Scripture: Luke 4:14-21
We are spending these last three weeks of September focusing on our mission as Arlington Temple, taking our mission statement piece by piece.
Last week we started with a welcoming community called by Christ, and we talked about how to be the church means to be called out of the world and set apart from it, while also acknowledging that everyone who comes in those doors to form part of this community is just as welcomed and called by Christ as we are. Today is part two: empowered by the Holy Spirit.
As soon as I began to think about preaching on part two, here, I wondered if we had made a mistake. Was it silly to say that it is our mission to be empowered by the Holy Spirit? If the Holy Spirit is doing the empowering, then how is that our mission? Maybe it’s better to say that the Holy Spirit’s mission is to empower us. Then again, who are we to define the Holy Spirit’s mission? The Holy Spirit can do what she wants.
I eventually changed my mind, though. I don’t actually think it’s silly to say that our mission is to be a community of people who are collectively and individually empowered by the Holy Spirit. What we were getting at there, I’m pretty sure, is a recognition that we aren’t here gathered as a community just to do our own thing the best we can. That if God truly has work for us, we are not going to be people who are dumb enough to try to do that work on our own, apart from the God who called us. Our mission is to be the kind of community that recognizes our need for God to not only show us what our job is but to help us carry it out – and a community that knows that with God’s help, we can.
So once I decided it wasn’t silly, I did have a couple of questions. First of all, if our mission is to be empowered, how do we get empowered? Again, that’s ultimately the Holy Spirit’s job, but what’s our part in that? And then – empowered for what?
We can find some answers to those questions by going back to Jesus in this passage we read from Luke today.
To set the scene a little, Jesus has thus far in the Gospel of Luke been baptized in the Jordan River and then headed out in the wilderness to duke it out with Satan for forty days. When that time is done, he returns – “in the power of the Spirit,” Luke says – to the region of Galilee, where he travels around to different synagogues. One day he is back in Nazareth, the small village in Galilee where he grew up, and he goes to the synagogue there, just as he always goes to the synagogue on Saturday mornings. There, any adult male is allowed to read Scripture and comment on it, though we are not told whether this particular Scripture passage was Jesus’ selection or part of the rotation; either way, when Jesus gets up to read, it’s from the scroll of Isaiah. Chapter 61, to be precise.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Jesus reads, 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, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We’re talking about mission statements? This is Jesus’ mission statement. This is the Scripture that, according to Luke, Jesus uses to frame his entire ministry. When he finishes, all eyes are on him. No one says a word. I imagine that they probably knew, somehow, that what they had heard was more than just another Scripture reading.
When Jesus speaks, he confirms what they already know: “Today,” he says, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Even Jesus begins his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. Where does that power come from? Well, he’s Jesus, Son of God; he’s part of the Trinity, so there’s a pretty strong connection, right there, but human Jesus also needs that connection made explicit. When Jesus is baptized, we are told that the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and there’s something to that – that every baptized person, by virtue of our inclusion in the Body of Christ, has already been given the power of the Holy Spirit to go out and be in ministry, to do God’s work.
But I suspect that the church universal would be a very different thing if all any of us needed was a one-time empowerment, here, like a steroid injection. That power of the Spirit has to be taken seriously, revisited, renewed, even contended with. The first thing that happens after Jesus’ baptism is that the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. See – the Holy Spirit isn’t always a gentle dove; sometimes she’s a force to literally be reckoned with. There, in the wilderness, Jesus spends time in the presence of God away from the distractions of human society, he fasts and prays, he has it out with Satan, he reckons with his own temptations and vulnerabilities, and when he returns to Galilee, it is still, or once again, in the power of the Spirit.
So Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit in his baptism, but he is also empowered by the Spirit through this time in the wilderness of prayer, discipline, and making room for the presence of God.
Like I said before, God can do what God wants. My Methodist theology professor in seminary used to tell us about Wesley’s belief in means of grace (tangible ways to receive God’s grace) by saying that if you want to catch the bus, you might be able to wave one down anywhere, but your best bet is to head to the bus stop – i.e. the places where you know you can find it. Likewise, it’s possible to meet and be empowered by the Holy Spirit anywhere – sitting at your desk, walking around town, hanging out with friends, traveling, at the gym – but if we are really seeking that empowerment, our best bet is to head to the wilderness.
It doesn’t have to be the real wilderness. I’m not even talking about something like finding God in nature, though we might, of course, do that. What I do mean is that if we want to be empowered by the Spirit, if our mission is to be empowered by the Spirit, we have to make room in our lives for the Spirit to move.
We have to sweep away the distractions. We have to spend time in prayer and listening for God’s voice. We have to let the Holy Spirit talk to us through the words of the Bible. We have to go to those literal or metaphorical places where we know God’s Spirit is at work.
Where are those places for you?
Maybe, even – we have to ask for it. Holy Spirit, empower me.
Don’t forget, though, that our mission is not just to be individual people empowered by the Holy Spirit but a community empowered by the Holy Spirit. It means something different, I think, for the Holy Spirit to be working within us and working among us. Both are necessary, both are good: but let’s not get so stuck on our individual time with God that we forget to make space for the Spirit to move among us in community, as we worship together and take communion together and study the Bible together and pray together and serve together. Do you show up for worship each week expecting the Holy Spirit to move? (If not, what would it take for you to have that expectation?)
We go out to be God’s people in the world, but does our ministry in the world truly begin in prayer and in seeking the powerful presence of God?
Now that leads us into my second question – empowered for what?
For Jesus, the answer was explicit: The Spirit of the Lord was upon him to empower him to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, and freedom to the oppressed. This, we could say, was Jesus’ own very special way of being God’s person in the world.
I don’t know if we’re necessarily all called or anointed or empowered for all of the exact same things Jesus proclaimed here through the words of Isaiah. Though we should all aspire to be like Jesus, we are also not Jesus. But I think we can think broadly about how we, as followers of Jesus, make his mission our own as God’s people in the world. How does your life proclaim good news to the people who most need good news?
Being empowered by the Holy Spirit was not and is not an end in itself, just so that we feel good and holy about ourselves. The power that the Holy Spirit gives us is to drive us out in mission that is part of God’s bigger mission. The power that the Holy Spirit gives us is the power for our lives to become good news to others.
Is your life good news to someone who needs it?
Next week we’ll talk more about what it means to be God’s people in the world, though you have already heard a few very different examples. But what’s important to remember is that we aren’t God’s people in the world by just going out and doing whatever we think seems good, on our own.
We’re God’s people in the world by going out and going into the places God leads us, eyes and hearts open to the work God has for us, fueled by the power that God gives us to do things that we might not otherwise have been able to do. We can’t be good news on our own because even if we do, that’s not God’s good news.
So that’s why our job and our mission is to be not just a community of people who gathers together on Sunday, not just a community of people who sing some songs and study some old book, not even just a community of people who do good things in the world, because any group of people can do those things.
But we seek to be a community of God’s people, empowered by God’s Spirit to do God’s work.
That will be good news to the world around us.