Living the Word: Jesus’ First Sermon
A sermon by Dr. Scott Spencer
First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia
Sunday, May 6, 2007
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.
Jesus stands up from the congregation.
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).
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
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.
After reading, Jesus rolls the scroll back up again and returns it
to the attendant.
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).
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.
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
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:
It can be “Wow”—we’ve never heard anything like that before—that’s
wonderful and exciting; OR
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:
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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.