"The Shortest Sermon Ever"
There’s a story about an elderly couple that was walking out of church one Sunday. The wife said to the husband, “Did you see the strange hat Mrs. O’Brien was wearing?” “No, I didn’t,” replied her husband. “Bill Smith badly needs a haircut, doesn’t he?” commented the wife. “Sorry, I didn’t notice,” replied the husband. “You know John,” said the wife impatiently, ”Sometimes I wonder if you get anything at all out of going to church”.
People get different things out of going to church, depending, it would seem, on what they expect to get when they go there. For example, I wonder what the people who were in the synagogue in today’s Gospel reading expected to get out of the service. Certainly they didn’t expect to see Jesus stand and read a portion of Scripture, let alone comment on it. His sermon was and is one of the shortest on record-“Today, the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.
What did this message mean to the people in the synagogue? What does it mean to us today?
I have to admit I looked at this text and I sat back and wondered what I was going to preach about. It is a hard text to get your head around for a sermon. There is no dramatic story for me to break down, no wise and confusing parable for me to explain nor is there a dramatic miracle that takes place that I can just speak about. This is a simple short story about Jesus’ first sermon. The fun part of the story comes in the next verses which is next week’s sermon, so I cannot jump ahead of myself and tell the end because I will not be preaching. All I have to work with is Jesus standing up in his hometown synagogue, reading from scripture and then giving the shortest sermon ever, one line, and that was it.
I looked to see if the Epistle could help me out. It is a great text where Paul explains that we are all created differently but we all are part of one body, the body of believers, the body of Christ. Since we are all part of that body we are supposed to do our part for that body. Paul then goes into a long explanation, but to sum it all up, find your place, your role in the body which is the church and do it to the best of your ability.
Now this is not easy to do. Jesus understood his role here on earth and proclaimed it to his hometown. He returned from his baptism, full of the Spirit, and understood his purpose, why he was on earth and he starts to tell the people, beginning where he was in Nazareth, but they did not want to hear him.
When we train for the ministry we have to undergo preaching tests. We had to preach to our peers and tutors, then they sit and dissect it. Jesus would have failed the preaching test. His sermon fell short of the desired 15-20 minutes required. He didn’t have any witty comment, didn’t present any argument for discussion, and there were no three points to work on.
There was no real brilliance at all. His whole sermon was just one sentence and he delivered that sitting down. Synagogue services had a similar structure to our services. Usually there were some prayers, some readings from the Torah, some comments from the Rabbi and alms collected for the poor, so Jesus short sharp word would have been out of the ordinary.
Jesus was a good Jew and probably was a regular in the synagogue, I am sure that he knew some, if not all of the people there that day. Jesus is handed the scroll to read. He opened the scroll to just the right place in Isaiah, He read the passage, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone stared at him waiting for what was to come next, they were expecting something.
Who knows what they were expecting? Jesus hadn’t done a lot yet, He has been baptized, spent time in the wilderness, and just begun his ministry. We’re told in the paragraph just prior to this story that “report about him spread through all the surrounding country,” but we are not told what that report consisted of.
My guess is that the people were expecting something, but they had no idea what that something was.
Was the congregation in Nazareth all that different from our own congregations?
I hope we all go to church expecting something? But, do any of us really take the time to articulate what that something is?
Some, I suppose, expect to hear a good sermon. Not too long, not too short. Some expect to sing nice, familiar hymns. Some expect to be welcomed, and to see people they know and when it’s all over that there will be a cup of coffee or a sherry. (But not today!)
But, how many of us go to church really expecting the Spirit of God to actually show up? Do we expect news so good that it might shatter the despair of the poor? Do we expect release, recovery, and the ending of oppression? Or would we rather just receive a little comfortable word, a little encouragement, and nothing that will rock the boat?
Jesus opened the scroll, looked at the congregation and read:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
He sat down, and said, ‘Today these scriptures have been fulfilled in your hearing.’ In other words, ‘yes that is me. The person who is coming to do all these things that has been promised, well you are looking at him.’
This Scripture has been read by the Jews for seven hundred years... yet still they were waiting. This is the hope they clung to, all through exile and defeat and suffering. This is the scripture that gave hope them hope. A Messiah one day would come and rescue them.
In the synagogue on that day in Nazareth, ‘this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Jesus says that the waiting is finished, the promise is now being fulfilled. No matter how many times they had heard and hoped and longed for the Messiah to come; they need wait no longer.
It was a huge claim to fame – it was quite outrageous in fact.
The former North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il was well known for making some outrageous claims. In 2000 he claimed to have invented the ‘double bread with meat’ - or as we’ve known it for a lot longer, the burger. Another time, he claimed to have scored a massive 38 under par round of golf - the best Tiger Woods has ever managed is a measly 11 under par. Big claims, but ultimately false.
Christopher Columbus claimed he could get to India faster if he went west. People thought he would fall off the earth because it was flat but of course he proved them wrong. His was a true claim.
Jesus knew he was the fulfilment of the prophesy and tells the people about it. His was a true claim. He knew this scripture was about him and what He was sent to do on this earth. To give the blind sight. To release the oppressed and not just those who were socially oppressed but all of us who fall victim to that thing called sin. He was here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, to proclaim that all are set free and that the path to heaven is open.
You may well be thinking, that is all very well but what does that have to do with us?
What it has to do with us is that we are a part of that body of believers Paul wrote to the Corinthians about. In any congregation there are hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouths and brains. We are all created differently, but God wants us to seek what it is we were created for and then do it. We are not expected to perform miracles, just be the part in the body (the church) we are. Jesus could not do it without the help of the Holy Spirit and neither can we. The good news is that the role of Messiah, the supreme sacrifice has been taken. None of us have to do that.
All we have to do is the little parts, the little roles in life, the big one is taken care of. So our challenge is to find our roles, what is it that God wants me to do, and do it.