by The Rt. Rev. Henry Sharma Nithyanandham, Bishop of CSI Vellore Diocese

Text: Luke 4:14-30


On behalf of the Diocese of Vellore, I greet each one in the name of our Triune God – our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Despite all the heartbreaking situations and uncertainties happening around us, I thank God Almighty for having been with us and for helping us enter this new year.  It is our sole responsibility to be observant of God’s unending and abiding presence and grace on us. Let us be attentive to lead our lives each moment being thankful to God. Truly, I am delighted to be here on this special occasion.  I am obligated to express my sincere thanks to the Bible Society of India, the Rev. Dr. M. Mani Chacko, General Secretary, and all those associated with it for their sincere and enormous contributions. Needless to say, the impact being made by the Bible Society of India on thousands of people thus far through its noble mission of transforming the world through God’s word, has been exponential. Once again I express my deep appreciation to each one of you for your commitment to the cause.

Let us look to God in prayer:

God, our Heavenly Parent, we thank you for giving us the grace to set foot into this New Year. We, in one accord, praise you for travelling with us this far. We beseech you to continue to be with us and guide us. Now, we seek to meditate upon your living word. Kindle our hearts. Deepen our understanding. Speak to us and enable us to be doers of your word. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

The theme for today’s devotion is : God’s Word for God’s World.

The expressions, God’s word, and God’s world are inseparable.  God’s word gives a clear blueprint as to how one needs to be in God’s world.

Martin Luther once said, “The soul can do without everything except the word of God, without which none at all of its wants are provided for.” That’s why the Bible Society of India strives its best to make the Bible reachable to all in languages they can understand, in a format, they have access to because the word of God has invaluable worth.

Karl Barth’s concept of the threefold form of the Word of God gives a wider understanding.

  • The Word of God is first of all and preeminently the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • The Word of God appears in written form as the Holy Scriptures of the people of God, the Bible of the Old and New Testaments.
  • The Word of God is the proclamation of the church of Jesus Christ as the revelation of his Father by the Spirit of God.

I feel Gideon’s description of the Bible is very simple to understand.

The Bible contains all of these: the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable.

Read it to be wise; believe it to be safe; practice it to be holy.

It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you.

Through the Bible, we can know more about God’s character, teachings, and God’s will. The Bible is not just a book to read and forget about. Moreover, there is transforming power in the Word of God.

We can see that the Word of God broke through in David’s life when nothing else could. Time did not bring him to repentance. Conscience did not get him there. But the Word of God broke through in his life when nothing else could. Really, God’s Word can bring change in our lives when nothing else can or will.

Similarly, when Martin Luther encountered God’s Word in Romans 1:17 “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”He immediately responded to God’s word by standing against the unjust practices prevailing at that time by posting 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany, which paved way for the Protestant Reformation. He says, “I did nothing, the Word did everything.”

Yes, the Bible penetrates the deepest parts of our beings – our souls, spirits, and minds.

The Bible unfolds the purposes and plans of God for the world from the beginning to the end of time. We read in Genesis 1:26 that God made humankind in his own image, to rule over the earth and all the creatures in it. The world was placed in our care, and we are to govern it on God’s behalf. We were entrusted with all God made, in the confidence that we would care for it, work with it, develop and explore it, discovering what we could do with it, in such a way that God’s glory would be revealed through all that we do. We were to bear the image of God, that is, to be as wise and loving in our rule over all the earth as God himself is. But unfortunately, we betrayed that trust. Instead of obeying God and working as his stewards, being accountable to him for all that we do, and following his commandments in everything, we have gone astray and sought to make our own rules for life. In one way, this attitude of ours has led to the formation of an unjust society.

The Word of God is relevant in a world that is in chaos.

When we read the word of God, it reminds us that our present-day situation is not unique. There have been pandemics, elections, plagues, floods, racism, and civil unrest before us, and every time God has always been faithful. When the world around us is falling apart due to uncertainty and injustice, we don’t have to lose hope. We know that God has proven Himself before. And He will prove Himself again. He has abandoned the desire to quit with us.

A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

That means we should do everything we can to have our view of God tethered to God’s Word and not our own imaginations. We must remember that the Bible is God’s divine revelation to His creation. It is how He speaks to us. It is how He teaches us about who He is.

