Toorak Uniting Church

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When God’s Word hits home

Luke 4: 21
Rev. Alasdair Pratt
14 May 2006

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4.21)

Imagine the scene:

A small town, Nazareth, the place, the synagogue. On the Sabbath, anyone of sufficient learning might be invited to take part in the service. The reading was delivered standing, the sermon sitting.

Imagine the scene:

People, as they do, would attend for a variety of reasons – habit, obligation, commitment & on this occasion, certainly curiosity. The boy Jesus, – well, he was a man now of course, but many probably still thought of him as a boy – was coming home. Luke was the only one gospel writer who told the story of Jesus in the temple when he was twelve. Apart from that little fable we know absolutely nothing about his childhood or youth, However, at some point in early adult life something significant happened. He changed course. He was baptised by John, then for weeks he disappeared into the wilderness, only later telling his friends what had happened. He returned to the locality, though not immediately to Nazareth. The word spread. His reputation went ahead of him. Now he was coming home. Expectations were high.

Imagine the scene:

It goes without saying he spoke well. People were impressed, very impressed. Here was someone speaking with a freshness, in a way that, in their bones, they thought a religious leader ought to speak. More than that, he was one of their own, Joseph’s son. Note that, Luke call him Joseph’s son. They must have exchanged approving glances until ………. until perhaps his words about liberating captives and caring for the poor and making the blind to see sounded just a bit too radical. Presumably he sensed resistance so that he said "I’m sure you want me to do here the sort of things I’ve done in other places, but I can’t. I won’t be welcome here".

Imagine the scene:

Is it too fanciful to suggest everyone collectively stopped breathing; that a hush fell like a stone; that the air suddenly chilled? To make his point Jesus gave two examples from their own history – one of which we’ve heard – stories of how Elijah and Elisha and Elisha, two giants from the past, had each cared for and been cared for by non-Jews. Jesus was saying God cares for all people, uses all people regardless of race. Now that’s not news for us but it was not what the congregation in Nazareth expected – nor what they wanted to hear. They hadn’t gone to synagogue that day to have their prejudices revealed, their exclusiveness uncovered.

Imagine the scene:

Local boy and yet his words were intolerable. What had become of him? Who did he think he was speaking to. The reaction was irrational, the mood turned violent. As the fourth gospel was about it – ‘he came to his own and his own people would not receive him’. In the later account given Mark 6 we are told the people rejected him so that he said, "A prophet is respected everywhere except in his own home town."

Imagine the scene:

So why am I asking you to do all this imagining and what draws me to this passage for my first sermon in Toorak? It has long seemed to me that we can see this as the occasion when Jesus set out his manifesto. Luke has constructed the story to show Jesus describing the purpose of his ministry. He was making a prophetic statement and there is no better summary of what he was to do. By writing of the declaration in this way, Luke was actually presenting us, in miniature, with the real course of Jesus’s life and work. That, surely, is why he tells this story in this way.

A more important reason I’m drawn to this passage is the word ‘today’. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.Luke is telling us that the wonderful words of Isaiah were being realized most fully in Jesus.
After centuries of waiting people were now going to see in their own day, in flesh and blood, in the events of real life, what others had only been able to talk and dream about. Jesus had the ability to express himself so that people felt – ‘that really touches me, that’s what I’ve been longing to hear. He’s put into words what I’ve felt but never been able to say.’
In matters of faith and spirituality people are always looking for something in the here and now, for today. This life is not a rehearsal – it is for living now, not later.
Sidney Carter wrote some lively hymns, eg Lord of the Dance. He was always on the fringes of the church, but he wrestled with how spiritual things can be made real.

One of his poems began:

Your holy hearsay is not evidence.

Give me the good news in the present tense.
It ended:

So shut the Bible up and tell me how

The God you talk about is living now.

Those are deliberately provocative words, but he was not discarding the Bible, he was challenging those who hide behind the book and sometimes simply quote it parrot-wise. It is a disturbing challenge because as Christians we honour the source – book of our faith, but preachers in particular can either make it too academic or repeat the words in ways that don’t touch people.

Far from shutting the Bible up Jesus, today’s passage shows, had the ability to bring it alive in such a way that sometimes it angered and favoured people but made real the love of God.

Through out his ministry the words of Jesus made an impact-in the present moment today. The church has grown and survived because that has been the experience of people down the centuries. Always his purpose was to help people experience faith as a reality not just as an idea.
He set out to touch those on the fringe and beyond; those whose lives were poor in every sense of the word; those who felt troubled in situations from which they couldn’t escape; those who couldn’t or wouldn’t see the way forward, those were simply bowed down by the pressures of life.
In every congregation – probably even in that in Nazareth – there are always people who have known, or are experiencing suffering. People who know abuse, neglect or pain. Jesus said Today, the message of liberation is for you.
I know you’ve heard this 1000 times before, but one reason we come to church week by week is because we all actually need to hear it today.

When the gospel is experienced, people’s horizons are widened. Already in the few days I’ve been here I’ve heard of those who meet regularly to discuss theology, to discover how the gospel can be contemporary. Some of you work with people in the Macrae Centre (with people with varying degrees of disability). The Kinross centre nourishes folk at another level of their being.

These are only some of the ways the scripture is being fulfilled. -Faith has to be expressed in action, as well as words. It is a process of growth and discovery. The church has roots and a heritage some of us love, but the message lives only when we are touched by the reality and power of God’s love – today.

© Rev. Alasdair Pratt, 2006

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