Luke 4.16-24, Romans 15.1-6
I wonder what it was like in the synagogue that day? The whole of the village of Nazareth would have known that Jesus, their Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter was coming back to their village, to their synagogue. Just before this morning’s gospel reading starts we hear that Jesus had returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and reports about him and what he had done at Capernaum had spread throughout the surrounding countryside. He had been teaching in synagogues and had been praised by everyone. And now he was going to be teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth a small village with barely five hundred inhabitants – the place would have been packed and all those who were there would have been hoping to hear the Good News – they were full of eager anticipation. Everyone there would know him and he would know everyone. Luke draws us in to the story: “Jesus stood up to read . . . he was handed the scroll . . . he unrolled it . . .” the Jews and we are on the edge of our seats by now. Jesus tells them that the Spirit of the Lord is on him. His years of preparation – the time in the temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve, the life leading up to his baptism, his testing in the wilderness, his early deeds in Capernaum - he preached like a man inspired. But what he said was the opposite of what they were expecting. If this was inspiration then they didn’t want it!
What they wanted was a King with an army ready to throw out their Roman occupiers. What did they get? Well they got a man preaching an entirely different message. Jesus says that he is here to bring “good news to the poor.” This doesn’t just mean those who have no money because in his community status depended on much more than wealth. It depended on education, gender, family, religious purity on so on. So the poor means all those who are excluded from Jewish society and by bringing his good news to such people Jesus shows that he is not prepared to recognise social boundaries. In his eyes even these outsiders are the objects of divine grace and through Jesus God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family. He puts it more succinctly in the sermon on the plain recorded by Luke “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Similarly bringing sight to the blind doesn’t just mean physical healing, although we know that Jesus does restore sight to the blind, but it would also have been understood as meaning receiving revelation, experiencing salvation and being included in God’s family.
Jesus goes on to talk about freedom for captives and the oppressed. Commentators say that this means forgiveness for those who are held captive by Satan or who are under some kind of financial obligation to another person. Such freedom would mean that these people could be restored into the social community and would have important social and spiritual impact.
This would not be good news for those in the synagogue that day, Jews, God’s “chosen people.” Here was this man saying that God’s kingdom was here for everybody not just “people like us.”
The people of Nazareth are weary. They’re tired of being mistreated by cruel soldiers and greedy tax collectors. They certainly have lots of reasons not to trust their neighbours. The world's a scary place.
We know about that. We've all been hurt, stepped on in one way or another. And certainly the news we get from the media feeds our fears as most of what we see, hear and read is about the awful tragedies in our cities and around the world. It's very understandable that parents want nothing more than to protect their children.
It’s so easy for us to only have eyes for ourselves - our family, our community - for what we think is in our best interests. It’s hard for us to let go of our wounds . . . our fears, our distrust . . . our preconceived ideas about others based on their background. In a nutshell, it's hard to trust - to trust God and his claims of sovereignty.
And so too often, instead of hearing and really receiving Jesus’ great news of release to the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, we look to find our good news, our salvation in successful careers, in our families, in friends who will fill the loneliness. And in doing this don’t we find ourselves forming a community of people around us with whom we are comfortable - and by whom we are not threatened in any way? People like us.
So when Jesus comes along and says that he is going to focus on the needs of the poor, the blind, the oppressed, the people, we say, "Well, that sounds good, but aren't you going to deliver us from the hard stuff we're going through?"
But Jesus says no, I’m not here just for you. I’m not going to take you away from the hard stuff. I’m here to expand your world, to broaden your concept of who will be citizens in my kingdom. My kingdom is about offering healing to the poor, release to the captives. It’s about welcoming those who are oppressed and stigmatized.
But two thousand years on isn’t there a danger that Christians could be those “people like us?” Churches have glass doors so that people in the outside world can see in and we can see out but isn’t there a danger that they are not glass doors but glass ceilings preventing those from outside from joining God’s family. In some churches, even if you can get through the glass door, there are still the ‘gatekeepers,’ as the Bishop of Sheffield describes them, to get past. Those people who ‘vet’ newcomers to ensure that they are really ‘people like us.’
One of the big challenges for the Church today is to search our souls and see if there are ways (even if not intentionally) that we are keeping too much to ourselves. Who are "those people" in our lives? And are we keeping "those people" at a distance - because it takes too much energy to move out of our own comfort zone/community, too much energy to reach out to them. Are we setting the boundaries in our lives (in terms of how far we'll reach out)? And are there boundaries that are too hard to think about crossing?
If we’re really honest, we can come up with a list of people and places we’d rather not be near. Thank God that Jesus reached out to the Gentiles! Thank God that God loved us enough.
But how is it that we know all this, can think about it and be challenged by it? Well that’s a simple question to answer – we have the Bible – still the world’s best selling book.
Today is the Sunday which, in the calendar of the Anglican Church, has been designated "Bible Sunday". It is the Sunday when we give thanks for the Bible; a day on which we should remember how much blood was spilt and how many lives lost during the Reformation period when the Bible was first translated into English – we’ve had the Bible in English in our churches since 1611. On Bible Sunday the Church also asks us to remember the work of Bible translators today, and all those who are involved in spreading the gospel in remote parts of the world as well as those who are involved in preaching and teaching in our own land.
And why do we rely on the bible as Christians? Well Saint Paul sums it up in that part of the Letter to the Romans that we heard this morning – whatever was written was written for our instruction so that if we remain faithful to Christ and are encouraged by the scriptures then we can have hope of everlasting life.
Saint Augustine of Hippo called the Bible "our letters from home" - and one of its strengths is that it is a means whereby our heavenly Father communicates with us, shows his love for us, gives us hope in times of difficulty, and helps us to see how to live our lives. All of which should be seen in the context of our journey towards our eternal destination, and the place in heaven he offers to all those who believe and trust in him and in his Son Jesus Christ.
But when did you last stop to think what you'd do if you didn't have the Bible in a language you could read? Well, for a start, I could preach anything and you'd have nothing to check it against.
Millions of people still wait for translated scriptures. And while these people wait, they are cut off from fully understanding God's love and God's ways. Think about it: evangelism, training, worship – all these things that as Christians we take for granted – how can you do this without a Bible people can really understand?
The complete Bible is available in 414 languages, with the New Testament available in another 1472.
873 other languages have at least one book of the Bible.
But work still needs to begin in 2,700 languages around the world.
Over 300 million people have nothing – not as much as a "In the beginning was the word" in their own language.
So, make the most of the gift that you’ve been given - read the Bible. Don’t be daunted by its length. You can get bibles now which break it down into daily readings so that you can read it over the period of a year. We can get bible reading notes to help us and there are commentaries which can help us if we want to look deeper. Remember too that there are many homes in this country with no Bible in them – those people are waiting to hear the good news – it might be your friend or neighbour.
Think about the words of today’s collect. It tells us that we should realise that God inspired all those who wrote the scriptures for us to learn from. It asks God to help us to listen to them, to read them, to learn from them and think about them. It tells us that if we have patience and take comfort from the words of the Bible then we have the promise of everlasting salvation which Jesus has given us by his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. But if that is good news for us then let’s share the Bible and its good news with all those who are willing to hear!