16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.
I was in a choir rehearsal this week when a funny thing happened. The music we were rehearsing was difficult. As we rehearsed passages it was very easy to get lost in the notes printed on the page, with only the occasional glimpse at the conductor to check you were still in time.
We eventually came to a more familiar passage in the music: no less fiendish, just more familiar. As we came to that passage I realised I wasn’t stressing about the notes in front of me as I knew them pretty well. I could look up at the conductor and catch the eyes of other singers in the choir.
But most importantly I realised that I had started listening to the other voices around me. Other voices within my part, checking if we were together. Voices from other parts, listening to how they worked together and weaved around one another. I could feel people from all over the choir listening and responding to each other, rather than just plodding on with the notes from the page in front of them.
Parts came together to become more than the sum of their parts. We were finally making music together. But it only happened when we listened to each other. When we really listened properly.
How closely do we listen to things in our own lives?
How closely, for instance, were people listening to the various Bible readings we had this morning? Without looking at your pew sheets how many people can remember what the first and second lessons were about? I can’t remember them that well and I had read them several times before the service!
We’re often not very good at listening.
This doesn’t seem to be a problem Jesus had, at least not in today’s Gospel reading. By the time he had finished reading from the scroll of Isaiah and sat down every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. They were hanging on every word Jesus had said, and were waiting to see what would come next. Perhaps that had more to do with who He was than what He had been saying. Perhaps.
Today is Bible Sunday. A Sunday devoted in the church’s calendar and lectionary to thinking about the Bible and how we engage with it. I have a couple of suggestions of areas we might like to focus on to help us really engage with the Bible.
The first is to listen – to be aware of the text. We hear so many words in church that it’s easy to let them wash over us without really taking them in. And that can be good sometimes – we come to Church to meet with God and with each other, and if that wash of words is what we need to meet with God then that’s fine. But perhaps there’s something we miss if we don’t actively listen to what God might be saying to us through the words of our Bible readings in church.
The people listening to Jesus in the synagogue would have had the advantage of knowing many of the scriptures off by heart. Copies of scriptures would have been very rare, very expensive and very unwieldy. As the passage says, Jesus read from a scroll of the writings of Isaiah. This wasn’t from a book. Anyone who has visited a synagogue will know just how large a scroll of scripture in Hebrew is. You can’t just cart them about with you. It’s also estimated that probably only around 3% of the adult male population in 1st century Palestine would have been able to read anyway. I’m afraid for women it would have been even lower.
But this lack of written copies of the scriptures and general inability to read meant that people would have been much more accustomed to remembering key passages of scripture by heart. Perhaps Jesus chose to read the passage from Isaiah that he did because it was particularly well known by his listeners. Perhaps it was one of their favourites? Did Jesus know that this particular text from Isaiah would make people’s ears prick up? It’s easy to see why these words taken from Isaiah might have been popular with the Jews of Jesus’ time, who were living in an occupied country.
The Palestine of Jesus’ day had been occupied by the Romans for almost 100 years and before that by various different conquering empires for the best part of 600 years. Like Moses and the Israelites in captivity in Egypt the Jews of Jesus’ time wanted to throw off the shackles of occupation and oppression and be a free people again.
In the writings of the prophet Isaiah they found hope that God would put things right one day and lead his people to freedom. This hope centred on a figure called the Messiah – a figure who would emerge to be the nation’s saviour. The passage Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah was one of the passages linked with this Messiah. The passage speaks of anointing, and the meaning of Messiah in Hebrew is “anointed one”.
When Jesus said that these words from Isaiah had been fulfilled, he was declaring that He was Israel’s Messiah. He was the one His people had been waiting for to lead them out of occupation and captivity. Jesus the Messiah. That is where we get our word Christ from: the Greek translation of Messiah is Christos, so when we talk about Jesus Christ we are talking about Jesus the Messiah.
Through His earthly ministry, His death and resurrection Jesus by what he said and did showed that He was indeed the Messiah, the Christ. He wasn’t quite what most people had expected in their Messiah. Jesus was not the warrior king people had been expecting. He was after winning hearts and minds rather than battles.
Jesus was a man of action and did in the flesh what had been written about the Messiah in the ancient Hebrew scriptures. The word used for that here in St Luke’s gospel is “fulfil”. Jesus took the words of scripture and filled them full of meaning by what he did.
This leads to the second point I wanted to make about the scriptures on this Bible Sunday. It’s no good just reading them, listening intently to what God might be saying to us through them: we also have to put the words of scripture into action.
Putting scripture into action might mean making changes in how we live our lives, how we view others, how we think about things. What the Apostle Paul was getting at when he talked about “being transformed by the renewing of your mind”.
Putting scripture into action might also look like making a stand for something, being God’s hands here on earth and reaching out to those who are most in need.
Jesus was anointed to bring good news to the poor. How much of what we do as individuals and as a church is good news to the poor?
Jesus was sent to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free. The sense here is of prisoners of conscience rather than dangerous criminals. Those imprisoned by tyrannical regimes for believing the wrong things, saying the wrong things, doing the wrong things, being the wrong gender, or having the wrong sexuality. Such captivity might look rather different here in a modern democracy. Girls and women sold into sexual slavery – Croydon remains one of the sex trafficking capitals of the UK. The poorest in this country trapped in cycles of homelessness and addition. Our greed for cheap possessions imprisoning workers in appalling conditions thousands of miles away.
Recovery of sight to the blind is perhaps something we should pray for ourselves rather than others: to be healed of our hardheartedness and to turn to the concerns of others rather than ourselves.
And above all, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. The year of the Lord’s favour refers to the ancient Israelite custom of the Jubilee. Every 50th year was a Jubilee year – a holy year dedicated to God when slaves and prisoners would be freed and debts would be forgiven. You may remember the drop the debt campaign to release poorer countries from their crippling, unfair debts to richer countries, to allow their economies to grow and to improve the welfare of ordinary people. The other name for the campaign was the Jubilee 2000 campaign, referring to this ancient custom.
So how to draw things to a close on this Bible Sunday? I’m sure I should be telling everyone to go and read the Bible. Well, yes…but that’s not enough! If we don’t read and listen intently we’ll never hear what God might be saying to us through the scriptures. If we don’t act on what we read and hear the words of scripture will never be fulfilled – they will never be filled full of meaning by the witness of our lives. The words will remain as flat words on a flat page.
But if we listen intently to what God is saying to us, if we allow our reading of the Bible to open us up to the winds of the Holy Spirit and to inspire us with that Spirit, if we are moved to take action by the scriptures, to transform our lives and other people’s lives for the better, then by God’s grace we will become living testaments of our saviour Jesus the Christ. Amen