Eric Barreto: Not Later. Today.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was 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.”  Luke 4:14-21

Friends, I want us to dwell on one word in this reading, one word that makes all the difference in how we read this text, how we come to understand the shape of God’s salvation, how we come to embody a ministry faithful to the good news of Jesus.

That word is today. Today.

But here’s the problem.

I don’t know about you, but these pandemic days have distorted my sense of time so calling our attention to a word about a measure of time might not be such a great idea!

Two weeks to bend the curve turned into months of uncertainty and waiting. Weeks and months of online school for my kids blended together while the seasons turned seemingly more slowly than usual. The promise of better days, a so-called return to normal always on the horizon but seemingly not drawing closer. The birthday parties and celebrations and holy Sundays were just not the same on a screen. Sometimes, I’m not even sure I know what day it is or exactly how many months we have been living under the weight of so much loss and worry and stress.

And there’s a second problem too, at least for me. In the tradition in which I was nurtured, I was taught a faith that was less today and more focused on later. Salvation was a future reality we would taste only after death. And while apocalyptic dreams were in the air and being “left behind” was a thing before the books were a thing, the urgency of the moment was always about the future, not so much about the present. I heard every Sunday, “Now is the time to answer God’s call by walking down the aisle and accepting Jesus as your savior!” Later was the time to really taste the goodness of God in a body resurrected but only after death.

But perhaps the “later” of salvation is not just a problem in certain churches. I think we are used to asking where we can find good news. We are accustomed to seeking out the what of the gospel.  We are used to wondering why the good news matter. We know all too well the who of the good news: yes, the Triune God as well as those many on the margins seeking God’s justice.

But how often do we ask when? Do we ask when is the good news of Jesus with urgency and hope? Do we ask when this good news will come to fruition?

That is, how often do we ask, do we ever ask this: When is the gospel? When is the gospel?

When will the poor hear good news? When will the captives be set free? When will the oppressed find their chains loosened? When will the dead taste life once again? When, God, when?

Jesus’ answer in Luke 4 is clear. Jesus’ answer is unequivocal. Jesus’ answer is transformative: today. Today.

Let’s set the scene.

Right before our scene, Luke narrates how Jesus faced a trio of temptations after the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. Notice that the Spirit is living and active even when propelling Jesus into uncertainty and danger. Tempted to feed himself, to prove his trust in God, to grasp at the imperial power that would seem to guarantee the advent of the reign of God, Jesus persists in the path of faithfulness, a path marked by the prophetic example of his own mother and the urgent call to repentance of John. Jesus emerges from the wilderness, tested, perhaps a bit scarred, but also carried by God’s grace and God’s promises.

Still filled with the Spirit, he comes back home to the acclaim of many. And as he has done throughout his life, he is at his local synagogue, gathering with his neighbors in the expectation that they would heard good news about God in a world marked by imperial aggression, by sickness and loss, by the everyday sorrows and joys of life.

At a familiar synagogue, at a spiritual home, Jesus is handed a scroll of Isaiah where he finds written an ancient prophecy. Notice that he does not thumb through a codex looking for his favorite passage. The text is chosen for him, certainly by wherever the reading left off the previous week but also by the Spirit paving his every step. He reads from Isaiah a transformative promise. I often tell my students that if Luke had enough papyrus to write a one-verse Gospel and not a 24-chapter Gospel, he would chosen these words from Isaiah. Here is the breadth and depth of the good news according to Luke in one, okay maybe two, brief verses.

“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.” 

The good news, it turns out, is not an ethereal expectation of intangible hopes. No, the good news is embodied. Such good news sets the world right. Such good news shatters our expectations and starts at the margins of the world. It starts with people we have chosen to lock away, to neglect, to harm by our action and inaction alike.

These promises are to be found within the year of the Lord’s favor. They unfurl over a period of time, not to delay God’s good gifts but to proliferate them. 

Because notice Jesus’ simple yet profound interpretation of words of Isaiah: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today, my friends.

But what could that possibly mean?

I mean, Jesus, look around. We are surrounded by death and division, injustice and peril, harm and hurt. Jesus, I get that you want us to hope for the future, but you can’t be serious that you mean “today.” Not literally, right, Jesus? You can’t be serious?

I think Jesus means exactly this. I think Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Today. Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. When it comes to God’s salvation, there will be no delay. When it comes to God’s justice, there will be no delay. When it comes to God’s goodness, there will be no delay. When it comes to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s call on our lives, there will be no delay.

What does the today-ness of God’s promise mean for us today then? In the middle of a pandemic that lingers still, what does today mean? In the wake of protests for racial justice that linger over the generation, what does today mean? At the bedside of the dying and alongside the grieving, what does today mean?

It is striking to me that Jesus declares, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” at the very beginning of the Gospel of Luke. He declares “Today” before the healings he performs, before the multiplication of food in a deserted place, before he eats with the sinner and the tax collector, before his resurrection. But he also declares, “Today,” before he calls Herod a fox, before John is executed, before he cries over Jerusalem, before he is betrayed by a friend, before he is tortured and lynched on a Roman cross.

The Jesus of Luke is not unfamiliar with the power of God’s Spirit. Neither is he unfamiliar with the sharp realities of living in the shadow of empire’s might. So, his “today” is not naive or optimistic or positive thinking.

No, his “Today” is a prophetic declaration that echoes his mother’s song in Luke 2, a song where Mary declared the powerful would be brought down from their thrones and the hungry would be filled. His “Today” is accompanied by the work of his hands and his choice about with whom he would eat. His “Today” talks the talk and walks the walk. His “Today” faces disappointment and hopelessness and doubt. His “Today” dies upon a Roman cross. His “Today” rises from the grave, scarred and delivered.

Declaring “Today” is an act of trust in God’s promises, a bold voicing of faith, a step toward the reign of God.

The “Today” Jesus speaks does not trust just in the power we might have to overcome temptation. No, his “Today” rests on what God has already done, on God’s assured victory, on God’s resurrection power. “Today” is not about us; it is about the God who sets the world right.

My friends, we are still living in that “Today.” We are still living in God’s victory. We are still living in the wake of the resurrection. “Today.”

In the eye of a hurricane, today. In the victory over injustice, today.
In the death-dealing of a pandemic, today.
In the healing of the sick, today.
In the trauma of violence and division, today.
In the bridging of broken relationships, today.
In the overflowing ICU, today.
At the soup kitchen, today.

Behind the pulpit, today. At the table Christ has set before us, today.

With every breath and every step you take, with every anguished word you whisper in the dark of the night, with every blessing you give, with every tear you shed, today.

Not tomorrow. Today. Not next week. Today.
Not next year. Today.
God’s promise. Today.
God’s grace. Today.
God’s justice. Today.
God’s good, good news. Today.