THE SCROLL OF THE PROPHET ISAIAH
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Neh 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19; 1 Cor 12: 12-13; Luke 4: 14-21.
“And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. And he began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.” When you hear these words from Luke’s Gospel, what does your mind register? Do you see a series of images, perhaps a dusty, rock-strewn path, in a late afternoon light, the mountains washed of color in the distance, and close up, the rugged green of scrub? There is a solitary figure of a walking man, whose short and wiry frame you recognize, despite the dirt caking his cloak and shawl, which he wears over his shoulders, exposing the matted hair on his head and full beard on his face; for this road goes to Nazareth, the man’s boyhood home, and you will soon hear that he has returned to Galilee from 40 days in the wilderness, where he went to fast and pray, immediately after he was baptized by John in the Jordon. This explains why he seems “in the power of the Spirit,” for even in his tired state, you see through to his elation; Jesus is ecstatic.
Then you are welcoming Jesus, offering hospitality; he will eat and drink as a guest, attend to his hygiene, trim his hair; he will observe the Sabbath customs on Friday night and on Saturday he will go to the synagogue, the house of worship, where he will be invited to teach. The synagogue is staffed by an attendant and assistant, and the building serves as a school during the week. When Jesus takes his leave, he will make his way back to Nazareth slowly, teaching in the synagogues on his way, and in the synagogue in Nazareth, “the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him.”
The book of Isaiah is one of the books in the Torah – the law and the prophets – that make up the Jewish Scriptures. Written copies of the books were kept on scrolls, and the Torah required several heavy scrolls for its entire contents, which were stored in a cabinet, called the Ark. The scrolls were read from a pulpit. Jesus knows his way around the Torah, so he unrolls the scroll to the passage in Isaiah that he wants to teach from, and begins:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus reads,
“because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor;
“he has sent me to bandage those whose hearts are broken;
“to announce to the captives liberty,
“and to the bound release; to announce the Lord’s year of favor.”[i]
And when he has finished reading, Jesus closes the scroll and hands it to the attendant and sits down. Then he begins his teaching with these words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is an extraordinary statement, and one which commands our attention. However, before we discuss the meaning of what Jesus has just said, I want us to recall a couple of things we’ve mentioned elsewhere. First, we remember that whenever the word Scripture appears in what we call the New Testament, it refers to the Jewish scriptures, that is, the Torah: the law and the prophets. The Gospels, Paul’s letters, Luke’s Book of Acts, John’s Book of Revelation: none of these had yet been written. So when Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” his reference is to the verses he has read in the Torah. And this has a startling implication: everything we need to know about Jesus can be found in the Torah. If the New Testament were suddenly to be lost, we could still tell our story about Jesus.
We know this is true because Jesus himself tells us so, perhaps most clearly in the final chapter of Luke, when he appears to his disciples, after the crucifixion, behind locked doors. He has just asked for and taken some fish, “and ate it before them.” Then he says, ““These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Jesus is making sure we understand that the entire body of Jewish scriptures anticipates his coming, his death and resurrection, “and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
In 1946, in the Qumran region of the barren Judean desert, a discovery was made of scrolls preserved in caves since about 100 years before Jesus. The largest intact Dead Sea Scroll is the The Great Isaiah Scroll. A replica of the complete scroll is on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem, and the actual scroll is in a sealed vault beneath the museum. This scroll contains almost every part of the 66 chapters of Isaiah. It is likely similar in all important ways to the scroll Jesus read from in Nazareth, and we can read in it, from Isaiah 53:10-13, the foretelling of the death of Jesus on Good Friday and, by its imagery of light, His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Isaiah writes,
From the anguish of his soul he will see light,
and be satisfied by his knowledge.
The Righteous One, my Servant, will justify many,
bearing their iniquities.
Therefore I will apportion for him among the many,
and with the mighty he will divide spoil,
because he poured out his soul to death
and permitted himself to be listed with the rebels.
But it was he who bore the sins of many,
and for their rebellions he intervened.[ii]
Isaiah is a book about the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel. It anticipates the Messiah’s suffering and redemption. The word Christ means Messiah. This is why it is important that Jesus know who people say he is. In Luke 9, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” And they answer, “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, but others that one of the prophets of old has risen again.” And He said unto them, “But who do you say I am?” And Peter answered and said, “the Christ of God,”” or as the NIV has it, “God’s Messiah.”
