Saturday, January 23, 2016

The First Word: Today (RCL Proper 3C, 24 January 2016)

The First Word:  Today
24 January 2016

The Third Sunday after Epiphany
RCL Proper 3C

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            As the morning sun rose in the sky, the people of the village of Nazareth made their way towards the synagogue.  As they entered, the rabbi watched the familiar ritual of sabbath morning.  The men took their regular places nearest the bema where they could see and hear the reading from the scrolls.  The women, as was the custom, gathered around the periphery, gazing through the screens at their menfolk seated in the rows of benches.  The rabbi noted that two men who had sat next to each for years had chosen new seats opposite one another.  He would have to follow up later to discover what had happened between them.  After all, Nazareth was a small community, 400 men, women and children at best, so quarrels could not be allowed to fester.

            As he was pondering to which of the men he would speak first, he sensed a stir among the people.  Into the synagogue walked a man of thirty accompanied by a few strangers as well as a couple of the man’s brothers.  The rabbi was uncertain what to do.  There were stories about Jesus son of Joseph.  Some said that he had joined his cousin John’s renewal movement in the Jordan valley.  Others said that there had been disturbing events surrounding Jesus’ baptism.  One of the men on the front bench whispered to his neighbour that this Jesus had been travelling through Galilee teaching and healing.

            But the rabbi had no time for these stories.  Jesus had grown up in Nazareth.  His brothers, sisters and mother still lived in the village.  As far as the rabbi knew, Jesus had done nothing       that would prevent him from taking a role in the liturgy.  After all, Jesus was one of the few men in the village who could read.  It would be nice to have someone else read the haftorah reading from Isaiah after the reading from the torah.  Maybe he could encourage Jesus to say a few words.  It was, after all, his right as a son of th covenant.  So, the rabbi began the liturgy.

            All proceeded as usual.  Then the rabbi’s assistant rolled open the scroll to the appointed haftorah reading from the prophet.  Jesus stood and read in a quiet but compelling voice.  It was a familiar text, one that everyone had heard before.  Most did not believe that the promises given by God through the prophet would ever be fulfilled.  But even so, it was good to hear the words again, spoken by this local boy whose reputation was growing beyond the limits of this little village.

            Jesus sat down.  There was the sound of men shifting on the benches, women whispering to their neighbours, children complaining that they could not see what was going on.  Then Jesus spoke and his first word caught their attention:  “Today”.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4.21)  What did he mean, ‘Today’?  The last time anyone looked around Nazareth, they were still in bondage to Rome and the various local rulers.  The blind were still blind; there were still people being held in jails.  One man muttered under his breath, ‘After forty days wandering in the wilderness, it is any wonder he would say such mad things?’

            But for the writer of the gospel according to Luke, these words from the prophet Isaiah are the charter of the Jesus movement.  The promises made are those meant to be fulfilled in the life and witness of the people who are filled with the Spirit.  And like Jesus, the writer understands the prophecy to be both present reality and future hope.

            Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.  Nine words in the English translation.  Nine words that hold the whole message of the Christian movement.  Today God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  Today not tomorrow.  Today not some moment millennia from now.  Today.  Here.  Now.

            These words spoken by the prophet and proclaimed by Jesus are not expressions of abstract thought or na├»ve romanticism.  Today, despite appearences to the contrary, despite religious conflict between and within communities of faith, despite efforts to marginalize religious believers in some societies, God works in and through us to accomplish the promises first made more than twenty-five hundred years ago.  Every Christian community, from the time of the writer of Luke to the present moment, have had the obligation to ask hard questions:

  • Who are the poor to whom we must bring good news?
  • Who are the captives who are yearning for freedom?
  • Who are the blind whose sight must be restored?
  • Who are the oppressed whose yoke we must lift?
  • What shape shall the favour of the Lord take in our times and in our places?

            I shall not attempt to answer all these questions today.  These five questions could shape and have shaped our ministry as Christians for two thousand years.  But they are the questions that each generation must answer.  Why?  Because the very first word Jesus speaks is ‘Today’.  The eternal life promised in the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth is a life meant to be experienced by every human being today.  It is a daunting task, sometimes it seems an insurmountable one, but it is nevertheless Jesus’ first word and God’s last word --- ‘Today’.

            You and I come here, Sunday after Sunday.  Perhaps we have even sat in the same seats for years.  We have heard this story of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth before.  We may have become accustomed to the joys and the sorrows of our world:  violence at home and abroad, poverty near and far, hunger in spirit and in body.  We hear the words and, for a moment, a small spark is kindled, but the reality of the news quenches it.  On this Sunday, let us hear the word again --- for the first time --- ‘Today’ --- and may we do all in our power to make it so.


Chris Thacker said...

Thanks once again Richard. Just been to local RC church. Eucharist easy to follow in Spanish but not the sermon. Now sitting in outdoor cafe with sea view and reading your sermon. Thank you.

Chris Thacker said...

Thanks once again Richard. Just been to local RC church. Eucharist easy to follow in Spanish but not the sermon. Now sitting in outdoor cafe with sea view and reading your sermon. Thank you.