I imagine there must have been some excitement in the air that morning as people entered the synagogue, dressed in their Saturday best. Perhaps some of the regulars were shuffling to find a new place to sit, since their usual seats were taken by the folks who normally only show up at Yom Kippur and Passover. But they came to synagogue that morning because they heard the news about the new guest preacher. One of their own, a local son, was returning to Nazareth for the first time since he began to make a name for himself in the region of Galilee.
Many of them remembered Jesus as a small boy, running around and playing with his friends while the adults made small-talk after the service. Now, at age thirty, he was beginning to garner a reputation as an itinerant rabbi, a teacher of the Torah. There were even some astonishing reports of unexplained, mystical healings associated with his visits. If even a few of these rumors were true, then surely he was about to save the best for them, the people of his hometown, the very ones with whom he had grown up and lived.
They were good-hearted, hard-working, small-town folk who came together Sabbath after Sabbath to honor their Jewish heritage and listen to the wisdom of the Torah. They knew Jesus and he knew them. They were the ones who taught Jesus those old stories of Moses and the prophets. Now, Jesus was the one who would preserve that history and pass it on to yet another generation, as it had been passed down to them by their ancestors in that very same synagogue. This was a very big day indeed.
The service itself, like every Shabbat service, featured the singing of the old psalms, praying prayers, and of course reciting the ancient Shema, Israel’s oldest creed: “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.” This faith formed the core of their tradition, preserved and passed on from generation to generation. And now, they were proud to welcome one of their own, Jesus, as the newest defender of the faith and guardian of the tradition.
After a reading from the Torah, there was usually another reading from one of the prophets. That week, it came from the book of Isaiah. Jesus read out loud: “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.”
Heads around the room were nodding in agreement as the old familiar words washed over them for the umpteenth time in their lives. They knew the story behind the words as well:
The prophet was writing to a community of Jews who had just returned from multiple generations of slavery in Babylon and Persia. It was in that place and time of tribulation that their religion had taken the shape it now held for them. They had come to believe that their God, Adonai of Israel, was the one true deity and all others were mere pretenders to heaven’s throne. In Babylon, alienated from the land of their ancestors and the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made daily, their Jewish ancestors had turned their attention to prayer and the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis. As strangers in a strange land, their ancestors had proudly struggled under oppression to preserve their faith and culture. The very existence of this synagogue in the small town of Nazareth was a testimony to their success.
Finally, after three generations of Jewish children had grown up under a Babylonian whip, the Persians invaded and conquered Babylon. These more open-minded Persians allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild, so long as they promised to remain loyal and subservient to the Empire. The prophet writing in this section of the book of Isaiah directed his words toward these newly returned exiles. They were faced with the task of rebuilding their country from the ground up. How would they even start? What values and ideals would shape this new society?
This particular prophet, writing in the name of another ancient seer, Isaiah of Jerusalem, who had lived and died centuries before, reminded the people of the ancient tradition of the year of Jubilee, a special holiday that came only once every fifty years. In this year, every debt would be forgiven and every slave set free. The land and the people would rest and then emerge with a fresh start, a new lease on life. The onset of this holiday was certainly “good news to the poor” for it brought release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and forgiveness to the debtors. It was a fresh start. The future was suddenly wide open. Liberated by the pronouncement of divine forgiveness, a new generation of people was free to rebuild the world anew. This is why they called it “the year of the Lord’s favor.” It seemed to them like heaven itself was smiling.
Back in the Nazarene synagogue, the old men heard these ancient words with tears in their eyes and smiles under their beards. God had been faithful, their people had survived, rebuilt, and passed on their heritage to another generation of Jews. And now, here was Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the little kid who used to play in their streets, now grown up tall, ordained as a rabbi, and preaching his first sermon in his hometown. The people survived. Their tradition lived on. God be praised!
Jesus finished his reading, rolled the scroll back up, and handed it back to the attendant. Then he sat down in the rabbi’s chair, which is what they used back then instead of a pulpit, and began to preach. He gave them the main point of his sermon with his opening remark: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Wait… what did he just say? Fulfilled? Didn’t he mean to say Honored, or Remembered, or Preserved? What does he mean by ‘Fulfilled’? If those ancient words were being ‘fulfilled’ ‘today’, it would mean that the story of our people is not yet over. It would mean that the journey home to freedom is not yet finished. It would mean that the task of rebuilding a new community is up to us, not our ancestors.
Even more importantly, it would mean that the year of Jubilee is now. All debts are off and all slaves are free. A fresh start for us, not just a bunch of people who lived once upon a time.
Jesus brought their tradition to life by showing it to be unfinished. A new world was being brought to birth by the age-old values of forgiveness and freedom. The same Spirit that animated the ancient prophets like a fire shut up in their bones was ready to set hearts on fire in that synagogue.
By appealing to this passage, Jesus deftly drew from multiple layers of tradition in order to make his point. Present, prophet, and Torah each represented different strands woven into a single tapestry in this sermon. Jesus appealed to the very deepest parts of who they were and what they valued as loyal, faithful Jews. He called them toward their higher calling through a fuller vision of who they were. He opened their eyes to the presence of a dynamic reality that is still unfolding, still working in their lives in order to bring fulfillment to the prophet’s ancient vision. Like any good preacher, Jesus brought the past into the present in order to shape the future. He opened their minds to possibilities that boggled their imaginations. He showed them a vision of what this world could be like if it were remade along the lines of these Jubilee values instead of the exacting cruelty of the loan shark and the slave driver.
Jesus introduced the people of his home synagogue to a living tradition, a prophetic tradition that reveres the memory of the past by trusting the promise of the future. Jesus invited his neighbors to follow the trajectory of the prophets rather than standing by their writings.
I believe that same invitation is now extended to us, the people sitting in this church today. We too can best honor the heritage left by our forebears by tracing the trajectory of their lives, rather than dogmatically hanging on their every word. To quote the Buddhist poet Matsuo Basho: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”
Like those members of the Nazarene synagogue, we have our own tradition that we would like to preserve. Beginning with Jesus, we might follow our tradition through the likes of the apostle Paul, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. Each of these voices (as well as many others) is worth paying attention to. But it is always a dangerous thing to make an idol of history. None of these voices carries the last word in matters of faith and ethics. Every generation of believers is still responsible, as heirs of the tradition, for continuing to interpret spiritual truth (as we understand it) in its day.
Our church tradition has a slogan that reflects this conviction: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. “The church is reformed and always to be reformed.”
The Reformation never ends. The story is not yet over. The Christian faith begs to be interpreted and applied in our day, just as it was in Calvin’s and Paul’s. Our interpretations will not match theirs exactly. John Calvin, for example, would shudder to learn that we now ordain women to preach in the very churches he founded.
There are some who argue that we have departed from “the faith once delivered to the saints” because of these and others of our practices that differ from our forebears. I say that we are not heretics but pioneers, reformers, maybe even prophets. Our task is not to blindly adhere to the words written on a page, but to critically follow the trajectory of the values expressed in those words. Following the image of the Jubilee that Jesus used: what does it mean to forgive debts and liberate slaves in 2013? Following Paul and Calvin, what does it mean for us to be reformers of church and society today?
As we stretch our minds to answer these questions, we continue the living tradition that was handed down to us from our ancestors. We honor our history by moving it forward, trusting in the guiding light of the Spirit to lead us home to the One from whom all blessings flow.