Jesus Gives a Reading Lesson
I preached this sermon on Sunday, January 27 to give our congregation a sneak preview of the new adult education video curriculum, The Forgiving Victim: An Induction into Christian Vulnerability. If you are just learning about the course, this article gives some background on how Raven Foundation was involved in the development of the video portion and why we think it is the curriculum for next generation of Christianity. Adam helped me out in the sermon by appearing in the form of the high priest Melchizedek who was appearing in the form of God – it will make sense as you read along, I hope!
Here’s the Gospel reading we were discussing:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21)
Jesus Gives a Reading Lesson
It’s good to be here with you this morning, in fact it’s good to be anywhere given that according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, the world was supposed to end last year on December 21. Depending on your interpretation of that ancient document, you were either preparing for the worst or you had a good laugh about all the fuss. Among all the jokes going around, there was one cartoon that struck me as particularly funny. A Mayan walks into a bar. You know he’s Mayan because he’s covered with tattoos, and wearing nothing but a leafy loincloth. He is obviously dejected, head in hand, and as he sits all forlorn the barkeep, wiping down the counter, says, “Cheer up, pal. It’s not the end of the world.”
We are not the first generation to be captivated by end of the world prophecies but what we don’t often focus on is that prophecies about the beginning of a new era appear almost as frequently. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was commonly believed that humankind had reached such an advanced state that the season of warfare had ended for good. A century of war disappointed that expectation, but we continued to hope. Remember the hippie prophecy of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the 70s? Humankind was supposed to be entering a new age of interconnectedness and universal peace. Some readings of the end of the Mayan calendar went in that direction with some speculating that the end of the calendar was signaling the beginning of a new era in human history. What if this hope for a new era of peace, which has been frustrated again and again for almost 150 years, is not just fanciful thinking? What if something new has been trying to emerge, and is slowly becoming visible? Oddly enough, Historians and social commentators are saying that we are experiencing a social upheaval that comes every 500 years or so in the West, changing all aspects of human life: political, economic, psychological and religious. This new era is being called the Great Emergence and one sign of the Great Emergence in religion is a gradual loosening of denominational boundaries to which our own congregation is a witness. We are a motley crew, made up of former Lutherans, Methodists – you name the Protestant denomination, we’ve got at least one. Among us are recovering Catholics – I’m one of them –, Greek Orthodox, Buddhists, even agnostics and perhaps in our secret hearts, atheists who all feel welcome in this space. Another sign of the Great Emergence in religion is the growing segment of the population that claims to be spiritual but not religious. These people have sparked a renewed interest in the faith and practices of the early Christians, a time before denominations and separate doctrines cluttered our religious landscape.
Another sign of the Great Emergence in religion bears directly on our Gospel reading today, and that is the loss of confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture. Innerancy is a fancy way of saying that you believe that everything in the Bible is historically accurate, internally consistent, and infallible. Our congregation gives witness to this shift away from belief in Biblical innerancy when we say to one another that we take the Bible seriously but not literally. In other words, even though we acknowledge that the Bible is littered with contradictions and is not historical in the modern sense, we still trust in its authority as a divine communication from God. But that leaves us with the question of how do we read the Bible? If not literally or as history, then how do we make sense of an inconsistent and ancient text to find God speaking to us today? It is a perplexing question which some find so hard to answer that reading the Bible on their own is no longer part of their spiritual practice. But the Scriptures themselves are not unaware of the problem! In our Gospel reading today, we encounter Jesus giving a reading lesson to his audience, teaching them how to read an ancient prophetic text about the dawning of a new era, a text and prophecy that was ancient even for his audience 2,000 years ago. Just as today, there was no shortage of ways to interpret this text, so Jesus offers his interpretation, one that perhaps no one there, not even his disciples, expected to hear.
