Thursday, 10 January 2019

Thursday after Epiphany

Readings: 1 John 4:19-5:4; Psalm 72; Luke 4:14-22

The homily Jesus gave in the synagogue at Nazareth may be taken as the prototype or pattern for any homily (Luke 4:16-30). The Introduction to the Lectionary identifies four aims for the homily (§41) and at Nazareth Jesus addresses all four. These aims are

1) to lead the hearers to an affective knowledge of Holy Scripture
2) to open them to gratitude for the wonderful works of God
3) to strengthen the faith of the hearer
4) to prepare them for communion and for the demands of the Christian life. 

How does Jesus’ homily at Nazareth meet these aims? First, he chose a text from the Book of Isaiah, the passage which speaks of the Spirit of the Lord coming to anoint the Lord’s messenger, deputing him to evangelise the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to bring sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’, Jesus says, and we are told that they ‘wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth’ (Luke 4:21-22). Literally it means the words about grace that he spoke. The passage from Isaiah tells of the grace, or favour, of the jubilee year in which a fresh beginning makes new life possible. They are heartened and encouraged by this. Later in the Gospel of Luke we hear of disciples whose hearts burned within them as he opened the Scriptures for them (Luke 24:32) but already at Nazareth all spoke well of him.

‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. This may be taken as the fundamental task in preaching a homily, to show how the Scripture that has just been read is being fulfilled in the lives of those who are listening.  The second aim of the homily is to open people to gratitude for the wonderful works of God. These works are read about in the Scripture readings not just to recall great events in other places and at other times but with a view to showing how they continue to be effective here and now. The Word of God is ‘sacramental’, therefore, bringing to pass in the lives of believers the realities of which it speaks. We might say that it is good news only when those who listen are helped to see how the Word that has been proclaimed is working in their lives.

Jesus preaches in order to strengthen the faith of those who hear: this is the third aim of a homily. The text of Isaiah was presumably already well known to his congregation and he seeks to interpret its meaning for them. The difference in his teaching, we are told elsewhere, is that Jesus spoke with authority and with wisdom, often confirming what he taught by signs and wonders (Mark 1:27; Matthew 13:54; Luke 13:10). But at Nazareth his preaching breaks down and the situation becomes complicated.

So what went wrong? (This is presuming that something did go wrong: perhaps what happened is an example of how effective preaching can be!) Thinking of the fourth aim of the homily, we can see that Jesus is trying to prepare them for communion and for the demands of living according to his new way, but this does not go down well with them. If there is to be encouragement in the preaching of a homily there is also to be challenge. Gracious words call to generous living: to be holy as God is holy, compassionate as God is compassionate, loving one another as Jesus has loved us.

On the one hand Jesus in his homily says that the promises of God’s grace are being fulfilled even as they listen. These promises are being fulfilled in him, in his presence among them with his teaching and his works of power. Who would not be strengthened and encouraged?

On the other hand he begins to explain the implications of this time of grace by showing how it calls his listeners beyond their place of comfort to reckon with deep and demanding aspects of God’s gracious work. He reminds them of how earlier prophets brought God’s word and power beyond the confines of Israel. His preaching breaks down as he invites them to break open their hearts and lives, to be receptive once again to the grace of the Living God. The ancient text has come alive and its blessings are welcomed but its demands are not. The mood turns from wonder to anger and he must pass through the midst of them to get away. ...

This is an extract from a longer article on the homily. The full article may be found here.

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