Five years ago this weekend, I was standing behind the altar at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania celebrating the Eucharist for the first time ever. I had been priested just two-days earlier, and my first go-round was Holy Eucharist Rite I at the 8 o’clock service. I remember being so nervous about reading the Eucharistic Prayer from the altar book that I declined the invitation to also preach that Sunday. I just knew I couldn’t handle it. There is something about going home, being among the people who have raised you, nurtured you, and supported you along the way that both invigorates and terrifies.
I survived my first weekend as a priest, but not without several flubs on the liveths and reigneths, and the second service being held in the Parish Hall through me for a total loop. But I feel like I can appreciate what Jesus was going through when he entered the Synagogue in Nazareth on that fateful Friday evening. As Keith reminded us last Sunday, Jesus has had a busy couple of months. It has been at least six weeks since Jesus ventured down to the Jordan River where he was baptized into the fullness of his calling by the voice of his Father and the indwelling of the Spirit. After his mountain top baptismal experience, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying while being tempted by the devil. Further empowered by this testing, Jesus returned to the region of Galilee as news began to spread of the local boy who taught with authority. He was honored everywhere he went, until finally, one Friday afternoon he entered his hometown of Nazareth.
Luke tells us it was the custom of Jesus to attend worship on the Sabbath, but you have to know that this was a special day. Jesus knew as he walked into the Friday prayer service that evening that he would be invited to speak. Visiting rabbis were always invited to speak; it was how they shared news from other towns and villages, it was how the latest theological advances were made known, it offered the people a chance to hear something different, and it opened the door for a favorite pastime in the Synagogue: arguing. Intelligent religious debate was a regular part of the culture in Jesus day, and he would have been ready for all the highs and lows that preaching in his old stomping grounds would bring.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Thanks to the Revised Common Lectionary, we won’t hear the response of the crowd until next week. This morning, all we hear is the lesson Jesus reads and his brief, but powerful, sermon on it. Rather than one large book, the Hebrew Bible in Jesus’ day would have consisted of many different scrolls, each containing all or part of a book of Scripture. This evening, Jesus is handed a scroll containing the end of the book of the Prophet Isaiah. Luke recalls these words being read:
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 favor.
And while this is a conflation of Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2, it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that the very Word of God might be able to open a scroll and find exactly what he wants to say. Jesus rolled the scroll back up, returned it to the attendant and then sitting down, taking the posture of a teacher, he prepared to speak. Luke says that the eyes of everyone in the Synagogue were fixed on Jesus. You can feel the butterflies in his stomach. You can hear his dry mouth crack as it opens to speak. You can feel the anticipation of the crowd as Jesus, Mary’s boy, Joseph’s son, the carpenter with the quirky habits of week-long prayer binges begins to speak.
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s it. One simple sentence which sums up everything Jesus is about. Sometimes, I wish I could preach like Jesus. We’re already 670 words into this thing, and I’m not sure we’re any closer to a thesis statement than we were when we started. Of course, Jesus had the whole divinity thing going for him. He is, after all, the Word of God that spoke all things into creation. Still, I wish I could hit as fine a point as Jesus does in this opening sermon in his hometown and, for that matter, his first public words in Luke’s Gospel. Later, Jesus will use parables with eloquence and grace. He’ll plant seed in his hearers’ hearts that won’t bloom for years, but in this sermon, with all its brevity, Jesus is able to turn the whole world on its head.
The text that Jesus read is some six or seven hundred years-old. The people of Israel have been waiting for generation after generation after generation. They were promised a Messiah: an anointed one who would set them free from bondage and exile. The arrival of John the Baptist had raised their expectations. Things were happening. Lives were being changed. Prophecy was alive and well for the first time in four hundred years. The expectation of the people that the Messiah would be coming was palpable. And Jesus, Mary’s son, the carpenter’s boy, read the words of that promise and then had the audacity to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today. Before he called his first disciple. Before his confrontations with the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and Chief Priests. Before the Sermon on the Plain. Before he calmed the storm, raised the dead, and fed the five-thousand. Before his Triumphal Entry, Last Supper, Death, and Resurrection. Today. Before it all begins, the Good News is fulfilled. Before his ministry begins, Jesus reveals his true nature to his closest family and friends. Today the promises of Isaiah are fulfilled. Jesus is the Messiah, the chosen one, the Son of the living God.
Some 2,000 years later, the promise of Jesus is just as true as it was in that Nazarean Synagogue. Today, the Good News of God is fulfilled. It is also just as hard to believe. One need not look very far to see that the world is not how God intended it to be. I feel like a broken record with the stuff, but the fact remains that black Sudanese continue to be the targets of their own government; our own elected officials continue to put the best interests of the nation on the back burner in order to solidify their own reelection campaigns; poverty, drugs and violence claim hundreds, if not thousands of American lives each day; and the Church continues to exhibit the worst habits of the rest of the culture by arguing through the news media and in lawsuits.
It is no wonder that by now, most of us have become more comfortable thinking of the Kingdom of God as some far off place and time that we’ll get to enjoy once we’ve finished our journey on this broken planet.
The truth of the matter is, Jesus isn’t a liar and God doesn’t make mistakes. 2,000 years ago, in that Synagogue, the Good News was fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near. In fact, the Kingdom of God is already here, having been brought to fulfillment in the Incarnation of God’s Son. We need not wait for death and our entrance through the pearly gates. We need not wait for Jesus’ Second Coming. We need not wait for anything because the Kingdom of God is made manifest in the Word made Flesh who dwelt among us. If we believe this sermon from Jesus, then it profoundly impacts the ways in which we live as his disciples. We live not for tomorrow or the great by and by, but instead we are called to take seriously the challenges of Isaiah and bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to the let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is hard for us to hear. Hard for us to wrap our minds around. And it was for Jesus’ family and friends as well. But we’ll save that for next week. Today? Today the scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing. Today, we are living in the Kingdom of God. Amen.