This Blessed Day

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 3
January 23, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In matters of the spirit, we can get lost in the past or the future; it's only in the present that we encounter God.

You'd think the Son of God would have been better received by a hometown crowd, but Jesus' preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth is pretty much a bust.

There he is, fresh from his successful battle with the devil. The tempter threw everything he had at him, back there in the wilderness: offers of power, wealth and fame. Jesus resisted them all. At the end of the day, the tempter slunk off in shame, waiting for what Luke calls "an opportune time."1

Jesus visited a few other communities on his way back to Nazareth, and he was a sensation, but not so in his hometown.

His reputation has preceded him. In Nazareth, it ought to be "hometown boy makes good."

But no. Jesus' hometown debut is quite the opposite.

Maybe it is his sermon. It certainly doesn't sound like much, the way Luke tells the story. Jesus stands up in the synagogue, opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and begins to read: "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."

But then Jesus does the unexpected. He closes the scroll and takes his seat. This doesn't mean he's finished: sitting down was the preferred position for rabbis as they taught the scriptures. He starts his sermon by saying, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Now that's where the lectionary reading for today ends. The lectionary reserves the rest of Jesus' sermon and its outcome to next week's Gospel reading, but in that portion, we learn that the congregation turns against Jesus. But let's go with the lectionary's stopping point and consider Jesus' statement that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The trouble with "today"

It could be the messianic implications of Jesus' statement that eventually raises the crowd's hackles. But maybe it's the very first word Jesus uses: "Today."

"Today" can be a mighty threatening word we're talking about is the intrusion of God into our world - the Lord making some actual demands on us. It's easier to talk about God's action in the distant past or speculate about what God may do sometime in the future.

Either one of those options would be more comfortable for the people of Nazareth. No doubt, they loved their heritage. They took pride in who they were, and where they'd come from. They were God's chosen people, after all. Had been available in that day, some of these Nazarenes would have been downloading pages of birth and death records.

Someone who worked in the library of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, a place where people can research their family tree, tells of a man who came in and announced that he was finished with his family tree.

He pulled out an elegant document he'd purchased from some place, all hand-lettered with calligraphy pens and colored by hand. Moving backward through time, it listed one pair of Maryland ancestors after another, until the family line jumped the ocean, focusing on Europe. There it prospered for many more generations past, eventually making its way back to the Middle East. At some point, it intersected with the biblical genealogies, and - what do you know? - it ended up with Adam and Eve. The librarian didn't have the heart to tell the guy he'd blown a whole lot of money on junk genealogy.

For him, it was all about the past. He could have been sleeping in his car, for all he cared. As long as he had that certificate, verifying that he had the blood of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob running through his veins, he was a bona-fide V.I.P.!

The seductive lure of a proud history

Churches can be like that. Those that have a lot of history can sometimes become fixated on their glorious past. But congregations don't have to have a long history to engage in that sort of behavior. Sometimes it's a matter of remembering back just a generation or so. Remember when we had a full Sunday school, bursting at the seams? Remember when there were no soccer leagues that played on Sunday mornings, so everybody came to church? If we can figure out the right formula to bring those glory days back, everything will be fine!

Someone has said that "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." Memories that fixate on the glories of the past are highly selective. They cheerfully take the good and conveniently forget the bad.

No doubt there was some of that selective remembering going on in Nazareth when Jesus said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing"!

The seductive lure of a hopeful future

There's an equally seductive tendency, in matters of faith, to focus on the future. That, too, can be a way of escaping the demands of living in the present.

Charles Dickens created a famous character for his novel, David Copperfield : a man known as Mr. Micawber. The circumstances of his life are not all that wonderful - Micawber and his wife are always living hand to mouth - but the man is an eternal optimist. He has only the vaguest of plans for bettering his condition, and the plans he does have are focused on the singular conviction that, in his words, "Something will turn up."

Micawber's the sort of person who, when asked what sort of investments he has for the future, will cheerfully answer: "Lottery tickets!" As long as there's some possibility, however slight, of a financial windfall, that hope - without any present effort - is enough to sustain him.

The spiritual power of the God-soaked present

In the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus is fixated neither on the past nor on the future, but on the present. " Today this scripture is fulfilled." Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today.

Maybe it was Jesus' focus on the present that caused his neighbors to turn against him. His fellow Nazarenes weren't interested in seeing a religious revival that would raise hard questions like "What's God calling us to do in the here and now?"

Not long ago, some of us were making New Year's resolutions. But the track record for keeping New Year's resolutions is not great. A New Year's resolution is almost entirely future-oriented. It's very easy, shortly before that ball drops at Times Square, to promise ourselves "I'm going to lose weight," or "quit smoking" or "get my financial house in order." It's so easy to look to the future and enjoy a harmless little fantasy that declares, "This year, I'll actually do it!"

But what if New Year's resolutions weren't so future-oriented? Rather than resolving, "This year, I'm going to change," what if they said, " Right now I'm going to change"?

It takes that kind of determined focus on the present to bring about real change. Most resolutions that succeed have an element of the present in them, not just the future. They may begin life as New Year's resolutions, but they don't stay that way for long. On January 2nd, they transform themselves into "Today's resolution," and remain so for each day that follows.

Practicing the present of God

Perhaps what really scared that Nazareth congregation was the prospect that God was present and active in their midst. As Hebrews says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."2 It's fearful because God doesn't enter our lives just to become ornamental furniture, or to hang around in a symbolic way like the proverbial Bible on the coffee table. God enters our lives to transform them: and that is never easy, nor comfortable, nor instantaneous.

My hope for you is that you'll discover the sort of spiritual practice described by preacher and author Frederick Buechner, who defines the word "today" as follows: "It is a moment of light surrounded on all sides by darkness and oblivion. In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another just like it and there will never be another just like it again. It is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all."3

"This is the day that the LORD has made," says Psalm 118. "Let us rejoice and be glad in it."4 Or weep and be sad in it, if that's your portion for that particular day. The point is to see it for what it is, because it will be gone before you know it! Waste it, and it's not just time you're wasting. It's your life. Look the other way, and it may be that what you miss is the moment you've been waiting for.

All other days have either disappeared or not yet emerged. Today is the only day there is.

The greatest saints and spiritual sages are people who have mastered the knack of living intentionally in the present, with just that sort of awareness. Today, may you follow their example. Today, may you be able to raise the glad shout, "This is the day the LORD has made," and really, truly mean it!