“And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee.” I am thinking about the power of the Spirit today. Jesus has a spiritual power. In the Bible the word for power is dunamis; where we get our word dynamite. Jesus has a power as explosive as dynamite. I have two questions about his power. Where did it come from? And what does he want to do with it? That’s the outline for this sermon.
The key to answering the first question is the word returned. Jesus has returned from somewhere, and that somewhere is where he has found power. He left Nazareth many weeks ago to travel to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. In that story, as he comes up out of the water, it says the Spirit of God descends on him and rests on him. But it doesn’t say anything about power yet. He has the Spirit but not the power of the Spirit. After his baptism, he goes out into the desert for a time of testing. The devil tempts Jesus in the desert. The devil tempts Jesus to be strong — feed yourself! — but Jesus says no, he will be weak. The devil tempts Jesus to have authority, but Jesus says no, he will be lowly and humble. The devil tempts Jesus to be spectacular, but Jesus says no, he will be obscure. The time of testing ends, and it is then that Jesus touches the power of the Spirit. The power comes upon him after his time of testing in the desert.
I grew up in Las Vegas. When relatives came to visit, we often went to Hoover Dam, on the Nevada — Arizona border. The best part of the tour was when an elevator took you deep down into the heart of the dam, and you walked into this cavernous room, large enough to make this sanctuary look like a closet, and it was filled with 17 power generators. Each was a giant thing. Those generators took the kinetic energy of the water and turned it into electrical energy for human use. There was power deep within the dam.
You and I can find a power deep within ourselves. It comes to us in our desert times, our times of testing in the wilderness, as it did for Jesus. We have a time of testing, a time of struggle, a time of hunger and need. There are voices in our head. The voice of the devil tells us we are worthless and will never amount to anything, but the voice of God tells us we are beloved children. The voices battle one another. Then the end of that time of testing comes, and the devil goes away, and all that is left is the voice of God, whom we know now in a deeper way than we have before. The power of God flows through us in a new way.
Sarah Young wrote the popular devotional book Jesus Calling. In the introduction, she shares her struggles and experiences that led to the writing of the book. One time, she was working as a technical writer, and her boss sent her to Atlanta for a conference. She checked into her hotel room. It was a very low time in her life. As she sat in her generic hotel room, she felt waves of desolation wash over her; she wondered if she would ever amount to anything, or if her dreams would ever come true. To escape her solitude, she left her room and wandered the streets of Atlanta. She happened across a bookstore, and she found a book by Catherine Marshall called Beyond Ourselves. She felt led to buy the book, and she read it later that night. Then she knelt by her bedside and prayed, and she felt the presence of Jesus and the peace of Jesus with her in a way she had not felt for years. Her time of desolation, her time of testing in the desert was over, at least for now, and she felt the power of the Spirit fill her in a new way. Experiences like this led eventually to her writing a book that has touched the lives of millions.
If you are going through a time of testing today, a time in the desert, in the wilderness, know that your time of testing is only temporary, and you are not alone in it. God is with you. And this time of testing can help you come to know God in a deeper way, a way you have not known before, allowing God’s power can flow through you in fresh ways.
So that’s the first question, where does the power come from. Now for the second question, what is the power for? We move on in the story.
Jesus comes to Nazareth, his home town. What does he do here? He goes to church! Mary and Joseph have raised him right. We don’t have time to dwell on it much, but there is an intersection here between religion and the Spirit. Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit now, and he comes to this religious place (synagogue), on a religious day (Sabbath), with a religious book and religious rituals. Spirit and religion are different things. Spirit is chaotic and dangerous, but it also brings new life; religion is more about memory, remembering things and preserving things. Religion is often suspicious of Spirit.
Jesus is the guest preacher that day, the visiting rabbi with a message to share. He opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads a passage. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, etc.” This is his mission statement, we’d say today. In our choral anthem today, it says that Jesus came “for the sake of the lost ones.” That says the same thing in a different way. Jesus came for the sake of the poor, the lost, the least, the forgotten, the overlooked, the ones at the margins of life.
I want to focus on one phrase he uses. He came to bring “release to the captives.” The word release is aphesis, and it literally means to untie a horse from a hitching post. It means to set someone or something free. This is the answer to the question of what Jesus wants to do with his power. He wants to set people free; he wants to untie them, unhook them from what holds them back from being what God created them to be. In page after page of the Gospel, this is what he does. The only condition is that they must want to be set free. Sometimes they do, and sadly, sometimes they don’t want to be set free.
The movie Lincoln tells the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, an amendment that abolished slavery. Abraham Lincoln desperately wants to have it pass the Congress, but he is facing stiff opposition; he wants to set millions of blacks free, but in order to do that these white congressmen need to be set free too — set free from their fears and their prejudice. Lincoln focuses on a handful of swing votes, and he does everything he can to persuade them. One of them is a Kentucky congressman named George Yeaman. Yeaman personally opposes slavery, but he also opposes ending slavery because he is afraid of what the economic and social results will be; you also get the sense that like so many other whites in his time, he didn’t view blacks as fully human, in the way whites saw themselves to be. The day for the vote comes, and it is George Yeaman’s turn to announce his vote. At first he mumbles, and the speaker must ask him again. There is a pause, and then he smiles widely and shouts the word, Aye! Yes! He will support the 13th Amendment at last. Something inside of George Yeaman has been released, set free, and he finally can support a measure that will set others free.
What a perfect image of the mission of Jesus. He came to set us free, free from ourselves, so that we could then go out and set others free.
Jesus wants to set you free today. He is out and about and on the loose in the world, and this is what he is doing. He wants to set you free. Only you know exactly what it is that he is trying to set you free from. But that is what he is doing. It’s his mission. The only question is, will you consent to be set free? It is hard, yes; it is painful. You have to grow new eyes that see yourself and others in a new way. But it is worth it. George Yeaman would say it is worth it. Sarah Young would say it’s worth it, to let Jesus set you free.
There is security in being tied to a hitching post. That’s true. It feels safe and familiar there. But for those who consent, for those who say yes, for those who let Jesus release them, they are free to roam the hills on a new adventure he has planned for them. Amen.