May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
When it’s difficult to make plans, it’s easy to lose your sense of purpose. We mindlessly go through the motions and at the end of the day wonder what we did. What was the point of it all? It’s often our volunteer work that gives us a sense of purpose, for it’s there at church or at another non-profit where we can know that we’re making a difference. But when our communities close down, that purpose seems more elusive.
My partner, Nancy, is finding that it is helpful to name one focus for each day. It helps to shape the day and give it a purpose. The last couple of weeks it has been culling files—a tedious job, but at the end of the day, a dent is made in the filing cabinet. This is a simple example of living each day with a purpose, but even the mundane needs shape and motivation.
Our gospel lesson expands upon this theme of living with purpose. After his baptism and wilderness demon-wrestling, Jesus began his ministry by teaching in various synagogues throughout Galilee. He was one of the few peasants who was literate and was able to teach with knowledge and wisdom. Very quickly, word spread about this talented young man. Everything was going so well until he returned to his home town of Nazareth. It was there that Jesus decided to announce the purpose of his ministry and indeed of his very life—but it didn’t go over so well. We’ll get to that in a bit. But first, let’s look at the purpose Jesus set for himself.
He stood up to read in the Nazareth synagogue and the scroll of Isaiah was given him. He unrolled this large scroll until he found Isaiah 61 and he read the first two verses. All eyes were upon him. Why had he chosen this reading? It wasn’t part of the lectionary. It’s about the coming of the Messiah who would turn the world upside down, bringing good news to the poor, release to those in prison, healing for the blind and freedom from those weighted down with debt. His audience knew that this text was referring to the Year of Jubilee, which some experts calculate as being prescribed for the year between 26-27 CE, around the time when Jesus was beginning his ministry.
The Year of Jubilee was a way to correct inequities and re-establish dignity, freedom and equal relationships. The fields were kept fallow, giving them a rest and allowing them to rejuvenate for the next year’s planting. Debts were completely forgiven. People returned home. Slaves were set free.
The Year of Jubilee was supposed to happen every 50 years. There is little evidence that it actually happened, but it was part of their scripture and it kept before them a goal of equalization and justice for everyone, including the foreigner.
The synagogue members in Nazareth would have been familiar with this teaching and their curiosity as to Jesus’ choice of this passage was heightened. All was deathly silent as the congregants leaned forward in anticipation—or perhaps dread—in how he would interpret this passage. We must remember that this little village, consisting largely of peasants, lived in a dangerous time of Roman rule, when the slightest provocation was swiftly and harshly met.
Jesus rolled up the scroll and resumed his seat. According to Jewish custom, reading scripture involves standing around the bimah with others, who make sure that the chanting of the words is done correctly. In Jesus’ day, once the chanting was complete, those standing around the bimah sat down. The interpretation of the reading was made while seated. So far, so good. Jesus was following proper protocol—that is, until he began to speak: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your presence.”
The congregants were stunned. Was Jesus, the little boy they knew who grew up in their town, daring to identify himself as the Messiah? As God’s anointed? And was he telling them that he was about to turn their world upside down? At most, they were expecting Jesus to offer innocuous miracles of healing, as they heard he had done in Capernaum. But they were not expecting blasphemy, nor a dangerous threat of sedition. If the Romans caught wind of Jesus inciting the people to rebel against Roman authority, they would all be killed. Even though some of them may have agreed with the need for a societal shake-up, they quickly reasoned that it was better one man was killed than them all, echoing the ancient story of the scapegoat.
They jumped to their feet, yelling with fear-filled rage, and lunged towards Jesus. He anticipated their reaction, and in the confusion of the crowd surging forward, he slipped through their midst.
I wouldn’t commend this way of announcing to the community one’s purpose of ministry, but Jesus certainly grabbed their attention—and ours. The purpose that Jesus set forth in this story is the heart of the gospel. It is what is called the hermeneutical key or the interpretive lens through which the gospels, and indeed all of scripture, should be read by Christians. For instance, whenever we are unclear about the meaning of a particular passage; whenever a biblical story doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of Jesus’ teaching, this passage is one of the plumblines against which all other passages should be measured. Some of the other plumblines include the greatest commandments to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Not only can we measure particular interpretations of scripture against these plumblines, but we can also measure our lives against them. How do we measure up with our priorities and our expenditures, our actions and our words? The plumbline of this passage gives specific examples of how we are to love God and our neighbour. In a nutshell, it is justice for the marginalized. The more we can live into this tall order, the better we can be Christ’s hands and feet.
And this leads me to the purpose of Westworth’s ministry. We have a strong mission statement that is simple enough to remember and challenging enough to keep ever before us. I’m so pleased to hear leaders in our church continue to use this phrase as a motivator and guide for our ministry. Just a few days ago, our Acting Chair Dianne Sjoberg, asked our Council to send a letter of support to our neighbouring school, J. B. Mitchell, as it is reeling from the recent deaths of a teacher and their principal. The reason to support this school, she said, is because we are the hands and feet of Christ that offer compassion to our community.
Westworth is clear about the purpose of its ministry, and we need to keep it ever before us as a reminder and as a plumbline against which our ministries can regularly be measured. The same applies to our lives. God has a purpose for each one of us. If we are clear about our calling, about the gifts and abilities that God has given to us, then the purpose for our life will become clear.
As our lives change, so may the purpose of our lives, and we therefore need to be regularly discerning where God is leading and how each one of us can use our gifts and current abilities to best love God and our neighbour as ourselves; can support the marginalized; can be the hands and feet of Christ.
God doesn’t leave us on our own to figure this out. Even Jesus needed the guidance and strength of the Spirit, who blessed him as he was baptized, led him into the wilderness to confront his demons and anointed him to carry out the purpose of his ministry. Likewise, God gives us an indwelling Spirit, who offers guidance through nudges, wisdom in how to live out the nudges and courage to put them into action.
Tammy, our Office Administrator, experienced what I would call the nudging of the Spirit last week. She has given me permission to tell this story. Last Tuesday, she was trying to make her way walking through the snow storm to work and decided to travel part way on the river. When she came up the bank, she was a bit disoriented, and headed the wrong way until she took out her phone and was straightened out. But just as she was about to turn, she heard a small voice saying, “Help me.” She looked around and couldn’t see anyone—there were very few people out at that time in the storm. But she kept hearing the voice. Finally, she found a small woman lying on the ground, jammed between two parked cars. It was difficult to get her unstuck, but she managed. One of the cars was running and it turned out that the woman had started her car and then was walking around to clear it of snow when she slipped and fell, wedging herself between her car and the next. She had been lying there about 10 minutes before Tammy had found her. Had Tammy simply been disoriented or, as I believe, did the Spirit nudge her in that direction?
These Spirit nudges help remind us of the heart of the gospel and our life-purpose as Christians to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we are clear about our purpose, then it makes the negotiation of muddled times so much easier—and we are certainly living in a muddled, murky time. Even if we can’t plan what we are doing a month or even a week from now, clarity of purpose will still give us a reason to get up every day, to be mindful about what we do and to go to bed with a peace that comes from a well-lived, purposeful day.
 A fully preserved scroll of Isaiah, found in a cave in Qumran that was dated to the time of Jesus, is 734 cm high and has 54 columns.