In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus reading verses he selected from the Isaiah scroll that were connected with a well-known prophecy about the dawning of the reign of God on earth – the 1st century Hebrew equivalent of the Age of Aquarius! He reads from the book of Isaiah, “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.” What’s strange is not that people expected the fulfillment of this messianic prophecy, but that Jesus’ reading confounds their idea of what that fulfillment would look like. So let’s take a look at prophetic expectations in Jesus day so we can better understand the radical nature of what Jesus was proclaiming.
We can’t be sure what the people in the Synagogue that day were expecting but their expectations were probably not unlike messianic expectations in our time – being saved by a heroic political or military figure usually means our enemy will be defeated in true superhero fashion. Whether it’s the school yard bully, an infuriating rival at work, or a wily enemy on the battlefield, they will go down never to rise again. Of course the fact that we will be installed as top dog backed up by our superhero savior is pretty sweet, too! In Jesus time, expectations for a military liberator who would defeat their Roman oppressors were not uncommon and this passage from Isaiah, heralding a new age, was easily read as a foretelling of such a liberator who would have God’s blessing. In fact, what Jesus does not read is as important as what he does read. He ends his reading with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” rather than continue with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” I imagine that most of his hearers filled that part about vengeance in on their own, just as if I stopped at “We hold these truths to be self-evident” you’d fill in, “that all men are created equal”. Jesus knows that vengeance is part and parcel of their reading of this passage whether or not he reads it aloud. His omission appears deliberate and is perhaps a signal to his audience that God’s redemption will omit vengeance as well.
There is something else that didn’t need to be spoken aloud that would have been part of the background knowledge people brought to these verses. Everyone in the synagogue that day would know that the verses Jesus read were part of the proclamation of what was called The Great Atonement. This prophecy foretold the return of a mysterious figure from the book of Genesis, the great high priest Melchizedek. A High Priest on the Day of Atonement was considered to be an appearance of God and was addressed as, My Lord and My God. Now the High Priest Melchizedek was an ancient figure even in Jesus time, but he was expected to return kind of like a second coming to “proclaim the kingdom” and perform what was called the Great Atoning sacrifice. (Barker, 72) Melchizedek is a rather obscure figure to us today, but in Jesus’ time he was really big, I mean Beyonce big. So I invited him to join us today to explain the Great Atoning sacrifice and since he enjoys returning to earth now and then, he agreed.
ADAM ENTERS DRESSED AS THE HIGH PRIEST. THE COSTUME IS FROM THE FORGIVING VICTIM PRODUCTION, AS IS THE PHOTO.
My role as High Priest is an ancient one. Each year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies, a room in the center of the Temple separated by a beautiful curtain or veil with no seams. The Holy of Holies is where God dwells in the time before Creation. Clothed in glistening white and wearing the name of the Lord I would enter through the veil, the boundary between the material world and the time before all things came into being. When I emerged back through the veil I would no longer be the High Priest, but an appearance of God clothed in the garments of materiality. [SUZANNE CLOTHES ADAM IN COLORED ROBE] Earlier in the ritual a goat had been chosen as the Lord and now I as the Lord God would sacrifice the goat. What set this sacrifice apart from all others was that on the Day of Atonement the Lord God was both the High Priest and the sacrificial victim. At the rite of Atonement, the Lord was offering himself to the people to renew all of creation. Though I lived during the time of Abraham, I was known during the time of Jesus as the bearer of eternal priesthood. When I returned to perform the Great Atoning sacrifice Creation would be renewed for all time. God’s reign of peace on earth would begin and launch a new age of liberty, peace and abundance for all the earth.
Thank you, My Lord and My God. (That got a good laugh from the congregation!)
