January 23, 2022, Hope (Briefly) Deferred, Luke 4:16-21 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

Once I watched a series of little heartwarming videos of veterans arriving home to their families. As the door was opened, or as they walked into the house, the camera focused on the face of the man or the woman or the little child at the exact moment when they realized that their husband or wife or Dad or Mom was really there. The videos were definitely intended to pull at your heartstrings, and they did. But besides that, it was also fascinating to see how all the reactions were pretty much the same. In every single little vignette, there was just a split second of disbelief, just the tiniest bit of hesitation, before absolute joy set in.

I think you could safely assume that for all those families not a day or an hour or a minute went by 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 in that way – not just something we wanted because we thought it would be nice, but a true hearts-desire, something we longed for in the deepest part of ourselves. Not a day goes by that our heart isn’t set on that hope, whatever it might be, becoming reality. But have you ever noticed that the longer you hope, the harder it is to expect that the reality will be today. That’s why it happens that when our greatest hopes are finally realized, even though we have been longing for them day and night, they so often take us by surprise. When the long-hoped-for event finally comes, we’re afraid to believe it, even if it’s standing right in front of us.

When Jesus stood up in his hometown synagogue and chose a passage to read from the prophet Isaiah, he was reading about a hope, an expectation that lived in the heart of every Jewish man and woman and child, not just in Nazareth, but in all of Israel – and not only in the first century, but for generations. Seven centuries before Jesus held that scroll in his hands in Nazareth on that Sabbath day, God had spoken his promise through Isaiah 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 to appreciate the full strength of that hope, 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 first and foremost as part of a whole people, a community that transcends time and space. It’s hard for us to fully comprehend just how real, and how persistent, the ancient hope of the Messiah was in the hearts of God’s chosen people. It might be hard for us to imagine 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 had 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, today, after many more centuries have passed, after persecution and war and the horror of the Holocaust, even today our Jewish brothers and sisters 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 talking about the great Hope that runs like a golden thread all through Isaiah’s prophecies: the hope of the Messiah. Isaiah had written:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
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…
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)

He wrote:
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)

And 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:

“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 rolled the scroll back up, and handed it to the attendant and he sat down to teach. Every eye in that synagogue 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 has 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 moment of disbelief, the hesitation, before their reaction. For one moment, probably, you could have heard a pin drop. Next week we’re going to read what happened after that moment, but today I want to put ourselves right in that moment, that split second of hesitation and doubt — because we share the same hope, our lives depend on the same promise – that God has really come – that he is with us – that he will never abandon us or forsake us. And even though we profess, by faith, that he is here with us all the time, there are moments in all our lives when we face that same kind of hesitation, when we, too, find ourselves in 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. The Mom had wrapped a huge box, and the Dad was hiding inside it, while his two children unwrapped it. And when the kids got the box open and saw their father, they were absolutely silent for just a fraction of a second. You could tell that for that one moment they didn’t know what to do. The little girl took a step back just at first, hesitating. But after just the briefest pause, the little boy flung himself on his father and clung to him, so tight.

That is the choice of faith. After our moments of doubt, after the hesitation we all face, what do we choose? Do we step back? Are we afraid to believe that the good we hoped for has come at last? Or do we choose joy, running into his arms, clinging with all our might? The people in the synagogue faced that choice. But we face it too.

We believe, as Christians, that the time of waiting for the Messiah is over. We know – in our heads at least, we know – that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is with us at all times. But it’s a real challenge for us, just as much as it was a challenge for the people in the synagogue at Nazareth, to trust that Jesus is truly here with us today. Doubt is just a part of living by faith – for every one of us. Doubt isn’t sin. Doubt isn’t failure or weakness. We all find ourselves suspended, from time to time, in that place between belief and unbelief. And in that place, we are faced with the same choice as that little boy and girl who were surprised by the sudden appearance of their Dad. We can step back in fear – or we can fling ourselves into the arms of God and hold tight. Because his Presence is the fulfillment of our every hope.

And his coming is always today. +

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