Luke 4.14-30: Jesus Begins His Public Ministry
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
20 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, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ”
24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his home town. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
As far as we know, Jesus never served a curacy in the Church of England, though I am waiting for Dan Brown’s next novel with bated breath just in case new evidence has emerged. Jesus did, however, have a public ministry like you, and that ministry had a public beginning, just as yours has. The Spirit of God was seen to descend on him at his baptism, and then that same Spirit drove him into what I suppose we can call his ordination retreat. (A feature of the Spirit in the New Testament is that he helps all the right things to happen, but not necessarily in what we might think is the right order: this is the Morecombe-Wise doctrine of pneumatology with which I am sure you are familiar by now.)
And then Jesus has to start preaching and teaching, just like you, and we have just heard the account of his first recorded sermon from Luke chapter 4. It is one of those “I wish I was there” moments. Tickets will be available to go and listen for yourself just as soon as I have perfected my time machine, but until then we are as ever grateful to God for the Holy Scriptures which bring it so vividly to life for us.
By now you’ll realise that my own sermon training means that I find it hard not to think in threes, so I want to open up three features of this episode for you, which to my mind have a lot to say about our own public ministry as well as that of Jesus.
First, Jesus goes to church. He teaches in the synagogues, and specifically teaches here in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth. Just as he does not abrogate the Law and does not stop going to the Temple, so he does not back out of bowling up at his local synagogue either. For Nazareth it was the place of prayer where local people could gather locally to bring the whole needs of their locality to God.
So too it is not possible for me to ordain you today other than to a title, to a particular place and a particular group of people; and I suggest that the first call on you as an ordained minister is to be a person of prayer in that place and gather others round you to pray with you for it and its people. The historic holy houses of that place will be obvious and natural places for such prayer, though not the only places – a truth to which we shall return. Those old inherited buildings are not to be scorned: they are places where generations have commended in love their loved ones into the love of God in life and in death, in sorrow and in joy; and it is a substantial privilege for us to be those who are trusted to minister to them there. They are the places too where generations of Christians have met together to grow in their love of God and of each other and become the body of Christ, sharing in his work. So, in church and out of church, we are first of all to be people of prayer in the place to which God has sent us, gathering round us others who will share in prayer and ministry too.
Secondly, Jesus unrolls the scroll and opens the Scriptures. The members of the other Abrahamic faith communities are called “The People of the Book” by Muslims, and ours is no ordinary book. Our Scriptures are both our words about God and God’s word to us. Jesus himself was soaked in and formed by the written word of God and it is a poor theology which lets daylight show between that and the incarnate word of God – or indeed the word of God through the Spirit now, to which both bear witness, and to which we will also return. The magic books of a Harry Potter story or a Terry Pratchett novel have letters that come alive; this book is more than magic, and in its letters are life itself, the life of God. Perhaps ever copy should not just say Holy Bible on the front in a sober typeface, but Handle with Care in letters of fire.
So unsurprisingly it is the Scriptures which will be placed in your hands later today as the sign of your authority as a minister, because all our authority depends utterly on God and his word. Canon Law requires a large reading Bible to be available in every church and another of convenient size to be in the pulpit for the preacher. Our liturgies are shot through with Scripture and give the public reading and exposition of it prime place. So the second call on each of us as ministers is to be people of the book, people who open the Scriptures, are open to their word, and open them to others too.
Thirdly, Jesus does not only read the Scriptures to those in the synagogue but proclaims that they are to be fulfilled in their hearing; that the Spirit to which the Scriptures bear witness is going to alive and effective not just then but now, not just in worship but in the worldly realities of poverty, imprisonment, illness and oppression. I can see the TV programme now: “Spiritwatch”, with Ms Humble or Mr Oddy following with whispered awe the transforming work of God, moment by moment, day by day.
So at heart of your ordination is the great prayer for the coming of the Spirit, the Veni Creator and at the heart of the ordination prayer itself my petition is, “Send down your Spirit.” Then in the power of that Spirit our prayer is and will be valid, and the scriptures will be open, and the Spirit will be at work not just in our churches old or new but in our schools and our shops, in our houses and hospitals, in our inns and our institutes. God did not so love the church that he sent his only Son to us, but he so loved the world. So in God’s name we go out into that world to share his love and call those we meet into his kingdom, even as Jesus himself did. So the third call on us is to be people of the Spirit, people blown away by God and blown out in his mission to redeem the world.
I could have ended the reading from Luke 4 at this point, but faithfulness to the word means reading to the end of the passage, so we cannot avoid facing the reality at this point that this awesome message and mission of Jesus was not exactly received with acclamation by the people of God in his place. The narrative is a bit confusing: the congregation seem at first to applaud him – the NIV text says that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” – but a few moments later they are trying to throw him off a cliff. The clue to understanding what’s going on might be that the underlying Greek text does not say that they were amazed at his gracious words but at his words of grace. And that, at least according to Tom Wright whose Greek is a lot better than mine, could also mean words about the grace of God, and in particular the free saving grace of God shown to Jews and Gentiles alike – a difficult message perhaps for a Jewish community gathered in a Gentile area like Galilee, and often a difficult message now. Similarly the words translated “spoke well of” and “amazed” can have negative force as well as positive – “everyone started talking about him and was staggered at his words about grace.”
But whatever the precise exegesis, the thrust is clear. Something Jesus said took the congregation out of their comfort zone, seemed to be opening up God’s grace and God’s kingdom in a way that went well beyond what they had become used to. And it will be very surprising if your own proclamation of God’s grace – which still goes way beyond our boundaries and expectations – will not sometimes have the same effect, precisely because we have taken God’s word at its word, we have prayed for the Spirit to come, and we have opened ourselves to its life-giving power for today. We do not ourselves set out to provoke or disturb, but we are not blind either to the fact that the very act of blessing, proclaiming God’s grace, can itself disturb, whether we do it from the pulpit or in our pastoral conversations. But proclaim it we must; blessing is what we are about.
And that leads us to my final point. Although your ministry may in some ways be like that of Jesus, you are not Jesus. Rather, you are the people of Jesus the Christ, commonly called Christians. In doing everything we have talked about you will not be doing it for yourself, but for him; you will not be offering yourself or relying on yourself, but on him; and if your ministry has an effect, it will be his effect not one you have either looked for or not looked for. And because it is in his service that you are faithfully ministering, it is he who will also sustain you and save you when the going in it gets tough. As you bless others, so he will bless you. In the beginning – Jesus. At the end – Jesus. He is our Alpha and Omega, and in him we place our trust. Amen.
3rd July 2010
The Feast of St Thomas
and the second anniversary of my own ordination to the episcopate
Filed under: Sermons and Talks