Service for February 26 – Iestyn Henson.
The first Sunday in Lent, and (albeit at short notice) you’re going to get a service which has its roots in the Nativity service which I led at here the Sunday before Christmas. And we’re going to have a traditional Advent hymn to boot. If you’ve not already thought it in your head or said it out loud this morning, now is your chance to ask ‘what’s Iestyn up to now?’ Well, let me try to explain and give you some idea of where our thoughts today come from and for that matter explain to you why we’ve not yet had our notices and news this morning.
There were two elements to our service at Christmas which had me thinking some more, the second of which was the ‘jargon busting’ that we did leading up to our Nativity Presentation of ‘Have I Got Good News for You!’. We’re going to do more of unpacking Gospel – Good News this morning.
However, if you were to re watch the beginning of that service, you’d see and hear the other element – and I can remember commenting on it immediately, that perhaps a whole service around the centrality of our notices might be in order. What happened was this:
Marilyn gave us our usual welcome, including the welcome of some visitors and of course those joining us online or watching later. But we also use this time to give out birthday cards, mark other occasions and celebrations etc and on Nativity Sunday, there was a lot of news, and I really do mean a lot! In addition to the expected news – a Christmas gathering in Clwb y Bont, singing Carols for Christian Aid at Sainsbury’s, days and times of Christmas Eve Communion and the Christmas Day service – there was an extraordinary number of other ‘specials’. We had Christmas messages from Viviane in Australia, for example. We also had a long and lovely Christmas card from Phil, who had left us at the end of October; these things had to be read out in full and quite right too!
And so it was that instead of our usual 10.45 am start, the call to worship and lighting of Advent Candles were 10.55am at the earliest; we didn’t start our Christmas communion until almost midday, and the whole thing was almost an hour-and-a-half by the end.
But here’s the thing – rather than this being a complaint, of poor planning and time management, what we had actually had was a really good service, and the news and notices had set us on the right path for that – and so it should, given the title of our nativity presentation. It also encouraged me to think a bit about central part our news has in our services.
So that’s what we are going to do now, and as we do so, I want to remind you, with flashing lights and bells and whistles, that Gospel was not a special word when it appeared in scripture – that only happened later on. Rather, Gospel, when you strip it back to its essential meaning, is about celebrating and giving thanks for the news of the community.
We’re going to have some general notices and news to start with and then I’m going to go back to one of our other customs which we’ve not used so often in recent months – of asking for any news from the congregation. You might wish to tell us of some discipline you’ve adopted for Lent – giving up something or having a go at something different. You might want to tell us some other news, this past week or about something which is coming in the next week or so; all I would ask in that is to just remember that we are broadcasting live and we are recording for You Tube later.
This then is our ‘review of the week’; when we’ve finished listening, I’ll close with a short prayer.
We’re now going to come to our second hymn and our readings. We’re going to sing about and hear the way the adult Jesus is introduced to us in our Bibles – Baptism and Temptation and then (form Luke) a story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue. The middle section, the temptation story from Matthew is the set reading for today, and please listen all the way to the end of that particular episode.
Sing: On Jordan’s Bank, the Baptist’s cry
Read: Matthew 4: 1-11 and Luke 4: 14-22
Jesus said, quoting the prophet Isaiah (chapter 61) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach the good news to the poor”
Gospel – The Good News. I hope I’ve already encouraged you to think of a wide definition of what ‘The Gospel’ is, simply by associating our church news with Gospel this morning; I’m hoping this short reflection won’t leave you more confused still, because I do want to focus on this central part of our life as church – this idea of ‘news’, something that you don’t keep to yourself or ourselves, but something which by its nature is absolutely designed to be shared.
Our New Testament starts with four books, four accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, four accounts which were clearly written so that the story might be shared. We call these the four gospels, and as you probably know, there were others – the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas – there’s even a partial Gospel of Peter. None of these made the cut when the early church decided on authority. But let’s focus this morning on the four main accounts, and take a quick peak at how each of the four begins the story of Jesus’s adult ministry. Spot the similarities and differences if you will:
Matthew has first the Baptism of Jesus, then the temptation story we heard this morning. We get the calling of the first disciples and then a long account of the sayings and teachings of Jesus, pulled together in what we call the Sermon on the Mount.
