Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; Luke 4:14-30
3rd Sunday of Epiphany
St Barbara’s Church 23.01.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
At election times, political manifestos are often released with great fanfare. The political parties set out all that they intend to do if they get elected. It sets out their purpose for governing. Manifestos are often well-meaning, but often quickly get shelved and forgotten about once in power. The ones we tend to remember are those that tend to go down badly, like Ed Milliband’s manifesto a few years ago, rather unhelpfully chiselled into stone.
Well, Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth is often called the “Nazareth manifesto”. It is seen as setting out his vision and purpose for ministry. Here in his home town, surrounded by the family and friends he grew up with, by the people proud of the “local boy done good”, here he is, proclaiming his purpose, what he is gong to do. Its an exciting moment.
Like with our reading from the book of Nehemiah, the scene begins with a dramatic reading from the Scriptures. Back then it was a reading from one of the five books of the Law – a reading that prompts its listeners to not just confess their sins, but also to ensure that the poor among them had food and drink to join in the celebrations. Here, with Jesus, it is a reading from the great prophet Isaiah. And it is not just any reading. It is a reading that is charged with meaning and anticipation for Jesus’ listeners – a reading that speaks of the coming of a messiah, a saviour, a liberator, who will come to release the captives and bring good news for the poor. When Jesus finishes the reading, he rolls up the scroll, sits down, and simply says: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke doesn’t tell us anything more Jesus may have said – he doesn’t need to. For those words alone would have been enough to take expectations and hopes to sky-high levels. Jesus is identifying with the Messiah.
His quotation from Isaiah would have resonated with many. Israel was a land of vast inequalities. It is estimated that 80% of the land was owned by just two obscenely wealthy families based in Jerusalem. For many, life was about subsistence, just finding enough food to eat each day, and nothing more. And that would lead many to selling their few possessions, and ultimately their freedom, in order to survive.
There are many in today’s world who can also identify with that situation. Whether its those desperately short of food or access to basic sanitation in countries such as Afghanistan and Ethiopia, or whether its those least able to cope with the price of living increases and the hike in fuel prices in our own country.
Jesus’ words would have spoken directly to the poor and oppressed. At the beginning of his ministry it is they who he addresses – he has come to preach good news to the poor, he has come to release those enslaved by poverty, he has come to heal the sick. This is who he has come for. And its to them that he proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour.
In ancient Israel, the year of the Lord’s favour was also known as the year of Jubilee. The Old Testament law stated that every 50 years land should be returned to its original owners. That those who had been forced to sell their homes or their land due to poverty would receive it back. That those who had ended up selling themselves into slavery to pay their debts would be set free. It was a way of re-setting the clock, of preventing endemic poverty being passed down from one generation to the next, of the rich always getting richer and the poor poorer. It was a law that spoke of God’s desire for all people to live with enough, for all people to live free from the scourge of absolute poverty and exploitation.
There is not much evidence to suggest the law was ever implemented in Old Testament times, but here is Jesus reminding people of this great message. His purpose, as God’s chosen Messiah, is to live out the desire of God: to bring healing, restoration and renewal, to enable people to live life to the full, not crippled by debt or hunger or disease.
As followers of Christ, that is our calling too, that is our purpose for living. To be part of God’s mission to bring healing, restoration and renewal; to be people of justice and fairness; to be making a difference in the lives of those who need it most. Its the reason why as a church we support the five partners that we do – CAP, and their work to help set people free from debt here in Coventry; Good Neighbours, helping people to break the chains of social isolation; St John the Divine, Willenhall, working with people facing severe economic needs; St Paul’s theological college in Kenya, training up Christians to bring healing and hope to poor rural communities; and Tearfund, working in the poorest countries of the world to overcome injustice and poverty.
But what we do through our partners is just a part of what we do. How are we personally following in Jesus’ footsteps, how are we working to address injustice, lift people out of poverty, bring healing and hope? Think about our workplaces, our families, our communities. Where are there needs for liberation, for healing, for renewal? Whether those needs are economic or social or mental or spiritual, how can we respond? Its the purpose to which God calls each one of us.
Its worth noting something else about this story of Jesus’ homecoming. Initially Jesus’ teaching is well-received. After all, most of his listeners could find hope in his message. Weren’t they themselves poor? Weren’t they themselves longing for liberation? But it doesn’t take long before the mood of the crowd turns from praise to condemnation, from joy to anger, from wanting to fete him as the local hero to wanting to throw him off a cliff. What causes the change?
It seems that the second part of his message isn’t so palatable. Jesus makes quite clear that his teaching isn’t just for them. It is for all people. He quotes the examples of two prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who cared not for the people of Israel, but for their enemies, in their time of need. It is a shocking expansion of Jesus’ message. He has come not just for his people; he has come for all people.
For the people he grew up with, the people who could claim him as their own, this felt like betrayal. The thought that Jesus was on their side was hopeful and exciting. The thought that Jesus was also on the side of their enemies was appalling.
We too may struggle to cope with the thought that Jesus is on the other side too. Our passion for justice, for standing up for the oppressed, can lead us at times into self-righteous indignation, into denying the humanity and the image of God in those we would oppose, into taking a vicarious pleasure when they fail and fall. Some of the great moral leaders of our time – Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King – have such moral stature because they always held to the humanity and God-given worth of those they opposed. That is a challenge for me, as I think about the maelstrom of British politics these last few weeks. There may be those who we profoundly and rightly disagree with, but part of our calling is to recognise that Jesus is on their side too. Not to delight in their failings but to pray for their good.
As Muthuraj Swarmy writes in his book on reconciliation, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side”.
So let us pray for those we disagree with, for those we are in conflict with. Let us seek to see that Jesus came for all people, let us live with grace and mercy towards those we find most difficult.
Jesus’ manifesto is our manifesto too. He gives us our purpose for life to join in God’s great mission for all people (and not just those we like or get on with): to bring the hope, liberation, healing and justice of his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.