Two of our biblical readings this morning describe occasions when scripture is read aloud in public. In our Old Testament lesson, we heard how the priest Ezra stood before the people of Israel and read the book of the law of Moses to them. The people were attentive and listened carefully. And they were so moved and so chastened by what they heard that they wept. The passage describes very vividly the power of the word of God at work within the life of the people of Israel.
In our Gospel reading from St Luke, we heard how Jesus, in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, read aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Now of the four evangelists, St Luke is perhaps the greatest storyteller. He is a brilliant dramatist, who draws his readers into the power of each episode that he describes. And the story we heard today, which is only found in his Gospel, is no exception. It is a masterpiece of powerful dramatic effect. Just to set the scene: Luke has just recounted how at the very start of his ministry, Jesus was baptised by John and spent 40 days in the wilderness tempted by Satan – and the first thing that he does after that is the episode that we heard this morning: filled with the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit features a lot in Luke, by the way) Jesus goes to the synagogue in his home town on the Sabbath, and stands up to read. He is handed the scroll of Isaiah, and he reads aloud those memorable words:
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.
He rolls up the scroll and hands it back, and sits down – And, Luke tells us, the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him.
Now, do please note that at this point, all that Jesus has actually done is to stand up and read aloud a famous passage from Isaiah – and he has done so without comment or elaboration – and yet, for those who are present, it is clear that something extraordinary has happened, because the eyes of everyone there are fixed on him. You could have heard a pin-drop.
Jesus is a local man, one of their own, a man who had grown up in their midst and was known to all of them – and yet, something extraordinary has happened. When those words are placed in the mouth of that person, suddenly the effect is explosive. There is a sudden moment of recognition. It is as if the words have suddenly come alive and gained new meaning – and the man who had given them voice must suddenly have appeared to them in a completely new light. They have heard familiar words spoken by a familiar person – but through the power of the Holy Spirit, the combination of the two is dynamite.
Only then does Jesus go on to spell it out for those present, saying to them: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ But by that time he is voicing something that, at some deep level, they have already recognized.
Some of you may remember the 1972 Zeffirelli film about the life of St Francis of Assisi, called ‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon.’ It is rather saccharine and schmalzy, but, nevertheless, I can remember being very affected by one episode within it, which portrays the first meeting between Francis and the Pope. Francis, who had dedicated his entire life to God, embracing a life of poverty in the name of the Gospel, stands in his rags before the Papal throne, in stark contrast to wealth and opulence surrounding him. And standing there, he simply recites the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’, and so on. And there is something about those words being voiced by that man, in that context, that makes the whole encounter utterly explosive. It is certainly extremely exposing and disconcerting for the Pope, in all his finery – who is of course, completely outraged and has Francis thrown out. I can remember seeing a sign board outside a church in the United States that said on it: ‘Read the Bible – it’ll scare the hell out of you.’ And in the sense that it is a very exposing and revealing and penetrating text, that is most certainly the case.
For me, the times when I experience Scripture most powerfully as the living word of God are those occasions when, usually completely unexpectedly, word and reality collide: a passage or a phrase in Scripture suddenly connects, startlingly and revealingly, with some aspect of my life – bringing with it a profound moment of recognition, a moment of revelation, and often a moment of profound challenge.
To give you but one example: many years ago, something happened within the realm of my personal relationships, which at the time was so shocking and upsetting that I was completely preoccupied by it. Indeed, I can remember feeling quite physically shaken by its emotional impact. At the time, I was chaplain to the Community of St John the Divine, in Birmingham – the order of nuns upon whom the TV series Call the Midwife is based, and I was in their convent, leading a clergy Study Day. I joined the sisters in saying their mid-day office – their lunchtime prayers – during the course of which, we said alternate verses of one of the Psalms. I was stopped in my tracks when I heard myself reading aloud the words: ‘I am consumed with indignation’. Those words hit me like a thunderbolt, because I hadn’t realised until that moment that it was true – I really was being consumed by my indignation. I simply hadn’t realised until that very moment, how angry I was. And I hadn’t realised how important it was that I addressed that reality. So, rather startled, I took note, and our lunchtime service continued.
What happened next was perhaps even more remarkable. Because when we reached the New Testament lesson, of all passages for us to hear, it was the text from Ephesians 4:26, which includes the words: ‘Be angry – be angry – but do not sin.’ At which point I began to realise how my sense of anger and outrage was actually affecting my behaviour – to the point where it was in danger of leading me astray. In short, during the course of that simple service, not only had I been granted insight into the truth of what my problem really was – but I had also been given guidance about how to deal with it. Which I still find quite extraordinary. And, yes, it really did change the way that I dealt with that particular episode in my life, quite radically.
The Epistle to the Hebrews begins with the words: ‘Long ago God spoke to our forefathers in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’. The amazing thing about this morning’s Gospel story, is that Luke shows us how these two things, the ancient prophets and the Son of God, are suddenly and dramatically brought together in that incident in the synagogue at Nazareth. The New Testament writers, in their various ways, all set out to demonstrate to us how it is that, against all the odds, Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled those prophetic promises – and Luke does this in a particularly memorable way.
But perhaps the most striking thing of all about the story of Jesus is that at no point did he appear to be the kind of Messiah that people were expecting. He constantly challenged and subverted the prevailing assumptions and expectations of all those around him – particularly the religious authorities, but also those of the disciples, the very people who were closest to him. And I can’t help feeling that there is an important lesson for us all here.
You see, it is one thing to decide that you are going to dedicate yourself to obeying the law of God as it is set out in scripture. It is a rather different thing to commit yourself to following the living Word of God. I am in no doubt that it is a fine thing to be able to quote the Bible, chapter and verse – but not if you then use scripture as a weapon with which to beat up those with whom you happen to disagree – or as a shield with which to protect your own unexamined attitudes, assumptions and prejudices – or as a pedestal from which you can lay claim to the high moral ground.
The Bible is not a safe stronghold for the self-righteous and the pious; nor is it a comforting retreat for the fainthearted, or a source of consolation and consolidation for the opinionated. Indeed, if you take it seriously, it is by no means a comfortable read.
Rather, to read scripture as a living word is to embark upon a journey that involves a great deal of risk: the risk of discovering that we have been wrong; the risk of having our unhealthy and distorted attitudes and assumptions exposed for what they are; and the risk of having to face the question, when such moments of recognition are granted to us – are we brave enough to hear what they have to teach us, and to try to amend our lives accordingly? Really?