There’s this passage I really like in Dennis Covington’s book Salvation on Sand Mountain. Dennis is telling the story of the first time he attended a service at an Appalachian church known for Snake Handling. The service is at this run down shack of a building that holds maybe a dozen pews, and on that particular evening a welder named J.L. was filling the pulpit. He steps up to the podium and says, “I ain’t no preacher. I ain’t no assistant preacher either. I’m just trying to keep the church open.” J.L. thumbs through the Bible for a little while before finding a page he likes. “The text is gonna be John 3: 16,” he says. (You all know the verse: “For God so loved the world…”) So he reads the text and then looks up to deliver the sermon. He says, “God so loved the world.” And then he says: “Let us pray.”
Dennis Covington says that must have been the shortest sermon in history. I’m not sure who held the distinction previously, but Jesus of Nazareth must’ve been in the running. Listen to Jesus’ sermon for today, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
You’ll remember that last week we were with Jesus in Cana as he performed his first sign. As it turns out, the bartending portion of his ministry is pretty short lived. Now he’s preaching and teaching all around Galilee. Everyone is very impressed. Jesus is a fabulous, popular preacher. He’s received well everywhere he turns up. He’s a 1st century, Palestinian Billy Graham. And so after skirting around the region of Galilee for a while he shows up in his hometown of Galilee. The people at the Synagogue of his upbringing are delighted. The hometown hero is back and they finally get to hear what all of the hubbub is about.
Somebody hands Jesus the scroll and he starts reading from 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.”
This is Jesus’ statement of purpose. These are the talking points he would give to an ordination committee or pastoral search committee. Good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. Wonderful stuff. The synagogue loves this. These are the Messianic expectations that framed much of Jewish thought and practice. Jesus is preaching to the choir. But what about the sermon? Can the kid preach?
“Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It’s not quite the shortest sermon on record, but it’s in the running. Luke probably styled the sermon this way intentionally. It’s meant to be brief and dramatic. Jesus is that guy who gives a pithy, rousing speech and then drops the microphone to walk off stage while the crowd is still cheering. The scripture is fulfilled today.
This passage cuts straight to the essence of biblical hope. It’s a hope that we’ve grasped and yet still escapes us. Jesus is well aware that there are still people in captivity, still blind people waiting for sight, still oppressed peoples waiting to be set free. And yet: “Today the scripture has been fulfilled.” In some sense the Kingdom of God is here, but it hasn’t arrived in its fullness. At the divinity school the catch phrase for this paradox of hope is “already/not yet.” And our own congregant Professor Buttrick names the character of biblical hope as “now and someday.” Biblical hope is difficult to grasp. It’s here and it’s somewhere else. Our hope is already and not yet; now and someday.
It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? “Today the scripture has been fulfilled.” Jesus wants us to know that the Kingdom of God isn’t a far-off, completely unreachable possibility. God’s reign is, in some sense, already fulfilled. This is where faith gets difficult, because I don’t think a “now and someday” hope comes naturally. If I were in it for the commission I’d probably rather be a salesman peddling hell-in-a-handbasket cynicism. It’s easier. In a world where “bleeding heart” is used as a term of derision and callousness is considered a virtue, cynicism is easier than hope. I was deeply saddened to read Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone from a while back. The environmental cause in particular can seem like a losing effort. McKibben writes that we’ve already extracted more fossil fuels than anyone thinks we can safely burn, and still we go on extracting and burning. And it’s in this world that is just begging for a cynical response that Jesus says “Today the scripture has been fulfilled.” So we’re tempted to really lean into the “not yet” when we proclaim “already and not yet.” It’s hard to believe.
Yet this is our faith and hope, fulfilled today in your hearing: Good news to the poor. Freedom from oppression. Release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind. And it’s happening as we speak. In, around, and among us. Today. The passage seems to indicate that if the promise of the Kingdom is going unfulfilled, it might have something to do with our own faulty hearing. One of the reasons that it’s so hard to hear the good news is that we oftentimes decide in advance that it’s not for us. Take me for example. I’m a white guy living in the United States. And I go to Vanderbilt. I would be seriously stretching my credibility if I claimed to be poor or oppressed. Oh, and I have 20/20 vision, so there goes the whole “recovery of sight to the blind” angle, too. But still, the year of the Lord’s favor means good news for everyone. Jesus’ words are for whoever’s willing to hear them.
Try to re-hear that bit about “recovery of sight to the blind.” Did you hear it as a literal statement? Well, that’s part of it. But like much of scripture, this saying has a meaning that stretches beyond the literal. The church certainly proclaimed that Jesus could restore sight to blind people, but miracle workers are a dime-a-dozen in the ancient world. The more important meaning of “recovery of sight to the blind” looks back to the prophetic literature. In Isaiah, “recovery of sight to the blind was closely associated with the prophetic vision of the fulfillment of God’s promises.” (New Interpreters Bible) To regain sight means to find a vision. So when we’re tempted to despair we ought to bear in mind that it is our ability to imagine something beyond the present reality that keeps us from cynicism and spiritual death. Remember the old Proverb, “the people perish for lack of a vision.” The hope that brings to fruition God’s new social order as a present reality is visionary. Hope is seen most clearly in the realm of the prophetic imagination.
Today, if we’re listening correctly, the scriptures are fulfilled in our hearing. It’s a short message, a simple message, but it asks a lot of us. Jesus says the Kingdom is here. The world is broken, but the Kingdom is here. Our hope is now and someday; already and not yet. God is restoring our vision of something better. We are learning to imagine the world made anew and we are starting to see God. I love this passage from Russell Gordon Smith’s Fugitive Papers:
“On the seventh day, therefore, God could not rest. In the morning and the evening He busied Himself with terrible and beautiful concoctions and in the twilight of the seventh day He finished that which is of more import than the beasts of the earth and the fish of the sea and the lights of the firmament. And he called it Imagination because it was made in His own image; and those unto whom it is given shall see God.”