King's Acre Church, 24 October 1999
That Day in Nazareth
A familiar scenario, isn't it? The Sabbath-day service, the young man home for the weekend, asked to read the lesson and expected to comment on it. The congregation, slightly bored, stirs with a little more interest. As it was a synagogue, the women would have been sitting upstairs, probably not really listening very hard, but commenting, and especially making remarks about the visitor. "Joseph's son, isn't he? You remember, that builder-type, died some winters ago. Mary, that's his Mum's name. Oldest boy. Should be at home really, looking after everyone. Wonder where he's been. Why's he home? Maybe he's come to his senses at last" The whispers and the speculation continue through the reading, so familiar, so dull: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
And then the young man sits down. The congregation stirs, interestedly, wonderingly what he is going to say. And the comment, when it came, so utterly outrageous, so utterly unexpected: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
Oh, good grief! Who does he think he is? They've known him since he was in nappies, since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. They've watched him grow up, they've heard his first efforts at reading Scripture when he was 13, they've chuntered with disapproval when he went off, abandoning his mother and brothers to "find himself" in the desert, or whatever he had been doing. Obviously run quite mad, poor soul.
And the more he goes on, the worse it gets, until the men are forced to act. They can't be doing with this blasphemy, this outrage; not in their town. And finally they drive him out and plan to dispose of him: such a sad accident, so sorry. But he slips through their fingers....
2. Who Was He?
So who was this young man, the visitor, home for the weekend?
Well, it was, of course, Jesus. It's an interesting glimpse of the human Jesus, isn't it? So often we think of him as something less than human, a kind of plaster saint, not a proper person. We forget that he was born a baby, and had to grow up, and, above all, to learn.
In the old Greek mythology, many of their superheroes were the offspring of gods, but they tended to spring fully-formed from the brow of their mothers or something, rather than being born as a baby. They didn't share the human experience in the way Jesus did. They didn't live the same kind of lives as we do.
But Jesus wasn't like that. He did share in our lives. He wasn't born walking and talking - he was born as helpless as any other baby. He had to learn to roll over, and to sit up, and to control his arms and hands. He had to learn to crawl, perhaps, and certainly to walk and then to run; he had to be potty-trained. He had to learn how to talk, from making random noises to forming those noises into the particular sounds that make up the Aramaic he undoubtedly did speak. He had to learn to read - we know he could, because he just did, in our reading, but he wasn't born knowing how! He would have had the good basic education that Jewish boys in his time and place did. He learnt a trade - he would have been apprenticed to his father who, we are told was a carpenter. Actually, it's not quite carpenter. The Greek word is apparently "Teknion", which is where we get our words "technique", "technician" and "technology" and so on from. It's sort of "builder", but not acres of bum-cleavage and wolf-whistles. It's sort of "architect", but an architect who did everything - designed the house, built it, everything. Not just woodwork, basically, although that too.
Anyway, a friend and I were speculating on Friday as to what on earth he would have said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly must have done when learning to use it. My friend decided the only possible answer would be "Something in Aramaic!" She could have a point!
So the good people of Nazareth would have seen him grow up. They would have been horrified at the thought of his claiming to fulfil the Scripture, just as we would be horrified if someone like Emily or Jo tried to. And he seems to have made matters worse by saying things like "Of course, a prophet is never honoured in his own country", which almostsounds snide, but I can't imagine our dear Lord being snide, can you? And anyway, he ended up infuriating them beyond words. I expect they thought he'd run mad, and better dead now than bring down his mother's grey hairs with sorrow and all that. But he escapes, and goes away.
Of course, his mother always did believe in him. His mother and his friend John seem to have been the two who never, not once, fell away. But his brothers and sisters had trouble accepting who he was, although later on his brother James became briefly head of the church.
3. Looking at the Bible
I wonder what we would have thought, if we'd been there. We like to think, of course, that we would have believed, that we wouldn't have reacted as if it had been Emily or Jo who had said such a thing. But then, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know how the story ended! If we'd been there, knowing only what they knew, that this young man was a local boy made good, then maybe we would have reacted totally differently, too.
After all, this was the Scripture Jesus was reading from! God's holy Word. There was no thought, back then, of Jesus being the Word. It was the holy writings. They didn't, I don't suppose, really expect them to come true, not literally. Oh, I'm sure they believed in God, but I expect the God in whom they believed was "out there" rather, not "down here". In fact, he would have been, now I come to think about it; after all, the Holy Spirit had not yet been poured out, and people do need to approach God through an intermediary. For us it's Jesus, for them, it was, ideally, the priests at Jerusalem, but failing that, probably the local teachers.
And yet, and yet. There were passages, Jesus would have known and loved them, like Isaiah. That passage we read earlier says: "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." That sounds more like the God that Jesus knew, the God whom he brings us to, than the God who commanded all the Amalekites to be slaughtered and who destroyed Saul for disobeying. The God whom Isaiah knew was a God of love, a God of restoration, the Redeemer. It's no wonder Jesus was able to say "Today, the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing".
I wonder, you know, whether he'd known he was going to say that, or whether it suddenly struck him with blinding force, struck him all of a heap. He might have been trying to convince his family and friends of who he was, or he might have been still groping after a realisation of it, and that passage struck home to him in a new way. We'll never know, of course, but I wonder.
The thing is, of course, that we now know that what Jesus said was true. He is the one who was sent "to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free". And we like to think that we would have recognised him as such had we been in that service that day in Nazareth. But we wouldn't, you know! If we think we would, we are probably deluding ourselves. Because we have the benefit of hindsight.
We know how the story ended, as I've already said. And more than that, we have the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who leads us into all truth. So we know that Jesus was speaking the truth that day, but we are coming from a place that the good people of Nazareth could scarcely have imagined. And I think that is what I want to leave with you this evening.
We may well have very different views about the Bible; some folk hold it in the kind of reverence that almost seems to confuse it with the One it's about, forgetting that all of us are bringing our own interpretation to it, however often we read it. Others spend so much time deconstructing it that you have to wonder whether they ever did find any truth in it in the first place! It's not easy to get it right, and I don't suppose for one second that I do! But the point is, if we are God's people, then we have the Holy Spirit to help us.
Years ago, a preacher in this church said, "Suppose that they could prove, beyond all doubt, that the Bible was a mediaeval forgery. It won't happen, because it isn't, but just suppose. Would it make any difference to your faith?"
I had to think long and hard about that one, which is why it stuck in my memory, but then I realised that maybe it wouldn't. God is there anyway. God is greater than the Scriptures. And God has sent his Holy Spirit to indwell us and to lead us into all truth.
But, happily, we do have the Scriptures. We aren't groping in the dark trying to find out who God is as Isaiah and those who wrote the Old Testament were. We know that Jesus is the one to whom they point, and about whom they write. We know, as the good people of Nazareth had no way of knowing, that Jesus was speaking the truth when he said "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
And thank God for that.
Let's do so in the words of hymn 471: "For your holy Book we thank you".
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