Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 May 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Easter 7 E&B
Luke wrote this evening’s gospel passage to express a clear programme for Jesus’ ministry. Our lectionary has reinforced the connection with Isaiah’s prophecy by giving us the whole of Isaiah 61 – the passage from which he quotes.
This is a salutary exercise in selective biblical reading, because Luke’s programme is different from that of the lectionary. As a result we only heard half the story tonight: you’ll remember that it turns into the story of Jesus’ rejection by his home crowd, for ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town’. In Mark and Matthew we only get the rejection story, without the Isaiah tie-in.
The lectionary is encouraging us, in tune with the Calendar, to look forward to Pentecost; to see this as a reminder that the Spirit gifted at Whitsun is the Spirit who informed Jesus’ ministry from the beginning. Luke is making that connection, but is more concerned to link Jesus with the Spirit-inspired prophets of what we call the Old Testament and to see in this initial welcome of Jesus as a local boy made good which so quickly sours as having in it the seeds of the broader rejection of his ministry by his own people, even the first muted notes of the Passion.
The rejection narrative is familiar and psychologically true. Anyone who’s attempted to minister or work in an environment in which they lived as a child will recognize the phenomenon.
But I am also reminded of a dear friend, now dead, who lost his faith. Growing up in an establishment, Anglican and musical family he had involved himself enthusiastically in church life to the point of becoming churchwarden of his comfortable middle-class parish. While in that role he fell out terminally with the incumbent over a piece of process and he never returned to active church membership or faith. He remained fanatically attached to church music (his brother was a professional musician), and even more fanatically devoted to seeking out clergy, often testing the limits of friendships which had begun through chance encounters in parish churches by turning up to stay without notice. You’re getting the picture – a slightly maverick character, but he was unquestionably a good and generous man.
When I talked to him about his loss of faith, which I thought clearly resulted from his personal argument with a priest he had admired, he rationalized it from passages such as this evening’s second lesson. Jesus was too arrogant, he said, to command his respect (here I detected more shades of the personal argument). Standing up and laying claim to being the fulfilment of Jewish salvation-history disqualified Jesus, as far as my friend was concerned, from the very role he claimed.
I have never heard this argument before or since, but I suppose hearing this story without our existing Christian baggage could feasibly provoke such a reaction; was Jesus a little self-serving in ascribing his rejection at Nazareth to mere over-familiarity?
In first-century Palestine the synagogue service consisted of the singing of a psalm, the recitation of the shema (the declaration of faith [verses from Deuteronomy 6 & 11 and Numbers 15] beginning ‘Hear of Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’; functionally comparable to our creed), the recitation of the 18 blessings, a reading from the Torah (the Law, or first five books of the Bible) and a reading from the Prophets. This was followed by a sermon and the service concluded with a blessing. So that’s pretty much what we’re doing tonight.
As we heard, Luke focusses his narrative on the second lesson, from the prophets. We know there were lectionaries which prescribed the first reading for each sabbath, and it has been inferred that the readings from the prophets might have been similarly prescribed. There is no proof of this, and it is argued partly from tonight’s passage, when Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah from which to read. The evidence from our story might seem ambiguous because Jesus appears to choose his own reading from the scroll. But finding specific verses in an ancient scroll was extremely difficult: the text was written in continuous script without spaces or punctuation on a cumbersome roll of parchment (still the prescribed material). The implication (which might have been taken for granted by Luke’s original audience) is that the passage was already marked, chosen from a lectionary, just as our lectionary gives us the choice of readings for Evensong.
Whether the choice was deliberate or providential, Jesus then identified himself unequivocally with the proclamation of the Isaiah scroll: the sermon on that occasion consisted of him saying, ‘that reading was about me’.
The first response to this announcement is precisely ‘he has done all things well’ which very quickly turns to ‘by what authority?’ and then to anger and rejection, on the basis that they know who he is, so he can’t be any good. This attempted lynching in Nazareth is clearly intended to anticipate his rejection in Jerusalem; so Jesus begins his journey to the cross.
The spin we’re being asked to put on that tonight, with the hindsight of the Resurrection and the foresight of Pentecost, is one way to read it. My friend’s reaction is another. As always with Jesus it is our recognition of him and response to him, or refusal to acknowledge him, that counts: he challenges us to acknowledge or reject the unique presence of God laid offered to us in his life, death and resurrection. But the true Good News of the Kingdom, is that he never gives up issuing the invitation afresh. Our Calendar and Church seasons articulate that repeated invitation for us each year. With Pentecost in clear sight, if we do accept his self-description here, we must be changed by it and be moved to share it or we haven’t been listening.