Today!

sermon on Luke 4:14-30

 

I want to start by saying that what Jesus does in this reading embodies my essential understanding of what a sermon is, or what a sermon does. In short, it does what it says. The words of a sermon accomplish the thing they are intending.

My sense of that is built on the Lutheran belief in the power of God’s Word as spoken in the words of a sermon (and spoken with the waters of baptism and in, with, and under bread and wine). That Lutheran trust in listening here to hear the voice of God comes from a larger biblical theology around God’s Word, that when God says “Let there be light,” then there’s light.

This also fits into broader modern understandings of how language functions, and fits into the type called “performative language.” Rather than second-order descriptions that talk about it (unfortunately, like I’m doing right now in trying to explain), performative language does the thing. When you say, “I forgive you,” that is itself the act of forgiveness. It doesn’t need to involve giving a rose or genuflecting or anything like that. When you say, “I take you to be my husband,” your words accomplish a rather large life-altering change in legal status, and may go with the smaller life-altering change “I promise to do the dishes.” Or a worse form of life-altering judgment is the forceful declaration, “You are under arrest” or “I sentence you to ten years in prison.”

So we’ve got examples of how this works, this function of language. To return more to the point, when God says something, things happen. I’ll give you two great verses from the prophet Isaiah that fit with this and with what Jesus is doing in Luke. “As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be [says the Lord] that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is.55:10-11).

Today Jesus declares, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

As you receive the words, he was saying to his audience in the synagogue, you are receiving the good news. It is a life-altering declaration offering God’s favor, changing the status of the listeners, accomplishing its purposes, succeeding in the very thing it says it will do.

And though you may be more confident in Jesus than you are in me, this understanding invites you not just to hear my voice and to doubt its effectiveness, but even now to hear the Word of God, continuing to declare this good will to you: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery and freedom, the liberating Jubilee of God’s favor.” That message did not remain in a small ancient synagogue. The word of Jesus, the true voice of God, the anointing presence of the Holy Spirit repeats, “Today, this is fulfilled in your hearing.”

I want you to hear that message for you. I want you to be able to trust and rely on God’s effective proclamation speaking to you, to recognize not only its potential to be life-altering but its potency, that that power is happening to you here and now, in your hearing.

I also want you to know this reiterated blessing from God. In the Gospel of Luke, the very first word Jesus speaks in public is “today!” This is always when God is working. One commentator reminds us of this immediacy and constant presence, saying that “’today never is allowed to become ‘yesterday’ or to slip again into a vague ‘someday’…The time of God is today…The age of God’s reign is here…the time when God’s promises are fulfilled and God’s purpose comes to fruition.”*

We don’t gather in church waiting only for after death, or to be fulfilled in generations to come, through gradual improvements of society. We don’t gather simply reflecting back on history and wondering how it would be to listen to Jesus. We gather here and now because it is here and now that God’s Word is active and bearing fruit. It is in this place that new life begins, that you are brought again into the family, that evil is stopped, that you are assured of love and wholeness. This is God’s work, and it is fulfilled in your hearing!

As good as that sounds, I can see some agitation out there, ready to protest and say, “Yeah, well, but…” You’ll point out that for all of its alleged successful performance, something seemed to fall short that day in Nazareth. You may wonder if what God’s Word in the sermon of Jesus accomplished was not so much good news, but the bad news of them trying to kill him, driving him out of the town, trying to chuck him off a cliff.

This still shows his word is effective, just as it encounters the combative effect of sin, as its goodness is resisted, as it still struggles to prove the reality and embodiment of God’s will in our world and through our lives.

See, Jesus points out that this word that is fulfilled in their hearing is not a small, personal, restrictive word. It’s not a word that follows their preferences of insiders. It’s not a word that knows the boundaries of walls and borders. It’s not a word that merely comes as a supplement for our lives to verify what we thought we already knew about ourselves.

We’d just as soon have God’s message be a congratulations, saying Keep up the good work. But this one who comes casting the mighty down from their thrones and raising up the lowly, this one who comes so that all flesh may know salvation isn’t by any means going to say your efforts have earned you a well-deserved place, that your health is because you’ve done the right exercises, that your paycheck is because you’ve studied hard and found your way into a good career, that your ease is legitimated by your skin color or your abilities or having the right political views of justice. We want credit for our good behavior or responsibility for our improvement. But God’s Word is not about convincing you to change, to shape up. God’s Word is about creating the reality of setting right relationships.

As we sang in “Joy to the World,” “he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found!” That means across humankind and throughout creation. He reaches to Syrians and Saudis and Guatemalans and Filipinos and Russians and Chinese. He reaches to Americans of all stripes, in each of our illnesses and dis-eases, or self-contented blindness and our poverty, whether of wallet or of spirit. He is anointed to share that Spirit and offer good news. Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.

