In his two volumes, Luke provides a treasure-trove of sermon manuscripts.
Last week, he gave us the Bible’s fullest account of John the Baptist’s preaching, and this week gives us Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth. When I ask my Intro to Preaching students what makes this Nazareth event a sermon, they are full of answers. There is a scriptural text. There is a gathered community at worship. There is good news proclaimed to those in need—and there is the Spirit. I love the answer that my homiletic colleague, Charles Campbell, gives. Jesus’ words touch down “today.” “Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
There is a “today-ness” about preaching that moves past the explanation and interpretation of text and history. It does more than teach doctrine in the abstract. Preaching touches the particularities of place and time through the particularities of preacher and listener. Its telos is “emancipatory transformation.” Good news breaks into the “now” for those low in status, those unable to see God’s presence, or those captive in cages. Preaching doesn’t just teach something. It does something.
And as it turns out, “emancipatory transformation” is risky business. Neither John’s sermon nor Jesus’ sermon ends well.
“Good news” doesn’t always sound good in the particular. I used to wonder at the dissonance between the first half of this passage and the second. The scripture reading that Jesus chooses from Isaiah seems plucked from the tradition’s greatest hits. It speaks of healing and freedom and favor (verses 18-19). Jesus even leaves off Isaiah’s mention of a “year of vengeance” (Isaiah 61:2b). Comfort, rather than fear, seems the order of the day. And all is well (verse 22). But then the sermon takes a turn. As if Jesus’ proclamation of fulfillment was a dividing edge, he follows Isaiah’s promises with challenges to his listeners’ hometown expectations. God’s year of favor does not privilege home or country, and God’s people are not always playing the roles they expected to play. As in so many of Luke’s reversals, “What Jesus tells his audience is that they, who had every reason to believe that they were in, are out, just as the many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, and the many lepers in the time of Elisha, were out.”
Proclaiming good news to the poor often means proclaiming discomfiting news to the comfortable. To use a contemporary example, telling a white congregation that God will not turn a blind eye to white supremacy may challenge silent privilege in ways that evoke anger—but it is still good news. More than this, it is freeing news, if it can be heard.
And this brings up a second question about this passage that gives me pause. The Spirit is present, the Word is proclaimed, and Jesus announces the scripture’s fulfillment “in your hearing” (verse 21). Yet, the congregation allows rage to harden its heart to the point of violence. Jesus nearly loses his life. What is the meaning of that word—“hearing”? Does it require something more than being present in the moment? Was it meant to make Jesus’ good news conditional—fulfilled only if a congregation was ready to receive it in all of its complexity?
His listeners do not have their eyes opened in this passage. They remain spiritually ignorant. In what way was this scripture fulfilled? It is a question that may hit too close for preachers who have forged their way through the difficult year of 2020. Many preachers have suffered the divisions of their communities through pandemic and politics. Some have worried about getting thrown from cliffs.
For these preachers, the transformative telos of preaching may seem very far away. “If preaching is supposed to ‘do something,’ why aren’t my listeners changed?” they ask. To remember that Jesus’ Spirit-filled preaching did not necessarily create a congregation ready to “hear” might be relief. Sermons are communal events, after all. And preachers can only be responsible for what they say; the fulfillment of those words depends on someone being willing to listen. There is truth in that.
But I think the ambiguity around Jesus’ proclamation of fulfillment leaves open another possibility: that he means just what he says. In spite of all appearances, in spite of hard hearts and violent mobs, Jesus has shown up with good news—regardless of whether it is received. The first three lines of Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61 end with the word “me”—which, in the context of Luke, focuses attention on Jesus’ person. It’s Jesus’ presence that makes a sermon a sermon, not the congregation’s response. And by the power of the Spirit, Jesus continues to proclaim release, recovery, and favor in ordinary communities, through ordinary preachers “today.”
Luke 4 places the congregation on a razor’s edge of decision: where do they stand in the story? Do they celebrate the wideness of God’s mercy—or would they trade God’s good news for a good news of their own design? Luke 4 also proclaims the mystery of faith: the scripture has been fulfilled. Ready or not. And come cliff or come cross, it will not be stopped.
PRAYER OF THE DAY God of the nations, Show us how to love all the people of the earth, of all colors and kinds: those with technology and without; those who make do with very little and who use many resources; those with formal education and without; those who call upon your name and who do not; so that all your children may be glorified in the name of the One who brought glory and liberty, Jesus Christ our salvation. Amen.
HYMNS Hark, the glad sound! ELW 239, H82 71, 72 Jesus shall reign ELW 434, H82 544, UMH 157, NCH 300 Praise the One who breaks the darkness ELW 843
CHORAL He comes to us as one unknown, Paul Nicholson