This means, if our goal is to have a real, personal relationship with God, then it is only by immersing ourselves in His very words that we will grow in our understanding of who He is. This understanding will help us to make a just society.

God’s word makes it clear that every society that is lost needs to be reminded; has its downtrodden that need to be lifted up and has its poor to be helped. That’s what we see in Luke 4:16-21.

This text is usually known as the Nazareth Manifesto. It is also called the Mission Statement of Jesus Christ.

Here we could see that Jesus returned to Nazareth having spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan (Luke 4:1-13). The text says that Jesus went into the synagogue as it was his custom (Luke 4:16). It is said that a typical synagogue service would begin with the opening prayer. Then there would be a reading from the Law of Moses; later a reading from one of the prophets and after which a sermon would be preached by a Rabbi or a learned visitor. The service would close with a benediction.

Further in this text, we could see that Jesus identifies himself as a prophet as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 61:1-2).

In Luke 4:16-21, we could see Jesus speaking on activities that he would do in his ministry.

  • To bring good news to the poor.
  • To proclaim release to the captives.
  • To restore sight to the blind.
  • To let the oppressed go free.
  • To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

When we keenly observe the Mission Statement of Jesus, we can see that the poor, oppressed, marginalised, and neglected people were at the center of Jesus’ mission. During the first century in Palestine, where Jesus ministered, poverty seems to be a prevalent issue. There were many reasons for the existence of poverty. One major reason is heavy taxation – there were different forms of taxes laid on people such as temple tax, tax was laid for buying salt, Herod demanded tax for the renovation of the temple, Roman empire laid a tax on the poor people in order to strengthen their army. There was a class division where the majority of the people were from poor economic backgrounds. Here we could see that poverty is not a phenomenon but it is an expression of human struggle and human misery. Thus Jesus focused on the marginalised community throughout his ministry.

From the text, we could see Jesus emphasising the need to proclaim the good news, release the captives, restore sight to the poor, and let the oppressed go free.

  1. To Proclaim good news to the poor.

We could see that Jesus was giving importance to the poor and good news to the poor is the only preaching Jesus wants to concentrate on at the very beginning of his mission. As mentioned earlier, the majority of the people during Jesus’ time were poor. Due to their low economic status and also due to heavy taxation, the majority of the people were poor. Thus Jesus emphasises the need to bring good news to the poor. Here Jesus strives to be the good news that the poor want to hear.

  1. To Proclaim release to the captives.

As the people were poor, and due to their need, they borrowed money from the lenders, and due to their poverty, they were unable to pay the debt, and as a result of which they have become captives. Jesus reads from the book of Isaiah 61:1-2 at the synagogue in Nazareth. This is believed to be a message to the people of Israel who are going to witness the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10), which means freedom. Further, we can see that Jesus wants to release them from their captivity, which means he wants to declare that freedom will be the main task of his mission and it will continue forever not just in a specified year of Jubilee as it is observed by the people of Israel.

  1. Restoration of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.

Since the people were poor, they became captives and thus they lost the meaning of life and they seemed to be in darkness. Thus they were like blind and as a result of which they had to undergo oppression from the powerful and dominant people. But Jesus wants to bring meaning to their lives by recovering what was lost in their lives and thus letting the oppressed go free. He wants to liberate people who are under any form of oppression and wants to make them enjoy freedom.

Even today, there are people around us who are poor, captives, and oppressed, who yearn to be accepted as they are. Many haven’t encountered Jesus yet. They are still in ignorance, Biblical poverty is still prevailing. When we look at  one of the most famous slokas in India,

Asatoma Sadgamaya, (means Lead me from Unreal to Real)

Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya, (means Lead me from Darkness to Light)

Mrityorma Amritamgamaya, (means Lead me from Death to Immortality)

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanthi:

  • Lead me from Unreal to Real in Joh14:6. Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
  • Lead me from Darkness to Light. John 8:12 says “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
  • Lead me from Death to Immortality. John 3:36 says “And anyone who believes in God’s Son (Jesus) has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgement.”