So God’s Spirit is tasked with softening hard hearts and turning unwilling minds, to rejuvenate the faint and distressed, to renew all life worn down. That includes you, and it includes all. So I’ll add to Jesus’ word and remind you to buck up, not be so self-centered, to realize the inclusion of others doesn’t exclude you. This is no zero sum equation. After all, this is a God of eternal life, unending love, infinite kindness.

This is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend. And since this is one of the occasions during the year where I dwell in his words and expect them to be effective and still becoming part of our reality, I wanted to offer the last words spoken for this Today to be from him. I find difficulty, though; for all of his eloquence, Rev. King falls more on the imperative than on the declarative. He says “must” instead of “is.” His words are most frequently aimed at what we should do, while God’s Word is most ultimately in what God has done, will do, and is fulfilling today. Dr. King says “if, then” where God declares Today!

But maybe these words, from the Selma march, bridge the gap (so to speak) of those who wanted to respond to the words of Jesus by driving him over the edge and to us who want to be swept up in the spread of his blessing, to join the God who is marching on. So let’s not hear it as words of there and then, but words of here and now, especially since Rev. King begins with the apt “Today”:

“Today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world: We are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us.

“We are on the move now. The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now. The beating and killing of our clergy[people] and young people will not divert us. We are on the move now…

“Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.

“Let us therefore continue our triumph and march to the realization of the American dream…

“I know that you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.

“How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

“How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…Our God is marching on.”**

 

 

* Craddock, Luke, p62

** A Testament of Hope, p229-30

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the Strength of Sermons (and the 1st for Advent Lutheran)

3rd Sunday after Epiphany – 24Jan16

Luke4:13-21; Psalm19; 1Corinthians12:12-31a; Nehemiah8
As Pastor Sonja and I are beginning this week, it’s only fair game for the fodder of jokes about recycling previous sermons. Though you’ve heard me touted as green and eco-conscious and a care-r of creation, I’m not a recycler in that particular way.

Without the reuse or recycle, I wondered if maybe I could emphasize the reduce side of things, as in reducing my workload. So I went searching on the internet. But I couldn’t find any good sermons for newly arriving pastors, and instead came upon this for two new veterinarians:

Greetings, dear dogs and cats. It is a pleasure to be here with you. Both Dr. Sondra and I, Dr. Nate, appreciate your patience in these recent months of having to sit, wait, and stay while you’ve been eager for us to arrive. We’re grateful for those interim professionals who were with you in the meantime, for David Claws-n-Barks, Jerry Paws, and Dan Beagle. As we begin serving among you, we look forward to the opportunity to care for you in times of sickness, to administer the proper inoculations against evil and dread diseases, to comfort you amid your fears, for office visits, and also to share snacks when you are good. Finally, we are held by the promise that all dogs do go to heaven.

So I could go on like that, but I’m going to stop for several reasons. First, such work of making up playful allegory does not serve to endear me to my wife Acacia. More importantly, it’s prompting us to move toward a larger point. Almost always in sermons, we have to consider how we’re hearing words and what we take them for. That gets highlighted in perhaps an opposite way when I told you those words of veterinarian greeting weren’t originally for you, not for your situation. By claiming that it was from an old vet clinic and not church here today I’d suspect it made you hear it differently, taking it with less weight.

Now, a sermon is much the exact reverse of that, since we should receive it with utmost importance. In our Lutheran understanding (since I’m so steeped in this identity, you’ll have to bear with me as I come to understand how this works and who may or may not identify as Lutheran in these gatherings), in our Lutheran understanding a sermon is very special, among the chances to hear directly God’s Word to you and for you.

This is a very different way to hear and apply words, amid our normal reality bombarded by constant communication and lying news updates, and also especially when so much of what we hear and apply together as church are very old words of the Bible and ancient liturgy. Let’s take another couple examples to clarify this direction.

One place I like to turn is to the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It was disappointing this past week that my books were all packed away and so I was out of my normal rhythm of getting to be steeped in MLK for his birthday observance. It’s worth re-reading his words partly because he was so eloquent, such a fine preacher, and his words are still so moving.

That we’re moved by what he had to say also indicates that his words still have relevance. Partly that’s ongoing tensions and justice and rights that still demand to be worked out in our society. When he called for a “radical revolution of values” and to “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” we hear that also as a contemporary calling. We still now observe that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” we are approaching “spiritual death” from “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” We long for life, and may take those words as emphatic and inspirational, desiring to have our own lives transformed and for the church again to serve as a beacon, a headlight to guide society rather than a taillight bringing up the rear.

