Weekly Preaching: January 27, 2019

January 22nd, 2019

It's an interesting week: Nehemiah is always suggestive, and how do you not talk about Paul on the Body? Maybe we learn more about what it means to rebuild the walls and more about being the Body if we look closely at, and preach faithfully on, Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:14-21. Mind you, the story continues through verse 30, which the lectionary completes... next Sunday. I'll comment here for both weeks. (Here's a sermon I preached last time around on this text—including leaving the pulpit, sitting in a chair, and thumbing through the Bible...)

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Context, context, context: Jesus has just returned from being tempted in the wilderness, far to the southeast, barely surviving a brutal bout against heat, brigands, predators, and the devil himself. After the harrowing experience, he wanted to get back home — understandably. But not really to rest up or escape the troubles of the world for a while.

Jesus went to the synagogue “as was his custom.” I will mention, but hopefully not nag, that Jesus and all people close to God through history have made it their custom to be in God the Father’s house. No single Sunday wins the day. Attending sometimes is an exercise in frustration.  It was Sabbath; Jesus went.

No one there knew where he’d been or what he’d endured. Church people might remember this when they see someone not entirely hospitable on the pew, or when someone is in a chilly mood. We are attentive to the ways people have been through a lot they’ve not shared with us (at least not yet), and we welcome, accept, bear, love, and understand. It’s our custom, right?

Nazareth is where Jesus was “brought up.” I’ve often thought that the greatest proof that Jesus was really the one is that his brother James and his mother Mary wind up as disciples. If anybody knows you have feet of clay, it’s the family, the neighbors who knew you when you were a little kid, an adolescent. I might linger on this thought for a few moments… like those Gnostic gospels that narrate Jesus being picked on as a child, retaliating, and then relenting.

Jesus, on this Sabbath, is the reader of Scripture. Was it his turn? Did they ask him, noteworthy holy man come home? He took the scroll. To me, as a preacher, this is well worth lingering over. He didn’t have a whole Bible, just one scroll — the book of Isaiah.

We oddly enough have a scroll of Isaiah from Jesus’ day, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, displayed in the Israel Museum/The Shrine of the Book. It’s long (twenty-four feet when unrolled!), and heavy (maybe fifty pounds?). For Jesus to take it in his hands, and unroll it all the way to chapter 61? This would have taken some time and a good bit of physical strength. In my sermon, I will simply ponder this amazing moment, the pregnant pause as people waited. Perhaps I'll consider how reading and understanding Scripture for us takes a lot of time, and considerable effort and strength.

The Isaiah scroll, quirkily enough, was the first one found at Qumran, as if God wanted us to find this one first and ponder Jesus’ reading from one just like it. Scholars didn’t find it either! Some shepherd boys, messing around, peeked into a cave. One threw a rock in and heard a clatter. Who will find God’s word? And how?

Jesus reads from Isaiah 61. Was it Jesus’ choice (which would tell us a lot about him)? Or was it the lectionary reading for the day (which would tell us a lot about God’s coincidental timing in play here)? Isaiah 61 is a text about being sent on a remarkable mission; it’s about God’s people returning from exile. N.T. Wright has helped us understand how Jesus’ ministry is the fulfillment of Israel’s long yearning to return home from exile writ large.

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This is fascinating: The initial response of Jesus’ lifelong friends was that “all spoke well of him.” “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” — which has a touch of irony, doesn’t it? Like, Yes, but… Jesus could’ve basked in their praise, but instead he went on a little rant about Elijah and Elisha in which he exposes the lackluster faith in Israel and how God sought out and healed the despised foreigners instead.

No wonder they got mad. The preacher might explore the ways we may not really want Scripture to be fulfilled. We like to read it in a safe classroom, or hear about it, or pick and choose moments in Scripture that pander to us. But the fulfillment of the biblical vision? It scares the daylights out of us, and we may recoil in rage.

Talk about physical strength: They grabbed not a heavy scroll but Jesus’ own body and hauled him out to the edge of town, ready to throw him off a cliff. When I take groups to Israel, we visit the “precipice,” an impressive dropoff with astonishing views. Reading well past the lectionary’s cutoff (which we should in this case), Jesus narrowly escaped (again!). In verse 30, we read the startling line that “Passing through the midst of them, he went away.” The mob, about to hurl him off the cliff, still angry, stood helpless as he simply walked among them, not sprinting or desperately scrambling, safely home. I'm reminded of the little-noticed moment in Gethsemane when the soldiers stormed up to arrest Jesus. “When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). Jesus’ physical presence must have been something.

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Back to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah: If we were like St. Francis of Assisi, we’d make this our to-do list. And Jesus’ reading also shows us how to be the Body in the Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 12:12-31a). Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has reflected (in his book Reconstructing the Gospel) on Jesus' first sermon — what it tells us about his priorities, and what ours probably should be too:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19 CEB).

Jonathan points out that churches, for some reason, ignore this mission and instead build up and support "an institution where people like us show up to receive spiritual nourishment. Whatever material ministry the church engaged in was secondary... Works of mercy are imagined as auxiliary ministries. But what if the church was something else? What if it was the movement Jesus invited people into when he invited them to join together in setting the oppressed free?"

His church got out a map of Goldsboro (where he was a pastor) and drew a circle with a two-mile radius around their building and said, "This is where we're called to set the oppressed free. Whatever is enslaving people, we commit to fighting it by the power of the Spirit."

What if your church, if my church, laid out a map and drew a circle with a radius of two or five miles, and asked this question: Who's oppressed, and why? And what can we do (besides the frequent resort to blaming or ignoring)? What enslaves people? Alcohol? Work pressure? Outsized expectations? Lousy work environment? Racial prejudice? 

What if we then make it our business to join Jesus in his business of bringing good news to those places and to those people, to work for freedom and recovery. That, indeed, would be the reconstruction of the Gospel, the dawning of God's kingdom right here, where we live, work, and worship.

What can we say January 27? 3rd after Epiphany originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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