a still better way—a way grounded not in condescension or arrogance, but in self-reflection, patience, kindness, and generosity. And most of all, the Spirit of God has anointed you to take part in the life story of God—the story of God’s new world order marked by joy and peace in relationship with him.
We are characters in this amazing story, and God is a character along with us—the story of God’s new world order, in our own lives.
In the name of the Father of and the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.