First Presbyterian Church

of Hemet
First Words 
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21 
 
Two stories to begin:  
When our daughter was at the age when she spoke her first words I was at the Jewish temple with my wife. I don’t remember where our daughter was. The Presbyterian Church and the Jewish Temple had an annual exchange with a Friday night Shabbat service at the Temple and a Sunday morning service at the Presbyterian Church. The pastor would preach the sermon on Friday night, and the rabbi would preach the sermon on Sunday morning. (It all started with a fire in the Jewish temple and the Presbyterians opened their Sanctuary and classrooms to the Jews.) It was the social hour after the Shabbat service. I was talking to a mom from Temple Beth Israel. Somehow I allowed how we had a daughter who was close to her first words. I said something like “I think she said “Da-da” the other day. And then I allowed that maybe she said “ma-ma” before that. The Jewish women said something like, best leave that alone for the good of your marriage. I was chastened and warned, and we never settled what was our daughter’s first words.
 
The second story is from Germany. I was in my first job out of college as a young lieutenant in the Army artillery. We had just returned from a week to ten-day training exercise in Baumholder, West Germany. While on exercise, in which there was live fire an artillery round had gone off over the grocery story parking lot, and sprayed a bunch of civilians. Nobody was hurt. But those things are not supposed to happen and the exercise had been suspended until we could find out what went wrong. Nobody fessed up, not one of our three batteries of six howitzers that could have fired the round, not the fire direction center that had ordered the round to be sent downrange. 

So our Lieutenant Colonel commander got creative. He isolated the six gun battery that probably fired the round. Then he called each person in the chain of command into his office one at a time, from the Captain commander, to the lieutenant executive officer, to the lieutenant in the fire direction center to the sergeant in charge of the fire direction center. He asked them “what happened?” Finally, the sergeant cracked. He said something like, “sir, we didn’t put the fuse on the 95 pound bullet that we said we did. We put one that was sensitive to radar and the air defense radar detonated the round over the grocery store parking lot. We falsified the firing data once we realized the mistake we made.
 
So the colonel disciplined everyone in the chain of command. He wrote a letter in each of their personnel files. It effectively ended their careers. And then he called all the other officers in the next larger unit—there were about 20 of us into the war room. He closed the door. This was about 1981. He said “OK, so they messed up. The put a fuse on a round they weren’t supposed to. But their bigger offense was they lied about it. “This is the same as Watergate”, I remember him saying. If you make a mistake, fess up, and take your penalty. You could have heard a pin drop in that war room, and I learned my first word about professional ethics that I’ll never forget. 
Jesus returned to the town where he grew up. According to the Gospel According to Matthew Jesus had already moved the 40 miles from Nazareth to a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee called Capernaum. He had been baptized, tempted and begun to teach in Capernaum. He decided to go back to where it all started. Nazareth is a small town that is on the top of a cliff that overlooks the Valley of Megiddo, from where we get the name Armageddon. He chose to go to the synagogue for either their Friday evening or Saturday morning service. We heard how worship was first structured from Nehemiah. He was given the scroll which contained the prophet Isaiah in it. Presumably he got to pick the passage he wanted. He chose one that announced the kingdom of God, although this phrase is not used until the end of this fourth chapter.
 
For we middle class, Americans of different political stripes it was a strange choice. He says the Spirit, the Holy Spirit is upon him, a theme he makes a bigger deal of than any of the other three Evangelists. There are four infinitives—“to” words: to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It sounds political to our ear, but remember Mary in Luke rejoiced that “he has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty.” 

I’ve been helped in this distrust we have of Jesus getting too political by a part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States history. Just before the Civil War the Presbyterians in the United States divided into the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. (The names are close but they had separate presbyteries and General Assemblies for 120 years.) The southern church as the Presbyterian Church US was called articulated something they called “the spirituality of the church.” They said the issue was theology but really it was about slavery. The southern Presbyterians didn’t like the abolitionist strain in parts of the church. The southerners thought Presbyterians should stay out of politics, and slavery was very political.
 
