January 24, 2016, Now You See Me – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: 120602_001
Sometimes the thing that you want most in the whole world, the thing that you’ve pinned all your hopes on – sometimes that is the last thing you expect will really happen. Someday, yes, of course, you are sure of that it will, or you hope you are sure. But today – well, you’d be completely shocked if it happened today.
I was watching on youtube recently a series of short videos that someone had put together, all of veterans arriving home to their wives and children. Someone was there to film them just as they walked up or came through the door; and the camera was mostly focused on the faces of the men or women or little children at the very moment when they realized that their Dad or their Mom or husband or wife was really there. It was pretty much impossible to watch without getting a little weepy, but it was also fascinating to see how everybody’s reaction was very much the same. For every single person there was that split second of disbelief, just the tiniest bit of hesitation, before absolute joy set in.
I have never had someone close to me in the military, but I can imagine that for all those families there wasn’t a day or hour or minute that they weren’t hoping for the safe return of the person that they loved. We’ve all had things in our lives that we hoped for – not just something we wanted because we thought it would be nice, but something we longed for in the deepest part of ourselves – the return of a loved one, or healing from an illness, or a calling for our life, or release from something that is holding us down. Not a day goes by that our heart isn’t set on that hope, whatever it might be, becoming reality. But haven’t you found that the longer you hope, the harder it is to expect that the reality will be today – so it happens that when our greatest hopes are finally realized, they take us by surprise.
When Jesus stood up in his hometown synagogue and chose a passage to read from the prophet Isaiah, he was calling forth a hope that was fixed in the heart of every Jewish man and woman and child, not just in Nazareth, but in all of Israel, for generation upon generation. It was the hope of a promise that had been made more than seven hundred years before Jesus held that scroll in his hands in Nazareth, when God had promised through the prophet Isaiah that he would send someone to save his people Israel from all their enemies.
If you read the book of Isaiah you’ll notice, first of all, that it’s really, really long – because it is made up of lots and lots of prophecies over the forty years that Isaiah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah’s time as prophet out-lasted the reigns of four different kings of Judah – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. And during all those years that Isaiah was prophesying to Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel, which had fallen into idolatry and turned away from God, was defeated and carried off into exile by the Assyrians. So many of the prophecies are warnings to Judah not to follow in the path of wayward Israel, but to remain faithful to God and to be a kingdom of justice and righteousness, and especially compassion for the poor and helpless.
But mixed in with all his warnings and indictments, again and again, Isaiah reassured God’s people of this promise: that he would never give up on them, but that he would send a special Person to them, someone who would deliver them from captivity, someone who would defeat their enemies and heal all their diseases and rule over them with lovingkindness. That was what the promise of the Messiah was all about.
I think it is hard for us, because we are modern people who mostly think in terms of our selves as isolated individuals whose lives are only connected to the people and circumstances around us right now. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as part of a community that transcends time and space. It’s hard for us to fully understand just how real the ancient hope of the Messiah was in the hearts of God’s chosen people, how after seven hundred years it was still a living hope. For century after century of invasion and exile and persecution, surrounded by enemies on all sides, the Jewish people held fast to their hope – that God would send his Messiah to set them free, and to execute justice for them at last. And even now, after many more centuries have passed, after persecution and war and holocaust, our Jewish brothers and sisters still hold that promise of God in their hearts.
So when Jesus began to read on that day in Nazareth, every single person in the synagogue knew that those verses were just part of the great Hope that runs like a golden thread all through Isaiah’s prophecies: the promise of the Messiah. Isaiah prophesied:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse – that was Jesse, who was the father of King David, who was the great-great-great-great-many times grandfather of Jesus. And Isaiah wrote:
a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. (from Is. 11)
And in another place Isaiah wrote:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (from Is. 42)
And we who know the true Messiah can’t help but recognize our Lord in these words that Isaiah wrote:
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind…
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (from Is. 52 and 53)
But on the day that we read about this morning, surrounded by the neighbors and friends who had known him from the time he was a tiny boy, Jesus opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read this part of the promise:
“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.”
And he rolled the scroll back up, and handed it to the attendant and he sat down to teach, to give the explanation. Every eye was on him; everybody was eager to hear what he was going to say, because they’d been hearing some pretty amazing rumors about their native son and all the things he had been doing, and they were ready to see and hear something amazing. What they weren’t ready to hear was the very thing Jesus said: “Today – today this Scripture, these words of Isaiah, have been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today. This is it, kids. The One whose coming you have been hoping for, you, and your father, and your grandfather, and his father, for farther back than you can imagine, time out of mind: he is here today. God’s long-awaited promise is fulfilled today, this very minute. All the waiting ends here. I. am. here.
It’s not hard to imagine the moment of silence that filled the synagogue when Jesus had spoken those words: the split second of disbelief, the hesitation, before their reaction. Next week we’re going to read what happened next, but today I want to put ourselves in that moment of hesitation and doubt, because we share the same hope, our lives depend on the same promise – that God will be with us, that he will never abandon us or forsake us. And even though we profess that he is here with us all the time, there are moments in our lives when our need is great, and God shows up in a powerful way. And in those times we all face that hesitation, that moment of doubt.
In one of the videos that I watched of the veterans coming home, it looked like it must have been Christmastime, and the mother had wrapped a huge box, and the Dad was hiding inside it, while his two little children unwrapped it. And when they got the box open and saw their father, they were absolutely silent for just a fraction of a second. You could tell they didn’t know what to do. The little girl took a step back just at first, hesitating. But after the briefest pause, the little boy flung himself on his father and clung to him, so tight.
That is the choice of faith. After that moment of doubt, the hesitation we all face, what do we choose? Do we step back in fear, refusing to believe that the good we hoped for has come at last? Or do we choose absolute joy, running into his arms, clinging with all our might. The people in the synagogue faced that choice. But we face it too.
The waiting for the Messiah is over. We know, in our heads at least, that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is with us at all times; his presence is with us every day. But it’s a challenge for us, just as it was a challenge for the people of Nazareth, to take hold of the truth that he is here with us today. God reveals himself to us – as we pray or as we walk through the woods, in the bread and wine that we share, in the face of an elderly homeless man or our new grandchild – and he takes us by surprise. And in that split second between doubt and joy we are all faced with the same choices as that little boy and girl who were surprised by the appearance of their Dad. We can step back, in doubt and fear – or we can fling ourselves into his arms and hold tight. Because his presence with us is the fulfillment of our every hope. And his coming is today.