Preaching to the Home Crowd

There is a story about a couple in conversation as they leave Church one weekend.  The wife says to her husband, “did you see the strange hat Mrs Smith was wearing?” “No, I didn’t,” her husband replies.  “Did you notice that Phil West badly needs a haircut?” comments his wife. “Sorry dear, I didn’t notice,” says her husband.  “Well did you notice that that young couple were giving each other funny looks during the sermon?” says the wife. “No, I really didn’t see that either,” her husband sighs.  “John,” says the wife impatiently, “sometimes I wonder if you get anything out of going to church at all.”

If we are honest we are here today for all kinds of reasons. We are here to worship God, we are here to be encouraged in our journey of faith, we are here because it is our duty, because we have made a commitment to be here, we are here to see our friends, we are here because we have always been here…  The reasons that we are here are probably the same reasons that the congregation gathered in the synagogue in Jesus’ home town in Nazareth on that Sabbath day morning.

Jesus has been baptised in the river Jordan by his cousin John, he has been driven out into the wilderness where he has wrestled with the realisation of the ministry that is ahead of him and fought the temptations that we will reflect upon in a couple of weeks time on Ash Wednesday at the start of the Season of Lent.  Then he has wandered around the Galilean villages, teaching and preaching, and talking with those who live there, gaining a reputation as someone who was worth listening to.  Now he has come home, back to Nazareth. To his home town, to his home congregation, to people like you and me.

I know what you are thinking today, and in a way I do sympathise with you. You wish that it was Jesus here preaching at this Mass and not me.  We would all be at the altar much quicker, we would all be out of the Church much earlier as well.  If it is any consolation I wish he was preaching too. I would much rather sit at the feet of the Word of God, than hear someone else trying to reflect on his words.  Imagine it though, Jesus’ first sermon in his home town, and it was only nine words long. We have just heard it, “today this scripture was fulfilled in your hearing.” That was it. That was the sermon. Nothing more, nothing less.  The invocation at the start of my homily, just a moment ago, the intention that all that will be said is in the name of the Triune God, was longer than Jesus’ whole sermon.  Well I am not Jesus, so we are going to be here a little bit longer.

I did some reading about Nazareth this week. It did not take long, because we do not know much at all about Nazareth in Jesus’ day.  Nazareth is barely, if ever, mentioned in first century documents outside of the New Testament.  The little we do know is largely speculative and wholly unremarkable.  Nazareth was a small community of between 500 and 2,000 people, located not far from a major East-West trade route that ran from Egypt to Asia called the Via Maris.  It was situated in the hill country of Galilee, a region of fishing and farming that was also known in Jesus’ time for its distinctive regional accent and for having a large population of Gentiles, a high number of immigrants, foreigners, resident aliens.  Archaeological evidence also shows that Nazareth may have sat somewhat in the shadow of the nearby city of Sepphoris, which was being rebuilt as a regional capital around the time of Jesus.

Sepphoris was the place where the action was. Sepphoris was the place with the multiplex cinema – or at least the Roman theatre.  Sepphoris was the place where the young people went off to work and find jobs.  Nazareth was not: apparently nothing much happens around Nazareth.  But it was Jesus’ home town, and on this Saturday the congregation gathered for the Shabbat service as we gather for worship today, for all of the same mixture of reasons, with all of the same mixture of personalities.

As I imagine the scene I imagine the older men gathering in the synagogue saying to one another, “that’s our boy Jesus, Mary’s son, come good and back here to speak to us.”  I imagine the older women saying to each other, “goodness he has grown into a man.”  I imagine the mother’s saying to each other, “he is an eligible bachelor, now he is back perhaps he might be interested in marrying one of our daughters.”  Jesus is home, and he stands up to read from the scroll of the scriptures. The scroll is handed to him and he begins to read from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

We don’t know whether that was the portion of scripture appointed for that day or whether he chose it himself, we are not told, but at any rate he begins to read,  “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  It is one of the most famous passages of Isaiah’s prophecy. It would have been known off by heart by the people who were present.  We can imagine them saying the words along with him under their breath.  It is a vision of extraordinary hope.

“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.”

And then there would have been something like that embarrassing moment when you are at a Roman Catholic Mass or Funeral and you find that you are the only one saying out loud “For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours…” at the end of the Lord’s Prayer when everyone else has stopped, but because the words are so common, you have just continued to say the prayer forgetting that the Roman Catholic liturgy uses the original prayer of Jesus and not the later words that we added ourselves.  It would have been one of those moments in the synagogue that day with Jesus, because Jesus stops short of finishing the passage that would have been known so well to those who were listening.  As they said the words along with him in their minds, or even out loud, suddenly it came to an abrupt end.  “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” says Jesus, and then he sits down without finishing the reading.

So what did he miss? This is what the Isaiah text says,

“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,
and the day of vengeance of our God.”

You see we are used to reflecting on this encounter and marveling at what Jesus did say, when he sits down (the normal position for teaching) and gives probably the shortest sermon in history: “today this scripture was fulfilled in your hearing.” But we often miss what he does not say, which is just as important.  He says, I am the Christ, the anointed one, the one you have been waiting for. I am here to bring good news to the poor, I am here to proclaim release, to give the blind their sight, to free the oppressed and to proclaim the year of Jubilee, the year of freedom from the burden of impossible debts. And I have come back to my home town to tell you first.

In this Season of Epiphany we ask each weekend, what is it that is made manifest about God to us through these encounters?  We began with a Messiah, being born in a humble dwelling and not in a palace.  Then we reflected on his baptism in the river Jordan far from the power of the religious elite of the Temple.  Then we celebrated his first miracle, not before thousands, but quietly and anonymously at a normal wedding banquet.  Now today we remember that he revealed himself as the anointed one, the one to fulfill the hope of the nations, not being made manifest before kings and princes, but before his own people in his home town.  We remember too that he stops short from saying that he is the one who will usher in the day of vengeance.  “I have come to do the things that will bring new life,” says Jesus, “and vengeance doesn’t need to be part of it.”

The day of vengeance was widely anticipated by the Jews of Jesus’ day. I spoke about it a little when we reflected on the motivation for people to be baptised by John a few weekends ago.  It was the day, long expected, when God would bring vengeance on all of the enemies of his people, as he did in the days that led up to the Exodus, when the Israelites lived in captivity under the Egyptians.  It was not able judgement, we will all have to account for our actions.  It was the day when the Jews looked forward to seeing all those who had worked against them being destroyed.  But Jesus does not include it in his manifesto. It is not part of what he came to do. In fact he came to do the opposite, he came to call people to forgive their enemies and to love those who persecute them, that is the message of the Gospel.

This is the Season of Epiphany, and today we reflect upon a double epiphany.  Firstly, that he is the long-awaited anointed one: others have said it, but now he says it of himself; and secondly, that the Kingdom that he inaugurates will turn the whole world upside down, and be good news to all those who least expect it, but it will not come about through vengeance, but only through love.

The one who is to come, has come. The one who will set the people free has broken the chains.  It was in that back water of Nazareth that all of this took place. Because that is where God is manifest. Not somewhere else, but here. Amongst us.