Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jesus' sermon in Nazareth: what is He talking about?

Jesus preaching in Nazareth - painting in the SynagogueChurch
in Nazareth (image from
Luke 4.14-21
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.

Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘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 freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to send out the oppressed set free ,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

Calvin Coolidge the 30th President of the United States was a man of few words.  A lady sat next to him at dinner reportedly said to him “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." To which he replied, "You lose."  His wife once asked him, when he came back from Church, what the sermon was about. “Sin.” “But what did the preacher say?” “He’s against it.”

Sermons were long in those days.  In the 1920s, as Jeeves fans will know, sermons of up to 50 minutes were not unknown.  Back in 1587 Edinburgh's presbytery instituted a fine of 1’6d for preachers whose sermons exceeded an hour.  We read in Nehemiah that the whole of the Torah was read out in 7 days which means they must have read about 26 chapters in a day. Nowadays the whole Torah is read, or rather sung, in Synagogues over the course of a year (so 3-4 chapters per day) and it is followed by a reading from the Prophets which is typically about 1 chapter and has some relation to the part of the Torah that has been read.  I don’t know what the practice was in 1st Century Galilee: it’s reasonable to suppose that they read the whole Torah according to an annual cycle, and that their readings from the Prophets were probably somewhat longer than they are today.

So Jesus says “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” But which scripture is he talking about? Here is Isaiah 61 in the NIV:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
    because the LORD has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
And here is Luke in the NIV. There are  four quite striking differences:
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
To set the oppressed free
(what the Greek actually says is “To send out the oppressed, set free”)
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
  1. Where “are the broken hearted”?
  2. How have the prisoners have turned into the blind?
  3. What about “to send out the oppressed, set free”?  Where does this come from?
  4. Why has Jesus stopped half way through the last verse?  No wonder “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.”
When we read the Bible we need to bear in mind that parchment is expensive and all copying is done by hand. So the authors don’t waste words. People will often just refer to a few words when they mean the whole passage. It’s a bit like if we say “he sung “God Save the Queen” we don’t just mean he sung one line we mean – well at least the whole of the first verse! So the broken hearted are still there: it just makes it clear that Luke isn’t quoting the whole thing verbatim.

How have The Prisoners turned into The Blind? Well Luke of course is writing in Greek and he always quotes the Old Testament in the standard Greek translation of the time which we call the Septuagint.  The Septuagint has “recovery of sight for the blind” instead of “release from darkness for the prisoners” It seems no-one knows why – not even Tom Wright. Tom says “There are dozens, dozens of places where we shake our heads and wonder, How could he have written that?”  . So here, although there is a puzzle about the Septuagint, there is no puzzle about Luke.

But what about “to set the oppressed free”?  This isn’t from Isaiah 61 at all. It comes from Isaiah 58:
‘Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
“Why have we fasted,” they say,
    “and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?”

‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
And the Septuagint has “to send out the oppressed set free” which is exactly what the Greek says in Luke. Aposteilai – it’s the word from which we get Apostle.  And for Luke this is a really significant word: not for nothing did he write the Acts of the Apostles.

Jesus almost certainly read more than the passage quoted. Perhaps he read the whole of Isaiah 58-60 before he read the passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 – just over 3 chapters or about half the length of the Torah reading. Possibly he skipped from Isaiah 58 to these striking words at the start of Isaiah 61. This seems to be what Luke is suggesting by putting in a line from Isaiah 58. Interestingly neither Isaiah 58 nor 61.1-2 are in the lectionary for Synagogues today.

But I think, and much more importantly so does Tom, that Luke does want us to understand that Jesus stops abruptly. Most Hebrew poetry works by saying much the same thing in two different ways, punctuated by “and” (It’s “v” in Hebrew, tacked on to the beginning of a word, a bit like fish n’Chips).  Everybody would have known this passage and everyone would have thought they knew what it meant. The Spirit of The LORD would be upon The Anointed One (Messiah) who would proclaim freedom to the captives (Israel). He would “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (on Israel, naturally), and the day of vengeance for our God” (on Israel’s enemies – currently the hated occupying Romans).  But Jesus stops, half way through the verse. It’s as though I sang God Save the Queen, got to “send her victorious” and stopped. What? Don’t I want her to be “happy and glorious, long to reign over us.”??

All eyes in the synagogue were fastened upon him. He began by saying to them “‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And his sermon begins well. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” we’re told in verse 22.  So he is anointed – and one of us too!  Maybe he’s left out the last point because it’s politically dangerous – Herod has spies everywhere – and he can just let it be understood.   But then the mood changes. Wait a minute, where’s this all coming from?  We know who he is, the son of Joseph the carpenter.  What’s he telling us, and who is he to tell us these things.

Jesus talks about the sins of Israel (the three year drought was a punishment for the sinful Ahab who “did more evil in the eyes of The LORD than any of the kings before him"), and how Elijah and Elisha ministered to gentiles.   And if we’ve understood Luke correctly, he’ll have given them a good dose of Isaiah 58 as well.

Tom says  “Most people I think agree that Jesus stopping where he did – missing out ‘the day of vengeance of our God’ – was what caused the fuss. They wanted a word of judgment against those wretched Romans, and all they got was ‘words of grace’ – including a reference to Elisha healing the commander of the pagan enemy army! Not what the good burgers in Nazareth wanted . . .”

So instead of making this passage principally about judgement on the Romans, Jesus relates it to God’s judgement on Israel and His desire for all to come to know Him. This makes it a lot easier to understand why the congregation later turn against him so suddenly.   It’s very much in line with the controversies over the Sabbath that feature in so many other places.  And it helps us to see Jesus’ mission in the context of God’s great plan of redemption: bringing His people back from the exile of sin to the intimate loving relationship He always intended.  Helen rightly suggested last week that Isaiah 61 is speaking prophetically in the name of the anointed one – that is, The Christ.

So what does this mean for us, now, at St Paul’s Hammersmith?  Let’s explore three things:
  1. What about binding up the broken-hearted?  Jesus ministry was one of healing and reconciliation. And as his disciples we must follow in his footsteps. There is always healing to be done within any Church. As Justin Welby says, we must be a reconciled church if we are to be a reconciling church. Recent events have, I understand, hurt some people deeply – though I’m pleased to say that others it hasn’t hurt at all. But our calling and mission is principally to those who are not at present in the Church. There are about 55M people in England and in any given week just under 1M attend CofE services. A recent poll suggests that 9% of English adults are practicing Christians, but a total of 57% said they were Christian. So there are about 26M people in England who say they are Christian but who aren’t practicing.  And of course another 24M who don’t say they are Christian. How many of all these people are broken-hearted in some way?  How can we minister to them? How can we help them?
  2. How have the prisoners turned into the blind? The Bible is very clear about this: people don’t turn to God because they do not see. Of course it’s not an effective strategy for evangelisation to say that people are blind fools! People don’t see the radiance of God in Christ because they don’t see the radiance of God in Christ in and through us.  The Church grows when people can say “see how these Christians love one another”. As Jesus says “‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-15).
  3. What about “to send out the oppressed, set free”?   Unlike some of our brothers and sisters, we don’t normally think of ourselves here as “oppressed”. Unless, that is, we read the Psalms. 10 times the Psalmist sees himself as oppressed. It’s a standard term for the People of God and is being used as such here in Isaiah.  This is really clear if you read on esp in Isaiah 62 as Helen mentioned last week.   In Jesus Christ we are set free. We are set free from every form of oppression. Because nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  And we are set free for a purpose. Jesus says he has come to send us out, set free. As we pray at the end of this service: “Send us out, in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to Your praise and Glory!”  Amen.

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