“Springtime in the Fall”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 12, 2021
Reading: Luke 4:14-30
It was 31 degree Celsius and with the humidex it felt like it was 40, when I went into a clothing store for the first time in many, many months this summer. The joy of being able to touch clothes, was something that I didn’t realise I had missed so much over the last year. I was greeted in this particular store in Stratford by a man wearing a kilt and a very nice jacket. He greeted me warmly and informed me that nearly all the products were from the United Kingdom. I salivated. I walked around the store and finally went to a rack of clothing and saw something that I have wanted for a very long time. I touched it and prayed to God that it would fit me. It was a Harris tweed jacket with leather buttons and a herringbone pattern. I put it on. Opposite me were a couple who were there buying a T-shirt for their granddaughter in the United States. They looked at me with bemusement, that in forty-degree temperature, I was trying on a Harris tweed jacket.
“Don’t you think,” they said, “it’s a wee bit hot to be wearing something like that?”
I replied, “But we always should do the best of things in the worst of times.” To boot, the jacket was on sale and my Scottish heritage arose with fervour at the thought. It was a joy, but it got me thinking about how we really should do the best of things at the worst of times. That we should think in terms of doing things that cause growth and beauty and progress in a time of difficulty and transition. A bit like celebrating spring in the fall. Spring, a time of planting, of doing good and creative and new things. Spring, anticipating growth. Fall, a time of harvesting, of retreat, of rest.
I couldn’t help but think that this Sunday, and subsequent Sundays for us, really need to be a spring this fall, a time of renewal, encouragement, growth, and inspiration; that we do the best of things in the worst of times. I borrow for my inspiration, today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, for in many ways, this was the springtime of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It was the beginning of things. We had already been introduced to Jesus and John the Baptist; we encountered several difficult challenges in Jesus’ life already. But now, at this very moment that we read today, Jesus comes to the fore in a way that revealed who he was and why he was here. It reveals the power and the purpose of worship, as outlined by Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, usually on these texts, everyone runs immediately to the passage that Jesus read when He went into the synagogue and rolled out the scroll: Isaiah 61 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” – and then we reflect on the nature of that text. But I want to do something different today. I want to go to the scene Luke set for us. We often read over this, but in the setting of the scene, we have something powerful. We have the real springtime of Jesus’ ministry, and the scene is very clearly set. For Luke, this moment was the keynote of Jesus’ ministry. It was the way he planted the seeds of what he was going to do and who he was, but he did it in Galilee.
It’s notable that this is called the springtime of Galilee, because it’s precisely where Jesus was from. You would think that if you were the Son of God and you were planning things strategically, that at the very beginning of your ministry, you would make your announcement in Jerusalem, where there were crowds and everyone would hear. Put on a big show by the temple, maybe. Or you might think that if he was really the Son of God and was going to overthrow the military powers of the empire, he would find himself in Rome making statements to the Senate. But no, Jesus began his ministry where he was, in his hometown and word was spreading. There was chatter about things Jesus did in Nazareth, in Capernaum.
We are told that, as was his habit, he comes into the synagogue. The synagogue was replicated all over Israel and were in towns and villages. The route of the word also means the word “synergy” the binding together or the bringing together of people. The synagogue was not like the temple; the temple was in Jerusalem, it was the cultic centre, the place where people went to the holy of holies, made their annual tribute, pilgrimage, and sacrifices, and maybe even had an audience with the high priest. The synagogue was different, it was the local gathering place and often the centre of social life where many important things took place. It brought together local people for the purposes of worshipping God, and we hear that even the Son of God – yes, the Son of God – had the habit of going to the synagogue and worshipping just like everybody else.
Jesus knew the importance of the synagogue as a place of worship. He knew that it was the centre of people’s lives and that the coming together one another in the presence of God, was important for the community. What did they do in the synagogue? Well, there were three things, three cornerstones, as it were out of four, and one of them was prayer. We’re told that Jesus went into the synagogue and there was prayer, collective prayers, just like we have here. There would be prayers that would have been handed down over the years and based on biblical revelation and biblical truths. There were intercessory prayers, prayers where people prayed for each other, similar to our pastoral prayers.
