January 23, 2022
Have any of y’all ever looked at one of those mid-century editions of magazines like Popular Science? There was an astounding level of optimism from the fifties about what would be possible in the next century or so. And it makes sense, because there were some amazing things that were just starting to happen in that decade that it seemed like the world was just going to get better and better, to the point that problems known in the fifties would be unimaginable by now. And while we haven’t quite matched those dreams, those midcentury hopes really captured the spirit of what we think when we think about the future.
I mean, many of us—either now or at some point in the past—have dreams about retirement. What could be if we reach a point where we can stop working and just do what we want to do? My dad was sustained by plans for the future in the last few years that he worked before retiring. And it’s not just looking forward to a distant future like retirement. Some people are sustained by looking forward to the weekend, or to the next summer break, or to whatever point in the future when we’ll get to do the things we want to do that we feel we can’t do right now.
That future hope is the backbone of a tremendous number of Christian songs. Just about every gospel song has the hoped-for reality of God’s future as the centerpiece of the song. “In the sweet by-and-by,” “Will the circle be unbroken,” “I’ll fly away,” all of those songs point us at the future when God will make all things new and everything that’s wrong now will be made right. Looking to the future God promises us has sustained so many people over the course of history, because whatever things looked like now, they could trust that they wouldn’t always be that way. Things would be made better in the end.
But that focus on the future also tends to make us assume that God won’t be doing those things in the present. Salvation is a future hope, not a present reality. Restored relationships, the poor getting the food and clothing they need, the end of war, the fulfillment of all people—all of that is assumed to be impossible now. And if it’s impossible now, the tendency is to assume we don’t need to do anything about it now. Wait for the end, when God will fix it all.
Which is why, when we’re paying attention, Jesus’s inaugural words are so jarring. This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing today. The promises Isaiah talked about are coming true today. The kingdom begins today. Jesus isn’t waiting for the sweet by-and-by to get started on God’s hoped-for future. He isn’t putting off justice because it seems impossible to be done. Instead, Jesus opens his earthly ministry with the proclamation that this isn’t some hoped-for future that God has promised, but a present reality that God is making. He points us to the words of Isaiah who talks about the oppressed being freed from every shackle, of the sick being cured of all ailments, of the year of God’s favor, the Jubilee, starting now. Today, this is being fulfilled.
And that kind of statement might seem frightening, honestly. Because we’ve been so used to how the world works, as unjust as it is, that the kind of radical change Jesus is suggesting feels dangerous. If we keep it in the abstract, it’s alright. If Isaiah’s words, even spoken by Jesus, are just flowery words, then we can keep them at arm’s length. But when letting the oppressed go free means everyone receives a living wage and incarceration isn’t the answer to society’s ills and a person’s zip code no longer determines their life span, that is disruptive, and scary. And when bringing sight to the blind means opening our eyes to the needs of our immigrant neighbor, or seeing the way almost everyone is three bad months away from homelessness, or that one in six kids in our county is food insecure, we can’t un-see it, and that’s worrying. And when the year of the Lord’s favor means cancelling debts and returning unjust wealth, that makes us nervous. But the thing is, this is the world Jesus comes to make in our midst. This is the world Jesus is making in our midst today.
Because there is evidence that this world Jesus says is showing up today is actually showing up. When the world came together behind the idea that the ownership of a human being is morally wrong and that it should be eradicated everywhere, we were enacting the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims in our hearing. Every time we have a coat drive because we recognize the need of kids to have warm clothing for the cold winter months, regardless of whether or not they “deserve” it, we are enacting the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims in our hearing. And when organizations like The Other Ones Foundation provides mobile shower trailers and breaks ground on basic housing for the homeless, we are seeing the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims in our hearing. And when we decide everyone deserves the dignity of enough food to eat, enough clothes to wear, and sufficient housing to protect them from the elements, we are seeing the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims in our hearing.
We don’t need to wait for the end to see Jesus making the world new. In fact, by Jesus’s own words he has no plans to wait to start making the world new! He’s already at work in and through faithful people who have heard his proclamation that the year of the Lord’s favor is here, today, and is being fulfilled now. He’s at work in you, when you work for justice for the oppressed and when you offer charity to the needy. He’s at work and he is inviting each and every one of us to be part of the reality he’s making, because the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing and the kingdom of God is at hand.
And if the kind of world Jesus promises us sounds impossible, like it’s something that could only happen in some far-off future, remember the lesson we learned last week. God does the impossible. God makes the impossible happen with us and through us. We are all called to take part in the work because Jesus has saved us for that exact purpose. We won’t finish the work—it’s been going on for 2,000 years and still hasn’t been finished—but we’re also not going to use that as an excuse not to do the work.
The future that we hope for is here, now, because Jesus is making it happen. Jesus is in our midst, leading us to bring justice that rights the wrongs of the world. Jesus is here and he is guiding us to make the kingdom of God known because that’s the reality that God calls us to be a part of. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us all to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Thanks be to God. Amen.