The Beginning (Sunday January 27, 2019)
Luke 4: 13-21
Last week we looked at the wedding in Cana. The wedding and Cana was arguably the first act, the first sign, of Jesus’s ministry: the first sign that Jesus was something more than a carpenter from Nazareth. But if you remember, in that moment Jesus said that he would not act in that place because his time had not yet come. There’s an argument over what his “time” meant, but my personal side is that he simply did not want the wedding at Cana, and making wine at the wedding at Cana, to be his first act of ministry; that his hour was his whole ministry, and he had planned out at the very least how he was going to start. And that didn’t involve making wine at a wedding in Cana.
And here in these verses we see what he really wanted his first act of ministry to be. So what is the first act of Jesus in ministry? Well, you can make an argument that his first act of ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Luke is to go into the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, and open up the scroll of Isaiah and read it from there, and to announce this good news. By reading what he does in the synagogue here, he is calling his shot; he standing at the plate and pointing to centerfield calling his shot, and saying what he’s going to do. He outlines for us the rest of the ministry. There’s a pretty good case then that this is the introduction to it, but this is where he outlines for us the rest of the ministry.
There’s an argument though that this was his second act in ministry. That actually his first act in ministry was to head into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights and engage in a fast in the wilderness, during which time he was tempted by Satan. It certainly seems that this act of going into the wilderness was the Spirit’s will, because we were told in Scripture that the Spirit of God drove him into the wilderness to prepare and to fast. Maybe that was the first act in Jesus’ ministry.
Or maybe it was the second. There’s an argument to be made that Jesus is first act of ministry is actually to head to the Jordan River and be baptized by John: a moment where he submits himself to the common practice, and engages in the act that will for the rest the time be the act by which humans, and Jesus is fully human, enter into the church. And an act in which the divine in Jesus engages in submission, allowing himself to be served by John. You could make a good case for any of these three things to be the first act in Jesus’ ministry.
I believe that the first act of ministry is indeed the preaching that is done in Nazareth, that that’s when his ministry truly began. And that means that the other two events that I just talked about, the time in the wilderness and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River, are both things that Jesus engages in to prepare himself to begin ministry. That’s why does he do these things: to prepare himself for ministry. And what does he get from them? We see that in Scripture.
First we see Jesus is baptized. Baptism, like fasting shortly after, are what we would call “means of grace;” these are the acts by which God grants grace to us as humans. These two are not an exhaustive list, but these are ways that God has a tendency to show up in the world. We’re actually going to be looking at these during our Lenten study on Wednesday night. We will be engaging in a book that is looking at five such means of grace that we can engage in as a way of seeking after God. I would encourage you to come to that during Lent.
But here we see that Jesus, the human side of Jesus, does indeed receive Divine grace. At least Jesus reminds himself of his place in the world as he is forced to be subservient to John and allow John to control the events. And he remembers what it truly means to be the King of the world (the chiche I want to use is that he’s reminded he’s not the king of the world, or the center of the universe, but he kind of is). He’s reminded that to be the king of the world means to be the servant of all; and he’s reminded of that by being subservient to John.
And also we see a literal bestowing of grace, as the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove; the most literal bestowing of grace possible. Most of us do not receive a vision and a dove descending upon us when we’re baptized, but we still receive grace through this act as Jesus did. This happens not only when we’re the one being baptized, but also when we simply witness the event. Often times when pastors preach on this particular passage, on the baptism of Jesus, they will have a remembrance of baptism service; inviting everyone to remember that they are baptized, and remember that they have received this grace, and that they have engaged in this act that Jesus engaged in as well.
And we see throughout the scriptures that Jesus returns to these means of grace; returns to the well, seeking more, and more, and more Divine grace to bring him through his ministry. The most common ones he went to were prayer and fasting. We should engage in those as well. And Jesus has added another for us: the practice of communion. When we go to the well to experience Divine grace, we have the Spirit descend upon us once again. This prepares Jesus for what comes next. This prepares him to engage in ministry. It prepares us as well.
Jesus realizes he needs still more grace, and the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to engage in a fast for 40 days. I would encourage you not to fast from all food and water for 40 days; that’s not healthy for anybody. But this is what Jesus does. And he is seeking yet more Grace in order to face all that he will in ministry. And it strengthens him in spirit and in soul because it forces him to rely upon God for everything.
