Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
In you, Yahweh, I take refuge. Never let me be disappointed.
And now you know the rest of the story. Most of us can hear the voice of master storyteller Paul Harvey as we read the words in that sentence. Paul Harvey had a way of spinning a story that took the listener on a journey into the unknown. The twists and turns left us wondering where we would end up. Finally, he hit us with the final twist, the surprising conclusion to the story that left us amazed. He took us to a place we did not expect, a place that made us laugh or think about the lessons to be learned.
We began reading this story from Luke last week, hearing that after a successful tour through Capernaum, Jesus went home. In the synagogue Jesus read from the book of Isaiah the prophet. The passage was a passage of hope; it was a promise of healing and release. It was the promise of an anointed one, the One who would restore Israel. This was good news and Jesus told the people that it had been fulfilled in their hearing. In Jesus they could see the beginning of something wonderful as God worked through the anointed one. He had been doing amazing things in Capernaum: healing people, casting out demons and preaching the kingdom of God.
The people rejoiced and they were amazed. They wondered about what they heard, but they did not immediately reject Jesus. They were ready to receive Him and to receive all the good things He could give. They were ready to see the miracles and experience the power of God as He had given to the people in Capernaum. Jesus gave a one sentence sermon proclaiming Himself the fulfillment of God’s promises and the people spoke well of Him, amazed at the gracious words that came from His lips. The hometown hero had come home!
Instead of enjoying the good feelings of the people, Jesus answered their enthusiasm with a challenge. “Doubtless you will tell me this parable, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in your hometown.’” He knew they would very quickly demand the signs He’d given to others, requiring even greater signs to convince them of the truth of His words. He knew they would not believe Him or believe in Him. When they rejected Him, He would go on to teach and preach to people and places that would believe, perhaps even the Gentiles.
The people were not infuriated because Jesus was claiming to be something they did not expect. They were mad because Jesus proclaimed that God’s gift would be sent to all those who believe, no matter who they were. It was not the proclamation that Jesus was the promised anointed one from God that turned the people to fury. Instead it was Jesus proclamation that the gift of God’s grace would be sent to those who believe, no matter who it might be. The people in Jesus’ hometown thought they deserved the gift more than any other because Jesus was their son, but that gift was being offered to the world. The Jews thought that restoration and redemption would lead to greater things for Israel. Instead, Jesus came to and through the Jews for the sake of the whole world, to bless all people with God’s mercy.
Last week we watched as Jesus stood up in the synagogue in His hometown and told the people that the scripture about the Messiah was being fulfilled in their presence. This week He added that they wouldn’t get it. They would miss the truth. They would not believe in Him. He told them that they would reject the one for whom they were waiting. They were impressed and astonished at His first lesson, and then angry and upset at His second. They were so offended that they tried to drive Him over a cliff to His death. He escaped and went to teach another congregation in the synagogue at Capernaum.
We don’t really understand Jesus’ challenge to the people. Why not give them a sign of His power and authority? Why not do a miracle or two amongst the people who were His family and lifelong friends? What would it have hurt to grant a wish or two in His old neighborhood? The trouble is that they were seeking the wrong things; they were motivated by selfish desires rather than God’s grace.
The people in Capernaum were astonished by His lesson; they heard the authority in His voice and in His word. There was a man in the congregation who had a demon. The demon spoke out against Jesus. The demon identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus told him to be silent. Isn’t it interesting that in the previous passage, Jesus identified Himself as the Messiah but He knew that they wouldn’t believe, and then in Capernaum He rebuked the demon for saying the same thing in a place where people might believe?
The demon left the man at the word of Jesus, and the people were amazed. “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” The word got out into the region about the things Jesus could do, and the people came to Jesus for more. The demons kept crying out "You are the Son of God," but Jesus did not allow them to tell the people that He was the Christ. Jesus was not yet ready to be identified as the Messiah. He had too much work to do.
It was difficult for the people of Nazareth to see Jesus as He is because they knew Him as He was. How could this boy they knew from childhood be the promised Messiah? We would think that they would be more supportive than strangers, but it was too ridiculous to believe. They asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” At least of a few of my readers have seen the truth of this. They have left home and become successful in their vocation, but their old neighbors can’t believe it. The shy girl could never become a motivational speaker. The kid who was constantly caught smoking behind the woodshed could never become a pastor!
I have had the opportunity to give teenagers a spiritual gifts assessment on several different occasions. Despite the fact that they are young, the assessments were amazingly accurate. They showed the gifts we were beginning to see in those students. It was interesting to watch them take the assessments. In many cases they have not yet had the opportunity to experience the things that were asked. No one had asked their opinion about some issue in the church. They did not have a home to offer for hospitality. They did not think that they’d the opportunity to become active with Bible studies, not realizing that their Sunday school classes were just studies geared to their age.
Many of their answers were timid. Several of them complained that they had no gifts. We know this is not true, but these young people had just not yet discovered the talents or any opportunities to use them. Music, writing and artistry are always the easiest to spot, even at such a young age. But we did not know how they would fare when it came to hospitality, leadership and the pastoral gift? It was amazing to see that even these gifts became obvious in the results of some of these teenagers. As a matter of fact, within the small sampling of students, we saw an incredible variety of gifts, each one having something to offer the congregation and the world.
I suppose that one of the problems we face in the church is that we do not look at teenagers as active members of the body of Christ. They are new, fresh and learning, not ready for the responsibilities of ministry. We rarely give them the opportunity to serve, except perhaps as acolytes or raking leaves on the playground. We don’t try to help them discern their gifts, to learn who they are in Christ and what He is calling them to do. They don’t think they are old enough to have a say. Even our high school students, who have become individual members of our congregation through confirmation, do not take responsibility for their place in the body of Christ. They are often not given a voice, and so they do not speak. They don’t care much about the business of the church, so they do not vote. They do not yet understand that God has called them to serve, to use their gifts for the sake of the community and the world.
I could hear them saying, “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Behold, I don’t know how to speak; for I am a child.” Yet, in our passage for today, God answered Jeremiah’s fears: “Don’t say, ‘I am a child;’ for you must go to whomever I send you, and you must say whatever I command you.” Unfortunately, we see youth as being immature and unready. We do not give them to opportunities to use their gifts or even help them to discern their gifts, thinking they are too young. Yet God calls all those whom He has anointed with the Spirit into ministry, young and old alike. It is our task to help them grow in their understanding and in their faith, giving opportunities for service and the respect they deserve as they follow God’s calling for them.
It is still hard when those students come back after years of college, now grown and working in the world in ways we might never expect. Like those who questioned Jesus, we look at them with eyes that remember the past but do not look at them through God’s eyes. It is made even worse by our fears. It is nerve wracking to go home again. We have to be so careful with our words. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or say something that they might misunderstand based on our history. Even as I write WORD on a daily basis I think twice about saying certain things because I know personally many of the people who read it. “What will so and so think of this? How might it affect our relationship?” we think to ourselves when we are writing our notes. “Will they be offended or embarrassed by this story if I use it?” I know many pastors look forward to moving to a new church just so they can use the examples they’ve gathered from the old congregation. One pastor said to me, “I can finally use that story in a sermon” as he was moving on.
But Jesus was not just sharing stories; He was telling the people that God was fulfilling the scriptures in their very midst. The Messiah was coming and He was there, with them. He was saying, “I am the one you have been waiting for.” Now, this was good news and they received it with joy, but their joy did not last long because they realized that He was not what they were expecting.
Is anything God does really what we expect? I suppose sometimes we get it right. We can let very broad expectations of God and see them realized. He won’t flood the entire world: at least not again, because He promised. The sun will rise and the moon will go around the earth because God set them in motion and keeps them going. Spring will come again. We know that God will appoint leaders to lead and preachers to preach and that He will bless His Church. The trouble is that we do not always understand what that means. We aren’t always sure that our expectation is what God intends. Is the leader we have chosen really the one God has sent? Or, do we choose Barabbas over Jesus?
It is hardest when we are dealing with our own relationship with God. I sometimes wish that God would talk to me like He talked to those characters in the Biblical stories. I think to myself, “How can Jeremiah doubt what God is saying, after all it is God telling him to be a prophet.” Jeremiah himself admits that God knew his calling before he was even conceived in the womb. “God knew what He was doing” Jeremiah says. But, when God calls, he doubts. “Lord! I do not know how to speak for I am just a child.” Sounds like a good excuse to me.
I think sometimes we prefer to offer excuses so we don’t have to respond to God’s call because God seems to call us to work that doesn’t fit our expectations. We don’t think we are old enough or eloquent enough. We don’t think anyone will see us as credible or having any authority. We make excuses: “But God, who am I to do that? Who will listen to me? How can I say what you want me to say? How can I make a difference? Can’t I have just a little more time?" The real reason we reject the call is because we are afraid, but in doing so we reject God and show that we do not trust that He will provide everything we need.
We are so much like Jeremiah. Though we may not be young, we have our own excuses for arguing with God about the work He is calling us to do. Abraham and Sarah thought they were too old. Moses didn’t think he was eloquent enough. Jonah was angry and didn’t want to share God’s grace with his enemy. We argue, too. Are we too busy? Too sick? Too tired? Are we too young or old? Are we the wrong gender? Are we in the wrong place? Is this the wrong time? We think we know better than God, and so we offer Him our reasons why His plan just won’t work.
Perhaps we reject His call because we are not enough like Jesus. See, Jesus willingly spoke the words that needed to be said, both to the people in His hometown last week and to the people in Capernaum this week. They needed to know that they had mistaken expectations, that they were seeking the wrong kind of Messiah. They needed to know that God would not prove Himself and that God had more to do than meet their physical needs. There were those in the world who needed to hear the call to repentance, the invitation to confession, the promise of forgiveness.
