Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from
our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. On behalf of our Senior Pastor, Mark
Nuckols, and the entire congregation, I welcome you to St. Paul Lutheran Church. We pray that your time at this year’s Texas District theological convocation
will enrich and enhance your work in service to Christ and His kingdom.
One of the things they neglect to mention in the
seminary recruiting materials was that—one year, one week, and one day after
you give your first sermon in the Office of the Holy Ministry—you may be given
the “opportunity” to preach before an assembly of many fellow pastors,
virtually all of whom are far more experienced than you are.
Furthermore, this service would be a part of a
theological convocation in which preaching is the primary topic.
And, to top it all off—in addition to members of the
district leadership and staff being present—did we also mention that the two
primary presenters at the convocation would be the academic dean from the
seminary you attended, and a professor who holds a chair in homiletics at the
sister seminary? But, hey—no pressure!
At least I do not have to do it in my hometown, in
front of all the people who have known me for years, who watched me grow up.
That’s the situation in which Jesus finds Himself in our Gospel lesson from
Luke 4 this evening. Following His own baptism, he’d been led out into the
desert to be tempted by the devil.
After that, St. Luke gives us only two brief verses to
account for Jesus’ ministerial activities prior to this episode in Nazareth:
"And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit
to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding
country. And he taught in their synagogues, being
glorified by all." (Luke 4:14-15)
Then Jesus is back home, in the synagogue in which
He’d grown up. “Local-boy-makes-good” is the expected headline of the day.
Handed the scroll of Isaiah, perhaps they want to give Him a chance to hit one
clear out of the park. After all, who couldn’t do a great job with Isaiah,
right? If Isaiah is the “Fifth Gospel,” as we sometimes refer to it, then it’s
clearly the only one of those documents then available to early 1st
Jesus doesn’t disappoint at all. Reading from what we
know today as chapter 61 of Isaiah, He gives a powerful statement about
freedom, about the granting of great blessings which would seem to meet a great
many people’s physical and emotional needs:
“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
It if were anybody else but Jesus speaking, we might
say that He had a flair for the dramatic. After reading these words, Jesus
quietly rolls up the scroll, hands it back, and sits down without a word.
We’re told that the eyes of everyone in the synagogue that day were fastened on
And isn’t that ironic, considering what happens
later in the story? Their eyes were fixed on Jesus.
Unfortunately, they weren’t fixed there because they
viewed Him as the author and perfecter of their faith, as the writer of Hebrews
would encourage several decades later.
But fixed on Jesus they were, and He opens his
commentary on this passage not with isagogic information, but with a claim of
divine selection: That in the reading of this important prophetic passage from
the scriptures, He was fulfilling the prophecy! That He was a prophet Himself!
Yet they don’t take offense at this claim. In fact,
the opposite is true:
"And all spoke well of him and marveled at the
gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this
Joseph’s son?”" (Luke 4:22)
Then Jesus begins speaking again, and it becomes clear
that He’s not there to be a crowd-pleaser. In the course of a couple of
paragraphs, He turns their favorable comments and marveling minds to
condemnation and fury. They drive Him from their synagogue, out of their town,
and if they’d had their way, they would have driven Him right off the edge of
the earth, from life itself. All because His words to them—words not of anger,
but of truth—gave them offense. Yet it wasn’t yet Jesus’ time to die, so He
passed through the mob and took His message elsewhere.
“Why didn’t Jesus leave well enough alone?” we might ask. He had those people in the palm of His
hand, hanging on his every word. Isn’t that what proclaiming God’s message is
all about? Aren’t we supposed to capture hearts and minds, telling them the
Good News about the salvation God has prepared? How can we do that if we
The fact is: If we’re emotionally healthy, we all
want to be liked, deep down. Pitiable and sad is the person who intentionally
seeks to be at odds with others, to have difficult relationships, to be
rejected and despised. Yet even more to be pitied are those who strive to
maintain cordial relations with others at the expense of their integrity,
or—worse still—at the expense of the integrity of God’s Word.
