Luke 4:14-21 (NIV)
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
(This is part of a sermon series looking through what we do together in our worship service and why are we doing it.)
I remember as a kid, sermons were the most difficult part of church to make it through. I remember laying my head on my mom’s shoulder and trying to sleep through them, or counting all the light-bulbs I could find in the sanctuary, or even as a last resort trying to remember everyone in the choir’s first and last name. Sermons always seemed like the longest part of church.
Somehow God used those sermons to shape me. Even though I can’t remember many quotes from them, they soaked into me … they taught me who God is, how God relates to people, about the Bible, and worked to form me as a disciple, as a follower of Jesus.
Now instead of counting light-bulbs and remembering names during sermons, like speaking loud enough … or trying to have more discipline so I don’t get off track and ramble about something I’ll regret.
I spend a big part of my week preparing for sermons. Studying and praying, wrestling with scripture, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to me … seeking to understand God more through each week’s passage, wrestling with what is helpful to say about the passage, and seeking the claim God is laying on our church through these words that were originally written in strange and sometimes mysterious languages to ancient and unfamiliar cultures.
As Christians we believe God speaks through scripture and that God works through the sermon to shape and form us into his people. We meet God in the bible … we learn about God’s character … we learn from people who have gone before us what it looks like to live a life that is centered on God and glorifying to God.
My first sermon, was at a small rural church in New Jersey (yes there are rural places in New Jersey).
I was so nervous.
I didn’t sleep at all the Saturday night before. The 40 minute drive from the seminary dorms to the church was a blur. I had been anxiously working on the sermon ever since I was told I was going to preach 2 weeks earlier. I had 20 something pages of research on the passage. (Probably way too much research.)
I had stood in pulpits before. As a church custodian in high school and college I vacuumed the carpet in the pulpit hundreds of times, but I had never stood in a pulpit as a preacher, wearing a suit, and never in front of so many people.
The first part of the service went by so fast, the call to worship, prayers, offering, and hymns flashed by. The sermon seemed to last forever.
My knees were shaking and my hands gripped the pulpit for dear life.
Finally, after what seemed like eternity it was over.
We sang the closing hymn, the pastor gave a benediction, and everyone just kind of hung around. Usually people were in a hurry to get out of church and get on with their Sundays, but everyone stood there with surprised expressions on their faces.
As we walked down the chancel steps to the main door of the sanctuary, the pastor tapped my shoulder, leaned toward me and whispered, “Do you realize how long your sermon was?”
My first thought was, Oh no it was way too long! It felt like I had been standing behind the pulpit for hours.
“I don’t know.”
“7 minutes,” the pastor answered, “It was only 7 minutes.”
No wonder everyone looked so surprised. Church finished 20 minutes early.
7 minutes? Two weeks of preparation, 20 pages of notes, a night of zero sleep, all for a 7 minute sermon?
I expected the church would be annoyed the sermon was so short, but most people were actually really nice about the sermon. Someone told me she wished the pastor’s sermons were always that short (I didn’t tell the pastor that). A guy told me he just watched a report on TV that said the average American’s attention span was about 7 minutes long. He asked me if I had seen that report on TV too (I wished I had).
Jesus’ first sermon, in the Gospel of Luke is really, really short. If we don’t count the scripture reading, it is just 8 words … 8 words packed with meaning and power. Luke presents it as a kind of purpose statement for Christ.
Jesus was in the synagogue (literally, the gathering place, in Nazareth) the town where he grew up. Jesus stood up to read scripture. The attendant passed him the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. Jesus took the scroll, held it in his hands as he looked though it for the passage he wanted to read. Maybe, it took a few minutes to find the right place. Maybe, there was an awkward silence while he was searching. At last Jesus found the passage and he read it out loud:
“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 favor.”
Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant and sat down (For us, when people speak with authority, they usually stand in front of their audience, back then, when people spoke with authority, they would sit in front of the crowd.)
Everyone in the place was watching Jesus.
At last he started his sermon.
“Today,” Jesus began “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And he stopped.
(I thought my sermons were short.)
Jesus says a lot in that sentence. He uses that quote from Isaiah 61, to tell the synagogue crowd some things Luke has already pointed out in his Gospel … the Holy Spirit is on Jesus, guiding and empowering his ministry. Jesus tells the crowd his ministry will be about bringing good news to people without any options; he is all about proclaiming release people who are stuck; recovery of sight to the blind, sight for those who can’t see physically or spiritually; and freedom to the oppressed, releasing the crushed from the weights that are bearing down on them.
The rest of Luke’s gospel, the rest of Jesus’ life explains and illustrates what this means. Jesus interprets these words from the prophet Isaiah with his life, his actions, his words, with the way he treats people, with parables and miracles to help us understand how good the news is that he is bringing.
So, what makes a sermon a sermon?
Sermons look at scripture … they make an effort to help scripture make sense … Sermons proclaim Christ’s good news… sermons connect scripture to our lives … and maybe most significantly, sermons ask for a response … they seek to move us toward action …
Jesus’ sermon moved the people who heard it in Nazareth … He pushed them to see that the good news of God’s grace wasn’t just good news for them, it was good news for other people too … it was good news for people who were left out … who were outsiders and for people who had messed up … who couldn’t get their act together … … the way Jesus applied his sermon invited a response … a pretty intense response …
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way (Luke 4.28-30 NIV).
We all have ideas of what makes a good sermon.
I love sermons that tell good stories, sermons that connect God’s word with our lives, sermons that stretch me out and expand my horizons, sermons that point me toward the big picture, reminding me how big God is and how big and beautiful the things God is doing in the world and in our lives are, and that challenge me to continue wrestling with God’s word long after the benediction.
Hopefully sermons can spark conversations. Hopefully sermons can encourage conversations between people and God, hopefully they can inspire people to go back to their Bibles to continue to learn the story of God’s interaction with humanity … Hopefully sermons challenge people to talk to each other about God, God’s word, and God’s claim on our lives. Hopefully sermons can help people to ask helpful questions, maybe even to learn from other viewpoints.
There is one more thing about sermons, like it or not, we all are preachers.
We we proclaim the good news of Christ in many places and many ways. Some times through words, other times through actions. In homes, schools, offices, grocery stores, hospitals, food banks, rummage sales, and parks. Our sermons aren’t usually words, and they aren’t always perfect, but as we look to Jesus, the one who preached good new with words and actions, we follow his example we share the hope he gives us with our lives.
We live our sermons, teaching that through Christ there is “good news for the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and sight for the blind.”