A Sermon from Sherborne

Annoying the people

A sermon for Epiphany 3 preached at Castleton Church on Sunday 27 January 2019 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson


Many leaders who made great achievements rose slowly by small steps before they came to the pinnacle of their careers. Take Winston Churchill who, although he was born into the governing elite, gradually worked his way up, taking on various responsibilities. It wasn’t until the age of 66 that he took charge of this country’s fight against the Nazi evil in WWII. That kind of progression is typical of so many leaders and statesmen.

With Jesus though it was different. We know very little about him until he was 30 years old.  This is the age St. Luke gives us in the chapter before the one read as our second lesson today as the age which marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. At the time, 30 was regarded as the age at which people attained spiritual maturity. But Jesus bursts on to the scene ready to speak and act. In today’s reading we heard that Jesus went around the local synagogues and, if you like, gave them his manifesto. No doubt he was well prepared, and he was certainly starting in a small-scale way, but he wasn’t holding back on his central message. It is calculated that Jesus’ public ministry lasted about 3 years so there was no time for him work up to its climax – he had to be at the peak of his powers right from the beginning.

St Luke tells us that Jesus began by teaching or preaching in the local synagogues and by chance, in 2016, Israeli archaeologists in northern Israel uncovered the ruins of a rural synagogue that dates back some 2,000 years. The remains of the synagogue were found during an archaeological dig at Tel Rekhesh, near Mount Tabor in lower Galilee, in what was an ancient Jewish village. It has been estimated that the synagogue was built between 20 – 40 AD and was in use for a hundred years. This has been quite a find because no rural synagogues have been found from that time before and this is the first synagogue of the first century found in in rural Galilee.

The building was 29 feet by 26 feet and the walls were lined with limestone benches. Two pillars were found which may have supported the roof. The site is 10 miles east of Nazareth, and is in the area in which Jesus moved and taught. A prayer reader would have stood in the centre of the room. Later designs of synagogues were built to face towards Jerusalem.

Ancient synagogues have been found at Capernaum and Nazareth too, but usually the dates of the structures are much too late to be useful. It is quite difficult to find archaeological evidence which links such buildings to the New Testament text. But this building may well have been one in which Jesus preached.

Our account in today’s reading places Jesus in a synagogue at Nazareth and has Jesus quoting from Isaiah chapter 61. He seems to be using the Septuagint version of the Old Testament though it may be that was the version St. Luke was familiar with. These verses are taken from the third section of the writings contained in the book Isaiah but their content has affinities with the so-called servant songs in the second section. People listening to them would have readily perceived the messianic proclamation implicit within the verses. Jesus tells the congregation that the prophecy of Isaiah has come true and been fulfilled that very day in their presence. That’s where our reading today ended for our lectionary cuts us off at this point before the more interesting events occur. Jesus is making important claims for himself and initially the people are impressed by his gracious words. They are perhaps surprised because they know him and his family and at some point, this surprise turns to irritation and then antagonism and anger.

St. Luke centres this around what Jesus might do to authenticate this prophecy in so far as it might apply to himself. He lays before them wonderful signs which occurred at Capernaum and clearly their expectation was that similar miracles might be done by him at Nazareth. And yet Jesus seems to need the trust and faith of people and where that faith is not easily given, because familiarity breeds contempt, then his power to act is reduced.

Jesus also cites the particularity of his message, though St. Luke perhaps muddies the waters rather because he has Jesus referring to miraculous care given to people outside Israel by Elijah and Elisha. Elijah during a severe famine miraculously provides sustenance to a widow living in the territory of Sidon and Elisha heals Naaman, the Syrian commander, of his leprosy. Yes, the prophets were assisting particular people but there was no suggestion that Jesus was going to leave his work amongst the people of Israel and turn instead to the gentiles, indeed from time to time he asserts that he is sent primarily to the people of Israel.

Whatever the cause, the people are incensed and lead Jesus to a hill top intending to bring about his destruction by hurling him off the cliff. But Jesus possesses a mysterious invulnerability and passes through the midst of them unscathed. Perhaps they were all too busy arguing and giving vent to their fury to notice that he was no longer there.

Scrolls were expensive as they were hand written so only the wealthiest synagogues could maintain a library of the complete writings of what we call the Old Testament. The rural ones might have some of the books of the Torah and maybe some of the prophets – Isaiah was a favourite. When the gospels came to be written there were quotations from the OT, some by Jesus himself and some as editorial comment by the gospel writers. So it is that John the Baptist’s addresses to the people are backed up by words from Isaiah from chapter 40 – “A voice cries in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’”.

Our knowledge of the OT is a bit shaky I suspect and we are probably much more familiar with the NT. But at the time of Jesus the scriptures meant the OT and the gospels are peppered with quotations. I did a quick search and found references to Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Isaiah (of course), Jeremiah, Daniel, Zechariah, the Psalms, Proverbs and so on. The message of Jesus was founded on the inspired meditation of the authors of these and other books of the OT.

Then, given this plentiful use of the OT it is perhaps surprising that Jesus managed to offend so many people. He had run-ins with the people of Nazareth, the scribes and pharisees, the High Priest and members of the Sanhedrin, the traders in the temple precinct and so on. Even the mass of people who followed him gladly and hung on every word when he began his ministry, seem to have become disillusioned in course of time and fallen away, perhaps taking up some other fashionable enterprise. (Jn 6:66)

Like many other leaders, Jesus both attracted and repelled. You will remember the conversation Jesus had with Pontius Pilate about truth. Pilate couldn’t understand it because for him truth was a fluid concept in that he went for what was expedient or politically advantageous without worrying much about the truth. But Jesus had integrity and was determined to be true to his understanding of God’s nature and the path he was called to follow. For him truth was paramount. No doubt that was why he clashed with the Pharisees and Temple leaders because he could see that they distorted the truth and concealed it. Another verse from one of the servant songs in Isaiah says “He made my mouth like a sharp sword” so Jesus did not shrink from speaking the truth however unpalatable it was to his hearers. They therefore wanted him silenced one way or another so that they would be free to be duplicitous without condemnation.

The people of Nazareth who wanted to throw Jesus off their high hill were likewise incensed by his use of the actions of the prophets to explain his lack of miracles amongst them. They concluded that he certainly wasn’t the Messiah figure they were hoping for and so even tried to bring about his death. However, his time had not yet come and he slipped through the midst of them. Often in the gospels we find that Jesus did not fulfil the role people wanted from him and so they became disillusioned and antagonistic.

We come to this church Sunday by Sunday and thereby proclaim our faith and publicly assert our belief. We are called to see the truth in what we believe and, when we have opportunity, to share that truth and stand up for it. It won’t always be easy because there is in the West a rise of a secular anti-religious atmosphere. But maybe our support for the truth and our faithful worship will bring people once again to value the Christian message and find in it what gives them life and hope.

The Reverend Christopher Huitson 27/01/2019
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton