The Spirit of Proclamation

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

Proclamation is not the job only of preachers. You might get that impression from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he details many different jobs in the Church, like different members of the one Body of Christ. Preaching is one job among others. Actually, Paul said that God appointed a number of ranked offices, beginning with apostles, then prophets, then teachers, then deeds of power, gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, and finally various kinds of tongues. The first three, the offices of apostles, prophets, and teachers might all count as proclamation in related senses.

Lest we preachers take too much comfort from this high ranking of our supposed spiritual gifts, we should remember that Paul goes on immediately to say that there still is a more excellent way, outranking apostles and the rest, namely the way of love. The spiritual gift of love is far more important for the Church than preaching, miracle working, healing, and the rest. Love is a spiritual gift desired for all Christians, in fact the distinguishing spiritual gift of Christianity itself. That the Church, the Body of Christ, has kept its offices running more or less efficiently throughout history, while so often failing miserably at love, is a bitter sadness. With regard to preaching itself, although not every Christian is supposed to have a pulpit, every Christian does proclaim faith, or lack of it, in everything said and done. I’ll come back to this.

The text from Nehemiah describes heavy-handed proclamation. Ezra the scribe and Nehemiah the governor have brought the Israelite leaders back to Jerusalem after the exile, sorted the families and rebuilt much of the Temple that had been destroyed. Then at the request of the people, Ezra read to them from his version of the Torah, from early morning until noon on the first day of the seventh month after their return. He explained the Torah to them—it was in Hebrew and they spoke Aramaic—and the leaders told the people to rejoice, for the day of the first reading of the Torah with the people back in Jerusalem is holy to God. What was proclaimed was not only, or most importantly, the words of the Torah, but the fact of God’s victory in bringing the people of Israel back to their promised land where they had the opportunity, denied them in exile, to live according to their law. Christian proclamation is something like that: despite appearances to the contrary, God is present in saving ways and all we need to do is to live out salvation. Every town and homestead is a Christian Jerusalem.

Of our texts, Psalm 19 has the over-the-top proclamation: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Day and night are like heavenly choruses that antiphonally proclaim God’s handiwork. If only we could hear the music of the spheres!

The text on which I wish to focus, however, is that from Luke in which Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah. What Luke says he reads, actually, is not exactly like anything in Isaiah as we have it; it is closest to Isaiah 61:1-2 or perhaps 58:6. Jesus’ proclamation has two moments. First he reads the scripture, which is a witness to God’s word to Israel. Then he preaches a sermon about it.

In his text, Isaiah claims that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Why? The reason is that he has been anointed “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.” This is to say, if someone has been so anointed to do these things, the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, or her. We might be inclined to think that the causation goes the other way—if the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, then you are anointed to proclaim these things. Without the Spirit, you can stay home. But Jesus quotes Isaiah, accurately, to the effect that having the job is what brings the Spirit.

The job itself, of course, is to proclaim a reversal of terrible conditions: the despair of the poor, the incarceration of captives, the loss of sight, the bondage of oppression, a people forgotten by God. Isaiah wrote that he himself had been anointed to proclaim these things, and therefore was blessed with the Spirit of the Lord. Jesus cited this text to pass these points on into the Christian Gospel, which in turn everywhere and always proclaims hope for the poor, freedom for captives, recovery of sight, freedom for the oppressed, and a people beloved by God. Jesus chose this passage from Isaiah to make this point. He reinforced the point in many contexts of his preaching, for instance in the Beatitudes, or in saying that the last will be first and the first last. Jesus’ intent was not to say only that Isaiah in ancient times had been anointed to proclaim these things. Rather, those things are worth proclaiming whenever and by whomever.

Jesus’ sermon after the reading was dynamite and it got him in trouble, as next week’s lectionary Gospel will relate. The whole sermon was one sentence: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Period. That is, Jesus himself is anointed to proclaim the reversal of terrible conditions, and because of that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. Whereas it was pious to say that Isaiah had the Spirit of the Lord, it was blasphemous for Jesus to claim it for himself. The novelty in his sermon was not in the content of the proclamation; after all, that was at least as old as Isaiah. The sermon was radical because it claimed the Spirit of the Lord for Jesus.

Now Jesus did not say that only he was anointed to bring good news. In fact, every Christian is anointed, by virtue of baptism, to proclaim these and the other points of the Gospel and, in so proclaiming, the Spirit of the Lord will come. This has astonishing meaning for us today. It is not enough to look back on Jesus and quote him as he quotes Isaiah. To be disciples of Jesus we need to call down the Spirit of the Lord on us by our proclamation, among other works.

The Spirit of the Lord so often seems to be sleeping in our time. If we are a consumerist society, and we are, it is because we think we have to buy something to get the satisfaction that the Spirit of the Lord should bring. If we have a global economy that rewards successful greed despite the fact that the poor are made poorer by that, and we do, it is because our conscience has been made deaf to the Spirit’s proclamation. If we tolerate a government that lies to justify its greed and murderous exercise of power, and is supported mainly by people who admire its machismo, and we do, it is because the spirit of the world has blocked out the Spirit of the Lord. If we fill our leisure hours with entertainments that are vacuous of any
critical edge of prophetic thinking, and that cover over our consumer madness, greed and false patriotism, and we do, it is because we want to drown out that prophetic voice that we have known in our heart since Isaiah’s time.

