“The Word of God – a Living Power to Those Who Believe” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, January 23, 2022

I spoke last week about the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord actually comprising three events in the life of Jesus: the visit of the wise men from the Eat to worship him, his baptism in the River Jordan, and the first miracle Jesus did, changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. The Church calls each of these events an “epiphany” of the Lord Jesus, because they manifest or reveal an important truth about the person and ministry of Jesus – that he is the King of the Universe, that he is the Son of God, and that he is the promised Messiah or Christ of God.

Now here in our gospel today, Jesus receives an “epiphany” of his own. In reading the text from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, he discovers his mission and his ministry. He has an “aha” moment – he realizes all at once that he is the one spoken of by Isaiah who is anointed by the Spirit and sent by God to preach the good news of salvation, especially to those who are poor and rejected, marginalized and brutalized by life. When he gives the scroll back and sits down, preparing to teach the congregation, he says to them in so many words: “This prophecy is me, it is who I am, what I am sent to do. What do you say to that?” We will discover, as we go on with this story in next week’s gospel, that sadly, the people in the synagogue don’t think much of it, are in fact scandalized by Jesus’ declaration and end up trying to kill him. Not quite a story of “Local boy makes good “Is it? Jesus never returns to Nazareth, his home town, and goes on to make Capernaum the base for his future ministry. Capernaum will, therefore, get the benefit of seeing its inhabitants receive the best of Jesus’ ministry – so many of them will be healed of their illnesses, delivered from evil spirits and all sorts of oppression, and be blessed by Jesus’ inspired preaching and teaching. These are all blessings that the people of Nazareth could have enjoyed for themselves, had they opened their hearts to welcome Jesus and his mission. 

I have often wondered what those people must have thought when they heard about all the wonderful things Jesus was doing at Capernaum, and realized what a huge mistake they made in chasing Jesus out of his hometown. How many blessings of God have we failed to receive, brothers and sisters, because we were similarly hard-hearted and distrustful of the messenger? Perhaps many of you have received similar “epiphanies” from God’s word in your lives? Maybe you picked up the Bible and your attention was directed to a word or a phrase which answered precisely a question or a doubt that you had in your mind? Maybe  you attended a prayer service or a Mass, or a conference, and heard the speaker say something which spoke into your heart and revealed a call from God to your life ?

I have had two or three such moments in my life in that way. I remember as a young man being tormented by feelings of guilt and shame for my sins, and, though a cradle Catholic and regular attender of Mass, at an age when many of my peers were rejecting the whole Church “thing”, I was always in doubt whether I would go to heaven when I died. I envisaged standing shivering with fear in front of the judgement seat of God, while he combed through the books of those who were allowed into heaven, trying to find my name there. I was miserable and tormented by such thoughts. Then I happened to , one day, turn to a passage in John’s gospel where Jesus says: Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, he does not come under judgement but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). I tell you, brothers and sisters, that was like a life-raft to a drowning man. All of a sudden, a huge burden shifted off me, and my heart nearly burst open with joy. I already had eternal life, I didn’t have to worry about lining up at the judgement seat of God. He already had a place set for me in heaven, I could simply walk in and claim it. If – if I believed what God said about his Son, Jesus, that God had sent him into the world to call all who believe in him out of death into life. I knew I was nowhere good enough or holy enough to get into heaven by my own efforts. But that didn’t matter – all that mattered was that I believed in Jesus as God’s Son and my Savior, and that I walked that way of faith throughout my life.

Later on, I came to realize that my good deeds did have a part to play in my salvation – in fact, a bit further down from those words of Jesus I quoted, we find him making that point precisely: ”the hour is coming when al who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5: 28-29). But the truth of my “epiphany”, my “aha” moment still remained. If I continued to believe in Jesus, and continued to live out that faith by trying to do good in my life, I HAD eternal life, according to Jesus’ own words – I had ALREADY passed from death to life, and was here and now walking that out in my life, existing in the dimension of eternity. What a relief, what an incredible, incredible relief. At that moment in my young life, Jesus was doing what he had prophesied  2000 years before in that synagogue in Nazareth: “letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming release to the captives” – because I had been oppressed and a captive to fear and torment and his word had released me and set me free. 

I’ll just share one more such “epiphany” word from the Bible which had a great impact on how I saw myself and my life. Coming up to my ordination as a priest, and contemplating who and what I was called to be as God’s minister, I had great doubts that I could carry it off. I knew I was nowhere good enough or holy enough or brave enough to  be a priest. In a letter of congratulations for my ordination, a friend had included a word from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians when God told Paul, at a similar moment of doubt in his life: ”My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), Again, it was like a shadow lifting and light penetrating into my heart and my mind. I realized that God was saying to me: ”Don’t worry, Bob, about not being good or holy enough to be my priest. Just admit your weaknesses, and call on me, and I will show you my power at work in you. Which would you prefer: you doing what you can do in your own strength, or me doing what I can do in mine?” 

Well, put like that, of course, it was a no-brainer. If, in order to see God at work in my life, I only had to admit my failures and weaknesses, and invite him in to take over, then I accept. Who wouldn’t? Well, no-one except the person who is so full of their own greatness and strength, that they will not admit they have any weaknesses and don’t need to have God’s help, except in really, really impossible circumstances, which would be very rare, of course, because most things they can do easily themselves. And there have been moments when I have been so confident of my strengths and talents that I didn’t bother calling on God for his help, and went sailing into some ministry situation, and fallen flat on my face, having screwed up in a really awful way. Ever had that happen ,brothers and sisters? Embarrassing, isn’t it? No, his grace is sufficient for you and me – he has given you and me what we need for the work he has asked us to do for him, but you and I need to call on him and put our hand in his hand, in order to activate that grace. 

So there you have it: on this Sunday of the Word of God, a couple of instances where the word of God has been active in my life to meet challenges and doubts and fears I have experienced. And it still goes on – so long as I am prepared to go to that word with faith that it is the living word of a living God, and make it my travelling companion and guide in my journey through this life to heaven’s home. You might say to me “Well, that’s great for you, Father Bob. But, of course, you are a priest, so naturally God will speak to you. But he won’t bother doing that for me.” To which I want to point out the opening lines of our gospel passage today, where St Luke says that he is writing his gospel of Jesus to a certain Theophilus. Now that could be a particular person, maybe a patron or someone like that. But when you realize that the word “Theophilus” literally means, a friend or lover of God, then you have to ask yourselves “Does that apply to me? Am I someone who loves God?” And if you respond: ”Well, yes, I may not do it very well, but I am a lover of God”, then AHA!! EPIPHANY !!  – the gospel of St Luke has been written to you and for you. And so has all the holy word of God – the entire Bible. It has been written, not to just give you information about God, and his Son, Jesus- but to challenge you to make a life-changing choice.

In the gospel of St John, we find these words: ”These words are written, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through  believing this, you may have eternal life in his name “(John 20: 31). Do you see, brothers and sisters? Just as with the members of the congregation in Nazareth, Jesus is presenting himself to you and me as the one who will bring good news to us in our poverty and need, who will free us from oppression and all captivity, who will open our blind eyes to see what is truly important in this life, and to declare the Lord’s favour over our lives. To accept what Jesus says about himself as Truth, is to have eternal life here and now .How will you respond?