Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany.

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Reading: Luke 4:14-30

St Luke introduces his Gospel with a Prologue addressed to a person called Theophilus in which he explains his reason for writing (Luke 1:1-4). St Luke wants Theophilus to know the ‘truth concerning the things about which he has been instructed’. St Luke then begins his Gospel by giving an account of the births of both John Baptist and of Jesus himself together with a description of the events surrounding them (Luke 1:5-2:20). St Luke continues by writing of the circumcision of Jesus (Luke 2:21); Jesus’ presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40); and his visit to Jerusalem with his parents for the Passover when he was twelve (Luke 2:41-52).

After this, St Luke fast forwards some 18 years, and describes the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-20) and Jesus’ own baptism by him in the River Jordan (Luke 3:21-22). Before beginning his account of Jesus’ work, St Luke gives Jesus’ genealogy (Luke 3:23-38), a genealogy St Luke traces back from Joseph through David to Adam.

St Luke, in describing Jesus’ baptism, relates how the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus ‘in bodily form like a dove’ (Luke 3:22). It is the Spirit, St Luke tells us, who after Jesus’ baptism leads Jesus into the wilderness, and St Luke records the testing Jesus undergoes there by the Devil before Jesus begins his work (Luke 4:1-13). St Luke then summarizes what happens next as Jesus begins the work he has come to do, again emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit. St Luke writes:

‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.’ (Luke 4:14-15)

In all the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ public ministry begins in Galilee. St Matthew and St Mark both begin their accounts by focusing on Capernaum (Matthew 4:13; Mark 1:21). St John begins at Cana with the story of the wedding where Jesus turns water into wine, but continues to describe how, straight after this, Jesus goes with his mother, brothers, and disciples to Capernaum (John 2:12). We know from both St Matthew and St John that, after his baptism, Jesus made his home and base in Capernaum, a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

St Luke, having given a general description of Jesus preaching in Galilee, begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with a description of Jesus’ visit to his hometown of Nazareth. This is a very deliberate decision by St Luke as he is well aware that by this time Capernaum has become important in Jesus’ ministry, and alludes to it in what he writes of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (Luke 4:23).

St Luke describes Nazareth itself as the town ‘where he had been brought up’ (Luke 4:16). This is important. Nazareth itself was an unimportant little place. The word ‘town’ gives entirely the wrong impression. Nazareth at this time would have had a population of under 500. Small enough for everyone to know everyone else. Jesus had lived and worked there for some 25 years, and he and his family were well-known. St Mark, in his account of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, writes of how the people of Nazareth all know Jesus. St Mark records their reaction to Jesus’ sermon. They ask:

‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3)

It is worth pausing at this point for a moment. We move on quickly to the outcome of Jesus’ visit with the result that we miss something important. No-one in Nazareth while Jesus was growing up had thought of Jesus as anything other than a normal Jewish boy belonging to a normal Jewish family. Nothing about Jesus or his behaviour had made them think he was anything special. It was this very normality that made what was happening in his life now and the reputation he was acquiring so surprising. We learn again, from St Mark, that even his family shared this surprise (Mark 3:21).

By the time Jesus returns to Nazareth, he has already been engaged in ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem, and his reputation is growing. His return to his hometown is as something of a celebrity; he is a local lad made good. The people there have all heard of the things he has been doing and want to know more.

On the sabbath, then, Jesus goes to the synagogue ‘as was his custom’. He is given the honour of being asked to read and preach. The passage Jesus reads, whether by choice or because it was the selected reading for the day, is from the prophet Isaiah and speaks of the deliverance that God promises he will one day bring about for his people in exile in Babylon. It was passages like this that led people in Jesus’ day to hope for a Messiah who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth. After reading the passage, Jesus sits down, the normal posture for a speaker, and begins speaking by saying simply:

‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:21)

This must have been an unbelievably dramatic moment. Everything they have hoped for, everything that God has promised them through the prophets has arrived here in their little village in Galilee, and it is someone from their village who is announcing its arrival. St Luke’s description of the reaction of people to this is worth quoting in full:

‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22)

The reaction of the crowd gathered in the synagogue is positive. They are with him so far, but there is a sting in the tail. St Luke writes:

‘They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”’ (Luke 4:22)

Jesus has spoken well. They are impressed. But they need convincing. Jesus is making big claims that don’t immediately seem to fit what they know of him. Further proof is required. They want him to do what they have heard he has already done at Capernaum. Nazareth is his hometown after all. Jesus knows what they are thinking, but he won’t be pressured by them. He has come to them as a prophet anointed and led by the Spirit, and it will be the Spirit who continues to lead him not them with their demand for signs and wonders to prove his identity. Prophets receive their calling from God, and they must go where they are sent.

