This short period between Ascension and Pentecost is always an interesting time to consider how the Holy Spirit can lead us in our own lives. On Easter Sunday we celebrated the resurrection, which was an event that nobody saw happening, that happened at night or at early dawn, that was only predicted obliquely. And after the resurrection, the disciples still met behind locked doors, for fear of the religious authorities.
But the ascension as written about in the Acts of Apostles happened in clear sight, “he was lifted up before their very eyes.” But before he was lifted up Jesus said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”. The mood of the disciples was very different: they confidently went back to Jerusalem, waited and prayed, and actually went to work to choose a new apostle to replace Judas. And sure enough on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came to them as a community, something we will celebrate next week.
So this is a time of waiting and expectation for something we can be sure is going to happen. It’s rather as if we’ve done our exams and in fact we’ve been tipped off we are going to pass, but we’re just waiting for the public announcement. In these few days, we can imagine we know that the Holy Spirit is going to come to us, and it is a period of waiting where we can consider how the Spirit will lead.
Jesus already had a reputation as a preacher and teacher, so it isn’t surprising that the people in his local synagogue asked him to read and preach on this occasion. There probably wasn’t a fixed lectionary, so the preacher would have had to look in the scroll for the passage he was going to read. The one he chose (at least approximately) is that we ourselves heard, the prophecy of Third Isaiah written about 500 years previously, of the coming of the messianic age, the kingdom of God.
We’ve only heard the part of the sermon that the congregation liked. “Today in your hearing this text has come true.” It’s not surprising. This was an obscure place in an occupied and oppressed country, with poor people living a hard life, so what would be more welcome than the carpenter Joseph’s son proclaiming the fulfilment of the old prophecy and the old hope: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, the year of the Lord’s favour. We all want that, don’t we, especially if somebody else will do it. Later, when the penny dropped that Jesus was talking about a complete turn around in their way of thinking and their way of life, they got rather angry and wanted to throw him off a cliff, but fortunately for me there isn’t much high ground round here.
It would do us no harm to consider how the Spirit will call us, to consider our own vocation, as individuals, as a society, as a Church and indeed as a College and a University. The Isaiah passage has these interesting two verses: “Foreigners will serve as shepherds of your flocks, aliens will till your land and tend your vines, but you will be called priests of the Lord and be named ministers of our God. You will enjoy the wealth of nations and succeed to their riches.”
The “Wealth of Nations” is of course the title of the book published by Adam Smith in 1776 which is seen as a foundation text of modern economics and the market economy. Smith explored the consequences of a plural economy where people did different things, and he saw that often this could be a win-win situation. He criticized those who act purely out of self-interest and greed, and warns that, “[a]ll for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
In that context, Isaiah’s little picture is truly prophetic, because it portrays a world where other people, foreigners and aliens, people somewhere else, guest workers and asylum seekers, do all the work and we reap the benefits and have a “holy” life doing higher things. At the risk of being thrown off that cliff, I’m almost put in mind of the Fellows of an unnamed College voting themselves a pay rise on the back of a windfall gain.
What’s particularly interesting is that Jesus didn’t mention any of this. He quotes Isaiah rather selectively. The holy life he calls us to is not one of separating ourselves from the world. He sets before us the outward looking motivation we should have whatever we do:
· To bring good news to the poor: Do we seek out and follow opportunities all the time to help those who are poor in all sorts of ways?
· Recovery of sight to the blind: Do we help others and ourselves to look outwards not inwards, and to see good and liberating things that we ourselves have seen?
· To proclaim release to the captives, let the oppressed go free:
A major cause of imprisonment was debts. Do we release those financially indebted to us? Perhaps more importantly, what about those emotionally imprisoned because of our inability to mend broken relationships where a word of forgiveness or reconciliation on our part might be a step towards healing?
· To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour: the biblical jubilee year was probably an ideal rather than something that actually happened. It needed everyone to work together to bring in the signs of God’s kingdom.
Is there any chance that today this might happen in our hearing?
Rev’d Prof. Bernard Silverman, Master of St. Peter’s College, Oxford
28th May 2006