In part they had good biblical warrant. Didn’t Jesus tell Pilate “my kingdom is not of this world?” Immediately after Jesus read the prophet Isaiah he corrects the popular misconception that Jews were the special people of God. Jesus is acclaimed prior to picking this passage. They want to throw him off the cliff that Nazareth sits on after he preaches. So the spirituality of the church has some basis in fact.
 
But Jesus chose a passage that conflates poverty, incarceration, healing and the vague term of oppression with the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus did not believe in the spirituality of the kingdom. He thought it was good news to everyone, especially the downtrodden. Next week we’ll hear part 2 of his first recorded sermon. But for now, we focus only on how he began.
 
It’s common place but important to see how Jesus quoted what we call the Old Testament. He felt free to quote it selectively. Jesus left out the next to last line of this prophecy from Isaiah. (I wonder if the people in Nazareth noticed?) He pointedly left out “to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God” and “to comfort those who mourn” although later he would say “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Jesus chose the passage that would announce his program and God’s program for the next season of his life.
 
I sometimes think we are so concerned to make Jesus the son of God that we forget he was also the son of man. That is, he was fully human. I believe he was the only fully human person who ever lived. He did not divide the sacred from the secular. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. In his last Thursday reflection he says, “Humanity now needs a Jesus who is historical, relevant for real life, physical and concrete, like we are. A Jesus we can imitate in practical ways and who sets the bar for what it means to be fully human.”
 
That’s why we spend so much time with the Gospels. That’s why we follow Jesus’ life year after year. Because we believe Jesus got it right.
 
I had a teacher in college who waited until the end of his career to write a book on the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus. Gerry was a Bible Institute of Los Angeles, BIOLA grad, and received his Ph.D. from the very rigorous University of Chicago. He mostly taught New Testament Greek. He waited until the end his career to publish about the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus because he knew for a conservative audience, or at least the faculty and trustees of Wheaton College, suggesting that Jesus had a measure of the Holy Spirit like we are capable of would ruffle feathers. Wasn’t Jesus the Son of God? Didn’t that make his special? Gerry was able to hold the paradox that Jesus was every bit like us, and wholly other. To follow him we haven’t to hold on to the part of the Bible that says “he was tempted as we are” more than “and yet without sin.”
 
Jesus was giving us his life verse as he goes back to his roots and chooses a passage to preach on. Just like Jesus, you and I have to pick a verse that says what we’re about. Opening eyes of the blind? Letting the oppressed go free, speaking good news to the poor? What a mission statement! In light of the world’s needs, it was an impossible task. But the Spirit is on him, and has anointed him. The voice he heard at baptism is telling him to do even more. He heard at baptism that we was loved. Now he hears that he’s got work to do.
 
The big word for it is vocation. In Spanish that’s voca for voice. The other word in Spanish is boca, for mouth. As my friend who was a native of Spain told me in life it’s always voca or boca, the voice or the mouth. Living by the voice or living by what puts bread on the table. Jesus decided he could do both. He did not live a double life. He combined what was secular with what was sacred. He believed God would take care of his physical needs if he healed, set prisoners free and looked out for the downtrodden

One of my real learnings this last week is what people need who get bad news from their doctor is not advice, or knowledge or food. They need a quiet presence. They need someone who takes notes while they are talking to the doctor and nurse. You and I get to participate in this mysterious reality called the kingdom of God every time we make a friend, go with that friend to a doctor’s appointment, listen to their hopes and dreams even when disappointed. The most helpful medicine is for most of us is a listening ear. Jesus learned to listen to the Holy Spirit. He knew he was loved from his baptism, and he knew it was time to move away from home. But he came back home to announce that he had a job to do. It’s ours, too.
 
Oh, and our daughter’s first words? I’m going with “Da-Da.”