Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6a; 61:1-2; Luke 4:14-21
Feb. 28, 2008 • Goodson Chapel
I can’t tell you how important this story is — Jesus’ citation, in an expanded form not unusual in his day, of Isaiah 61:1.
It was of supreme importance to the evangelist Luke. We know this because Luke has moved it from its location in Mark’s Gospel to head up Jesus’ entire ministry. He has also filled out the story with dramatic flourishes — the rapt attentiveness of the gathering in the synagogue, and Jesus’ portentous pronouncement after the reading of the Scripture. This story of liberation dominates all that follows.
But Isa 61:1 was also of supreme importance to Jesus himself.
We know this because it is — in the terms of historical Jesus research — multiply attested. Some of you doubtless heard the echo of the Beatitudes here, and rightly so —the crucial summary of Jesus’ teaching that Luke places in the so-called sermon on the plain and Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn and weep.” This material is structured around Isa 61:1 as well, and then expanded on in different ways.
So we are in touch here in every conceivable way with Jesus himself, our Lord and Master, the one we purport to follow as closely as we can.
Let’s return now for a moment to the story’s setting in Luke. There it is the climax to Lent! Jesus has had a tremendous experience of the Spirit, while following the ministry of John the Baptist. But he needed to assess its implications. What exactly does the divine Spirit want him to do? So he has gone into the desert for a period of intense prayer and spiritual struggle. For well over a month he has reflected, fasted, thirsted, prayed, and praised, in the presence of his Father, in the power of the Spirit, and when he finally emerges, dusty and hungry, this is the statement that he provides; this is the conclusion to his Lenten struggle, shining like a beacon, and illuminating all that follows.
Jesus here defines himself in terms of two things: one, a Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered, Spirit-driven ministry and two, of healing, transformation, and deliverance for the needy — in fact, a multi-faceted ministry to various people who need help — “the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed; the deaf, the meek, the grieving, and the lame.” We learn from this second element that Jesus is passionate about the poor, defining that category in more than economic terms, although including economic terms. He is wholly oriented toward the needy.
I’m actually haunted at this point by Peter Storey’s graduation address two years ago, that some of you may remember. He emphasized, in a dozen different ways, that the point of the church is ultimately not to exist for itself so much as to minister to those who are struggling, often on the outside of it (so to speak) — the lesson he learned so well and so hard in the context of South Africa’s journey to desegregation and democracy. Of course, we do have to care for the church as well, and many of us in the church certainly have our struggles that we need support for. But if the care stops with us — if it runs out of momentum within these walls — then it has fallen short of its intended goal of ministering to all of humanity, the goal of the prophet Isaiah, and of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus himself.
There is a sense in which everything that is apparent here can be summarized in one word that I think we should consider carefully today: chaplaincy.
A chaplain is essentially someone who is involved in a targeted ministry — a service to a particular group of needy people, whether the sick, the dying, the imprisoned, the disabled, struggling students, weary faculty and staff. And this is, quite simply, what Jesus’ life was all about. He was called by the Spirit to be a chaplain. So I want us all to consider today, in our Lenten journey, whether we are being called by the Spirit to be a chaplain.
And while you’re meditating on this question, bear in mind that Jesus was a celibate, non-stipendiary chaplain. These additional features of his ministry made him extraordinarily mobile and effective. Paul was the same. These are further calls that should be carefully considered.
One of the great blessings of such a calling, if we can both hear and respond to it, is that we will find Jesus there; he will be behind and before us.
Matthew understood this as well as Luke. You will all be familiar with the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. At its climax Jesus says “when I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink, when I was a stranger, you welcomed me, when I was naked, you gave me clothing…. Because when you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” Matthew is probably speaking here primarily of Christians within a struggling and marginalized community — the poor within his church. But we have learned today from Jesus himself that he is engaged with the needy within all of humanity, and so we may find him in every struggling person.
The specificity of this parable and its message also needs to be emphasized. These are concrete acts of kindness to particular people — the sort of acts that we see Jesus carrying out in every Gospel. A mother-in-law healed, a sick child raised, a bleeding woman cleansed, a hungry group fed. So a call to the chaplaincy of Christ may in the first instance be nothing more than a call to one person who is struggling that we have previously overlooked within something entirely practical — a neighbor, a friend of a friend, a lonely family member who need a conversation, or a visit, or a new kettle. This call is not to a general category, or to an abstraction. It is to real people in all their glory and all their crankiness and all their needs.
