Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Three Questions and a Promise

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Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"
(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)
Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.


Dear Working Preacher,

To be honest with you, I have to say that I don’t envy Jesus. I’ve preached at my home congregation, and it can be rough; not this rough, mind you, but bad enough. Last time I preached there, two of my former soccer teammates sat right up front. They knew my temper and my competitiveness, had heard me curse a bad call or mouth off to a ref. A few pews behind them sat a former teacher; she knew how lazy I could be, how insolent, how cock sure I was right. And my first girlfriend was there – she wasn’t even a member, but must’ve heard I was preaching. I won’t even tell you what she knew.

And that’s just the thing – these people know you, and so it’s hard to preach, because familiarity…, well, you know. The funny thing is, though, that no matter how much they know, no matter how much they’ve seen or remember, they’re usually terribly, terribly gracious, just glad to have you home, pleased that you’ve made good, proud of your accomplishment.

And that’s pretty much the way it starts out in today’s reading. Jesus has come home; he’s preaching to a crowd of people who’ve known him since he was just knee high; and they are pleased, and proud, and gracious. “Why, isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” “Just a poor carpenter, he was, when he left us. And look at him now.” “Where did he learn to read? And with such authority? He was born to it, I’m telling you, born to it.”

By all accounts it’s a beautiful scene. So what goes wrong? How does this tender little homecoming turn suddenly so ugly.

I hate to say this, but I kind of think it’s Jesus’ fault. Because right in the middle of all their pride and praise, he just goes off. “No doubt you’ll quote me the old proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ And you’ll probably want me to do here what you’ve heard I’ve been doing in Carpernaum, that land so full of the Gentiles. Well, guess what, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. And when the prophets of old came to do miracles and wonders, more often than not it was for Israel’s enemies. So back off.”

Which makes me think that one of the more interesting questions to pursue this week, Working Preacher, might just be to ask what has gotten into Jesus? Is he offended that they’re surprised that he’s done so well? Does he hear a challenge in their words: “Who does he think he is, anyway, he’s just Joseph’s son!”? Is he skeptical of their praise, suspicious that they just want to exploit him as a healer? Or was he just in a really, really bad mood. To be honest, we can’t say for sure.

But I do have a hunch. Because I’ve got this feeling, deep down, that as well as these folks knew Jesus, he knew them even better.

Let’s not forget that he’s just finished reading Isaiah’s prophecy of a year of favor, of Jubilee, when the blind find sight, the captives release, the oppressed relief, and all the poor of this world consolation. And, lest we be mistaken about the direction Jesus is heading in, it’s just as important to note what he doesn’t read. Because Isaiah goes on, you see, telling of that day when the Lord will trample down all Israel’s enemies, crush them underfoot and restore Israel to its rightful place. But no, Jesus doesn’t read that part. He’s not thinking locally, you see, but globally, and this isn’t a nationalistic sermon, but one in which he declares that God loves all the world and has a special concern for the poor.

And so for this to come true, there’s going to need to be some changes. For as Mary sings before her boy was even born, in order to raise the lowly God’s going to have to bring low the powerful; and in order to feed the poor, the rich are going to go away empty.

This is what Jesus is talking about, and the home crowd doesn’t get it. So Jesus gets mad, drives his point home, and this time they do get it, so clearly, in fact, they’re ready to get him.

God favor Syria, not Israel?! God heal in Capernaum, not Nazareth. I don’t think so. That’s heresy. And you know what we do with heretics.

You see, it really is all Jesus’ fault – he goes and does the one thing you’re never supposed to do, even to strangers, let alone to friends and neighbors: He tells them the truth, the truth about their pettiness and prejudice, their fear and shame, their willingness, even eagerness, to get ahead at any cost, even at the expense of another. And so they want him gone in the most permanent of ways.