Should Jesus have left well enough alone that day in Nazareth?
Thankfully for us, Jesus never leaves “well enough
alone”—whether in Nazareth or Jerusalem, in Texas or in our very own lives. He
knows that nothing is ever “well enough” to be left alone, because when we’re
left on our own we’re going to goof things up. We’ll take the easy path.
We’ll look for a shortcut or a compromise. We’ll soft-sell things so as not to
make waves, give offense, or create a confrontation.
Sometimes we do those things when we’re dealing with
others—as husbands, as parents, as friends, and even as pastors. And often
we’ll even do that when dealing with our own sin. We can be masters of
rationalization, coming up with all sorts of great reasons—even pious-sounding
reasons—why we gave in to sin.
That’s when we, like the people of Nazareth, need to
have an encounter with the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord came. He
indeed preached good news to the poor, and proclaimed freedom for all of us who
are captive to sin. Yet, before that good news can have the proper impact and
effect, we often need to be clobbered over the head with that rolled-up scroll
of Isaiah—indeed, with the whole scroll of God’s counsel, as did the people in
the synagogue that day.
Jesus didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear. He
tore down their walls of self-righteousness, and threw two tablets of stone
through the display windows they used to show off their own works. He told
them what they needed to hear, and for that He is more faithful over God’s
house as a son than was Moses as a servant.
We, too, are servants in God’s house and seek to serve
faithfully, yet we know that we will regularly fail. Our preaching, our
teaching, and our carrying out of all the duties of our calling as
servants of the Word will—too often—be walls, rather than windows for
the Holy Spirit. And this can occur even when we aren’t aware of it, and
especially when we’re in denial about it.
But walls aren’t really much of an obstacle for Jesus,
are they? Whether walls of wood and brick in upper rooms, where disciples hide
in fear, or walls of stone that would vainly prevent the Son of the Most High
from descending into hell to declare His victory, Jesus can transcend any
obstacle. He even can break down those walls erected by those of us who seek
to serve him.
In spite of our shortcomings, the work of Christ’s
kingdom will prosper according to God’s perfect will. We need only trust that
He who has overcome sin, death, and the power of hell will enable us to
accomplish that which has been set before us.
We may never know with certainty whether our preaching
is at times a wall for the Holy Spirit, or at other times a window. That in
large part depends not only upon how we present God’s word, but also upon how
others receive it—with hearts of hardened stone or hearts already crushed and
despairing over sin.
But we also know without any doubt that the Holy
Spirit’s work will be accomplished without our reason and strength, and without
any merit or worthiness in us.
I very much like the title of this year’s theological
convocation, and I hope it’s not being presumptuous or contrary to offer
another architectural analogy here. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that walls
are often difficult to penetrate, and windows can be very cumbersome to climb
through. Yet our Lord and crucified Savior, whose body could not be held by
the stone walls of the tomb, nor kept from those He loved by the walls of their
hiding place—He tells us that He is the door for the sheep, and they
will enter through Him and be saved. Through Him, they will come in and go
out, and there they will find good pasture where they will have life, and have
it to the full. That’s where we are to fix our eyes in the synagogue. That’s
where we are to marvel. That’s where we are to speak well of Him.
I close with these words of encouragement, which the
Holy Spirit provided to St. John, a disciple loved by Jesus every bit as much
as He loves you. St. John applied them in sustaining a struggling pastor and
congregation in his own lifetime:
“Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to
shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and
have not denied my name. Behold, I
will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are
not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and
they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you
from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” (Revelation 3:8b-10a)
Rejoice, then, dear and holy brothers. We do
share a heavenly calling, and it is Jesus—that apostle and high priest of our
confession—in whom we hold fast our confidence, and of whom we boast in our
hope. God grant it for His sake. Amen.