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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 27 January 2018 – 4th Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 12.12-31a & Luke 4.14-21
‘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.’
This is a fascinating passage of scripture. It appears first in Isaiah 61 where it is clearly about the prophet being the one who will be filled with God’s Spirit to ‘bring good news to the poor’. Then, as we heard in the gospel this morning, Jesus, visiting his home synagogue, reads these words from Isaiah and claims that he is the one who now fulfils these words, he is the one who has come to ‘bring good news to the poor …’ And then to top it all, we heard this morning in his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth, Paul says,
‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ so now, we are the ones who should ‘bring good news to the poor ……..’
The rich tapestry of scripture!
These are well known words. They will resonate with every churchgoer who hears them again today – we know them well. But what do they mean? They sound great, radical, prophetic, but what do they actually mean, and, in particular, what do they mean for us?
What is ‘good news for the poor’? Perhaps ‘good news for the poor’ is some food. For a young homeless man who joined us for our early morning prayers last week, good news was simply having a chance to sit by a radiator! Thinking globally, good news for the poor might mean a new school or hospital. Perhaps good news for the poor is a permanent job or if you are unable to work, enough money to survive? Are these kinds of things that Isaiah and Jesus had in their minds when they spoke these words?
What does it mean to ‘proclaim release to the captives’? In some versions of the bible this is translated as ‘setting prisoners free’ – is that what Isaiah and Jesus had in mind, criminals being released from prison? Or, perhaps they were thinking about people in slavery, are they talking about slaves being set free?
‘Recovery of sight to the blind’ We think we know what Jesus means when he says these words because we know that, from time to time, he healed blind people, he restored their sight. Is that what Isaiah was talking about? As far as I know there are no records of Isaiah healing blind people. And what of us reading this passage, what do we mean as ‘the body of Christ’ today when we talk of restoring sight to the blind?
What does it mean ‘to let the oppressed go free’? Who were the oppressed in Isaiah’s day? The poor, slaves, people living in exile probably. Who were the oppressed in Jesus’ day? The poor, slaves, Samaritans, lepers, women perhaps? Who are the oppressed in our day, who needs to be set free?
All very interesting. When we think of how this passage relates to us, the ‘body of Christ’ today we nearly always read it as though we are the “do’ers”, we are Isaiah or we are Jesus. In other words we read it and understand that we are the people bringing good news, proclaiming release, restoring sight, liberating the oppressed. This is a perfectly legitimate way to read these words and, to be honest, probably the way we are intended to read them – we are filled with the Spirit through our Baptism and through our sharing regularly in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. We are called to be the liberators, proclaimers of good news, healers. However, I have been thinking this week as I have been mulling over these words, that it might be helpful, and revealing, from time to time, to read this passage in a different way, to read this passage not as the “do’ers” but as the “receivers”.
There are lots of ways to be poor, Poverty is not just lack of money. Perhaps even we, the privileged and relatively wealthy people of York are poor in some ways? Perhaps we are poor in time, we spend so much of our time being busy, being important, paying the bills, that our relationships suffer? Perhaps we are poor in spirit? Perhaps we spend far too much of our time amassing material things and material security that we are starving the spiritual side of ourselves? Perhaps we need to hear the good news that God can break into our busy, acquisitive, self-centred worlds and renew and reset our priorities. Perhaps we need to re-orientate our lives to love our family and our neighbours a little more and ourselves and our ambition a little less? God, through word and sacraments, can enrich our lives and relationships and feed our spiritual hunger.
You don’t have to be in prison to be imprisoned. People are imprisoned in addictions of one sort or another, others are imprisoned in unhealthy or destructive relationships, others are imprisoned by chronic illness. Our God teaches us that none of these have to be life sentences, by living in community, by loving our neighbours and our enemies, by being vulnerable to his healing touch there is nothing from which we cannot be liberated, healed, set free by God.
Jesus makes it clear on more than one occasion that he does not heal the blind simply to improve the lives of one or two people, he heals the blind as a sign that he has come to help everyone see in new ways, or see as they were created to see. How much of the world do we close our eyes to? We close our eyes to suffering but I think we also close our eyes to beauty and to love and to goodness as well. Narrow-mindedness and bigotry are also a form of blindness. I think we need Christ’s healing touch to enable us and encourage us to see the world and other people as they truly are, to see God’s creative presence everywhere and in everyone.
What oppresses you? What stresses you out? Pressure at work? Impending exams? Traffic jams? Moaning children? Nagging parents? When people who were oppressed went to see Jesus he reminded them of the priority of love and he also lavished forgiveness and mercy upon them – Mary Magdalen, Zacchaeus, the rich young man, they were all oppressed in one way or another and they were liberated by the teaching, forgiveness and love of Jesus. We can be liberated too.
We need to hear this gospel again and again. Yes we are called, as the Body of Christ, to fulfil it. But we are also called as fallen human beings to hear it and to be encouraged and inspired by it. We are people who need God to speak his Good News into our poverty. We are people who need God to release us from all that imprisons us. We are people who need God to heal us and help us to see the world and others with greater truth and clarity and we need God to liberate us from all that oppresses us. God gives generously to us, we should give generously to God and to others.
As we hear these words again today let us rejoice in the rich tapestry of scripture. There is not just one way to read and understand passages like this, we can dig deep to find new meaning for today, we can hold such passages and look at them from different points of view and God’s truth, like a magnificent diamond with many facets, shines out from every angle. These words should not only inspire us to action, they should also bring us comfort. The Good News of God’s love is not just something for us to proclaim it is also something for us to receive.
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