Jesus’ whole life and ministry was rooted in the prayer at the synagogue. Whenever Jesus needed to do something profound, He either went to the synagogue or he went off on his own to pray. There’s hardly a miracle performed, hardly a moment when he didn’t face trial and tribulation, where Jesus hadn’t already prayed beforehand. So, for Jesus to go into a synagogue and say collective prayers like everyone else was an important part of his life and ministry and was his habit.
It’s also the place for the hearing the Word of the Bible. Although the Jewish bible wasn’t completed until ninety years after Jesus’ birth, known as the Tanakh, the twenty-four books. There were always the scrolls that were there, even in the time of Jesus. People would get up and publicly read the Scripture. They would read the Torah, the law. They would read the prophets and they would read the writings, and Jesus would therefore be rooted and grounded in the Word. When he finally gets up and is invited to be the reader that day people were in awe. When he reads from the great prophet Isaiah, they understood the authority and the power of Jesus because the reading of the Word was not only central to Jesus’ life, it was central to the life of the gathered community.
I love what the great William Barclay once wrote about this. He suggests that the Bible wasn’t just read for theological purposes or for doctrine, but when people were in a position of need.
“The Jews clung to the sacred scriptures, not because of any theological theory or inspiration, but because they found in them the comfort of God in their sorrow, the hope of God in their despair, the light of God in their darkness and the strength of God in a world where, for them, the foundations were shaken.”
The Bible then is a living Book and when Jesus got up and read from the prophet Isaiah, people knew that the very living God was reading it. Hence, the importance of the habit of going to the house of the Lord and reading the scriptures publicly. This is an important part of our ministry, and it was of Jesus’.
Luke tells us that Jesus was also a teacher and followed in the great line of the rabbis who were the interpreters, the teachers of the law. This was an ongoing ministry of Jesus; he taught for the purposes of inspiring people, to bring people closer to God, to reveal the Kingdom and his work to people. And again, the people were in awe at Jesus’ teaching.
In many ways, what we have in our scriptures, is the teaching of Jesus. What we have when we read the Word of God in the New Testament, is that teaching continued. Again, a vital part of our ministry and one of the reasons why Reverend Lori in particular, puts such a high premium on scriptural teaching. It’s based on what Jesus did in his congregations and in the synagogue, the place of coming together.
Luke also tells us that it wasn’t just the setting that was important, it was also the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus returned in the power of the Holy Spirit and when he got up to speak, he spoke not only with authority, he spoke from the prophet Isaiah, who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” For Jesus, the power of the Spirit was an integral part of his ministry, but also an integral part of his worship in the sacred place of the synagogue. It wasn’t just the teaching and the prayer and the Word, it was also in the power of the Spirit that Jesus spoke.
I like what my good friend Damon So, who’s a professor at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies says. He said, “For Jesus, the power of the Spirit was intrinsic.” In other words, along with the Father and the Son, there was the power of the Spirit. It was within him. For the disciples, for us, it is extrinsic, a power that is given to us by God, and that we receive. It’s the same Spirit, it’s the Holy Spirit, and worship is spiritual. What we have missed over the last few months, despite the wonderful nature of our online ministry, is the gathered synagogue coming together in the power of the Spirit, which is the thing that unites us.
What is it then about the springtime of Jesus’ ministry that really speaks to us today? Well, I think it renews and recharges us as we come back into the house of the Lord. As you all know, I'm a huge fan of Formula One racing and IndyCar racing, but I’ve now started slowly to become a fan of Formula E, electric cars and their environmental goodness. I’ve been watching some of the races, and cheering on a driver who was leading in the very last lap around the streets of London, no less when, as he met the next final corner, he ran out of power – died – and everyone just drove around him. Talk about range anxiety! Wow. He could not recharge on his own and simply died.
