Short and sweet

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Luke 4.14-21, Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

For any minister preaching your very first sermon is a nerve-wracking experience. After that it gets more difficult.

The College of Preachers, to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary – a good few years ago now – carried out a survey to discover what people think about sermons. The results were surprising. Far from dreading having to sit through sermons apparently 96.6 per cent of those surveyed actually look forward to the sermon. Which is encouraging for me as I stand here facing you this morning!

But what I found particularly interesting, and it’s rather appropriate during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was the report’s findings on the expectations of people in different denominations.

Evangelical Christians looked forward most to sermons. Roman Catholics were most keen on sermons that educated rather than challenged them. Baptists wanted sermons that converted them – one would have thought that they were converted already. Members of the new independent evangelical churches wanted to be challenged and encouraged. Baptists and Catholics were more enthusiastic than Methodists and Anglicans about the Bible being mentioned in sermons. And what, according to the report, did they discover Anglicans wanted? None of those things. Anglicans apparently just wanted to be entertained!

The length of sermons that people wanted varied. Some Baptists wanted at least an hour and a quarter. At this point I feel I should say that I was brought up as a Baptist – you have been warned! Catholics wanted less than ten minutes. Many Anglicans also wanted less than ten minutes but were prepared to put up with up to twenty provided there was no waffle. So I’ll stop waffling and get down to today’s gospel reading.

Today we hear about the very first sermon that Luke records Jesus preaching, and it’s in his home synagogue. This is his first act of public ministry according to Luke. Reports about him have been spreading throughout the area. We know that he has moved out of the family home – he is no longer living with Mary and Joseph, having moved to Capernaum where he has set up his base. It’s not surprising people are talking about him, so when he comes back home it’s a big day in the synagogue. You can bet that everyone would be there to hear the local boy who’s making a name for himself. 

And so Jesus returns to the Nazareth synagogue. We’re told that going to the synagogue on the sabbath was his custom – and if Jesus thought it important to worship weekly, why do so many of us think we can manage with less.  And on this particular occasion he is asked to read the lesson from the prophets. 

Unlike today there is no lectionary that he has to follow, no set readings that he must use – the choice is his. Neither is there a book to flip through – a bulky scroll is brought to him and placed on the lectern. Jesus, searching for a familiar text, unrolls it to a place near the end of the scroll. This would have taken some time – we have a copy of the scroll of Isaiah from this time and it is 24ft long.  Imagine unrolling the scroll with one hand and rolling the other end up with the other hand as you try to find the passage you want. And this is no random passage that Jesus chooses – it is a quite deliberate choice. He finds and reads these words:

“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.”

When he has finished Jesus rolls up the scroll, and having returned it to the attendant, sits down. Rabbis sat to teach – and so this was a signal to the gathered community that Jesus was about to give a commentary on the text. Today I’m standing and you are all sitting – then it would have been the other way round. The congregation would be standing, and someone who was going to teach sat down.

And they would have had expectations about the sermon. They almost certainly would have expected to hear one of the fairly standard rabbinic explanations of what the text meant. Because they wouldn’t have understood it. The text would have been in Hebrew. The people, since the Exile, spoke Aramaic. And since the return from the Exile it was the custom for the Rabbi to explain the text he had just read. 

And we heard that in our first reading today, from Nehemiah:

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And that’s essentially why we still have a sermon today following the readings – the Early Church continued the Jewish custom of explaining the reading, a custom which began after the return from the Exile because the people didn’t understand the language the reading was in. And it’s what Jesus goes on to do – give the sense so that people understand the reading.

But on this occasion the people are to be disappointed – and shocked – both by the length of the sermon and by its content. For Jesus’ sermon is just one sentence long: “Today,” he says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And that’s basically it!

Jesus does the unexpected, the unimaginable, on that memorable Sabbath morning in Nazareth. To use a current phrase he claims for himself the ancient prophetic words as his mission statement. The reason God’s Spirit came upon him at his baptism – which, remember, had happened not long before – was to empower him to do precisely this:  bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Jesus takes all this as his mission statement – this is not a gospel for the well off and the comfortable. And everything that follows in his life amounts to the living out of the prophecy he claims for himself that Sabbath morning in Nazareth – bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour.

And he keeps doing these things every chance he gets, every time he turns around, until finally it results in his death. For some welcome what Jesus does, but others do not – what he says and does is too uncomfortable for them. His teaching is too challenging and they find their discomfort increasingly intolerable, and think that his death will bring an end to the matter. They are wrong, of course. Jesus rises alive from the dead, and continues today to do what he talked about that Sabbath morning long ago.

And today the way that he works is through people like us – the Church. Jesus still does these things, because of people like us living out that mission statement – in our local community, across our country, around the world. The poor gain hope, whether it’s their souls or their bodies that are starved. The captives experience freedom, whether they are prisoners in a jail or prisoners in a mansion, prisoners of conscience or prisoners because they made mess of things. The blind receive sight, whether it’s cataract surgery at a local hospital, or the scales of prejudice falling off the eyes of a bigot. The oppressed are set free, whether oppression is a political regime or a drug dependence. 

When Jesus reads that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he announces a mission statement for himself and for his body the Church. He reads the words from Isaiah and claims them for his own. Today he calls each one of us to take those words and to recognise that we are called to live them out in our own community:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. The Spirit of the Lord anoints us to bring good news to the poor. The Spirit of the Lord sends us to proclaim release to the captives. The Spirit of the Lord  sends us to help the blind recover their sight. The Spirit of the Lord sends us to set free the oppressed. The Spirit of the Lord sends us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Today may this scripture be fulfilled in us and through us.