Sermon for High Mass – Epiphany 4 Sunday 27 January 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Nehemiah 8.1-3,5-6,8-10; I Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-30
“So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Neh. 8.8
In that passage from Nehemiah we hear of the people telling Ezra, the scribe and priest, to bring out the book of the law of Moses and read it to them. His audience is made up of those who have returned from the exile in Babylon to rebuild the city and the temple. Things have not been easy: with obstruction for local officials and threats of violence. The people look to the scriptures both for guidance and for hope. What follows: the restoration of worship, the public confession of sin, the renewal of the covenant, all spring from the text which contains the history of God’s dealings with his people.
We can recognize a family likeness, between what happens in the square before the Water Gate, what happens in the synagogue in Nazareth, and what we do in church; as we hear the scriptures read and as preachers seek to give us the sense of what we hear; although we don’t usually go on quite as long as Ezra and his colleagues.
Towards the end of last year, Canon Michael Gudgeon led us in an introduction to St. Luke’s Gospel, as preparation for it being the Gospel we hear on most Sundays this year. What he was doing was that same giving of the sense, so that we might understand what we hear and read. Ezra’s hearers needed to understand both what was being read to them, as many would not know Hebrew, and what it meant for their lives as a community and as individuals. We too need the help of scholars and preachers to understand the meaning of writings from different ages, cultures and languages.
Canon Gudgeon raised a question about the way in which the Church of England had modified the original intention of the compilers of the Lectionary we use at the Eucharist: Instead of continuing the story next week we will have Luke’s story of the Presentation of Christ, which we will already have heard at Candlemas. Now it’s a wonderful story but this means that we do not get to hear how the people in the synagogue in Jesus’ home town respond to his reading of that passage from Isaiah and his brief comment on it. Like all sermons, including this one, what is said is only the beginning, only half the story. The other half is in the response of the hearers. Canon Gudgeon wondered what the Vicar would do about this: a challenge which the Vicar has not forgotten. What I have done is extend the Gospel reading to the end of the story.
The change from admiration and approval to murderous rejection in so short a space is striking, but it will be a recurring theme in the Gospel.
If we compare Luke to Mark and Matthew, we find that he moved this incident to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, following on from his Baptism and the Temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of his public ministry of healing and teaching in and around Capernaum. Luke uses is as an introduction and summary of the whole ministry of Jesus who goes “on his way,” the way which will lead him to Jerusalem and to the cross which is both the ultimate rejection and the ultimate demonstration of the fulfilment in Jesus of the scriptures of Israel and the will of God to which they witness.
Jesus returns to the synagogue in which he had grown up, where he had been learned the law and the prophets; hearing them read Sabbath by Sabbath and having the sense given. Like any layman, he could be asked to read and even preach: the trained rabbinate, as it would later develop, was still in its infancy and a rural synagogue might well not have is own rabbi.
The synagogue service would include readings from both the Torah – the first five books of scripture – which we usually translate as “Law” but is more accurately understood as “Instruction,” on how to live well in relationship to both God and our neighbour – and from the prophets.
Jesus is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The passage defines features of Jesus’ identity. He is the one sent, anointed and commissioned by the Spirit,
“to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
To Jewish hearers this would sound like the year of Jubilee in the book of Leviticus (25.8-13), when debts were to be forgiven, slaves were to be set free, the land was to be given rest, to lie fallow and recover its fertility, and a new era was to begin. Spiritual renewal, for the prophets, goes hand in hand with economic justice.
In a moment of drama Jesus rolls up the scroll, looks round at the congregation whose eyes are fixed on him, and says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. “Today” – not tomorrow, not someday, but here and now. Throughout the Gospel there is this sense of immediacy. The time of divine action is always now. This today continues throughout Jesus’ ministry. Now is always the time to release the captives, to give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
The history of the Church has too many tragic examples of slowness, or even refusal, to embrace the cries of the prophets or the opportunities to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6.8).
Last Monday, the people of the United States commemorated Martin Luther King. When he called for racial justice and for economic justice for all people, there were those in the churches who wanted to support his cause but were afraid to act too soon. It was a good idea but the time was not right. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he replied, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
And today, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is Holocaust Memorial Day. The deliberate and systematic destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis in the midst of a society with centuries of Christian history, was the Church’s most disastrous moral failure in the last century. Because the Church and Christians did not speak and act in their “today,” tomorrow was too late. And we know, or should know, that murderous hatred of Jews is not something there in the past, but present in our today. Alarmingly, a recent poll reveals that one in twenty people in this country believe that the Holocaust did not happen.
Too many Christians, now as well as then, have spiritualized the meaning of those words from Isaiah, as if they are not about real material poverty and injustice. But as Fr. Michael said in his commentary on today’s gospel in the parish E-Letter, they were and are, and our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ is to continue to work for that kingdom in which poverty and injustice are no more.
Ezra’s hearers, we are told, wept, in sorrow for their failings. Scripture convicts us, too, of our sins against God and neighbour, but that is not the end of the story. Nehemiah tells them: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep….Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to the Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
We, too, might weep in sorrow for the failings in love of God and neighbour; our failures to make “the year of the Lord’s favour” a reality. Recognizing them is a necessary first step, but it is only the beginning of the story, not its end. God has not given up on us, any more than he had given up on those who had been exiled to Babylon. In the midst of all the difficulties we face in building the life of the Church as a witness and agent of God’s kingdom, all the challenges of a world in which divisions of all sorts are becoming more extreme, we are not to sink into the slough of despond; feeling that it is all hopeless, all too much for us. Instead, we are to rejoice, “for the joy of the Lord is [y]our strength.”
We are to eat and drink the bread and wine at the Table of the Lord where all are equal; and to work that the good things of this world are recognized and shared as God’s gifts for the well-being of all his children.