Evensong 13th May 2018
I’ve preached three times at my old school, twice at my old University and once at my old theological college. On each occasion my old teachers were there. You are immediately 12, or 20, or 25 again. Past and present and future are bound up in a complex way – you are grateful for memory and tradition, but aware that the world has moved on, that there are new things to say, and that you, not your teachers, are the one to say them.
In our second reading today Jesus was on just such territory. His ministry had been public for long enough for him to return to those who had known him longest with a degree of wider fame and approval. No doubt his former teachers would be there. After a promising start it gets difficult. His message doesn’t fulfil expectations, nor sit with their world view. By challenging them Jesus makes them angry, and the section actually ends with them dragging him out of synagogue and town and attempting to hurl him off a cliff. At least I’ve returned from my old places - and with my expenses.
There is past, present and future here. The past is signified by the reading. The synagogue custom was to read a small section of the Scriptures each week. Someone would then teach about them. Jesus is invited to read and speak. He is given Isaiah and finds Chapter 61 – tonight’s first reading. The hopes of the Jews had come to be all wrapped together in a figure who would exemplify the King, the Prophet, the Son of God, the Servant who suffered, the Messiah. These are longings from the past which the people hearing would have stored and cherished. We have similar ‘trust deeds’. We have a rich heritage, which shapes us and which we should celebrate.
But there is a present reality also: we are not shaped solely by what we have been handed. Jesus makes this clear by his interpretation of the passage: this is God’s today. After the last of the recognised prophets all that was left was the echo of God’s word – what the Jews called the bath qol – the reverberations of the past until the Messiah was announced in person. After 400 years Jesus says that all is fulfilled in him: he is the bringer of good news to the poor; the freer of captives, the healer of the blind, the liberator of the oppressed, the one whose words bring in the new era of God’s blessing. Jesus does not look back to when it was better before, nor look forward to what might be if all went well. He says: all that is here now. In me.
And this shapes our past and future and our present. What Jesus does here is to say that God’s eternal new day has dawned. What the prophets longed for has been realised, and because this is the new day, the acceptable year, the day of the Lord’s favour, it is now here for ever. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” is spoken to us now as well as to the people in the Nazareth synagogue. It means that everything about God’s new kingdom is here, for us to live in for ever. It may not be fully revealed, but the reality is now, and part of our task it to bring it to fruition.
Our past shapes us. Our future beckons us. But what inspires us today is bringing in the liberation only found in Jesus. That will mean shaping a society based on justice and service, not greed and selfishness, and it will require the churches to lead the way in showing how human beings can live together without tearing each other apart. Not spending all our energy in finding elaborate ways to disagree with each other as our prime focus might be a start. If we get that right, even a little bit, we may just irritate human society as Jesus’s hearers in the synagogue were irritated.
What will happen when the churches become places of freedom, healing, and proclamation of God’s today? When we get the message of liberation and freedom we will not just be a warm and welcoming fellowship. We will burst out of the doors and seek out people who cry out for friendship in their loneliness and for food in their hunger, light in their darkness.
I’ve just been with David and others at the Tea Service at Henderson Court. Age UK Camden operate a Good Neighbours scheme from there. It’s just lost its Lottery funding. It needs £45,000. We need to ask how we, with others, can be good news for the poor for them. And rather than reacting, this is about actively seeking such ways of bringing liberation and asking why it is needed in the first place. This is about salvation, not just making things slightly better.
How, today, can we be God’s future for the world? That’s a question for all of us, reflecting on our past, moving into our future, and living each day in the presence of God who sets us free. Amen.