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Sermon for St. Andrew's, Madison, February 3, 2019. Here are the readings!
My children fancy themselves experts of sermons. To be fair, they have had a lot of experience. But also, to their mind, the secret to sermons is not especially complicated. When asked what makes for a good one, they won’t hesitate to tell you: “The shorter the better.” Perhaps their wisdom resonates with you.
Now, I don’t want to mislead you. I have no intention of satisfying my kids’ high standard for preaching this morning. Instead, I want to look with you at the exception that proves the rule, the mystery of Jesus’ super short first sermon to his hometown of Nazareth, by the end of which the people are ready to throw him off a cliff.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it. Nine words. One sentence. Well, that and a couple of somewhat hostile off-the-cuff remarks made in the receiving line. “Pretty words, preacher,” the local folk say, but it is by no means clear they mean this as a compliment. The next minute it’s, “Off with his head!” The response is as sudden as it is confusing because, per my kiddos, it shouldn’t be happening - he preached for less than five minutes, even counting the addendum! What exactly went wrong? This is important. If we can’t find consensus and peaceable agreement around even the shortness of sermons, what hope is there for anything or anybody in this mad, mad world in which we live?
So what did go wrong? I’ll confess, if I’ve learned anything about preaching in twelve years of doing it, it’s there’s no telling or predicting what folks sometimes hear, much less get upset about. On the other hand, the Spirit also has a regular habit of helping people hear things and opening our hearts in ways more edifying than the preacher ever intended or knows. That’s a grace and gift of God. All that is to say I don’t know what went wrong for Jesus that day. Peter’s first sermon wasn’t much longer and featured that masterfully poetic opening - “we’re not drunk!” - and over three thousand people were converted. Life, it seems, is not always fair.
I figure the best we can do as far as this particular preaching mystery is concerned is explore the surroundings, some details. Details like Nazareth, the hometown that gives the preacher problems. Not surprising, really. After all nobody does paternalism quite like parents! Familiarity can be an unforgiving filter through which to try to speak a new thing. Details like the particular words Jesus claims for his own with that super short sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This scripture, the one he’s fulfilling, comes from Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
But wait a minute, what’s wrong with that? It’s not original, maybe, but it’s not plagiarism, either. He cited his source. Maybe there’s something else… Good news to the poor? Sounds fine to me. Release to the captives? Politically complicated, maybe, but I’m not opposed in principle. Recovery of sight to the blind? Absolutely. Physically and metaphorically, both. Let the oppressed go free? Yes! Again, working out the particulars will no doubt require some effort, but nothing we can’t and shouldn’t get behind. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? Sure. But what does that mean? Isn’t proclaiming the Lord’s favor just a flowery expression for all that comes before it?
Weirdly, no. “The year of the Lord’s favor” is a phrase familiar to Jesus’ first listeners, and it has some baggage. I’m not saying enough to kill a preacher over, but it’s worth a second look.
The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee was the year in Hebrew Scripture, occurring after seven sets of seven years - every fifty years - in which the people were told to hit the reset button. Debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and property rights were returned to previous owners. Physical forgiveness of actual debts. If you had lost your future to a string of bad decisions, today it would be returned to you. If you had cost someone you loved their livelihood by the choices you’d made, today they would be restored. If you had cheated your neighbor and not gotten caught, this day of Jubilee would come as both the reminder and judgment that illicit gains could only take you so far.
So Jubilee spoke freedom but also a critique of the game people so often turn life into. Jubilee built on the logic of Sabbath, that once a week rest that temporarily paused human striving and remembered the God of creation, actively deferring one’s sense of identity, belonging, and value to God. Both Sabbath and Jubilee call the People of God back to their true identity and trust in God. Sabbath and Jubilee practiced the trust the people had learned through 40 years of desert wandering, the Exodus from Egypt, when God fed them manna in the wilderness, that daily bread that could feed them, but could only be kept for a day, before the maggots spoiled it. Do you remember? It had to be gathered again each new day. The same daily bread Jesus tells his disciples to pray for. One day at a time. Forming lives of living trust in the living God. Jubilee is the giant reset button to our every effort to live this life not mindful of our daily dependence on and relationship to the living God who loves us. Jubilee is an invitation to trust God with our lives and put down every way of being in this world that takes out mistrust of God on our neighbors by fear, exploitation, and violence.
It’s honest and important to note that scholars aren’t at all sure Israel ever actually observed the Jubilee; only that Scripture records God telling Israel to observe the Jubilee. So Jubilee isn’t so much an insight into Israel as an insight into the God of Israel. Jubilee reveals God’s heart and desire for God’s people and their common life together. In God’s heart and desire, there is forgiveness of heavy debts. In God’s heart and desire, there is mercy for stupid choices and bad luck alike; there is remedy for injustice. In God’s heart and desire, there is an open-handed posture to which God’s people are invited, one that models that all things come from God and so are gifts of God, intended for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people. In God’s heart and desire, most of all, there is that deep trust of God. Because the people trust God, the people can give back and share even the things the laws say they own. Because God’s people belong to God, they learn that they belong to one another, too. It is into this celebration, this self-revelation of God — bizarre to us and to them - that Jesus enters and self-identifies. Jesus is perpetual, embodied Jubilee. Not every fifty years, but always. Here, in his person, and in the community he gathers, the people called ‘church,’ of which Christ is the head and for which Luke is glad to offer extended details in the sequel to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles. Buy your copy today! Jubilee in his presence. Not every fifty years, but always. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
There are lots of places in the Christian life where love of God and love of neighbor connect, overlap, and intersect; Jesus’ short sermon is one of those important places. Jesus names the ways relative categories like status, success, possessions, and positions - social, political, even religious - make it hard to remember to trust; make it hard to be honest about our need of God and our neighbors. In other words, what we celebrate as love is often self-interested and deeply in need of healing. There’s a reason why they chased him to the edge of the cliff. But to willingly forget our need of God and our neighbor - to forget that our life and death is with our neighbor - is to forget what it is to be made in the image of God; it is to forget both who we are as God’s children and the generous, abundant life to which God calls God’s children. It is easy to forget. We gather today and as often as we gather to remember and be re-membered. In Jubilee, in Jesus, God resets the score and invites us to reimagine the game we thought we were living as one of being held by, rooted in, and made to share the love God makes known to us in Jesus.
The name for the people so gathered and called is ‘church,’ and our life begins around this table where the one whose life is Jubilee calls us to be present to his presence in our midst. Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, help us meet your presence with our own unguarded lives, today, right now, and always.