God is not a Realist: On Hope and Proclamation
There is something very spectacular about a beginning. Driving to work on the first day of a new job, hearing a candidate’s opening remarks at the start of a campaign, leaving home for freshmen year of college, watching construction begin on a long-awaited project, getting up to deliver your first sermon – these moments can be exciting, terrifying. Wonderful, hard.
Our readings for this week are overwhelmingly concerned with beginnings: in Ezra, the laying of the foundations for the second temple in Jerusalem; and in the Gospel of Luke, the first recorded sermon of Christ’s ministry.
Ezra’s story in particular does an excellent job capturing the emotional ambiguity that can so often surround moments of beginning, and the truth that, many times, a beginning does not stand alone but in the context of both excitement and disappointment, profound hope and bittersweet sadness. The combination of weeping and joyous shouts that follow the Judeans’ praise of God most likely feels familiar to those of us who have ever had to leave what is comfortable and lovely for a new opportunity, or come to terms with frustrated expectations.
Luke’s story, on the other hand, seems to keep things a bit more simple, at least emotionally. It’s impossible to know exactly what Jesus was feeling that Sabbath morning when he stood, filled with the Spirit, to read the prophet’s words and declare his brief but astonishing message, his first sermon – his beginning. He’d come to Galilee, we’re told, on the heels of a tortured sojourn in the desert. And since Jesus was human, I can’t help but think he must have been a little nervous, a little shaky, as he prepared himself to speak, recognizing the importance of this debut. But if he was, Luke doesn’t share that. Instead, we get a very plain, commanding sense of Christ’s behavior: he stood, he proclaimed, he sat, he taught.
Though Ezra and Luke approach the emotionality of the beginnings differently, both texts make clear the considerable importance of these first moments: both the second temple’s construction and Christ’s first recorded sermon are emphasized by the inclusion of public proclamations which reference scripture or prophecy. In Ezra, the Judeans harken back to the building of the first temple in the Chronicles with their praise of God: “for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel!” In Luke, Jesus recalls the famous words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.”
Reading these two texts side by side, it struck me that, though both events are concerned with the beginnings of a flurry of action and activity – the building of a temple, and the ministry of Jesus – what takes focus in the stories is what comes before: a speech, a proclamation of truth and promise.
In the Gospel especially, Christ’s Isaiah reading has to do with preparation, speech, and intention. “He has anointed me to bring good news,” says Christ – “to proclaim release,” “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” “Today this scripture has been fulfilled,” Jesus says, but of course it hasn’t – not yet, not fully. Christ will go on to do these things during his time on Earth and through his death and resurrection, but what has been fulfilled in this moment is not the actions, but the declaration. Jesus’ mission statement as described in Luke is concerned, in large part, with news: what news will be delivered, what will be proclaimed, and to whom.
In similar fashion, the Judeans in Ezra lay the foundations of the temple only after singing praises and giving thanks, only after proclaiming what, at the time, may have felt only partially true. During this temple’s construction, you see, the Judeans were still very much under threat from external powers, and their preparations for this new structure would surely have felt meek compared to what had gone into the building of Solomon’s. This new dwelling place of the Lord would demonstrate God’s goodness and enduring love, but that symbol to many would have felt a bit smaller, a bit less hopeful than what had come before. And yet still, the people join in their song: “the Lord is Good, for his steadfast love endures.”
Thinking about all this proclaiming, all this declaration of truths not-yet-seen, draws me to ask: what good is this? If there is still captivity, blindness, and poverty, why proclaim release, sight, and good news? Why do we set intentions and declare truths, especially when they sound impossible? When we’ve encountered disappointment and setbacks? When we know we won’t see our goals fully fulfilled, at least in our lifetimes? Is this really what it feels like to live in what Jesus calls the reign of God, the year of the Lord’s favor?
We continue to read Christ’s promises in his first sermon today, no closer to economic equality or fixing the problem of incarceration or oppression, but still believing that Jesus was anointed to help us fix our world. What role does proclamation play in our lives and our life as a Church as we set out to work for justice and peace? Why is the speech, and not just the action, important?
It’s a tough question, especially because we live in an era very much concerned with results and pragmatism. But for a moment, let’s step aside from the question of concrete goals and consider the importance of promise.
One thing proclamations and intentions can help us with is setting our course. Christ quotes Isaiah in his first sermon to let those around him know his intentions for his ministry: that he plans to and he will, in both abstract and physical ways, spread the word about grace, bring about healing, and break the bonds of oppression and captivity. Indeed, Jesus’ Isaiah quote, and proclamations in general, tell us not just what is true, but what will be true. Think of the Magnificat, Mary’s song that precedes even Christ’s birth and yet claims with confidence that already God’s mercy is present, that already the hungry have been filled, that already the humble have been exalted. In Ezra, the Judeans proclaim, vulnerable and still unsure, that the Lord’s steadfast love will endure forever – a statement in hope not necessarily yet shown, a statement that makes clear that they intend to continue to follow God’s path wherever it takes them. In contemporary Church life, our own proclamations allow us to make public our intentions and beliefs, and give us accountability in seeking to embody our own values and encouragement in working toward them. Our baptismal vows and covenant, for example, represent a proclamation of what we as Christians work to be, but often fall short of. These declarations are not everything, they are not our actions – but they help to clarify what we should be doing and what we hope to become.
Proclamations also remind us of how the Lord sees the world, and how that differs from the way we see it. At emotional and unsure beginnings, they remind us that, despite our often defeated or pessimistic perspectives, our God is not a “realist” who makes sensible goals God knows can be achieved quickly or easily. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ doesn’t start off small with his first sermon: instead, he goes all in, promising in the public eye that every power which oppresses and plagues and devalues human lives will be torn down through God. As humans, we are caught endlessly in the here and now, the reality of sin and deliverance – the sorrow/joy mentality of the Judeans, whooping and hollering, weeping and crying at the breaking of ground. But we are blessed with a God who sees the long story, and who proclaims release, and freedom, and grace – who promises that, even though we can’t see it yet, restoration is coming, and it is happening all around us. Like the Judeans who look to God’s temple as a sign of God’s presence, we often look for certain assurances that God is at work – miracles, progress we can see. But through our own and God’s proclamations and promises, we are reminded that God’s love endures, even when we don’t see what we expect to see, and even when God’s kingdom feels far off.
Finally, declarations express God’s faithfulness, which provides continuity to the past, present, and future of our human story. “For he is good,” promises Ezra; “For he has anointed me,” promises Luke: Christ and the Judeans and we, the Church, continue to repeat these proclamations because, despite everything, we know that God is still here, and that our timing and our vision isn’t a match for the enduring faithfulness of God. In our work – our important work of assisting God in building a world for the Spirit to dwell in, in breaking the bonds of oppression and feeding the hungry and declaring good news to the poor – these promises tell us: we must not become discouraged. We must begin with hope, and continue with hope, because God will declare that hope over us, day by day, until we come to God’s kingdom. Amen.