Scripture: Luke 4:14-21
Intro: Translation & Context
In case you need a reminder, the bible was not written in English—neither that of King Jimmy, nor that of your uncle Jimmy. It was written in ancient Hebrew and Greek (and some Aramaic), and even these ancient languages are quite distant from their modern counterparts. Some of you may recall encountering Beowulf in a high school English class and discovering that Old English might as well be a different language entirely—which, in some ways, it is. The same goes for these ancient versions of more modern languages.
All that means that the bible that most of us read on a daily (or occasional) basis has undergone translation in order to get it into a form that is accessible to us.
Translation is, of course, of great benefit in that it gets the bible into the hands of everyone who can read. But with translation comes interpretation—it simply cannot be helped. And here at the start of our scripture reading, I can’t help but think that the translators may have lost something important—or at least: they did not choose to make something important stand out.
You see, when Luke speaks of Jesus and the Spirit in the opening verse of our scripture lesson (slide with multiple translations), he builds on a movement in Jesus’ life that he has been underscoring since Jesus’ beginning.
At the onset of Jesus’ ministry, he has what we might call a Pentecost moment. In Luke’s second volume (which we call “The Acts of the Apostles”), Luke will talk about the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church. The Spirit rushed among them like “a violent wind” (Acts 2:2 NRSV), and “rested on each of them” (v.3). Luke then tells us that the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit” (v.4), and that everything that follows is because of this abiding presence of the Spirit.
Of course, Jesus told them before he left that with the presence of the Spirit comes power (Acts 1:8), and Acts tells the story of how this power is wielded by the early church to great effect (cf. Acts 8 & Simon, which we discussed the last two weeks).
All of this Pentecost and Spirit-power stuff is paralleled in the life of Jesus himself. Back in Luke chapter 3, Jesus submits to the waters of baptism. And just as in the Pentecost story later on, the Spirit “descends upon him” (Luke 3:22 NRSV).
The result of this is that the first verse of chapter 4 describes Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit,” a status that Jesus did not previously have—but one that is desperately needed to face the difficult physical, emotional, and spiritual temptations and trials that characterize that first part of chapter 4.
So then—continuing to parallel the Pentecost story (or perhaps that story parallels this one?)—our scripture lesson begins by referencing that now—NOW, after baptism, after the coming of the Spirit, and after a time of testing—now Jesus is described as being “in the power of the Spirit” (NIV; KJV) or being “filled with the power of the Spirit” (NRSV).
Jesus Needs This Spirit-Power
Hereupon lies the challenge of translation. What might be most literal here is not all that accurate—not in terms of what Luke is trying to communicate. Because what Luke insists upon is that Jesus—in the fullness of his humanity—is only able to do what he does and be who he is because of power of the Spirit that is with him.
The incarnate Jesus does not have endless reserves of magical strength.
He is not able to do anything apart from God.
I realize this sounds like Pastor Michael went all radical and rogue again, but this is exactly what Jesus says about himself in John 5:19:
“Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 NRSV)
When we read the gospel story of Jesus’ life, a certain rhythm emerges. It’s almost like a dance, really. Engagement and retreat. Engagement and retreat.
Jesus goes from baptism to retreat in the wilderness where he faces temptation.
This wilderness time is followed (Luke 4:14-15) by a time of teaching, including (further in our scripture text) the proclamation in the synagogue of Nazareth of the kind of ministry he would be carrying out—back to the engagement of service and active ministry.
As Luke 4 comes to a close, after a number of healings and other wieldings of Kingdom power, Jesus “departed and went into a deserted place” (Luke 4:42 NRSV)——withdrawing to reconnect and refill.
After calling the first disciples and performing more healings and teachings, Jesus retreated again. In fact, the way Luke 5:16 is worded in Greek, it communicates that this retreating was a habitual pattern in his life.
The pattern continues throughout Luke’s gospel, but it is apparent in the other gospels as well. Early in Mark’s account, we read that “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35 NRSV). It seems that Mark intends us to see this as a daily pattern in Jesus’ life.
The Spirt Tank
All signs in scripture suggest this to be the rhythm by which Jesus lived his extraordinary-yet-ordinary life—empty self in service, and retreat to refill…… dispense the kingdom power, and reconnect with it.