Prophets are also rejected by people. Jesus quotes a proverb which says how a prophet is honoured everywhere except where he comes from. Jesus points out that God chooses for himself where he works miracles and for whom he works them, and it is not always where and for whom you might expect. Two of Israel’s greatest prophets were sent, Jesus says, not to the people of God in Israel but to Gentiles outside it.

Jesus is being highly provocative, and his words provoke a violent reaction. Admiration turns to anger as they take Jesus outside with the intent of killing him. It might be the day on which Isaiah’s words are fulfilled, but, as St John might have put it, Jesus’ own ‘hour has not yet come’, and he passes through them and goes on his way, somewhat ironically to Capernaum! Even more ironically, Jesus will perform exactly the sort of sign in the synagogue in Capernaum that they wanted him to perform in Nazareth (Luke 4:31-37).

St Luke in this opening to our Lord’s ministry gives us an important insight into our Lord’s character. From a purely human point of view, Jesus could seem to be a very difficult character to deal with. He refuses to conform to people’s ideas and expectations, doing things his own way in his own time.

St Luke, though, has deliberately begun his account of Jesus’ ministry with Jesus’ visit to Nazareth because he clearly sees Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue to be a summary statement of the work Jesus has come to do. The commentators, using modern jargon, describe it as ‘programmatic’ or as Jesus’ ‘mission statement’. It’s a bit more than that and, hopefully, tells us more than most church mission statements tell us. We need to consider it in more detail.

The passage Jesus reads comes from Isaiah chapter 61 verses 1-2. Jesus leaves out a line from the passage and adds instead a line from Isaiah chapter 58 (that is, Isaiah 58:6). He also stops reading before Isaiah speaks of the Day of Vengeance of our God.

Not only will Jesus not do what people want him to do, he won’t even just read the passage he is asked to read. The line Jesus leaves out from what he does read is about healing. This turns out to be appropriate because Jesus is restricted in what healing he can do in his hometown. And this is not the time to speak of God’s judgement; there will be a time for that, but this isn’t it. Instead, the line Jesus inserts stresses what time this is. In the ESV translation, St Luke writes:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed [the words in bold are the line that is added], to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

The word translated ‘liberty’ occurs in both the passage Jesus is given to read and in the line he adds to it. (In the NRSV translation, two different words are used in English to translate the one word in Greek. The NRSV uses the words ‘release’ and ‘free’.) Jesus, then, adds a line to the reading that expresses an idea that is already there. It is an idea that is expressed using a word that the reading and the line Jesus adds have in common. This would suggest that it is something that Jesus wants to underline and emphasize.

The word itself is an interesting word. It is one of the last words that Jesus uses in St Luke’s Gospel before his ascension and his return to the Father. St Luke writes that Jesus says to his disciples:

‘“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem ...’ (Luke 24:45-47)

That’s a lot of words, but, at first sight, it doesn’t seem to include the word I have just been talking about. That’s because the word translated ‘liberty’ in the passage from our reading in chapter 4 is translated as ‘forgiveness’ in the passage I have just read. In Greek, it’s the same word (Gk: aphesis). It can mean both ‘liberty’ and ‘forgiveness’.

But here’s the thing. The Greek word is translated ‘forgiveness’ in every occurrence of it in the New Testament except in our reading. The normal meaning of the word in the New Testament, then, is clearly ‘forgiveness’. The reason why the translators don’t translate it that way here is that they are influenced by how they understand its meaning in its context in the book of Isaiah rather than its meaning here in its context in St Luke’s Gospel and the ministry of Jesus.

‘Liberty’, ‘release’, and ‘free’ are all perfectly reasonable translations of the word in English, but it does mean we miss connections. St Luke, for example, has told us that John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the ‘forgiveness’ of sins. The word translated ‘forgiveness’ here is the same word as the word in the passage Jesus reads from Isaiah.

So, when Theophilus heard St Luke’s account of Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue, he would have immediately recognized the link between what Jesus says he is doing and what John was baptizing people for. Jesus tells the people in the synagogue at Nazareth that what people were hoping for when they were baptized by John has now arrived. God has sent Jesus to proclaim forgiveness. Jesus stresses this by adding a line about forgiveness to the passage he reads. As we will see as we read through St Luke’s Gospel, offering people forgiveness is to define Jesus’ ministry. Making forgiveness possible will define his death.

