Here we are on the third Sunday in the season of Epiphany, still on a journey, still going step by step, following the revelations—that’s what Epiphany is, remember—something is revealed, a revelation. We are following the revelations, experiencing epiphanies, as we follow the development of Jesus and his ministry through our gospel readings. One of those readings has come from Luke’s gospel. On Epiphany Sunday, we read from Matthew. And, we, with the wise men, experienced the revelation of the holiness and magnificence of the Messiah, the Son of God. Then, following the lectionary, we turned to Luke’s gospel, to experience another revelation. Jesus is revealed as one with “all the people” as he is baptized. And, furthermore, Jesus is blessed and named the Beloved Son of God while he is at prayer. Jesus’ prayer, in effect, brings down the Holy Spirit. Last week, we took a departure from Luke. What was revealed to us was Jesus’ capacity for the extraordinary, a sign, a miracle, with a nudge from his mom. We saw Jesus’ divine nature. What was revealed is Jesus’ and God’s extravagance. We were extolled to share that extravagance by getting involved. Jesus gets involved in an event that is going to go flat, to die, a wedding party that has run out of wine. Jesus brings life and vitality to the house, the household and to the feast-- the wedding party. Our message—feel the nudge—get involved.
Today’s reading is from Luke once again. We will remain in Luke’s gospel, as we follow the lectionary every Sunday right into the late stages of Lent. So, since we are going to remain in Luke, we ought to know a bit about what kind of gospel
story Luke tells. In contrast to John’s gospel, which is highly symbolic, Luke’s gospel is concrete, grounded in reality. The stories Luke tells are plausible narratives—they are a kind of history. Jesus is in the world interacting with the people of his time, people who have real families, who live in real houses, in real towns. Luke is a historian. He establishes a time and a context for Jesus’ birth, “in the days of Caesar Augustus”, for example. He establishes real backdrop for his ministry. Luke continues this specificity throughout his gospel and his second volume, the book of Acts.
Luke likes details. Sometimes reading Luke is like watching a movie. We can appreciate the settings. We can hear the characters speak. We can be rewarded or shocked by a detail, a close-up. Today’s reading is no exception.
We begin with a “then”—obviously something has happened before. What has happened is Jesus has been in the desert—the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. We will read more about that during Lent. But today we move from the time of Jesus’ trial—a test time through which Jesus prevailed, because he was full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit. (Lk.4:1)
And so, today, having triumphed over the devil in the wilderness, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returns to Galilee. His reputation has spread, we learn. He begins to teach in the synagogue. Everyone praises his insights and his teachings.
In today’s reading he returns to Nazareth, his home town. Now he hasn’t been home for quite a while. People remember him because that is where he was brought up. They surely know about him. They too must have heard the reports that have been spread through all the surrounding country. (v15).
Today’s Lucan text describes Jesus’ actions in the detail that I spoke of earlier—details as if we are watching a movie.
Jesus is in the synagogue—a small town worship space—not a decorated temple—synagogue means “house of assembly”—it is a place where people gather to read the Torah, to pray, and to discuss and debate scripture, Mosaic law, the meaning behind the words of the prophets and all kinds of related questions.
The small local synagogue Jesus enters is the one where he joined others on the Sabbath for worship as a boy. It’s a modest place. He knows these people. They know him. He knows the faces, and they recognize him. These are people who have struggled and continue to struggle. They are not wealthy, mostly tenant farmers and artisans—all men.
They are also obliged to pay rents, they are obliged to pay their Jewish landlords, they are taxed to sustain the Empire by their Roman overlords. This is an ordinary group, on an ordinary Sabbath day, except for one thing: Jesus has come back to town.
Ordinarily the worship in the synagogue would go like this: Fist the Shema would be recited, the words of Deuteronomy.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. Deut. 6: 4 and 5.
The Shema goes on to instruct each man to teach his children and to “bind” the words to their hands and their heads. These words of the Shema are the words that every faithful Jew knows—like we know the Lord’s Prayer. Those gathered would also pray and then together voice an “amen.” The fourth activity in the synagogue would be the reading from the scrolls of the Torah and the prophets—the Law and the Prophets. There would be a sermon—an illumination and reflection on the reading. The service would conclude with a benediction—a blessing. Any male present could volunteer to read or be asked to read by the presider—a Levite. Likewise, any man present could be asked to give the sermon. This person was usually agreed upon beforehand. Synagogue ritual has not changed much in a couple of thousand years. The reading is ceremonial. A special pointer is used to follow the text. The reader voices the words with melodic intonations. These traditions taught to every Jewish boy and then celebrated at his Bar mitzvah at age 13.
On this particular Sabbath service, Jesus volunteers to read, and to comment. He reads from the Prophet Isaiah. He knows what he wants to read. He asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and it is brought to him: He stood to read. (v.16) “let me read today,” he might have said, “Bring me Isaiah.” See Luke’s detail: “He unrolled the scroll. (v.17) He finds his place, the passage he wants to focus on. It’s from Isaiah 61:1 and 2a. He reads just the two verses.
The Spirit if the lord is upon me, because he has anointed me… (v.18) He finishes the reading.
Then, once again, note the detail: And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. (v.20) You can feel the tension build as all the men fix their eyes on him.
The silence is pregnant. And then he speaks: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. (v.21) WOW!
And what did the scripture say? What Jesus has done is taken the words of Isaiah and attributed them to himself. “The Spirit of the Lord,” which Isaiah writes about, has been assumed by Jesus. That Spirit has fallen upon Jesus, just as it did during his baptism in the Jordan. Just as it stayed with him through his temptation.
