A sermon on the third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 23 2022. The gospel reading includes Jesus’ teaching in his childhood synagogue in Nazareth.
On the sabbath, Jesus went to the synagogue, as was his custom.
It is a comforting picture: Jesus, who had grown up in Nazareth, attending the synagogue week by week. It would be full of familiar details, familiar faces. The scroll which they handed to him – he had watched his mentors, perhaps his own father, read it as a child. Now, it was his turn to proclaim the prophet’s message of hope and of justice, healing and the knowledge of God’s love, God’s favour.
It was the sabbath, so she went to the synagogue. I wonder how many people’s stories began that way last weekend, before the worship of the Jewish people was interrupted yet again by violence. It should be as safe as we feel coming to church. It should be as easy and as natural as the scripture makes it sound: it was Saturday, so he went to synagogue.
If the description of Jesus going home to his childhood congregation makes you nostalgic for gathering in our sanctuary, that is valid. We will be back together soon enough, though, and throughout this pandemic period, while it has been challenging, we have not faced any threat that is not common to the entire global population.
Unfortunately, for our cousins and siblings going to synagogue, there are other considerations. It is a sad fact that antisemitism continues to infect the public imagination. It was no accident that last week’s hostage-taker chose a synagogue to stage his act of attempted terrorism. He, who grew up two hundred miles and not ten years away from me, had absorbed messages about Jews that coloured his choice.
Yair Rosenberg, writing for the Atlantic, calls antisemitism, “a conspiracy theory about how the world operates.” It is dangerous to everyone, to all of us, he argues, because the nature of conspiracy theories is to distort our view of reality, of how the world really works, in favour of “fevered fantasies.”
We have seen how dangerous conspiracy theories can be over the past two years when celebrities and authorities and people’s uncles have touted miracle cures for Covid over proven medicine, and eschewed public health practices in favour of magical thinking, or misplaced individualism. We have seen how dangerous conspiracy theories can be to our democracy.
Conspiracy theories affect us all; but the enduring nature of antisemitism is particularly dangerous to our Jewish neighbours. It is simply not right that anyone should have to think twice about going to synagogue on the sabbath, as was Jesus’ custom.
We have a particular responsibility to counter antisemitism wherever we encounter it, not only because of Jesus’ heritage, and not only even because the Christian churches have a long and sorry history of theological and practical antisemitism for which to atone. We, who follow the Way, the Truth, the Life, have a responsibility to speak up for that truth, to counter the lies that bind our cousins to the risk of violence: to counter antisemitism and it vile conspiracies in our communities, and even in our own reading of scripture.
When Jesus stood up to read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, and when he boldly claimed the Spirit of God for himself, and declared that the scriptures had been fulfilled, that the year of the Lord’s favour was, like the kingdom of God, at hand – this was not a claim without risk.
The Roman empire had claimed kingship for itself, and installed its Caesars as its gods. They knew, the Romans, that the Jews were faithful only to the Almighty; that they would not worship idols of metal, stone, nor even of flesh. Within a generation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans would raze the Temple and devastate the priests and the people. Yet here was Jesus, claiming that the kingdom of God, the year of the Lord’s favour, was at hand.
In retrospect, we, as Christians, understand that he meant that he was God’s favour, God’s love born among us; that he had come to heal the sick, bind up the broken-hearted, release the captives from their misery, even as God had always been faithful to God’s people, leading them out of bondage in Egypt, restoring them from their exile, binding up their broken hearts again and again.
Perhaps it was because of the breadth and length and power of the Roman empire that God chose this moment to reveal the plan for salvation to the rest of the nations: because in this moment all the nations needed it; because in this moment all were crying out for something real, something true, instead of the false gods of the Caesars. It was also a prime moment for the word to take flesh and to be carried far and wide, across trade routes and along roads made straight, ironically enough, by their Roman builders.
Perhaps it was because it was in this moment that the nations needed to hear of something greater than the might of armies, stronger than the grip of emperors, a deeper peace than the uneasy truce of a people kept under control by threats and promises.
That word that was needed, that Word that was spoken, came from a young man from Nazareth, who had gone to synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom, and told his people, his family, his community of faith, his beloved ones, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It has been the promise all along, and God has always fulfilled God’s promises. For our part, we understand that Jesus is the pinnacle of the promise, the evidence of Emmanuel, God with us; the atoning sacrifice and the light to the nations, to bring them, to bring us into the covenant that God had long established with God’s people.
And Jesus, this Jesus, our Jesus, was a Jew, going to synagogue on the sabbath, as was his custom.
We are reasonably confident that next Sunday, we will come back together in the sanctuary for our Eucharist and our Annual Meeting. For those who need to stay home to stay safe and healthy, we will continue to livestream and open the Zoom room. No one should feel obliged to risk their health or the health of others to be here. But those risks are not ones that we alone face.
As we prepare to come together on Sunday, as is our custom, let us pray for our siblings and cousins whose sabbath is complicated by antisemitism, and let us decide that, as far as it depends upon us, this will be the day, the year, when the scripture is fulfilled: good news and healing, release from all oppression, the knowledge of the Lord’s favour.
Image: (Part of) The Great Isaiah Scroll MS A (1QIsa, the Dead Sea scrolls), via wikimediacommons (public domain)