Sunday, 24 January 2016

Epiphany 3: Today

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Today” is an important word in Luke’s Gospel. It’s used at a number of significant points. When the angel appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem he says “to you is born today a saviour who is Christ the Lord”. Later on in the Gospel, Jesus comes across a tax collector, Zaccheus, a man who is despised by his neighbours. He has climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but Jesus calls him down and says to him “ ‘Zacchaeus, …I must stay at your house today.”  When the crowds start to grumble at this  he turns to them and says Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. And then, almost at the end of the story, the thief who is crucified beside Jesus asks, “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. But Jesus can do better than that ; today you will be with me in Paradise”  he promises.

Luke is telling us something with all those “todays”. He’s telling us that God is already at work, already doing the things that need to be done. He’s not waiting for people to be ready, for them get it all together and come up with a plan, set up a structure, recruit a team, and go through a training programme. He’s getting on with it himself, in the person of Jesus, and he is doing it “today”. We can join in or not, but today’s the day we need to choose.

It seems to me, though, that “today” is something many of us struggle with. It can feel so much easier to live in yesterday or tomorrow.  When we live in yesterday we look back nostalgically to a golden age, even if it never really existed. We cling to our souvenirs. We even lug around regrets and old animosities too; they are burdens, but they are familiar burdens, our burdens, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to leave them behind.  That’s living in yesterday.

But living in “tomorrow” can be just as problematic. We dream of a time when all will magically be sorted our in our lives. We wait for the perfect moment to do something we’ve been putting off. Living in “tomorrow” can leave us permanently dissatisfied.  Whatever we need to make us happy is just around the corner, over the horizon, in the next job, the next relationship, if only we could get there.

Why are we so fond of our yesterdays and tomorrows?

Maybe it’s partly because there are so many of them.
All of history lies behind us to be recalled and dwelt on; all the future lies in front of us to be imagined and dreamed of. But today is just the small patch of ground under our feet right now, the place where we are standing for this fleeting moment. We’ve hardly got time to notice it before it is gone.

But another reason why we might also prefer yesterday and tomorrow is that we can’t do anything about them. We can’t change the past and we can’t control the future either. In a sense we are off the hook. Today, though, makes immediate, urgent demands on us, maybe inconvenient or costly ones. It’s the only moment we can act, but do we want to?

The people who came to the synagogue in our Gospel reading were probably just as bad at living in the present as we are. They certainly treasured their “yesterdays”. They had a long history, and it was precious to them. In particular they liked to recall the stories that reminded them of their relationship with God; the stories of Abraham, called to found a new nation, and of Moses leading them out slavery in Egypt. God had chosen them. God had been faithful to them. God had spoken to them through the prophets, prophets like Isaiah, whose words Jesus was about to read.

Isaiah’s words were already 600 years old by this time, and they were favourites, much copied, much quoted, comforting, reassuring just because of their familiarity. So as Jesus began to read, some of his congregation were catapulted straight back into their yesterdays , and would have happily stayed there.

Others, though, were thrown forward into their tomorrows. Isaiah was one of the first prophets to speak of a Messiah, an anointed, chosen agent of God , someone who would bring in a new kingdom in which God ruled. It was a vision of the future which had caught hold of the popular imagination. By the time of Jesus, people had many different ideas of what the Messiah would be like and what he would do. Some thought he would be a righteous teacher, some a military leader, some a priest, some a prophet. The more they dreamed, the more detailed the dreams got, but those dreams were always in the future, tomorrow, “somewhere over the rainbow, way up high”. Now and then someone would say they had found the Messiah and there would be a brief stir of excitement, but most people just carried on, chugging along as they were. A Messiah was a nice idea, but did you really want the disruption it would cause if he actually turned up in your time?

So when the congregation settled down to listen to this reading, the “yesterday” people were all ready to hear comforting words from their past, and the “tomorrow” people were all ready to hear visionary words about the future. But what they got from Jesus was a bombshell. They got the word “today”.  Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  

What was their reaction? If we had read on we would have heard this. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But in the next breath they started to wonder. “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  How could someone from their own time and place be the Messiah? And, in any case, he didn’t seem to be sticking to the script they had written for their anointed one. In fact , he hadn’t even stuck to the script of Isaiah.  

The quotation he had read had stopped in the middle of a sentence. Isaiah’s original words don’t finish with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. What Isaiah actually wrote was “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God”, which is a very different kettle of fish.  Although Isaiah did believe that God was for everyone, not  just the Jewish people, there was often more than a hint of revenge fantasy about his words. He looked forward to a time when all those nations which had enslaved and oppressed Israel would come to Jerusalem to offer tribute, when the boot would be on the other foot. Yes, they would be welcome. Yes, there would be a time of peace and plenty, but that would be because Israel was now top dog, and they were the vassals.

What the crowd in the synagogue heard was that Jesus was having none of that.  And his life would be one long proclamation of that message. Through him, God would put a stop to vengeance, taking the burdens and the guilt of the world on himself on the cross, suffering without calling for retribution, offering forgiveness and a new start. This was all well and good if you wanted forgiveness yourself, but it was much more challenging if God was planning to forgive your enemies, and make them part of his family on an equal basis with you. And this radical, disturbing move wasn’t a story from the distant past or a dream for the distant future. Apparently, according to Jesus, it was going to start now, in him.

As this began to sink in to the congregation in Nazareth, the mood began to shift. In the end, they drove him out of the synagogue, intent on throwing him off a cliff. He managed to get away, but it was a dangerous moment, and it was all sparked off by that word “today”.

So where does that leave us? Would we have reacted any more constructively? We might like to think so, but I wonder.  God called Jesus to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind in first century Palestine – in the “today” of those people in Nazareth - but there is just as much need for this in our “today” as there was then. Those who claim to follow him are called to exactly the same mission. In fact, as St Paul reminds us , we are the body of Christ. The word “Christ” is just a the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, “Messiah” – both mean “anointed”. So that means that Paul is saying it is we who are chosen, we who are sent, all of us, together and separately. We may each have different gifts and abilities, but each of us is vital to the health – and the work – of the whole.

We can’t rest on the laurels of those who answered God’s call in the past – yesterday - or hope that someone will do something at some unspecified time in the future- tomorrow. It’s today that matters. It’s today that we will get the chance to befriend someone who is feeling lonely, and either take that chance or not. It’s today that we will hear about some need for volunteers somewhere, and decide to help, or not. It’s today that we will feel that urge to pray for someone we know who is going through a hard time, or pick up the phone or send a text or an email or a card, and we’ll either respond, or push the thought to one side. And it’s today that the people we help, or fail to help, will feel the effects of that choice; for some it might be the turning point between despair and hope, a small action that makes a huge difference.

So let’s not take shelter in our yesterdays, or sink into daydreams about our tomorrows. Let’s ask God to show us what he wants us to do today, as the body of Christ, his hands and feet, and then let’s go and do it, today.

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