Author Gary Chapman has popularized the image of a “love tank” in his books on marriage relationships. For those who might be unfamiliar, Chapman encourages us to imagine we have something like a fuel tank that is filled when we experience love. Similarly,this “love tank” gets emptied through our expressions of love and our encounters in life.
Jesus’ life rhythm communicates very clearly to us that we have a “Spirit tank” that operates much the same way. When we dip into God’s kingdom power and God’s joyful presence, this “Spirit tank” is filled. When we do the kinds of things that Jesus taught—love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, care for those most vulnerable, and so on—when we do these things, we expend that Spirit-power that we obtained from God’s heavenly kingdom.
Just. like. Jesus.
The gospels are clear that Jesus routinely returned to the deep well of the Kingdom to refill and reorient to God’s ways. Yet it seems so few of Christ’s followers believe they require such help. And those who do see the necessity of this rhythm too often do not really know how to access the living waters of the Kingdom of the Heavens.
But don’t be deceived into thinking of this only in terms of the BIG THINGS that Jesus does—the healings, the miracles, etc. Jesus is sustained and enabled by this power to live out the more mundane (but just as challenging!) dimensions of the life of faith.
Take our scripture lesson, for instance. In v.22 we see that what amazes people is not some impressive and unexplainable embodiment of Kingdom power, but rather Jesus’ “gracious words.”
Forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the definition of “gracious” is “showing grace” or “demonstrating grace.” Jesus speech demonstrated grace—and this was a cause of amazement.
For this reason alone, I believe this is a text is one worth going back to again and again. We ourselves (as you well know) live a world where discourse is rarely civil. Speech that is far from gracious permeates our political climate, our social engagements, our youth culture, our news media, and virtually every other avenue of life. We have built a world that is fermenting in hate, and then we act surprised at the obvious result.
To utilize speech that demonstrates grace is as shocking today as it was back in Jesus’ day.
The scriptures often speak of the tongue (symbolizing speech) and its destructive capabilities. A few (of many possible) examples:
Speaking of those who harm him, the psalmist says that his enemies “whet their tongues like swords” and “aim bitter words like arrows.” (Psalm 64:3 NRSV)
The proverbs perhaps offer us more material to work with here than anywhere else. Proverbs 18:21, for instance, insists that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21 NRSV)
Of course (and as you would expect) the New Testament picks up this theme as well. Jesus in Matthew 5 reminds us that we can murder people with our words (vv.21-22).
But it is James, however, that perhaps offers the strongest caution (and condemnation) of the dangers of un-gracious speech. In the first chapter of that work, he says:
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26 NRSV)
Later in chapter 3, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, which (despite its diminutive size) manages to steer the whole ship. He says:
“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:5–10 NRSV)
Back to the Fount
“This ought not to be so.”
Here is where we come back to the Luke 4 text and the rhythm of Jesus’ life: We must recognize that cannot do this all by ourselves.
Our lives as followers of Jesus—as disciples learning to live under his rule and in his Kingdom—our lives are to demonstrate grace analogous to how Jesus himself demonstrated grace.
But even Jesus could not do this under his own power.
Even Jesus needed to regularly refill his Spirit tank in order to conduct himself with grace and compassion.
Even Jesus needed to access that Kingdom-power that enabled him to submit his rule to that of the Father—to trust (in the end) that God’s ways really are better than our own.
If Jesus could not “be Jesus” to the world without God’s help, how do we dare expect to be able to confront hate with love, to embody peace amidst violence, to “cast out fear,” or any of the multitudinous other things that Jesus is about: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and announcing the present reign of God (to name a few).
No one can love their enemy without relying solely on the power of the Kingdom.
To simply try harder and expect success is to fall into the trap of the Pharisees.
They are the ones Jesus is critiquing in John 6:63 when he says “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63 NRSV).
The flesh is useless; trying harder on your own won’t get you anywhere.
But the Spirit gives life—transforming and enabling new and otherwise impossible possibilities for life—real life—both now and in the great Beyond.
Because the kingdom of the heavens is at hand. It is now already accessible. The power that enabled and fueled Jesus’ own life and ministry is available even (and already) to you and I today.
We need only to submit to Jesus’ rule in order to discover how truly wonderful those words of life really are……and how deeply they matter for the real life of the here and now.