That was enlightening, but perhaps hard for us to believe today. It’s easy for modern people to think that ancient people had a rather unscientific view of just what the sprinkling of the blood of a goat over an altar could accomplish, but I’d like to point out a very sophisticated understanding of God in this ritual. It was NOT that the people were making a sacrifice to appease God but rather that God had taken material form, had incarnated in order to offer Godself as a sacrifice to the people. Here is how James Alison describes the atonement sacrifice in the Forgiving Victim course:
We humans, as part of creation, are caught up in futility, and what happens at the feast of the Atonement is that the Creator comes into the midst of creation to un-ensnarl creation from within, to make everything that is flow anew towards giving glory to God. As though God were a divine Drano, coming in to clean out the sluice system from within and getting it all to flow and open out again. Now please notice … that the rite is to do with creation. It is the Creator coming into an unfinished, or a tied-down creation so as to untie it, unleash its full potentialities, as it were, and make creation full.
Forgiving Victim essay 6, page 128, Unit 3 of the course
So here we have the ancient understanding of an atoning sacrifice – it was intended to finish the work of Creation, bring it into fullness and unbind all of us from our small, futile and often fearful lives. Now back to the Melchizedek prophecy: In Jesus day, people considered that their own historical era began 500 years earlier with the rebuilding of the temple. Not to get into all their calculations, which would be almost as complicated as deciphering the Mayan calendar, but they did figure that Melchizedek would return to make the definitive atoning sacrifice about 500 years after the temple was rebuilt. And oddly enough, Jesus ministry fell within that time frame. Many of the people in the synagogue with Jesus that day expected the return of Melchizedek to be imminent. And Luke shows us Jesus reading the words of the ancient prophecy of the return of Melchizedek! Now various readings and interpretations of this prophecy swirled around in Jesus time: Would there be a Day of Vengeance? Would God punish the wicked and reward the righteous? Such questions are riveting and tend to keep synagogue goers and pew sitters on the edge of our seats, so it’s no wonder that when Jesus sits down after reading from the Melchizedek prophecy in the years when the prophecy was expected to be fulfilled, all eyes are upon him. But instead of offering an interpretation of the text, a sermon as I am doing speaking about Melchizedek in the third person, Jesus makes a simple declarative statement: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus is claiming to be Melchizedek! His statement that the Scriptures are fulfilled means that he is the one foretold, the High Priest who is the incarnation of God entering into materiality to offer the final Atoning sacrifice that will renew Creation and inaugurate the reign of God on earth, God’s kingdom come.
This had to be a little disappointing. I mean, some folks must have wondered, is he serious? Where is the avenging God, the anointed king, High Priest and military leader all wrapped up in one who will free us from the Romans? How was Jesus going to liberate captives, restore sight to the blind and renew all of Creation to boot? Questions like this are the result of reading the text for vengeance, which makes it hard to believe that small-town Jesus the carpenter’s son could accomplish anything in that prophecy. But Jesus gave them and us a simple reading lesson – when you are reading the Biblical text don’t make the error of looking for historical facts or trying to resolve all the inconsistencies and especially don’t turn it into an idol by insisting on its infallibility. Jesus’ reading lesson begins with a warning against focusing on the verses about vengeance and thinking we have found God there. It turns out that the vengeance parts tell us more about ourselves than about God. No, if you want to find God revealed in the Bible or in our lives, Jesus teaches us to search out the parts about self-giving love, about mercy and forgiveness. Jesus’ entire life, death and resurrection became a reading lesson that enacted the ancient Atonement ritual to affirm that God does not enter into creation in order to punish or exact retribution. God comes to renew Creation in the last place we would think to look – in the place that human beings run from in fear and trembling. God would renew Creation from a cross where Jesus would take the worst we have to offer one another – the ridicule, the beatings, the shame and horror of public execution – and offer not vengeance but forgiveness. Luke’s good news is that the high Priest has returned to make the Great Atoning Sacrifice on our behalf and the impact of that sacrifice has been working its way through human history for 2000 years.
Are we about to enter a new age of belief in the power of forgiveness? I’m not one for making prophecies myself, but in that synagogue long ago, Jesus taught that God’s word becomes flesh when we learn to read and to live for the good news to the poor, for release to the captives, for recovery of sight to the blind, for freedom from oppression. The year of the Lord’s favor has been proclaimed. The time is fulfilled. Believe in the good news.