UCBR January 24, 2016, “Fulfilled”
A new preacher was about to deliver his very first sermon to the congregation and was extremely nervous. The senior minister caught up with him just prior to going out in front of the crowd and offered some tips and advice on how to ease his anxiety.
"Here is an old minister’s trick that I am going to pass on to you. What you do," the senior pastor said, "is dump the pitcher of water out and fill it with gin, vodka, or some other alcohol that looks like water. You can sip it as you go through the sermon and that will help ease your nerves and you should get through the sermon with no problems." [Never one that I’ve used!!]
So the new minister pours out the water and fills the pitcher with vodka. As he gets up to the pulpit and looks out over the congregation his nerves start to get the better of him, then he remembers the pitcher. He immediately downs a full glass and then fills it up again. As he proceeds through the sermon, continually sipping his vodka, he starts to relax and cruises though the remainder of his presentation.
After he is done, the senior pastor that offered the advice came up to him and said, "That was a . . . very . . . interesting sermon you gave today. I have a few things that you might want to correct for next time though:
-you take little sips, not gulp the vodka.
-There were 12 apostles not 10, and 10 commandments not 12.
-Jesus Christ and his disciples should not be called "J.C. and the boys"
-The Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit should not be referred to as "big daddy, junior and Casper the friendly ghost!"
The first sermon is a memorial and pivotal moment in the life of a newly-minted preacher. You have been educated up. Call by God to proclaim the word. You have spent hours praying and studying the text. More study and pray time is poured in the actual preparation of the sermon – some estimate 1-2 hours for every page. Some gifted preachers are able to commit the sermon to memory. Others slave over a manuscript, making sure every “t” is crossed and “I” is dotted. We perseverate whether the message is too long, if it is appropriate, or will be well received. We practice, pouring our hearts into the words and praying the spirit will transform them into living message that touches the congregation’s heart. I have preached numerous sermons but I still remember my first: on those yellowed, now brittle pages are still hand-written notes to myself to breathe, relax, even a note to smile – all to encourage myself that very first time I preached.
Then we have the example of Jesus, who comes forth filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, after spending a time of discernment and temptation in the dessert. He prepared for forty days. He is a living word and he returns to Galilee teaching in the synagogues and is well received.
Then Jesus comes to his home synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath. He is given the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, to read, and deliberately selects the text proclaiming “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..” then proceeds to announce a mandate:
- To bring good news to the poor
- Release to captives and prisoners
- Recovery of sight to the blind
- Freedom for the oppressed
- The proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor – the Jubilee year, which according to Leviticus 25, a Sabbath of Sabbaths, was to occur every 49 or 50 years. In the year of the Lord’s favor slaves were set free. Lost lands returned. Debt cancelled. Farms and fields get a Sabbath rest.
The Year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee, was never successfully, fully implemented. There were minor attempts, here and there throughout history. Yet it is this very law that Jesus hones in for his first sermon at Nazareth. Eyes fixed on him in anticipation; Jesus gives what must be the shortest sermon in recorded history: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The unobtainable mandate, the living out of God’s favor in human relations, social systems and in creation, is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus certainly fulfilled George Burns notion of a good sermon, when he quipped: “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.”
Still, it must have been electrifying to hear Jesus’ words, as electrifying as we are told the exiles who had returned home to Jerusalem felt when they gathered to hear the scriptures read by Ezra, and heard the interpretation of what it meant to be a covenant people returned to their home. Both Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest told the people, who were bowing and worshiping upon hearing the Law of Moses, not to weep. But the people wept because their heard their heritage read to them. God’s promise to be faithful was fulfilled on that day. It was a new day. They could now start over. Remember, Ezra told them, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
So Jesus, like Ezra, preaches a word for the people to understand and for which their hearts long for. Like the exiles who had returned home to rebuild the ruins, to resume life, to reclaim their spiritual heritage, the people in Nazareth are being called by Jesus to join him to fulfill the word Jesus spoke – messianic words from an ancient prophet, building on the Law of Moses. The year of God’s favor that has not never been achieved – ever. The unfulfilled law, now in Jesus is fulfilled.
Jesus could have chosen a triumphal text, a fire and brimstone text, but he didn’t. Instead he chose an unattainable text, at least unattainable by human means. Everything else about Jesus, his death, his forgiveness of sins, his healing ministry, his miracles, only makes sense in light of the knowledge that Jesus fulfills God’s favor. Everything Jesus does is to fulfill God’s favor – to restore the reign of God on earth – just as Ezra and Nehemiah worked so hard to restore and rebuild the Jewish community in Jerusalem, upon their return from Exile.
Jesus’ first sermon was his vision for his entire ministry, and what he wants for us. Jesus is preaching to us today – to be fulfilled. For all of us are captives to one thing or another. All of us are blinded – by our ignorance, by apathy, by hate even -- to parts of the kingdom of God that Jesus would have us see. All of us are oppressed in some fashion – by our upbringing, our education, our lack of knowledge of the word or the world, by health or financial conditions --- why, we are probably even blind to the ways our lives are oppressed or held captive to either sin or conditions that would leave us unfulfilled. Jesus proclaims he is here to fulfill. Enable us to see. To become free. To hear good news. To know God’s favor. This is a message for each of us and all of us.
We are only a few weeks from the first presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. For months we have been feted by Republican and Democratic hopefuls. Everywhere we turn we see their faces and hear their soundbites. We have seen each of their visions for the country; how they understand the problems we face and have their assurance that they will lead us back to greatness and glory.
Perhaps as we prepare to vote, it would do well to measure the grand statements of our politicians against the simple but powerful message of the carpenter Jesus. To bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, not just for one class of people, for but all. To fulfill God’s vision for the world, not a mere human one that might exclude or favor one group over another.
Jesus’ first sermon, spoken in the first century, echoes timeless themes that our hearts can still grasp and pray for. They ring true for the conditions of oppressed and refugees clamoring for help around our word.
To the ongoing blindness to another’s suffering or the blindness to see other’s struggle, when there is plenty in this world for all to have a simple, decent life.
To strive for a world that is truly free – not just freedom of speech, worship, movement, to assembly, of the press, to equal justice, and yes the right to bear arms and have private property – but what about the freedom from worry from how you will feed or educate your children; keep them safe from gangs and street violence.
How about the freedom from having to choose between paying the rent or eating? Or the freedom to go to a doctor and be able to afford to see a doctor or dentist or a hospital stay, or pay for medicines without having to wipe out a life’s savings.
The freedom to have a fulfilling life, with a social and spiritual structure that supports us instead of working against you.
These are freedoms that Jesus laid out in his first sermon. A vision that all peoples could be fulfilled. This is a sermon worth pondering, re-reading, holding on to and signing up with. This is the sermon to measure the words of our presidential hopefuls against.
It is a sermon Jesus lived, died and rose to fulfill. May we live for it too, and for its unfolding to be fulfilled in our time. Amen.