The Word of God is expressed in creation, most fully in Jesus who was known as the Word made flesh, and in Scripture. And when we truly hear the Word we are enlivened, woken up from the fog in which we have been living. Sometimes we hear clearly that Word speaking but sometimes it seems that even God’s chosen people become deaf and blind to the Word, sometimes for generations. And then a messenger comes and speaks that Word again in such a way that even we can hear! (RCL Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21
Ezra and Nehemiah were both leaders of the Judean community and sent by the Persian leaders to provide spiritual and political leadership to the struggling Jerusalem community. When the people hear the Scripture read out loud to them, and it seems commentated upon by those wise in such matters, they are deeply moved to worship and would have mourned (possibly for fear of punishment for having ignored the holy writings of the law for so long) but they were told that their joy in the Lord was to be their strength. (Emeritus Professor Patricia Hull, Working Preacher.org) The people who had struggled so long in exile and in the returning were enlivened by rediscovering the Word of God and having it read to them and unpacked for them.
And in the gospel story this week we can feel the thrill of hearing the familiar words of the prophet Isaiah being read by one with this palpable authority. This story from Luke has an almost movie director detail to it. We can feel the current run through the crowd as Jesus stands and reads and then sits down again. We hear the poetic and powerful words of the prophet Isaiah in the mouth of Jesus and recognise all our hopes and aspirations coming to pass.
Last week we heard John’s account of how Jesus’ ministry began and now we hear Luke’s account. And they are quite different. Remember that John begins with the miracle at Canna - the gracious abundant love of God being made manifest through the miraculous actions of Jesus in turning water into wine.
And here, in Luke’s account, we have Jesus returning to his home town and preaching. At first, reading the words of Isaiah with power and beauty and then! And then he speaks to the Scripture, he unpacks it for them and about them. And, spoiler alert, they are not pleased. They want to throw him off a cliff and finish his ministry there and then. And only some smart moves on Jesus’ part gets him out of there in one piece. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves what is this portion of Scripture talking about. According to the witness of Luke’s gospel this is both at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and it takes place in his home town so it’s incredibly important. Well there is a lot happening and we don’t have time to unpack it all but let’s focus on a few points.
Firstly Luke wants us to know that Jesus is filled with the Spirit and is acting in this power. Luke also wants us to hear that Jesus is claiming and demonstrating that he is the one who is the fulfilment of the prophecies of old. Jesus’ power and purpose come from his relationship with God.
And what does Jesus do with that authority? He proclaims that the kingdom of God is now and on earth – that the blessing of God is to be known in real and earthy life giving ways – release from captivity, recovery of sight, freedom from oppression. Remember the Hebrew understanding of blessing which is full bodied and about everyday life – long life and good health, many children, good crops and a multitude of livestock all in your own land and that the whole nation is to proper.
And Jesus declares by word and action that God is for the poor and oppressed. Not just because of the words of Isaiah but because of who the Galileans are. So what is this kingdom news that Jesus is proclaiming. I want to quote from Kenneth Leach’s book “We Preach Christ Crucified”. He is an Anglican priest and theologian in England.
“Jesus came from the most troublesome of all the Jewish districts, Galilee, with its unique social and political character. The word means district (gelil) and was used specifically of the district beyond the Jordan River (Galilee of the nations, Isaiah 9:1), but it was far more than a geographical description. The term “Galilee” was associated in popular consciousness with Judas the Galilean and with other leaders of insurrections. From Galilee arose all the revolutionary movements which disturbed the Romans. It was the scene of guerrilla warfare and of nationalist uprising. The years AD 30 to 70 were seething with revolts. To be a Galilean at all was to be suspect... So Jesus has a context, a base... His geographical base was Galilee and the resistance movements against the Roman oppressors. His religious, or ideological, base was that of progressive Pharisaism, respectable religion, the movement for a holy nation. ...Against this he set his personal base, the apostles and the band of faithful women, the culture of the dispossessed whom he trained, radicalised and endowed with the power of the age to come. And that power was not seen merely as a future prospect but as an active present force. Salvation meant bread and forgiveness from debt...”
So the thrill that runs through the gathered crowd in the synagogue in part is the thrill of wondering is he the one who will lead us out of political oppression into the fullness of our inheritance.
We are in danger of missing all this because the form of the gospel that we have inherited in the west has been diluted, individualised and interiorised and has been moved from its context. We will hear more about this next week. So given all this it is a pretty powerful opening statement about his ministry. It is much more powerful and disturbing than we at first thought.
So often we listen to the gospel to hear what Jesus can do for us – we long for personal healing and being set free. And rightfully we hear that Jesus can deliver us from ourselves. We are, I believe, invited to know that we can be set free from what oppresses us and are invited on the life long journey from captivity to freedom. But if we stay only at the personal invitation for our own inner healing then we risk distorting the very message that is meant to set us all free.
For as the Letter of Paul reminds us we should also hear that we now are called upon to become the word of Jesus in the world – the body of Christ, and that between us we are the hands of Christ, the feet of the Christ, and dare I say the bleeding heart of Christ. We are called upon to claim and to create an abundant and just world not just enjoy personal salvation.
And anticipating the disturbance we shall investigate more next week we might reflect a little for now that if we truly hear the gospel then it will stir up and disturb as we struggle to truly want change rather than just the reduction of painful symptoms – be they physical or spiritual or communal. Most of us want quick fixes and medical miracles that heals the particular bit that hurts rather than slower and complete whole of life and nation transformations that involve our giving over of self to the ways of God.
Maybe our ancient forebears in faith have something to teach us about the humble and whole of life desire to worship and grow in stature in the ways of God. Maybe a little more weeping in response to the word of God and then eating of the fat and drinking of the sweet wine would make for more holy days. Maybe learning Psalm 19 off by heart and reciting it at dawn or sunset would put us in proper joyful celebration and humble desire to grow in grace.
Jesus and the gift of the Spirit of the living God tends always to be more than we bargained for. Still we dare to say, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and enliven us with your passion.