Text: Luke 4:14-22 (Jesus preaches at Nazareth)
Do you ever say magic words? Perhaps as a kid you said “abracadabra” or “open sesame” when trying to impress your friends with a trick.
Words matter. They have power. But does this power ever rise to the level of magic?
The sacraments of the church can seem magical. In preparing for today’s service, I had the Catholic sacrament of confession at the back of my mind. In the confession booth, one bares one’s soul to a priest who, after assigning a penance of prayer, offers assurance that God forgives you. The power of confession makes part of me wish that Protestants hadn’t dropped it as a sacrament along with four of the other seven Catholic sacraments 500 years ago.
This morning, we will celebrate communion, which is one of the two sacraments that Protestants retained in the 1500’s during the Reformation. Communion also has moments of magic.
In communion prayers, Roman Catholics believe that the words said by the priest over the bread and wine turn them into the actual body and blood of Christ. The moment of transubstantiation occurs when the priest says “hoc est enim corpus meum,” which is Latin, for “this is my body.”
[Until the 1960s, Catholic priests said communion in Latin and not in modern languages]
The magic phrase “hocus pocus” is a corruption of “hoc est enim corpus meum;” and while Protestants retained the sacraments of communion and baptism when they broke from Catholicism, many Protestants view the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as so much hocus pocus. While we trust that communion helps us remember our connection to God, we don’t believe that a magical change occurs in the bread and wine just because of the words said by a priest or minister.
But I wonder if we Protestants should be more open to the magic of words. Words matter. They have power. And the way that Jesus uses words often seems magical.
In today’s Bible passage, Jesus reads from the ancient book of Isaiah. He makes a short statement about the reading. And he impresses the people of his hometown Nazareth who have come to hear him.
“God’s Spirit is upon me,” Jesus says as he reads from Isaiah. “He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favour.”
After reading this, Jesus adds, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled!” These are bold words. One might even say they are magic.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ statement that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled doesn’t by itself heal the broken-hearted. It doesn’t give deliverance to captives. It doesn’t restore sight to the blind; and it doesn’t free all who are oppressed. This didn’t happen in Nazareth when Jesus made his statement nearly 2,000 years ago; and it still hasn’t happened today.
So why were Jesus’ words so warmly received, and in what sense might they be true today?
Words are a preacher’s main tools. We are always saying comforting things — “God forgives us.” “All is well, and all will be well.” “Death has lost its sting.” “Love wins.” “The Holy Spirit is with us now and always.”
But just because we say such things doesn’t make everything better. Or does it?
While Jesus’ announcement that this is the Year of God’s favour doesn’t solve practical problems, it points to a deeper awareness of Love. It also directs us toward healing and freedom despite the harsh conditions of life.
When we share brokenness with someone who listens with an open heart, a large measure of healing can happen. When we preach liberty to those who are oppressed, we strengthen the community’s intention to work for justice. When we proclaim recovery of sight to those who are blind, we uphold the value of enlightenment. Blind people might not regain physical sight, but the words remind us to stay awake.
Words spoken from the heart can stir us; they can change us; and they can heal us. In this sense, words can work magic.
Unfortunately, words can also obscure and hurt. Too often we are surrounded by the clanging words of advertisers, politicians and pundits. Insults get hurled and outrageous claims are made.
I try to weed out harmful words by checking if the speaker has a hidden agenda. Are their words full of judgements instead of feelings and personal perspectives? Do their words unite or do they divide based on race, religion, or nation?
In a culture filled with the noise of insults and judgements, it can be difficult to tune into our feelings and to express our deepest values. Perhaps this is why we come to church. In church, we separate words of wheat from those of chaff. We remember our sacred values. And in church, we stop, pray, and reflect. Then, after listening, we allow words to arise in our hearts and come to our lips in the hope that they will reflect love and not hate; hospitality and not exclusion; humility and not pride.
Sometimes, when we do this, magic happens. A moment of prayer helps us cope with loss. A kind word lifts some of our loneliness. An honest exchange of feelings helps understanding to blossom.
The phrase “the talking cure,” which is the title of this sermon, refers to the work of psychologists. By talking with a sympathetic therapist, past traumas and current hurts become clearer. Combined with an ability to name and express feelings, this greater understanding can turn a person’s life around. The same thing can happen when friends listen to each other with love.
In church, we practice the talking cure. We hear the stories of our tradition. We share our personal stories. We listen for the still small voice of God. And when we feel so moved, we speak words of hope into the silence. In doing so, we build community and spread enlightenment in a way that can seem magical.
Words are not everything, of course. Sometimes prayer needs to be accompanied by ritual, as at the communion table. Sometimes nothing can replace actions of outreach and solidarity. But at other times, words are our only option.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus preached liberty and announced a new day of hope for the poor. Today, his words continue to encourage the work of love and justice.
Regardless of any pain or difficulties we may be experiencing, Jesus reminds us that this is the day of God’s favour. Healing is at hand. Understanding is available. Freedom is coming.
And because we trust that this is true, we may feel moved to say again into the silence some magical works of healing — “All is well, and all will be well.”
Thanks be to God.