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Living the Word: Jesus’ First Sermon

A sermon by Dr. Scott Spencer
First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Luke 4:16-30 

            Though not quite the same experiences—just as everyone remembers their first kiss, so preachers remember their first sermons.  And in both cases, it’s usually a mixed, bittersweet memory—the feeling electric; the technique . . . a little sloppy. 

            In my case, as I recall, I preached my first sermon in my home church at age 15—we start ‘em young in Texas.  The message itself, as I recall it now, was very sloppy—too rambling, too superficial, too disjointed, too long—way too long—a lot of sound and fury, but not much substance and focus. 

By professional homiletic standards, my first sermon was pretty poor . . . D-plus at best.  But of course I didn’t know that at the time.  And neither did the congregation—or if they did (and I’m sure some of them did)—they never let on to me.  After the service, they all came by, shook my hand, and offered me the most gracious comments.  The next Billy Graham?—Could be …right here from our own church family.  God bless loving, supportive home churches. 

The response to Jesus’ first sermon in Luke’s gospel, however, delivered in his home synagogue in Nazareth, didn’t turn out so well. 

            Luke informs us in the previous chapter that Jesus began his public ministry at 30 years of age—twice as old as I was (makes you stop and think).  As was his custom, he comes to the local synagogue on the Sabbath, only this day it’s his turn to read the Scripture lesson and offer commentary or exposition. 

            Matthew and Mark report a similar episode, but Luke greatly expands upon it and moves it to this opening stage of Jesus’ mission.  It’s a very important scene for Luke—painted with vivid detail.  Observe closely: 

Ř      Jesus stands up from the congregation.

Ř      The synagogue attendant hands him a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  This would have been the only copy in the whole congregation (no personal scrolls or pew scrolls). 

Ř      Jesus unrolls this treasured scroll toward the end—which likely took some time (no page numbers or chapter-verse references).  But eventually he locates the day’s text—a combination of what we would identify as Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2. 

Ř      He then reads it aloud.  I’d love to know the pitch, volume, cadence, and inflection he used, but Luke doesn’t give us that, and we have no recording in the archives.

Ř      After reading, Jesus rolls the scroll back up again and returns it to the attendant. 

Ř      Then he sits down, not because he’s through, but because this was the customary posture of teaching in those days (unlike our standing behind a lectern or pulpit). 

Ř      Luke then intensifies the drama by reporting that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”—everyone’s filled with anticipation, locked in, tuned in to what Jesus is going to say about this text. 

Ř      And he begins to speak. 

Now before we consider the content of Jesus’ message, I want us to understand the response Jesus receives from his hometown audience.   

Initially we learn, according to most translations, that “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” while buzzing to one another—“Is not this Joseph’s son?” 

While these responses appear favorable, there admit other explanations. The phrase—“All spoke well of him”—can also be more simply rendered: “All bore witness to him”—that is, they heard his sermon and began to talk about it and evaluate it, but not necessarily approve of it.  

As far as being “amazed” at Jesus’ words, that can cut two ways: 

(1)   It can be “Wow”—we’ve never heard anything like that before—that’s wonderful and exciting; OR 

(2)   It can be “Woe”—we’ve never heard anything like THAT before—that’s strange and disturbing. 

How about the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  That can cut two ways, too: 

(1)   Either: Wow, how about that Joseph’s boy; isn’t he something?  Chip off the old block, one of the family, Nazareth’s favorite son—we’re so proud; OR 

(2)   Woe, this is Joseph’s kid, for goodness’ sake, a local artisan like the rest of us.  Where does he get off with all these high-minded, super-spiritual claims?  Who does he think he is?  He’s getting above his raising.

Is it “Wow” or “Woe”?—probably a little bit of both.  The stunned congregation is not quite sure what to make of this Jesus of Nazareth, this son of Joseph.

Of course, as readers, we know that Jesus is in fact NOT Joseph’s boy.  He’s the Son of God in human flesh, born of the virgin Mary.  Luke makes that abundantly clear to us in the earlier chapters.  But we’re not sure who all knows this within the Nazareth community, except Mary and Joseph—and it was not that easy for them to accept.  Even after Gabriel’s annunciation, Mary does a lot of “pondering” about this unusual son of hers. 

It certainly would not have been easy to communicate to the relatives and neighbors—come see our adorable Jesus that Mary has borne.  No, he doesn’t have Joseph’s eyes and nose, but that’s because Joseph’s not the father.  This is God’s child—really, God’s child—God is his father. 

            Sure he is Mary ... whatever you say (a bit of post-partum delirium).  As Jesus grew up in Nazareth, the townfolk may well have noticed some un-familiar, un-Joseph-like qualities and wondered about his parentage—but I guarantee you—thoughts that he was God’s Son, if entertained at all by this village, were not the ONLY possibilities considered.  You can imagine the gossip

            As a foundational tenet of our faith, we boldly affirm that Jesus IS God’s Son who entered this world through Mary’s virgin womb.  God Incarnate—fully divine, fully human.  What a Gospel Story—good news indeed, world-shaking news—but not easy news to take in, and we trivialize and discount the priceless value of God’s gift of grace through Christ if we make it easy. 

            IS NOT THIS JOSEPH’S SON?—No, it really isn’t.  It’s God’s Son among us in the flesh.  God has come as close as you can get to us.  God has become one of us.  AMAZING—in every sense of the word—astounding and perplexing, marvelous and mysterious.  We might cut the Nazareth folk some slack for not quite knowing how to handle this Jesus and reclaim for ourselves some of the shocking awe of the Incarnation. 

