The Point of the Sermon

I’m always curious about what people hear in the sermons their pastors preach.  It is fascinating to me that one person will tell me how this one part of the sermon really spoke to them.  But someone else will tell me that it was something completely different in the sermon that they needed to hear that day.

And sometimes, people will let us know that we’ve preached about something that has made them feel uncomfortable…or unhappy.  We hear about that too.

When you get a group of pastors together, the conversation will often turn to sermons. We wonder: “What do our people expect from our sermons?  How would they like a sermon to touch their lives?”  And, then we wonder: “How does what people want, align to what God wants us to say?”  There can be a natural tension there.

But over the years, I’ve noticed some common themes.

  • Some people want the opportunity to think about a biblical passage in a new and fresh way
  • Some people want good, funny stories that make a point
  • Some people want Bible study
  • Some want inspiration from a sermon; to walk out feeling uplifted.
  • Some want to be challenged to draw their lives into closer parallel what Jesus teaches
  • And some think that the very best sermons are those that give them something that’s easy to remember, a nugget, something they can take home with them

There is no right or wrong answer.  It is different for each of us.  And I’ve learned that two people in the same room, hearing the same sermon, can hear totally different things, depending on what’s going on in their lives.  I believe that’s how the Holy Spirit often works!

Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is all about how people’s expectations sometimes don’t align with what is preached.

Jesus has been invited to return to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth to preach.  We actually have very few accounts of Jesus preaching. We know that he preached, but this is one of those few places that we hear his Words.

It was evidently a nice worship service. Jesus is leading it well.  He is the hometown boy. He has the people eating out of the palm of his hand. They were all so proud of him.

As was the practice, they give Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He was to read the words of promise from that scroll, and then to preach on them.

Jesus read: “‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to preach the year of God’s favor. Those words have been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

There must have been a stirring in the congregation when Jesus read those stunning words. Israel had suffered for so long! But finally, this long-awaited time of deliverance, foretold by the prophet Isaiah, would be fulfilled.  This is God’s promise!  This is good news!

Jesus rolls up the scroll and sits down to preach.

And that is when the trouble started.

To paraphrase, Jesus says: “The prophet Isaiah promised that God is coming to deliver the faithful.  You do remember the last time that God came to us, right? It was during the time of the great prophet Elijah, during the great famine.  There was not enough food to eat, and the women, the children, the widows were all hungry.  But Elijah, God’s prophet gave food only to a single, Gentile, pagan woman?”  No food was given to those hungry, faithful, Jewish women and children.”

Jesus says these words, and immediately it’s like all the air gets sucked out of the room. And you can almost feel the adoring, hometown congregation become silent and sullen.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to say: “And many good, faithful Jewish people were suffering from sickness during the time of the prophet Elisha, but God’s prophet healed none of them. Only one, a Syrian Army officer; a foreigner…unclean…unchosen…impure…was healed.”

Well, that apparently pushes the crowd over the edge.  Luke writes that “When the crowd heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran Jesus out of town. They led Jesus to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.”

Throw him off a cliff?  Wow, I’ve had negative reactions to some of my sermons over the years, but never has anybody in the congregation tried to toss me over a cliff!  Hashtag: “overreaction!”  (Thank you, by the way, for never trying to throw me over a cliff!)

Why did the congregation in Nazareth become so upset? What turned their initial adoration into a murderous rage?

It was the difference between the crowd’s expectations, and what Jesus actually preached.

The congregation in Nazareth surely expected to be reminded that they were numbered among the chosen.

  • Down through the ages, they had remained faithful.
  • They had worshiped God, even though God had seemed distant.
  • They had remained steadfast in their faith, even when they wondered where God was in the midst of their problems.
  • They felt like they had earned their reward.

But that day in Nazareth, the young, hometown boy preacher reminded the faithful that during the days of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, God had worked the other side of the street. God had worked compassionate wonders, not for the chosen people, but for pagan outsiders. God had shown mercy to those who did not worship Israel’s God.

Theologian Barbara Cawthorne Crafton wrote that: “this (story)  collides with the cherished notion of Israel’s chosen-ness. Once the people realize the direction in which Jesus’ thought is heading—that their status as Israelites is not a determining factor in God’s love—things go south in a hurry.”[1]

Could it be that Jesus was challenging them a little bit?  Could it be that he was wondering if perhaps their sense of entitlement was getting in the way of their faith?  I think so!

Jesus was reminding them that God was free to show mercy to whoever God wishes; to love whoever God chooses to love.

There, my friends, is the good news, the Gospel!  Yes, God did love the Jewish people.  Every single one of them.  But at the same time, Jesus was saying, God loved the gentiles…the unclean…the outsiders.  And while it may not have felt like good news to the Jewish faithful, who wanted that gift reserved for themselves, it was Good News, for all of God’s children; Jews and Gentiles, pagans and Romans, Lutherans and Catholics and everyone in between.

Jesus is reminding those he preached to that day…and us…that God decides what news, is Good, and who it is for.

I’ve told you before about a former colleague of mine who had a little piece of cross-stitching framed, and hanging above his desk.  There are lovely floral patterns in the border, and the text embroidered into it said: “Remember, there is only one God, and you are not it.”

That reminder is kind of what the folks at Nazareth experienced in Jesus’s sermon that day. They arrived at the synagogue with their expectations of who God was and how God, worked firmly placed inside this metaphorical box that they had created. But then their preacher, Jesus, using nothing but scripture, blew open the walls of that box.  God does not fit in our boxes, our expectations.

So let me tweak just a little bit, my original question: “What should you expect from a sermon?”

And here’s my answer:  A good sermon should remind you that no matter who you are…no matter where you come from, no matter what language you speak, the God of love is with you…and is close by, even when you can’t sense it. And this truth is for all of God’s people.

Sometimes in sermons you get helpful hints for better living.  Sometimes you receive answers to your most pressing questions. But always…always…you get is the gift of being with the God who, in Jesus Christ, has chosen to be with you.

Jesus, the good Jew that he was, reminded us that we cannot pigeonhole God.  It’s not as if the Syrians have their God, and the Jews have their God and the Romans have theirs.  God cannot be “boxed” in that way.  There is only one God. And our God is determined to be their God, as well. And God does not fit into our expectations, or our limitations.  God is God.  And we are not.

I remember that when growing up back at Diamond Lake Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis, I’d go to my senior high youth group pretty much every week.   And Pastor Phil would lead us in these Bible studies.  And we’d talk about what we thought God would, could or should do…and Phil would say back to us “I think your God is too small…I think your God is too small!  God’s vision, God’s dreams, God’s hopes are way bigger than that.”

Let us be open to the size and the scope of God’s great love.  Let’s remember that God is not limited by our imagination, or our sense of entitlement.   And God cannot be squeezed into our expectations.

God’s love, Jesus preaches, is way beyond these human limitations.  It is more than we can understand; more than we deserve.  It may surprise…even shock us.  And let that be our Good News, our sermon, for today.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

[1] Barbara Cawthorne Crafton; Feasting on the Gospels; “ Luke 4:21-30; Theological Perspective” Westminster John Knox Press, 2014; p. 104

[2] This sermon was significantly influenced by the writings of Wil Willimon, a bishop of the United Methodist church

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