Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Easter 7 Sunday 13 May 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 61; Luke 4.14-21
“The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.”
Yesterday afternoon, at St. Paul’s cathedral, Bishop Sarah Mullaley was installed and enthroned as Bishop of London and placed in her cathedra or seat. In earlier times, this was not just somewhere for bishops to take the weight off their feet. They would teach and preach from their seat and this arrangement has been preserved in some cathedrals and restored in others.
In St. Paul’s, as in many cathedrals which have a medieval layout, the bishop’s throne is in the choir, close to the high altar. It has become the place where the bishop sits in choir for the offices and other non-eucharistic services; as I sit in my stall for Morning and Evening Prayer. But, unlike my stall, it is way out of sight and earshot to most of the people in the congregation. So, when the time came for her to preach her inaugural sermon, Bishop Sarah had to move from her chair to the pulpit; which in St. Paul’s looks more like an opera box than the seat of a teacher.
When a new bishop, or indeed a parish priest, preaches their first sermon in their new role, “all eyes are fixed on them.” People listen for clues as to what their plans might be; what the focus, the priorities and tone of the new ministry might be; what the future might hold and how it might affect them.
In our reading this evening Luke tells us of the sermon which Jesus preaches in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, to which he has returned after his baptism in the River Jordan and his time of fasting temptation in the wilderness.
Both Mark and Matthew record Jesus preaching in Nazareth, but they place the sermon later, when his ministry is well under way. Luke normally follows Mark’s order of events, but here he departs from it by setting this at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. This signals the importance of this scene for him. The way Jesus inaugurates his mission, and the response to it, sets a pattern that will run through Jesus’ ministry and the whole gospel.
It is not strictly true, even in Luke, that Jesus’ public ministry begins here, for we heard that after his baptism and the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus “filled with the power of the Spirit returned to Galilee,” and that he “began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” In the same way, over the last couple of weeks Bishop Sarah has been going around the different parts of the diocese of London, visiting parishes, chaplaincies and schools, talking and listening to priests and people to get to know something of what goes on. Last Tuesday, she and two archdeacons set out at 7.30 in the morning on a 16 mile tour of the Two Cities of London and Westminster which ended at 9 in the evening when I escorted her to the Tube for her journey home. Most of this was done on foot. This is clearly going to be an energetic episcopate: the clergy will have to get fit. Our role at All Saints was to provide a restorative lunch at which the Bishop was able to have a conversation with the Area Deans.
If we look back to that reading, we realize that Luke gives us almost nothing of the content of Jesus’ sermon. Jesus comes into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, “as was his custom.” Luke roots Jesus firmly in Jewish tradition. He is asked to read, as any adult male Jew could be. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah is given to him, he unrolls it, finds the place, and reads the text. When finished, he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down in a movement whose dramatic pattern draws attention to him: “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then comes the climactic moment and solemn pronouncement: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. But this text contains words and phrases central to Luke’s presentation of Jesus.
Jesus quotes from Isaiah according to the Greek translation of the Hebrew, the bible of the early church. There are some significant divergences from the original and an addition from a separate passage.
He quotes comes from the third part of the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet announces his ministry and message to the returning exiles from Babylon.
After beginning by quoting exactly, Luke then omits the fourth part of the Greek text, “to bind up the broken-hearted,” but keeps the phrases about proclaiming “release to the captives” and “recovery of sight to the blind.” He then adds “to let the oppressed go free.” This does not occur in Isaiah 61.1-2 at all but is from a nearby passage: Isaiah 58.5-7. Luke then returns to the original text with the proclamation of “a year of acceptance”; but omits the threatening final proclamation of a “day of vengeance of our God.”
What are we to make of Jesus’ quotation from the text with its omissions and inclusions?
We must remember that the dramatic action of Luke’s Gospel begins not with the events surrounding the birth and childhood of Jesus, however much attention they are given, but with the promises made by God to Israel. For the early Church, Scripture (what we know as the Old Testament) was not just a record of the past, but of what was to happen in the future, in fulfillment of the divine promise, in the age of the Messiah, in their own day.
From the moment of his empowerment with the Spirit at his baptism, Jesus can say, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” He applies to the ministry he is launching upon the “programme” announced by the prophet centuries before. In this sense, the prophet wrote the script for Jesus. That is why the sermon need go no further than the simple announcement: “Today, Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The prophetic announcement contains so much that to hear it is already to grasp salvation in the shape of the good news proclaimed to the poor. For all the brevity of his words, Jesus provides a model for all sermons: the essence of biblically based preaching is to show how the words of Scripture are alive and applicable today.
Omitting the phrase about binding up the broken-hearted, not because Like does not care about them; quite the opposite. But here the focus is on liberation: release for the captives. This idea of “release” is highly significant for Luke. Already Zechariah in his canticle Benedictus has spoken of “knowledge of salvation” coming to God’s people in “release from their sins”. In fulfillment of this John had proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the release of sin.” Jesus’ ministry will have much to do with freeing people from the captivity of sin. Sin is not so much about individual sins to be forgiven as a power from which we need to be freed and from which we cannot free ourselves.
