Power for Justice

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 10, 2016)

If you would, take out the sheet that you received when you came in.

There’s a question and some space to respond: What is the gospel, the good news? What is it that Jesus brings to us?

Last week, we talked about Christmas being the celebration of Jesus as fully human, God in the flesh entering our world to live with us. And we talked about Epiphany being the celebration of Jesus as fully God, the revelation of the power and majesty of the Creator. Both are true about Jesus, something the church has believed for two thousand years.

What does that mean for us? How does that affect us? What does the good news of God becoming human actually mean for you and me? Even for those of us who have followed Jesus for a long time, it isn’t easy to sum that up well. I want to invite us to continue listening to God, like an extension of open worship. Take a minute or two and try to write or draw how you would describe the good news.

You can keep thinking and writing and drawing as I move forward. 

The reality is that around the world and through time and across different denominations, different groups emphasize different parts of the good news of God. In my opinion, this is because God’s good news is SO big and all-encompassing, we have a difficult time holding on to all of it. As we think about it, as we share it, as we live it, we end up narrowing it as we try to sum up something far too big to grasp.

Many times, that’s just fine and really practical. For instance, when young children are wrestling with guilt, they do not need to hear all of the ramifications of reconciliation that come from the crucifixion. This is not hypothetical. I feel badly for some of the long, drawn out answers my seminary training caused when my kids were preschoolers!

But sometimes, this natural narrowing of God’s good news can be detrimental. It can cause us to neglect important aspects of God’s work in the world. It can cause us to look with suspicion on brothers and sisters in Christ’s family who use different language or emphasize different aspects of God’s work.

And, as in the story I’m about to tell you, sometimes it can turn you into an arrogant jerk.

I was convinced at the age of 17 that I knew exactly what “the” correct Christian belief was. My senior year in high school, this led to some conflict with one of my teachers. At the time, I thought I was being “persecuted” for my faith…looking back, I realize I was getting what I deserved for thinking my narrow understanding of things was better than anyone else’s.

During the fall of my senior year we were going through a comparative religions unit in my high school humanities class, and after a week on Christianity’s beliefs, I stayed after class to straighten my teacher out. I don’t remember exactly what I was all in a huff about, but I knew he wasn’t teaching Christianity right. And I actually said to this teacher with decades of experience, this teacher who at the time was one of only a few teachers in the state accredited to teach high school students for college credit…I said, “How can I trust you to teach me about Islam and Hinduism if I know you’re teaching Christianity wrong?”

I was so convinced that after two thousand years, I, 17 year old Gregg, had synthesized all the arguments of church councils and reformation and counter reformation and multiplying denominations, I had figured out exactly what God intended! And Mr. Walker was teaching it wrong!

The truth was, at the time my vision of God’s good news was far too narrow. It centered around personal salvation, forgiveness for my sins. That is a wonderful part of what God brings to us! But there is so, so much more.

Turn with me to Isaiah 61.

This is a beautiful part of the bible, written long before Jesus was born. Yet it deserves serious consideration by us as we try and define what the Christian message is, because Jesus himself used this part of the bible to define what he was about at the very beginning of his ministry. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus goes to the synagogue for worship, and these verses end up being an announcement of the start of his public ministry. He’s asked to read, and he grabs the scroll of Isaiah, and opens it right to this passage. Listen to Isaiah 61:1-4.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion–
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called mighty oaks,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations. (TNIV, Isaiah 61:1-4)

There’s no missing what Jesus intends by reading this. He is claiming to be God’s anointed one. Jesus is fulfilling this specific longing that the Jews have had for hundreds of years. In many ways, it’s as if I handed Jesus this paper we all were given as we came in, and as he looked at this question about what is the good news of God, he answered it with Isaiah 61.

God’s good news is the healing of our broken sadness and grief, it is freedom from all things that hold us captive. God’s good news is an announcement and proclamation of God’s favor, not condemnation. God’s “vengeance” in verse 2, scholars tell us, is not at all personal revenge. It is God coming against all injustice in the world and using God’s power to right the wrongs with justice.

Then there are these great exchanges, these deals, these swaps. We take all of our junk: our ashes of failed hopes, our mourning over the griefs and wrongs in the world, our despair and lack of hope…we take all of those things, and God’s good news is that all of those are taken and replaced; replaced with a crown of beauty and the oil of joy and a garment of praise.

And then come images of long-lasting stability: mighty oak trees, strong, tall…trees which take a long time to grow. This is the promise that there will be enough stability to grow into something strong and beautiful. Ancient ruins will be rebuilt, ruined cities long abandoned will be renewed.

This vision of God’s good news is beautiful!

It’s far less individual than we often make it. These words look at communities, groups of the broken and poor, and speak words of hope. It’s not that you will be an oak tree…it’s that we all together will be mighty oaks. It’s not that you will be a rebuilt skyscraper…it’s that we will be renewed cities together, built together side by side.

It’s far more “now” than we often make it. There’s not a mention of heaven or eternal life here. Isaiah and Jesus are speaking good news and hope into this world, into the here and now. God’s good news here is not a sterile, clean slate, fresh start. It is God remaking and redeeming this very world, where there is poverty and captivity and injustice; this world with mourning and despair and ruined cities.

