The Power of Today

The Gospel story begins with a rather dull, truly typical event in ancient Jewish synagogue life. On the Sabbath, a preacher, not a rabbi or some other formal religious authority, but a person known as a darshanim, a "speaker" or a "teller" reads from the scroll and comments on the verses. This preaching style of Jesus' day was widely practiced and expected by congregations--that the speaker would take biblical verses literally out of their textual context--such historical criticism as understanding contextual context is, of course, a modern development--and the speaker would apply them to the religious, political, and ethical questions all around. Preaching involved making an ancient story, the wisdom of the prophets, alive for the day.

Jesus was a darshanim in his hometown on this particular day. A synagogue leader handed him the scroll, and Jesus finds the place where the reading last week left off and reads from the words of the prophet Isaiah:

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.

Jesus then rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant. All eyes fixed on him. The congregation awaited his comment--his interpretation of these ancient words, a Messianic promise for them. Would he address the occupation, the oppression of the empire, or perhaps his own ministry that is gaining attention throughout the region? No one breathed, the community alert with expectation. What would Jesus, their neighbor, say?

Jesus might have preached on the wisdom of the old prophet: "In the past, our fathers and mothers envisioned a world of justice, freedom, and healing. The fullness of abundant life in a land of milk and honey as God covenanted with Moses."

Or he might have elaborated on the world to come: "We, along with Isaiah, await the fulfillment of this glorious promise! One day, the poor will be lifted up, captives set free, and the blind will see! Oh, how we long for that! How we pray for that! But it seems so slow in coming."

Jesus could have appealed to his friends' sense of theological nostalgia--How great Isaiah was!--or their fragile theological hope for a better future. The kingdom of God will come! But he did neither. Instead, he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

They were shocked. What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? That the poor hear good news, that prisoners are being released, the blind see, and the oppressed receive justice? This is the year of Lord's favor? 

Have you been watching the news, Jesus? Are you aware of how horrible things are? That there is more inequality than ever, more people in prison unjustly, more illness of all sorts, more violence and terrorism than our ancestors ever knew? This now--today--is the kingdom of God?

Are you crazy?

"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Not yesterday, not tomorrow. Today.

And with that word, Jesus' furious neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff.

Faith communities are often consumed with memories of the past and hopes for the future. Speaking of the past may take a form of maintaining buildings and structures, of teaching ancient texts, and passing on patterns of life and values from ancestors. Speaking of the future is often wrapped up in hopes for salvation and eternal life, desires for answered prayers, for the children to hold onto faith or "come back to church." Both past and future are important to vibrant communities; healthy and life-giving practices of honoring our ancestors and embracing a hopeful future derive from the witness of the whole biblical tradition.

But both "past" and "future" as the primary location of faith have their shadow sides. Overemphasizing the past results in nostalgia--the belief that the past is better than either the present or the future--a disposition that is steeped in grief and fear. Overemphasizing the future--the belief that all that matters is that which is to come--often results in thwarted hope, doubt, and anxiety.

A recent survey from Public Religion Research discovered that the majority of churchgoers in the United States express high levels of both nostalgia and anxiety. By strong majorities, religious Americans--particularly white Protestants, and without any significant difference between theological conservatives and liberals--believe that "our best days are behind us" and that the future of society is bleak. In particular, mainline congregations are caught between valorizing the good old days and a deepening sense of desolation that some promised future will never arrive. Evidently, most Protestants would rather look back with sadness than trust that a more just and beautiful future beckons. As a result, today is lost. Today is merely a stage upon which we mourn the loss of past and fear what we cannot imagine.  

But "today" is a deeply dangerous spiritual reality--because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and our dreams to embrace fully the moment of now. The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends upon them to fix everything. But "today" places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God's desire for the world. "Today" is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.

Jesus essentially told his friends, "Look around. See the Spirit of God at work, right here. Right now. God is with us. Just as I AM promised our father Moses at the burning bush, 'I will be with you.' This is the sign of God's covenant. The ever active, ever loving, ever liberating, always present God is here with us. Now."

In effect, Jesus is asking his friends to open their eyes, to see the burning bush, to become more attentive to God's promise to abide with Israel in the land, and that God is keeping God's promise, no matter how awful the outward circumstances. This is not a call toward quiescence--meditate and everything else will go away. Instead, it is a call to see more deeply, past the immediate sin, injustice, trials, and evils of human life to the profound reality of love and compassion upon which everything else truly rests: The love of God and neighbor. If we can see, experience, and grasp that the active force of love is at work in the world now, our fear recedes, our hatreds melt, our willingness to murder and kill and seek revenge flows away with the tide, and we can recognize that in the midst of all things--even in the worst oppression--God is with us. Through our delusions of domination, the clarity of grace, mercy, and justice make themselves known to us. And that transforms fear into compassion, giving us the power to walk in the way of love God intended.

In a very real way, the Spirit was upon Jesus. But it was also upon his friends and neighbors, too. For Jesus was one of them. And by emphasizing the word "today," Jesus transformed Isaiah's words, Isaiah's prophecy, into a powerful invitation for the whole community to act on behalf of God's justice. The text might have been read: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (and therefore also with you),

   because he has anointed us

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent us 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. 

Living in God's promise is not about yesterday. Nor is it about awaiting some distant Messiah and eternal life in the Kingdom of God. It is about NOW. This is a hard truth to hear and receive. Jesus' friends refused. They would rather stay mired in nostalgia and complain about the future. How great the prophets were! If only a savior would appear and get us out of this mess! 

But Jesus' sermon remains as clear and poignant and important and urgent as ever:

Today this promise has been fulfilled in your hearing--what we need is here. Today.