And let’s face it; that’s pretty much the way it usually is. Because this text, and Luke’s whole gospel for that matter, isn’t about Jews or Romans, it isn’t about Nazarenes or Jerusalemites. No, it’s about every race and nationality, about all the crowds of every time and place who, when they meet one who tells them the truth about themselves, will go to almost any length to silence the messenger. For from the prophets of Israel to our own prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s not just the keepers of the dream that get rejected, beaten, and shot, but the tellers of the truth as well.

And so here we are, at the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, and already we see how it’s going to come out. Because while Jesus somehow gets away today, later on they’ll catch up with him. They’ll listen a little longer, get a little madder, and then lay their hands on him and nail him to the cross.

So here’s the another interesting question for the day: do you think things have changed all that much? I mean, do you think Jesus’ sermon about change and equity and release would go over any better today, in a nation tied up in knots over whether millionaires should have their taxes raised and whether it’s fair to make sure everyone who wants to buy a gun has a clean record? I doubt it. Jesus’ message, whenever and wherever it’s spoken, still makes people see red.

So what are we to do? Now that Jesus’ words have revealed the truth that we’ve got just as much fear and shame and prejudice as did the folks in Nazareth, what are we to do?

There’s only one thing I can think of. And that’s to keep our eyes fastened on the one who told the truth in the first place, the one we nailed to a cross because of it. Because of all the prophets, you see, of all the folks who came and told the truth only to be rejected, or beaten, or killed, this is the only one God raised from the dead.

And in Christ’s cross and resurrection we discover that Jesus’ word – really, Jesus the Word – not only reveals the truth about us, but also reveals the truth about God, about a God so passionate for God’s people that God takes on our lot and our life, becomes one of us, even to the point of dying for us, only to come back bringing again a word of forgiveness and grace. For this God loves all God’s children – desperately, passionately, relentlessly – and that includes you and me.

Good news, for sure. But one interesting question is left for us to ask: now what? Now that we know ourselves to be those who have rejected our Lord, and yet we also know that we are those for whom Christ died, now what? Well, here’s an idea: What would you think about us bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, helping the blind regain their sight, and setting the oppressed free. Why don’t we, that is, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? In short, having heard the good news of God’s love for all of God’s people, why not turn to say and do that same good news to everyone we meet?

You see, here’s the thing, Working Preacher: When Jesus tells us the truth about ourselves – simply because it is the truth! – we have to give up the pretense, surrender every claim to having it all together, to being perfect, to making it on our own. In a word, when Jesus tells us the truth about ourselves, we die. But when Jesus goes on to tell us – really, to show us – the truth about God, then we come alive again. We come alive in the spirit of a God who not only knows everything about us, but loves us anyway, a God who loves us so much that God will go to any length to redeem us from all the pettiness, shame, and fear that seem so often to overrun even the most successful of lives.

And, alive in the Spirit of God, we will do these things: proclaiming, freeing, comforting, and releasing. Find it hard to believe? Tell that to Paul, the author of the hymn to love we just heard who, earlier in his career, persecuted Christians. Or tell it to John Newton, author of another favorite hymn, Amazing Grace, who before he was won to Christ was a slave trader.

Still not convinced. Well, then take a good, close look around you right now. Because your congregation, Working Preacher, is filled with folks who, having been touched by the grace of God, have overcome their fear, their prejudice, their shame, and now are reaching out to touch others to speak and do God’s word to all those they meet. And so perhaps after asking all these question, Working Preacher, our job is to make them a promise. Perhaps our job is to promise our people that because they have been baptized into Christ they have died with him, and because Christ is raised from the dead so also are they now alive, raised to a life of grace and good works. After all, the time of God’s favor Isaiah predicted and Jesus announced is still being fulfilled in our hearing, even now, even here, even as you preach the word this week and always and that word propels us out to lives of service, purpose, and meaning.

So rather than preach three points and a poem, Working Preacher, maybe this week we’re called to ask three questions and make a promise. After that, there’s probably not much to say except, I think, thanks to be God – thanks be to God for this good news, for the grace that keeps working in us, and for preachers like you to proclaim it.

Yours in Christ,
David

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