It is our responsibility to spread this Good News. Many need to know about Jesus. It is high time to find ways to spread God’s Word for God’s World. As we explore together, our understanding of God’s Word and what it means to ‘translate Christ’ in our world today. ‘I am the one speaking to you’ (John 4:26) is only through a real conversation with humanity that the God of the Bible, the God we encounter in Jesus, can reveal himself, and allow the living water to flow for the healing, cleansing, sustaining and delight of humanity.

As Rev. Dr. Peniel Jesudhason Rufus Rajkumar has rightly said, “We are called not to be spectators of the Gospel but to be the script-actors. People do not watch a play as spectators but participate in the script, changing it and infusing it with new meanings and possibilities.”

I pray that the Bible Society of India continues its noble mission by looking Jesus up, the Author and the Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). May Jesus Christ, our Master, guide us and lead us in this noble mission of spreading God’s Word for God’s World. Amen.


The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry.

One of the most striking comments about the COVID-19 pandemic that I have heard recently is that the COVID-19 pandemic did not break the system, rather it exposed a broken system. We inhabit a world which is broken by corruption, conflict, capitalism, climate change, consumerism and casteism – just to name only a few.

In such a context we need to ask what is the relevance of God’s life-giving word in our death dealing world?

For my Bible study today I have chosen the ‘words’ of the ultimate Word – Jesus Christ, the eternal word. My focus today will be on Jesus’ first sermon as he assumed his ministry – popularly known as Nazareth manifesto. I think this sermon has the potential to speak to us today about how God’s words can be reinterpreted for God’s world.

God’s Word: A reminder to root Christian Ministry in the Scriptures:

Before we move further, it is significant to note that Jesus begins his earthly ministry by reading from the scriptures and reinterpreting it. This act by itself is an affirmation of the importance of the scriptures for Christian ministry. The scriptures are where Jesus turns to for inspiration as he commences his ministry.

We need to remember that the scriptures are the fountain from which we derive the power for Christian ministry. Hence the first lesson we learn from this passage is that Christian ministry should be rooted in the scriptures.

However, Jesus does not just read from the scriptures, he does something interesting. He interprets the scriptures in a way that will speak to his context in a relevant manner. He carefully chooses which passage to read and proceeds to read it in a manner which will speak to the conscience and consciousness of his hearers. This is important to note.

Jesus’s example teaches us that Christian ministry has to be rooted in the Christian Scriptures. But Christian ministers also have to cultivate what can be called as the spirit of ‘creative fidelity’ to the gospel– “where fidelity involves recognisable continuity with our scriptural faith tradition, and creativity involves an openness to the Spirit for the inspiration to interpret and ‘perform’ that tradition in ways that are life-giving”.   That was what Jesus was doing in his re-reading of the passage from Isaiah. By ending his reading with the words, “today the scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing,” he was indicating his commitment and call to live out the scriptures through the empowerment of God’s Spirit. He was making the words of the scriptures into an embodied reality. Very often the problem with Christian ministry is that though the word of God assumed flesh through Jesus Christ, we often convert it into mere words again through our sermons and theologies that lack commitment and courage to make Christ’s promise of life in all its fullness a living reality.  We need to overcome this impediment and embody the spirit of the scriptures in our lives.

God’s Word: A constant reminder that the real centre of Christian ministry is the margins:

Nowhere else do we find such a clear emphasis of God’s preference for the margins. The very place where Jesus starts his ministry is Galilee – a rural hinterland which is on the margins of the Roman empire. Jesus chooses the margins of the empire as the starting point of his ministry. He also identifies his ministerial focus as one which focuses on the margins.

In this passage Jesus brings out clearly his commitment to those outside the page of history. He says, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.

What is significant about the Nazareth Manifesto of Jesus  – his first public statement of mission – is that Jesus discerns that it is commitment to the poor which is the sign of the anointing of God’s Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is discerned to be upon Jesus because he has anointed Jesus to work with those on the margins. Work with the poor, the captives, blind and the oppressed are signs of God’s anointing.

The Nazareth Manifesto passage also helps us to understand that commitment to those on the underside of history is not everybody’s preference. The moment Jesus speaks about how God privileged the widow in Zarephath in Sidon and Namman the Syrian, he meets with opposition. People want to push him off a hill. Such an orientation to Christian ministry defies expectations, and can be a risky venture. People may often reject  such an orientation to ministry.