The Spirit has anointed him. And it has instructed him to do what follows. In the next four verses, Jesus outlines his mission statement.
He sets the course for his journey from this moment forward to all the way to Jerusalem and the cross. What has the Spirit anointed him to do?
- To bring good news to the poor
- To proclaim release to the captives
- To give sight to the blind
- To let the oppressed, go free
- To proclaim the once-every-50 years debt forgiveness
That’s the mission. That is the mission Jesus announces.
What is most significant is he is in the synagogue. He’s with men who are ordinary, but they know their “Bible”. They have read and discussed and debated the scripture —the Law and the Prophets, for years. They have never heard anything like this before. Jesus has taken them from inside their place of worship and debate --all good. But he has gone further. He has clothed himself in the Spirit. He has taken them through the doors of their house of assembly and worship and theological debate out into the real world—to the poor, to the hungry, the victimized, to the captives—the ones sitting in debtors’ prison. He has spoken of offering sight to those blinded by their rituals and self-imposed limitation; he has claimed release to the downtrodden, to the oppressed and set them free.
He has assumed a mantle of responsibility and leadership by taking the words of Isaiah and emphatically declaring them as a description of himself. His reputation and teaching have just landed on those gathered there in the synagogue in Nazareth. And he has shaken them up by taking their imaginations outside into the world. What he has assumed is totally radical. He has addressed the needs of the poor, the widows and orphans, outside, he has addressed the plight if the captive, outside.
He has announced that a cancellation of all depts and financial obligations is coming. All of this happens outside. He takes their faith from discussion to action. He takes their religion and moves it from inside the house, the rituals, the ornaments, the building; he moves it outside—outside into the light of day and into the real world where real people have real problems. Outside into the real world where people are confused , threatened, hopeless and depressed. Where people are struggling.
Jesus takes another step—led by the Spirit—he goes outside. He goes outside and he invites, through his words, the whole synagogue and the rest of us worshipping inside, to go with him.
Look at the insert in your bulletin. It is a picture of a poster that was posted on an outside bulletin board of a church in North London. I took this picture. Friends took Cathy and I on a walk through a heath, a large undeveloped park, with fields, tree, shrubs, stream and bridge over creeks. On the edge of this heath was an old church. Old by our standards, probably only a couple of hundred years old. It was an Anglican church, C of E, Church of England.
The bulletin board was filled with announcements about church activities—worship service times on Sunday and through the week, daycare and babysitting services for moms who need a break, bible studies, movie nights, and church suppers. It was clear that this was an active church. A lot of people were involved doing things inside the church.
The poster struck me for its blatant honesty about who you might find as part of the church. The “Warning” is for those outside not to expect sanctimonious and pious people inside. The invitation goes out to “normal” people it seems. It says “you will be mixing”—this means that those described are already there.
The people who designed this poster are well aware of the attitude of some of the people out there about what kind of people go to church. They are deliberately promoting and challenging their attitudes—even perhaps trying to shock. The poster is obviously facetious.
It reminds me of another statement. Although not quite as radical, the statement of KPC on the website that explains why we exist goes like this. Why we exsist:
The goal of the church isn’t to produce ‘good’ people. The goal of the church is to make disciples of Jesus. It’s an important distinction. There are many ‘good’ people in the world around us, who are off chasing their own goals and ambitions. But those who are committed to Jesus have given up this self-direction and are following his Spirit's direction. They are enrolled in his trade school and are becoming his apprentices. Our church is part of God's trade school, and plays a crucial role in helping others become more like Jesus.
It is not unlike this poster. In it we say that the goal of the church is not to produce “good” people. It says that we are apprentices. God’s trade school, helping others to become more like Jesus. We are, by our own statement, not especially “good,” but sinners. We are among the sinners.It is not unlike this poster. In it we say that the goal of the church is not to produce “good” people. It says that we are apprentices. God’s trade school, helping others to become more like Jesus. We are, by our own statement, not especially “good,” but sinners. We are among the sinners.
We are able to extend a welcome to all sinners, people just like us. What would the wording on our welcome poster look like? Would it be headed “WARNING?” How do we see the community outside the walls of our “house of assembly”, our church? Are we open to bringing people from this community into these four walls?
The community of Kerrisdale has changed from when it was when this church was originally built to suit that population. We need to understand these changes; we need to acknowledge these changes. We need to respond to these changes and not only acknowledge, but embrace them. This we must do if we intend to move forward, guided by the Spirit. We, led by Jesus, must acknowledge who are the “poor”. Who are the “captives”, who are the “blind”? What would a declaration of the Lord’s favour mean? We need to pay attention to Jesus’ synagogue teaching in his house of worship in Nazareth more than 2000 years ago
and hear it and act upon it in our house today. Jesus teaches us what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to: not on the ritual, not on the physical space, not on furniture, or the organ. Jesus does not even focus on those who are gathered there, the ones who are comfortable enough to be able to gather for worship. He takes them outside. He exhorts them, by stating his mission, to take another step, outside. Guided by the Spirit. We also, need to take another step, outside, guided by the Spirit.
If we do not, we will be the poorer, we will be among the blind, and we remain among the oppressed and not be able to move forward with the Spirit that leads us. So, on our journey through Epiphany, let us experience our revelation for today. Let’s take another step, a step outside, led by the Holy Spirit. AMEN