We are due to have a federal election this year in Australia, and it must be held by the 2nd of November. Now suppose I decide to put myself forward as a candidate to become your local member in parliament. For my election campaign I could probably afford to put up one billboard. That would take all of my savings. But I do have some great ideas. If I get elected, I can promise you that Australia will switch from coal to solar energy and climate change will be reversed; all the coral on the Great Barrier Reef will come back to life; there will be good jobs and affordable housing for everyone; public transport will be plentiful and free; and no one will ever again need to see a doctor.
Impossible to believe, isn’t it. Because you know me, you’ve seen what I can do, and it’s nothing at all like such amazing promises.
Now imagine yourself in the town of Nazareth 2000 years ago. It’s Saturday, the day for weekly worship in the local synagogue. Jesus, who grew up in Nazareth, comes home to worship there. He’s dressed like everyone, no fancy clothes or fine shoes, and he comes with a slightly scruffy group of mates trailing along behind. He stands up to read and chooses a prophecy from Isaiah. It promises that good news will be preached to the poor, freedom will be announced to prisoners, the blind will see again, and those who are treated badly will be set free.
Jesus then sits down and says all the prophecies he read have now come true. Would you have believed him? Neither did the townspeople. They knew Jesus’ parents, they knew him from when he had been a chiId. If even one of those prophecies had come true, it would have been sensational. But there was nothing to see for it. Nothing at all, as far as the townspeople could see.
So how could Jesus sit down quietly and make the wild claim that the prophecy was fulfilled? Right then and there?
Usually I think we read and hear these prophecies incorrectly. They actually say that the one anointed by the Spirit will announce all these good things, and that they will happen but without saying when. Everyone who is on the margins of life, all the residents of the town of Nazareth, all the people who have previously been left out, are the ones to receive this message, because they are all seen and loved by God.
The prophecy has two unspoken parts. The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming has a ‘now’ part and a ‘not yet’ part. We know from scripture that the ‘not yet’ part, everything that is yet to come in God’s perfect timing, will be awesome and glorious. In that day of the Lord all will hear the good news, all will be set free from whatever binds them, and the blind, whether spiritually or physically blind, will see. That is the ‘not yet’ part.
The ‘now part’ of the prophecy, on the other hand, is not at all flashy. It is as ordinary as this man Jesus, Joseph’s and Mary’s son, who came as any other worshipper that Saturday in Nazareth.
The kingdom of God in this present age is not flashy. I guess that often we wish it were quite flashy, and we chase after anything that promises to be flashy. But we believe in a hidden God, which in many ways is less than what we want. He makes himself visible in the bread and wine of this eucharist, but visible only to the eyes of faith. He makes himself visible in the personal holiness of his followers.
Do you remember how the devil tempted Jesus when he was in the desert for 40 days just before the start of his ministry? The devil invited Jesus to do flashy things, such as jump off the roof of the Jerusalem temple, and command stones be turned into bread. And Jesus refused to have any part of it. He was more interested in serving God through obedience. The one big flashy event was the resurrection, which changed the possibilities of everything that came after.
It takes faith to believe that the quiet man who sat down in the Nazareth synagogue that day was, as we say in the creed, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. It takes faith to believe that ‘Joseph’s son’ was the Creator of all that exists. And it takes faith to believe him when he says that something as amazing as Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled somehow in that insignificant town of Nazareth 2,000 years ago.
If it was hard to believe then, it is harder to believe now. And yet the prophecies are being fulfilled, but in a hidden and quiet way, in a process of transformation. Every kind word spoken, every love shared, every encouragement given, shows glimpses of the grace of God and his intentions for humanity. It is not simply a matter of our having good feelings. The work of the Holy Spirit is real transformation. It is also the business of the church.
The church must be transformational, changing us, equipping us as we go out each week into the community for another spell on the front lines. Because we are on the front lines: maybe in our families, where we meet with hurt or anger; maybe in the shops or workplace, where we meet with boredom or disappointment. As followers of Christ we have good news carried within our bodies, and we have the Spirit who can open our eyes to opportunities.
There is a great saying of St Francis which goes like this: ‘Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.’ When you first hear it, St Francis seems to be letting us off that hook of actually having to tell somebody about our faith. But then there is that little word ‘always.’ Always be preaching the gospel. Because we have the Spirit within us, and are followers of Christ, our actions should preach the love of Christ. So they will speak. And occasionally the Spirit will prompt us, when it can be given and received in love, to share in words the sacred truth of what we believe.
The prophecy that Jesus read that day in Nazareth is powerful. You might have seen recently how China is cracking down on its Christian churches. And governments in the Middle East, in places like Egypt and Iran, do the same. Because the Christian message is revolutionary, it threatens those who do evil. Because, as the prophecy says, it is about setting people free from all that binds them.