What gets fuzzier, however, is when we try to ascribe larger credit or source to Pastor King’s words. Can we clearly say that God was speaking through him? And is God’s Word still talking to us through this preacher who has been gone for almost five decades? What do we do when those old words are chauvinistic or simply old, more of a historical document than meeting our present realities? Where does God’s voice go then?

Obviously there is no way to delineate that, no definitive way to attribute one voice or set of words as speaking for God while eliminating another. That ambiguity is, after all, what makes this faith: it cannot be proven.

To turn to another example, we read together the words from Psalm 19. The first half is seen as a Psalm of creation, that night and day, sun, moon, stars, and even new planets are declaring and telling the glory of God, that somehow God might be identified by the sky. Yet verse 3 contradicts that. It seems to say that the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork, but we can’t understand the message. Even though the voice goes out to all, it is an unheard voice, and whatever they have to report does not sound in our ears.

Though I don’t always like it, I appreciate that distinction. We may be in awe of sunsets or aurora borealis or of deep-gazing telescopes, but we’d have to confess that these don’t directly tell us about God. We may take them as validation for what we already believe, a God of beauty, of infinite handiwork throughout the cosmos. Converse perspectives don’t shy away from labeling natural phenomena as signs from a retributive God, exacting punishment. A poster outside one of our Sunday school classrooms downstairs asks what God looks like. It features a drawing of the sun, the answer “you,” plus the polar sides of “everything and nothing.” This discernment does get notoriously complex: is the pummeling blizzard on the east coast a message of divine displeasure? Is it a supersized dose of wintry wonderland gift to be enjoyed? Is it less a factor of communicating God’s identity and more of the climate change we’re causing? Or none of these? There may be knowledge being declared, but we have a tough time discerning the message, just as the Psalm said.

Similarly for that ambiguous message in the Psalm, let’s notice the final verse, on “words of my mouth” and meditations being acceptable. That verse is frequently prayed by preachers as an opener to sermons, perhaps here, too. I don’t use it. It may be that I’m a little too brash; I learned to begin with something shocking or provocative, or just to jump right in with the big stuff. But there’s also something that leaves me uncomfortable with that pre-sermon prayer, as a bit too un-Lutheran. Again, we don’t understand sermons to be take-or-leave meditations, not just one person’s ideas about God, but words from God. Because this isn’t intended as another among polyvalent spiritual suggestions, it’s not just sentimental trivialities that can be shrugged off.

On the other hand, in sermons I have said and keep on saying plenty that’s unacceptable, words that don’t seem very godly for being so earthy or mundane. I can forget to say what needs to be said, or I’m ignorant, or I just plain miss the mark. We know that sermons have been used to hurt and exclude, to manipulate, to claim that I’m right and you’re wrong, with the heavy hand of divine sanction behind it. There is the risk of sounding or even being authoritarian, though I hope and try that you don’t hear it from me. Yet it remains a difficulty, not only when we’re gazing to the stars, but when we’re listening for God’s Word from a mortal, fallible, and occasionally absurd human mouth. I say that speaking from personal experience!

Yet these words are where we listen to have God’s will conveyed to us, meaning both what God wants from you and also what God wants for you and is working for on your behalf. Even if we’re not yet familiar with each other, still you have called me here in some major way in order to be a mouthpiece, to proclaim God’s expectations from and blessings for you.

So after all that background about sermons, how they should function and why we have them, maybe it’s time that I actually get around to doing it. For this, we have what I consider to be a prototypical and foundational epitome in our Gospel reading. Jesus has gathered with others in worship. He shares a Bible reading. And then, also giving his first sermon—one of the shortest of all time—he declares, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

If we’re searching for God’s designs and purposes, Jesus is a good place to look (and listen). He’s the heart of why we’re here. And he proclaims God is sharing good news. Today, that sermon of his might seem to have more oomph, then, than mine or whatever the skies and weather patterns are trying to say. When he proclaims that something is accomplished, we might have inherent readiness to trust that.

Yet in picking up old words from the prophet Isaiah, he says they are speaking not just to ancient circumstances but continue to be purposeful. And not only are those old words still significant, but within the sermon is when they are accomplished, when God is doing what God says God will do. So just what is God’s Word saying to you today? Well, we might be best to repeat and reiterate from Jesus: from a Bible reading that speaks of good news to the poor, release to captives, sight for the blind, freedom from oppression, and God’s favor, again I declare this good news to you: this is fulfilled in your hearing.

Some of that truly is conveyed in the words themselves. You may know and trust in God’s loving presence with you and blessing for you because these words are what they promise.

Others of that you may find fulfilled in your life or through your life. Together, we are good news people. Through this gathering in worship, we are formed into the body of Christ. You become God’s hands and muscles and, yes, mouth. This work is for you and also through you, as God continues striving to love and serve our lives and this world in so much need. Rejoice: you are Jesus people, for the fulfillment of God’s work. Amen

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