Sunday, January 28, 2007

Epiphany 4
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Be not afraid because of them; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith Jehovah.

We begin this week’s Gospel reading with the verse we ended with last week. Jesus said, “To-day hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears.” The scripture to which Jesus was referring was a promise through the prophet Isaiah that the day would come when the anointed One of God would come to do wonderful things. He would preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom to the prisoners, give sight to the blind and release the oppressed. He would come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – the Jubilee.

Jesus was the anointed One. In the days before His trip into Nazareth – His hometown – Jesus had been doing the very things promised in the passage from Isaiah. He had been healing the sick and casting out demons. He had been preaching good news and amazing the people with His power and authority. The people of Jerusalem were blessed to be seeing the fulfillment of the promise in their day, in their synagogue. We hear in this passage that their initial response was amazement and people spoke well of Him. They had heard what was happening around Capernaum and now with His words the rumors and speculation was confirmed. Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting.

Now, I have to wonder how many of us would respond to such positive feedback as Jesus responded. After all, they were speaking well of Jesus, amazed by what they had seen. It was probably a bit of surprise, especially since Jesus was a hometown boy. Who would have though that the Promised One would grow up in their midst? What is Nazareth? Yet it is wonderful to think that the Messiah might come from their midst. Wouldn’t He be more concerned with their needs, with their illness and oppression? After all, it is likely that most of the inhabitants of Nazareth at that time (no more than a few hundred people) were from the same clan – kinsmen of Jesus. It is likely they were pious Jews, gathering and living according to the Law, familiar with the scriptures. We know that Mary and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem for festivals and that they taught Jesus the ways of their faith. It is likely that His upbringing concerned the entire community and that other elders played a role in His learning.

So, the people gathered with Jesus in the synagogue were not just strangers who had come to hear a visiting preacher. They were His family, His friends. They were His mentors and His teachers. They loved Him because He was one of their own. And He loved them. But as pious Jews, they understood the promises were meant for them, the blessings of God’s power and mercy were meant only for the Jews. I can almost hear the rumblings amongst the people to which Jesus refers “Physician, heal thyself.” They had heard what He did in Capernaum – not so pious and not so intimately connected to Jesus. He knew they would want to see signs of His power and authority – not as proof of His claims but as proof of His dedication to them.

He did not wallow in the praise, but gave them the truth. “You will not believe and I will have to go to the Gentiles to share the message I’ve come to give.” Isn’t it funny how we willingly follow those who say what we want to hear? Our favorite speakers are the ones with whom we agree, with whom we can shake our heads and cry “Amen!” We want our pastors to speak about the things that interest us, to meet our needs. We want to be fed, but we want to choose what is on the menu. We don’t mind being challenged – a little – but there is always a line which can’t be crossed. I wonder how many pastors think to themselves, “There is a message in this passage for my people, but it would rock too many boats.” So, they find another message, an easier message, a message that will build up the congregation without destroying what is already there.

It is a thin wire on which they walk, however. While there may be a need for a prophetic voice in a situation, the pastor also has the responsibility of caring for the congregation. It is important that he or she balance the prophetic with the pastoral. The easy message might also come from those who do not believe they have the power or authority to speak. Many congregations hold tight to the control, not allowing a pastor to preach the message. Though it is unlikely that a group of Christians would send a pastor careening over a steep cliff, the reaction of the people to Jesus’ words leaves us worried and cautious. Before we speak we consider how our words will be received.

The people in Nazareth were not bothered by the fact that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. Though they might have been somewhat skeptical, they were amazed and spoke well of Him after He told them that the Messiah had finally arrived. They had not yet seen proof amongst themselves, but they’d heard stories coming from outside Nazareth. It was only when He told them that the stories of Elijah and Elisha that they became upset. In those two stories, God sent the prophet not to the people of Israel, but to strangers and outsiders. The blessing Jesus came to give was not only for the Jews, but for the world and when Jesus is rejected by His own, He will take it to others who will receive it.

This is what upset the people. How could He suggest that their God intended to take healing and freedom to outsiders? After all, it was the Gentiles who were oppressing them, who were imprisoning them. It was the Gentiles who left them outcast and poor. The Gentiles did not deserve God’s grace because they did not live according to the Law. Shouldn’t they be given the greater blessing because they were pious?

Isn’t it amazing how we always choose the Law above God’s grace? Part of the discussions this week have centered on the problem we experience in our congregations of people who have misplaced priorities in their lives. As an example, someone mentioned how the stores used to be closed on Sunday because of the blue laws that were enacted in many places. Most of those laws have been repealed, though it is still illegal to sell alcohol before noon on Sunday where I live. So, it is possible to go shopping on a Sunday – an unfortunate necessity for many people whose schedules are so full from Monday to Saturday. One problem that has become rampant in our community is the scheduling of sports activities for Sundays. The children who want to be involved in soccer are constantly missing church and Sunday school because they are required to attend a practice or a tournament.

