The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
24 January 2010
A sermon by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Saviour Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and all the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvellous works; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
With these words, Jesus begins his active ministry. Having been in the region of the Jordan, where he encountered John the Baptist and was baptised by him, and having spent time in the wilderness where he was tempted, Jesus returns to this hometown of Nazareth. We do not know how long Jesus had been away or how he was initially received upon his return, although Luke gives us the ominous information that he “returned in the power of the Holy Spirit” and that “a report concerning him went out in the surrounding country.”
Without letting on what his fellow Nazarines made of all this, if anything, Luke tells us that Jesus “went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day and he stood up to read and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.” It would seem, then, that his presence in the congregation was nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps, as happens with many of us, he was away from church for some period of time—on business, one might say—and came back and took his place once again on the reader’s rota. Luke goes on to say that “he opened the book and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’”
In this passage, Israel is assured that God has sent the prophet, anointed him, made his messiah to transform Israel, to transform the Children of Israel, to bring them redemption and restore Zion, restore Jerusalem, in short to transform the world. In this passage, Israel is assured that God will vindicate those who are poor and oppressed, that he will vindicate those who mourn. Everyone in that room with Jesus would have known that this great song of hope ends with the promise that
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations (Isaiah 61:11).
Resurrection, new life will come forth from the work of God in the prophet and God’s people will be made new. God will inaugurate a new age in which his priorities, his goals will be fulfilled rather than those of man. This should have been a passage that would give the listeners comfort. It would have given comfort knowing that God has acted this way in the past. It would have provided comfort expecting that God—because he is consistent in his ways, because he is faithful to his people—will act in this way again. This passage brims over with messianic expectation, the expectation that God will send his anointed one into the world to help bring about his kingdom.
That these words were read out in synagogue by Jesus, even a Jesus reported as being “full of the holy spirit,” might have gone without too much notice. Yet, Jesus does not merely read these words. These were words that he chose carefully and Luke makes it fairly clear that Jesus selected this passage, reporting that Jesus “opened the book and found the place where” Isaiah makes this extraordinary prophesy. Jesus chose these words of comfort, these words of expectation, and then, “as the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him,” makes the seamanly outrageous claim that, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I could stop here, but without treading on next week’s Gospel reading, in which we hear what happens next, it would be hard to understand the full weight of Jesus words. I do not know what Diane will do next week, but this is not a 1950s serial and I can not just say, “tune in next week ....”
So when Jesus stopped speaking, the people present did not balk at the claim by Jesus that he was in some significant way connected with the words of this mighty prophesy, that he mught be the prophet of which the text speaks. Indeed, “all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.” They were amazed that this was little Jesus, Joseph’s son all grown up. But as Jesus spoke to them, it became clear that Jesus’ message was not to be accepted in his own country and that Jesus’ message was intended for a wider audience, that his message was intended for the whole world. So Jesus was “put out” of Nazareth and began his ministry in earnest, his ministry in which he preached good news to the poor, proclaimed release to the captives, returned sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord. He inaugurated his ministry oriented to the whole world with this passage and remained faithful to it through his passion and death to his very resurrection in which he himself sprung up from the earth brimming with new life and achieving the victory of love, the victory of God’s purpose.
This exposition of Jesus’ ministry is one of those passages that contains within itself the kernel of the Gospel. It is a passage that transcends the individual stories of scripture and gets to the heart of Jesus’ message. It is a passage that can help us focus on those things that are truly important, while we let fall away the confusing often contradictory details of the Biblical narratives. When we are confronted in our lives with the question of what are we to do, we may look to this passage for clarity.
As Jesus was called in his messianic ministry to inaugurate God’s Kingdom, we are called, anointed, though our baptism into his death and resurrection, to be his very body so we may as his Church preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, heal those who are blind, who are sick, and set at liberty those who are oppressed. We are called as his body to a life of service in our varied occupations because God had already acted, because God has already initiated this new age. We are caught up in it and God sweeps us along with him. I pray that each of us may see that as Saint Paul reminds us, “for by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit,” and that we may accept our calling to be the Body of Christ in this the Messianic Age.
Andrew Charles Blume+
Philips Brooks, 23 January 2010
© 2010 Andrew Charles Blume