In our text tonight Jesus returns to his hometown, he goes back to his roots, his old friends and family are there, and he's asked to teach at his old synagogue. Visiting synagogues was part of his Sabbath routine. This was his custom and the word custom indicates Jesus was a faithful Jew. Some would say Jesus was there to make his preaching debut, others would say he was there to read the scripture in the same way we have lay-readers. But in the Gospel of Luke, Luke uses the verb “teach” often. It would be more accurate to use the analogy of a special Sunday school class with CS. Lewis. Either way, someone special was visiting and they were waiting with great anticipation to hear his words and gain something from them, from him.
But lets not forget he knew many of these people and they “knew him when.” He was returning to his home synagogue. He grew up in that place. I love to think about that. Imagine if Cami and Bethany's son Ben went out into the world, had built an extraordinary reputation for himself and then came back here to Westminster to preach. Some of us would sit here and think, “well I used to change his diapers,” or we'd remember when he couldn't sit through a TOD without Ma B. Or when he used to walk around like he owned the place with a cookie in his hand.
So there's Jesus, with all these people who knew him when and he gets up to read the Haftora portion. (the part of the Hebrew Bible that contains the prophets) He reads from Isaiah. A text that was perhaps 700 years old and had been read a million times –only Jesus reads an edited version of Isaiah, which says to us he has a different way of going about business as usual.
After the reading, just as we do in Churches everywhere, everyone gets ready for the good part. Now the preacher will speak. He or she will tell us what to do or how to live or just give us some insight into this craziness we call life. If nothing else we hope we will walk out the door feeling a little better then when we walked in. In other words, “What's in it for me?” That's a common expectation and I'm not above it. This is the place I come to be renewed and fulfilled. So how's Jesus going to do that for me today? What's he going to say, what's in it for me?
And that's when it happens. He carefully rolls up the scroll of Isaiah, gives this sacred text back to the attendant who will carefully place it into the Arc, everyone's eyes are fixed on Jesus and he says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That's it. He says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Then he takes his seat. Maybe he looks out at the crowd, maybe takes a drink of water. I'm sure that some congregants were thinking, “Are you kidding me? This is what I gave up my Sunday tennis game for?” Older folks were probably thinking “this young arrogant punk comes home and says “today” all that God has promised me is fulfilled. “Today?” Surely by “today” he must mean tomorrow? Or even later today, like tonight. Where is the promise fulfilled? We are just as messed up now as we were yesterday?”
But no one complains out loud. They accept this until he goes on- but that's the second part of the story not heard in our reading this evening, and it's the harder part so I'll leave it for someone smarter to tackle.
John and I had the pleasure years ago of attending a Jewish baby naming ceremony for the son of our close friends 7 years ago. It was perhaps one of the more meaningful events John and I have ever attended. And holding this newborn baby, my husband John and I had the pleasure of reading the following to baby Adam-
“As you startle to the world around you, so may you remain ever open, both to the happiness and to the pain of those you encounter in the world.”
“As you cry for food and comfort now, so may you one day cry out for the injustices of the world, to help clothe the naked and feed the hungry.”
It reminds me of the reading Jesus read, Isaiah's words. Only at this baby naming it was this newborn baby who was being anointed.
From a baby naming, in the Jewish tradition, into adolescence, a boy becomes a man, a girl a woman. A person has a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and becomes a Mitzvah. Becomes a good deed. That baby, now a teenager becomes responsible for making changes in the world, no matter how big or small the good deed is perceived, there is great purpose in doing the bidding of the Lord's.
Jesus took this conceptual truth of Judaism and made it his way of life. Judaism is defined as a way of life much more often than a faith. I think when Jesus read Isaiah's words he was presenting his mission statement to the world. I looked up “how to write a mission statement” on a business website and this is what it said; “The mission statement should be a clear and succinct representation of the enterprise's (or in this case Jesus') purpose for existence. It should incorporate socially meaningful and measurable criteria addressing concepts such as the moral/ethical position of the enterprise.”
When Jesus read Isaiah's words he had already begun living out his own mission statement-And by living this way of life he was teaching by example. For all those people who were waiting to hear what was “in it for them.” For people like me who are hoping to feel a little better when leaving church, to us, he said this- The spirit of the Lord that is upon me is not just upon me, but upon us all. So get out there, leave this place and get busy. Remember your covenant with God and bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recover sight to the blind and bring freedom to the oppressed. And do it “today.” Because only in the doing of mitzvahs, big and small, with cans for your local food-bank, an invitation to the lonely widow down the block, the mission trips, fighting for causes you believe in, considering prisoners rights and those we call “others,” and yes, even a smile to those you don't like, only in the doing of good deeds do we find that “today” we begin a life long commitment.
As a good Jew Jesus knew this; just as the spirit of the Lord was upon him, it is upon us all. And when we call that spirit into action and all of us become Mitzvahs or good deeds in the world, then and only then, does tomorrow start to happen today. So what's in it for us? We won't find the answer sitting here. We have to go from this place into our homes, onto our streets and everywhere else, making Christ's mission statement our own.
Finally I'd like to end with the blessing that was read at the baby naming for Adam I spoke about earlier. Only when you hear it, imagine if you will, Christ's calling to us, to help fulfill his mission statement in the world while honoring his custom, his religion, and his roots in Judaism. Let us pray-
“May God grant you eyes that see the world's pain,
Ears that hear the cry of those in need
A nose to sense the changes in the air,
A mouth to speak out both in protest and in support,
Feet to go quickly to the aid of others
A heart to feel concern and commitment,
And a soul that seeks to better the world around you.”
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