Both of our readings take place in a similar setting to what we’re doing today. They are both part of a religious gathering where holy Scriptures are read to the people and interpreted by a preacher. And there are many churches around the world who are using the same ritual. I’m wondering why we do this in church when we can read the Scriptures at home. One answer is that we can find the word of God in the Bible.
Let us look at the settings. The first reading comes from the book of Nehemiah. It describes a gathering that took place in Israel some 400 years before the time of Jesus. The Hebrews have returned from exile. The have lost a lot of their culture while living in exile. They need to re-establish their identity as the Covenant People of God in the land of Israel. They are holding an enormous public gathering which centres around the reading of Holy Scriptures to reclaim and renew their identity. The Books of the law of Moses were read to them. We now know them as the first five Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Ezra the Priest read the scriptures to the people from early morning until midday. The Scriptures were interpreted to ensure that the people understood the meaning of what they heard. They must have been very dedicated to remain standing for so many hours.
What is important is not how long they listened to the priest Ezra but why did they remain standing for so long.[i] They needed to re-establish their covenant with God and to reclaim their identity as God’s faithful people. They recognised that listening to the words of this book was central to their identity and to living out their covenant with God. They heard the stories of the people. The stories that told them who they were and how they were related to God and to the world around them. These stories had been read to their ancestors for many generations before them. These stories had bound the people together for years from Abraham and Moses to the present-day. It is the continued reading of these stories that provides the glue that bound them in a covenant relationship with God. The reading of the Scriptures is a place of epiphany, of revelation, of encounter with the living spirit of God. They knew they had been off track. They knew they needed to return to the Scriptures and to the practice of gathering together to hear and open themselves to the Word of God together.
In our second reading from Luke, we see Jesus standing up and reading from the Scriptures in the midst of a gathered assembly. This time it is his local synagogue. It was a small weekly gathering. Jesus would have attended services in this place many times while he was growing up in Nazareth. The locals knew him well and they would have heard of his ministry in Galilee. He was the local boy who was doing well in the world. So, they were curious about him and they wanted to hear from him.
Jesus is invited to bring them one of the scripture readings set for the day, and to preach on it. He reads from the prophet Isaiah:
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.
Jesus sits down after the reading. He takes up the traditional position for preacher. We only get the opening statement today. The remainder is the set reading for next week. Jesus opens with: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
There are couple of implications:
- Jesus is doing and expecting the same things as Ezra. He is reading from the ancient scriptures and expecting that they are intensely and immediately relevant right here, right now. The people are not motivated by historical curiosity. They are coming with the expectation that God will speak a word into their lives that is relevant for the here and now. Jesus is responding to this expectation and he says that this is what God is doing right here, right now among you.
- Jesus is pointing the people back to the Bible itself. He knows that the word of God can be found in the Scriptures. Jesus himself is the word of God made flesh. He is God’s number one self-revelation in the world. God reveals himself in many ways – in nature, in the bread and wine of a communion service, in the still small voice, in prayer and compensation, in reading of the Bible. These are all secondary to Jesus. These sources are secondary and no witnesses to God’s self-revelation. Jesus could have proclaimed the word of God without reference to the Scriptures. He doesn’t. He knows that we’re going to have to know what to do when he’s gone. There will be a time when we can no longer go to the local synagogue to hear him speak. So, he points us again to the Scriptures as the primary witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus. He is giving us the same message is Ezra gave to the people: “if you want to be my disciples, thank you gathering around the reading of this book. There you will hear what I’m doing amongst you and you will learn what I’m bringing to fulfilment right here, right now, in your midst.
God promises to be present and active because God is forming a holy people, not just a loose coalition of holy individuals. God wants to speak to us and to form us as a holy people prepared and anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and to proclaim that the time of the Lord is now.
This first sermon of Jesus in Luke is very significant because it presents us with Jesus’ mission statement. Jesus treasured the past. He honoured the teaching that has been passed down by Jews through many generations. He rebutted Satan with words from the Scriptures during his temptations in the harsh Judaean wilderness. He based his first sermon on the words from the prophet Isaiah.
Jesus was not called to be a historian nor a museum curator. He looked to the present and the future. He believed that what the prophets hoped for is available today. The Kingdom of God was already breaking in upon the people of Nazareth. The opportunity was now and it is still now.
The challenge of Jesus was (and is) for today.
Now is the hour of grace. Now is the moment of opportunity. Now we chose between darkness and light. And that moment of opportunity was inextricably tied to how we treat one another. Our attitudes, relationships, deeds. Especially how we treat the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed; those whom this proud world regards as unimportant or even disposable.
God’s grace recognised and does not recognise barriers of race or social class or religion. Inclusive love is the message.
What about us today?
Today are we with Jesus or against him? Are we for his manifesto or against it? Do we live as if all races and classes are equally important to God, or as if some are some are of lesser value?
We are no longer waiting for the Kingdom of God to come in the future. Jesus is here today. Right now. Among us, for us, excluding none. All the vulnerable, or marginalised, or the rejected or neglected people of our community, our first and second nation people and the people in overseas countries, are those for whom Jesus came to include.
We must examine our attitudes to reveal the truth: have we embraced the real Jesus? Or have we created a sugary substitute so that we can live with our prejudices? Are we willing to suffer the discomfort of looking at our personal attitudes?
Let’s try a brief audit:[ii]
- Are Moslem men, women and children of Arabian lands or SE Asia, of lesser value than Australians, New Zealanders, Europeans or Americans?
- Should aborigines be treated as a less worthy group who deserve the bad health and the sad poverty-trap in which many languish.?
- Do asylum seekers, especially the ‘boat people’, including their little children, warrant being shut away behind barbed wire while their claim to legitimacy is being processed?
- Are prostitutes, the drug addicts and street kids, best left to ‘stew in their own juice’ rather than the State spending money on their rehabilitation?
- Should those who are infected with Aids be disdained as self-destructive fools who are earning the wages of their own sins?
- Are nice, well-educated, middle-class people more acceptable to our church than would be the rough-edged, hoi polloi?
- Should unvaccinated people be excluded from the health system and left to suffer the consequence of their own choice?
In summary: are we, in our attitudes, values, and activities, being ruled by pride, fear and selfishness rather than the love of Jesus?
THE ONLY LIFE IS TODAY
The only time in which we can live is right now. Today. Yesterday cannot be regained. Tomorrow cannot be visited. This day is what matters to Christ Jesus.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has ordained me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to announce release for prisoners, sight for the blind, liberty for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s acceptance.
Luke 4: 18
Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”
Thank You being special Christians.
[i] Ideas adapted from sermon by Nathan Nettleton
[ii] Ideas adapted from sermon by Bruce Brewer
Written by Dorothea Wojnar
Dorothea Wojnar is an elder, worship leader and preacher at TUC. She has a deep interest in meditative and contemplative worship. In addition to her roles at TUC, Dorothea is a member of presbytery and a member of its Pastoral Relations Committee.More from Dorothea Wojnar