Collect for Epiphany III
ALMIGHTY and Everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities,
and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Nehemiah, 8, Vv 1 - 3 & 5 - 6 & 8 - 10
New testament lesson:
St Luke 4, Vv 14 - 21
I take as a text the closing words of our Second Lesson, words from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. Jesus was in Nazareth, his home town. We are told that is was his custom, no doubt in keeping with all Jews at that time, to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. If Saint Luke is to be believed, then this happened at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In the opening verses of his Gospel, Saint Luke wrote that, after examining all things closely, he was determined to write, ‘an orderly account’. Scholars generally interpret this to mean that events recorded by Saint Luke are more likely to be in some sort of chronological order, perhaps more so than may be found in other gospels. At the commencement of the fourth chapter Jesus had been led by the Spirit into the wilderness and there he was tempted for forty days. You know the details of these temptations. In this regard Luke parallels Mark’s Gospel, from which he probably obtained the details. Having fought off Satan we then read that the devil, when he had finished with him, departed from him until an opportune time. The Authorised Version, the King James Bible, tells us that the devil departed from him for a season. We get from both of these translations a feeling of dread that Satan will be back, and perhaps back with a vengeance. A reading of the various Passion narratives only shows how accurate that prediction proved to be.
Jesus returned from the wilderness to Galilee to begin his public ministry. Now we have a disparity with Mark’s account. Mark records the rejection of Jesus by the people of Nazareth almost at the end of the first year, and maybe only year, of his ministry. May we still assume that Luke’s details are the more correct? We have no way of knowing and it is only of academic interest. Such details do, of course, show us the fallibility in the Bible – we have to read it very carefully to determine the actual facts of any circumstance, if, indeed, that is at all possible. But, let us for the moment forget these interesting if somewhat irrelevant diversions. An earlier verse in this chapter tells us that, ‘He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone’. As we heard in our reading, Jesus went to Nazareth. He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day, ‘as was his custom’. We are then told, ‘he stood up to read’. We should expect this to be the most natural of events. After all, here was the Incarnate Son of God – who could possibly have more authority to stand up and read the scriptures? But, we must remember that the assembled worshippers did not know this, as we do, two thousand years later. If we believe the sequence of events portrayed by Luke, then Jesus had not yet called together his band of disciples. Luke’s first three chapters gave us: the Annunciation narrative; the Incarnation; the Baptism of Jesus at the hands of John and the temptation before Satan in the wilderness. Yet here he was being seen by the local worshipping community as a natural leader – the one who stood up to read. Perhaps Mark’s timing of these events is the more correct, but we shall probably never know. Our lection told us that Jesus chose the passage to read. He turned to that most wonderful book of the Prophet Isaiah and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’.
Holy Scripture tells us nothing about the years of Jesus’ life from the time, when, as a teenager, he stayed behind in Jerusalem, questioning the teachers of the Law, until some two decades later when he began his public ministry. He had been brought up in a Jewish household in a time when religion was not something added on to a person’s life, if was the fundamental essence of that life. Almost everyone, everyone who did not wish to be excommunicated from the Jewish faith, lived by the Law of Moses. Like them, Jesus would have grown into maturity with a deep and abiding love of the Jewish scriptures, those books that we call the Old Testament. As he grew older and studied more widely he would surely have begun to understand how some of these scriptural passages referred uniquely to him. His mother, knowing of his miraculous birth, as told her by the Archangel Gabriel, would have pointed out to him those things predicted by the prophets such as Isaiah; matters that impinged directly on his young life. By the time of his baptism, a time, you will remember when the Holy Spirit of God descended on him like a dove, he would have known that Isaiah’s words, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,’ actually did apply to him and to him alone. With that Spirit upon him he knew that his duty was to ‘bring good news to the poor’, ‘proclaim release to the captives’, ‘recover the sight of the blind’, ‘let the oppressed go free’, and, ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.
