Fifth Day of Lent

Luke 4:14-22 
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.

I reckon this was a difficult enough journey for Jesus. The focus in the story moves from “the whole countryside of Galilee” (4:14) to Nazareth (4:16)  and then inside into the synagogue (4:16b). The stage is narrowing with each step. At the same time Jesus moves from the head of big, anonymous crowds, where he is a bit of a celebrity (4:15), to Nazareth (again), his hometown until by the end of the passage he is fixed into a single family…he is Joseph’s son (4:22).

The level of scrutiny is increasing with each movement down and in. If he is going to be found out anywhere as a charlatan, it’ll be among his hometown neighbourhood.

It seems appropriate that the very first public words spoken by Jesus and recorded in the book of Luke are said among his family and his neighbours. And it reminds me that there is no real point in being a celebrity, with a huge following hanging on your every word, if your words and actions don’t have authenticity among your neighbours at home and particularly among your family, and the friends who know you best.

If you tune into the news today you might decide that we are facing a series of ‘tricky situations,’ all of which hang on the question of authority. We are without a written Constitution, and we have a Cabinet in disarray, our leading parties in meltdown, Parliamentary democracy under strain and the people divided. Our various church bodies are suffering their own crises which means that fewer and fewer people trust them to speak with wisdom or authority. There is not an institution in the land that the population can place their trust in and be assured that it is in safe keeping.

Everywhere we look we face the question of authority.

Jesus looks into the face of this question in this passage. He reads from the prophet Isaiah what is generally described as his Manifesto, this is the reason he has come into the world. Three times in verse 18 he says the word ‘me.’ And after he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant and sits down (Jewish rabbis sat down to preach), the scene scrolls in to the most intimate picture yet as the eyes of everyone there are focussed on Jesus (4:20). Breathlessly they wait on the opening line of his first recorded sermon.

‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,’ he says (4:21).

Given the situation I can’t help but be impressed at his boldness and courage. Right from the off he claims authority to speak these words. In effect he says “these words describe me and my mission.” He could have made big, wide claims out among the crowds where no-one knew him, and kept the pietistic platitudes for back at home. But instead he claims this messianic vision among the people who know him best and who could puncture his pretensions if there was any flaw.

Jesus’ authority to speak these words is founded upon the authenticity of his life and actions. And so he announces his mission in his home town synagogue among the people who knew his dad!

The word integrity is related to the word integrated, or fitted together. And what we mean when we say that a person has integrity is that this person’s words match her actions. They are joined together seamlessly. Here at the start of his public ministry Jesus makes his life’s work a question of integrity, of authenticity, of personal trustworthiness measured in his capacity to deliver on what he claims.

The standard is no less onerous for us who claim to be his followers.

Is there something you have made a promise to do, be it to yourself or to friends, which as yet remains unfulfilled? How about making this the week in which you begin to bring you words and actions more into alignment?

God of all truth
We pray for integrity in public life
Among our political leaders
Our cultural and religious leaders
Our business and charity leaders.

But let that work of integrity begin with me.

May my words match my actions.
May my confession be as one with my life.
And may it be so in my home life,
Among my neighbours, my friends and my family

For Jesus sake


Third Day of Lent

Luke 2:1-9
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 

4   So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. 

8   And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 

Just like yesterday, it seems strange to be reading this in the early days of Spring, but again we come up against some of the same themes as in yesterday's reading. It seems Luke refuses to stray too far from these key ideas about the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. But is also seems so contemporary.

This passage opens with those in political charge of the world. They are even named, Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. The Caesar has such power that he can command the whole of the Roman empire…imagine that. It’s like those who can call an election or a referendum that can affect the lives of millions.

But then the story shifts. In fact these powerful people are rapidly shoved aside in favour of this young couple, also named, Joseph and Mary. Indeed the shift in the story continues for what Luke has in mind is a focus on the baby that is about to be born to this couple in the small, insignificant town of Bethlehem.

This is the thing, don’t be fooled into thinking that those who say they are in charge are actually in charge. They may have the authority to move populations about and dictate where people should be or shouldn’t be at any one time, but we need to keep our eye on the one who has power. We shouldn’t forget that there is a difference between authority and power. People get authority by virtue of the roles they inhabit by which they have authority conferred upon them. Roles like Elders and Ministers, or Head Teachers or CEOs all have varying degrees of authority, but they don’t necessarily have any power.

The minister might have authority over what is said or sung on a Sunday morning, but those on the sound desk have the power to dictate whether it is heard or not!

And so in our story the birth of this baby is what really matters, so much so in fact that a heavenly choir welcomes this birth into the world. But not in the centres of earthly power but in the place of daily work. The  birth of Jesus is first announced to those in the toil of their daily work trying to keep a roof over their head and bread on the table.

And they were terrified.

I’m sure the sight was scary enough. But I wonder was the message even more scary. I wonder were they scared about the subversive nature of the message they were given that a saviour had been born to them (Luke 2:11) because this saviour threatened the power of those who had so recently called the census. Carrying that message too widely was sure to get them in trouble for it was designed to undermine the status quo.

This will be a difficult thing to do. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of these various positions for a moment, whether you are a Brexiteer or a Remainer, a Unionist or a Nationalist, imagine for a moment you had a blinding insight that the other side was right all along! Imagine further that you had to go and tell your friends and family that you had come to this realisation and that things from henceforth had to change.

Maybe this is why the shepherds were terrified, because they realised the practical and political implications of the coming of this baby. It was good news for some, and profoundly bad news for others, particularly those in power.