Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sermon: Have you seen that Movie?

I really enjoyed sharing today's sermon.  I get tired of the Christian life being pared down to nothing more than a magic prayer that gets you out of the fire of Hell. If that's all it is, why does anything we're doing now matter? What's this really all about?  And why do we make Jesus seem like he's just some nice guy who had some decent stuff to say?  Didn't He Himself claim to be more than just a good Rabbi?

Here are the lectionary texts for today, followed by the audio of the sermon.  I recommend reading them first before listening.  In my tradition, the preacher does not read the scripture texts as part of the sermon, but rather a lay reader reads them before the sermon.  I did not record the lay reader's reading of the passages this morning. The full manuscript text of the sermon is after the jump.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly,[b] and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Luke 4:14-21.

Jesus Begins His Ministry

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.

Jesus Rejected at Nazareth

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Some movies and TV shows are so widely known that you can quote them in an everyday conversation with relative confidence that the person you are talking with will know what you’re referring to.
For example: if someone says to me, “I’ll be back!” I know they are quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in The Terminator, even though I’ve never seen that movie. I can build camaraderie by ferreting out all the other Trekkies in the room when I say, “Live long and prosper.” If someone says, "Surely you aren't serious!" I will probably respond with, "Of course I'm serious. And don't call me Shirley."
We can convey a great deal of meaning by quoting something from a movie.  The words themselves have meaning alone, but when we connect them to a well-known movie, they also carry the symbolism and emotion that surround a specific scene. They take on a deeper meaning because of those cultural connections. The words become representative of a story that surrounds them.
Have you ever tossed one of these quotes into a conversation and gotten a blank stare in return? I was having a conversation with my mom the other day. I thought she was being overly cheerful about something I was, admittedly, being overly gloomy about. I said something about Pumba and “Hakuna Matata.” And she simply replied, “Huh?” It just didn't seem to have the same effect when I had to explain, “It’s from The Lion King, Mother.”
In our contemporary western thinking, we miss much of the power of this passage from Luke because we aren’t as familiar with the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read or the the stories that surrounded that passage and the reading of scripture in the synagogue. We miss a lot of the cultural and emotional connections that passage surely made when He read it. We don't connect with the context of the story very well.
It’s sort of like we haven’t seen the movie that Jesus is quoting.
We hear the words themselves, but we miss out on the emotional, cultural and historical associations that those words brought about and the story that they represented.
When He stood up to read, Jesus didn't just flip to a random passage that He thought said what He wanted to say. He was handed a particular scroll just as many preachers and teachers today, myself and Rev. Purves included, read and teach from the lectionary.
In Nehemiah 8, we see this practice in action. When Ezra read the Scriptures to the people, they listened intently and responded by worshipping God. They were moved to tears by the words of Scripture, and Ezra told them to take joy because God was with them. This is the sort of story that surrounded the reading of Scripture in the synagogue.
The passage that Jesus read from in Luke was one of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies – a place in the book of Isaiah where the prophet is describing the restoration that will come when the Messiah arrives. [1]  Most Hebrews of that time understood that prophecy as the foretelling of a political messiah who would rescue them from their oppression by other nations.
When Jesus sat down to teach – a practice that can be traced back at least as far as this morning's passage from Nehemiah[2] - the people were prepared for his brilliant insight into this passage.  Word had started to get around about this Jesus and his teachings and miracles. He had just read one of the most exciting and hopeful prophecies of the Messiah and now he was getting ready to teach on it. All eyes were intent on him as the crowd leaned forward in anticipation to hear what this young rabbi had to say. 
After reading the scripture, Jesus sat down to teach, the crowd listened intently and Jesus said: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I would have wanted to ask, “Is that it? What kind of lame sermon is that? Doesn't he have anything else to say?" But that’s because I’m not a first century Jew.
It was clear to everyone listening to Jesus that day that He didn’t need to say anything else after that. The people there had spent their whole lives waiting for the Messiah and here was the carpenter’s son from down the road saying that he was the guy they were waiting for[3]. That’s a pretty huge statement!