The prophet Isaiah, in the words that Jesus read, was speaking to a people who had suffered greatly. Their nation and their place of worship, so central to their life, faith, and identity had been destroyed by a pagan imperial power. This was a people who had seen their families and those dear to them murdered and tortured, and who had been utterly crushed and humiliated. They had been taken into exile in Babylon and separated from everything they loved and was important to them. Psalm 137 captures some of the pain and loneliness felt by those in exile. The Psalmist writes:

‘By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’ (Psalm 137:1)

Why had this happened to them? The prophets spell it out. It happened to them because of their idolatry and their rebellion against God and his Laws; it happened because of corruption, injustice, and their exploitation of the poor and weak; it happened because of their sin. And because of their sin they were poor, captive, spiritually blind, and broken.

Isaiah, speaking for God, promises a day when they will know God’s salvation, when their suffering will end, and they, the exiled people of God, will be restored to their land and to fellowship with him. For that to happen though, something else has to happen; they not only have to repent of the sin that caused their suffering, they have to experience forgiveness for it.

In 538 BC some at least of the exiles had returned to the land and eventually the Temple had been rebuilt. At the time of Jesus, Israel was still oppressed and under pagan rule. The Kingdom of God that the prophets had spoken of had not yet come. Still God’s people longed for the salvation of God, the redemption of Israel, and for all that the prophets had promised to be fulfilled.

When John the Baptist is born, his father Zechariah speaks a psalm of praise that we now know as the Benedictus. Zechariah says that John will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. He continues:

‘ … to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.’ (Luke 1:77)

John will preach a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, but the age of forgiveness cannot begin until the One who baptizes with the Spirit comes, and God’s Spirit is given.

Now, in the synagogue in Nazareth, the forgiveness Isaiah promised is offered. Jesus pronounces absolution for all who seek it. Jesus is the One, St Luke has told us, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), who was anointed by the Spirit at his baptism (Luke 3:22), was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested (Luke 4:1), and who, filled and empowered by the Spirit (Luke 4:14), now speaks by the Spirit. The One whom John spoke of, the One who baptizes in the Spirit (Luke 3:16) has come, and he is speaking in the synagogue where he grew up.

Jesus presents himself to the people he grew up with as the Spirit anointed prophet of forgiveness, who, by his preaching and presence, realizes all the hopes of Israel. The crowds are impressed by him but doubt his claims for himself. We can understand that. How can Joseph’s son be the One they were looking for? Jesus’ refusal to give them any sign to go on, while at the same time likening himself to the prophets Elijah and Elisha, would, of course, upset them, especially as he is prepared to do such signs in Capernaum. The other Gospels tells us that the irony is that it is their very unbelief that Jesus is who he claims to be that prevents Jesus from giving them the signs that they want.

‘He came unto his own’, St John writes in his Gospel (John 1:11). Here, in his hometown of Nazareth, we see him coming unto his own. They had grown up with him; played in the streets with him; attended the same synagogue with him; worked with him; ate, drank, laughed, and cried with him. They were his people, his relatives, and his friends. They could not be more his own. But, St John also writes, ‘his own received him not’. And here in Nazareth, his own attempt to do to him what eventually on the Cross they will succeed in doing. And by killing him, the forgiveness they now refuse to accept for themselves will be made freely available not just to his own, but to all. ‘Repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ will be ‘proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’.

Today here on YouTube it is proclaimed to you.

Our task as a Church today is to continue the work of Jesus. Although doing it may be difficult, understanding what the task is would seem straightforward enough. At least we know what it is we have to do today, don’t we? Apparently not. For while all are agreed on the importance of what is generally known in the Church as ‘mission’, what all are not agreed on is what mission is. Today this will be illustrated all too clearly in the sermons that will be preached on this passage from St Luke.

Jesus’ words will commonly be interpreted as a political manifesto or as a charter for social action. They will be understood as an encouragement for the Church actively to campaign and work for change in society and the world in which we live. There are many reasons why people will interpret Jesus’ words like this, even though Jesus himself didn’t do so, one of which is that we hate to think that people may think the Church irrelevant. We want to be involved in the affairs of this world and thought relevant to it, and, although we do not like to admit it, we also want a seat at the tables of power and influence in this world. We need, then, to demonstrate that we have something to bring to them.

There is a real determination among church people to show that they are concerned about more than people’s souls and their life in the world to come. Church leaders, in particular, fear being thought of as having nothing meaningful to say about people’s physical and bodily welfare and the conditions in which they live in the world here and now. While that may have been a justified fear once – though I doubt whether that the Church in the past was ever only concerned about people’s souls – it certainly isn’t a justified fear now. It is clear to anyone willing to listen that getting church leaders to talk about political and social issues is not difficult. The challenge is getting them to talk about God.

