David A. Davis
December 2, 2018
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Jesus is in Nazareth standing in the synagogue on the sabbath day. Reports about him had spread not just around Galilee but to surrounding parts of the region as well. He was teaching in synagogue after synagogue. As those reports spread and as more and more people heard his teaching, the praise of Jesus was coming from all directions. So when he shows up in Nazareth, his hometown, when he comes to Nazareth and stands up in the synagogue to read, there would have had to have been quite the crowd. The expectation, the anticipation, the energy in the synagogue, it must have been palpable.
Jesus stands up to read. It is the sabbath. Like those who attend to the sacred scrolls when you and I attend a bar or bat mizvah, there are those in the synagogue who attend to the scrolls. On this day, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah is brought to Jesus; opened before Jesus. With the help of the attendees, Jesus finds the place, the place where it is written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”. He could have unrolled the scroll to where it is written, “The people who walked in darkness have see a great light…”. He could have found the place where it is written, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him….”. He could have unrolled the prophet’s words to “comfort, O comfort my people” or “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord”, or “Arise, shine, for your light has come”. Maybe it was an assigned reading for that particular day. Regardless, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was unrolled to that place, that text, that spot.
And Jesus read, “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 favor.”
And Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, the keeper of the sacred scrolls, and Jesus sat down.
Jesus read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and he sat down. “bring good news to the poor….proclaim release…recovery of sight….oppressed go free….to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he sat down. There in the crowded synagogue, the room full of the hometown crowd, he sat down.
According to Luke, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Fixed. The King James translates it “fastened”. “The eyes of all were fastened on him.” It is not all that common of a word in the Greek New Testament. It’s a word used mostly by Luke. A Lukan word. It’s the same word Luke uses to describe the look the servant girl gives Peter in the Garden as he was denying Jesus: “The servant girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said ‘This man was also with him.’” In the very beginning of Acts, as Luke writes about the Risen Jesus ascending into heaven, Luke writes “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven.”Gazing; same word in Greek. Jesus was being lifted up to heaven, out of their sight. They were more than gazing, their eyes were fixed on him.
In the book of Acts when Stephen is being martyred, when he is being killed, Luke writes about Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” “Gazed” in the NRSV doesn’t sound strong enough. As he was being killed, Stephen’s must have been “fastened” to the glory of God. His eyes must have been “fixed” on Jesus. The word for “fixed”. It must be more than stared. More than watched. More than an expectant gaze of those waiting for the sermon to begin. More than simply looking at him. Their eyes were fixed on him.
And at that electric, unforgettable, spiritually charged moment; at the moment when everybody knows something is about to happen and it’s not just going be a sermon; right then, in one of those thin moments, like a Celtic thin place where heaven and earth meet, one of those holy moments, one of those times when God breaks in, right then as the eyes of all in the synagogue are fixed on Jesus, he said “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If he said anymore right then, Luke doesn’t record it. If Jesus went ahead with a full sermon on Isaiah, Luke doesn’t say. Luke does tell that there in the aftermath of “the moment”, Jesus said, “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
“Gracious words”. It is a puzzling description, an interesting phrase. “Gracious words”. He spoke well, enunciated well? He exuded gracefulness with his words? His “gracious words”. If I did my homework correctly, nowhere else in the four gospels is Jesus teaching or preaching described as “gracious words.” There are no references in the rest of the New Testament, no instances of Jesus being described as using “gracious words.” Certainly Jesus could have preached a whole unrecorded sermon that sabbath day in Nazareth. But according to Luke, he read from the prophet, he sat down, and all eyes fixed on him, he said “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Gracious words.
In the gospel’s drama, as you heard in the reading, the amazement and words of praise shift pretty much in a heartbeat to rage. But at the moment, in that thin moment, when all their eyes were fixed on him, he had them at “today.” Today. Right when he said “today.” “Today” is the gracious word.
