2022 Jim Somerville
Preaching the Truth
First Baptist Richmond, January 23, 2022
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.
Back in the mid-nineties I went to something called the College of Preachers on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral. I went to see if I could learn something from Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who had just been named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. Barbara was a brilliant teacher, and somewhere during the course of that week-long workshop she handed out brown paper lunch bags to each of the participants. She told us that the sense of smell had tremendous power to evoke memories, and then she told us to open our bags and smell what was in them (which we did very cautiously). Each bag held something different; my bag held a small, round tin of shoe polish. I opened it and smelled it and immediately I was transported thirty years back in time, to the laundry room of our family home in Wise, Virginia, where I sat on the linoleum floor, polishing my Buster Brown shoes before Sunday school.
If memory serves I was also studying my catechism, because I was a little Presbyterian kid in those days and a catechism is “a manual of religious instruction arranged in the form of questions and answers, used to instruct the young.” In my case it was a little pink paperback copy of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that began with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” followed by the answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s what I was doing while I was polishing my shoes on the laundry room floor at the age of six: I was studying my catechism and saying out loud, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever!” I wanted to be ready for Sunday school, although my mother (who was also my Sunday school teacher) would have told you that I should have shined my shoes and done my homework the night before.
Today we turn to the story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue, from Luke, chapter 4, and the more I think about that story, the more I think about Jesus going to that synagogue when he was a little boy. I don’t think he polished his shoes on the floor of the laundry room, but he, too, may have may have been studying for Sabbath school. He may have been memorizing verses, or getting ready to answer his teacher’s questions. At Temple Beth-El, just a few blocks down Grove Avenue from here, they offer “Tot Shabbat,” described as “a lively session for little ones and their parents with music, stories, and games!” And back when my friend Ben Romer was alive he always tried to make sure that children were included in everything.
I remember visiting his synagogue on a Friday night, for their regular Shabbat service. Maybe it’s like this in every synagogue, but at Congregation Or Ami, when it was time to read from the Torah scroll, everyone got very excited. Someone who may have been a deacon opened the special cabinet where the scroll was kept and lifted it into his arms like a very heavy baby. It was covered in blue velvet, embroidered with Hebrew letters, and as he paraded it around the room people would reach out with their prayer shawls, touch the scroll, and then kiss their shawls. But it wasn’t a solemn thing; it was a joyful thing—like a party! People were clapping and singing in Hebrew, and I don’t know what they were saying, but it sounded sort of like (to the tune of Hava Nagila), “We’ve got a Bible! We’ve got a Bible! We’ve got a Bible, Yay, good for us!” Yes, good for them, because a Torah scroll—which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, hand-lettered, on sheepskin parchment, with a quill pen—can cost as much as $100,000. It’s not something you take for granted.
When the parade was over the Torah was brought to a big table in the center of the sanctuary where Rabbi Ben carefully removed the blue velvet cover. Then he unrolled the scroll and began looking for the lectionary reading of the day (yes, there’s a Jewish lectionary, too). When he found it he invited the children to come and join him. And that’s when I noticed all the little step stools under the table; the children came and pulled them out and climbed up on them so they could see what Rabbi Ben was reading. He took out a silver pointer (because you wouldn’t want to touch the actual scroll), and began to point to individual words and explain what they meant. I remember that he pointed out one word that had been corrected. He said, “Do you see this? Where the scribe left out a letter? We think that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes in it, but the scribe who wrote this scroll left out a letter right here and then he went back and tried to squeeze it in. Do you see that?” And they crowded in close to see. If I use my imagination I can almost see Jesus as a child, in his hometown synagogue, leaning in close to look at the text as the rabbi explains the reading.
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom,” Luke tells us. Did you get that? It was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. That’s just what he did. And he had been doing it since his parents brought him home from Bethlehem. He continued to do it through his childhood and young adulthood. He was still doing it when he was a full grown man.
It was his custom.
And when he walked into that synagogue in Nazareth that day everything would have been familiar to him: the smell of the sputtering oil lamps, the worn pulpit furniture, the face of his rabbi, the collection of sacred scrolls. We know that they had a Torah scroll in that synagogue— you couldn’t have a synagogue without one—but thanks to Luke we also know that they had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and I suspect it was one of their favorites. I can imagine them bringing it out every other Sabbath and asking someone to read from it. And I can almost picture Jesus as a boy, and then later as a young man, leaning in to savor the words of the prophet. I think those words shaped his life. I think they informed his ministry. And I don’t think he was alone in that.
