Saturday, 23 January 2010

3rd Sunday of Epiphany: What happened next?

1 Cor.12:12-31 Luke 4:14-21

Are there any ‘Question of Sport’ fans reading this? I don’t normally watch it (no honest...) but I remember it being a favourite with my dad. I always used to enjoy the, ‘what happened next part?’ when we’d see a video clip of something quite innocuous, like a goalkeeper coming out to catch the ball, and then as he throws it back into play he loses his balance, spins around and throws it into the back of the net.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about that idea of, ‘What happens next?’ It’s a recurring theme and indeed it’s a question I want to pose at the end. But first a summary of how we got to be here. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been thinking about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and you may remember that on a couple of occasions I mentioned how, after Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, the Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

What we have before us in today’s Gospel reading is what happened next. Jesus has returned from the temptation in the wilderness, and he is literally full of the Holy Spirit. He goes back to Galilee and begins to teach in their synagogues, and was praised by everyone.

If you remember from what we said a couple of weeks back about Jesus’s early life, all we know was that the Gospel writers said that he grew in favour with God and with people. And now this growth in people’s favour continues as he begins his preaching ministry.

Jesus has taken on the mantle of a Rabbi, a teacher. He is explaining the truth about God to the people by expounding the scriptures, which would have been what we call the Old Testament, and quite clearly what he is saying is having a huge and positive effect on the people, and on their regard for him.

Now I’d like to pose you a question. What do you think Jesus must have been saying for him to grow in the favour of the people? What was so good about him? Why do people praise a preacher?

Is it about style? Well certainly that’s a big part of it. Nobody wants to sit back and listen to someone who can’t articulate what they want to say. I remember being a twelve year old sitting in an evening meeting that the curate was taking. I still have no idea what on earth it was that he was talking about. Apparently, according to the chap next to me at the time, what he said was amazing, but his delivery was so appalling that I simply didn’t listen.

So I think we can assume that Jesus knew how to speak in public in a way that drew the attention of the people, and indeed elsewhere in the Gospels you can read how the people said he taught with authority.

But it must have been more than just his delivery. What he had to say must have been important too.
There is always a temptation for preachers to say what their congregations want to hear. Almost everybody wants to be liked on some level deep down within us, and I suspect that was one of the temptations Jesus had to deal with. But I don’t think he preached what people wanted to hear.

Instead, and this is a subtle but important difference, he preached what they needed to hear. In fact I think that’s a mark of everything Jesus did. He did what people needed him to do, not necessarily what they wanted him to do. That’s an important difference because doing what people need us to do won’t always make us popular.

So what was Jesus saying that they needed to hear? Well I think we can find it in the message he gave at Nazareth. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’, which we know is true because Luke told us that this is what happened at Jesus’s baptism, and then he goes on, ‘because he has anointed me’, and the ‘anointed one’ is what you get if translate the word Messiah or Christ, it literally means ‘anointed one’, so Jesus is claiming the title Messiah or Christ here, and he goes on...

‘ bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ To understand why Jesus was a popular Rabbi all we have to do is look at the context of the people he was speaking to and then listen to his message.

These Galileans were very largely very poor. There were exceptions. The Galilean town of Sepphoris, where Jesus and Joseph had probably done a great deal of work as tradesmen, was a place of cultured Greek-influenced Jews. But by and large these were fishermen, farmers and labourers. And more importantly than all of that, these people were oppressed.

They lived in a country that had been over-run by the Romans. They were not free, they were politically repressed and had to live according to someone else’s rules, paying taxes to someone else’s government. And into this reality comes a young Rabbi who seems to be teaching that God has called him to be the Messiah, to come and proclaim that God’s judgement is over. His message is of God’s favour towards them, and to set them free.

Now if you were an oppressed people and someone came and started preaching that to you with authority, you also might be inclined to listen. But it is vital that we remember the distinction here. Jesus wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear. He was telling them what they needed to hear, which was the truth; that he was coming to set them free. God had not forgotten them.

That was the message that people were caught up in, that there was hope. God had not forgotten them. When we bring hope, people listen, it is as simple as that.

One of the most successful bands of all time are U2. They have won more grammy awards than any other band, and have sold more than 145 million records in a career that has spanned three decades. Part of their success is because a thread of hope runs through so much of their music. Not only that, but they act to bring hope.

Lead vocalist Bono is actively involved and campaigning for human rights for the oppressed and for countless numbers of issues involving those in need. People are drawn to them not only because they make great music, but also because they make a difference, they give people hope, and because they live it out.

Whenever there is word of hope, people listen, and that, I believe, is why Jesus was making a mark. He was bringing a message of hope. Of course that message was often misunderstood, which brings us back to ‘What happened next’. If we were to continue with the Gospel reading beyond where it finishes today, what we find is that the people of his own home town reject him.

They couldn’t see past the boy who had grown up amongst them, and couldn’t accept the message he was bringing. His call to hope fell on deaf ears, and they were so enraged at what he had to say that they tried to kill him. Now I don’t know about you, but if that happened to me, I might disappear off into a cave and feel sorry for myself, but if we ask, ‘And after that, what happened next?’ we find Jesus going into Capernaum and carrying on his ministry, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus came to bring a message of hope to a people who needed to know that God still cared for them, and even when some rejected him, he just moved right on to the next group of people, and offered them the same message. And now it comes back to us, because St. Paul makes it quite clear in the reading that we had from 1 Corinthians 12 that together, collectively, we are the Body of Christ.

That means that the responsibilities for passing on the message of hope that Jesus had is now our responsibility. How we go about that depends on us as a church, not just as individuals. St Paul describes the ways in which we are all given gifts which are meant to be used collectively to continue the message of Christ.

Together we are called to live out and to bring a message of hope, that we truly are treasured by God. We may well be misunderstood by some people, and so we should not regard this as a popularity contest. Our calling is to preach and do what people need, not necessarily what they want.

I know that, from my perspective, one of my biggest difficulties is trying to judge the difference between what is wanted and what is needed. It’s a delicate balance, but one thing is clear; if everyone is happy and I am universally popular, then I am not doing my job because I’m not saying what sometimes needs to be said.

Likewise our lifestyles and what we say will sometimes clash with those of people around us. I’m not saying we should go out of our way to become unpopular religious fanatics. Those are no good to anyone because of their own inflated sense of arrogant self-righteousness and perhaps a persecution complex. There is a balance to be struck. But there will be occasions when we have to go the other way to what people would like us to do.

And if we have earned their respect, then when we do so we will bring them hope, just as Jesus did, and that’s how it should be because we are the body of Christ.. That’s part of what we celebrate when we take communion. It’s acknowledging that we are a part of the body of Christ on earth with all the responsibilities that come with that.

So the question I asked at the beginning, and several times throughout, was this one. What happens next? And so it’s a question I want to ask you. If we are to make a difference to those around us; if we are to bring hope, what are some of the practical things that we can do as individuals and as a church. Now it’s your turn to think. What can we do to bring hope, to make a difference?

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