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THE SPIRIT IS UPON ME 1 COR 12:12-31A ; LUKE 4:14-21

This week the world’s politicians have gathered, as they do each January, in the snow-bound Swiss town of Davos for the World Economic Forum. It must be quite a scene, with the media circus in town, too. You can be sure that one of the priorities of the politicians is to try to project their own image as prominently as possible – putting in plenty of appearances and being seen to be busy securing the good of their own people. It is an opportunity for them to be seen in a good light and try to increase their popularity and influence. How much good it does I wouldn’t venture to say, and I leave that to the political and economic commentators to assess! But there is a sense in which the eyes of the world were on our leaders this week.

Nazareth Synagogue
Switch your attention if you can, to the scene in today’s gospel reading. Its synagogue time on a Sabbath way back in first century Galilee. The men crowd in, some who normally wouldn’t bother to attend, but today have rediscovered their piety in the urge to see what the fuss is about. They arrive early so they’ll get a seat with a view. The rich and elders have their own personal seats and come in at the last minute, alarmed at the excitement that disturbs their usual devotions. Here come the young men, too, the one who’ve grown up with Jesus, and went to study the Scriptures with him. They can’t believe he’s special. Yes, he knew his Bible back to forint but wasn’t he the boring one that actually took the classes seriously? Hardly someone to hang about with. In the side gallery the women whisper and press their noses to the grill to get a glimpse. Their children cling to their skirts and tease each other. Mary arrives and they make room for her. She sits down nervously. The scene is set.

Jesus, the local carpenter’s son, has been travelling about. He went away for some time, going south to Judaea and visiting his cousin John, an odd type, and getting himself baptised in the river. Then he’d wandered off into the wilderness alone and hadn’t been seen for 6 weeks. He then returned north to Galilee, but instead of settling back down at home in Nazareth and doing the job of a carpenter, he began touring round the towns and villages of Galilee, gathering a group of followers to him, and causing quite a stir with his teaching. As he’d been speaking with some success in other local synagogues, the committee or the leader at Nazareth must have thought it was worth inviting Jesus to address them there, too. This began with reading from the Law or the Prophets and then some form of instruction or interpretation.

The Reading
We don’t know whether the reading was a set one or something specially selected, but it was a text with a great deal of resonance. It is a passage from Isaiah, what we refer to as chapter 61:1-6 about the restoration of Zion or Jerusalem after the destruction of the Babylonian invasion and exile. But there is more wrapped up in the passage, because it also harks back to the exodus: the captives and the oppressed were to be set free from both the ancient Egyptian slavery and the more recent Babylonian captivity. As one commentator has suggested it is like a corridor of mirrors where the view is for ever receding but replicating. Those listening may well have understood all these overtones. They may well have understood that to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour meant not just that some kind of freedom was being promised, but that it also meant the year of the Jubilee. Every 50th year in the Mosaic traditions was to be a year of complete rest, of restoring sold land back to its original owners and all debts were annulled. Maybe Jesus’ had read these words in some of the other village synagogues he’d visited. Maybe the way he highlighted this scripture appealed to them all and that’s why they spoke so well of him. His message roused them, appealed to them because they were once again oppressed and in captivity, only this time in their own land and suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire. Those who heard Jesus were radical, politically minded, opponents of the Roman occupation. Jesus might lead and inspire them in their fight. Galilee was famous for its rebels; was Jesus just another one, or would he turn out to be the one who would change things so much that after him no other rebel would be needed? Perhaps we can answer that question with a “yes” and a “no”! Experts often refer to this as Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto – it is Jesus setting out his agenda, his programme for action.

Just another rebel or the rebel to end all rebellions?
So was Jesus just another rebel or was he to be the rebel to end all rebellions? Yes, he was a rebel if his crucifixion was anything to go by. But Jesus’ rebellion wasn’t just another Jewish uprising seeking to overthrow the Roman occupation. As his ministry developed, the Jewish authorities, both of the more religious side and the more political side of life, began to see Jesus as a rebel even against their authority. They tried to trick him, make him slip up, because they didn’t like his teaching and the influence he was gaining. In the end, they charged him with the worst rebellious act they could frame: he threatened to destroy the Temple. This was an act of treason, as far as they were concerned, and so he was handed over to the Roman authorities for capital punishment. The Romans couldn’t see the religious arguments, but were happy to put him to death in the same way as other rebels were – the cruellest form of execution done to make an example and try to deter any further insurrection.

So, yes, Jesus was a rebel. But no, he wasn’t a rebel in the ordinary sense of the word. He wasn’t hell bent on overthrowing authority just for the sake of it, or to cause a political revolution. It turned out that he was authority itself breaking into the rebellion of humanity against divine rule. He was here to protest about the injustice and violence of humanity who had taken the world into captivity and were themselves in the thrall of powerful sin. No, he wasn’t just another rebel, but yes, he was the one who to end all rebellion. So he saw in the prophecy of Isaiah his manifesto or job description. After this passage Luke goes on to describe how Jesus gradually got under the skin of his hearers. Although he was approved of in the surrounding villages, perhaps here in his home town, he brought out the full implications of his message, of his programme. He enraged them by challenging their narrow-mindedness about how and where God was at work. He works outside Israel, even amongst the Gentiles. This was too much, and in an echo of what would eventually happen to him, Luke tells us how they tried to tip Jesus over a local cliff!
One Body
We may wonder what the reading from 1 Corinthians has to do with the Gospel reading set for today. At first sight it seems to be a world away! The clue lies in the words Now you are the body of Christ. St Paul is writing to the Christian community in Corinth and has to tackle them on a number of concerns. Here he is appealing to them about unity. They are all one body even though they are such a diverse community. Their diversity which, along with their energy, is threatening to drive them apart is to be seen as a strength. A body must be made up of diverse members, but they all function together each fulfilling their role, complimenting each other, in order to work as a whole body. It all seems plain and obvious to us, but it wasn’t apparently so to the Corinthians. But then, when a community is in crisis, struggling with dissention, it isn’t always obvious what the answer is! Paul reminds them that not only are they to see themselves as various different members who all belong together but that the body they all belong to is the body of Christ, the very one whom they seek to live for.

Teresa of Avila, the 16th C Spanish saint said Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now. It helps to bring home what the role of the Church is in the world. As one body of Christ we are to continue the work that Christ laid out as his programme. It is now for us to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Epiphany is the season in which we discover more about who Christ is and what he means. But it is also a time to discover more about who we are as his followers and what that might mean as we seek to live for him. The Nazareth Manifesto is also our manifesto and will be just as glorious and just as costly as it was for Jesus himself!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith