If you could summarise in a few sentences the very essence of your being – about who you are and what is unique about you – what would you say? Don’t worry, there’s no way I’m going to ask you to write that down, but it would be a very hard thing to do, wouldn’t it?
Many organisations, including big well-known brands, have to do this when creating their mission statement, explaining what is unique and different about them. I wonder if you can guess the name of the global organisations that have these mission statements?
‘To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.’
‘To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness ‘
‘Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.’
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that these are not really about the product they offer – but how they transform our lives, inspiring our spirit, creating a better life for us, giving us moments of optimism and happiness.
And so we come to our gospel reading and what some call the mission statement, or manifesto, of Jesus. He begins by reading the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, foretelling the coming of a Messiah, to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed and announcing that the time has come when the Lord will save his people. And after that he gives a one sentence sermon, the first recorded words of his public ministry: ‘This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.’ This words of Isaiah are Jesus’ manifesto; the essence of who he is, what he will do and how he is unique.
When you read this passage in Luke’s gospel, you might notice that it is written almost in real time, as if you are reading a play or a film script. It has the details of Jesus rolling up the scroll, sitting down, the people waiting with their eyes fixed on him. It’s making the point that what is important is happening now, in front of their eyes. The hundreds of years of waiting for the Messiah is now here. God is here now, it’s happening live, here with you.
But there’s something else unusual about this passage.
Did you notice in the Bible passage that it mentions almost in passing, where this is located? It says ‘Then Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.’ Jesus preaches his first recorded sermon in his birthplace of Nazareth.
I wonder if you have been to a church service where the location has been as memorable as the words you have heard? I remember one sermon I heard over 30 years ago. I was travelling out on the dawn ferry to the tiny island of Eigg, near Skye in the highlands of Scotland. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, particularly as a friend had cynically described it as ’60 drunkards clinging to a rock’. On the ferry was a Church minister, who encouraged me to attend his service that evening on Eigg. I went along with some reluctance, having heard my fair share of sermons of damnation and hellfire in Scottish churches. That evening in a corrugated roofed shack, with almost half the island present, he preached a sermon about God’s love and words of gentle encouragement that God was there with them; with them in that harsh and bleak environment in their forgotten community lost out in the sea. On the ferry back I asked him why he’d chosen that theme of God with us. He simply said ‘That is what they needed to hear.’
Here in the gospel reading, Jesus is returning to where he spent 90% of his human life, to a small agricultural town set in the middle of nowhere, far away from the busy trade routes. A place of probably only a few hundred people, scratching an existence from the land, dealing with the usual family problems, trying to get by whilst those in power far away seemed keen on messing up life for them. A forgotten place of ordinary people. When one of the disciples asked Nathanael to come and meet Jesus of Nazareth he replies bluntly: ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’
I wonder if you’ve ever considered why Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until he was 30 years old? There are several good theological and cultural reasons why he might have waited so long. But could it also be because he simply enjoyed being with us: to live a life amongst the forgotten people of the tiny village of Nazareth:
to spend so much of his life not amongst the rich, the famous and religious, but living alongside farmers and carpenters. Just being with people, understanding and experiencing the messiness of life.
Recently I have been reading this book called A Nazareth Manifesto, written by Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields. He explains that there is an often neglected four letter word in the Bible that describes the essence of who God is and his desire for us: the simple word with.
And you can see how this word with is used throughout the New Testament to describe the essence of God’s desire.
From the birth of the son to be named Emmanuel which means God with us. It’s the Word become flesh to live with us. Of the person who in the beginning was with God … and without him not one thing came into being. A person whose final words in Matthew’s gospel are: Behold, I am with you always.’ To the very end of Revelation, the final epiphany or revelation of God’s eternal purpose for us: ‘Now God’s home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them.’’
And it’s this act of being with that lies at the heart of who we are too and our purpose as a Church and in our community. In our second Bible reading today from 1 Corinthians we heard about how we are all a part of the body of Christ. Each of us is unique, with our own personal journey and experiences we bring – all the struggles and skills, the joy and the pain. But it is by being with each other, valuing our diversity and differences, that we become Christ’s body.
Back in 1938, a research study was set up to try and answer the question: What makes a good life? It took 724 boys or teenagers from two different backgrounds – a group of students from Harvard college and another from one of the poorest areas in Boston – and set out to study what kept them happy and healthy through life. Amazingly, the research is still continuing today with around 60 of the original group still alive into their 90s and almost 2,000 children included in the research.
During that time and thousands upon thousands of pages of notes, the research has followed some as they have climbed up the social ladder and others as they have gone down it. Some who have become famous, even including one president, and others who have struggled with alcoholism and schizophrenia.
As the researchers go back to those who started in inner-city Boston, they are asked ‘Why are you still interested in me? My life isn’t that interesting’. In all their years of research, those from Harvard haven’t asked those questions!
Many started out in their teens thinking that they would gain happiness through working hard, getting lots of money, becoming famous. However, the clearest message they got from 80 years of research was this (and it’s advice which is as simple and as old as the hills):
‘Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.’
And it wasn’t about the number of friends, or even whether people were married or single, but about the quality of these relationships. Looking back at people in their 50s, it wasn’t middle-age cholesterol levels that told them how healthy people were going to be at 80 It was how satisfied they were in relationships, however messy and imperfect those were. It was having relationships where you could really count on others to care and support you.
The writer Mark Twain, as an old man, looking back over his life wrote:
“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”
If being with is the nature of God and we are designed to be with others, then what does this mean for us and for our church? It isn’t always possible, but are there relationships that have broken down over the years that can be mended? And how are we called to be with others here in in our church or in the communities in which we live?
Those short words of Jesus’ sermon, just one sentence long, summarised the essence of his being and purpose: ‘This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.’ And even that can be summarised simply into one word: Emmanuel: that God is. God is with. God is with us.