I began this column sitting on a plane on my way to the Holy Land (not California). This is my second trip leading a group of students and alums from Luther Seminary along with my colleague, Kathryn Schifferdecker who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary. The trip includes the usual stops — Galilee, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, but of course, this is no usual trip.
As many of you know, a trip to the Holy Land is a life-changing experience — visiting the holy sites, hearing scripture read at the locations where the stories, says tradition, took place, listening to the stories of the living stones who continue to give witness to the meaning of this land — is nothing other than a most extraordinary life-changing trip.
But it is also a life-changing experience because we are reminded again — and we do need many reminders — that Jesus himself was a life-changing experience and that we have a life-changing God.
Three weeks into the new year, your resolutions to change your life may be waning. The exercise plan, the healthy eating, the additional prayer time, more intentional sermon prep perhaps all seem a little less capable of the hopes you had for them. Enter Luke 4 — a reminder that our life-changing call does not always have to be for the sake of improving ourselves, but for the sake of uplifting the other. A reminder that our frequent attempts to set out to change our lives are often done in the absence of the one who changes lives. A reminder that the possibility for life-change often demands dependence on another, and not our incessant insistence on independence.
Jesus’ sermon in his hometown of Nazareth is not only a life-changing sermon, it is a life-changing act. God has now entered the world as flesh so that no human can be overlooked. No one can be left in a place of oppression. No one is unworthy of God’s good news.
Remarkably, we visited Nazareth this week and read Jesus’ sermon in his hometown. We also visited the Basilica of the Annunciation and read that passage from Luke. Reading the Annunciation to Mary and Jesus’ sermon side-by-side, in Nazareth, makes you realize that these were life-changing moments for Mary and Jesus. In fact, perhaps “life-changing” is an understatement — and that’s saying something. Life-changing is a pretty radical claim. When your life is altered, transformed, reborn, well, that’s a rather big deal. We need to take seriously what we mean when we say something, some event, or some one, is life-changing. A life change brings about the alternate, which for many of us seems so out of the range of possibility — release from our captivity, sight when we have been blind, generous when we have hoarded, belonging when we have known isolation.
Those to whom Jesus preached his first sermon? They don’t need a better life. A rehabilitated life. An improved life. They need their lives to be turned upside down so that what was old knows only newness again. They don’t need a new diet, a new regimen, a new commitment to good habits that for various and sundry reasons have gone by the wayside. They need to know that God sees them, God regards them, God looks with favor upon them, because when that happens, it is life-changing. And when you are poor and oppressed, when you are disregarded and discriminated against, when you are regularly rejected and reviled you don’t need a life-improvement plan, but a life-change. And that’s what the Gospel is all about.
What will it take for you know, for you to believe, that you don’t need a life-improvement program, but a life-change? We are far more comfortable with talking about the gospel as a self-help, self-improvement project; a step-by-step guide to being a better Christian, a better disciple, a better pastor, a better preacher; some good advice as to how to grow a bigger church, bigger programming, and a bigger budget. But Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is not for those who want to make their lives better but for those who need to be set free to live the life God wants for them, the life God sees as possible for them, the life they want to live, but have never known the freedom to make happen –- or never been given the gift and opportunity to imagine it.
Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is a life-changer. Our preaching is life-changing. Do you really believe that? When you get into that pulpit, are you truly convinced that what you are doing, preaching the favor of God for all, will change lives? Or are you stuck, maybe needing a life-changing sermon yourself so that your preaching life might actually be changed?
Then, let Jesus preach to you.