Tom Long tells the story of an incident that occurred in a church one Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. The minister had just finished reading the scripture lesson and was taking a deep breath before launching into the sermon when suddenly, a man, a complete stranger, stood up in the balcony and startled everyone by proclaiming in a clear, loud voice: “I have a word from the Lord!”
Shoulders tensed and heads swiveled around and upward to see the source of the interruption.
What “word from the Lord” did this man possibly have to bring to the people on that day?
Well, no one will ever know, for the ushers, says Long, “bounded like gazelles” up to that balcony, and before the man could utter another word, they had escorted him down the stairs and out the front door.
Now, with Long, I don’t blame them. I understand. The apostle Paul said we ought to do things with some semblance of order, and his was way out of order. Who knew what this guy had in mind. But it does cause me to wonder a little bit.
Isn’t it strange? Sunday after Sunday countless preachers in innumerable pulpits spread out their sermon notes, clear their throats, and begin their sermon, saying, or at least implying, that they have a word from the Lord. And nobody tenses. No heads swivel in alarm. No ushers leap into action. Instead, people sit back in their pews, crease their bulletins, silently check their watches, and settle back for the sermon. For that is what you’re expecting isn’t it? A sermon. Right? Not a word from the Lord.[i]
This is exactly how it was on that Sabbath day in Nazareth. Joseph’s son Jesus was home for the weekend and had been asked to read the scripture lesson from the prophets and to preach the sermon. The congregation knew Jesus well. They knew his parents and remembered him as a little boy. They were no doubt proud of the reports that had filtered down from Capernaum and other towns about his preaching and teaching. So, they settled back in their pews to hear what this articulate young man had say. What were they expecting? A sermon. Right? Not a word from the Lord.
Part of the reason I believe we expect a sermon instead of “a word from the Lord” is that as much as we do not like admitting it, we really would prefer not to hear such a word. We prefer a simple sermon. We prefer some nice religious words, some nice sweet thoughts to help get us through the week. What we expect is a little “chicken soup for the soul.” Some good advice to help make our lives run a little more smoothly, some encouraging words to help get us through the week.
A word from the Lord is completely different. A word from the Lord is disruptive. A word from the Lord is uncomfortable.
A sermon can be can be easily forgotten and even completely ignored. But, a word form the Lord must be heeded. A word from the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword. For a word from the Lord is news, real news. It is news that turns our whole world upside down. A word from the Lord changes everything and forces us to adjust our lives to that change.
It has been said that most people who pick up the newspaper every morning or watch the evening news are not so much interested in the news as they are in confirming that the world is pretty much the same as it has always been. “Democrats are still not cooperating with Republicans and vice versa.” “It’s going to be windy today, again.” “There was another small earthquake in Fairview.” “The Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions are still not going to the Super Bowl.” “Yep, that’s the way the world is, it’s the way it always has been, and it is the way it always will be.”
I am afraid that is why many of us come to church. We do not go to church to hear any news. Instead, we go to church to have the things that we have always believed about God confirmed. We listen to the sermon to have the way we have been practicing our faith all of these years affirmed. We’d really prefer not to hear anything new. We’d rather not hear anything that challenges our beliefs, calls the way we practice our faith into question or creates any urgency to change. We are really not interested in hearing any real news.
For real news is unexpected. Real news is surprising. Real news is disturbing. Real news means the world is not the same as it was yesterday; therefore, I cannot live my life in the same way. A word from the Lord is real news.
It is news that demands change. It is news that demands a complete reordering of priorities. It is news that causes us to see the whole creation in a brand new way. It is news that moves us and mobilizes us to take some kind of action. It is news that often requires sacrifice. It is news that necessitates us doing things that we do not want to do and going to places that we do not want to go.
So, thanks but no thanks. Preacher, I think I’ll be just fine with a simple sermon instead. Either say some words to reaffirm what I already believe or maybe give me a little antidote that might help me live a happier, healthier life. Give me some good ideas that might fix some of the things that are ailing me.
I am afraid we often want a sermon to be like some new prescription drug that has just been FDA approved. Much like the ones whose benefits are being touted these days on nearly every other television commercial.
Do you have frequent heartburn? Are you tired of being tired? Is depression making you depressed? Do you have trouble going to sleep? Do you have difficulty waking up? Do you want to avoid diet and exercise? Do you want to lose weight and still enjoy the foods you love? Is it painful for you to walk your dog? Is your hair falling out? Do you have a going or a growing problem? Do you need to put some excitement back into your relationships?
And then, in nearly every commercial, after the person begins taking what they asked their doctor to prescribe, there is all of this exuberant celebration: dancing in the streets; jumping up and down; digging for clams; running around in the yard with your dog and your water hose; even sitting outdoors and watching the sunset while holding hands with your significant other in separate bathtubs!
As a pastor, I oftentimes wonder if this is not how we oftentimes promote church. If you channel surf through the religious channels, you will find that there is no shortage of preachers who sound like they are spokespersons for some new drug. “Are feeling depressed? Are you drowning in a sea of debt? Are you empty inside? Does your marriage need a boost? Then pick up the phone and make your pledge, send in your check, and sit back and wait for God to pour out God’s blessings!”
I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were probably expecting when they showed up to hear Jesus’ first sermon back in hometown Nazareth. They came expecting a sermon, a little pat on the back, a little stroke of the ego, a little feel-good-pick-me-up to get them through the week, not a word from the Lord.
So, when Jesus stood up and began to speak, no shoulders got tense. No ushers tried to muscle him out into the street. People smiled and whispered to one another how proud they were of this their product, and how Mary and Joseph must be tickled pink to have such a fine son.
They came expecting a little sermon. But instead of a sermon, they got a word from the Lord. Jesus began to say things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
The crowd gets really quiet! Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘difficult,’ did he? I thought God was all about making things easy! I thought sermons were about making us happier.”
“Love your neighbor, including your enemies. Be a blessing to the poor and to all who hunger and thirst for justice. Stand up for the liberty of those oppressed and bullied by culture. By the way, people will persecute you for that, utter all kinds of evil against you for that, but pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself. Don’t just hear these words, but do these words.”
And then, his words began to sink in. “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. Not yesterday, not in times gone by, not someday, but today. Fulfilled. Not read nicely, heard sweetly, or barely remembered, but fulfilled. In your hearing. Not in somebody else’s. Not just in Abraham’s, Moses’, Elijah’s, and Deborah’s, but in you.
And the Word of the Lord was also not just for them. Jesus said it was for all people. It was also for outsiders, foreigners, those marginalized by society, widows and lepers and others who were not a part of their synagogue, their faith, or even their culture.
And it then became obvious that this was not just another simple sermon. This was a word from the Lord. This was news. Real news. God had come. God is present. Here. Now. Today. God is here, and God’s love is for all people, even for the lepers of Syria in and the widows in Sidon.
The world was now changed, for the Word of God had come, and the Word had come for all people. The Word of God had been made flesh and was now present in all its demanding fullness. And you could fight it, you could try to hurl its presence off a cliff, or you could accept it, you could follow it, but there was no way on earth you could ignore it.
Each Sunday morning, our worship is about the gospel truth, the amazing good news, that God is alive and present to us this day, as alive and present here as Jesus was to those worshippers in Nazareth. Thus some shoulders here this morning should be a more than a little tense, for there is work for us to do!
God is here! God’s kingdom is now! God speaks words of love and of grace, of mission and of purpose, of vocation and of duty, that are fulfilled in our hearing. Words that, if we listen and respond, will send us out from the pews into the public square to transform our world.