I think that the Church is in a time where we need to be recharged. We need to have our moments of synagogue, our moments of coming together, and we need this now. Notwithstanding all the wonderful things that have been done to keep people safe, and indeed we should continue in the future. Your safety is our priority. What’s the point of having a gathered community if our people are ill and dying? But the spiritual power of being together is critical right now. Maybe we need to renew our habit of worship, as did Jesus. Maybe this should become a new custom. It’s very hard; I don’t know how many people I’ve spoken to who have said, “You know, Doctor Stirling, in February I’ve got to be honest with you, it was lovely to get up, have a coffee, put on my slippers, stay in my dressing gown and watch you.”
Thank God, it’s not an image I have in my mind of what was actually out there when I was delivering the message from this sanctuary (I just don’t want to know), but people were relaxed and comfortable. It was cozy, and hey, I did it too. I get it.
The custom of coming into the House of the Lord, of being with others there is an important thing for us all and we mustn’t lose sight of the power and the impact of that on our lives. I encourage you to be like Jesus and once again make your custom to come into worship.
Habit and custom are important. They're important in life, never mind in the life of worship. I don’t know about you, but I was fascinated by watching the final of the US Open Women’s match yesterday. Those two young women were sensational! Praise to them both – I didn’t know who to cheer for at times, I’ll be honest with you. One who was born in Toronto, the other in Montreal, one who’s from my old home in the UK, one who is from my new home in Canada. I just loved the tennis. But it’s very interesting when you talk to tennis coaches, and they will tell you that the continued repetition of shots – forehand, backhand etc. is an integral part of developing what they call memory muscle. Your memory muscle is such that when you are confronted by something, your body just automatically reacts. Well, that’s habit. Maybe we need to start getting some memory muscle back to our spiritual lives.
There’s one last thing that I think the springtime ministry does, and it causes us now to rest on the power of the Holy Spirit as Jesus did and as the people did in that synagogue. We know all the complexities of difficulties in our lives and people, I think, are getting tired, maybe irritable, maybe a bit aggressive. People are being uncertain, and uncertainty produces fear, and fear produces loathing, etc. Maybe It’s time to reset and renew our spiritual batteries, time to refocus on the power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and in the life of the community. Maybe the Christian community can be an example of how to live with one another in the midst of the stresses and the strains that we now face.
David Watson, a minister that I used to go and listen to as a teenager in the city of York in England, died early of cancer, but was one of the godliest men that I ever knew. I would drive a long way to hear him speak and to learn from him. He wrote a book that was on my shelf at university called, One in the Spirit. In it, he said that the Christian fellowship is a fellowship that learns to agree. Not on every single minute point – of course, there’s disagreement, but to agree in a way that they look at the central importance of the Spirit in their lives. He made a fascinating observation. He said the very same word for agree in Greek, is the word that we use for symphony. A symphony that has dispirit voices, dispirit musical instruments, but comes together to produce something beautiful, and that that is what the Spirit does within the Church.
A couple of weeks ago I performed a burial at Mount Pleasant, out in the sunshine, thank goodness, with a string quartet from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. We all said to one another before the service began, how emotional it was for them to play in front of a live audience – I know, ironically – in a cemetery. To be able to gather with one another freely outside and to play their instruments together, to make a beautiful music and have this incredible harmony. At one point I sort of sang along with them. I didn’t mean to, I started to wave, as if I was conducting them, and I didn’t mean to do that either. I said, “I can't help myself.” We laughed afterwards; there was just this joy of the music. There was the joy of the symphony, the joy of the beauty and the unity of coming together.
Well, isn’t that what the church is? Isn’t that what this place is? Isn’t that what Jesus experienced in the synagogue, in the springtime of his ministry? May the Spirit give us strength to worship in that way, and may the Lord be with us. Amen.