All Saints Margaret Street | Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 20 May 2012

Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 20 May 2012


preached  by the Vicar

Readings:  Isaiah 61: Luke 4.14-30

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me”

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that after the Ascension of Jesus, the apostles obeyed his command to remain in the city until they received the Holy Spirit and that with Mary, the brothers of Jesus and the women, they were together in expectant prayer.

For the Church, these nine days between Ascension and Pentecost have been seen as focusing our attention on prayer for the giving of the Holy Spirit.  The tradition of novenas of prayer – that is “nine days”  –   springs from that. 

Many of the readings and prayers which we find in the Liturgy in theses days speak of the Holy Spirit as we prepare for the feast of Pentecost.

So tonight at Evensong we heard those words from the prophet Isaiah.  We heard them twice because they are the words which Jesus read s in the synagogue in Nazareth.

In the opening chapters of St, Luke’s Gospel, we find the role of the Spirit is central:

  • overshadowing  Mary so that she can the mother of the Son of
  • enabling Zechariah
    to praise God, in the Benedictus which the Church uses
    daily at Morning Prayer,  after the birth
    of the son who will become John the Baptist;
  • inspiring Simeon at
    the Presentation of Christ in the Temple to proclaim his Nunc Dimittis which have
    sung in this service;
  • anointing Jesus
    at his Baptism, to show that he is the Messiah, the anointed one;
  • leading Jesus
    into the wilderness to face and overcome temptation.

And then, all temptation having been resisted,
“Jesus filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee and …began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”

Luke places the account of Jesus’ return to his home town and his preaching in the synagogue there, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  What He does and says there, and the response
it elicits,  will serve as an introduction, a preview of what is to happen in the rest of the Gospel.

Luke’s account is in fact the earliest one we have from any source of synagogue worship in first century Palestine.  Synagogues
had developed during the Exile in Babylon as a substitute for the Temple. They were usually lay led institutions: the ruler of the synagogue would not be a rabbi.  In fact, the rabbinate would develop to serve the synagogue. Any adult male could be asked to read the scriptures and interpret them.

We know that the synagogue liturgy consisted of:

  • the Shema “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is
    one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength.”
  • Psalms,
  • the 18 Benedictions in which God is praised for his gifts; 
  • readings from the Torah – the Law (probably as prescribed by a lectionary);
  • readings from  the prophets, chosen probably to
    reflect the Torah reading;
  • a sermon,
  • and (if a priest was present), a blessing.

The scriptures were read in Hebrew, but as most people did not understand this, the reader would give the sense in Aramaic. 

Jesus is clearly a familiar figure in his local synagogue, Joseph’s son:-  “he went to synagogue, as was his custom, on the Sabbath day.”  I think of this when people say to me, “I don’t need to go to church to be a
  If Jesus needed to go to synagogue, how on earth are we going to be Christians unless we do the same?  It is also worth bearing in mind when people write off the Old Testament. Jesus understands himself in the light of the scriptures of the Old Testament and we cannot understand him without them.

Now he has returned home, and a new reputation as a preacher and healer has gone before him. So it was understandable that he should be asked to read.  When he stands up to read, the scroll of the

prophet Isaiah is given to him and he finds those words which we heard in our first reading tonight. 

When he has finished reading, “he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all were fixed on him.”   Now if someone reads a lesson in church and then sits down, it usually means that their task is complete, but not in this case. To sit down was to adopt the posture of a teacher: as in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus sits down on the hillside or when he preaches from a boat on the shore of the lake. It is the equivalent of the preacher going to the pulpit.

He has clearly caught their attention: “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”.  No one is leafing through the order of
service or reading the 39 Articles at the back of the Prayer Book.

Then, he says something quite astonishing: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.  This is an extraordinary claim: he is
saying that he is the Lord’s anointed –  his Messiah – the one through whom the kingdom in which good news will be preached to the poor, release to the captives and sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed; the acceptable year of the Lord – the year of Jubilee in which slaves will be freed and in a great redistribution of wealth, property will be returned to families so that all in Israel will have what they need, is inaugurated.

I’ve taken the liberty of reading on from the set lesson because it stops half way through the story.

“And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, ‘Is this
not Joseph’s son?’”

It does not seem from Luke’s account that his hearers regarded this claim as outrageous or blasphemous; coming as it does from someone they had known all his life. There is no hint of that stay-at-home, small world resentment of the local boy made good which is sometimes found in closed communities.

It is Jesus himself who seems to take the initiative in setting them against
him.  They had heard of what he had done in Capernaum, so they doubtless expected that he would do the same and more in
his home town. If he was the Messiah, the one who would inaugurate the Kingdom, they and the rest of Israel expected to receive the blessings of that time while the other nations, the Romans in particular, would receive its condemnation and punishment. 

But if we read Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah, there is a significant omission: he does not mention “the year of the vengeance of the Lord”

Then to hammer home the message he goes on to say that the blessings are to be given to those who are not of the people of Israel. He cites those incidents from the lives of the revered prophets Elijah and Elisha.  It is this that they take offence at. But if Jesus is to be faithful to his calling as prophet  – that is one who speaks the word of God  –  then
this is to be expected. 

Luke in his preview is pointing not only to the content and meaning if the ministry of Jesus but to the reaction it will provoke from those resistant to its universal scope.

Well here we are 2000 years later, at church as is our custom on the Lord’s Day.  Here we are celebrating a service whose roots in that synagogue worship which Jesus took part in are obvious:  

we have sung psalms and hymns;

  • we have recited
    the Apostles Creed – our equivalent of the Shema;
  • we have listened
    to readings, and the preacher is trying to give the sense of them;- 
  • we will bless God
    for his gifts and he will bless us.

There is something timeless, familiar, comforting, about this service. Yet even the familiar can surprise us; give new and deeper meaning to the lives of those who think they know the story from beginning to end. With God’s story we are not left to puzzle and ponder over the meaning of the story by ourselves. The same God who speaks this Word among us also pours the Holy Spirit into our hearts: the Spirit who calls to mind everything which Jesus has said and done; the Spirit who leads us into all truth.   God the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to perceive that truth taking place in our lives.   This is a disturbing and exhilarating process.  Where before the things we heard from the Gospel were reasonably manageable and under our control, now we begin to sense the challenge they present, the difference they make, the breadth of the vision they unfold, the eternal significance of the choices they place before us. 

We pray as Christians, as faithful members of the Church of England, that God will send is his Holy Spirit:

  • “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire”;
  • “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration
    of thy Holy Spirit;” 
  • “Take not thy Holy Spirit from us;”
  • “leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy
  • “God, who at this time taught the hearts of your
    faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit, grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice
    in his holy comfort.…”

But we should be careful what we pray for. When the Lord answers our prayer, we may find the Spirit just as challenging as did those folk in the synagogue of Nazareth found.  For it is all too likely that the Spirit will speak to us of that great reversal in the year of Jubilee, and of which we sing with Mary in Magnificat when the mighty are cast down from
their thrones and the rich sent empty away.   The Spirit of God will challenge us as much as Jesus challenged that synagogue
congregation in Nazareth:

  • asking who are
    the outsiders we don’t think should qualify for God’s blessings;
  • who are the widow
    of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian for us whose being favoured before us we
  • what is it about the Gospel that makes us angry enough to stop up our ears to shut the words of scripture and preacher out; to want to throw Jesus off a cliff and stone him to death; anything to silence that challenging voice?