(Nehemiah 8: 5-10; Luke 4:14-30)
The title of today’s sermon is one of those comments that make preachers cringe a little. It’s a comment made especially frequently to young, fresh-out-of-seminary preachers, who are trying with all that they have to preach a transforming word. “Nice sermon, dear” usually means that the listener didn’t hear anything that might disturb them, challenge them, or change them in anyway.
It’s been said that most people’s idea of the perfect sermon is one that goes right over their head and hits the person right behind them. Do any of you remember the movie “Chocolat”? The movie tells the story of the arrival of a beautiful and unconventional chocolatier and her daughter into a very proper, strictly Catholic and very inhibited French town. The woman opens a chocolate shop right at the beginning of Lent – to the horror and outrage of the very devout Comte and mayor. The Comte sees this as a devilish infringement on the self-denial and sobriety of the Lenten season.
The local village priest, a young, inexperienced newcomer to the community (with a secret love for forbidden rock and roll), has all of his sermons read and revised by the Comte. What is spoken from the pulpit comes directly from the mind and heart of the Comte, who sees God as a God of judgement who demands the most upright of behaviour. The Comte sits in his accustomed place in the church, nodding approvingly as the young priest speaks his words to the people, secure in the knowledge that he is righteous and is doing his utmost to save the people from their folly.
It is not until the community, and even le Comte, are transformed by the celebrative and inclusive spirit of the chocolatier and her friends, that the priest climbs the stairs to his towering pulpit, and speaks the Word God has given him: that one’s righteousness should be judged, not by what we deny ourselves, but by what we offer others; that our Christianity should not be defined by whom we exclude, but by whom we welcome. It is a timely word, a word that has the potential to change everything – like the words read and spoken in the passages from Nehemiah and Luke for today.
We have two instances in which the Word of God is read and proclaimed – two examples of what it is you and I do when we gather here on a Sunday morning to consider God’s Word together. They also provide us with very different human responses to the proclamation of the Word of God. Let’s consider the Luke passage first.
Here’s a young, up-and-coming preacher, only a little older than I was when I began in ministry, ready to preach his first sermon in his home town synagogue. The rumours have been flying about him, so everyone’s ready to check him out. Jesus himself has a growing sense of what the Spirit is calling him to do and say. So he chooses as his passage, words from the prophet Isaiah – words that embody the mission he has been given. He reads those words, then sits down to teach, and what does he say? “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” End of sermon. What’s the crowd’s reaction? “And everyone spoke well of him.” Sounds good doesn’t it? Just the reaction a preacher wants.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He pushes the envelope, and starts saying some things they don’t want to hear, and they get angry – so angry that they try to kill him! That is some sermon! Not the result most of us are looking for. But Jesus wasn’t speaking to win any popularity contests. He was speaking what the Spirit called him to speak. And the people didn’t want to hear it.
Let’s look at the Nehemiah reading, which I mentioned briefly last week as well. The scribe Ezra, a teacher of God’s Law, has been asked by the people to read to them from the Books of Moses. The books had been lost in the exile, and now the people, who have been raised in the Jewish faith but have never had a first-hand encounter with the Word, have their chance to hear it. They stand in a courtyard near the temple and Ezra reads – for hours on end, with the Temple as a magnificent backdrop to his words. And do the people look at their watches and complain about how long this is taking? Do they slip out to meet their friends at the local coffee shop? No. They listen eagerly – men, women, and even children old enough to understand; they listen to Ezra, and they listen to the teachers circulating among them, explaining things in language they can understand, puzzling out the bits they’re having trouble with.
What they’re hearing is not something they necessarily want to hear. They’re hearing all the laws and commandments contained in those first 5 books of the Bible: laws and commandments that have fallen out of practice over the years of exile and mingling with non-Hebrew cultures. They’re hearing what God expects of them, and they haven’t been doing it. But their reaction is very different from that of the people in Nazareth. Do they drive Ezra and the scribes out of the city and threaten to stone them to death? No!
Their first response is one of respectful worship – they stand for the reading, then bow their faces to the ground. Their next response is to weep – for they have heard how far they have strayed from God’s will. But then Ezra declares the Good News – that this is not a time for mourning, but a time for celebration, for they have heard God’s word and they now know God’s will! They are told to calm their troubled spirits and to rejoice, to celebrate with their friends and families, and to share what they have with the poor. That is a far more appropriate response to the Word of God than the one we hear in Luke’s gospel!
Where I’m going with all this is to help you understand what it is we are about as the people of God when we come to that part of the service we sometimes call The Service of the Word, and what result we might expect. You and I, together, are proclaiming the word of God – for you are part of the proclamation. It’s my job, or the job of whomever’s preaching, to study the scriptures, to pray with them, to seek common points in our experience and that of the people for whom the Scripture was first written. It is the preacher’s job to find a way to do what all those Levites with the difficult names did in the story from Nehemiah – to help the people understand what God may be saying to them.
But there can be no sermon without a congregation. In fact, you contribute to the sermon! The way each of you hear and interpret what I have to say will be different; you bring your own meaning to the words I speak, just as I may find a different meaning in a passage of Scripture than you have found. The hope and prayer is that as Scripture speaks through the words on the page, it may also speak through the sermon, and speak through you. That is what we mean when we talk about the living Word of God.
If we look at the passages from Nehemiah and Luke, we can see that there are certain things one hopes will happen in the proclamation of the Word.
The Word is meant to Convict our hearts – to challenge us, to cast a bright light on our actions and motives, to show us where we are or are not living according to God’s will. In Jewish tradition, the knowledge of God’s law is a good thing, not a burden, because it lets us know where we stand before God.
It is meant to evoke thanksgiving and praise – to remind us of God’s ever-present concern for us; of the history of God’s action on our behalf; of the gift of God’s presence in our lives.
It is meant to point us outward – to the world and the people in it. It is meant to send us out – to share good news, to liberate the captives, to give of what we have, to bring sight to those who are blind. The gift of God’s word is meant to be shared – both by talking about what we understand God to be saying to us, and by living out our understanding of what the Spirit has anointed us to do.
The Proclamation of the Word is meant to convict us, to call us to celebration, and to send us out to serve. If that isn’t happening, then something’s not right. At the beginning of the sermon, I offer a prayer on behalf of us all that God’s word will speak to us and through us. That is what we hope for each Sunday, as the Word is read and proclaimed. It’s not about “nice sermons” – it’s about each one of us being a channel for what the Spirit is saying to the church. May God bless our speaking, may God bless our listening, may God bless our understanding, may God bless our action, this day and always. Amen.