God’s Word: Continually Challenging us to Re-route our Ministry through the Paths of Justice:

Earlier I spoke of a ministry that is rooted in scriptures. Now I want to use a similar sounding word – route. An effective Christian ministry for our times should be routed through the paths of justice.

There are two things important about the Nazareth manifesto that I want to mention… Both are related to the question of justice – Firstly, the idea of justice which emerges in the sermon of Jesus, is a justice which takes the form of preference. Jesus makes no secret of his preference for the poor, captives, blind and oppressed. God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalised is a regular feature of Luke’s gospel. We see this in Mary’s song (Luke 1), where she proclaims with praise:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;​ He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

In a similar tone in Luke 3 at the height of the Roman empire, John the Baptist calls people to repentance using the  following words: “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low” – this is the language of structural transformation, where the poor and the marginalised become the centre of God’s plan.

We live in a thoroughly unjust world. This world can only be transformed by a complete structural transformation. Anything else will be only cosmetic. This structural transformation will upset and uproot the system. However, structural transformation is inevitable, if change has to happen for the better. We need to change the landscape of power by being in solidarity with the poor and the marginalised. Otherwise the Church risks losing its identity as an instrument of the divine reign of justice and peace. As Deenabandhu Manchala reminds, ‘If the Church does not participate in the ongoing revolutionary struggles of the victims of injustice … the Church will lose an opportunity to participate in the reign of God unveiling itself among the excluded and despised people of the world’.  It is time for the churches to follow Jesus and be in complete solidarity with those at the margins.

The second way in which the Nazareth manifesto makes justice more holistic and complete is, that it helps us to focus more on ‘inspiring the construction of positives’, rather than merely focusing ‘on removing negatives’. The focus is on positive and constructive possibilities – proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. It gives us a restorative dimension of justice. St. Iraeneaus of Lyon stated in the second century that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’ . Poverty and discrimination prevent people from living a life which is fully alive – a life in all its fullness. In such a context the Nazareth manifesto of Jesus offers a prototype of justice which ensures ‘life in all its fullness’ for the poor and the marginalised.

The Nazareth sermon of Jesus pushes the Church to embody an alternative imagination’ and become what the feminist theologian Letty M. Russel calls a ‘Church in the Round’ without sides and edges? This idea of the Church in the round is also given further shape in a hymn by Fred Khan which speaks of the Church as a table that is round: According to this hymn.

The Church is like a table, a table that is round. It has no sides or corners, no first or last, no honours; here people are in one-ness and love together bound.

In order to be bound in true oneness and love and truly become a Church in the round, there is a serious need to disrupt the politics and strategies of our institutional thinking which sustains this top-down model of leadership. The churches in India face many challenges that prevent them from becoming a Church in the round. This includes casteism, nepotism, corruption and cronyism. It is high time that we uproot these evils from the life of the Church and re-route ourselves in the paths of justice.

Today as the churches move forward to a new future, the challenge for us is that our churches may grow more stronger in our service to the transforming God. To this end may we learn to invest in transformation in both small and great ways.

We all recognize that for change to happen, our convictions should be translated into committed action. But we are often reluctant to act. I am reminded of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who reminds us of God’s call to be change-makers in this world. He says ‘All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom for shalom-peace and wholeness-of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, of reconciliation and of forgiveness. God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us. As we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned into love, nothing that cannot be forgiven, and no dream that cannot be fulfilled’.

The challenge for us has been to respond to this call and let God work through us. And as we prepare ourselves to take up this call, I am reminded of a verse from the gospel of Matthew 10: 39 which says:

Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’.

May God help us to find our life in living the way of Christ. Let us be prepared to lose our lives in resistance to the world, which even thought of pushing Jesus over the top of a hill as it did not agree with his preferences and priority, and gain it by living lives that reflect the justice and love of God. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to communicate nothing but Christ and Christ’s love for all. The only reward for our work is the glory of Christ. Sometimes there is a need to deny ourselves so that Christ can be glorified. Let us seek not to be self-centred and seek our own glory in all that we do. Let us all join together with Paul and the Church of Ephesians in giving glory only to Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith and say with confidence:

‘Now to the one who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen!’ (Ephesians 3: 20-21).