Back in seminary, you could always tell the people who used to be Baptists because they could tell you the chapter and verse of whatever Bible passage you were talking about. For better or for worse, most Episcopalians weren’t raised to know their Bible that well, or at least in that way, myself included.
So I had to google what chapter and verse of Isaiah that Jesus quoted that day in the synagogue – for future reference, it was Isaiah 61:1. Isaiah has 66 chapters, it’s a serious book. But back when Jesus read from Isaiah in the synagogue, it wasn’t a book at all, nor did it have chapters or verses.
It was a scroll. Scrolls back then differed in size the same way our books do, but scrolls that were used for sacred writings were rather regimented. When a scroll was prepared to contain Jewish scripture, certain standards had to be met. Back then, at least, paper was not used, just the skin of goats, cattle, or deer, and special ink was used. It had to be written by a sefer, or scribe; the word sefer/scribe actually means counter, because they had to count all the characters they wrote to make sure they did it perfectly. “Once all the writing has been completed, the pieces of parchment (were) sewn together with thread made of animal veins. The finished scroll is attached to wooden rollers. No instrument containing iron or steel may be used in the creation of a Torah scroll, because these metals are used to create instruments of war.”
Remember when I said that the scrolls didn’t contain chapter and verse? So when Jesus stood up at the synagogue in Nazareth, took the scroll of Isaiah and found the passage he was looking for, the scroll He had to search through was at least 24 feet long. Makes you have a new appreciate for books, and for Jesus’ skill with scrolls.
The Bible, whether we find it as a book or a scroll, is a marvelous thing. The Bible is a collection of history, of wisdom, of poetry, and praise. It’s been called a blueprint for living a good life, but it’s not that really – too many of the people in the Bible, including most of the heroes, didn’t live perfect lives. What the Bible is, in the end, is the story of the relationship that people have had with God, warts included. The main thrust of that story is that God loves us, we don’t always love Him back, but even still, God loves us. The gospel lessons we get for this week and next week illustrate this well.
St. Luke sets the scene. “A well-known member of this small village (population, archeologists estimate, around 150), a craftsman, returns with a reputation for healing and acting like an old-time prophet. He shows up at the synagogue, opens the scroll of Isaiah to the place we call chapter 61, reads the first-person statement of a prophetic figure claiming to be anointed and sent by the Lord for a work of liberation and healing, and boldly applies that passage to himself.”
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I am the fulfillment of this scripture. Bold indeed. Jesus wasn’t calling on the Jewish authorities or even the Roman authorities to declare a jubilee year forgiving everyone’s debts. He wasn’t saying that God was going to, at some point, do something to relieve the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed. Jesus was saying that He is that relief. He is the good news.
Spoiler alert. This did not go well for Jesus. Next week we’ll hear about the crowd at that synagogue attempting to throw Him off a cliff. Remember, this is the story of God loving us and we not always loving Him back.
Later on this morning (tomorrow morning) we’ll review our own story, the story of our relationship with God in the last year, and we’ll hear about the plans and dreams we have for this year. We’ll see how we’ve proclaimed good news to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed, and hopefully you’ll lend your ideas on how we can continue to show the light of Jesus Christ to all who long for freedom, release, for some good news. We’re living the story of our relationship with God right now. He will always love us; how well we love Him back is up to all of us.