Sermon preached for Epiphany 3

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sometimes you have to actually turn up and see things with your own eyes in order to understand what you think you’ve always known.

I’ve read this section of the gospel plenty of times and it always seemed straightforward to me. Jesus reads to the congregation from the book of Isaiah by way of inaugurating his ministry. And something captivated them. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were upon him.

I’ve preached on that phrase a few times when this gospel has come around. But not today. Today, I want to stick with the scroll.

For I remember a couple of years ago getting an invitation to visit a synagogue for a Saturday morning service.

Now, as it happens, I grew up worshipping in a building that had formerly been used as a synagogue in Leeds. It had been a community in which men worshipped downstairs and the women in an upstairs gallery designed so that the two sexes couldn’t see one another. That had the consequence in later years when it was used as a Christian place of worship that people sitting in the gallery couldn’t see much of what was going on at all.

But, before anyone starts getting more progressive than thou, don’t forget in passing that there are congregations in Christianity where men and women still sit separately and will worship like that today.

Any anyway the synagogue I got to visit in Glasgow wasn’t like that. Men and women worshipped together as one congregation, just like we do here.

The thing that I remembered from my childhood was the shape of an arch that outlined where the ark would have been – the receptacle of the scrolls that are read in worship. It was somewhat grand.

And when I went to be present at a Jewish morning service, I saw the reverence accorded to the religious text.

For the opening of the ark was a big deal. It was a big moment. It was dramatic. It was clear that it mattered a huge amount.

It took three people to get the largest of the scrolls from the ark and lay it out so that the reading for the day could be read.

It was clearly an awkward thing to do and as they did so, one of the three stumbled and the scroll rocked from side to side.

And you could feel the tension. Everyone leaned forward. There was a palpable sense of relief when the scroll was steadied. It didn’t fall to the floor but was cradled with great care and devotion.

I later was told that had the scroll fallen then the whole community would have kept a 40 day period of fasting.

Imagine that – if we were to have Lent every time anyone dropped a bible in church.

It was clear that in that place there was much devotion and care. The Torah was treated with respect, love and kindness.

And I particularly remember on this holocaust memorial day hearing stories there of scrolls and pieces of Torah scrolls that had survived Nazi persecution – when the physical artefacts of the Jewish people were trashed.

And those fragments of scrolls were spoken of as survivors – using the same language as the language used to describe human beings who survived.

The words of God had survived to be spoken anew.

Such was the reverence of those texts in that place.

And you had to be there to see it. You had to turn up in order to understand a scene that you’ve always thought you knew.

I guess it was in such a scene as that, that Jesus found his place in the scroll and read the passage of Isaiah for the day.

I remember 6 years ago on the first night of my sabbatical. I had arrived in Vancouver after a very long day. I was jetlagged and weary and desperately wanted to go to bed. And my hosts met me with the words – “Oh, there’s the installation of a priest this evening – we thought you should come too. Here’s a stole and an alb. You’re coming with us.

It was one of those times when the joy of the Lord was difficult to find.

And of course, when I got there I was introduced to the bishop conducting the ceremony as the honoured guest visiting from the Old Country. And so I was ushered to the very front row and sat there with the other bigwigs. On my mouth was a forced smile. In my head it was 5 am in the morning and I had not slept for 22 hours. And my eyes were closing with every verse of the opening hymn.

And then something happened which made me wake up and realise I was in another country and that the trip was worth making.

The gradual hymn was announced and we stood up to sing. And as we did so, one of the servers lifted the gospel book up with one hand. A young man with no guile – he made his way in the procession, with great dignity and yet with no inhibitions, dancing the gospel to the centre of the church. It was done with such sincerity and such joy. And the eyes of everyone in the assembly were upon him.

It was as though all the uninhibited and simple joy of the new world was being expressed in one gesture. We don’t behave like that in this old country. And you know, I loved it.

It made me realise that I was someplace new. And I was going to have my eyes opened and my ears unstopped every day. And as he danced the gospel into place, my heart began to dance. And I started to wake up in every way possible.

And I had to have turned up and seen it with my own eyes in order to understand it.

On some day, in some place, the people gather for morning worship.

And a young teacher from the local country is  assigned to read the text for the day.

And we think of his reading of that text as the public inauguration of his ministry.

What does he start with?

Does he teach them theology? Does he teach them spirituality? Does he teach them prayer? Does he teach them ethics?

No – those will all come later in his own little stories and parables and table talk.

No. He begins with Isaiah. And every word is about social justice and about building a society that is altogether new.

Good news to the poor.

Release to the captives

Sight to those who don’t see.

Freedom for all who are oppressed.

And he rolls up the scroll and goes back to his place, and every eye is upon him.

“Today,” he says,

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

On this day, can we still see him in our hearts and minds?

Can we imagine him sitting amongst us?

Can we work out from the clues that he gives us what the day of the Lord’s favour will look like today?

Sometimes you have to actually turn up and see things with your own eyes in order to understand what you think you’ve always known.

What was it you came here today to see?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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