Staying Off the Edge, Just For Today

The pandemic has been a hard time, all around the world. Many of us have gone toward our “edges,” or felt them more acutely than ever before: the edges of our patience, sense of security, identity. So I was comforted to rediscover the time in Jesus’s life where he goes to the edge….and doesn’t go off of it. In some great “not today, Satan!” moments he is protected and saved, and I believe his promise holds for all of us on the edges, too.

Jesus’s ministry doesn’t begin with success. It begins with temptation, deprivation, and rejection. If the son of God is not exempt from that experience, we might not be either. In fact, Jesus spends the first 30 years of his life in relative obscurity, and when he finally comes out as who he is, he is met not with fanfare but with hunger, repudiation and dismissal, and enemies.

The good news is that if you are facing any of those things, don’t be ashamed. It might mean that you have a part in the story of salvation, too. You might even have a glorious destiny like Jesus (you do).

In the power of the Spirit, Jesus sees the temptations in Luke 4 for the lies that they are. He doesn’t fall off that edge, so he’s empowered to stay off other edges. I think that’s how it works. For every “yes” we say to life/the Spirit, and resisting the illusory quick fix, we are strengthened. Giving in to the quick fix usually depletes us even though it looks so promising in the moment. We need eyes to see things for what they are, and we have those eyes in Christ.

After Jesus comes out of the desert, he goes back to his hometown for the moment we’ve all been waiting for. (I hope he got some food at his mom’s house first there). He also goes into the temple on the Sabbath like he probably did throughout his whole life. This time he volunteers to read, and the scroll of Isaiah 61 is handed to him. Isaiah means “The Lord saves.” He reads the first verse, but doesn’t even finish the second verse before rolling up the scroll and handing it back with this mic drop:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners  and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Something about the way Jesus reads this causes everyone to look at him and he drops probably the most significant line in the whole Bible: Today this scripture is fulfilled. It’s happening, people, in Jesus: freedom for prisoners and sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and good news for the poor. This is the day because I AM the day, he’s saying. All of this is true right now in me. And he leaves out the vengeance part in the last line of Isiah’s prophecy because it seems there’s no need to talk about vengeance anymore when he’s around. He is here to communicate God’s love and favor.

I wish I could tell you that they received the love and favor, but instead, they didn’t believe him. And he called them out on it. I don’t think he seemed impressive enough to be the one they were waiting for. All they saw was Joseph’s kid from the carpenter shop; the everyday guy they knew! (AKA Son of Man.) This couldn’t be the promised one; he didn’t meet their expectations, and maybe on a deeper level, they couldn’t see themselves as the folks he was reading about, favored by God. Maybe they couldn’t imagine blind people seeing or prisoners going free or oppressed people being relieved, which Isaiah describes as binding up the brokenhearted. I just love that. Wrapping the heart-wounds of the downtrodden, the ones who are discouraged and in despair. That’s why Jesus is here.

It makes me think of how they’ve been wrapping some of the giant sequoia trees in fire blankets, to protect them from blazes fueled by climate change. Giant sequoias are normally adapted to fire; it can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating clearings that allow young sequoias to grow. But the extraordinary intensity of these fires fueled by climate change can overwhelm the trees. That happened last year when the Castle fire killed around 10,000 large sequoias, according to the National Park Service. So several of the big ones now are being wrapped in fire blankets, and I pray they survive.

Jesus came to bind up the brokenhearted. He was able to do that because he didn’t go off the edge of his hunger for satisfaction and security and significance. (And all those things were granted to him soon after! It seems that the enemy always tries to sell us the things that we already have, or are about to be given.) Jesus trusted the Father instead; he let the Spirit bind up his own heart in the desert of temptation.

When Jesus called the people out on their inhospitality toward him, they got so triggered that they drove him to the edge of a cliff and tried to throw him off! But he slipped through the crowd and miraculously, quietly escaped their anger. I think their anger was a sign of how much they needed and LONGED for that hope he was bringing. Our anger is often a sign of our need. They were brokenhearted, hopeless and oppressed. I wonder how much they wanted to be free to claim and experience God’s favor. But they didn’t know it could be true for them through this guy, so they almost threw their shred of hope off a cliff.

What drives you to the edge of the cliff in your life these days? What takes you to that hopeless place where you cannot imagine how God will possibly provide for you? This happens unconsciously for many of us; suddenly we’re deep in the despair, maybe freaking out on someone else OR bottling it all up inside through condemning thoughts and self-destructive behaviors. We might be trying to throw Jesus off the cliff when he’s there to help us.

One of my favorite authors, Resmaa Menakem, writes about the difference between clean pain and dirty pain in his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. He describes clean pain as the pain of doing the right thing even when it’s hard, OR vulnerably entering into the unknown and uncomfortable space of not knowing what to do, and pausing to ask for help. When we accept clean pain, it helps us expand our capacity for growth and healing; in fact, it actually expands our nervous systems. But dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. It’s when we respond to fear and conflict from our most wounded parts. I think that’s what those people were doing with Jesus. Their broken hearts couldn’t hold the possibility that he could deliver on this great promise of freedom for the oppressed, so they denied it, and blamed him for bringing it up, and avoided the struggle of faith.

But Jesus hangs on to his anointing. He goes around healing people, especially strangers who welcome him. He frees people from demon possession, and the demons recognize who he is! They ask if Jesus has come to destroy them because they know about this “day of the Lord” that Jesus was reading about it. They were rightly on to it, because this was prophesied to be the moment when humanity would be rescued from evil and God’s good reign would be re-established, and the synoptic gospels present Jesus carrying out this task. THIS WAS the moment Jesus was describing, foretold by Isaiah 700 years before. Jesus wasn’t kidding that today this scripture is fulfilled.

I believe this scripture continues to be fulfilled when WE hang on to OUR anointing in Christ. When we believe that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us….enabling us to resist temptation and move through rejection or deprivation as clean pain, still choosing to do the next right thing, not responding from our most wounded parts in denial and blame and avoidance. Hanging on to our anointing in Christ means letting God wrap and hold our wounds in tender and protective care like those trees.  Jesus cares about our broken hearts and honors our poverty of spirit by offering us his own. Our anointing allows us to to hold our tensions with love, even when our conflicts are confusing and seemingly impossible. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you and can make a way for you to “escape through the crowd” and stay off that edge. 

Sometimes when the crowd is amped, our “going off the cliff” feels so inevitable. I wonder if we could let God do something different for us this weekend, something surprising like Isaiah prophesied: a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. Maybe just for today.