Manifesto at Nazareth – part two

EPIPHANY 4C – 3rd February, 2013

St Matthew’s, Guildford



No prophet is accepted in his home town”, says Jesus.


I have a colleague who, a few years ago, was appointed rector in the parish in which he was born and grew up.  I don’t know how it’s going; though since it’s been three or four years, perhaps it’s OK.  He was born in the parish, went through Sunday School, CEBS and youth group, and found his calling to ministry while a young adult member of the parish.  Now, as rector of the parish, he has his mother and grandmother and some other relations in his congregations.


When Jesus stands up in the synagogue of Nazareth, he is in a very similar position.  He was born in a somewhat scandalous manner to a Nazareth couple, Joseph and Mary; he went to the local school, attended synagogue regularly, made his bar-mitzvah at twelve or thirteen, and learned and practised his trade as a carpenter in the community until the age of thirty. His mother and brothers and other relations are almost certainly in the congregation.


Now after a possibly quite short absence, Jesus returns to his home town.  Some stories have come from Capernaum, where – apparently – he has done some miracles of healing.  The Chazzan, whose duties included everything from looking after the holy scrolls to being synagogue janitor to teaching in the village school, hands Jesus a scroll, inviting him to read the lesson from the prophets.  It is possible that there was a lectionary with readings set for each Sabbath, or Jesus may simply have chosen the passage from Isaiah, which we heard him read last Sunday:


“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.”


Having read this passage, Jesus hands the scroll back and sits down.  It was customary for the reader to provide some commentary on what he had read, and Jesus does exactly that. 


Today”, he says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  


And, as I said last week, you could probably have heard a pin drop!  The prophecies of Isaiah have been read in Jewish religious gatherings for over eight hundred years by this time, but never with such conviction and never with such immediacy.


“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


And that’s where the lectionary left us last week. Jesus has declared his mission in compelling terms, and we were left for a week to await the reaction of his hearers.


This morning, we read, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Their initial reaction was one of admiration and amazement.  A nine-word sermon, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, has the people sitting up in their seats, amazed at his eloquence!  J


On Tuesday, I attended a clergy gathering at Wollaston with Stephen Than Myint Oo, Anglican Archbishop of Burma.  Archbishop Stephen told us of his being invited to preach twice at St George’s Cathedral last Sunday.  To his surprise, he was instructed that he had ten minutes at one service and twelve at the other.  He is accustomed to preaching at least forty-five minutes; in fact, many of his people feel quite ripped off if he goes for less than an hour.  Wouldn’t work here, would it?  J

Anyway, Jesus might have been better if he had stopped at his nine-word homily!


Once they’ve expressed their amazement at Jesus’ eloquence, they begin to enquire further.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask.  They have heard him read the Scripture beautifully.  All Israel looked for a time when God would intervene in history and restore Israel to its proper place, honoured throughout the world as God’s chosen people.  And there are many Jews – and even fundamentalist Christians who look for the same thing.


But when the prophets wrote of the coming Kingdom of God, they very often spoke of the inclusion of all the world, all peoples and nations, coming into God’s glorious future. Isaiah often speaks of the Gentiles’ being included in the restoration, the new creation.  When Jesus reads the words from Isaiah about “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, about letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour”, it is to them good rhetoric.  Many people enjoy a good sermon – well-written and well-presented.  But far fewer people want to hear a sermon which demands change in themselves.


Jesus’ “Today” is way too immediate.  If this scripture if really to be fulfilled today, Jesus’ hearers will need to change and to make a commitment to his mission.  And they don’t want that!


How much easier it is for them (and us?) to speak of Jesus’ heritage.  Basically, it’s a case of “Who does he think he is?”  Jesus knows what they’re thinking and challenges them head on!


And he does so by challenges their narrow-minded thinking.  The comfortable exclusiveness of Jewish thinking is that they believe themselves to be the only ones for whom God cares.  It’s as though the cry “God for the Jews!” is carried across the congregation and all they want to do is lynch Jesus.  There are, sadly, many Christians who seem to think that God is their own particular preserve – and that many others – even would-be fellow Christians – are outside of God’s love and care and of God’s welcome to Heaven.


Jesus’ words about the prophets Elijah and Elisha challenge a whole lot of presuppositions and prejudices there in the synagogue of Nazareth and here and now at St Matthew’s, Guildford.  In a land full of “God’s people” in a time of famine, there were, of course, many poor widows facing starvation.  Yet God sent Elijah to a Canaanite widow in Sidon, part of the old Philistine territory.

And we all know the story of the Syrian army captain, Naaman, to whom Elisha brought healing from his leprosy. 


God is always acting beyond the narrow boundaries which we place.  God’s love and grace cannot be limited by our notions of who’s in and who’s out! 


As Jesus read the passage from Isaiah, all was well.  When he began to speak, the people were overawed and admiring.  But as soon as his mission becomes immediate and inclusive of the “other”, all they want to do is kill him. 


We, of course, wouldn’t want to do that.  Our preferred stance as middle-class Western Christians is to ignore him – to close our ears and our hearts to whatever call of Jesus would take us beyond our fixed ideas and our cultivated “niceness”.


Last week, I concluded my sermon by reading two versions of the “Five Marks of Mission”, from the Anglican Communion and from the Anglican Board of Mission, Australia.  They were even printed out and included in the pewsheet for your further consideration.


I do not know how you react to them – personally or corporately as congregation and parish.  I hope they have called you and challenged you.  In fact, if you have read them at all, you cannot have been unchallenged.


What you choose, however, to do with them and in response to them is between you and God.


I say again, as I said last week, we who belong to Christ, who bear the name Christian, are called to share in Jesus’ mission.


With Jesus, we are called and anointed

“to bring good news to the poor.

… 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.”


How will you and I respond?


My fear is that we are already too familiar with God’s call, but we choose not listen and act.  My Grandma used to “There’s none so deaf as them that don’t want to hear”. 


Will you hear and take the challenge?



The Lord be with you!





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