Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
If statistical research and everyday conversations are any indicator of real life, then the most important thing I do in my work is preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon. Hours of study, prayer, and writing go into each fourteen hundred word text. This summer, I took a class on preaching that was co-taught by Duke Divinity professor and Episcopal Priest, Lauren Winner, who noted that preaching presents a unique opportunity in modern life. With TVs and iPhones and cars that have Internet access, the average American will rarely, if ever, choose to sit and listen to another human being talk for 15 minutes, except for Sunday morning. Dr. Winner was adamant that “There is no excuse for not taking seriously the extreme privilege that preaching is.” I get that, which is why I work so hard to craft the sermons I preach. I also know that a 2007 study from LifeWay Research says that 87% of church-shoppers say preaching is the most important factor in their deciding where to worship. Again and again, studies by Episcopal seminaries say that the number one thing people want their priest to be able to do it preach a decent sermon. I really don’t think human beings have changed much over the last two or three thousand years. I think preaching has always been an important part of the religious life of the faithful.
It was certainly important for Mark and his Church. This morning we hear Mark’s story of Jesus’ first public act, and what do you know, he preached a sermon. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to the congregation gathered at the First Synagogue of Capernaum, but we know their reaction: “they were amazed at his teaching for he taught as one having authority.” I imagine the people in the crowd that morning weren’t that unlike you and me. They’d come to Synagogue for all sorts of reasons. Some where there hoping to find healing from a deep hurt. Some were there hoping to see and be seen. Some where there because their grandmother had made sure they went to Synagogue on Saturday and their grandfather had built the place with his bare hands. They’d come to the Synagogue in all sorts of conditions. Some where there hoping to hear the voice of God. Some where there hoping to shake off the cobwebs of a late Friday night with friends, hoping for forgiveness for another week. Some were hopping mad at their children for putting up such a fuss about getting dressed.
No matter the reason, no matter the mood, the congregation in Capernaum headed off to Saturday morning services expecting what most of us expect on a Sunday morning, routine. Whether you’re a Baptist, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a non-denominational type, a Muslim, or an Episcopalian, everyone heads to their weekly worship service expecting it to look like it did last week. The folks in Capernaum, like most of us this morning, came ready for a fairly predictable liturgy: a reading from the Bible, some prayers, a few songs maybe, and a sermon that would either make them feel warm and fuzzy or make them think, just a little bit, but not too much. What they certainly didn’t expect was Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus is exactly what they got.
It wouldn’t have been unusual for a guest preacher to be asked to speak. Travel wasn’t easy, so when you had someone from out of town, especially a Rabbi, it made sense to invite them to share a word. Presumably, Jesus would offer greetings from the Synagogue in Nazareth, news he had learned on his journey, and a brief reflection on a safe text. I’m sure when he was introduced as being from Nazareth; the reaction was not unlike Nathaniel’s from two week’s ago: a groan or two, maybe some eye rolls, and someone muttering under their breath, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But then Jesus began to preach, and it was unlike anything they had ever heard before.
Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but a few verses earlier, he did offer the crux of Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.” It wasn’t that this was a new teaching, but it was the way he said it. It wasn’t like the preaching of the Scribes: who had to rely on their brains, their studies, and the Holy Spirit for the words they said. No, Jesus spoke with conviction, with a new authority. He spoke as if the message about the kingdom of God was fulfilled in his speaking – as if his saying it made it so. There was a depth and a power to his teaching that was unrivaled, even by the best preachers: the John the Baptists, the Billy Grahams, the Michael Currys. Jesus spoke and immediately everyone sat up at attention, amazed at what they heard.
I wonder what would happen if Jesus showed up to preach at Saint Paul’s this morning. Would we be inclined to listen? Would we sense the same authority and depth the folks in Capernaum realized? Would we find ourselves amazed? Or would our experience be more like Jesus’ first public act in Luke’s Gospel, also a sermon. This time, he isn’t in Capernaum as a guest preacher; he’s in his hometown of Nazareth. Having preached my first sermon in the congregation in which I grew up, I can tell you how that goes. As you stand up to preach, the people start to smile. The congregation is transformed into proud adopted parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles as they await your first word. My first sermons there were awful, but the people were so kind. “Great job,” “I’m so proud of you,” “You’ll do great things,” they said to me. Jesus looked out on that hometown crowd and said to them basically the same thing he said in Capernaum, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.” “Great job,” “I’m so proud of you,” You’ll do great things,” they said, but Jesus kept talking. The kingdom wasn’t going to look like what they thought it should look like. He wasn’t going to bring his hometown buddies riding in on his coattails. Much like in Capernaum, the crowd in Nazareth recognized the authority of Jesus, they sensed his conviction, and they felt the weight of his words, but in Nazareth things went south quickly. The room flipped from proud smiles to enraged scowls in seconds, and Jesus was run out of town.
Are we ready to answer the call of Jesus to repent and believe in the good news? Can we hear about freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the forgiveness of sins for all people without getting nervous? Are we willing to let Jesus challenge our preconceived notions about what the world should look like? Or are we hoping that he’ll offer us a safe word, one that might make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at worst make us think, just a little bit, but not too much? Are we ready for the sort of authority that Jesus claims over our lives: about how we vote, how we shop, and more importantly, how we treat our neighbors and our enemies? Are we willing to have our lives changed by Jesus, or are we stuck in the same old ways of living that lead only to death?
We are all here this morning for different reasons. We’ve arrived here having dealt with all sorts of different things. Some of us are tired and in need of rest. Some of us are excited and looking for a way to channel our energy. Some of us are here to get our card punched for the week. Some are hoping to be changed. Ideally, all of us are here expecting to encounter Jesus of Nazareth. In word and song and bread and wine, we come and ask God to enter into our lives, to usher in his kingdom and to set us free from anger and sadness; from routine and boredom; from the way of selfishness and death. Are you ready to hear the voice of Jesus? Or would you rather keep things safe and easy?
 I’m grateful to Scott Hoeze for helping me imagine this scene. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel#sthash.5WeKqYDU.dpuf