January 24, 2016

Following his baptism in the Jordan river and his long wilderness fast and temptation, Jesus returns to his home country, Galilee. Reports about him have been spreading through the population. So when he comes back home, it's quite a big day in the community.  Everybody's there, eager to hear the local boy who's making a name for himself.

Jesus returns to the Nazareth synagogue and is asked to read the lesson from the prophets. There's no lectionary to consult to determine this reading; the choice is up to him.  Nor is there a book to flip through. Instead, a bulky scroll is brought to him, and placed on the lectern. Jesus, searching for the text he wants to read, unrolls it to a place near the end of the scroll and he reads aloud these words:

"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."

Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and takes his seat. It is the custom for teachers to sit, rather than to stand, so when Jesus sits, everyone looks at him, expecting some commentary, some explication of this text.

The synagogue president can invite any appropriate person to comment on the text. Often these remarks are less than inspiring, commentary on scripture by local folks is often no more than rote recitation of lessons all of them learned at an early age. So the congregation usually knows what will be said and the only question is whether it will be said correctly or not.

Not so today. The people are all looking at Jesus. He looks around at them, those familiar faces from his early years, older in appearance than before: his childhood friends, now present with their children; the parents of his friends, now senior citizens. He begins with something much more than a zinger: a sentence that remains fresh and provocative down to our own time. Jesus sets free the scripture passage he has just read; he lets the lion out of its cage; he overthrows the ho-hum expectations of the people around him when he says: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Jesus does the unexpected, the unimaginable, on that memorable Sabbath morning in Nazareth. In today's jargon, he claims for himself the ancient prophetic words as his own mission statement. The reason God's Spirit came down on him at his baptism was to empower him to do precisely this: to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, when everything will be conformed anew to God's justice.

Jesus takes all this as his mission statement, and is not content to leave it as only a string of high-sounding words. Everything that follows in his life, as presented to us in the Gospel, amounts to the living out of the prophecy he claims for himself that Sabbath morning in Nazareth.

He keeps doing these things every chance he gets, every time he turns around, until finally it kills him. Some welcome what Jesus does, but others do not, because it upsets their unfair advantage, questions their complacency, and pushes them to recognize their habitual infidelity to God.

They find their discomfort increasingly intolerable, and think that his judicial murder will bring an end to the matter. They are wrong, of course. Jesus rises from the dead, and continues today to do what he talked about that Sabbath morning long ago, only now Jesus works through us, his followers, or as St. Paul calls us, his body, the Church.

Through each of us, and all who are baptized into his body, Jesus is still living out his mission statement, bringing good news to those who don't have any, setting free those chained in captivity, opening blind eyes, helping the oppressed and exploited find a life, and unrolling the floor plan that sets out God's reign where justice and peace prevail.

Jesus still does these things, because his Church does them. The poor gain hope, whether it's their souls or their bodies that are starved. The captives experience freedom, whether they are prisoners in a jail or prisoners of their own device. The blind receive sight, whether it's cataract surgery at a hospital, or the scales of prejudice falling off the eyes of a bigot. The oppressed are set free, whether that oppression is a political regime or dependence on some unjust structure or system. When Jesus reads that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he announces a mission statement for himself and for his body the Church.

The risen Christ is busy at work in our own parish family as well. There are people in this town whose stomachs are full and whose gas bills are paid because of donations you have made to the Rector’s discretionary fund. Because of you, people in need know that they can receive help from Grace.

There are people in our own congregation who also need help at times, with medical expenses, marriage counseling, as well as those where the love of God touches the hearts of some who maybe thought nobody cared and they didn't matter.

There are families in places you and I have never heard of who now don't have to walk five miles each way for water, who have a cow or a goat or some chickens to raise because people here supported the Episcopal Relief and Development Organization or other relief groups, in response to the mission statement of Jesus.

And there are people in this church this morning because somebody here spoke to them a word of Good News, and walked with them to the well which is Christ. Without exception, all of us need that water, and once we find it, what could be better than to share this water with others who thirst?

These are only a few examples. There are many more, some in each of your lives that go unrecognized, but are no less important in the eyes of God.

Jesus read the old words from Isaiah and claimed them for his own. We can do the same. Today this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing.