A Portrait of Powerful Preaching – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of the Year

013115There are four aspects of powerful preaching displayed by Jesus in this passage. Jesus is not just a powerful preacher Himself, but also models what it means to be a powerful and effective preacher.

In using the word “preacher” here we ought to be careful not to reduce preaching merely to what takes place in a church. For surely the clergy have churches in which to preach. But all Catholic parents ought also to learn from Jesus here, for they have the church of their home in which to preach, and the pulpit of the dining room table, the living room couch, or even the family car. Therefore we must all learn from Jesus’ model of powerful preaching and teaching. Note, then, four basic qualities of Jesus as a preacher and teacher:

I. PERSONAL – The text says, Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

(The picture at the upper right is one of me and fellow parishioners standing in the ruins of the synagogue mentioned in this passage. It is a very moving thing to stand atop the foundational ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached both this sermon and the Bread of Life discourse. Some of the ruins are later than Jesus’ era, but the foundations are clearly from that time. It’s amazing.)

Note that the text says that Jesus spoke “with authority.” The Greek word translated here as “authority” is ἐξουσίαν (exousian), meaning, at its root, “to (speak) out of one’s being or substance.” In other words, one speaks of what he knows by experience. He is not simply quoting what others say, nor is he merely quoting slogans and common sayings.

Jesus is distinguished from the scribes, who were famous for quoting each other and reputable, safe sources only. Of itself, this is good. But if it merely stops there, what makes preaching different from staying home and reading a book?

Too many Christians, including Catholic preachers, are content to live and preach by inference rather than experience. Too many are content to repeat what others have said rather than to speak out of what they personally know, have seen, and have experienced.

To preach with authority (exousia) means to be able to proclaim the Word of God with personal knowledge and experience. It means to be able to say, “What the Lord and the Church have always proclaimed, I know personally. For I have tested and experienced the Word of God in the laboratory of my own life, and found it to be true. And now I speak to you, not merely of what others have said, but what I know and experience to be true. Out of the substance of my own being (exousia) I announce this truth to you.”

This is what it means to preach personally and with authority (exousia).  Jesus did not simply quote what others said. He said what He personally knew.

What of you and me? Are you able to speak with authority? Well, do you know what the Lord is doing in your life? Have you personally experienced the truth of what the Scriptures and the Church have always announced? Or are you just quoting slogans, passages, and what others have said? Of course the Scriptures and the authoritative teachings of the Church are the essential beginning and foundation of what we know. But do you personally know it is true? How? Do you speak to your children of what you know or do you merely say, “the Church says … “?  Clearly you are to say what the Church says, but to teach with authority means that you know and have experienced that what the Church says is true, and that you can personally attest to it. This is the basis of preaching and teaching with authority.

II. PROVOCATIVE – To say that something is “provocative” is to say that it elicits a response. When Jesus preached, His words did not leave His listeners unmoved. It called forth a response, whether mad, sad, or glad.

The text has already pointed out that many were glad. But there is one man who is mad. The text describes his reaction: In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!

Every experienced and authentic preacher knows that if he preaches effectively, a response will be forthcoming. And while it is natural to want a positive response, every preacher must also be willing to accept that his word may also bring forth anger or ridicule. The Church announces good news but she is also a sign of contradiction to a sinful world. Thus every preacher faithful to the Gospel must expect some degree of negativity, and even persecution, ridicule, and anger.

Jesus’ Word angers a demon-possessed man in the congregation and he confronts Jesus, blaming Him with being hateful and causing hurt, and saying that Jesus wants to destroy him. (So, too, many today react with anger and call the Church hateful, bigoted, intolerant, and hurtful even unto destroying lives.) But, as we shall see, Jesus does not back down.

The problem in the synagogue is not the Word that Jesus proclaims; it is the man’s inner condition. And thus, when the authentic Gospel is proclaimed, the wrath that sometimes follows does not bespeak a problem with God’s Word but with the listener’s inner condition. Note that the man is demon-possessed. That is, his heart and mind are under the influence of Satan and the sin he inspires. The greatest obstacle to our being able to appreciate and understand the Word of God is our sin. And the greatest help in appreciating and understanding God’s Word is a docile and humble spirit, granted by the grace of God.

A powerful preacher, whether a priest or a parent, preaches in order to provoke a response, whether of joy and consolation or of repentance and godly sorrow. And to be sure, while no authentic preacher intends or desires a fight or a hostile response, he must be willing to accept such a reaction. For when someone is accustomed to the darkness, he finds the light harsh, and calls it such. Anyone who preaches the Gospel authentically will both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; he will both console and confront (where necessary); he will reassure but also awaken the need for healing. He will speak the truth in love.

Good preaching provokes a response, and one who hears the Gospel preached with authority cannot come away unchanged.

III.  PRODUCING – Powerful and effective preaching brings results. As Jesus preaches, a man is set free. The text says, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

The aim or point of the Word of God is not merely to inform but to transform. It’s not enough for the Word of God to be attractive, informative, or entertaining. It’s full purpose is to, in power, drive out demons and bring God’s grace. Good preaching works to drive out demons of ignorance, sorrow, rebellion, and sin. It works to give godly sorrow, joy, hope, confidence, knowledge, courage, and conviction. Good preaching changes people’s lives.

IV. PERSEVERING – Note that Jesus did not immediately back down in the face of opposition. He persevered with the opposing man and, by his Word, drove out the demons that were afflicting him. We see the man go through three stages.

  1. He is mad, for he confronts Jesus.
  2. He is sad, for he struggles and convulses as Jesus works to free him by His Word.
  3. He is glad, for he is set free and able to rejoice with the others.

And thus every preacher, every parent, and every prophet must not give up easily. For it is often the case that people must go through these stages.

In my own life, I can say that there was a time when, afflicted by the demons of ignorance and youthful rebellion, I would cross my arms and listen angrily to the priest. I was mad. I would often scoff at the “silly priest” who was “trying to tell me what to do.” But after some years of hearing the preaching of the Church, I gradually understood that I had to change. But change does not come easily, and thus came the stage of sad and a time of struggle, learning new virtues, and forsaking old vices. And now I can say I am glad, for the Lord has brought me a mighty long way. His preached Word is powerful. When effectively preached, it has the power to transform. And I have experienced transformation.

I am glad that the Church persevered, that my parents persevered, and that good priests and religious persevered in preaching to me and teaching me. I am glad that my parishioners continue to persevere in witnessing to me and preaching by their lives.

A preached and lived Word is powerful indeed. Jesus shows the way and it is for us to follow His example.

Here is a video that shows how a preached and sung Word  reaches sinners and draws them to conversion. “Shug” is a preacher’s daughter who in anger (mad) left the Church. Now she weeps for her sins (as her father weeps for his) (sad),  and then she gets glad. She looks like the woman at the well leading the Samaritans to Christ. There are five conversion stories going on in this scene from The Color Purple all at once, if you are familiar with the movie. This song says, “God is Trying to Tell You Something!”

Here is Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum on another occasion.

5 Replies to “A Portrait of Powerful Preaching – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of the Year”

  1. Dear Msgr Pope, As I parent of two little ones trying to guide them in the truth of the Roman Catholic Faith, I have to say Thank you for writing this excellent homily, you have encouraged me to continue to fight the good fight.

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