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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 02/03/2019

Those of us who preach know that some of our sermons are better than others. It’s just the way it is when you write week after week, year after year trying to come up with different ways to pretty much say the same thing. Some weeks you’re inspired and it really comes together and you feel like you’ve nailed it, other weeks you have to settle for “This is the best I can do this week.” What’s interesting for me though is, based on your comments, sometimes the ones I think are really good aren’t the ones you have much to say about and vice-versa; sometimes the “best I can do this week” ones are the ones that seem to have greater impact. When I think about it though, using Luther’s doctrine of Law and Gospel, I suppose I could just stand up here and say, “You’re a miserable sinner, but…Jesus loves you anyway. Amen,” and leave it at that. That is the basic message, and presenting it that way would save time.

Anyway, I’m glad that my sermons aren’t graded every week; there are times when that could wind up being quite humiliating and embarrassing. But…let’s do something else. While we trust that in Word and Sacrament Jesus is present among us this morning, since he’s not here in the flesh, let’s grade Jesus. Let’s grade the sermon he gave when he preached at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, the second half of which we heard in today’s gospel. How did he do?

First of all you have to give him points for brevity; people are critical of sermons that are too long but I don’t think anyone is ever criticized for a short sermon and this one is very short and to the point. Jesus didn’t use a lot of words to say what he wanted to say. I’m sure that no one fell asleep so we commend Jesus for that.

Jesus is also to be applauded for knowing his material; he knew scripture. In what we heard last week he read from the scroll of Isaiah and to further illustrate that text, in today’s reading he drew from First and Second Kings with stories about Elijah and Elisha. What he did is called “letting scripture interpret scripture” and Jesus did it very well; Martin Luther would have been proud of him as scripture interpreting scripture was an important principle for him.

Jesus also knew his audience which is another important part of preaching. Sometimes Jesus preached to “the crowds” which makes for a more non-descript audience but at the synagogue it’s not a non-descript crowd of people; it’s people from Nazareth, no doubt many who had known him since he was a young boy. Knowing his audience, Jesus crafted a message that was not simply generic, but was geared to them and for that he also is to be commended. At the same time, a point of criticism arises; Jesus might be might be questioned about the appropriateness and timing of what he said.

The task of preaching is sometimes described as either comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable. In his sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus clearly goes for an afflicting the comfortable sermon. Having been around these folks he perhaps had heard them take pride in being part of the chosen people and maybe he heard them make derogatory statements about those who they presumed weren’t. So…Jesus decided to challenge their understanding of who is included in the people of God with his stories about Elijah and Elisha ministering not to insiders, not to the chosen people of Israel, but to outsiders, the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian.

We can give Jesus points for being bold, for daring to take a risk and for challenging the people…but we might also say that his timing was bad. Those people were there to like Jesus; they were there to celebrate his increasing notoriety and in the synagogue or in the church we need those times when worship is a celebration, baptisms and weddings, installations and ordinations; but Jesus ruined it for them. The preaching professor might say to him, “You should have let them have their moment. That wasn’t the best time to lay the insider/outsider thing on them.”

You could compare it to a pastor beginning a new call. He or she might have formed some initial impressions of things the church does well or not so well, things they like about the congregation or things they like about how worship is done but also things they might want to change; but you don’t go on the attack at your installation or in your first sermon. The advice is to go slow, develop your relationships with the people, build some trust and then after awhile, you can challenge them, you can initiate change. Having established a degree of trust, when it’s appropriate you can afflict the comfortable and they’re more likely to hear it constructively rather than wanting to throw you off a cliff because of what you said.

So we might criticize Jesus for his timing but another thing he did really well was to preach the text and let people connect the dots and draw their own conclusions. The conclusion they drew was the one Jesus was aiming for; they did connect the dots which indicates that his approach was effective even if it did wind up being a threat to his health and well being.

In various books and journals that I read there’s a lot written about preaching truth to power. That can mean a lot of things but basically it means not being afraid to say what needs to be said, not being afraid to address controversial issues, in other words, not being afraid to give people more than sweet nothings every Sunday. My old friend Walter Brueggemann has written quite a bit about this and, I think it was when he was here, someone asked about how directly one should take on such issues. His response was that someone like him could do it pretty directly, he could name names, because as he preached or did speaking engagements, he was leaving town when he was done. If he upset someone, so be it; he was gone.

For a parish pastor though, he said it was more difficult, because more than likely you want to be around for awhile; you don’t want to risk being thrown off a cliff, you don’t want to have to leave town the next morning. His advice then was to do exactly what Jesus did at the synagogue in Nazareth, which was…to preach the text and let people draw their own conclusions; some will get it, some won’t but it’s really a version of the old Emily Dickinson thing of “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Jesus did that very well in this short sermon and when you think about it, he was a master of telling it slant. He almost never gave a straight answer when asked a question, but instead he told stories and left the people to chew on what he said.

On the whole then we can give Jesus a good grade on his sermon; I don’t think we would dare do otherwise and there is much to commend. One question I would want to ask Jesus though, is where is the gospel in this sermon? Where’s the good news? Being Gentile outsiders there seems to be good news for us as Jesus introduces the idea that the people of God are more numerous and inclusive than had been thought. We hear that as good news, but what about the people of Nazareth? As Jesus passes through the midst of them following his sermon, good news is apparentlhy missing as he leaves them filled with rage.

In reality though, if we properly connect the dots Jesus puts out there, our situation might not be all that different than that of the people of Nazareth. We’re not bothered by grace being extended to a widow from Zarephath or to Namaan the Syrian as the people at the synagogue were, but we have to ask, who are the outsiders that do bother us? Who are the outsiders we would like to exclude as recipients of God’s grace and mercy? Seeing ourselves as part of those who are included, if we’re honest we have to acknowledge that we have people or groups who do bother us, who we would like to exclude or at best to include begrudgingly.

Connecting the dots, it may be that there’s not much good news here for us either. However, that doesn’t make Jesus’ sermon a bad one. It is more law than gospel, but as Martin Luther said, it’s the law that shows us our need for the gospel. To quote him directly, the law is preached “so that people are first killed by the law and all their arrogance is destroyed. Thus they may know themselves and become hungry for the Spirit and thirsty for grace.”

There are several instances in the gospels where Jesus opens the eyes of the blind and figuratively that’s what he does in this sermon. For the people of Nazareth and for us, as we connect the dots, our eyes are opened to our insider/outsider arrogance. Further connecting the dots, we come to know ourselves, we see ourselves as we are and we recognize that we are in need of God’s grace. It’s through the law that we get to the gospel.

So, if Jesus were asked, “Where’s the good news in your sermon, where’s the gospel?” in typical Jesus fashion he might say, “You tell me.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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