Jesus Is in the House
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 27, 2019
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke gives us a bird’s eye view of a synagogue service. Actually, this account is the oldest and most detailed description we have. Although other gospel writers place this event later in the ministry of Jesus, Luke puts it near the beginning in order to announce Jesus’ mission, right up front. Luke wants everyone to know, without question, who Jesus is, what his ministry is about, and what the likely response will be to both Jesus and, later, to the church. [i]
Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returns to Galilee. By this time, people from far and wide have heard of him. When he arrives in Nazareth, he is among family and friends. This is where Jesus grew up, where he played, and where he worshiped. On the Sabbath, Jesus does what he always does, he goes to the synagogue. Fred Craddock notes that it was during the exile that the synagogue came into being as a sort of temple surrogate, minus the altar or priest. “Led by laity, the Pharisees being the most prominent among them, the synagogue became the institutional center of a religion of the Book, not the altar…the synagogue was not only an assembly for worship but also a school, a community center, and a place for administering justice.” [ii]
So, Jesus returns to Nazareth and enters the synagogue. But notice that he does not simply show up. He participates. An attendant hands him the scroll of Isaiah and he stands to read it. Unrolling the scroll, he finds the place from which he wishes to 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.
Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant and sits down to interpret what he has just read—something like a homily, if you will. With the eyes of everyone upon him, Jesus says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
While our reading today ends on a calm note, when we take up the story next Sunday, we will see that the temperature in the synagogue changes quickly. In a flash, the people will move from “every eye is upon Jesus” to “Let’s throw him off the nearest cliff.” But for now, let’s keep our attention on what has transpired up to this point. Jesus has come home to Nazareth to proclaim his mission statement to his family and friends. It will amaze, encourage, challenge, and comfort—but, before all is said and done—it will get him killed.
What is a mission statement anyway? A mission statement is a statement of purpose for a person, committee, organization, or church. In the case of a person, it guides her actions, spells out her overall goals, and provides a path to help guide decision making. With all eyes upon him, in essence, Jesus proclaims, “What I have read today—it’s who I am—it’s what my ministry will be about, for today, the year of the Lord’s favor begins. Today!”
The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee, something God laid out for Israel in the book of Leviticus:
You shall count off…forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud…on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.[iii]
The people of Israel know about captivity. They know about slavery and the harshness of life. They look forward to a day when all will be made right. Over the centuries, they begin to hope for the day when the Messiah will come, and jubilee will reign forever. And there in their midst sits Jesus, “Today,” he says, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In other words, Craddock points out:
The age of God’s reign is here; the eschatological time when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s purpose comes to fruition has arrived; there will be changes in the conditions of those who have waited and hoped. Those changes for the poor and the wronged and the oppressed will occur today. This is the beginning of jubilee.[iv]
Jesus, a Jew, is steeped in his own tradition. He knows the teachings of the prophets. He sings psalms. Yet, throughout his earthly ministry, he refuses to be cemented to the past. His mission is about today—not yesterday—not even someday—but today!
As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, I have long recognized that there was a time in the life of the church when we felt pressured to become more contemporary. But things, well, they are a-changing. Now, “contemporary” is old hat and what seems to be drawing more people into the church is not something new and flashy, but that which is ancient and tried and true! Millennial blogger, Amy Peterson, puts it this way, “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s market. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”[v] It turns out, young and old alike, who are searching for ways to deepen their faith, are being drawn to churches that offer classes on spiritual practices. Contemplative style worship services are becoming more common. People want to experience God in new, old ways—centering prayer, walking a labyrinth, lighting candles, silent and other spiritual retreats. We are living in a time when people are starving to death to connect to the holy. As a church, how are we helping? What is our mission—our mission statement? The mission of First Presbyterian Church is to celebrate God’s grace and to share Christ’s love through worship, study, and service. If we focus on our mission and remain open to the movement of the Spirit to guide us forward—then, surely, we will continue to be a beacon of light that draws people to the holy.
When Jesus enters the synagogue, we might say, “He goes to church.” There he demonstrates his faithfulness to his own tradition, but he also helps people see things fresh and new. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we have our traditions, too. Some are specifically reformed Presbyterian traditions, some are our very own. Repeatedly, though, over the past 2 ½ years, I have found joy in the way you are willing to embrace the new: singing old hymns and new ones; accompanied by organ, piano, guitar, handbells, flute, or recorded music; implementing the First Friday Contemplative Service that includes a variety of prayer practices; being willing to try a multi-generational Sunday school class; and taking the huge leap to support social media and live-streaming as ways to reach more people for the sake of Christ. Indeed, it is clear Jesus is in our church. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is among us, teaching us to hold on to the old traditions while exploring new ways of telling the story TODAY! For still today, there are people in dire need of good news. Still today, there are those who are held captive by the chains of addictions, unforgiving spirits, feelings of rejection, hatred. Still today, there are people oppressed by systems over which they have no control, oppressed by lies that would have them believe there is no hope. Still today, there are those who are blind to the way of Jesus and they need someone—anyone—to point them to the light.
Presbyterian missionary, Dick Gibson, tells a story about his days in Cairo, Egypt in the early 1970’s. On a street in a desperately poor neighborhood, with few modern conveniences, a church had requested a film on the life of Christ. The missionaries drove there, set up a screen in the sanctuary, and turned on the projector. As the church neighbors in this poor Muslim neighborhood walked by and saw the image of Jesus moving and speaking on the screen, there was pandemonium. It was the first movie most of them had ever seen. One of the women, who had entered the church out of curiosity, came bursting out the door and down the steps, shouting to anyone who had ears to hear, “Come and see! Come and see! They have Jesus in the church!” [vi] Oh, to hear our neighbors say that about us! “Come and see! Come and see! They have Jesus in First Presbyterian Church!”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, 60-63
[iii] Leviticus 25:8-10
[iv] Craddock, 62.
[v] Rachel Held Evans, “”Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.21d662739d7e
[vi] Adapted from Lectionary Preaching Workbook, Series VIII Cycle C, Carlos Wilton, 70-71.
*Cover Art “Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54196 [retrieved January 9, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/korephotos/2472547083/.