Power Play

When you hear the word “power,” what comes to mind? Significant influence or wealth, as in one who strides down the “corridors of power”? Or perhaps great physical strength, the powerful front line of the Carolina Panthers, for instance?
I was struck by the line introducing the passage we’re reading this week: “Then Jesus, filled by the power of the Holy Spirit,….” According to Luke, Jesus does what he does and says what he says precisely because he is filled with power, great power, the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is the first scene Luke offers to describe Jesus’ public ministry and, as we’ve seen before, first things matter in the Gospels as they set the tone and name the priorities for the narrative to come. So clearly it’s important to Luke for us to know that Jesus comes filled with power and, perhaps even more, it’s important to Luke for us to know just what this kind of power looks like.
Which is what makes his choice of these excerpts from Isaiah so interesting, because if there’s one thing all the people referenced by this passage have in common, it’s that they are definitely not the powerful people in the world.
Think about it: Jesus brings good news to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. These aren’t the powerful, they are the outcasts, the ones you’ve been trained to feel sorry for as you pass them by at the street corner even as you give a prayer of thanks that their lot is not yours. These are the folks, that is, you may pity, but not admire. Yet Jesus says he comes for them.
All of which challenges our typical notions of power. Power – at least the power of the Holy Spirit, the power, that is, of God – is demonstrated not by any accomplishments or attributes one claims for one’s own self but only through what it accomplishes for others. Power is power only when it sets others free, only when it builds up others, only when used for the betterment of those around you.
How peculiar, when you think of it, and how different from the notions of power that surround us. Indeed, the power of God at work in Jesus pushes us to reconfigure our notions of power and re-orient our attention away from ourselves to those around us.
But it does one other thing, too. In this first sermon of Jesus, we cannot avoid the conclusion that perhaps one of the chief powers of Jesus is to declare that God sees all of us – not just those the world sees, but everyone. Because the very fact that Jesus’ sermon is all about what God will do for the least of those in the world tells us that God gives special attention to those whom the world doesn’t want to see.
There has been a lot of talk, this year, about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Any number of politicians, pundits, and opponents to the movement have questioned why the focus on black lives; why not, that is, say that all lives matter. I get it. The focus on black lives somehow seems to imply that those lives matter more. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think it’s more a matter of the movement calling attention to the fact that the way this world and culture acts makes one think that we have collectively decided that black lives don’t matter, at least not as much as white ones do, and so they are calling attention to this through their very name and assertion.
A colleague of mine put it this way: “When you see a house on fire and direct the firefighters to that house, you’re not saying that all the other houses in the neighborhood don’t matter; you’re saying this one especially matters because it’s on fire.” My colleague is an African American pastor, I should add, who lives in a predominantly white neighborhood and has on various occasions been pulled over, though not for speeding. When he asks why, the officers say they’re just doing their job. “Right now,” he added, “our house is on fire.”
Jesus, I think, is doing something similar. Filled by the power of the Holy Spirit, he testifies to the fact that God’s power is always seen as peculiar, odd, and uncomfortable by the world because it focuses on those the world has overlooked, forgotten, or discarded. He knows that we act in a way to make it seem like some lives matter and some don’t, but proclaims that those distinctions fade away in the face of grace, that God sees all, loves all, and intends and promises to redeem all.
- David Lose

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