Mark likewise has Baptism and temptation stories to begin, followed by the calling of the first disciples. Mark then goes straight into not a teaching ministry but a healing one.
We’ll leave Luke for a second.
John starts with Baptism but omits the temptation stories. As with Matthew and Mark, we then get the calling of the first disciples before going more or less straight to the Wedding at Cana and then a series of what we might call people-stories, some meetings, some healing, some preaching, but essentially stories about the people and about relationships.
Going back one to Luke, where we again start with Baptism (incidentally, and death and resurrection apart, I think the only story common to all four Gospels, someone will correct me later if I’ve remembered that wrong); then the temptation story but without that lovely line at the end from Matthew about angels coming to tend to Jesus – to share communion with him, surely. But then, and way before we get to the calling of the first disciples, we get ministry from Jesus – and right up front, the story we read this morning – what some have called the Jesus Manifesto. Well, I have anyhow.
Now, I think I’ve said this before but for a long time, Matthew was my favourite Gospel account, mostly because I studied it for A-level and knew it pretty much inside out for those two years. As the years have gone on however I’ve switched my allegiance to Luke, and the reason for this is very simply the narrative flow of Luke’s material. In short, it’s the way Luke tells the story, it’s the way he shares the good news. From the nativity stories to resurrection, indeed through to Acts of the Apostles – the sequel, so to speak – Luke’s Gospel has a certain storytelling flow to it. Matthew and Mark have it too, to some extent, John less so in my view, but Luke nails it.
And I wonder out loud: is Luke’s decision to include this story of Jesus in the synagogue at this early point significant? It’s Chapter 13 before Matthew even mentions something which sounds similar, an account given also in Mark, but chapter 6. Neither of those contains this the quotation from Isaiah – does Luke understand Jesus’s declaration of focus to his ministry as a key component of what Good News actually is? And what about the other bits of this story.
There are various interpretations of what’s going on here – and indeed in what we hear straight after about Jesus being rejected by his folk back home in Nazareth. Some suggest that this rejection was necessary; Jesus had to try and take the preaching to the religious context first, but he knew it wouldn’t work, that he’d get slung out, which then gave him freedom to go to the ordinary folk in the country and on the sea shore; to preach the good news to the poor.
Others draw parallels with other aspects of Luke’s storytelling. Remember Mary’s song when she hears she is going to bring Jesus into the world? Again, only Luke tells that story, but the psalm Mary sings is about the Good News – the arrogant are knocked off their high horses, the hungry are fed, and the rich are sent packing. I have come to preach the good news to the poor says Jesus.
And then, what about a parallel with the Pentecost story we looked at last month in the week of prayer for Christian unity – also one of Luke’s – in which this time Peter and the disciples are the ones who are going to stand up – this time in Jerusalem – and are very soon going to be hauled up in front of the authorities and persecuted.
And those little side comments – people muttering; ‘is that Joseph’s boy?’ they ask in Nazareth; ‘going to eat with a sinner’ the crowd mutter when Jesus goes off for tea with Zacchaeus; ‘they’re drunk’ the crowd suggest at Pentecost.
I think all of this is part of Luke’s style – it’s his storytelling, it’s his way of sharing the news.
But for me too, I think this story of Jesus in the synagogue has another, quite ordinary but incredibly powerful message. Because what Jesus does is, almost the simplest of ways, is stand up in the middle of a service and give the notices. I can imagine the scene really very easily; Jesus has been coming here to worship since he was a lad – had his bar mitzvah here, probably was taught to read from the Hebrew scriptures by the Rabbi; they all knew him – oh yes, Joseph’s boy. This Sabbath morning however, Jesus has asked to say a few words. ‘What’s occurring?’ someone might have asked if they were from Barry. And Jesus tells them. Today, here and now, in this place, I’m telling you that scripture is coming to life, and that we’re here to preach the good news to the poor, to set the captives free, and to give sight to the blind.
And like Jesus I’m not going to say much more either. Because this then is still why we meet to worship – we’re actually standing in line not just with the early church, to whom we owe our Sunday practice, and not just with Judeo-Christian traditions either, but actually we’re standing in line with Jesus himself.
Whenever and wherever we tell the story, we are actually and in this moment sharing the good news. Though our Bibles are a big part of that, it’s not all of it, because everything we do as people of God, we do because of the Jesus story; everything we share together becomes Good News.