Here we can pause for a moment, and ask ourselves, “Who do we say Jesus is?” We need an answer for this question, because on it hinges how we tell our story. And how we tell our story shapes how the children of creation will understand and take care of the gifts of God for the people of God.
In the Hymn of the Lamb of God, we can hear our story emerging from prayer:
Help your people, Lord,
BOUGHT WITH THE PRICE OF YOUR OWN BLOOD.
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.
You are worthy, O Christ,
to take the scroll and open its seals,
for you were slaughtered,
and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language
and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests
serving our God, and they will reign on earth.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!
HELP YOUR PEOPLE, LORD,
BOUGHT WITH THE PRICE OF YOUR OWN BLOOD.[iii]
Jesus is seated in the assembly of God’s people. He sits before us, facing us, with the Spirit of the Lord upon him, and he begins his teaching with these words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is restoring our dignity; he is numbering us among his witnesses. We are the poor, the heart-broken, the captive; and Jesus is conferring legal status to our testimony.
The Spirit-filled God-man has just proclaimed the Lord’s “year of favor,” the Jubilee Year, when all the property that has been taken from us, justly and unjustly, is returned to us.[iv] All debts are forgiven, and the wealth of a nation redistributed. “You shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself,” we read in Leviticus, “nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the countryside.”[v] The land will be restored, as the people are restored.
Restoration is a central theme running through Scripture. The Book of Nehemiah gives us an account of the restoration of Jerusalem and its Temple worship, when the Jews returned from captivity in Babylonia. The people – men and women – are gathered at the Water Gate to hear the priest Ezra read the Book of the Law. Ezra reads for six hours, re-introducing the people to the story of their God, pausing to explain the meaning of what he reads. As the people listen to the Word of God, they worship, and they weep. “Do not mourn or weep,” Nehemiah says, “this day is holy to the Lord. Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.”
When we learn to hear our story, we learn to tell our story. Storytelling is the heart of discipleship. We are changed by our story; we become joyous and strong, and we celebrate the holiness of God. We can tell our story collectively, in the place where we assemble, and we can tell our individually, out in the community. Storytelling can become our daily life.
Jesus uses the phrase, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” so we are reminded of the story of the Jubilee Year. This is a story enacted every fifty years. But the story of Jesus is a fabric of stories, and from other Jesus stories, we know his incarnation, the face-to-face relationship he establishes with us, puts an end to the need for us to do the same things over and over again. Today, there is no annual sacrifice in the Temple, because Jesus the Messiah has made the one atoning sacrifice necessary for all time. Should we think, then, that he wants us to redistribute our wealth over and over again? Jesus fulfills the Jubilee by putting it to an end, by inaugurating one redistribution of wealth that will last for all time. And he does this by using language that echoes the language of the early part of the story of Genesis. When Jesus restores our possessions, in our assembled presence as witnesses, he restores us to the Garden of Eden, which is our one, true possession. We were created to be creation’s priests, not its owners.
Scripture is always fulfilled, as it is fulfilled today, in our hearing. Jesus restores us to the Eden Garden, releasing us from bondage to death and ending our suffering; he sets captives free, heals the broken-hearted, and feeds the poor, even as he prepares for us a place in his Kingdom and extends to us his hospitality. We are his servants first, and then we are his children. We cannot be brought low by injustice; we are meant to put ourselves aside, and to walk in the ways of compassion and mercy. When we see others suffering from economic, social, and political injustice, then we are to act; we are to act so justice might be restored, for our actions tell our story. This is the way of the Lord. “So be it; truly.” Amen.
[i] Isa 61:1-2a. Translation is by John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, NICOT, 561-562,
[ii] ibid, 398-299
[iii] William G. Storey, A Catholic Book of Hours and Other Devotions, Rev 4:11; 5:9-10, 12. 175
[iv] Leviticus 25:10-13, English Standard Version (ESV)
10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. 11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. 12 For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the field.[a]
13 “In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property.
Footnotes: Leviticus 25:12 Or countryside