To be completely honest with you, I am preaching this message today in large part because of the journey of my wife, Rachel, in relation to a young man who has recently been imprisoned for a crime that is too horrendous to properly grasp. Her long walk with him brought me back to the importance of Isa 61:1 for Jesus — something I was impressed by several years ago but didn’t really know what to do with. But I can see now that she has been following the promptings of the Spirit into the chaplaincy that this text speaks of.
Let’s call this young man Ben. Ben killed his parents, confessed to the crime quite quickly, and has been awaiting sentencing for about three years. He has been largely —and in a sense understandably — rejected by the rest of his family: two step-brothers, a sister, and various uncles and aunts. It is not at all clear that he knew what he was doing — that he was “in his right mind” when the killings took place. He has been in secure hospitals and jails ever since awaiting his fate. There is much that we could talk about, but I want to recount simply how he has been treated during this time.
For some of the time he has been shown kindness and friendship by his supervisors. And for much of the time he has been cold, hungry, bored, manipulated, abused, confined, and bullied.
There is an overcrowding problem in our jails at present, so for around 18 months he has been in a holding cell intended for transfers and court appointments lasting around 48 hours. For about a year in that cell he was permitted to leave for one hour a day, during which time to ablute, make phone calls, and sometimes to exercise. Exercise took place in a small courtyard. Phone calls were charged at 50 cents a minute — a lot of money in an economy where workers earn about $3 a day. Books were permitted some of the time.
And the winter has been cold. Only three pairs of socks, one t-shirt, and a set of overalls guard against the cold in a building where the heating frequently breaks down. Visitors are not permitted to supply further items of clothing. He wears the socks on his forearms and head to try to keep warm, but sits shivering when we visit. He is too cold to sleep, even fully clothed, and especially when the temperature is below zero. If he confesses to having suicidal thoughts, he is locked naked in a cell under twenty four surveillance with a blanket made of cardboard. (This has happened several times.) He keeps insects in polystyrene cups for pets. He makes a chess set out of soap. He makes cards from paper and plays with the prisoner next door. They cannot see one another, but place the cards through the bars of the cell on the corridor floor. And he is allowed a visitor for about fifteen minutes once a week, speaking to them from behind a window of barred Perspex.
Now it seems to me that God set all this up quite deliberately. Jesus wanted Rachel to visit this young lad in prison, and to support him. And there is a sense in which she is visiting Jesus himself there. He is in that prison too, with that damaged lad — someone he cares about. At which point you start asking yourself about the prison as well. In fact, instead of asking What would Jesus do?, you start asking What am I doing to Jesus? And I wouldn’t do this.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not implying for a moment that an act of great evil did not take place that requires some form of deep accountability. It did and it does. But it also requires forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, in just the way that God has forgiven, healed, and reconciled us.
There is a great need in this country at present. In our prisons are near countless people for whom Christ died and rose again. And they are suffering. And Christ is suffering with them in those cages.
I want each of you today to consider your calling.
Are you being called by the Spirit to follow Jesus into a chaplaincy, and to find Jesus in that chaplaincy?
Are you being called by the Spirit to find Jesus in the archipelago of prisons that spans this country? Are you being called to care for those in prison? Will you set the captives free?
But having issued this challenge, I am not going to leave you on your own, because that would betray the other critical element in Jesus’ call and chaplaincy in the story that we began with. So this is not just another essentially liberal exhortation to feel bad about those who suffer and go out and try to do something about it — a response grounded in our own resources, and consequently bound to fail. I am not asking you to do this alone. We heard of Jesus’ passionate concern for the poor and imprisoned. But we also heard that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. And so it is also upon us, because it is upon him and we are in him.
And Jesus has gone before us. So, just as Jesus is our great High Priest, ministering constantly to God on our behalf, atoning and praying for us, in whom our worship participates, he is also our great Chaplain, called to the needy, ministering to them from the moment he walked out of the wilderness. We are called then not to do things in our own strength, but to participate in a work that he is already doing.
A great work of God is unfolding in our midst to the suffering. It is often quiet, gentle, patient work, unseen by those too busy and preoccupied to do so, but it is happening, unceasingly and unstoppably, because it is the work of God. I am calling you to join this work if you are not already, to be gathered up into it, to sense what your particular calling is within it, and to respond to it.
To whom are you going to mediate the compassionate chaplaincy of Christ? To which particular person or persons? Will you visit with Jesus Christ in prison? Will you join with God to change the prisons in which Jesus Christ sits? Is the Spirit of God speaking to you today out of the Lenten wilderness about these things?