PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
Luke 4: 14-21
Most orderly societies, clubs, nations and religions are, to some degree or another, people of the book. I don’t know how it is in school now, but when I was growing up, for math class we needed our math book, for English class we needed our English textbook, and for social studies we needed our social studies book. In my early Sunday School classes we learned from a Bible stories book, and when I was old enough to read on my own, my church gave me my own Bible as a gift like we do. As I became a Boy Scout we needed to follow the Boy Scout Handbook; as I have been a choir member over the years I have needed either a cantata book or sheet music to follow. As The ritualist of my college fraternity, I was the keeper of the initiation rituals and kept the ritual book. At the inauguration of the president of the United States, he raises his right hand and takes an oath with his left hand on the Bible. As a charter board member of our homeowner’s association and as its secretary, I was in charge of keeping not only the notebook of minutes, but also the original Articles of Incorporation. As the 2002 Moderator of Central Florida Presbytery I had to learn and follow Roberts Rules of Order. As a Presbyterian, I know and follow not only the Bible, but also the Book of Order, that gives operational guidelines, and the Book of Confessions that describe what we believe. In virtually every job and every walk of life, there is a book or a manual to be followed. Sometimes people drift away from the book, that is, until some rule or guideline is broken and then the book provides established fences against infractions and wonderful trails for people to get back to the truths of the organization. Even as more and more files are kept electronically, we may still refer to them as “books.” As we open our Kindles or Nooks, we can still refer to them as books. A book is a container of knowledge or story, of pleasure or horror, or a host of other things. We as humans are people of many books. In spite of Google and other search engines online, I still kept a dictionary, a Thesaurus, a Bible, and a hymnal at my desk where I write my sermons. I keep other books close at hand; and I find stories about human nature in the books I read. We as Christians are people of a particular book: the Bible. Our webmaster Cecil keeps his Bible on his cell phone and some keep theirs on their computer! However you have a Bible, many people own one. Some people have read it and know it; and still others work to remember and assimilate parts of what they’ve read.
In Jesus’ day Scripture was Torah, the Books of the Prophets, the Writings, and the Wisdom Literature. Today Christians call it “The Old Testament” and Jews call it “The Hebrew Bible.” In Jesus’ day there were really no books bound like we have them. There were scrolls called books. And when a person was selected to read the Scripture in a synagogue, he would be handed a scroll and would generally have the place pointed out where the reader stopped reading the last time. He would sit on what was called “The Mercy Seat,” and begin to read while it was the custom for those gathered to stand. That’s how it was in those days: the reader sat and the people stood! But notice that Jesus, perhaps out of his sense of proclamation, stood according to Luke 4: 16. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but the founder of the Presbyterian Church, John Calvin, said this in his commentary on this passage: “There is no doubt that Christ deliberately selected this passage. Some think it was presented to him by God, but, as a liberty of choice was allowed by him, I choose to say that, by his own judgment, he took this passage in preference to others.” [ Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XVI, p.227.] A reading such as this makes Christians see Christ through Old Testament prophesies, even though Isaiah said those words at least 500 years before Jesus read the words and claimed them. In fact, many people know this passage because Jesus proclaimed it; fewer know it because Isaiah said it first. These words were poetry in Isaiah, and they become poetry again coming from the mouth of our Lord Jesus.
What do we think about Jesus’ decision to read this passage? If we know the original source in Isaiah, we know that it was part of a description of what has been called “glory land” or “the promised land” or the true “Kingdom of God.” Messiah would utter those words, but Jesus chose to utter them in his hometown. What was the wisdom in that? Those who read further find the townspeople murmuring about Jesus: “”Isn’t that Joseph’s son?” one asked. And Jesus said, throwing gasoline on the fire he had just created: “Truly no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” Messiah? Prophet? No one in his hometown saw him that way. Then he dared to say that foreigners could spot people of God better than the people of Israel could. At that point an impromptu mob formed that sought to take him to a high cliff at the edge of town and throw him over. Jesus had started his first theological fire on earth.
And it all started when he read from the book; Isaiah’s book. An ancient copy of that book is still preserved in the Dome of the Book Museum in Jerusalem.
It has been said that an “expert” is a person with a briefcase from at least 20 miles away! It can certainly be difficult for a child from a church to become its pastor! As I went away to seminary some asked me if, some day, I thought I would come back to pastor my home church. No; was my answer! I could not have gained the wisdom, the authority, and the maturity necessary to lead the people of God in my own home church. Such an experience was certainly Jesus’ too. It almost seems like he wanted to be cast out of his hometown! Scripture lets us know that Jesus then began to claim Capernaum as his adopted hometown. All this happened not b
ecause he came to a home synagogue to read, but because he came home and claimed to be a prophet.
We know that Scripture has created lightning rods of divisions and stands over the ages. Quoting Scripture divides believers from non-believers, fundamentalists from progressives, and Christians from Muslims and others. The book, that is, the Bible, is powerful. It is a guide, a source of inspiration, and it contains our best insights into the ways of God. It is history, yes, but it is also guidance. And parts of it, like Luke, are called gospels. Scripture can lift us up or it can trouble our souls and provide a balm for our wounds. This best seller is best for a reason: it is the inspired word of God. Christians believe no other book can make that claim. So let me ask you, how many of you own a Bible? Think carefully now before raising your hand: Who has read it? All of it? Parts are quite hard aren’t they? That’s in part because it is more than a book; it is a library. It is not a novel. And with old translations like the beautiful King James Version, and new translations that put Scripture into our vernacular, the Bible is mysterious, explanatory, comforting, and troubling all at the same time. If we believe what Jesus said in this passage; and if we believe that he gave his power to his disciples according to Acts 1:8 (You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem … and to the ends of the earth) then aren’t we, baptized Christians like they were, also empowered by the same Holy Spirit? Aren’t we among those who know in our hearts and say to ourselves “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; sent me to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to those who cannot see; to offer liberty to oppressed persons; and to proclaim 2013 as a new year of the Lord.” What could you do to be not one of the 12, but certainly a disciple of the Lord? You may say: “I can’t preach,” but many of you preach at least as good a sermon with your life as with your lips! How was your sermon last week? What did people learn from you? Who might you have influenced, or changed for the better? Have you given extra food, or given to 2 cents per meal, or helped distribute or serve food to hungry people? Perhaps you yourself cannot literally open blind eyes, but what could you do to help people whose eyes have closed (like their minds) to see things in new ways? Who do you know who feels captive in an abusive relationship, or might be captive because of ignorance, or need justice to be worked out so their shackles may fall? How can you help others have life and have it abundantly? That’s what Jesus did; that’s what he wanted the remaining eleven apostles to do. And that, I believe, is what he needs people of the book, Christians who know him, to do in his name. Make a difference in your world. Do some things that, Jesus calls all of his disciples to do: to work to make a difference. What would Jesus do? He would do exactly that.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 27, 2013