Jesus stopped in the reading from Isaiah at this: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The year of the Lord’s favor. The year of the Lord’s favor. That’s a reference to the year of Jubilee. According to the law in the Book of Leviticus, every fifty years, after seven sabbatical cycles of seven years each, every fifty years it was to be the Year of Jubilee. During that year the land was to rest (fields to be left fallow), all debts were to be forgiven, servants were to be set free, and land that might have been sold by prior generations was to return to the ancestral family owners. Jubilee. It was a leveling of the economic system, a redistribution of wealth, an acknowledgement that God had led Israel out of bondage, that God had given the land, that everything that was owned (people, property, resources) it first came from the gracious hand of God. So once in a lifetime, there was to be a kind of do-over, a mulligan, a fresh start. Jesus said, “Today”!
Interestingly, scholars report that there is little to no historical evidence that a Year of Jubilee was ever celebrated in ancient Israel. There is no reference in scripture or in texts beyond scripture that it was ever carried out; that promise of the fiftieth year. Not surprising when you think that for those who had much, those who had all the property, all the power, all the wealth…any mention of the “year of the Lord’s favor” would be viewed as a threat. When Jesus said “today”, maybe that is exactly when some in the room started to plant the seeds of rage. Some didn’t want “today”. They would have preferred, “tomorrow” or “One day” or “Some day”. If the Year of Jubilee had never been experience in Israel’s history, it certainly wasn’t going to happen “today.” And it didn’t happen that year. Or the next year. Or the year after that. The year of Jubilee. It has never happened.
But Jesus said “Today”. The word of grace is “today.” The year of the Lord’s favor, the reference must have meant more than Jubilee. It was more than a year. When Jesus said, “today” he meant so much more. More than a year. More than a transaction. More than an off-season for the soil. “Today” is a reference to the very reign of God, to the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, to a kingdom that belongs to those who are poor, where those who are hungry now are blessed, and blessed are those who weep now, for they shall laugh. Jesus and his “Today” is about the kingdom of God. Where the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, and the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. Where the sick are healed, and the storms of creation are calmed, and the power of death is conquered once and for all. The reign of God. Sins are forgiven. There is no hurt or destruction. His sacrifice is once and for all. The Lord makes all things new. Death has no sting. God wipes away every tear. Jesus and “today”. It was a sign of the kingdom. Where the stranger is always welcomed. The nations learn war no more. And the prodigal always comes home to a warm and tear-filled embrace.
“Today” was so much more than a year. Promise and Expectation. Fulfillment and waiting. Rejoicing and celebrating. Hoping and Singing. All of it here and now. The world’s dis-order forever transformed to Christ’s reign of peace. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus said. Such gracious words. He had them at “today” As one poet describes it, “He is the incarnation of the Year of Jubilee. Jubilee. Jubilee. Jesus is our Jubilee.”
Have you ever noticed that some days in Princeton, sometimes right there on Palmer Square, the aroma of food is probably better than the taste of the food itself? Sometimes it happens right after worship when I am out there standing on the porch waiting for the greeting to begin. I track the changing seasons of creation with the trees on the square and take a whiff of what’s cooking for lunch around town. Sometimes when you get a smell of something cooking, there is an immediate anticipation. Like when José is in the church kitchen making fresh biscuits for coffee hour, or your standing over the grill on crisp fall night. Other food aromas, they come with both a memory and a future. Like a few weeks ago when the smell of a roasting turkey filled the house, or when the spaghetti sauce made with your grandmother’s recipe is in the slow cooker; that recipe you passed on to your children, and they will pass it to your grandchildren….some aromas have a past and a future.
Like this bread and this juice, early on Sunday morning when we unwrap the plates covered since yesterday, when the plate passes before you, that tray of all the grape juice. The smell has a past and a future….taste and see and smell that the Lord is good. It smells like “today”; a whiff, a reminder, a hope for the coming reign of God.
It is Advent in the worship life of faith. We celebrate his coming and we wait and pray and hope for his coming again. The coming of his kingdom. Come quickly, Jesus. Quickly come.
It is Advent, so when you share this feast, take a whiff, and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, and hope that bread, and take that cup, and whisper, pray, or even say it aloud….