Today’s Gospel passage is usually called “the inauguration speech of Jesus.” After the temptation in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee and spoke in front of his hometown people in Nazareth. In his speech, Jesus announced the beginning of his ministry, the beginning of God’s new kingdom on earth. He delivered this speech on the Sabbath day at a local synagogue. It was the place he had been attending with his parents since he was a little boy. And on that day, he was in charge of preaching. He was not a rabbi, but a speaker called darshanim, like a lay speaker in our United Methodist Church.This speaker usually read from the scroll and made some comments on the verses.
So Jesus was a speaker, darshanim, on this particular day. A synagogue leader handed him the scroll. It was the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And Jesus found the place where the prophet says, “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 4:18). After he read this brief passage, Jesus rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and took his seat. It was a custom for a speaker to sit, rather than to stand. So as Jesus sat and everyone was looking at him in expectation of some commentary on this well-known old prophecy. Then, there comes the striking comment from Jesus, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today? Fulfilled? What does he mean?
Okay. Let’s look at the passage closely. The Bible passage that Jesus read was a very, very old prophecy, the one that dates back at least to the time of Isaiah, about 500 years before the time of Jesus. It was given as a promise to the people of Israel when they were helpless captives in Babylonia. And this promise was so famous that the audience of Jesus, the hometown Jewish people in Nazareth, certainly knew very well. For them, it’s like a dream, a very lofty and vague dream. Ever since the Babylonians held the Israelites captive, they have never been free. They have never become an independent nation again but only undergone great ordeals in history. And now the powerful Roman Empire rules over them. In this situation, there’s no way the promise to be fulfilled, the dream to really come true. But fulfilled today?
Considering that context, I, as a preacher, think Jesus could preach in different ways. He could direct people’s attention to the past history of Israel and the greatness of the prophecy, and encourage them to be faithful, like this: “In the past, our ancestors dreamed of a world of justice, freedom, and healing even under the oppression and suffering. They were faithful to the covenant that God made with Moses. So let us be faithful too.” Or he could empower people to hold a hope for the future, like this: “Along with Isaiah, we wait for the fulfillment of this glorious promise. We should believe that this word of God will be realized one day. So let us be hopeful.” But instead, what does Jesus say? His words don’t point to the past or to the future. He brings the audience attention to the present, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth who gathered at the synagogue must have been shocked and confused by this bold comment. And some of them must have got provoked and even angry at Jesus, this homeboy, gone way too far. “Is today the day? Is this year the year of the Lord’s favor? Is God’s kingdom beginning today? Because Jesus says so?” They would challenge him.
But again, Jesus affirms, not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today, the promise of God has been fulfilled. Why? Because Jesus himself has come to the world and fulfilled the dream of God for the world…today. And this is the truth not only for the people at the synagogue on that day but also for all of us in this sanctuary today. We believe, the Spirit of Jesus is upon us; he lives in our hearts and walks beside us. Then, today is the day that God fulfills God’s dream through this Jesus in us. Today is the day that Jesus brings the good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind through our hands and feet. Today is the opportune day that we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
These days, many churches live with nostalgia for the past glory and a fragile hope for the future. In the past, people were much more religious; in the past, every church was packed. In the future, the church will get better again; in the future, our children will return to the church. How about us as Christians? We sometimes say: in the past, I was confident in God’s love for me and felt blessed every day. Or we say, in the future, God will do something for me, and I will know God’s way for me someday. However, when our attention goes too far with the past and the future, our faith cannot take its root here and now. We think too conveniently, the past promises of God in the Bible will be fulfilled in the future. But then, when is our time to be part of God’s history? What does our faith in Jesus do here and now?
