Primary text: Luke 4:14-21
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s a heck of a way to start a sermon. Especially when you’ve come back to your hometown, where the people “knew you when…” I’ve always wondered what else he had to say that day, since the people there started out nodding in agreement, but ended up running him out of town. There are probably lessons to be learned there…
But I digress. This is just one of several times we read about Jesus teaching in the synagogue. Like most Jews of his time, the synagogue would have been the place to find Jesus on the Sabbath. Synagogue worship likely started during the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first Temple.
Many Jewish scholars believe Ezekiel’s promise that God would provide a “sanctuary” for his people is a reference to these small groups that gathered in their homes during the exile to recall God’s covenant, his law, and the redemptive promises of the prophets.
The Greek word used for synagogue in the gospels means “assembly” and is used in place of the Hebrew word meaning “congregation” or “community of Israel.” Originally, it probably referred to the gathered people and over time came to refer to the place of assembly as well. Sort of like the way we use the word church.
So… when Jesus walked into the synagogue on that sabbath morning, he knew what to expect. The people would have begun by offering blessings to God. The congregation recited the Shema: “Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God, the Lord is one”. Assigned passages from The Torah scrolls were read, sometimes by as many as seven readers. Someone would then read a section from the prophets. After all the readings, a short sermon would be offered, often by the reader of the Torah or the prophets.
The pattern feels kind of familiar, doesn’t it? A call to worship, readings, teaching… Like those worshiping with Jesus in the synagogue that morning, we come to experience God and to give of ourselves in thanksgiving.
Because all of creation is God’s, we can encounter God in many places. Chances are you’re imagining someplace other than this room even now…
And yet… there is something about coming into a sanctuary that helps to open my heart and take my eyes off of myself. It is a holy place. The word sanctuary comes from the root sanctus – which means Holy. Set apart.
In Jewish Temple worship, only certain people could enter the Sanctum – the Holy of Holies. These priests were set apart; they followed specific rituals in order to prepare to be in the presence of God. Perhaps that is part of what I feel as we worship.
As we confess our sins corporately, and then as I silently review my own, my heart is surrendered anew to the work of Christ on the cross and rejoices in the resurrection – our shared victory of life over death. The rituals that require me to stand, speak and sing my love and thanksgiving for God’s grace. The peace that we pray for and offer to one another…
All of these remind me that this place is different; it is set apart; this sanctuary belongs to another realm.
The tradition of the sanctuary as a place of asylum and refuge comes from that very set-apartness. The authorities of earth had no jurisdiction within the walls of the sanctuary. The dangers of the rest of the world are not a factor within the sanctuary.
God is our refuge and strength… a present help in times of trouble. A shelter from the storm and the heat.
As Pastor Paul preached the last few weeks on the parable of banquet, he explored some of the ways we are tempted filter the guests at the table. And he’s talked of the way Jesus turned upside down the norms around status and wealth, not only in the way we are to treat others, but in our intentions.
I found myself meditating on the song Sanctuary— the one we sang last week:
Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.
I’ve known this song for years, have used it on retreats and taught it to kids at VBS. And all that time, I have thought of it as one of those “All about God & Me” songs. Get me ready for you, God… purify me and make me holy, so that I am fit to be a your dwelling place. Make me over so that I can be suitable for you.
That’s a pretty straightforward reading of the lyrics, really. But the Holy Spirit started bugging me and turning it over in my head. and suddenly that simple little word FOR took on another layer of meaning.
As Christ indwells and the Holy Spirit empowers, I AM a sanctuary in which God is present. But what if I am also meant to be a living sanctuary on God’s behalf?
Stick with me for a moment…
When Jesus was handed the scroll to read from Isaiah and chose that particular passage, he was calling the people’s attention to the work of the Messiah. And when the people gathered in the synagogue looked to him to begin teaching, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was essentially saying, “I am the one you’ve been waiting for. I am the annointed one, set apart and holy. I am the one who will bring freedom, healing, comfort and favor to those who have been oppressed, held captive, left hungry and blind. I am the one who will meet those needs in this physical world and in the spiritual realm, as I bring the power of forgiveness to bear on the burden of your sins, all in the name of the Lord.”
And that is what his ministry was all about.
Jesus did all those things as he observed the heart of the law, if not the letter. He was obedient to God and God alone, even in his death on the cross. And once his resurrection revealed the power of God, Jesus commissioned his disciples –all of them and all of us- to go and do likewise.
When we read Acts (the sequel to Luke’s gospel)- we see how the church grew from a handful of frightened believers into a movement of thousands of Christ-followers. And we can see how God used men and women alike to accomplish the work of birthing the church and the work of being the church.
Some preached, some healed people. Some traveled to tell others about God’s mercy. Others stayed put to care for the widows and orphans. Some sold their material goods to assure that everyone had enough. They lived as Christ taught, and sometimes they suffered as a result.
In the same way, as this congregation looks toward Advent and Christmas, the Spirit will be on the move, pouring out gifts, empowering this Body, and challenging every one of us afresh to be about the work of loving God with all our heart, soul and mind. And to be about the work of loving our neighbors… the ones you see regularly at work and at play, as well as the ones God will place in your path.
And we will need to work together on loving those neighbors who are here in this room today.
Because here’s the thing…
If not with our brothers and sisters in Christ, then where will we find sanctuary- a place of refuge from the dark realities of this world?
And where, if not among the people of God, will the weary find rest?
Where, if not here, will those who mourn find comfort?
Where, if not here, does the outcast find a home?
Where, if not here, can the overwhelmed find shelter from noise that masquerades as urgent information?
Who, if not forgiven sinners, will offer sanctuary to those who have been judged and shamed by the world?
Who, if not those Christ has healed, can offer a salve to those who are wounded?
God has a plan to transform this world, you know.
That’s why Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done and God’s Kingdom to come.
The crime report that makes up the bulk of our local newscasts every night…
The thousands of men and women who sleep outside in the heat, the rain and the cold…
The children who are kicked out by parents or who run away from abusive homes…
Are those God’s plan? No
The woman who suffers from depression, believing that she is not worthy of love?
The couple who must choose between paying for food, electricity and the prescriptions they need.
Is that God’s plan? No
The dogs left to starve in the streets or abandoned in foreclosed homes…
The lakes and rivers drying up so that lawns can be green and lush…
Are those God’s plan? No
The laws and ordinances that make poverty shameful at best, criminal at worst…
Is that God’s plan? No
No, my friends. No.
The truth is, WE are God’s plan.
We are the ones who bear the light of Christ out into the darkness that obscures the Kingdom of God here on Earth.
Because we are Christ’s embodiment in this age.
Together, we have ears to hear the hurtful slurs aimed at God’s beloved children, We have eyes to see the people who have been pushed to the edges. We are the hands that can soothe, lift up, and help bear the burden. We are the feet that march and the minds that dream. We have mouths that must no longer be silent, but instead cry out against injustice. We have arms to embrace the one others are afraid to touch.
And our hearts must beat as one with God’s love for the world. The same love that prepares us to worship and adore God prepares us to offer that same love and grace as a refuge for those whose hearts need sanctuary.