In the Old Testament, the Messianic age was foreseen as a time of great joy. The coming of the Messiah was good news to the poor! The Messiah would bring with Him liberty for captives! Sight for the blind! The year of the Lord’s favor - the year of Jubilee when debts were cancelled and lost lands returned. The Messiah was going to end their oppression and bring forth the very kingdom of God! Jesus had just claimed that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy.
There was even significance in where Jesus stopped when reading that passage. He didn’t read the entire prophecy before giving that huge statement about being the Messiah. He stopped mid-verse rather than continuing on to a section of the prophecy that talks about God’s vengeance. He was claiming that he was the Messiah. He was bringing the Kingdom of God that the people had been promised so very long ago. But this announcement was not about judgment. He was talking about something more immediate at that point.[4] He was talking about ending the wait.
The idea of the “Kingdom of God” has been at the center of a theological tug of war for many years.  There are those on one extreme who would say that we are still waiting for the Kingdom to come, so things on Earth don’t matter very much.
We see from Jesus’ continuing teaching and actions throughout the gospels that the things of Earth do matter, though.  We are called to care for the people around us and to be good stewards of all the resources that God has given us. One day, Christ will return and we will be given new physical bodies – we aren’t to forget that all of creation will one day be made whole. We must be cautious not to be so “Heavenly minded we’re no earthly good.”
On the flipside, we must remember that nothing we do will bring forth the Kingdom of God to Earth. Jesus already came for that – that’s His job, not ours. We can’t do what Jesus already done.
What we can do is participate in what He has set into motion!
Jesus doesn’t just call us into something that will happen someday. He doesn’t simply hand us a magic train ticket to heaven and send us on our merry way. He invites us into the here and now – into the real world where God is living and active.[5]
Was Jesus a great teacher? Yes. Was he a good man? Certainly. Was that it? By saying that the prophecy was fulfilled, Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah who brought with Him the Kingdom of God that the people had been waiting for. Not only that, He was changing the story. He was revamping the entire idea of what the Messiah was going to do. There is no way to understate this claim when you know the whole story.
Later on, when the crowds realized that Jesus wasn’t the political leader they had hoped for, they were upset about the way that he was changing the story.[6]  At first, though, the people who heard Jesus say this were “amazed.” They knew that He was claiming to be the long awaited Messiah. They were completely stunned by the weight of what He said.
Are you amazed by the implications of Christ’s coming?
Do His words stun you?
Following Christ is about so much more than simply ascribing to a descent way of living life.  It’s more than studying a great moral teacher.  It isn’t simply joining a club of respectable citizens who get together once a week. Following Jesus isn’t just a backstage pass to get into heaven later on when we die. Following Christ means following someone who had the audacity to claim He set into motion the very coming of the Kingdom of God! By following Christ, we get to join in with what the Messiah is doing right here, right now!
The Hebrews didn’t get the political savior they were looking for; they got something so much greater than that!
We aren’t just following the word of a nice guy, we are taking confidence and delight in the Messiah who releases captives, gives sight to the blind and brings the year of Jubilee to all people who will listen![7]
If the Jesus we are following doesn’t seem at least a little bit outrageous in His claims about who he is and what He has come to do, we should double check that we haven’t missed some of the cultural and emotional weight behind His claim in Luke 4.
We have an exciting opportunity to participate in the story! Now matters because Jesus is alive and working in the world today and we have a chance to get involved with Jesus’ work – the work of Jesus the Messiah who brought with Him to Earth an invitation to participate in the Kingdom of God!

[1] Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (1996). Commentary on the Old Testament (Is 61:1–3). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
[2] Laymon, Charles M.. The Interpreter's one volume commentary on the Bible: introd. and commentary for each book of the Bible including the Apocrypha, with general articles. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1971.
[3] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (653). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[4] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Lk 4:16–30). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[6] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (654). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
[7] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (654). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

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