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"You hypocrites, you know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"
These are harsh and difficult words from Jesus who is often portrayed as the epitome of gentleness and compassion. And so I'd like to begin by spending a few moments reflecting on Jesus' own sense of himself, Jesus' own sense of identity, vocation, and mission, as the way of understanding more deeply what I think Jesus is trying to convey in his very harsh and direct words.
So, identity, vocation, and mission invite us to reflect on three events in Jesus' life. First, his baptism, when he comes to clear consciousness with respect to who he is and hears from heaven, as he comes out of the waters of the Jordan, the words, "You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased." Jesus' sense of himself is first and foremost a sense of being rooted and grounded in God's own loving of him--Jesus' sense that he is beloved. This is before Jesus does anything. This is before any sense of vocation or mission unfolds. So with this deep sense of being enfolded in God's love and given special identity as the Beloved One, Jesus is then driven by the same Spirit who bears down upon him in the waters of the Jordan River, driven by that same Spirit immediately out into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. And in that wilderness period of forty days and forty nights, Jesus has to surrender in a sense his possession of his own belovedness in order to enter more deeply into the vocation God is calling him to make his own. And so he yields and surrenders this deep sense of sonship and belovedness back to God and says in effect, "This is your gift to me, and I return this gift to you. And now I open my life to your larger purposes."
He then leaves the wilderness and returns to his hometown, Nazareth. We are told that Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee. And when he comes to Nazareth, he goes into the synagogue where he was brought up on the Sabbath day. And we are told that, as was his custom, entering into the synagogue, he stood up to read and was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written, "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." And we are told he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
What happens here is that Jesus, with his deep sense of his identity -- a sense too of his vocation, to do whatever God's will may be, however it unfolds -- now as he reads these words from the 6lst chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, sees clearly what his mission is to be, sees the direction his vocation is to take, sees the way in which his identity as the beloved one of God is to be fulfilled. He has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to undo all patterns of oppression, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. And in Jewish thought, the year of the Lord's favor is the year of Jubilee, and the year of Jubilee is the time in which all relationships are reordered, all patterns of indebtedness are set aside, and the whole fabric of society is restructured according to God's desire, God's plan that all may be free, that all may live in relationships of love and peace. So this becomes then Jesus' mission.
There's a wonderful Jewish term, "tikkun olam," meaning repair of the world. And I think one can say that Jesus' mission is very much to repair the world, to reorder disordered relationships, to overcome the disparities that exist between men and women and create injustice. And so that is sort of the background, I think, of the words, the strong and urgent words, that Jesus speaks in the Gospel lesson I just read. He sees himself as one called to do the will of the one who sent him -- that is, God, whom he called Abba -- and to complete God's work of reconciliation of binding up and making whole. And this is a message of good news, a message of compassion and healing, but it is also a provocative message, because it calls people to change. It calls them to reorder their lives, to look at the directions in which they are going. It calls them to a new sense of awareness, and one of the ancient Christian writers once observed that "unawareness is the root of all evil." It's not discreet acts of wrongdoing, but it is a gentle unconsciousness that creates the greatest evils in the world. And I think that is true. So part of Jesus' mission is to call people to awareness. Wake up! Be aware! See that you have new choices to make.
And he also saw many of the religious patterns of his day as a means of protection against the deeper demands of God, as a way of insulating one's self against the calls of God's own rightness, God's desire to reorder all things in justice and peace. And so as we hear Jesus' words as a call to us, I think we have to look at our own patterns of unawareness: Where are our hearts closed? Where are we using religion to fend off, in a way, the deeper demands of God? Where am I being called to lose myself in order to find myself? Where am I being called to die to the old self in order that a new self -- a self reordered according to God's deeper purpose and desire -- can become my reality? How am I being called to a transformation of my consciousness, a way of seeing the world, myself in the world, my responses to the world and those around me?
Churches can be amazingly self-serving rather than other-serving. We can become caught up in the minutiae and structures of our own religious traditions and lose the deeper invitation that is the heart of all authentic religion -- that is, to allow ourselves to be broken open by God's grace in order to allow our own identity and vocation to be conjoined to a sense of mission that joins us then to the mission of Christ and makes us, with Christ, repairers of the world.
Jesus says, "I came to bring fire to the earth. How I wish it were already kindled." You sense his urgency, his passion there. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. No, I tell you, rather division." And, of course, what he's talking about here is that kind of easy peace, that superficial peace that sort of papers things over while leaving disorder well below the surface. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, "I come to bring peace, but it is not of this world. My peace is not of this world." And the peace Christ brings of the deep reordering of our own interior life and the reordering of our relationships one to another. It is a costly and demanding peace that requires of us the free gift not only of ourselves, but of our various points of view and our imagination. And so, as we allow this authentic peace to seep into our consciousness and into our lives, we sometimes experience division -- division within ourselves: our desire on the one hand to be about God's work of transformation and binding up and reconciling, but then, on the other hand, our fear, our reluctance, that the cost may be too great. It may be too demanding of who and what we are, and so we equivocate, we compromise, we try to explain away the challenge that the Gospel holds out to us.
The Apostle Paul knew this struggle intimately and speaks about the opposition within himself of flesh and spirit, of the desire to be about God's action, the desire to be a repairer of the world and yet at the same time, the tug and pull in the opposite direction, the tug and pull to focus in on himself and his own interior disorders.
So the reordering of our life is not something abstract. It is not something remote and in some sense detached from our day-to-day experience. The reordering of our lives involves the very circumstances in which we find ourselves. They themselves contain the invitations that God seeks to hold out to us. A wise monk some centuries ago said, "The very circumstances of your life will show you the way." Therefore, listen carefully to your life and do not avoid the struggles that are presented to you in the daily pattern of your living. The cross we must carry is woven into the very fabric of who we are, the very structures of our own being. And the very demands and choices that are pressed upon us are the way in which our faithfulness is being delineated, and they are the way in which God is calling us into God's project of repair and rebuilding.
The cross, someone has said, is the sign of growth through struggle, and it is our willingness to enter into that struggle that determines the pattern of our own fidelity as disciples. Jesus was no stranger to struggle, no stranger to frustration and fear. The times he went in the hills to pray I'm sure were times of deep anguish: "Why isn't it going right? Why are my disciples so unable to get the point? Why are so many people resistant to this passionate message that I feel obliged to proclaim -- this message of reconciliation and healing?" Again and again in those times of prayer he had to re-situate himself in his identity as the Beloved One. He had to reclaim his vocation to do God's will, and he had to embrace freshly his mission, which is to proclaim Good News to the poor.
And so, with respect to us and our participation in Christ's mission, Christ doesn't expect us to be heroic and act out of our own energy, but Christ invites us to allow him through the agency of his Spirit to live his own courage, his own response to God's will in us. In us Christ breaks down walls of division; he restructures us; he repairs us in order that we might become repairers of the world in union with him. And he takes us into his work, into his mission, into God's ongoing work of reconciling, binding up, and making whole. All this is demanding and costly, but we are not alone because it is Christ who is our real peace, who is with us every step of the way.
Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you, and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people. To our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
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