In his ministry Jesus will literally fulfill the promise, of giving sight to the blind. The context suggests however the kind of recovery of sight experienced by people finally released into the light of day after long confinement in dark prisons.
The next phrase, “to let the oppressed go free” is borrowed from Isaiah 58, where it occurs in an interesting context. The prophet is lamenting Israel’s readiness to be scrupulous about the ritual requirements of fasting, while neglecting the duties of hospitality and social justice. These are far more important in God’s sight; without them the ritual acts have no meaning.
“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? It is to bow down the head like a bullrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Importing a phrase from this passage brings with it the content of the wider passage from which it comes. It fills out the sense of releasing the oppressed with the wider programme of social justice and hospitality to the poor announced in verse 7. Understood in this way, it implies that the ministry of Jesus will fulfill the programme of social justice that God required of Israel. This greatly enriches the significance of the whole.
What seems to have led to the importing of this phrase is that it contains that word “release” – which also occurs in the primary text. In Jewish and early Christian scriptural interpretation it was common to illuminate the meaning of one text by associating it with another with which it had a word in common.
The two texts in question in the present case – Isaiah 58 and 61 – actually have a further term in common: “acceptable”. This may have reinforced the association, since the whole quotation comes to a climax with the idea of acceptance.
“Release” has another connotation. It occurs again and again in connection with two related customs enshrined in Israel’s Torah – the Law given by God.
According to Deuteronomy (15.1-18), in the seventh or sabbatical year the land had to lie fallow, to rest and regain its fertility, and there had to be remission of all debts and release from the bonds of slavery.
Leviticus (ch25) prescribed that Israel celebrate the 50th or jubilee year as a “year of release” in which, along with the release from slavery, land alienated through hardship from a family or clan had to return to its original owners. Isaiah refers to these customs.
So there are good grounds for finding this sense of “release” in the programme of liberation that Luke has Jesus inaugurate here. The heart of that liberation is freedom from the bondage of sin. But spiritual “release” for Luke is a pledge of a liberation that will encompass the totality of human life, including the social and economic structures of society. Such a vision had already appeared in the Magnificat; and it will be restated in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (6.20-23).
The final element of Luke’s text (v.19) quotes the phrase about proclaiming “a year of acceptance” but omits the threatening final proclamation of a “day of vengeance of our God.” This omission is surely deliberate. It is not that judgement and retribution to come are absent in Luke. We hear it in the preaching of John the Baptist (3.7-9, 17) and in Jesus’ own prophetic preaching, especially when he is en route to Jerusalem. But in the preaching of Jesus the threat of judgement tends to be postponed to an indefinite future. The ministry that he is now inaugurating – which will continue after his death, resurrection and ascension in the mission of the Church – is not about vengeance but “acceptance.” Between now and the judgement stretches a space of salvation history that Luke, following Isaiah, calls the “acceptable year of the Lord.”
The whole idea of “acceptance/non-acceptance” is pivotal in Luke’s understanding of the ministry of Jesus. The “acceptable year of the Lord” is the season of God’s hospitality and welcome to the human race which it is Jesus’ mission to proclaim and enact. It is a time when people are simply accepted not judged. True, it is a summons to conversion – an urgent and insistent summons to a deep and transforming conversion. But before conversion there is acceptance, welcome, a hand held out to the afflicted, the trapped and the bound. If the whole mission of Jesus in Luke can be summed up in the phrase “the hospitality of God,” then that summary has its foundation here in the text from Isaiah, which Jesus quotes to inaugurate his ministry and set the pattern it will follow.
There was an echo of this in Bishop Sarah’s sermon yesterday:
“By chance today is International Nurses day – it is Florence Nightingale’s birthday. Florence was an epidemiologist, a statistician, a social reformer, theologian and nurse. She has inspired generations of nurses. At the heart of what she did was to use the ordinary skills we all possess and can use if we are brave enough, the skill to build human relationships. If we want to improve public health today, if we want to improve the life chances of those who are still left behind and failed by our education system, if we want to reduce the horrifyingly high number of young deaths from knife and gun crime occurring in this wonderful city, we have to build relationships, and if we want to see more people transformed by the love of God then we have to reach out, to build relationships.”
In Jesus’ ministry the “today” or “year” of God’s acceptance – the welcome of God – prevails. The great question is, who will “accept” the “acceptance”, and who will not?
Jesus, who brings the “acceptance” of God, will find acceptance in surprising quarters and rejection in others. This is the issue around which the drama of Luke’s Gospel turns. If we read on in Luke, we find that his hearers in Nazareth, those who had known him all his life, are among those who refuse to accept.
We who hear this word from Nazareth in the here and now of London, of Margaret Street, are challenged to the same pattern of mission and ministry. Will we be numbered among those who accept it or those who reject it? Will we accept God’s acceptance and welcome of us, and then live and work in such a way as to share that acceptance and welcome with others?