Let us stop wrapping ourselves with nostalgia for the past or vague hope for the future. I hope and pray that we ask ourselves whether we are afraid of struggling with the reality, the present condition of our life and our church, and whether we are trying to avoid God’s call to place ourselves in the middle of God’s work right here. Today, let us remember, through us, God wants to fulfill God’s dream for the world. Today is the day that the word of God is fulfilled. Today is the glorious day that we walk with Jesus on his path to the new life. Today is the day that we be in the ever active, ever loving, ever liberating presence of the Holy Spirit. Today, this day!
Do we believe in the God who is working in our hearts? Do we believe in the God who fulfills the promise here and now? Then make today count with your faith. Do you have people you want to forgive? Forgive them, today. Or do you want to be forgiven? Ask for forgiveness, today. Do you have someone who needs your prayer, care, phone call, or support? Reach out to them, today. Do you want to dedicate yourself to the mission of the church? Dedicate yourself, today. Do it today. Then, through you, the promise of God for the new life, for the new kingdom on earth will come true bit by bit starting from today.
Today is the day that the Lord has made. Today is the day that God’ dream has been fulfilled in our hearing, in our loving, and in our following. So, let us go now with the Spirit of the Lord and make today count with our hands and feet. And make it count with Jesus. Amen.
John Nolland, World Biblical Commentary, Volume 35-A, Luke 1:1-9:20, p 400.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding party in Cana of Galilee. This is his first public exposure after he called his disciples. So it’s a kind of inauguration event for his upcoming ministry. No doubt, it’s important. But what an weird way to make his debut! At a wedding party? I agree, it doesn’t have to be like a ribbon-cutting ceremony with a long speech and famous people around. I get it. But a wedding party doesn’t really look special enough to build up public enthusiasm and call people’s attention to his ministry. Moreover, what an odd miracle to mark the beginning! Turning water into wine? Giving more wine at the reception to party people? Well, if I were one of his disciples, I would be much worried about people misunderstanding him. They might say, there’s a miracle worker among us! But this miracle really doesn’t tell them who Jesus truly is and what his ministry is about.
Meanwhile, in the other Gospels, we can find some appropriate opening activities of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospel of Luke takes Jesus to a synagogue. There, Jesus proclaims that the promise of God for the new life has been fulfilled at his arrival. It’s such an impressive speech. How about Matthew and Mark? They tell us, Jesus preaches the good news around Galilee and heals many people with great compassion. Yes, these are proper things for Jesus to do as his first ministry. Then, why doesn’t John just tell us about these things? Why does he deliver us this particular story of Jesus about a wedding in Cana on top of all the other stories?
But, for sure, there is something that John wants us to know about Jesus more. And that something is the gift that Jesus brings to the world. In the story, “the good wine” symbolizes this gift. And this gift is the gift of God’s grace—the new life with joy and blessing. From the story, we can discover two special characteristics of this gift. First of all, this gift is free. The wedding reception was running out of wine. The servants and stewards were dismayed. But suddenly, Jesus provides them with the better wine for free. Just because they invited Jesus to the wedding, they were given this good wine for free. Here, John wants us to know the truth: to receive the gift of grace, what we need to do is just invite Jesus to our lives and accept him as our savior. Then we have the invaluable gift of grace that is even packaged with so many other gifts for our new life. The forgiveness of sins, the freedom from death, the assurance of salvation, the right to be called the children of God, and all the other spiritual gifts…all these are freely given unto us in Jesus.
The second characteristic of this gift is that this gift is abundant. The Gospel tells us that at the wedding, there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. And Jesus asked the servants to fill them up to the brim. That’s a lot of water. So Jesus turns all that water for the ritual purification into the good wine for the joyful banquet. Now, the wine overflows, and it’s available for many more people. Here, John also wants us to know another truth: Jesus gives us abundant grace that is sufficient for us to be restored and reconciled to God. So in Jesus Christ, we don’t need special rituals of purification to get close to God. The people who have Jesus in their heart can enjoy the fellowship with God having the wine of grace, the gift of joyful new life of great abundance. For this free and abundant gift of grace we receive in Jesus, we give thanks to God today and every day. Amen.
