by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
For those of us who truly want to be Orthodox Christians—our entire hope is in having our lives conformed to the likeness of our Lord, Jesus Christ. But, to do that, we need to discern, who was Jesus? What was He about? What was His heart’s desire for the sake of the world? And thus, if we’re being conformed to His likeness, what does it look like for that to also become our heart’s desire? This Sunday’s Gospel Reading is key to answering those questions.
Take a moment to imagine this ancient Jewish scene. It was early on the morning of the Sabbath (Saturday). Bearded men in long robes passed behind and between rows of pillars in the synagogue, as they each took their seats through the room. The entire space was lit by hundreds of low-hanging lamps. At a prominent place in the room was a little scroll stand. A few psalms were recited together from rows of distinguished-looking men who sat all around in respectful observance of ancient rites of worship. And, suddenly, Jesus of Nazareth, moved quickly from His seat among them to the stand.
Everyone’s attention was heedful to His lean form, which had been made gaunt by His recent forty days in the wilderness with no food or water. People had been spreading strange rumors all over the countryside about this carpenter’s son. Jesus, unrolled the bulky scroll with a skill that showed He knew what He was doing. After just a moment, He found the passage He was looking for, then lifted His eyes to the congregation, and spoke without ever really looking at the scroll again.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” He said. Immediately, puzzled looks were exchanged among the men in the rows of seats; this wasn’t the scheduled reading, for the day. This carpenter’s son was reading from a passage of His own choosing.
“Because,” Jesus continued…the ancient words suddenly ringing with revealed meaning, “He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
A hush came over the room as Jesus then rolled the scroll together, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down in His seat, the way a rabbi of that day would do when he was ready to begin teaching. He gazed around the room, meeting the stares of those who watched him. “Today,” He said, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
That was Jesus’ first sermon, the official kick-off of His public ministry. And what our Lord did that day teaches about our role as Christians who are being formed in His likeness. Jesus was providing, to His hometown synagogue crowd…and to us as well, His mission statement as the Messiah! He was stating, matter-of-factly: “This is why I am here. This is My mission.”
When Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” it probably caused the hearts of those in attendance to skip a beat in excitement, because they were familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy, and they knew two things: 1.) those words applied to the coming Messiah, God’s anointed King who would save Israel, and 2.) those words referred to the year of Jubilee.
You see, the Jews had a tradition, ordained by God under Mosaic Law, that every 50th year (for the entire year) the farm land would have to rest unplanted, while the poor were free to glean whatever might grow wild there. It would be called the “Year of Jubilee” (or, the year of the Lord’s favor). In that year, all indentured servants must be set free, all men whose poverty had forced them to sell their family’s lands would receive them back again, and those who had lost family members into servitude to pay off debts would find their loved ones restored to them. It was a picture of the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s what Jesus said His mission was: What the Law prescribed…what Isaiah promised…Jesus fulfilled!
So, Jesus came to bring Good News to the spiritually bankrupt! He came to restore eternal, heavenly sight to those whose hearts could only see darkness. He came to offer freedom to those who had been oppressed by the devil’s sway and held captive by their own passions. He came to bandage up the brokenhearted, and to heal their hurting! He came to open the doors of darkness into eternal light! But this worldwide Jubilee that Jesus was bringing was for every year, and every day of every year! That was His mission…He made it clear!
Now, when the head of a corporation states what his company’s goals are, it stands to reason that everyone who works for him should also want to follow those goals…right? But too often we, the followers of Jesus who call ourselves Orthodox Christian, plan and program and function as if His mission was to give us a comfortable social club to belong to instead.
So, I’m constantly encouraging the members of our parish to think not in terms of “How can this Church meet my needs and reflect my personal preferences,” but rather, “How can this parish imaginatively introduce our neighbors and business associates to an experience of Christ?” One of our distinct characteristics of Orthodox Christianity, is that we are to do everything possible to become Christ-like…to grow in unity with Him. Yet Christ is, outwardly-focused—reconciling the world to His Father. Therefore, Orthodox Christians exist not for our own benefit, but for the sake of leading as many people as possible into an encounter with the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven—an experience of the actual presence of Jesus Christ—He who is Jubilee!
Now imagine yourself for a moment standing at that podium back in that Nazareth synagogue. What would you be reading to folks that day…what is the mission of your life? In your desire to become Christ-like, does your mission mirror His? Have you embraced something so timeless and transcendent that it’s worth pouring your entire life into? Of course, we all have to make the rent, we all have jobs, or classes, or chores or stuff…but let me just ask you to prayerfully consider just two questions:
1. What are you doing that will last forever…that in the scheme of eternity really matters, because it brought life to others?
2. Considering your particular gifts, what is God calling you to do to bring life to others?
Think about it carefully, because if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it with remarkable accuracy.
The good news is that none of us has to be a perfect at doing this. The Psalmist wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” If God waited for “perfect” people to carry out his will, the Kingdom would never come…and I certainly couldn’t have entered the priesthood. But when we take our brokenness and our failures in repentance and lay them at Jesus’ feet He can transform them into something that can be worthily offered to others. Then we cooperate with the Holy Spirit as best as we can to help us reveal “God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven,”…being God’s people in the world…doing whatever we can to be representatives of His way of love, so that we can with ever present and prayerful mindfulness, look our neighbor in the eye to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”