Preacher Revd Neil Summers
One of my favourite passages from Alice in Wonderland comes when the White Queen has decided she’d like to hire Alice as a lady’s maid: ‘I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!’ the Queen said. ‘Twopence a week, and jam every other day.’ Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, ‘I don’t want you to hire me – and I don’t care for jam.’ ‘It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen. ‘Well, I don’t want any today, at any rate.’ ‘You couldn’t have it if you did want it,’ the Queen said. ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.’ ‘It must come sometimes to ‘jam today,’’ Alice objected. ‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.’ ‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’
Perhaps an illustration here of some people’s take on Christianity. A strong emphasis on jam yesterday: yes, Jesus was undoubtedly a good man, but that was all 2000 years ago. And jam tomorrow: a potential future reward in heaven. But never jam today. As a church we seem to spend a fair bit of time obsessed with the past or worried about the future, but rarely do we seem to focus on today, and the promise it can hold. Today is actually very important, because it’s where we are. Actually it’s the only place we ever can be. It reminds me of one of those ‘quotes on the tube’ I once saw on the District Line, from the German writer and statesman, Goethe, who said that ‘Nothing is worth more than this day.’ Nothing is worth more than today. And it’s that word, that idea – ‘today’ – that seems to be key to this morning’s Gospel reading – and, by extension, to much more than that.
These words come from the very start of Jesus’ public ministry. He’s been baptised, tempted in the wilderness, and now returns to his home town to preach. And the text he chooses (or was it that day’s lectionary?) is from Isaiah, written towards the end of the Jewish exile in Babylon 600 years before. A text which described what God would do for the returning exiles, and which would certainly have resonated with Jesus’ contemporaries looking for an end to the oppression of living under Roman rule. It’s a text which could very easily be seen to be talking about the yesterday of Babylonian exile, and the tomorrow of a restored Israel, but not about the present, the now, of that synagogue in Nazareth one Sabbath day in about 30 AD. But Jesus changes all that by saying when he sits down: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All of a sudden this passage is not about yesterday or tomorrow, it is about today. So what is it that has been fulfilled?
The passage talks about good news to the poor; release for the captives; recovery of sight to the blind; freeing the oppressed; and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. Now in one sense these were physical acts that Jesus did. He did bring good news to the poor; he did restore sight to the blind. But the passage means much more than that to both Isaiah and to Jesus. The poor are not just the economically poor, but all those on the margins of society. The blind are not just those whose eyes cannot see, but those who have inward blindness, or who cannot bear to look at reality, or who even choose to live in darkness. The captives and the oppressed are not just those in jail, or those under the Roman heel, but also those trapped in prisons of their own making, or oppressed by their own doubts, sorrows, or perceived distance from God. And what is proclaimed is the year of the Lord’s favour: the jubilee, the time in Leviticus when slaves are set free, property is restored, debts are cancelled, and everything is reset and starts anew.
So what is promised by Isaiah, and seen in Jesus, is, both physically and figuratively, release, restoration, return from exile. But what does Jesus actually mean when he says this has been fulfilled – and in their hearing? I think the key lies in this idea of jubilee, in the year of the Lord’s favour, the year when release begins, restoration occurs, relationships are reset. This hasn’t been fulfilled in the sense of fully achieved – even now there are still the poor, the blind and the oppressed. It has, however, been fulfilled in the sense that everything is now in place for these promises to be made into reality. The incarnation of Jesus, the coming of God to our humanity, inaugurates a new era, the year of the Lord’s favour. What Jesus appears to be saying to the Nazareth congregation is this: you no longer have to worry about when in the future the old prophecies will be fulfilled, because they are being fulfilled right now, starting today, in me.
Well, that was then, but what about now, our today? Because of the Incarnation, every effort or act, no matter how small, to make Isaiah’s prophecy and Jesus’s words a reality in our world, is a contribution to the building of the Kingdom here on earth today. We must bring it to fulfilment – a timely reminder on this Sunday in the year when we focus on homeless people, when the migrant crisis continues (and worsens) and this coming week marks Holocaust Memorial Day. All these powerfully remind us how crucial it is to recognise our common humanity. And, more personally, this prophetic manifesto is good news to those of us who feel marginalised within ourselves, in any number of ways, even if we are not economically poor; good news for those of us who sense our spiritual darkness, a blindness of the heart, an inability to see God anywhere; good news to those of us who feel enslaved by things that prevent us from flourishing in life, or fulfilling our human potential; good news for those of us held captive by past regrets or future fears – indeed any things which conspire to make us feel alienated from divinity or humanity. That is the promise of today in the Epiphany season, as we continue to think on the ongoing significance of the birth at Bethlehem. Today, in the light of this Gospel, we can begin and pursue the process of our own release, our own restoration, our own return from exile, back into relationship with our fellow humans and, thereby, with God.
One thing we learn from Alice in Wonderland is that the word ‘now’ is different in the past and the future than it is in the present. But what Jesus did that day in Nazareth, what he still does, is to draw the ‘now’ of yesterday and the ‘now’ of tomorrow together in the ‘now’ of today. The past and the future meet as they only can, and as they always do, in the present. We spend so much time looking back to what cannot now be changed or looking forward to what we cannot yet know that we can easily miss the promise of today, which reconciles both yesterday and tomorrow. Jesus’s words come ringing through the centuries, so that now, on the 24th of January 2016, just as on that day in the synagogue 2000 years ago, we hear that freedom, release, sight, wholeness, restoration, return from exile are all now possible because of the birth of this child. God has done his bit. Now, today this scripture must be fulfilled in your hearing, and in mine.