            But Jesus’ home congregation soon moves beyond mixed reactions of astonishment to outright demonstrations of anger.  At the end of this scene, the audience becomes so enraged with Jesus that they haul him out and try to hurl him off a cliff at the edge of town.  Instead of shaking his hand and hugging his neck after his first sermon, they lay violent hands on him and try to wring his neck. 

Somehow Jesus manages to escape the lynching and “go on his way,” as the narrator understates it.  As a prophet without honor on his home turf, Jesus will never return to Nazareth again—can’t say I blame him.  

            So, what in the world did Jesus say in that sermon to set his neighbors and relatives off like that?  This was not the usual grumbling over lunch about how the preacher went on too long or said something a bit controversial or lost his train of thought momentarily (I know what you do over lunch).  This was mob action, attempted murder

            But why?  First of all, after reading the Isaiah text, Jesus flatly announces:  “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  That may not immediately seem provocative, but on closer reflection it packs a punch.  In effect Jesus makes a rather audacious personal claim:  “Right now, folks—today—what I just read about in Isaiah is being fulfilled in your midst; more than that—it’s being fulfilled in me.” 

            Jesus had just read—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has sent me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.”  Jesus is making the “me” of Isaiah’s text “him”:  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me—Jesus of Nazareth—because God has sent me—Jesus of Nazareth—to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. 

Moreover, I declare this year ... starting today … the “year of the Lord’s favor”—most likely referring to the Year of Jubilee—a banner year on the Jewish calendar every half century in which debts were forgiven, foreclosed lands restored to original owners, slaves set free.    

Jesus truly makes an “amazing” announcement concerning himself, his mission, and his moment in history.  Again, this might not seem so incredible from our vantage point, building on two millennia of faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, Liberator and Redeemer.  We become rather comfortable with this “good news,” even take it for granted.  But the first time Jesus’ people heard this news, it had to be stunning, mystifying, mind-boggling.  

Jesus makes Scripture his own to a breathtaking degree. Scripture will not just inform his life, inspire his life, enrich his life—it will be his life. He won’t just read the book, study the book, even proclaim the book—he will live the book. 

While, in one sense, Jesus embodies Scripture to a consummate degree we cannot hope to achieve, in another sense, he also sets the pattern for us to follow.  As disciples of Christ, we are called to walk as he walked, live as he lived as best we can.  And I suggest that a big part of a Christ-following life is bringing good news to the poor and liberating love to those bound by a legion of “demons”—physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, politically, spiritually—liberating the whole person

The Isaiah text Jesus reads serves as a manifesto for his mission; it sets the agenda for his entire life and work.  Just read the rest of Luke.  Almost everything he does fits this Isaianic profile. 

I’m afraid all our modern wrangling over What Would Jesus Do? gets a bit silly some time:  What would Jesus drive?  What would Jesus eat? Would he drive a Hummer or eat a triple cheeseburger?—I doubt it, but I have no idea—not a lot of gas guzzling vehicles in Jesus’ day (although I hear donkeys have quite an appetite); not a lot of fast food joints either (although Jesus could lay out an “all you can eat” bread and fish feast. 

If we want to know What Jesus Would Do? and What we Should Do—look at What Jesus Did—brought good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. In our broken world, that’s plenty to keep us busy until Jesus comes and fully restores all creation. 

Likewise, in all our modern Battles for the Bible—pushing this pet doctrine or that, quibbling over theories of inspiration and interpretation—we do well to unite around what really matters—incarnating the Book in our lives—as Jesus did—for the sake of those who are bound up and beaten down.  

Now again I would say—that’s not easy to do.  As we’ve seen, the Nazareth folk are not quite sure what to do with this program trumpeted by Isaiah and now Jesus.  AND rather than making it easier to swallow, easier to handle, Jesus only expands and intensifies the vision.  

This good news of liberation is not just for us and ours, Jesus implies—not just for people who look and think like us, not just for our cozy little synagogue here.  This is for everybody—all sorts of people. 

Remember Elijah (there Jesus goes bringing in more scripture); remember how that great prophet helped a destitute widow across the border in the “foreign” town of Zarephath in Sidon.  He miraculously provided her food during a time of terrible famine and restored her critically ill son to health. 

Oh and remember Elisha, too—how he cured the leprosy of that snooty Syrian general, Naaman, who thought his people and lands were better than ours. 

            Elijah and Elisha were renowned prophets of the Hebrew Bible who dramatically fulfilled Isaiah’s liberating agenda before Isaiah even existed.  But while they aided their fellow-Israelites, they also reached out “across the tracks” to non-Israelites, to Sidonians and Syrians—suspicious folk, sometime enemies of Israel. 

The people of Nazareth certainly know these familiar biblical stories, but that doesn’t mean they like them or appreciate Jesus’ bringing them up now.  Why is Jesus thinking about needy people out there when we’ve got plenty of problems right here in our town, in our land?  Is he turning his back on us, thumbing his nose at us, betraying us?  Well, if he wants to reach out there so much, we’ll help him along with a hard, swift kick out of here

My—What self-centered, small-minded people, these villagers of Nazareth!  Oh yes—just like we can be here in the big city—drawing in close, huddling together with our kind of folk in fear of “the other,” “the different,” “the foreigner” out there.  Charity starts at home.  Yes, but it doesn’t end there.

If we’re really People of the Book—as we claim—we should be people with a global vision of care and justice for all people—because throughout the book—Old and New Testaments—we meet a gracious God with a clear agenda:  to restore all people, all creation, to God’s grand and good design. 

As People of the Book, we are called to be People on Mission—God’s Mission—not with imperious and patronizing condescension, but with sympathetic and liberating compassion, as outlined by Isaiah and fulfilled in Christ.  “Today,” as Jesus stressed, may that Mission also be “fulfilled in our hearing.”  Amen.

 

 
 
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