Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 23 January 2022.
• First Reading: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 (Ezra read from the law, the people listened)
• Psalm 19
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a (Unity and diversity in the body. You are the Body of Christ)
• Gospel: Luke 4: 14-21 (Jesus returned to Galilee teaching in the synagogues)
They were free at last. They had come home, with the blessing of Persians who had supplanted the Babylonians as their captors. They did not want a resentful people on their hands when they could have a loyal and supportive people living in their own land.
And so the Persians allowed the Israelite exiles to return home, together with their temple goods and necessary accessories for their worship.
The first thing that they did was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and they did this when being attacked by local warlords, and so had to work with their weapons beside them.
Then the people came together to hear the Law of Moses – and they responded and bowed down. This was a free and voluntary gathering as they reconstituted themselves as the people of the Lord and as they restored the Law of Moses as their centre.
In the Book of Ezra we find that they were coming under some severe criticism and were going to have to amend their ways, often in some very personal respects.
But despite all this they were taking it all very seriously: so much so that their leaders were saying: ‘Do not mourn or weep for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
In the midst of all their challenges and privations, there was a new pride in who they were, and a new determination to live worthily of the Lord. There was a kind of spiritual electricity among them and their enthusiasm for the things of their faith was rekindled.
Looking at Jesus’ reception in Nazareth there is something quite different. Now the people were comfortable in their ways and they had their own structures and practices for doing things.
So when Jesus read to them the promises of Isaiah, which were fulfilled in their presence, they rejected Him.
The message of hope and of release was an offense to them, especially when read to them and expounded by one of their own brethren.
The response was very much, who does He think that He is? We know his father, where he lives and what he does. Who is this to teach us?
And so irritation became resentment, which turned into rejection and the move to murder Jesus.
Maybe there is the sense that the promises of Isaiah are all very well, but this does not happen in real life. Much better to get on with the job and stop daydreaming.
Maybe their rejection was also a rejection of hope – that the messianic promises of Isaiah were too much. Perhaps there was something to be said for having a few losers around, to keep everyone on their toes.
So let the sad stay like that, let the poor know their place, and let the prisoners rot. If you don’t want the time, don’t do the crime. Maybe a little oppression is not such a bad thing after all.
Maybe, just maybe there is a little stability in the moral corruption and the spiritual malaise of the times: why get all excited about it, why get religion?
Anyone who has been the bottom of the class, or the one with no hand-eye skills on the games pitch will know what it is to be the scapegoat for the class. It is for some, mainly the winners, a socially useful role, so long as they don’t have to fill it themselves.
And the picture is of the church as a living body, rather than an impersonal assemblage of mechanical parts.
If the carburettor on your car fails or a tire gets worn, then you can get a new one. But when a fellow member of the community of faith goes through a crisis then everyone would feel it and would rally round.
For Paul, every member of the church is important, and each can serve in the ministry of the church. There is no place for the self-indulgent contempt for those who have failed to prosper in any aspect of life.
Equally, even the most disadvantaged member of the church may indeed have spiritual gifts and ministries, sharpened and focused by the way life has treated them.
Perhaps the most penetrating criticism of the view that life is for winners is that Jesus Himself went to the cross and in this was Himself to be counted with the losers of life.
Most measures of success would include a high salary, public honours and a lavish lifestyle.
For Jesus, it was faithfulness and obedience to His Father as He suffered for us.
For Paul it was a life either on the road or in prison, and climaxing at the edge of a sword.
For all of us, when Jesus speaks of freedom, He means it – and this applies in the face of the complacently self-satisfied.
And what was learned in the school playgrounds and playing fields is somehow not quite forgotten and maybe some of us here still carry the scars.
But Paul says something else about the life of the church, and the body of believers in Jesus Christ. This is the Body of Christ. Each member of the church is also a member of Jesus Himself.