Listen along here.
The gospel according to Luke, the fourth chapter:
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
I grew up in a big, old, red farmhouse. It had three floors—basement, main, and upper. The bathtub was on the top floor. [That’s important for the story.] Like many of you, my parents would often start the bathwater and then attend to another errand while the tub filled. They would pull the knob, get the temperature just right, and then walk away to sort some laundry, get a cup of coffee, or corral a child.
One morning many years ago, while my grandparents were visiting, my mother started the water in the bathtub and then decided to get back into bed for a few minutes. When she awoke, more than a few minutes later, and ran into the hallway, water was everywhere. It was pouring over the side of the tub, it was pooling on the tiled floor, it was gushing under the bathroom door, it was quickly crawling across the carpeted hallway. After turning the water off as quickly as she could, she ran downstairs to the main level. And that’s when we heard my very controlled mother yelp. We all emerged from our bedrooms and ran to the living room to see what see what she was seeing—the water had already found its way down and was shamelessly spraying from the chandelier that hung above the grand piano.
My scientist grandfather quietly remarked: “I think it’s full.”
Luke tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Theologian Justo Gonzalez reminds us that “in the entire New Testament, only Luke uses the verb “to fill” to refer to what happens to a person.” According to Luke, lots of things fill us—rage, deceit, and joy, to name a few.[i] It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to recognize that some are more desirable than others. “[But] in all of these cases, being filled with sometime refers not to an interior attitude,” Gonzalez says, “but [it refers] to an emotional or spiritual fullness that overflows outwardly. Whatever is filled with rage acts accordingly. Whoever is filled with deceit acts deceitfully. [Whatever is filled with joy acts joyfully.] Likewise, being filled with the Holy Spirit is not an interior condition but is rather a spiritual reality that overflows outwardly.”[ii]
For Luke, “filled” means spilling over, overflowing outwardly, shamelessly sprinkling everything and everyone in its path…the Holy Spirit doesn’t mess around.
When I first drafted this sermon, I put a placeholder right here that simply read: STORY. It served as a reminder to me that I thought it would be rhetorically powerful to tell a story about an individual who was obviously filled with the Holy Spirit—you know, someone like Dorothy Day or Oscar Romero or Edith Stein or Daniel Berrigan, someone who overflowed outwardly, someone who the Holy Spirit used to change the world. This past week, after way too many hours thinking about who it should be. I finally settled on Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez, the founder and CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen, a young baker who started a company in East Harlem that employs low-income women, who were born outside of the United States, to bake their native breads—breads like tortillas, injera, and babka that have been passed down to them through the generations. But when I finished telling Rodriguez’ story, I was uneasy.[iii]
In graduate school, my friends and I often joked that everyone suffered from imposter syndrome. That is to say, when we were sitting around a seminar table, each of us had the feeling that we didn’t belong, that we didn’t have the gifts that everyone else did, that we weren’t measure up to the wit of the person to our left, that we weren’t full of wisdom like the person to our right. Turns out that most of us are exceptionally skilled at self-judgement; we’ve been practicing our whole lives.
When we talk about the fullness of the Spirit, we are at risk of the same thing. When we talk about the Spirit’s spilling, our tendency is to immediately point to someone who seems to be filled just a little fuller than we are. We settle into our own deficit and say that unfortunately the Holy Spirit didn’t seem to make it down our chimney this year.
But, for those of us who don’t think we fit the mold, Luke—the gospel writer with whom we’ll spend the whole year—is so generous. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and John are a little stingy with their references to the Holy Spirit, Luke says the Spirit’s fullness is all over the place. If hard numbers are your thing: Mark references the spirit six times. Matthew cites the spirit twelve times. The spirit shows up sixteen times in the gospel of John. Here, in Luke there are about sixty references to the spirit’s presence.[iv] The Spirit is everywhere. The Spirit eventually finds her way to everyone.
And if that’s not enough to rouse us from our fears of inadequacy, it’s not the likely characters who receive the fullness of what the Spirit has to offer. In Luke, it’s Zechariah and Elizabeth. It’s Simeon and John. In Luke, the Spirit’s fullness finds its way to the poor, the captives, the wayward, the oppressed. The Spirit even fills that boy with no spiritual pedigree, that boy with no formal education, that boy without a dime to his name—you know that boy from the suburb way up north called Nazareth—that boy named Jesus. Ironically, it is exactly to those society deems unworthy of the Spirit’s power that the Spirit comes.
And when the Spirit comes, she never tires of telling us the truth. She says, “I choose you. You are mine. And I give you particular gifts, gifts that don’t match the one sitting to your right or to your left. Gifts of evangelism, prophetic speech, power, healing, assistance, leadership, miracle-working, and tongues. Gifts of love, poetry, music-making, building, acting, dancing, shouting, singing, and yearning. These gifts overflow outwardly, they spill onto others, they sprinkle everyone in their path. I entrust them to you for the sake of the whole world, with all its joy and all its weariness. Like it or not, y’all are epiphany,” the Spirit says, “the very means by which Christ is made known.”
From where I stand this morning, I see a community gifted with the Spirit for the sake of the world. In the quiet words of my late grandfather, “I think it’s full.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Luke 4:38, Acts 13:10, Acts 13:52.
[ii] Gonzalez, Luke. The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel.
[iv] These are Gonzalez’ numbers.