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"Jesus' First Sermon"

A sermon based upon Luke 4:14-32

According to the Gospel of Luke: after his baptism and brief sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and “a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding region”. (Luke 4:14) In other words, he got a reputation. There was a “buzz” about Jesus; he had become, in very short order, “the talk of the town”.

At this point in Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus had not yet called any disciples. Instead, he was traveling from town to town, teaching in the synagogues of Galilee… and he was well received. (!) “Being glorified by all” is how Luke put it. (Luke 4:15)

35 years ago, after I was ordained here in this sanctuary – with the Rev. Jack Fitzgerald preaching the sermon, and the Rev. Bob Case (who was at that time the Moderator of the United Northern Association) officiating, and Vernie Nethercut (our Birthday Girl) as a church representative in the ceremony – Patty & I moved to my first official position as the Interim Minister at the International Protestant Church of Zurich (Switzerland).

That’s where I preached my first year’s worth of sermons. And frankly, so far as I could tell, no report about me ever went out to the surrounding country. I can certainly say I wasn’t being “glorified by all” -- perhaps not even by a few. (!) But then, why should I be? I’m no Jesus Christ! I’m just his humble servant.

Luke then takes us to Nazareth, where Jesus had been brought up… Back to his hometown church, so to speak.

I’ve done that, too…coming home to Alpena five years ago.

Jesus went to the synagogue, as was his custom, on the Sabbath day. (No surprise there.) And he stood up to read… He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, in which Jesus found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”

Now, that’s all well and good if it is Isaiah he’s talking about. More than 500 years had passed since Isaiah had written those words. So, if it was a quote from Isaiah about Isaiah -- and was related to Isaiah’s day in Judean history -- the good people of Nazareth would have no problem listening to it… like poetry, like history. They might learn something from it about those days long ago when the great prophet Isaiah brought God’s Word.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me”, said Jesus, as he read from the scroll. “Because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. [To bring good tidings to the afflicted.] He has sent me to [bind up the brokenhearted]; to proclaim release to the captives [and the opening of prisons to those who are bound]… and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed… to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord [the year of the Lord’s favor].” (Isaiah 61:1-2, page 641)

Those of you who were here two weeks ago already heard me quote those very same words from Isaiah -- words selected by Jesus himself to be read aloud (and commented upon) in his first worship service upon returning to his hometown, Nazareth.

Obviously, I think it is a significant text – since I’ve used it in two sermons in this new year already! This quotation from Isaiah helps us to understand the very foundation of Jesus’ self-identity -- his sense of purpose in his ministry -- and therefore this text should influence our identity as his Church.

Now, I suppose you could say that I am getting ahead of myself. That, first, we need to see how these words affected Jesus’ audience -- there in the Nazareth synagogue -- before saying that Jesus’ is addressing his “self-identity” (let alone that it has anything to do with our subsequent efforts to realize it in our day, here in Alpena!). And if you said so… I would agree.

By quoting these words, Jesus would have stirred the hopes of his people – hopes for the time that Isaiah (and other prophets) had urged the people to wait for, to pray for, and to prepare for: The coming Day of the Lord -- the “acceptable” year of the Lord which would mark “the Eschaton” -- the “end” of the old order and the ushering in of the new -- the arrival of the Lord’s Anointed (the Messiah) and the promised Year of Jubilee!

If there hadn’t already been a “buzz” about Jesus, his choice of text would have got one going! (“Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, but it is gonna be great!”) The folks in Nazareth knew Jesus as “Joseph’s son” (Luke 4:22) and they had heard about healings in Capernaum, and thought maybe Jesus would do something great also in his “own country”. (Luke 4:23)

Luke tells us that Jesus closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

That might seem a bit “anticlimactic”, don’t you think? But I’ve been told that sitting down is a Jewish teacher’s customary posture in those days. Jesus said to them: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled, in your hearing.”

Brian McLaren, in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”, says that these words from Jesus are an “amazing commentary – notable for its brevity, and even more for its astonishing claim: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

If he had said, “Someday this Scripture will be fulfilled,” everyone would have felt it was a good, comforting sermon. If he had said, “This Scripture is already fulfilled in some ways, yet not in others,” that would have also been interesting and acceptable. But either commentary would postpone until the future any need for real change in his hearers’ lives.[1]

For Jesus to say the promised time was here already, fulfilled, today … that was astonishing! That required deep re-thinking and radical adjustment. [Brian McLaren says] The same is true for us today.

Imagine if a prophet arose today in Panama, Sierra Leone, or Sri Lanka. In an interview on the BBC or Al Jazeera he says, “Now is the time! It’s time to dismantle the military-industrial complex and reconcile with enemies! (!) It’s time for CEO’s to slash their mammoth salaries and give generous raises to all their lowest-paid employees! (!) It’s time for criminals, militias, weapons factories, and armies to turn in all their bullets and guns so they can be melted down and recast as trumpets, swing sets, and garden tools. (!) It’s time to stop plundering the Earth for quick corporate profit and to start healing the Earth for long-term universal benefit. Don’t say ‘someday’ or ‘tomorrow.’ The time is today!” Imagine how the talking heads would spin![2]

[Brian McLaren writes] The Nazareth crowd is impressed that their hometown boy is so articulate and intelligent and bold. But Jesus won’t let them be impressed or appreciative for long. He quickly reminds them of two stories from the Scriptures: one involving a Sidonian widow in the time of Elijah, and one involving a Syrian general in the time of Elisha. …

God by-passed many needy people of our religion and [our own] nation, says Jesus, to help those foreigners…

… those Gentiles, those outsiders. (!) You can almost hear the snap as people are jolted by this unexpected turn.

Clearly, the Good News proclaimed by the hometown prophet is for them [writes Brian McLaren], as well as for us-- for all humankind and not just for our kind. (!)

Somehow, that seems disloyal to the Nazarenes. That seems like a betrayal of their unique[-ness, their chosen-ness, their local] identity. In just a few minutes, the crowd quickly flips from proud to concerned… to disturbed… to furious. (!) They are transformed by their fury from a congregation into a lynch mob, and they push Jesus out the door and over to the edge of a cliff![3]

Again, imagine [writes McLaren] if a pope, a patriarch, or a famous Protestant TV preacher today were to declare that God is just as devoted to Muslims, Hindus, and atheists as to Christians… They might not be thrown off a cliff, but one can easily imagine tense brows and grave voices advocating for them to be thrown out of office or taken off the air!

No wonder Jesus needed that time of preparation [on his own… out] in the wilderness. He needed to get his mission clear in his own heart, so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans, [nor] intimidated by the threats of furious critics. (!) If we dare to follow Jesus, and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s Good News as he did, we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.[4] (Unquote)

That first sermon Jesus preached in the Gospel of Luke almost caused “whiplash” among his hometown congregation. (!) In verse 22 “all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth”…

…but by verse 29 “they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong”! Jesus sure got a rise out of them… (and in much less than the 20-minutes it takes me to preach a sermon).

This story about Jesus’ very first sermon in Nazareth makes me uncomfortably aware of how “safe” I tend to keep my sermons here in Alpena. I don’t want to stoke the ire of you who come faithfully to worship, week in and week out. (You who will be asked next Sunday to pass a budget that includes my salary.) (!) Please, don’t get me wrong… My words from the pulpit are passionate, often enthusiastic, always Gospel-based, and deeply heart-felt… but (have you noticed?) rarely are they controversial. I don’t use sermon time to tackle tough issues.

I think I am especially aware of this tendency on my part to not raise issues about which people fundamentally disagree after last Sunday’s announcement of a “pro-life” rally to be held next Saturday at the All Saints Parish Hall, to which everyone in Alpena has been invited. That invitation to an “anti-abortion” event was announced from the lectern last Sunday. Oh, my, my!

I know three or four members of this congregation who were deeply affected by that “one-sided” announcement – and who were almost moved to stand up and set the record right -- about the pre-eminent value of a woman’s right to choose, to make her own decision about matters as intimate and personal as bearing a child, without legislators getting involved; about the importance of safe medical care remaining legal (as it has been since Roe-vs-Wade), with sensitivity to the often excruciating dilemmas and difficult decisions parents must make as regards whether or not to carry a fetus to term. But they did not speak in rebuttal. They held their fire… until later, in private.

At the same time, I know three or four of our members who are all in favor of the invitation that was extended by the Roman Catholic community to learn how to argue the “anti-abortion” position more effectively… because that’s the side of the debate that they are on.

I must assume that -- beyond the three or four people on each side of the “abortion” divide who spoke with me -- there are probably forty or fifty more just like them (half on one side and half on the other, with one opinion that they think is the right one)… who (like me) treat the subject as a gentle “taboo” not to talk about in public. I know these people I am talking about, and love them dearly! These are good, faithful, Christian people with deeply held beliefs on both sides of a controversial issue. And last Sunday it came home to me that I don’t raise such issues from the pulpit. … And in that regard, I may not be of much help.

Because the Congregational tradition casts a wide net of inclusion – that is “whoever you are, you are welcome here” – we have Democrats and Republicans, some open-minded and some narrow-minded, activists on several issues and pacifist; we have supporters of the Status Quo and free-thinking liberals who are ready for any new thing, so long as it will make a difference for the good. We have some folks who want padded pews and others who want bare wood to sit on! We’re all mixed up together, side-by-side, trying to get along in a “polarized” society. In the UCC, there is no “one size fits all” set of beliefs. That’s one thing that sets our kind of church apart from others!

And I suspect that is why, unlike other more narrowly defined Christian denominations and independent Evangelical churches, we put a high value on keeping harmony in the midst of our diversity. It’s an old saying of our church: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” In all things, despite differences of opinion, love rules.

Apparently, Jesus did not play it “safe”, like we try to do here… at least, not in his first sermon in his hometown. (!) Jesus exposed their bias against outsiders -- their less than charitable attitude toward foreigners -- by mentioning God’s attentive care toward a Sidonian widow and a Syrian general… neither one a Jew like them. That radical statement of God’s “in-clusive” love rubbed those “ex-clusive” folk the wrong way, and seriously so… such that Jesus almost paid with his life! (I don’t want that to happen here, if it can be avoided.)

And yet, as Jesus’ followers – like those first disciples, who associated themselves with this radical Rabbi – we must be prepared to take the risk of speaking “uncomfortable” truth.

Brian McLaren has pointed out that the word “Christian” is more familiar to us today than the word “disciple.” These days, “Christian” often seems to apply more to the kinds of people who would push Jesus off a cliff than it does to his true followers. (!) (That’s a sobering comment.)

To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to (1) hear that challenging [first sermon, as for] today, and to (2) receive that [risky] invitation to follow him… and to (3) take the first intrepid step on the road as a disciple. That’s why he titles his book: “We make the road by walking…”

Let’s do so, in Jesus’ footsteps, with his mind and his attitudes in our heart… as best we are able, for God’s sake.


[1] McLaren, Brian D., We Make the Road By Walking,(New York: Jericho Books/Hachette Book Group), pp 92-93

[2] McLaren, Brian D., The Secret Message of Jesus (Nashville: W Publishing/Thomas Nelson, 2006), pp 24-25

[3] McLaren, We Make the Road…, pp 93-94

[4] Ibid, page 94

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