I believe that we, too, are shaped by worship, and formed by Scripture. When we bring our children to church, when we present the first graders with Bibles, when we teach them to read and help them to understand we are saying, “This is important. It matters. If you make this a habit it will shape who you become.” And we are speaking from experience. I remember telling some of our new members, “There is something very special about coming to worship and sitting in a pew for an hour each week, about opening your mind and heart to receive a word from the Lord. It’s a way of acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, that you need some help, and that you are listening for the voice of God. That’s powerful.”
I read an article recently in which Alan Jacobs, a distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, made the claim that “Culture catechizes.”[i] There’s that word again. Did you hear it? The same word from which we get catechism? He said, “Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters. Our current political culture has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing—television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts among them. People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.
“On the flip side,” he said, “many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all. They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate.” But as Jacobs points out, even those pastors who really are committed to catechesis get to spend, on average, less than an hour a week teaching their people. Sermons are short. Only some churchgoers attend adult-education classes, and even fewer attend Bible study and small groups. Cable news, however, is always on. “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week,” Jacobs asked, “and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out?”
That’s not a problem limited to the faithful on one side of the aisle. “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” Jacobs said. “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”
But when people’s values are shaped by the media they consume, rather than by their religious leaders and communities, that has consequences. “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred,” Jacobs argued. “They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.” [ii]
Jacobs knows about places like that. He is a faithful Christian and a committed churchgoer.[iii] I believe this place is a place like that, and I believe that when Jesus came to Nazareth, he, too, came to a place like that. He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He had been doing it his whole life. From the earliest days of childhood he had sat within the walls of that synagogue and allowed his life to be shaped by worship, formed by scripture. He was catechized not by culture, but by the Word of the Lord. So, when they handed him the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, he knew exactly what to do with it, and he knew exactly where to find what he was looking for. He unrolled the scroll to the place where it said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And when he looked up from reading he saw people wiping tears from their eyes. Because of all the beautiful passages in the Book of Isaiah, this one, from Isaiah 61, would have been one of their favorites.
Biblical scholar James Sanders once described it as “the going passage of the time,”[iv] and, just as we do, these people had applied it to themselves. Living under Roman occupation, crushed under the heel of Tiberius Caesar, when it said that God was going to send someone to preach good news to the poor they said, “That’s us!” When it said that God was going to send someone who would proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, they said, “Us again!” When it said that God was going to send someone who would let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor they said, “Again, that’s us!” So, imagine how astonished they must have been when Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
There was a long pause between those words and the next words in this chapter, and we’re going to take a long pause—a full week—before we come back to what happened that day in Nazareth. But I’m preaching a series called “the Truth about God,” and the truth I want to share with you today is this: God is still speaking. You find it in our Old Testament lesson, when people begin to weep as they listen to Ezra read and interpret the Torah scroll. You find it in the Call to Worship from Psalm 19, which says, “the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” You find it in today’s Gospel lesson, when people were stunned by Jesus’ announcement that God’s word had been fulfilled. And you find it in church, when children are given Bibles, and encouraged to read every word.
This year I’ve encouraged our adults to read every word of the Bible, and I want to tell you why.[v] Just after I came to First Baptist I had coffee with one of our members who said, “I love what you’re saying about bringing heaven to earth, and I want to do that, but I don’t know where to begin. There’s just so much I’m angry about.” I said, “Tell me more.” He said, “Well, I listen to talk radio in my car, and the more they talk the madder I get. I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do.” I said, “How long is your commute?” He said, “About 45 minutes.” I said, “Let me make a suggestion: instead of listening to talk radio, try listening to the Bible on CD, and then let me know how it’s going.” I saw him a few weeks later and his face was almost glowing. He said, “I did what you said! I started listening to the Bible in my car!” “And…?” I asked. He said, “I’m not mad anymore. In fact, just the opposite. I feel like heaven is coming to earth inside my car!”
Your experience may be different. The Bible isn’t easy to understand. You may need some guidance along the way and this is a good place to get it. But the truth about God is that God is still speaking, and the only question is this:
Are we still listening?
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[iv] James A Sanders, God Has a Story Too: Sermons in Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 71.