Both the first reading and the Gospel speak about acts of worship. The act of worship described in the first reading took place in the aftermath of the Babylonian captivity. In 537, 50 years after the exile began, Cyrus the Mede allowed the Jewish exiles to return home. They returned to desolation. Two great leaders helped with restoration. Nehemiah took over the physical restoration. Ezra, the priest, saw to the spiritual restoration.
Ezra gathers the people together. As he reads from the Law of God the people are deeply moved and feel confident. God’s message to them is to rejoice because He is close to them.. It is reasonable to suppose that the people continued to come together to worship God – for example, on Sabbath mornings, as they had done in Babylon. In due course they built houses of worship, which they called synagogues. On of these was built at Nazareth and it is from there a few hundred years later that we get our Gospel account.
In the Gospel account, we have a description of a morning gathering at the synagogue in Nazareth. Although we do not know exactly how the synagogue service was conducted at this time, it is thought that the following elements were present. The service probably began with the Shema. The Cantor then took the Scroll of the Law from the Ark to read an extract from the Law. The men touched the scroll as it was taken in procession to the place from which it was read. Jesus presumably joined them. After the reading of the Law, the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was taken from the Ark to the lectern. Jesus made his way to the lectern. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written ‘the spirit of the Lord is upon me…’. Havin read presumably in Hebrew, He then returned to His seat and began to preach in Aramaic: it was the custom in the synagogue to preach in a seated position. He said, ‘today even as you listen, these words are being fulfilled’. In effect, he tells them that the Messianic era has begun and that He is the Messiah. They are full of excitement first but later they change as we shall see next week.
These two readings highlight the importance of God’s revealed word for these two congregations. In the first case, the people in their abject poverty, hunger and depression listen to the Word of God in the open air and are invigorated, nourished, and inspired by it. In the second case, the villagers, and the people of Nazareth region, including the Messiah, assemble on the Sabbath to hear the Word of God and likewise to be invigorated, nourished, and inspired by it.
Jesus himself reflected on the revealed Word of God and found a greater understanding of His vocation, for example, in the writings of Isaiah. He had His mission spelt out for Him there and was, no doubt, challenged and encouraged. We, likewise, gather on the sabbath to be challenged, nourished, and encouraged by the Word of God. Just as people in today’s readings came to worship with their own heartbreaks and dreams, we too come to Church with thoughts of what is going on in our lives. The One we approach is the same one who was approached by those in front of the Water Gate and by those in the synagogue at Nazareth. He is the same God. He is still young. He is still full of energy and full of love for all of us.
Canon Francis Brown