“The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Jesus.”
It was 1981. We were on holiday & my Dad was buying ice-cream at a rather nice village shop at the back gates to Balmoral. As we waited, a Land Rover sped out the gates from t’big house driven by a striking blond. It accelerated, rather alarmingly, spraying gravel behind it as it turned away from the public roads up an estate track. Later that day, as the press got overly excited by Prince Charles’s first official post-wedding photoshoot with his wife Diana, we guessed that the blond in question had feared that the silver car parked by the gate to the house contained less welcome photographers. At twelve, as I avidly watched the TV coverage, it felt like I’d come within touching distance of possibly the most famous woman in the world. My adult mind sees it rather differently, and with not a little sadness.
In our gospel today, the local boy from down-town Nazareth has returned. He’d been hitting the headlines of local gossip since he’d encountered his cousin John busy baptising the repentant in the River Jordan; the little altercation between the two and the ensuing direct message from God, had caused quite a stir, which at least had filled the ‘gossip columns’ when he vanished completely for more than a month. But, he had returned, the same, but different. No longer helping his father in the carpentry workshop, he was now occupied helping the local Jewish leaders fill their preaching rotas. You can imagine therefore that there was quite a crowd at the synagogue that day – curiosity has ever been the filler of pews, just as it has become a pay-packet to the paparazzi!
A passage from Isaiah was a perfectly appropriate second reading for the day, and the congregation sat watching, in rapt expectation of his wisdom. What they got was… possibly the shortest sermon in history! At least, that’s how some of the more tabloid orientated theological interpreters have styled it.
Hearing Jesus say “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” probably didn’t seem like a history-making moment to those in the synagogue that day, but Luke by basing the rest of his Gospel on Jesus’ fulfilment of this prophesy, tells us that this is deeply significant, and therefore we need to sit down and fasten our eyes on trying to discover exactly what Jesus was doing and saying here.
Firstly, after his baptism and desert temptations, Jesus seems quite comfortable in his own skin; he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s here for. In the tension of the moment, he exudes a quiet confidence. Otherwise he wouldn’t be saying that he was the fulfilment of this famous, much longed-after prophesy. He’s going to fulfil it in a way the Jews aren’t expecting, but he’s certainly no Jonah in the sense that he’s not tried to get as far away as possible from doing what God has tasked him with. As he’s been touring the familiar countryside of his youth and now to his home town, it is worth noting that he’s chosen to bring his message first to the people who have un-knowingly nurtured it over the his silent years of preparation.
There’s two things that this can be telling us, two thousand years on. Part of it is that we need to be looking carefully among those we encounter day by day and week by week, and asking ourselves, what might God be trying to tell us through them, either through the way they act, or what they say? The second part is possibly more difficult; we need to be prepared to be recognised as fulfilling what God is calling us to be and do, in our own home, around the village, and in the communities in which we are known and respected. It won’t always be easy, but if we are looking with anticipation at what Jesus is saying to us, we need to be prepared to act on what we think the answer is.
The second important thing to note about Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, is what words he chooses to highlight from the Jewish scriptures, to succinctly define what it is he came to earth to do. He obviously feels that his Father God has called him most particularly to “proclaim good news to the poor”, to announce pardon to “prisoners and the recovery of sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free”. Those witnessing this rising star of the Jewish faith, steeped as they were in a yearning for freedom from Roman authority and the right to self-rule, largely heard this as the start of an uprising against oppression, and perhaps with a certain pride that it was a local boy that was going to finally make a difference.
Yet, we know from the rest of Luke’s Gospel and on into the Acts of the Apostles, that Jesus’ message was not in fact the one that many Jews wanted to hear – it was not a message of punishment to Gentile oppressors, but part of a larger picture and a wider interpretation of the prophesy in Isaiah, that Israel was called to act with justice, mercy and love as a light to all nations in their own age, and in the years to come.
Jesus, the Messiah, was the announcer of good news to not only the financially poor, but also the inadequate, those who feel their life is a failure, who see no value in themselves. The freedom of prisoners wasn’t an amnesty to those who have committed crimes, but the offer of release for those imprisoned by guilt, anxiety, fear, and the pressure to be someone other than as God made them. Whilst Jesus did indeed come as a healer to the physical ailments of many, he was also speaking to those who have lost their moral and spiritual direction and cannot see clearly the positive use they can put their God-given gifts and talent to. The freedom which he offered was in fact from the oppression of a narrowness of thought that offers only the quickest solution or fix, whether that be to an addiction, or to an economic, political or spiritual problem.
Today, as we sit with the Nazarene community and listen to the words that Jesus carefully chose to reveal his mission, we have to accept the challenge that in seeking to both recognise Jesus in our midst, and be his followers, we too are called to live out this prophesy just as much as he did. We mustn’t be frightened by tabloid headline creators into believing that someone is always after us for the wrong reasons, that speed is of the essence, that people respond to threats, that we can’t change the world.
In Jesus, we see God’s Son baptised and affirmed, spiritually strong enough to withstand all temptation, moving among his own people with a message that challenges preconceptions, and expects positive social and societal consequences. Yet, as we accept the presence of Jesus, the baptism in which he shared, the spiritual strength from which he drew, we have also to accept that through him we are also God’s children, and so with him we are called to seek love, freedom, healing and justice in our own lives, in the lives of the people we love most, and in the life of the community around us. Just as in Jesus time, this may happen in a way we hadn’t anticipated, and it may be a message that people initially struggle to accept, but it is the message and the mission we are called to share if our attention is fixed on Jesus.