Fasting is the means of grace that I engage in the least. I suspect that’s probably true for all of you as well. I think I have actually experienced more baptisms that I have engaged in fasts, and that includes Lents. For most of us, we engage in one fast per year during the 40 days of Lent, and only half the time were successful at doing that fast for the entire 40 days, or we haven’t really given up enough to really force us to rely upon God a little bit more. But my intention in 2019 is to engage in more fasts. Small ones; just going from breakfast to dinner without snacking or lunch, to engage in prayer during my lunch hour instead, at periodic times throughout the year. I’d encourage you to join in engaging in a similar practice.
But if you do I will tell you there’s one more thing that we can learn from the passage that proceeds the one that was read, which is the passage of Jesus fasting in the wilderness. And what we can learn is that Satan comes in and tempts Jesus in his weakness. Jesus has made himself weaker in order to force himself to rely upon God and thereby grow his spirit. And Satan comes and uses the fast against him. Because when Satan comes, the first temptation is to make bread. “You are hungry, Jesus, and you are Divine. Take that stone and turn it to bread. You can do that. And you can eat. Wouldn’t God want you to eat? What use will you be to God if you’re dead in the wilderness of starvation? Make bread Jesus.”
And, of course, God wants Jesus to eat very very soon after this, but the point of the fast was to rely upon God. If Jesus made that bread, then Jesus would not be relying upon God but upon himself. And that could have had disastrous consequences: if Jesus learned to rely upon himself instead of God, just as it has for disastrous consequences for us. When we begin to turn to our own abilities instead of offering a prayer and asking for guidance and wisdom, we run into problems.
Now, Jesus survives the temptation, but it is worth noting that Satan used the fast to tempt Jesus. Satan will do that. The evil one that is present in this world will use the practices that bring us closer to God and attempt to use them to drive a wedge between us instead. When Satan comes, he doesn’t show up in red spandex with horns and a pitchfork; he shows up as the wander, wondering in the desert, telling you to make bread out of stone. If you want to defend against that, you must have a strong reason why you are engaging in the practice. Do not simply do a fast because pastor said so. Know why you are doing what you are doing, and know what you are expecting to get from it. Then you have a strong defense to prevent it from being turned against you. That’s why were engaging in a study. But do engage in means of grace. Do seek after God.
Jesus fends Satan off by trusting in God, trusting in the Spirit that descended upon him in baptism, and trusting in the Scriptures. He responds to Satan all three times by quoting scripture. And it is notable that not only does Satan use the fast in the first temptation, but in the third one Satan uses scripture to tempt him. But Jesus has been in a constant prayerful attitude and is not confused or caught off guard, and he is able to survive it too.
Of course this is preparing him for his ministry because he will face similar temptations throughout his ministry, even from his own disciples and his own neighbors who he grew up with. The people of Nazareth, in just a few short days, will tempt him to just say the things they want to hear because it will be safer for him that way; instead of saying what God wants him to preach. His own disciples will tell him that he doesn’t know what the Messiah is supposed to do; that he should gather up a military force and drive the Romans out of Jerusalem instead of submitting and going to the cross. If he is unable to face these temptations, then he will not be able to succeed in the ministry that God has for him. So he was driven into the wilderness to prepare for ministry; as every human must prepare for the ministry God has for them.
Jesus‘s ministry was to proclaim release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor. The year of the Lord‘s favor being a year of Jubilee. The year of Jubilee was the year that was supposed to happen every 50 years, during which time all debt would be forgiven, the slate would be wiped clean; any land that had been purchased or lost over the previous 50 years was to be returned it to its rightful owner. The year of Jubilee is the year when everything would be made right and restored to the way it was intended to be. Does that not sound like Jesus ministry to you? Those that had been altered, that have been left behind, that have been taken advantage of, that have been forced out, those who had made mistakes: this was good news to them. God had come to fight for them.
Of course, this makes him enemies immediately. It put him at odds with those who stand to lose if the year of Jubilee takes place. And certainly those people exist: they attempt to throw him off a cliff directly after this. But Jesus has been prepared for his ministry by the Spirit, he has developed the grace to see it through all the way to the cross, and the tomb, and the resurrection. And thank God for that!
What is the ministry that God is calling you to engage in? Over the next year, we’re going to be hoping to develop places, ways, and means by which you can engage in a ministry outside the church. These are ways in which you can be the Church in your community, not inside these walls; a fresh expression of faith into the 21st-century. This is the call that we as a conference are engaging in. What is the ministry that God is calling you to? What have you felt for so many years? What have you thought would be cool if we did it? This is your greenlight. But I want you to think also about how the Spirit is driving you to prepare to engage in that ministry. How is the Spirit calling you to move forward? Listen this week. And follow the driving of the Spirit to seek after God. Amen.