Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Very Real Spiritual Hope” (Luke 4:16-21)
January 27, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In 2004 the iconic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan published a memoir entitled Chronicles: Volume One. I read it the week it was published. It is amazing. Since almost fifteen years have elapsed and there is still no second volume I reread it. As some of you may know, when Bob Dylan was a young man he left his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota and moved to New York City. While there he frequently went to Morristown, New Jersey, to visit his idol, the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, which Dylan described this way:
The place was really an asylum with no spiritual hope of any kind. Wailing could be heard in the hallways. Most of the patients wore ill-fitting striped uniforms and they would file in and out walking aimlessly about while I played Woody Guthrie songs. One guy’s head would be constantly falling forward on his knees. Then he’d raise up and he would fall forward again. Another guy thought he was being chased by spiders and twirled in circles, hands slapping his arms and legs. Someone else who imagined he was president wore an Uncle Sam hat. Patients rolled their eyes, tongues, sniffed the air. One guy continually licking his lips…The scene was frightful (99).
Doubtless one of the Woody Guthrie songs Dylan sang to him was a song I remember singing frequently at school assemblies when I was in first grade:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me…
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me
Many years later, in the late 80’s, Bob Dylan was performing in Switzerland and in the middle of the concert experienced something else very frightful:
It all fell apart. For an instant I fell into a black hole. The stage was outdoors and the wind was blowing gales, the kind of night that can blow everything away. I opened my mouth to sing…and nothing came out. The techniques weren’t working. I couldn’t believe it….There’s no pleasure in getting caught in a situation like this. You can get a panic attack. You’re in front of thirty thousand people and they’re staring at you and nothing is coming out (153).
The world we live in today can sometimes resemble the psychiatric hospital Dylan visited in New Jersey over fifty years ago, a world that without the gospel is indeed a place “with no spiritual hope of any kind.” Moreover, in our own ways many of us find ourselves “walking aimlessly” through our daily duties and responsibilities or twirling in circles slapping at the metaphorical spiders that are not just figments of our imagination. Or like Dylan later experienced, when we least expect it, in some way things can suddenly all fall apart and you fall into a black hole, which can be scary even if it is not in front of thirty thousand people.
Single people who wish they were married, or married people who wish they were single, workers who finally got the promotion they wanted only to wonder if the accompanying drama is worth it, college professors juggling the pressures of being published and attaining tenure and managing an ever-increasing load of administrative institutional busywork while teaching students many of whom would rather stare at their phones than listen to them—all need spiritual hope.
College students who were told over and over again that college would be some of the best years of their life only to be overwhelmed by the pressure of classes and wounded by the false promises of freedom and pleasure and empowerment in a hook-up culture that can leave them feeling used and alone and lost, parents who wish they could connect better with their kids and kids who wish they could measure up to their parents’ expectations, middle-aged who are feel trapped in their jobs and are counting down the months to retirement, the elderly in nursing homes watching The Price is Right and Jeopardy and wondering if they actually made any real difference with their lives—all need spiritual hope.
Regardless of how smart or witty or rich or powerful or beautiful or accomplished you are, there can still be moments when you realize that in spite of all the trappings and accessories and distractions the world offers, without the gospel there is “no spiritual hope of any kind.” When things suddenly fall apart, look out.
Today’s passage from the Gospel According to Luke recounts the beginning of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Jesus had already been baptized in the Jordan River and proclaimed by God the Father as his Beloved Son and filled with the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the descending of a dove from the heavens. Jesus had already been tempted in the wilderness for forty days. Luke tells us that Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee” (Luke 4:14) and this was followed by a very significant moment in the synagogue:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).
If Jesus had a mic in the synagogue that day, it would have been the perfect moment for a mic drop. Jesus had revealed why he left heaven to come to earth, and why he became incarnate in a fallen world “with no spiritual hope of any kind.” He had also revealed what he would do the next three years as he roamed and rambled and followed his footsteps around Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee.
Jesus came to offer very real spiritual hope.
Jesus had read in the synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me…to bring good news to the poor.” The truth is we are all poor, especially those of us who appear to “have it all.” One of the many rock artists heavily influenced by Bob Dylan is Bruce Springsteen, who put it this way on an album that was unjustly shredded by music critics:
Well I sought gold and diamond rings
My own drug to ease the pain that living brings
Walked to the mountain to the valley floor
Searching for my beautiful reward…
From a house on a hill a sacred light shines
I walk through these rooms but none of them are mine
Down empty hallways I went from door to door
Searching for my beautiful reward
Searching for my beautiful reward
(From his 1992 album Lucky Town)
And what good news does Jesus bring to the poor searching “door to door” for their “beautiful reward”? That you are fully known, fully forgiven, fully loved by the One who created you and redeemed you and assures you eternal life—that God’s mercies for you are new every morning, that when you feel most alone you are not alone at all, that in spite of all the ways your heart has been broken God offers healing and a new start and what the fourth episode of the Star Wars saga calls “a new hope.”
Jesus kept reading, “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” The same God who in the Old Testament released the captive Israelites from four centuries of slavery in Egypt and “let the oppressed go free”, in the New Testament healed a man who had been lame for nearly forty years, healed a man who was paralyzed, straightened the back of an old woman who could not walk without staring at the ground, opened the eyes of a man who had been blind his entire life and never seen the light of day or anything else, released a woman caught in adultery—“neither do I condemn you”—and even called forth Lazarus from the grave. Jesus put it this way, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin…(but) if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).
Finally, Jesus read that he came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” or what we could call, “the year of grace” because that is exactly what “the Lord’s favor” is, grace—God’s unconditional, one-way love for you that never changes or fades or goes away, God’s never changing love for an ever-changing world, and for you.
Jesus read all these things that day in the synagogue, and as the stunned crowd stared at him in silence, he sat down and concluded, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And for the next three years during Jesus’ earthly ministry he did every one of those things, all pointing to what he would do in his suffering and death on Good Friday.
On Good Friday Jesus, who had brought “good news to the poor” himself became poor, and was stripped of all he owned, even his clothes, and led out to die between two broke and broken thieves.
On Good Friday Jesus, who had been sent “to proclaim release to the captives” and “to let the oppressed go free” was himself taken captive by the religious authorities and oppressed by the Roman soldiers, and sentenced to death.
On Good Friday Jesus, who had again and again given “recovery of sight to the blind” was himself blindfolded and struck on the face again and again by his captors who mocked him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” (Luke 22:64).
And on Good Friday, even after being nailed to the cross, Jesus proclaimed “the year of the Lord’s favor” when he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Back to Bob Dylan and his frightful night on stage in Switzerland…in the same way he had unexpectedly experienced it all falling apart and his falling into a black hole, he suddenly experienced a moment of grace, as he recalls:
Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky. Immediately, I was flying high…Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place…It was like I’d become a new performer (153).
And Bob Dylan has not stopped performing in the thirty years since that night.
Jesus offered very real spiritual hope that day in the synagogue, and he still does. As you continue to roam and ramble and follow your footsteps, even if it all falls apart and you fall into a black hole, the One who made this land for you and me is still with you, to offer very real spiritual hope.