On the first day of Jesus’s public ministry he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was handed to him and he took his place in the temple and read the following words:
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to comfort the broken-hearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favour has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies. To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down.
Reflect for just a moment on what Jesus said: good news to the poor, comfort for the broken-hearted, freedom for those imprisoned by fear or addiction or abusive partners, and to top it all, a crown of beauty, a joyous blessing and a life of festive praise.
That’s what Jesus came to do for his broken people. That was his mission, and in his own words the prophecy, spoken almost 800 years before his birth, was fulfilled even as the words fell from his lips in the temple.
But then he went on to deliver a punch line that, in the context of that day, looked like a fatal error of judgment. He said: ‘The Scripture you have just heard has been fulfilled this very day.’
Now, if you or I had been in the temple that Sabbath, I guess we would have expected the place to have erupted into a tumultuous roar, for that’s what the Jews had been waiting 4,000 years for. We would have wanted to clasp his hand, or slap his back, or hug him and say: ‘What a wonderful day this is! I can’t wait to see those things come into being. Could it be that God’s chosen people are at last to be freed from under the jackboot of Rome?:
But no, that was not how he was received. The people in the synagogue were furious; ‘Jumping up, they mobbed him and forced him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built, with the intention of pushing him over the cliff, but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way.’
Why did they want him dead from the very outset of his ministry? Could it be that their lives, their sense of purpose, their status, their very identity were so founded on their religious rituals that they weren’t about to change the way they did things? Ritual had replaced reality.
There’s something about cold, loveless religion that cannot accept a free gift. It has no understanding of grace, no concept of unconditional love, everything must be earned, and that is the deception that keeps many people from experiencing the love and security, the peace and the serenity that are part and parcel of being a member of God’s family.
They know nothing of the crown of beauty; they settle for ashes – the residue of good times past. Joyous blessing is alien to them, they choose mourning – the residue of bad times past, and instead of a life of festive praise, they live in despair – neither good times nor bad, just a sense of hopelessness.
Clearly, Jesus did not co-exist happily with religion. Some things never change.
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