God has called us to be like Jesus, to share the Gospel with the world. He has called us to heal and restore, to warn people to repent, to invite them to confess and to offer them the promise of God’s forgiveness. He doesn’t choose us because we are perfect for the job. He doesn’t call us because it fits into our schedule or because He thinks we are strong enough. He chooses us and gives us everything we need to make His work happen. Even when we complain, however, He bows down to hear us and He responds with an overflowing heart. “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” God chooses us and makes us apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles or healings, helpers, leaders, or speakers of divers kinds of tongues, in His time and way.
But Paul adds a word of caution. God gives us His gifts for His purpose, not our own. And God’s purpose is wrapped in love. Paul says that prophetic voice is nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal if it does not have love. This passage, often used in the marriage ceremony has a much deeper purpose. It is not just about the romantic love between a man and a woman, but is about the love of God that is manifest through the Church which He created. The words of this love chapter that are used so often at weddings may mean something very special on that day, but what marriage is perfect? Are we really able to avoid breaking some of the exhortations? Are we always patient with our spouse? Are we always kind? Do we really manage to live together without envy, boasting, arrogance or rudeness? Unfortunately, we all have moments when we demand our own way, when we are irritable and resentful. We can probably all think of a time when we have even rejoiced in wrongdoing. We can remember a moment when we refused to bow down and respond to an overflowing heart.
But love - the love of God - bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love - the love of God - never ends. We are reminded by this passage that though we have amazing and powerful gifts from God, everything of God is to be built on His love. The gifts are given to be a blessing to the Church and to the world, but they are nothing without love. Paul told the Corinthians that they were missing the most important gift of all: love. Everything else was meaningless if they did not lay it on the foundation of love.
This is what happens when we take God’s grace with our own motivations, our own desires in the forefront. Jesus’ response to the people of Nazareth doesn’t sound like it was wrapped in love. However, they needed to see Jesus as He is, not as they perceived Him to be. The challenge was given to them because they had the wrong expectations. The people of Capernaum saw Jesus through different eyes, eyes that needed to see God’s grace. They had no expectations, so received the Word with faith. The response to Nazareth was wrapped in love because they needed to be challenged to see God in a different way.
Imagine: you feel a tug at your pants or skirt and look down to see a small child with a face full of expectation. You acknowledge them, and they tug a little more to get you to come down to their level. They want to tell you something, so you bend over or kneel so that you can look them in the eye. They say something delightful like “I love you.” It might be hard. It might hurt the back or the knees, but it is worth every ache and pain to hear those words. You wrap your arms around that child and say “I love you, too,” because it is impossible not to respond to that overflowing heart with an overflowing heart.
Oh, I’m sure I’ve missed a few of those moments, especially with my own children, because I didn’t take the time to listen. I was too busy to bend over and listen. It was an inconvenient moment; I was in too much of a rush to take the time. My knees or back were aching from hard work. I regret missing those moments not only because of what they would have meant to me, but because I know ignoring that child at that moment was hurtful. Thank goodness children are so able to forgive and forget and they give us second chances.
The psalmist says, “Turn your ear to me, and save me.” The American Standard Version translates this, “Bow down to me.” I suppose in some ways this idea of bowing down might seem degrading, especially when we think of protocols that require subjects to bow down to royalty. But we are the children, calling out to our Father to listen and He does. We pull on His robe and ask Him to bend over to hear us. “I love you” we say, which means “I trust that you will take care of me.” Faith means trusting that our Father will provide everything we need, including His overflowing heart.
Unfortunately, not everyone will listen to what we have to say. They’ll be offended by our words. They won’t believe we are who we say we are. They will try to run us out of town. We need not be afraid, however. God loves us. He calls us. He gifts us with everything we need. God knows us better than we know ourselves, because He has known us even before He formed us in our mothers’ womb. And we go forth in faith, obediently fulfilling our calling in the world, trusting that God will provide everything we need, even if it seems to be a ridiculous task. God knows our failing, but He also knows how to use our imperfections to His glory. We don’t know what to say, but He touches our lips and fills our mouths with His words.
The thing to remember is this: approach everything you do from the reality that is Gods’ presence in your life. We are called to speak God’s words which are filled with power and authority. Most of all, they are filled with love, calling people to a new life: to healing, forgiveness and the overflowing heart of God that fills us with peace. The psalmist writes, “In you, Yahweh, I take refuge. Never let me be disappointed.” We take refuge in and deal with the world from there. Like Jeremiah, we might have to speak tough words to the people. Like Jesus, we might have to leave those who are expecting the wrong things from us. But as we dwell in love, in God’s heart, and do what He has called us to do, we will find ourselves in the right place at the right time doing the right thing to make the world right, according to God’s word.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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