Reading(s): Luke 4:16-24. This sermon was given by Sally Kerson at St Mark and All Saints.
Today the church celebrates Bible Sunday, although of course every Sunday should be Bible Sunday, because we do read from the Bible every week and hopefully, we do try, in some small way, to reflect on what the Bible may be saying to us and to weave it into our lives and worship. But the point, I think, of Bible Sunday is to take a small step back from the weekly readings and to seek to re-engage with the Bible as a whole. To remember that it is not just a series of disconnected stories but that it is a grand, sweeping story of God’s relationship with his people and to encourage us, as his people, to explore that big story so that the small stories both make more sense and, more importantly, so that we can grow in our faith journey. The Bible as a written book has had an extremely chequered history and throughout the centuries people have been killed trying to make it accessible to everyone, and today there are parts of the world where Bibles are banned. But we also need to remember that the Bible is not just read in church on a Sunday but in our homes as we make our own reflections on God’s word and it certainly should not be collecting dust on a bookshelf. If it is, then it may be time to buy another translation that is more reader friendly.
One of the things that frequently happens is that when people are clearing out homes, especially after a bereavement, they think that the church would like the Bibles that the next of kin do not want in their house and so often they end up being left at a church. In fact, I only heard last week that someone has left their family Bible to this church in their will, a thoughtful gesture but we are not custodians of Bibles, we use them as living and working books.
When I was first licensed in the church many people used to ask what my title was, I would say ‘A Reader’ and they would say, “oh you read the Bible in church on a Sunday” and there is absolutely nothing wrong in assuming that; all those who read Bible passages on a Sunday as part of our worship are greatly valued and thanked. But I have to say that when they changed my license to say ‘Licenced Lay Minister’ that conversation ended and we were able to move on a little further! And have more interesting conversations! Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus reading a lesson in the Synagogue and it’s quite dramatic.
Perhaps I need to put this reading in context. After Jesus' baptism and temptation, he returns to his hometown of Nazareth where he attends a synagogue service. He is asked to read a portion of scripture from the book of Isaiah - it is possible Jesus was allowed to choose the passage, for it is not certain whether synagogue readings were scheduled in the first century. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus is a devout Jew, familiar with Jewish scriptures, the law and the prophets. When Jesus reads aloud the passage from Isaiah, he and the people listening to him would understand that this is a reference to God’s “anointed one”, the longed for Messiah who would bring in God’s kingdom on earth. We can perhaps imagine a scene of great drama and tension as Jesus, no doubt with authority and meaning, reads the words of Isaiah, slowly rolls up the scroll and sits down. “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”. There is silence, deep and expectant, time seems to stand still as Jesus perhaps looks round at each person there – all known to him as neighbours and friends, each important to him as a child of God. Then into the silence he speaks with authority, certainty and a power that comes from deep within him: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." The people of Israel had been given a word picture of God’s promised Saviour and what he would do. Now, suddenly, they have Jesus before them, a living person, who is going to put God’s laws into action and fulfil the words of the prophets. But the people of Nazareth are appalled. They are angry. They plot Jesus' death, and he can do nothing.
There can be something of the people of Nazareth in all of us. Our anger can, at times, spring from a determination to hold on to our own particular way of looking at the church and the world. It can reveal a strong resistance to moving towards a more generous vision of others and, flowing from that, a more generous way of living. When we find ourselves getting very angry over something (and this can be something very insignificant to most people), it can be worth stepping back from our anger and asking ourselves whether our anger has more in common with the anger of the people of Nazareth, whether it points to something not quite right with our world or something not quite right in us. Very few of us like to be challenged, we don’t always appreciate people who disturb us, even if we need to be disturbed. It has been said of Jesus that he ‘comforted the disturbed’ and ‘disturbed the comfortable’. The gospel that he preached and lived is, indeed, both comforting and disturbing.
The people of Nazareth were responding angrily to its more disturbing side. He was calling on his townspeople to think differently about the foreigner, about those who belonged to a very different tradition to themselves. He was asking them to be children of the God who has no favourites. Jesus is being rejected by those who initially accepted him. When he went to his home town of Nazareth and preached there, initially, ‘he won the approval of all’; people ‘were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips’. Within a relatively short space of time, that acceptance changed, first to scepticism, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’ and, finally, to outright and murderous rejection as we read later in the chapter, ‘they took him up to the brow of the hill their town was built on, intending to throw him down the cliff’. At the end of his public ministry, Jesus would again be initially welcomed with great fanfare as he entered the city of Jerusalem but within a matter of days those who welcomed him would side with those who wanted him crucified.
We know from our daily life and the life of public figures acceptance can so quickly turn to rejection, which we have seen play out this past week with our own prime minister Liz Truss and our thoughts and prayers go out to her and her family at this time.
Although we may have little control over the drift from initial acceptance to rejection in our own lives, we do have some control over how we deal with the experience of rejection. We can allow that experience to make us bitter and resentful, leaving us prone to rejecting others in the way that we have been rejected. This is not how Jesus dealt with his experience of rejection. The gospel reading tells us that, in response to his rejection in Nazareth, he ‘slipped through the crowd and walked away’. This is Luke’s way of saying that Jesus continued with his mission of proclaiming the good news of God’s favour to all people, including those who had rejected him. Likewise, when he experienced a much more painful rejection in Jerusalem, Luke tells us that he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. Jesus was not embittered by rejection because he was rooted and grounded in God’s love.
We ourselves have many transitions in our own lives - some natural, some may be brought on by bereavement or rejection - one stage in our life will not be the same as another. We need to be attentive – attentive and brave. We need to look out for opportunities, to listen for God’s call, and be willing to do what’s right. We need also to be prepared for the transition not to work. It might not be the right moment. We might not be the right person. But we should take comfort from Jesus' story there, as well. He was rejected by his own people; crucified instead of crowned: Jesus' life and work look like failure. We know they weren’t – and the mere fact of our meeting here 2,000 years later shows that they weren’t. God can make success out of failure and saints out of ordinary people. If we’ll let him and if we allow the word of God to inspire us through the Holy Bible.
Perhaps one verse of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn “Lord for the years” (which we sang last week) might be our prayer this Bible Sunday.
“Lord, for the word, the word of life which fires us,
speaks to our hearts, and sets our souls ablaze,
teaches and trains, rebukes us and inspires us:
Lord of the word, receive your people’s praise."