In his temptations Jesus had rejected various false concepts concerning the Messiah, concepts that were common among the Jews of his time. He had not come to work conjuring tricks, such as turning stones into bread just because he was hungry. He was not interested in the transient glory of earthly kingship, even of all the kingdoms of the world, and he saw no future in tempting God to show his power by jumping from the temple pinnacle. What he had come to do was quite simple. His actions only concerned the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed, the dregs of society, the under-classes among the populace, those who, usually through no fault of their own, were outcasts from Jewish society.
Jesus also said that he would, ‘proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. This reference to ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ harks back to the times of Moses when a so-called Jubilee was declared every seven years. The people of those times also celebrated a special Jubilee every fifty or so years, a sort of Jubilee of Jubilees. These events had much to do with the ownership of land and property and the status of slaves. Jesus was telling his listeners in Nazareth that a Jubilee of Jubilees was imminent. Can we imagine the excitement caused by such a revelation? I suppose its parallel in today’s world was hearing that the UK would host the 2012 Olympic Games, at least for some people. Had we had the opportunity of reading a few more verses from Saint Luke, we should have heard that, ‘all spoke well of him’. I am sure they spoke well of him, if only because he did promise, ‘a year of the Lord’s favour’. But, we should ask, is that all the Jews were expecting from a Messiah, a Messiah promised down the ages, promised by priest and prophet? Palestine was a subjugated nation, firmly under the heel of mighty Rome. The Jews had been a conquered people for nigh on one hundred years, since the Roman General Pompey had captured Jerusalem. As a result of their subservience to Rome, food was in short supply and employment scarce. We only have to note the great numbers of people of all ages who followed Jesus wherever he went to appreciate the aimlessness of their lives. Add to this the high incidences of sickness and disease that met him at every turn and we can quickly understand the privations, misery and hardship under which they lived. So, when Jesus announced a ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ he would have been cheered to the rafters; this was certainly a step in the right direction.
However, the more his listeners in that synagogue thought on his words, the more puzzled and confused they became. What else had this itinerant preacher proclaimed for himself? Yes, he had good news for the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed, but he made no promises about giving them gainful employment or putting food into their mouths. He made no comparisons, as they would have expected, between himself and King David. He said nothing about raising an army to defeat the Romans. He made his simple declaration in the local synagogue in his home town; it was not a powerful call to arms in the presence of the High Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Slowly the penny, or the denarius, dropped. Just who was this fellow who was preaching to them and making such outrageous claims about himself? Was he not Joseph’s son? Did they not all know the members of his family? Wasn’t his family home just down the street from where they were sitting? As they thought further upon his words they would have remembered the teaching of the rabbis. The promised Messiah would come from Bethlehem, King David’s city, not from their local community in Galilee. These words of Jesus, that he was fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, were just too much for them. The more they thought about it the more infuriated and incensed they became. Had we read a few more verses from Saint Luke we would have heard of them chasing him through the town and trying to throw him over a cliff, such was their fury and indignation.
Yet, we, with two millennia of hindsight, know that what Jesus said was true. The ancient prophesy of Isaiah was fulfilled in him. He did come to offer comfort to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed and many others among the disadvantaged of the society of his time. Not only did he bring a ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ he brought a new understanding of the Lord’s favour, an understanding that has lasted, and will last, not just for a Jubilee or even a Jubilee of Jubilees, but for all eternity.
One of the many things that unites all Christians is their acknowledgement of the importance of Holy Scripture, the books of the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. We may argue about the translations we prefer and we may debate the accuracy of those translations. We may believe in their infallibility and inerrancy, or we may not. We may prefer the Gospels and Epistles and tend to see the books of the Old Testament as of less relevance. But, let us not forget those many points of reference in the ancient scriptures to the coming of a Messiah, as foretold by prophet, priest and patriarch. Let us rejoice that God the Father had put his words on to their lips and the pages of their manuscripts, thus preparing the world for a time when his blessed Son could say, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled’. Jesus told the Jews in his synagogue, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’. Let us pray that here, in this church, today; the Spirit of the Lord is equally to be found upon each and every one of us.
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