Our land is filled with the poor, while we roll back taxes that might help them. The stalags of Guantanamo are filled with captives who defended their country against our invasion, and prisons across America are filled with people whose hopelessness sustains a culture of crime, while we tout our political righteousness and legal due process. Across our country and around the world are legions who are blind, sick with AIDS and other devastations, victims of natural disasters and the follies of ethnic and factional wars, while we complain about the high price of health care and spend billions to go to war. Millions of people are oppressed by traditions that do not respect them, by governments that steal from them, by poverty that blights their soul. Millions are oppressed because of their race, their gender, their age, or their sexual orientation. Millions are oppressed by a global economy that makes the poor poorer and rewards the rich who are best able to compete. In the face of this oppression we take false pride in democratic freedom that often means little more than freedom for avarice. Surely the Spirit of the Lord is sleeping!

Perhaps I exaggerate. That’s common among preachers. Many people do have powerful emotional experiences of the Spirit, or of some spirit that feels religious. Twenty years ago those things I have been complaining about would have been attributed to rampant secularism. But it has been religion that has been rampant, here as well as in those parts of the world that seem most troubled. Emotional religion truly vents psychic pressure and gives singular discipline and direction to people in the midst of confusion, both of which are good psychological functions. Sometimes whatever vents psychic pressure and disciplines chaotic life, however, is taken for true religion. Not every spirit that fires enthusiasm is the Spirit of the Lord. Terrorists are filled with some spirit. Many seemingly spirit-filled Christians are complacent about the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed and still think they have the Lord’s favor. Without the careful and conscientious discernment of spirits required for distinguishing the Holy Spirit from counterfeits, religion filled with spiritual emotion is dangerous. Jesus’ point was that the Spirit comes because of special behavior, in this case preaching good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. One very important test among many for the discernment of spirits is whether they witness to God’s justice as the prophets laid it out.

Now Jesus’ sermon on Isaiah was not the whole of his message nor is it the whole of the Christian gospel. Perhaps even more important is the message of the way of love as the right way to live in the Kingdom of God, as the proper context for speaking and doing justice. Moreover, the Christian gospel is not only Jesus’ personal message but a way of life lived in orientation to Jesus. Christians follow out the Way of Jesus and this includes faith in his person as well as his message.

Nevertheless a certain priority resides in the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor, namely that it is proclamation about and for others, not just ourselves. Although we should proclaim the whole of the Church’s life and work, too easily that can degenerate into concern for only the Church itself. The Church can be itself only when it lightens up on its own concerns and empties itself for the poor, the captives, the blind, and oppressed. Seek the proclamation that brings the Spirit of the Lord: that determines whether the spirit at hand is the Lord’s Spirit.

The poor, the prisoners, the afflicted, and the oppressed cry out for the Spirit of the Lord. My friends, by Christ’s mercy I beg you to awaken to the Holy Spirit. Do that by proclaiming God’s justice and the rest of the gospel. Preaching is not one job among others, as Paul’s Corinthians text might suggest. To be baptized is to be anointed to speak out for justice and the whole gospel. Speak plainly to your friends. Inform yourself so that you speak with wisdom. The real issues of justice are very complex, and general symbols such as the poor, the captives, the blind and oppressed go only so far. A Great Awakening of the Spirit must be filled with intelligence and light. Reject any form of religion that does not demand the utmost of critical questioning and inquiry. Anti-intellectualism is a sure sign of a spirit other than the Lord’s. Three weeks ago I preached about the witness to Jesus beginning with the Three Wise Men. A Great Awakening of Spirit is not only a matter of understanding and speaking. It is also true enthusiasm, a joy in the experience of God that moves us to moral improvement, holy community, and a rush to the ecstasy of being filled with God. Two weeks ago I preached on Jesus’ baptism, the one where he brings the Spirit and fire. A Great Awakening of Spirit is not only understanding, speaking, and enthusiasm. It is also a celebration of God’s work, indeed victory, in the Christian life. In John’s account, the first thing Jesus did after he had gathered the core of his disciples was to take them to the wedding party at Cana. Of course it took the disciples a long time to learn that discipleship is a party, because it sure didn’t seem like that. Jesus was crucified and most of them were martyred. But the wedding at Cana prefigured the marriage of God and the people and celebrated what those who are awake in the Spirit know, that God brings us home, already has us at home, where the crown of thorns is really a victor’s laurel wreath. A Great Awakening to the Spirit is not a simple thing, is it?

Nevertheless I call you to it. Perhaps the next step for you personally is not a profession of faith, or an ecstatic religious experience, or the joy of being taken up into God’s work. Perhaps the next step is proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor. Speak it, and your actions will follow. Speak it as an anointed proclaimer, and the Spirit of the Lord will be upon you. Seize the Spirit and let it glow. Make your faith something serious, and you will find yourself accompanied by others who also are seeking and finding the Spirit, for that will be God working within us all. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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