At the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus reads a passage from Isaiah and then preaches a one sentence sermon:
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
We could think of Jesus’ life and career in conventional terms, in the way we would any other historical figure, or indeed any contemporary newsworthy personality. We could look at him as if he were someone who was getting notice because of what they were doing, someone who was raising the curiosity, the interest of a wide public. In some ways Jesus might rather resemble a politician, the leader of a political movement. Luke briefly summarises what Jesus has been doing up to this point. After a brief time of retreat, in the desert to prepare himself, Jesus returns to the province of Galilee. He travels from synagogue to synagogue. The synagogue is the most characteristic Jewish institution, then as now, the synagogue is an assembly for worship, it is a school, a community centre and place where public life is conduct, Already Jesus is established as a remarkable and popular speaker in the synagogues. But so far Luke hasn’t let us hear what Jesus is saying. If we were thinking that Jesus were like a politician, we might say he was laying the groundwork to establish his party. He is travelling around, meeting people, listening and speaking. He is sharpening his skills as a public speaker. He is building a following. He is establishing a reputation. In all of this there comes a point where you need to declare yourself publicly. Jesus needs to announce who and what he is and what he is setting out do. He needs to point to the intellectual and moral grounds for what he is doing. He needs to lay out where this all leads and why. He needs to set out his manifesto. And the choice of location and occasion needs to be carefully made: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read.
Apart from its association with Jesus, Nazareth is of no account whatsoever. It is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. Later one of Jesus’ disciples will dismiss it with the observation that nothing good could ever come from a place like Nazareth. But this was the place where Jesus had grown up. Though it has to be said it is also a place where Jesus appears to have moved away from. His adult life seems to be centred on Capernaum. And already he has become a wandering figure, moving from place to place. But he comes back to the place where he started to make the real beginning of his ministry. The sabbath starts as just another sabbath. Jesus it seems was regular in his sabbath observance as he was with all the other aspects of pious Jewish living. Perhaps today he was a little more welcome at the synagogue. Perhaps he arrives and is welcomed as one of Nazareth’s own, who was making a name for himself in the other synagogues nearby. He is welcomed as a homecoming family member, with that mix a familiarity and strangeness that returning family members bring with them. This was just another sabbath. And up to this point Jesus was just another young man making a name for himself as a travelling preacher, at this point he is hardly unique. Perhaps Jesus chose this particular sabbath because he knew that this was the day when a particular passage from Isaiah was set to be read. And perhaps he chose Nazareth because he could be sure that when he stood up to read, he would be handed the scroll. He unrolls it to the place we now refer to as Isaiah 61:1-2 and he reads:
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 favour.
Jesus hangs his ministry on this passage from Isaiah. This is the beginning of one of the servant songs that are part of Isaiah’s prophecy. The “servant” is the one appointed by God to fulfil God’s mission. Like all of prophecy, these words of Isaiah are many layered. The servant is a personification of Israel. The servant is the representative and the summation of all that the people of Israel are. They are the people who by their very existence, and by their presence in the world declare God’s promise of liberation and hope. The promise directed especially at all those who do not have life in all the fulness God intends for human life. But the servant is also the hope of Israel itself. The servant is the one who come to them in particular, impoverished and captive as the were, who would come announce that message of hope and liberation from God for them. The figure of the servant is the Messiah, literally “the one anointed.”
Jesus sits down – the normal posture for preaching in the synagogue. Jesus preaches his one sentence sermon:
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
As manifestos go they don’t come any larger or more impressive than Isaiah’s servant. Jesus makes his bold claim. “I am he, I am the one who speaks that message of hope and liberation from God to Israel, and in so doing I am the one who fulfils Israel’s mission in the world!” This isn’t just another Sabbath any more. Up to this point we, the readers of Luke’s Gospel, have been insiders in the story. We already know far more about Jesus than do his congregation in synagogue that sabbath, for all that he had grown up among them. In the words he reads from Isaiah we can hear the echoes of what has already been said about him; in the songs that Mary and Zechariah sang about him before his birth, by the angels who announce his birth, and the words that were spoken over him by Anna and Simeon when he was brought to the temple, and by the voice of God himself after Jesus’ baptism. We already know that he is filled with the power of the Spirit. We already know this is who Jesus is. But here Jesus announces to the people who know him. He announces that from here on this is what his preaching, his ministry and his mission mean. He is the one anointed by God to fulfil God’s mission of hope and liberation.
The first word which we hear the adult Jesus speak, to other human beings, is “Today.” His sermon declares that now is the time when God fulfils his promises. Reading Isaiah, or any other part of scripture, the tendency might be to allow that “today” to slip into some other time frame. It is easy, because the Bible is an old book, and because Isaiah was already half a millennium old when Jesus read it, it is easy because it is an old book to allow that “today” to become “yesterday.” As if what God does is already consigned to the past. Or likewise, because the promises of Isaiah, and any other part of scripture, seem vague, especially since they are couched in ancient and often symbolic terms, it is possible to allow that “today” to become “someday.” As if what God does is postponed to some undetermined future. But the today of Jesus’ sermon is an everlasting today. Now is the time when God fulfils his promises. Jesus’ sermon is in fact the essence of every Christian sermon. What Jesus preaches at Nazareth is the heart of the whole proclamation of the Church. Because Jesus came and preached, because he lived and died and rose again, because we are the body of Christ, that same sermon remains true for us: Today, in the world’s hearing, that scripture is fulfilled. We, the church, are the ones anointed by the Holy Spirit to fulfil the promise made through Isaiah. The manifesto which Jesus hung his ministry on becomes our manifesto, our mission. The question we might ask ourselves is: what kind of church, what sort of people would we be if those words from Isaiah’s prophecy were our mission statement? What kind of people would we be, what kind of action would we take, if we recognised that the role that God has given us and has anointed us for is to announce his good new for the poor, to declare liberation for captives and sight for the blind? This might be tricky for us because we have inherited a church that often had different assumptions about itself, and as a result had a different set of objectives, a church that was working to a different manifesto.
By our existence, by our speech and by our actions now is the time when God’s promises are being fulfilled. The poor will receive good news, when we bring it to them. The captives will know freedom, when we proclaim it to them. The bind will see, when we offer them our vision. The oppressed will go free, when we share our hope and our freedom with them. Because now, always now, is the year of God’s favour. Today in our hearing the scriptures are fulfilled.
Manifesto at Nazareth by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0