When I entered the seventh grade, I had, for the first time in my school career, a choice of electives. I chose Drama, and the first role I ever had was that of the nefarious Squire Blackheart in a fairy-tale comedy called “The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew.” To my surprise, it turned out I was quite good, and after our performance, I found myself in the wondrous and terrifying position of being mobbed by gushing eighth-grade girls. It was a degree of triumph I would never repeat, but thus began my flirtation with theatre that continued through high school and into college. I say “flirtation” because I met some friends along the way for whom it was a full-fledged romance. They were destined for a lifetime of waiting tables in New York City, and going to thousands of auditions, for the sake of the occasional minor role. And I was never one of those.
I did dream of being an actor when I was younger, just as I dreamed of being a rock star, and a jungle explorer, and a quarterback. But by the time I was an adolescent, when the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” starts to take on a little more gravity, it was clear to me that, while I enjoyed my time in the theater, it wasn’t my life’s work. What I did not have the foggiest notion about, however, and would not for years and years, was that it was training for my true vocation. I did not know it, and would have laughed in your face if you’d told me so at the time, but I can see now that it was part of my training to be a preacher.
There are skills I learned doing school plays that I still use every week: simply being comfortable speaking or singing in front of a crowd, for instance, or projecting my voice to fill a room; how to vary the inflection of my voice for dramatic effect, or the use of comedic timing. In preaching, as in acting, there is a text to interpret—in one case, the script of a play, in the other a passage or passages of scripture. But what the actor and the preacher do with their texts are very different. The task of the actor is to enter the text, so that the character she plays takes possession of her, and comes to life on the screen or on the stage. This draws the audience into the world of the play, to know human emotion and human experience with a vividness we rarely match in our real, everyday lives.
But a preacher’s job is not to draw her listeners into the biblical world, but to bring that world into ours. So, in a way, the sermon that Jesus gives in Chapter 4 of Luke is the essence of Christian preaching. Like any good preacher he begins with his text, in this case, Isaiah 61. He also has a sense of drama. When he finishes reading he sits down, and for a moment he says nothing, holding the attention of the room, letting the tension build in the silence until time itself seems to stop, waiting to hear what he will say. When he does speak, he does not break that tension. If anything he heightens that moment of suspense, so all the meaning of Isaiah’s text can enter it. And what Jesus says is that these are not empty words. They are full. They are full of the power and truth of what is happening to you in this place, right here, right now.
They are words about a mission, that is moving in the world by the proclamation of good news. News is about what is happening now, and it is good when it is about what is breaking forth from this time, from these circumstances, that bears the fingerprints of God. We can recognize those fingerprints because the purposes of God are consistent and unwavering. God’s purpose to preach hope and victory to the poor, to announce release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed, was the same in Jesus’ day as it was in Isaiah’s and still is in ours. And yet these are just words, just words in a book unless someone makes the proclamation.
So when Jesus says “today this scripture is fulfilled,” he is talking about himself. He is announcing that God has sent him, for the purpose that has always been there, for anyone to read in the law and the prophets. His words are full of the Spirit’s creative power and so they give the grace that they declare. Jesus’ preaching is not about good news, it gives good news, opens eyes, frees the captive and oppressed. It inaugurates the year of the Lord’s favor, on an ordinary Sabbath morning in Nazareth of Galilee.
But Jesus is also speaking about his audience. This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing, he says. And this little added prepositional phrase, literally “in your ears”, is as central to Jesus’ preaching as the rest of it. It poses questions to his hometown neighbors that they can only answer for themselves—did you hear me? Do you believe that I fulfil the words the prophet said? Or are you still holding those words at a distance, as if they belong to another time, another life, another world?
These questions have not lost their significance, not least because the prophetic mission that Jesus claimed for his own has lost none of its urgency. The news for the poor today is just about as bad as it ever was. There are still countless captives waiting for release, and oppressed people dying to be free. What may be less clear is how these ancient stories can speak to them, let alone to us. And I guess that’s work that falls to me, as a preacher—to try to make that connection. It’s no small task, under any circumstances, but to do it week after week after week is the hardest thing about my job. I think it may also be the most important. There is an element of craft involved, as with any other kind of work, and the longer one does it, the more confident and skillful in that craft one becomes. But I must say, and forgive me if this sounds immodest, that I could not do it without the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The first of these gifts is a simmering discontent, a questioning and thirst for liberation that will not go away. It’s a dissatisfaction so thorough that drugs cannot tranquilize it, and therapy will not heal it; meditation will not calm it, and political ideology won’t explain it away. It is a questioning that will not be satisfied with any answer less complete than the answer given by God.
The next gift I think you need to preach is the faith that this answer is in the Bible. Not that you are picking out verses to memorize, but that the more you read it, and the more of it you read, the more you can begin to see what it is really trying to say. So I try to read it every day, and to listen to what I read as closely as I can. I try to keep the attitude that these words are not empty, but that Christ is speaking in them, if only I can hear, about his fullness.
Another spiritual gift a preacher needs is the faith that her own experience somehow reflects what is written in the scriptures. The connection is often quite tenuous. Sometimes as I’m preparing to write my sermon, I find myself thinking about something that’s happened to me that seems completely unrelated to the texts I’m supposed to preach on that week. But when I keep working—working with the text and working with my own experience—I find that the edges of each grow toward one another, and begin to interweave in ways I could never have foreseen.
Finally, and most of all, a preacher needs the gift of people to preach to, people who will listen. A preacher needs people who share his holy discontent, his longing for the good news of God. He needs a congregation who read the Bible, and listen for the voice of Christ. He needs a community where people are looking for how that voice is speaking in their own experience, who trust in, and act on, the authority of what it tells them. He needs people with the faith and the courage speak with that voice in their own lives, who let it anoint them and send them with their own gifts of the Spirit, to proclaim good news to the world.