God’s work of freedom and comfort and beauty and joy comes here, comes now! God’s work that Jesus claims as his mission is justice work, restoration work, messy work, healing work in our broken, messed up world.

It’s beautiful! It’s far more all-encompassing than what 17 year old me was looking for in my teacher’s words.

It is also unsettling and disruptive to the status quo.

Isaiah 61, this mission that Jesus claims, is aimed most centrally at the poor and the prisoners. And to those for whom this world is working decently, who have a home and community and a job and freedom, this part of God’s news can be disruptive.

This week I started reading a biography of Joan of Arc, and one of the things I find helpful in this particular book’s approach is that the author starts the story before Joan enters the scene. She gives the reader a clear picture of what it was like to live in France in the 1400’s, and it isn’t a pretty picture. Nobility and Christianity were so tied together, that any time there was a movement like Isaiah 61…any time there was a movement to help the poor or give power to those seen as peasants, it was a huge threat to the ruling power of kings and queens and dukes. It was resisted.

In many ways, Christianity of the time had more than narrowed the good news. The good news had been transformed to a means of control over the very masses of people that Jesus came to bring freedom to.

When we think of ourselves as the ones who are receiving this good news, we celebrate its beauty.

But…when this good news gets extended to others, when we are reminded how disruptive this gospel of justice can be in this world, we can fear it. We can even negate it or work against it.

I see such beautiful signs of many in the church today recapturing the fullness of the gospel of Jesus. I see so many people wonderfully embracing this call to Christianity not as a means of social order or control, but as freedom, release…as a work of justice in an unjust world. I see young oak trees growing strong!

But of course there’s a danger of narrowing here, too. What happens when the good news of God gets narrowed to doing justice alone? What happens if we lose God’s redemptive work of forgiveness, healing, power and restoration in US as Christ followers?

Many people are seeing signs of “compassion fatigue” in some who have narrowed the good news of God to “us doing justice.”

The reality is, once we begin looking at injustice and oppression in the world, it is overwhelming. People’s capacity for doing horrible things seems too infinitely creative. Dave Donaldson writes, “…compassion fatigue sets in when we work and give … but begin to wonder why things don’t seem to be getting better. Eventually we can become callous and desensitized and no longer willing to hear another sad story”… we don’t feel our work is doing anything at all.

There are two ways I want to invite us to think about the antidote to this. First is the reminder that central to our faith is that Jesus is the one anointed for this work. God is the one who brings justice.

The second part of the antidote involves Isaiah 61 and some other parts of the bible. Another way to think about this is that even Jesus needed an anointing from God. Even Jesus needed to receive power to accomplish the mission placed before him. Why wouldn’t we need an anointing, why wouldn’t we need to receive power as well?

Look at Isaiah 61:1.

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me.” The heart of Jesus’ power is God’s Spirit, God’s anointing. Jesus is like many in the long line of prophets: they receive God’s Spirit, there is an anointing that gives power. The power of Christianity’s good news is that you and I can receive that anointing and God’s Spirit as well.

Turn with me to Luke 3:15-16.

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (TNIV, Luke 3:15-16)

These are challenging words, but there is something incredibly hopeful and powerful in John the Baptist’s words. It’s not just that Jesus is the anointed one, Jesus is going to share it. And it will come with power, with fire. We’re not left to save the world on our own! This is the part of the good news that fights compassion fatigue.

Turn with me to Acts 8. This is a confusing incident in the life of the early church. I don’t fully understand it, but I think it has something helpful to say to us. 

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (TNIV, Acts 8:14-17)

The hardest part of this incident is that for some people it causes fear that they have missed out on something. I wish I could avoid that, while at the same time acknowledging that it is possible to believe in Jesus, or to commit our lives to the things Jesus cares about, but not experience the power of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.

With that realization, I think it’s helpful to focus on the positive: in those times when we are overwhelmed by the pain and injustice of the world, whenever we are feeling discouraged or powerless or not up to the task, there is always this reminder that we can receive from God the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, like in Acts, it comes in a fresh way when someone else in the body of Christ prays for it. Sometimes, like with Jesus at his baptism, it comes in an intimate experience with God. There are many ways it looks, many ways it happens; but one of the keys to avoiding compassion fatigue is asking for the Holy Spirit’s power and presence in our lives.

I don’t believe the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or the power of God in our lives has to look a particular way. Some people teach that speaking in tongues or something else is always the “sign”, and I don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes it’s being out in creation where God gives a transforming renewal of presence and power in our lives. Sometimes it’s through confession and experiencing a real sense of forgiveness. Sometimes it’s being bone tired while serving someone, and feeling a renewal of energy that is not your own.

The essential piece I want to communicate is this: our view of the good news of God is best when we remember God’s promise to live in us, to empower us, to transform us by the Holy Spirit.

This is the hope Paul writes about, when he says we are given the Holy Spirit as a deposit, something to experience now, which also guarantees the fullness that will come. This is the hope in 2 Corinthians 4: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

The good news of God is far more than my own personal salvation; it is a radical move of justice in a broken world that needs renewed. The good news of God is more than right beliefs or good actions for justice; it is God’s power living in us, renewing us, changing us, directing us, and giving us power to live rightly in this world.

We need God’s work of transformation in us. We need God’s Spirit to empower our service in the world. May you and I broaden and stretch our view of the good news. May God’s Spirit baptize us with fire!

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