Tomorrow, we will commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. one more time. And while doing so, we will realize once more, there still is a long way to go until we see his dream finally come true in this world. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of the world being transformed into the kingdom of God. Especially in the last part of his “I Have a Dream” speech, he uses the words of the Prophet Isaiah to describe his hope for the kingdom. There are many definitions of this kingdom. But from today’s Gospel story, I think, we can imagine the kingdom of God as the kingdom of giving, where God’s gift of grace, like the good wine, overflows into everyone’s life freely and abundantly, where good news is given to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and compassion to the marginalized, where social system and law ensure everyone right and dignity, love and care, equality and opportunity without any discrimination. I know it’s too ideal; it may be just a dream.
Look around the world. Is it getting any closer to the kingdom of giving? Rather, is it going farther to the opposite direction and becoming the world of taking? Sadly, we still see endless wars, conflicts, violence, divisions, and hatred as people struggle to take more, take as much as they can. In this world of taking, even God-given rights are taken from some people. In this world of taking, even skin color, race, and gender are still the reason to take opportunity, dignity, and equality away from some people. In this world of taking, 1% of powerful people take 99% of wealth produced and all the others fight one another just to take more portion out of that 1%.
Yes, the kingdom of God looks too far away from us. That’s true. Yet, even in this world of taking, we should not lose our hope. We should not, because we have the free and abundant gift of grace in our lives; because we believe, this holy gift can change this life-taking world into the life-giving kingdom of God. So today, believing in Jesus means that we actively join forces to make this gift of grace available for more people, by sharing the good news of salvation, by witnessing freedom and forgiveness in Jesus, and by practicing the unconditional love. Even though the world is not even close to the world we dream of, we still have a reason for hope. And our hope comes in the name of Jesus who is the giver of the free and abundant gift of God’s grace.
Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream today…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Following his legacy, let us be hopeful and faithful in Jesus again and again and share the gift of grace more and more, so that one day, the kingdom of God shall come true in our world, and all flesh shall see the glory of God and enjoy the overflowing joy and blessings of new life in freedom and abundance. Amen.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year…through all those holiday seasons, I believe, many of you had a chance to have a family gathering, small or large. When our families get together, what do we usually do? First off, we eat. And what else? Yes, we talk. We share stories about recent events and things to catch up. Then, we also share some stories about the past. Good stories, bad stories, stories that make us laugh or cry… telling those stories, we get closer to one another weaving another common thread of family history.
A psychologist at Emory University did research on how healthy families counteract cultural forces that try to make families fall apart. He found that those families develop a shared family narrative. And while doing so, the family members, especially their children, grow a strong “intergenerational self” and a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.True, our family stories have such power to bind us together.
Whenever I visit my mother, I know, at some point, she would bring out old photo albums full of my childhood pictures and tell me the stories that I’ve heard more than a hundred times. I’m not particularly happy to hear those stories again and don’t like to see me as a naked baby in the pictures, but what can I do? Anyway, my mom’s golden globe for the best story goes to…the story of washing me. This story begins with a picture of me sitting in a red plastic tub with a colorful shower cap on my head. When I was little, my family lived in a slum where my father served poor families as a pastor. We had no hot water and no bathtub. So, to bathe me, my mom had to boil some water, mix it with cold water in the red tub, and move the tub into the room. It sounds unbelievably inconvenient, but she always says, that was her great joy and she was happy to see me clean and fresh after bath. Finishing the story, she never forgets adding her classic line to the story, “Oh, I want my baby back. Who is this guy next to me! Won’t you go back to that time?” Well…what can I say?
I know, it’s a simple story, but now I realize that this story is deeply rooted in me. Whenever I think of the story, I feel my mom’s love in a concrete way and the bond between me and my mom shaping my life. I think, if I would have a child in the future and bathe him or her in the evening, I would understand more about my mom’s experience. And I am so sure that I would tell the same story I heard from my mom to my child… someday. Yes, just like this, our family stories bind us together, and moreover, they continue in our lives from generation to generation.
