A sermon for Epiphany 4 (C) 2013: Luke 4.14-21 & 1 Cor 12
I wonder how many of us have ever had that feeling after reading or hearing a Bible passage, that it was ‘all about me’ – you know, that feeling that it was somehow either fate or God’s plan that that particular reading was read on that particular day, with you sitting there hearing it, and realising how much it applied to you? That it challenged you in just the way you needed to be challenged? That it brought you the exact words of comfort that you most needed to hear? That it gave you that bit of guidance that set you on the path that God had in mind for you? Often it’s bible passages that are very familiar to us that can strike us differently and unexpectedly at such moments. We may have heard a verse a hundred times, but the hundred and first time it hits us between the eyes, and we think, ‘That verse was written for me, today.’
Jesus must have had that feeling a lot. While he was in the wilderness he had relied hugely on scripture – as a witness to God’s enduring love and faithfulness – to withstand the temptations of the Devil. Now, he’s back in civilisation, in fact, he’s back in his home town, and it’s another well-known passage from the Hebrew Bible that happens to be set for that day, and Jesus is the one whose turn it is to read.
Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit – still from his baptism, and then again from his wilderness experience. And he reads Isaiah’s words ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ and knows at once that this passage doesn’t just feel like it’s written for him. It really is for him, and about him. It’s another of those moments (and those moments are now coming thick and fast in Jesus’ life) when his sense of identity as the Messiah is deepened, strengthened, broadened. Those words from Isaiah are for him. They are part of what will help him set the agenda for the next three years – for the whole of his earthly ministry.
So what Isaiah goes on to write next is of crucial importance, because it’s Jesus’ manifesto, it’s his vocation. He is to be one who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, and who is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
So, Jesus reads the words of Isaiah, and already as he reads it seems as if some of the congregation realise that there is more going on here – that this is more than just another reading, this is something else. He confirms it – his first sermon begins by telling the people that Isaiah’s prophecy is now being fulfilled . In him. No wonder all their eyes are fixed on him.
These are the words that turn Jesus turns from carpenter’s son to Rabbi, from local boy to itinerant preacher and healer, from ordinary man to Son of Man. These are the words that set him on his way. These are the words that must have reminded him, again and again, of the nature of his calling: freedom, healing, the favour of the Lord, good news…. These are the words that come to life in Jesus’ own life, and these are the words that he uses to start his work of transforming the world. It was as if he said to the people gathered in that Nazareth synagogue, “You’re about to see what Isaiah’s words look like in real life.”
It seems right that Jesus’s ministry begins in his own home town, especially since Nazareth wasn’t a particularly important or nice town, it was no Jerusalem, it had no track record of producing great leaders and teachers. It was ordinariness itself. It is in keeping with the God who chose to become a human being that he also chose to set out the manifesto of the Messiah in a downmarket provincial town, and that the people who heard it were just those faithful gathered that particular Sabbath.
There are Nazareths all over the world. Certainly all over England. Ordinary places, full of ordinary people, who know that all the exciting things happen Somewhere Else, and who do not expect the Messiah to appear in their midst. If that’s us, then this gospel reading should stir us up a bit. Especially if we put it together with today’s epistle, which speaks of the church as the Body of Christ.
Why? Because in the gospel reading we start to see the first stage of Jesus’ transformation – the body of Christ gradually turns from being the physical body of a carpenters’ son and eventually becomes the metaphorical worldwide body of the church, who meets in Christ’s name and undertakes to continue his work. There is absolutely continuity between the work of God that Jesus started and the work of God that we are supposed to be doing, right now. If Isaiah has set out Jesus’ manifesto, then he’s also set out ours.
And that’s another reason why it’s good that all this happened in Nazareth. Because Nazareth is here. It’s Huntingdon, it’s St Neots. It’s all the places that most people would say probably aren’t the centre of the universe. An ordinary place is where Jesus started his work, and this ordinary place is where we are to begin our work.
Jesus went out from that place and spent three years seeking out those who needed healing, three years proclaiming the good news, three years helping people find freedom from the many things that were oppressing them, and ultimately on the cross, enacted the good news of the sacrificial love of God in his own body, experiencing death so that we could might never be captive to it again.
But it starts here. In the place that we are. In these familiar streets, with these familiar people. So it is also our calling to proclaim the good news we have heard, and not only that but to live it out, as Jesus did. To be people, and to be a church, which will bring healing, peace and reconciliation, that will fight for justice and freedom for those who are oppressed in any way, or held captive by their own condition or by the actions of others, that will show by how we live that this is the year of the Lord’s favour, that God’s love for the world is real and active, and that his blessings are manifold. We, too, need to show the world what Isaiah’s words look like in real life.
This is what it means to be the Body of Christ. No less. But crucially it is by being who we are, in our ordinary situations, that we can do this best. Jesus’ manifesto was made public in the most ordinary place. So, in whatever ordinary places we find ourselves today and tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year, let us pray that God would help us to see how we might be the Body of Christ and continue Christ’s work of transformation, healing, renewal and love in our ordinary corner of the world. For when we do that, there are no ordinary places, and there are no ordinary people.