Sermon for Epiphany 3 Year C

The particular Epiphany moment, the showing forth of Jesus the light of the world, that we have to think about today is one that is quite easy to image.

Many times, preachers have to paint exotic pictures in order to get their congregations to be able to imagine what is going on in the biblical passage under consideration.

However, this morning’s gospel reading paints its own picture and is easy to imagine.

People are gathered in a synagogue for Sabbath worship. The young preacher about whom much conversation and gossip has been focussed appears and takes up a scroll and begins to read.

The reason that we can imagine this relatively easily is, of course, because the first part of our worship every week derives very precisely from the worship of the Jewish Synagogue.

There is singing. Scriptures are read aloud. Psalms are chanted. Someone tries to elucidate the text with a sermon. The gospel today is very familiar indeed. It is what we do every week.

Inevitably, preachers tend to reflect on the very act of preaching when faced with a gospel like this and the image of Jesus the preacher.

I noticed in one of the papers this week that it was being reported that someone had done some research (CODEC based in Durham, reported in the Times) on what different kinds of congregations expected from their preachers.

It was quite illuminating.

It seems that Roman Catholics were keen on sermons that educated them and were interested in the Bible. Independent Evangelical churches were full of people wanting to be challenged and encouraged. Baptists wanted sermons to convert them. And what do you think Anglicans wanted?

Well, it appears that we expect to be entertained.

(I do my very best to fulfil your every whim).

So what were the people in that Galilean synagogue expecting of Jesus when he appeared and took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and began to read?

Well, without knowing very much at all about preaching traditions of those days, I bet they were expecting more than they got. Perhaps they were expecting wee stories, or parables, or educated speech. Perhaps they went looking for a joke or a well intentioned thought or a bon mot that would keep them going through the week. Perhaps they were hoping for a comparison of one scripture with another, or great insight into what it had meant through the generations since it was written, or maybe a commentary on the politics of the day. Perhaps they expected highly polished prose. Perhaps something from a poet preacher. Perhaps high rhetoric or maybe just something to help them understand the holiness of God just a little bit more than they had done last week.

However on this occasion, it seems that no-one got quite what they were expecting.

For Jesus seems to have given them just a one-liner in response to the reading from Isaiah. Luke seems to suggest that the character of his sermon could be summed up in just a few words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Was that really all he had to say?

And if it was, what did he mean?

Well, there are, of course, several ways of interpreting this passage.

Let me give you two and let you make your own mind up about them.

The first way of interpreting this is the conventional one. The significant thing in this interpretation is that Jesus has somehow used (some would say twisted) the passage from Isaiah to somehow become a prophecy about himself.

This is the usual way in which Christian preachers interpret this text. It is a showing forth of the Messiahship of Jesus. By picking on one of the great texts which prophesises the Messiah and saying, “Today this has been fulfilled” whilst every eye was upon him, Jesus takes on the expectations of the Jewish people who were hoping and praying for a Messiah to come, the Messiah who would in some way save the people of Israel.

Well, so far, so conventional. However, it does contain a big presumption, and that presumption is that the bit of Isaiah that Jesus is quoting is about the Messiah.

However, that is not a presumption that would necessarily have been shared by those who were there. For one of the traditional Jewish presumptions about this passage is that it is not about the coming of the Messiah but in fact about the nature of the Jewish people.

The idea of the suffering servant of Isaiah being a metaphor for the Messiah is one that seems to be more believable by Christians, who, of course, find the suffering servant songs to be laden with metaphors that seem to resonate with the life and death of Jesus.

Those who listened to Jesus reading from Isaiah may well have believed that it was a text about the Jewish people, themselves the suffering servant of God.

So, if this is really about being the people of God in a particular way, then there is the possibility of us interpreting this in a way that is perhaps more interesting.

Perhaps this passage can be used to suggest we become the people of God by gathering, and singing and opening up the scriptures together.

Or perhaps more pertinently, he is suggesting that just anyone can reach for the scriptures and have a go at reading them for themselves.

There seems to be an audacious factor in the way this is reported. Was it somehow rather scandalous that a rag tag and bobtail kind of preacher could come in and have a go at interpreting scripture himself?

This kind of text is key to the ways in which people are now reading the bible. I remember Gene Robinson saying when he was here a couple of years ago, that you just don’t know what people are going to make of the Bible until they start reading it for themselves.

People find resonances of their own lives in scripture. And the more diverse the crowd of interpreters of scripture, the more we seem to discover about the overarching and diverse love of God.

If this really is about being a community, then we have to ask not what it means for Jesus to seem to be proclaiming himself to be the Messiah, but what it means for us as a community to take on those expectations for ourselves.

For the Spirit of the Lord is upon us,
for us to bring good news to the poor,
for us to declare release to the captives,
for us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and for us to ensure that the oppressed be set free. Amen

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