I wonder if the events of thirty winters ago have begun to fade for Mary? Jesus’ birth had been so strange. The announcements. The journeys. The visitors. The gifts. The crisis that overwhelmed her. But all that was decades before. Life for Mary has settled into a routine now, here in Nazareth. There have been joys, there have been sorrows, of course; but only as you might expect in a little northern village, a long way from anywhere. Yes, she would be happier if Jesus would find a nice girl, and settle down. Who wouldn’t long for grandchildren? Yet Joseph must have been older than Jesus when he and Mary were wed, all those years ago. There’s still time.
‘But Jesus has been acting strangely, these last months. That visit to his cousin John was the start, really. Now John has become really odd. What poor Elizabeth and Zechariah must be going through! Not that they aren’t proud of John: with all those crowds flocking to the River to hear him; of course they are. But he’ll get himself into trouble with the way he talks about King Herod. It’s only a question of time. They’re not young. They must be anxious.
And ever since Jesus went off to hear John preach, he’s been acting oddly, too. What is baptism, anyway? Disappearing. For six weeks! Never mind that there’s a table to finish for Abraham and Rebecca, and a couple of doors that old Eli wanted squaring up again, and a dozen other jobs that came in while he was off, wandering about by himself in the wilderness. It’s a good thing this is a family business, with others in the family to help keep it in business! He’s been that distracted, always out, roaming, thinking, praying.
And since then, crisscrossing the countryside, preaching in all the village synagogues. Now Rabbi David has invited him to preach, here in Nazareth, this coming Sabbath. The whole family will want to come, just to hear what he’s got to say for himself. And the neighbours as well, of course; and most of our customers. He’s always been good at his studies: they’ll all be keen to hear how he explains the lessons for the day. I do hope he’ll know what to say’.
Does it all come flooding back, for Mary, as Jesus reads the ancient prophecy from Isaiah; and then, unbelievably, applies it to himself? Does she remember the words she’d spoken, thirty winters before, when she’d visited Elizabeth and Zechariah; ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord? My spirit hath rejoiced in God, my Saviour.’ Does she remember that old man, Simeon, and the words he’d spoken to her when they’d gone to the Temple: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against. And a sword will pierce your own soul also’. Because Jesus will get himself into trouble, speaking this way, just as will his cousin John. Do they all come flooding back, those memories that she treasured up in her heart, so long ago?
They are all here this morning. Pew upon pew of them: friends, relatives, neighbours, customers, suppliers. They all know him. They all watched him grow up, or grew up with him. They know whom he liked to play with, and which was his favourite tree, and how long a day he works. They know how skilled he is with adze and plane and lathe. He is one of them, and they all know his place in their society.
And now they’ve listened, along with Mary, as he stood to read the hallowed words, before sitting once again to teach like other scribes. But instead of teaching, interpreting, explaining; he proclaims. ‘I am the one about whom the prophet is speaking! I am the Servant of the Lord whom he promised! Today! This scripture! In your hearing. Fulfilled!’
And every one of them, from his mother and family, to his friends and neighbours, to the shopkeepers and the customers who employ his skills; every one of them must now look at Jesus in this new light. They must question all they know of Jesus, re-evaluate what they’ve seen and heard for the last thirty years. And ask themselves, ‘Can this be true? Can he mean what he says here?’
These are big questions to ask, frankly. Big questions to ask because you just don’t expect people you know, members of your community, your family, to speak this way. I have no idea what Mrs Cameron or Mrs Blair or Mrs Heath said when they learned that their sons were about to become Prime Minister. But each of these proud mothers, though they could remember the broken nights, the nappies, the cut knees, each of them had time to get used to their respective sons’ exalted status. Their boys had first to do well at school, then university, then be elected to serve a parliamentary constituency, then rise through the ranks of the party before becoming leader and then winning a General Election. Mary and her family and friends have rather less in the way of preparation for Jesus’ self-proclamation; and to accept it is asking a lot of them.
Big questions to ask, because to see Jesus in this new way requires that you also see yourself in a new way.‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’, quotes Jesus, ‘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 favour.’ If you want to hear this good news then, you have to be able to recognise your poverty. If you want to recover your sight, you have first to concede that you are blind. If you want to be released, you must first admit that you are held captive. If you want to enjoy the Lord’s favour, then, you have to see yourself in a wholly different way.
We all had to change our view like this. Our view of society and its structures, our view of our own personal place in the world. At some point in our lives, it could have been decades ago now, we had to admit that our way of life posed a question so big that only Jesus could answer it. We had to see, not riches but poverty in our life, in some way or another. We had to admit that actually we couldn’t see a way forward, even though we wanted to appear knowledgeable and confident of the direction we were taking. We had to accept that those were prison walls that surrounded us, though we tried to pretend we were free. We had to concede that the life we were living was oppressing us. Only then could we enjoy the year of the Lord’s favour; but it wasn’t easy. Honesty, taking responsibility, accepting help: making these choices is never easy.
Perhaps the memory of that crisis has begun to fade for us, as perhaps memories had begun to fade for Mary. Perhaps routine has set in for us, as it had for her. But if so, Jesus says again, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. 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 favour. Can you see? Can you hear? Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
© Jon Russell 2019