Over the past few decades, we have seen taking place in the Church what St Pope John Paul II called the ‘secularization of salvation’. Salvation is now understood very much in this world terms. It is seen to be about changing people’s economic and social conditions and helping them to discover their identity and purpose in this life. God, inasmuch as he is a factor at all in this, is there more as a facilitator to help people find their true selves and to offer them encouragement in their attempt to create a better world in the present.

We live in an age which sees everything in material and economic terms. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the church itself, in thrall to the spirit of the age, sees salvation in predominantly material terms. It will be taken for granted by many preachers on this passage that the ‘poor’ that Jesus was sent to preach the good news to are the materially poor and that the good news is good news socially and economically.

Jesus unambiguously condemned the rich who ignored the needs of the hungry and who trusted in money rather than God. But ironically, our strategy in mission is often to put a similar trust in money, seeing it as an essential part of the answer to people’s needs, so that it is near impossible for the to be a church meeting without the conversation ending up discussing money. Clearly money matters, but should the church spend so much time on finance and fundraising and focus so much energy on social and political activity?

Jesus’ message is indeed for the poor, but not only for those who are poor economically. The poor in the Gospels are those who have reached the end of their own resources, who are broken and know themselves insufficient to do anything to change the situation they find themselves in. We often describe people who are injured, suffering, or are in trouble as being in a ‘poor condition’. We use the word ‘poor’ in this context to refer to their plight not to their bank balance. Jesus’ proclaimed good news to the poor, that is, to those in need who knew their need. This included the materially poor, but it also included the tax-collectors who were anything but.

Jesus, on occasion, asked those who were materially rich to become poor, so they could receive eternal life. He challenged people not to sacrifice life in the world to come for the pleasures of life in the present. He warned against trusting in wealth and seeking power. The salvation Jesus offers is not from the burden of paying taxes, but from the burden of sin. It is a salvation that we receive not by finding ourselves, but by finding God and losing ourselves, for it is we ourselves, whether we are financially rich or poor, who are the problem. The good news of Jesus comes to those who know their need and who seek first the Kingdom of God and trust themselves to him.

In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus presents himself not simply as the One who announces the good news of forgiveness, but the One in whom forgiveness will be found. In his use of the passage from Isaiah, it is on the person announcing forgiveness that the emphasis falls. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ ‘He has anointed me.’ ‘He has sent me.’ As Jesus preaches, the promise of God that he will grant forgiveness to those who know their need of it is fulfilled. It is in our preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ that the church fulfils its mission.

Like those in the synagogue, people find it hard to accept Jesus and the forgiveness he offers. ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ The advantage for churches of adopting a social and material Gospel and focusing their mission on this world is that people can relate to it and understand how a son of Joseph could bring it about. What is more, it means churches don’t have to centre their message and mission so exclusively on Jesus himself, but can include other religious teachers like him.

But other teachers are not like him. Jesus comes to us not simply as one of us, not simply as a teacher or as a social reformer, but as the Spirit-anointed son of God, who is not only one of us, but the One who challenges us and calls us to repentance and commitment to him, for in him alone is there salvation and hope. As St Peter puts it:

‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12)

Joseph was told he should call Mary’s son, Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). It was the people of Israel’s sin that had brought judgement on them. It was their sin that had caused the destruction of their nation and resulted in them being taken into exile. It was their sin that had made them captives, caused their spiritual blindness, and which had left them broken and apparently forsaken.

What was their problem is our problem, for we too have sinned, and our sin corrupts and affects everything we do and extends to every aspect of our life. It is structural and cultural; it is social and financial; it is personal and individual. The good news that Jesus offers is to those poor people who know this, who know their sin, who know their lives are being destroyed by it, and who know that there is nothing they themselves can do about it. Jesus does not offer a programme of reform; he offers forgiveness and with it the chance to become new and to belong to a new society of people whose lives are being transformed by his Spirit.

Many are suffering in pain, broken and captive to forces they can’t control. They are trapped in destructive behaviour they can’t free themselves from; but Christ can. And as the Father sent him, so he sends us who have experienced his liberating power to proclaim the good news of forgiveness in his name to all those who know their need.

For the good news of Jesus is not for those who believe they have no sin, who think that they only have to believe in themselves, who are proud in their accomplishments, or who trust in their power, position, or possessions. It is for those who know they are poor and without any power in themselves to help themselves.

Today, now, the good news for the poor is that in Jesus of Nazareth there is forgiveness.

Make today the day you experience it.


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