Anglican Church of Canada
Epiphany 3 January 27, 2019
In our Tuesday afternoon Bible study, reading through the gospel of Luke, it has really struck me what a skilled and dramatic story-teller Luke is. Of all the gospel’s, he feels the most modern, because he often reads like a movie script.
Take today’s reading: can’t you just picture it unfolding in a movie. It comes toward the beginning of his ministry. Jesus has begun preaching and healing among the towns of Galilee, and Luke shows us this growing ministry by focussing on a particularly dramatic moment: the day he returned to his hometown, local boy made good, coming back and showing up in church. We can picture the synagogue full of the townspeople, neighbours and aunties and uncles, childhood friends and maybe a few childhood enemies, friends of the parents, each one curious and a bit proud and more than a bit sceptical.
They call on him to address the assembly – “let’s see what Joseph’s boy has to say” – the murmurings fall silent as he asks for the scroll of Isaiah, slowly unrolls it, looks for the place, and then begins to read into the expectant stillness. And suddenly these ancient dusty words are lifted off the page and come to life, fill the room with their powerful claim (we can almost hear the inspiring background music emerge and swell as he reads):
‘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 favour.’
Then, in a silence now charged with a strange energy, he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down, all eyes upon him. And then the bombshell: “Today, these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now the story goes on, and in fact does not end particularly well for him that day; but the lectionary, by stopping here, quite rightly invites us to concentrate on the power of the words he spoke that day. Because what Luke is clearly doing that day, by giving us this dramatic scene, is showing us what the purpose and point of Jesus ministry is. He is giving us his theological program. That makes this one of the most important passages in the gospel. They have for Luke the function that the Beatitudes have in Matthew’s gospel: they invite us at the beginning of his ministry to understand what Jesus is all about.
The words he quotes were already more than 500 years old when he read them. They come from that final portion of the book of Isaiah that is sometimes called third Isaiah, because it is one of three distinct voices from three distinct times we can discern in the one book called Isaiah. Third Isaiah was a prophet speaking to the people who had recently returned from the exile in Babylon. They had regained their freedom, but the land they returned to lay in ruins, the cities lying in rubble, the trees cut down, the farmland laid waste. They returned to poverty, and the hostility of neighbours, and discouragement. It seems that with the return from captivity their problems were not over. It would take them the better part of a century to get the country back on track: that is the story we heard in the first reading.
And to these discouraged and hopeless people the prophet speaks anew the promise of God’s faithfulness:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.
These are the words spoken once by an ancient prophet to a people struggling in a particular time. But when Jesus unrolls the scroll, looks for these ancient words, and reads them to the synagogue in Nazareth, they are suddenly changed. Yes, the wording is a little different in Luke, but that is probably because he is quoting from memory. More importantly, he is speaking them anew in a new time, to a different people. He is speaking them to a people who have been conquered again, by the Romans; he is speaking them to the rural poor who have been disenfranchised and kept struggling to make ends meet by an economic system designed to benefit the wealthy in distant cities; he is speaking to the children of Abraham, a once proud, holy nation, who have lost their sense of a relationship with God to the religious elites in Jerusalem.
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Jesus is not just quoting ancient Scripture, he is making a much stronger claim: that these ancient promises are being fulfilled before their very eyes. That God’s power, the power of the Spirit that has come upon him, is not just a matter for old stories that happened centuries ago, but that it is at work in their very own time, bringing good news to the poor, freedom to the captives, sight to the blind.
Of course, in a sense this was a unique and special thing that happened with Jesus’s coming: Jesus was the fulfilment of all the old promises. But in another sense, this is something that happens here with us all the time. Whenever we gather and read the Scriptures, open the bulletins and read these ancient words to the gathered assembly, we are reenacting what Jesus did that day in Nazareth. And like him, we are reading these words not only as words that were addressed to people living very different lives thousands of years ago; we are reading them listening, straining, hoping and praying that they may speak to us today as well. “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church” we say, and we mean by that the possibility that God is speaking to us today, that these ancient words can come to life and speak directly to us with new meaning. That’s why we read these Scripture passages, after all, and that is what the sermon is about, really. While on the surface it’s just me talking at you, what we are really trying to do is to listen together to these ancient words, to tease them out and try to hear how they could be speaking to us with a living voice. ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ – that is our hope this morning and every Sunday when we gather.
Luke tells this story at this point in order to give us Jesus’s theological program. But that’s not all. Jesus does not sit down after reading Isaiah and say: “So, friends, this is my mission statement, this is what I hope to achieve in my ministry.” Note how different that would have been. That would have made the fulfillment of these ancient promises his job, something he has to achieve on his own, with maybe a bit of help from God. It would have left the words of Isaiah as words from the past, dead words, that he would then have to bring into the present and bring to life.
What he says is very different: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Today, he is saying, these promises have come to life; God is at work even as we speak, bringing life and hope and redemption to the poor and broken-hearted and downtrodden. The Spirit of God is moving in the world, and Jesus has been caught up in that and in his ministry and teaching he has become part of that movement, the movement he calls the kingdom of God.
And I think it is similar with us. We hear these words of Isaiah, which Jesus quotes as an explanation of what he is about, and we think – maybe that should be our mission statement. If it is good enough for Jesus, it is probably a good guide for his church. At least, that would be a very good step to take: Im not sure the church as a whole has really given these words the attention they deserve. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, probably the most influential text of the North American church in recent decades, quotes scores of Biblical passages to give our lives purpose; but he nowhere mentions the one that Jesus took as the purpose of his ministry. That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the North American church. So yes, it would be a good first step if we kept these words of the prophet before our eyes as our purpose as followers of Jesus: to proclaim good news to the poor.
But here’s the thing. We know what happens: we write a mission statement, incorporating these words of the prophet, and it becomes one more thing we have to do, one more demand we will never live up to, one more burden that daily reminds us of our inadequacy. Because mission statements tend to leave God out of the equation, they are all about what we have to do, hopefully with a little help from God.
Well, that’s not what Jesus does. He doesn’t take the promises of Isaiah as his mission statement, doesn’t tell the good people of Nazareth that it should be their mission statement too. It’s not primarily about what they should be doing, or even what he is doing. It is about what God is doing, what God is already doing in their midst. That is what makes it good news.
God is at work, the Spirit is moving, the kingdom has come near. That is Jesus’s message, again and again. We don’t have to make it happen. It is our job to keep our eyes peeled, to notice it happening around us, and to get on board with proclaiming it, celebrating it, and joining in with what God is already doing.
That is the primary missional question for us today: not what we should be doing, but what is God doing. Look around. It is difficult, because so much of what we see is human dishonesty and greed and denial. But look deeper. These Scriptures are being fulfilled. Wherever people reach out to the weak with compassion – and that happens all the time, in this community and around the world. Whenever people challenge injustice and established privilege. Whenever people speak the truth, and demand that those in power be truthful and accountable. Whenever people care for the brokenhearted and grieving.
It is happening everywhere. Today the scriptures are being fulfilled in our hearing, and before our very eyes. What Jesus was trying to do that day in Nazareth, what he is still trying to do today, is to open our eyes, to strengthen our hearts, and to invite us to get with the program.