Sermon - Sunday, 27 January 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 27 January 2019.

Scripture:  Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 / Luke 4: 14-21

Text:  Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying……..                                   Luke 4: 20


Several years ago I went to visit one of the elderly members of our congregation.

Blair Gillon was a retired Church of Scotland minister  – he had been a parish minister in the Borders and for several years secretary to the Scottish Reformation Society.

Blair was now well into his 90’s and had moved into a nursing home and when I called to visit, I found him surrounded by papers.

His family had given him a box file of his old sermons and Blair was trying to sort them out.

Have you found a good one? I asked.

Yes I have, he replied, I thought this one was quite good.

Well come on, I said, preach it to me.

Suddenly the frail old man was transformed as, for one last time, the preacher got back into his pulpit to preach the word of God.

It might just have been the pair of us sitting in a nursing home bedroom but it felt like holy ground.

This is a sermon about preaching, its importance in the history of our church, its importance in the theology of our church and its continuing importance in the life of our church.

It is the 5th century BC and God’s people Israel have returned to their homeland from exile in Babylon.

The excitement of their return soon dissipates as the exiles discover Jerusalem in ruins, its gates burned with fire, its walls destroyed, and the book opens with Nehemiah in tears, mourning and fasting and praying to God and wondering what to do.

As cupbearer to the Babylonian king, Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was in a privileged position and when the king sees Nehemiah looking terribly sad he asks what is wrong.

On hearing about the ruined state of Jerusalem, Artaxerxes gives Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem to oversee its restoration.

As the story unfolds we learn Nehemiah’s task is complicated by competing demands and expectations within his own community, with people vying for position and the rich exploiting the poor.

Finally however the day comes when the work of restoration is completed and God’s people gather to hear the Law being read to them for the first time since their return.

And as we heard in this morning’s passage, it soon becomes evident that the physical restoration of Jerusalem’s gates and walls is a symbol of and prelude to the spiritual restoration of God’s people through a renewed relationship with God.

As people assembled in the square by the Water Gate, Ezra the priest stands on a high wooden platform before them, opens the book of the Law of Moses, and begins to read.

The response is immediate as people are moved to bow down in worship.

As Ezra continues reading, he also starts adding his own explanations making the Law’s meaning clear for people.

Again there is a huge response as people are first moved to tears and then to celebrate the continuing faithfulness and goodness of God as Ezra brings them to a deeper understanding of what they are hearing.

Five hundred years later Luke records the first sermon Jesus preached in the synagogue at Nazareth.

The synagogue is the place of teaching with scriptures being read and explained – and the sermon didn’t go well.

Luke tells us it was usual for Jesus to go to a synagogue on the Sabbath and with his ministry already established, presumably his reputation has gone before him and his visit that Sabbath morning was as the guest preacher.

Whatever the context, having been handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus reads from one of the servant songs.

When he had finished reading Jesus sat down – the signal he was about to begin teaching as rabbis always taught from a seated position – and claimed the passage had been fulfilled in their hearing.

Cue uproar!

What should have been a joyful occasion, the local boy, Joseph’s son, coming home, people impressed by how he had grown up, his eloquent turn of phrase, a great credit to his family, turns instead into a tragic episode with Jesus being rejected and literally driven out of town.

Writing with the benefit of hindsight, Luke realised the rejection of Jesus from Nazareth symbolised the greater rejection of his whole ministry as the suffering servant, a rejection that would ultimately lead to Calvary and a Messiah crowned with thorns.

However, as we hear it, his sermon reads like a manifesto at the outset of his ministry as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer and the language of the poor, captives, blind and oppressed would resonate with the history of God’s people, especially their time in exile.

And the parallels with Ezra’s reading of the Law are extraordinary, of the chosen one who will return God’s people from exile and open up God’s ways of freedom and justice.

Bondage to liberation, destruction to restoration, oppression to freedom, blindness to sight, poverty to wholeness: then or now here is the core of every sermon and of all preaching as our relationship with God is renewed and restored.

And what is it which makes all of this possible?

As Jesus reveals, it is only possible because (t)he Spirit of the Lord is upon me.

In a thought provoking essay entitled Preaching in the Reformed Tradition [1]Professor Paul Nimmo, who holds the chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, describes the work of the Spirit of God in preaching.

There is the action of the Spirit upon the preacher as much in the research and preparation of a sermon as in its delivery for how else could mere human words and thoughts become the Word of God.

Nimmo writes;

The preacher is after all a mere witness – pointing not to themselves but to the Word which comes to both preacher and congregation from beyond, from God[2]

Equally importantly there is the action of the Spirit on the congregation which enables people to hear God’s word not as something distant and abstract but as speaking to their need and their situation.

George was a head teacher and a church elder in Greenock.

Waking up one Sunday morning and with a mountain of work to do, George decided not to go to church only to change his mind at the very last moment.

Arriving in church all hot and flustered, with his mind on a million other things, he told me later it was as though every word the minister spoke in his prayers and in his sermon was addressed to him.

At first it troubled George because how could the minister know what George was thinking and feeling – until it dawned upon him, it was not the minister but God who knew and through the human words and thoughts spoken from the pulpit, George had been drawn into the embrace of God’s presence and promise and by the power of the Spirit, he had heard the Word of God.

At the time of the Reformation one of the questions which troubled the reformers was what makes the church the church, a building, a congregation, a minister or elder, how can you tell where and when a church exists?

Their answer was to identify what they called the three notes or marks of the true church.

The second note was the right administration of the sacraments.

The third note was the exercise of what they called ecclesiastical discipline – what we would now call pastoral care and oversight.

And the first – and most important note – the true preaching of the Word of God.

As the reformers understood it, preaching is what makes the church the church.

And such preaching was about much more than giving the minister something to do or helping fill in the congregation’s time on a Sunday morning.

Rather the true preaching of the Word enabled people to hear the Word of God, the good news of the gospel – and to hear it for their salvation.

Paul Nimmo puts it well;

Preaching the Word of God truly in traditional Reformed theology thus meant exposing people to the Word of God which could bring them to faith and thus to salvation[3]

It is over 40 years since I was licensed as a preacher of the gospel and goodness knows how many sermons I have preached in that time.

And as a congregation goodness knows how many sermons each of you have heard.

At its best preaching  not only makes us a church but creates the opportunity for preacher and congregation to approach, hear, contemplate and understand the Word of God – and then to live it, to live it as good news for us, to live it as good news for all, to live it for our salvation.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Paul Nimmo Preaching in the Reformed tradtion Theology in Scotland Vol 25, no 2, Autumn 2018, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews

[2] Ibid p 16

[3] Ibid p11