The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s170g16  Third Sunday after the Epiphany  24/1/2016

‘he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor’   Luke 4:18

Normally both today and next Sunday we hear of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of his youth.   These were the people who knew him intimately, those with whom he had worshipped every sabbath of his life.   Actually some of us will celebrate the feast of the Presentation next Sunday, so we won’t hear the outcome of this, Jesus’ first recorded sermon.   For various reasons I will prepare a sermon on the Presentation for next Sunday, so today’s words are applicable for those who continue with the end of today’s story next week.

There are some sermons which leave a lasting impression.  So I still remember one from my time in theological college 40 years ago on Psalm 23 where the preacher brought home to the congregation the delicious retribution of having one’s enemies having to look on while the Lord God Almighty waited on the faithful. (1)

Both Matthew and Mark tell the same story of this particular day, this particular sermon, and the reaction to it; it is clearly pivotal in Jesus’ ministry.   Matthew writes: ‘He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?   Is not this the carpenter’s son?   Is not his mother called Mary?   And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?   And are not all his sisters with us?   Where then did this man get all this?’   And they took offence at him.   But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’   And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.’   (2)  These words are essentially replicated in Mark (3)

But in contrast to Matthew and Mark, Luke retells this incident right at the beginning of his gospel account, immediately after the baptism and his time in the wilderness, when Jesus was tempted to use power and authority to establish his credentials.   Immediately Luke recalls Jesus travelling to Nazareth and choosing to make this mission statement at the start of his ministry in the synagogue of his youth: ‘he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor’.

Scholars think Luke did his collating of the stories surrounding Jesus after Mark and he tells us he was concerned to write an ‘orderly account’. (4)  So perhaps Luke thought Mark was somewhat disorderly :-)

And as I began, if we don’t celebrate the feast of the Presentation next Sunday, we will read that those who heard these words, those who knew Jesus and could name the other members of his family were so scandalised by his words that they attempted to kill him by throwing him off the nearby cliff.

The words of Isaiah Jesus read were not unfamiliar to those who heard them.   I’m not sure that the synagogue had a lectionary of the various days and seasons of the year, but only Moses himself was considered greater than Isaiah.   These words would have been well-known.

As I wrote for the sermon of the first Sunday after Christmass, Luke’s gift to us is a critique of religion.   ‘We know that Matthew views Jesus as fulfilling the law of Moses, that Mark has little of Jesus’ teaching at all, and that John’s contribution is to put Jesus into a broader perspective - the light of the world and the word made flesh.   But Luke’s contribution is parables like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan - and these actually are both critiques of religion.  So Luke tells us that right at the earliest opportunity, when Jesus was just a youth, he engaged in this dialogue with orthodoxy’ when Jesus was left behind in Jerusalem.   (5)   The antagonism of the congregation of his youth is no unexpected response.   Those who critique of the establishment don’t expect to be appreciated!

Jesus began where he was at, physically, in his home town and synagogue, yes; but his message was that he wasn’t going to stay there; he was going elsewhere, to others.   Jesus also began where he was at, spiritually, in the religion of his youth and upbringing, but his critique of that upbringing was that this too meant that he had to move elsewhere, to others, spiritually.  

Luke, we are told is the beloved physician, (6) yet the centrality of his critique tells us that healing is not a personal perk of being a christian, it is intimately related to this openness to others.   If our healing is at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing, it is selfishness, not ‘christian’.

I was interested to read again those words ‘many are called but few are chosen’ (7) and I’ve always thought that this meant that everyone is called but, in the end, few measure up.   But I suspect not.   All are called, welcomed and accepted; few, if any, get in through their parentage, nationality, denominational affiliation, or whatever else marks them off as ‘chosen’; somehow superior to others.

I have been interested to ponder Paul’s account of his conversion in Galatians: ‘when God,.. was pleased to reveal his Son to me .. I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus ..  Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas  (8)   This was Paul’s wilderness experience as he processed the revelation that his attempts at being religious by persecuting others was actually persecuting the Lord.   He didn’t go to religious people for his re-education, he went to live among pagans and gentiles, those he would have disdained previously.   The Lord called him to mix with and eat with Gentiles; the very same message Peter had to get as he was taken step by painful step to the house of Cornelius. (9)  As Peter says to them: ’You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile’ - now this is the heart of Christianity - to eat with others.’  (10) 

Indeed of course, Paul’s real troubles only began when he returned to Jerusalem, when his former colleagues made him their target for bullying, chasing him out of synagogue after synagogue, town after town, all the way from Jerusalem to Rome.   In some ways, at his conversion, God chased Paul out of the exclusive church! - to others!

The good news is that we are freed to eat with one and with all.  Religion which restricts those with whom we can associate is not of Jesus.   Religion which is solely concerned with establishing, defining and ordering who is in and who is out, has nothing to do with Jesus.

Sitting down and eating with others is the sign of ultimate mutual acceptance one of another.   Sadly this mutual acceptance was not even present when the Primates of the Anglican Communion gathered recently (11) so somehow we have got the message wrong.  

The faith we have in Jesus; the faith which Jesus proclaimed from the synagogue of his youth and narrowly escaped death; and that he continued to proclaim, by word and action, which led to him being crucified; is that we are ever going elsewhere, being incarnated in the world, including, accepting and sharing with others.

1.  Psalm 23:5
2.  Matthew 13:54-58
3.  Mark 6:1-6
4.  Luke 1:3
6.  Colossians 4:14
7.  Matthew 22:14
8.  Galatians 1:15-18
9.  Acts 10:1-11:18
10.  Acts 10:28