Today we are celebrating Baptism of the Lord Sunday. We will have our Amelia baptized, and after that, we will renew our baptismal covenant with grateful hearts. But here’s one question. What do we do in baptism? We know, by the baptism of water and the Spirit, we are incorporated into the church, the Body of Christ; we enter into Christian faith and the journey of discipleship. But definitely, there’s more than that. What’s that? Today, I hope we don’t forget: through baptism, we come to have a story… the great story that binds us together in God’s love. Through baptism, we are born anew by the free gift of God and placed within this family called church.And we inherit a family story, in this case, the history of salvation narrated in the Bible. Yes, through baptism, we become part of this unfolding story of God’s grace. And this story doesn’t just remain as an old tale from the past, but it becomes our own story, the living and life-giving story that continues in our own lives, here and now.
This story is something truly bigger than us. This story begins with the creation when God created humans in God’s image, but humans failed to follow God. The story goes on to tell us that no matter what, this Creator God faithfully loved God’s people even when they were yet sinners. The Prophet Isaiah delivers the voice of this God today, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Then, the story reaches a milestone point when Jesus was baptized and revealed the way of new creation—the creation liberated from sin and death, the creation with the restored image of God. At the baptism of Jesus, there was a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Then, where does the story go from there? The story crosses borders and extends its scope through the ministry of the disciples. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they shared the good news, baptized people in the name of Jesus, and included them in God’s family. And finally, the story reaches its highlights in our very lives. In our beginnings, God created our life. And through our baptism, God initiated our new life in Christ. This way, the great story of creation and new creation becomes our story and continues in our very lives.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, through baptism, we become part of the unfolding story of God’s grace that binds us together. This story of God’s family clearly tells us who we are. It teaches us that we are created in the sacred image of God and with many blessings. This story tells us how much we are loved. It gives us faith in the unconditional love of Jesus and the assurance of salvation. This story tells us our purpose of life. It calls us to carry on the mission of the disciples: proclaim the good news, live out justice, and above all, love God and love our neighbor.
Today, at the baptism of Amelia, let us, as a church family, witness the moment that this amazing story now continues in her life. And let us bless her and pray for her together so that she can write her own great story of faith in the love of Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And today, as we renew our baptism, let us refresh our sense of belonging to the family of God and reaffirm our call to share this good story of salvation with others. May God be with all of us and bind us together as we remember our baptism and be thankful today. Amen.
Bruce Feiler, “The Stories That Bind Us” from New York Times, March 15, 2013 (accessed January 10th2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html).
Mark W. Stamm, The Meaning of Baptism in The United Methodist Church(Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church), p 4.
Emmanuel, God with us. The Prophet Isaiah foretold: the coming Messiah, the Savior, will be called by this name. And this name is very special because it reveals one important nature of God. What kind of nature is this? The name tells us, God is the one who wants to be with us; God is the one who seeks a reconciled relationship and a fellowship with us. Why? It’s because this God’s nature is love. We habitually hear and say, “God is love.” And I know, such phrase is too worn-out to our ears. But think about it. Before we found God, before we even knew God, God loved us first and wanted to be with us and walk beside us in our lives. This surely is good news for us. And this surely can be a meaning and reason for living. This might be why, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, “Best of it all is, God is with us.”
The Bible in many places testifies to this God who always comes to people first, when they are yet sinners and when they have no idea about God. The Bible tells us, God came to Abraham to make a covenant with him. God revealed Godself to Moses in the burning bush to save the Hebrews from slavery. God spoke to the prophets to turn the people of God back from their wrong ways. And finally, God came down to earth and was incarnated in Jesus. Why? It’s because God is love and the best expression of this love is to be with the beloved. So, the God of true love doesn’t only stay in a higher or lofty position to be adored. But this God doesn’t mind coming down to lowly places in our midst to be with us. This surely is good news for us.
Today, we are celebrating the very first Sunday of 2019, as Epiphany Sunday. The word “epiphany” means a revelation or manifestation of something divine. And for Christians, this epiphany is about Jesus and the day of his humble birth. On this day, the Magi, the three wise men, followed the starlight, traveled a long way to visit the baby Jesus, and finally, they witnessed the shimmering revelation of something divine in him. What would be that something these three wise men witnessed? It’s still a great mystery with full of wonder. But we do know one thing for sure. The baby Jesus in a manger manifested the heart of God for the world, the heart abundant in love. God loves us and wants to be with us, so God comes and dwells among us. As the Angel Gabriel announced, the name of Jesus is indeed, “Emmanuel, God with us.”
And the love manifested in Jesus Christ is not an idealistic or philosophical love. It is a down-to-earth love, the love incarnate. To be with us, this God of love doesn’t mind taking a human form, having flesh and blood. God doesn’t mind coming to dwell in humble places among us. Jesus was born in a shabby and smelly stable. There was no crowd and no visit from any family or friends. However, right in this stable, which looks farthermost away from divine glory, Jesus manifested the humble love of God. Here, we know… even in the lowliest and loneliest places of our lives, God is with us. And God wants to be with us no matter where we are. This surely is good news for us.
The true love of God also doesn’t mind enduring any suffering and danger with us. In the story of the Gospel of Mathew, Jesus’ birth was immediately followed by a great threat and danger. All of them in the stable were overjoyed. But they needed to hide that joy because Herod, the king of Judea, looked for Jesus to kill him. His life was immediately set in a vulnerable and precarious situation. However, right in this situation, which looks farthermost away from divine blessing, Jesus manifested the audacious love of God. Here, we see, even when our circumstances are unstable and unfavorable, God is with us. And God wants to be with us no matter what we are going through. This surely is good news for us.
Finally, the true love of God doesn’t mind taking up the cross on our behalf. As we all know, Jesus’ life was not just a happy one. He was not the majority’s favorite at all. He was constantly accused by the Jewish authorities and excluded by his hometown people. Most of the time, he was a friend of the marginalized and the oppressed of the society. Although he healed numerous people and taught the gospel to many, at the moment when he was dying on the cross, there were only a handful of people beside him. Even his disciples betrayed him. However, right in the life, which seems farthermost away from divine favor, Jesus manifested the life-giving love of God. Jesus on the cross indeed perfected God’s love for us. Here, we find, even when our lives are tough, God is always with us and suffers with us. And God wants to be with us no matter who we are. This surely is good news for us.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this first Sunday of 2019, I hope we all keep this Epiphany faith and all the good news brought by Epiphany to us. God doesn’t want to be without us. No matter what, we are loved with the love that is humble, audacious, and life-giving. We surely know this truth because of Jesus. Whenever you feel weary, tired, or lonely through this year, I hope you remember Jesus again and remind yourself of this core Christian faith.
Today as we continue our worship service, we will have two meaningful rituals that will remind us of divine love. One is the anointing and the other is Holy Communion. Anointing may be not familiar to you. But in the Bible, anointing is a sign of blessing and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Prophets were anointed to proclaim God’s word; priests were anointed to carry out their ministry; kings were anointed so they could rule; many people were anointed for healing and wholeness. So this anointing simply tells us, God is with us and God’s blessing rests on us. Holy Communion is much more familiar to us. Holy Communion is a sacrament that visibly manifests invisible grace of God. By sharing bread and wine, we remember the love of Jesus Christ who gives us all, even his body and blood on the cross for our salvation. Today, in anointing and in Holy Communion, I hope and pray that we may deeply feel the enduring presence of God’s love in our lives, and we may renew our faith in Jesus, so that we all can live out the call to ministry this new year and share his love that overcomes any suffering and injustice the world. Beloved, no matter what, God is with us. Hear this good news! And go, and tell to others in all the way you can, by all the means you can, and as long as ever you can. Amen.