Jesus’ first sermon

Good morning, Friends!

We’ve been looking at some of the early stories of Jesus’ life. Today, let’s look at another of these very early stories, about the first message Jesus gave in his own home church.

After Jesus had been tempted in the desert, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:14-21

I don’t think we’ve ever read this story together, in the whole time that I’ve been here. I’m not sure why. It’s one of my favorites.

The first time that you ever stand up to preach is a challenge. You’re never the same again. It’s one thing to listen at worship. It’s another thing to feel that you’ve been given a message, and that it’s not just your own message, but a message from God.

Even if it’s as simple as standing up during open worship and saying, “God is love, and that’s all I have to say!” it’s still a big moment.

Some people wind up speaking often at worship. Other people may take years.

Some people feel so intimidated that they never speak in worship, their entire lives. I always feel that’s not right.

Every one of us has a message from God, at one point or another. I know it can be scary. But every one of us has a spark of the Spirit. And even if it’s just a few words, we need to be faithful, and speak.

Years ago, I saw a poster in a Quaker meetinghouse, which affected my whole life. I memorized what it said: “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.”

Preaching doesn’t always mean you’ve got every word planned and figured out. It means that you feel a nudge, a whisper that won’t go away.

You feel that this is something you need to say now, whether it makes sense or not. You don’t feel peace till you say it.

Not every sermon is like that. But the best ones are. Quakers say it’s better to say just a few words, if they’re faithful, than to say a lot of words, that are just hot air.

Quakers also say that God’s people can tell the difference, between something that’s inspirational, and something that’s truly inspired. Some messages are nice, and that’s OK. But a real message has that extra feeling. And God’s people can always tell the difference.

Back in Jesus’ time, worship was both similar and different to the way we worship here.

Every year, Jews were supposed to go to the Temple in Jerusalem, to offer sacrifices. That was something which went all the way back to the time of Abraham, a couple of thousand years before.

But during the time when the Jews were in exile, a new kind of worship had sprung up.

The Law of Moses said that there needed to be ten people, gathered together, to worship. And Jews interpreted that to mean that every time there were ten people or ten families, they could form a new congregation. So, instead of these mass events at the Temple, instead of these huge festivals, the Jews had evolved a new way of worship, called the synagogue.

Most synagogues had more than ten families. But every Jewish town might have many of them. A dozen, or a hundred people might gather on the Sabbath. And instead of a sacrifice, they came together to pray and to learn.

A synagogue service would always start with a prayer from the Ten Commandments: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. . .”

Then one of the elders would offer another prayer. Then there would be a reading from the Five Books of Moses. They had a schedule each week, so that all five books would be read in rotation, over a period of three years.

It was an honor to read the Scripture! If you one of the people who were chosen that week, you’d go down to the front. The leader would hand you a scroll – all books were scrolls back then. You’d unroll it to the right place, and read.

All the books of the Old Testament were in Hebrew, of course. And by the time of Jesus, most people didn’t speak Hebrew any more.

So, there would be someone standing next to you to translate, one verse at a time, while you read.

Then, after the reading, one of the elders would explain the reading, and talk about how it applied to peoples’ daily lives.

The explanation was almost as important as the Scripture itself. If there was a distinguished guest there that day, a teacher or someone who had traveled, they might be invited to give the explanation.

The custom at that time was to stand up whenever you read the Scripture, and to sit down when you were teaching or explaining.

That’s exactly what Jesus did. This was his first message, in his home synagogue. Everyone was listening to what Jesus said.

Jesus read a verse from the prophet Isaiah, from Isaiah chapter 61. Isaiah was talking about the future, when God would send a savior, the Messiah, to save and lead and redeem the people of Israel.

Jesus read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He read it, and then he sat down. Everybody was eager and listening, to see what he would say.

Nobody wrote down the whole sermon. But the basic idea that Jesus put across was, “This is a prophecy that just came true, today. Today is when it happens. Here is where it takes place.”

And if you think about it, what Isaiah said is pretty much what Jesus did.

Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit. Jesus preached good news to the poor.

He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and bearing heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light . .” (Matthew 11:28-29)

Jesus proclaimed freedom for prisoners – not just people who were locked up in jail. Jesus brought freedom to people who were prisoners of illness, prisoners of fear, prisoners of hunger and brokenness and addiction.

Jesus helped blind people see, and deaf people hear, and lame people walk.

Jesus came to set people free – not just from political oppression, but people who were judged by society, people who had never felt free in their whole lives before.

And Jesus never said, “You’re going to have to wait hundreds of years for all this good stuff to happen. Today is the day!”

When Jesus was born, the angels sang, a whole gigantic choir of them – “Peace on earth, good will to all people!”

Wherever Jesus went, he talked about the kingdom of Heaven. He talked about a new life, a life that begins right now and lasts forever.

People asked Jesus how to get this new life, and he said, “Turn your life around! You’re heading the wrong way. Stop doing things that are wrong. Forgive each other, and God will forgive you. Give to the poor. Don’t just say you trust God – do it!”

And Jesus backed it up, by showing people it was real. He fed people. He forgave people. He healed people, everywhere he went.

Jesus didn’t just preach a message. He lived a message. He reached out, and he taught people, and he forgave people, to his dying day.

That was his first sermon. And at first, everyone thought it was great. They were amazed, and they congratulated him, and they shook hands with his family.

But then, somebody noticed that in part of Jesus sermon, he said that it wasn’t just the people of Israel who God looked after. They noticed that Jesus had used a couple of examples about God blessing and helping foreigners.

That didn’t go over too well. And later on, Jesus went out of his way to heal the son of an immigrant family, and the servant of a Roman officer.

It’s OK if Jesus forgives my sins, but what if he forgives the sins of people who commit adultery? What if Jesus forgives the sins of crooked tax collectors who betrayed their own people to make themselves rich?

When the people in Jesus’ home synagogue heard what he was saying, some of them stopped thinking, “This is great!” They started thinking, “This is blasphemy!”

In fact, if you read on past today’s story, it says that a mob tried to take Jesus out and lynch him, by throwing him off a cliff.

Jesus’ first sermon almost got him killed. Some of his later sermons had the same problem. What’s good news for some people, is bad news and blasphemy to others.

But Jesus slipped out of their hands, and he made his way through the crowd, and left town.

As they used to say, “A prophet is without honor in his own country. . .”

Some people heard Jesus with joy. Some people heard Jesus and got angry, angry enough to kill him.

But, I don’t want to discourage anyone from preaching! I have read through the entire gospel, many times. And I think there’s always something important there. Sometimes it’s just for you. Sometimes you feel in your heart God wants you to share it.

Always remember that God has made you one of his messengers. You may be the person God wants to speak today. You may have the opportunity that no one else has, because you’re there, and you’re a Christian.

God may have no one else to speak the right word, and you need to get it right. Not just what you think, but what God thinks. And not your prejudices, but God’s love, and God’s mercy.

You may not preach every Sunday. But God calls you to preach, good news, every day.

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