Soccer becomes the priority because there is no grace. The child is required to attend practices and games to remain part of the team. There are so many benefits to the activity – health, self-esteem, discipline and lessons that will help them succeed in the world throughout their lives – that the parents justify missing a worship service or two for them to be involved. Even schools are requiring attendance at limited events that take place on Sundays – another valid reason for missing a Sunday morning worship.

Yet, God does not require our attendance. We won’t get a grade and we won’t be kicked off the team because we are not present at worship on a Sunday morning. The blue laws were based on the idea that Sunday was the Sabbath, the day God set aside for rest. As Christians we have come to understand the teaching of Jesus that says that the Sabbath was made for us rather than us for the Sabbath. The Sabbath should never be treated like a demand, but as a gift. It was given to us to give us a day set apart from the usual hustle and bustle of life. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism about the Sabbath day commandment, “What is this? We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise God’s Word or preaching, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” We can, and should, spend time outside Sunday morning to hear God’s Word and learn it. Yet how many really do devote time to God’s Word during their already busy lives?

So, we prioritize based on what we believe is most important. Soccer won’t last forever, but if we want to be involved we have to be involved. God will always be around. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have more time. Soccer will kick us off the team if we aren’t at all the meetings, but God will still love us and He will forgive us when we do manage to find the time. We make our choices based on the idea that going to church is just another thing we do during the week, just another thing penciled on our schedules. It is no big deal to miss one week because tomorrow is another day.

Will a pastor speak up about this issue? Will we help them to see that every time they choose soccer over worship, they are choosing to honor another God? No, it is not likely that we will speak up on this issue because they have very valid reasons for being absent and they are actively involved in the congregation when they are present. We do not say anything because we understand the busy-ness of the world in which we live and the importance of these things. We schedule around the tournaments and try to provide opportunities for growth and worship so that they might take the time to spend with God. We provide pastoral care but refuse speaking the prophetic word that will help them see the foolishness of their priorities. We are busy because we choose to be. God desires something better for us – rest.

I suppose that is a tangeant that has little to do with the scriptures for this week, yet in this Gospel passage we see Jesus facing a congregation with a difficult truth and we see Him willing to face the possibilities to speak it to them. We also see what happens when a prophetic word is not received by the people to whom it was spoken. The people listening to Jesus had on their hearts their own righteousness and they believed that the promises were meant for those who lived according to the Law. But Jesus came to tell them that the promises of God are bigger. The blessings they received were not to be for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the world. They were outraged when Jesus confronted their unbelief and they drove Him out of the synagogue. I suppose we fear the same thing and it keeps us from speaking.

If we outrage the congregation, we may be driven from the assembly. We love the community of believers, they are often like family. Yet, Jesus was facing members of His own clan. These were kinsmen. When they drove Him out of the synagogue, they drove Him out of the family. As pious Jews, they were even driving Him out of the community of faith. Speaking the prophetic word is not easy. We have many excuses that keep us from doing so – many valid reasons. Yet, God calls us to speak the truth with love.

Jeremiah was uncertain about His calling. God’s word came to him, “I knew you even before you were born.” Even before Jeremiah was born he had been consecrated and anointed to be a prophet. He was very young – much too young to approach the people with authority. He was too young to have the confidence to go forth in faith. He did not think he was able to do what God was asking of him. I don’t think age matters much in this – many of us are well aged and experienced without the confidence to speak up. We face the reality of Jesus’ statement, “No prophet is acceptable in his own country.” They know our failures and our lack of ability. I understand Jeremiah’s reluctance.

God would not accept the excuse. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’” God was calling Jeremiah – the God who knew him even before he was born. God would not let Jeremiah go out alone. God would be with him and would give him the power, authority and the words to speak. “Be not afraid because of them; for I am with thee to deliver thee.” Whatever our fears, God will not accept our excuses. He calls us to speak, to share the message of hope and forgiveness with the world. We need not be afraid because God dwells with us and goes with us. The life of praise, however, is not one in which we show up when we have time. The life of praise is one in which we put God first no matter the consequences. Jesus willingly faced the rage of the people of His hometown for the sake of speaking God’s Word into their lives.

God blessed Israel to be a blessing, but the people of Nazareth lived separated from the world in many ways. Jesus came to them and reminded them of God’s promises. Yet, those promises were not meant only for them. They were meant for all who believe. Unfortunately, since they were so focused on living according to the Law, they missed the grace. We do the same thing all the time. When we choose to give in to the expectations of the world around us – to be part of things that will demand to have the position of priority in our life – we show that we believe only as much as is convenient to believe. We have a skewed reason for being part of the community of believers. We choose to come only when it will meet some need we have rather than coming to enjoy the purpose for which it was created – to worship God.

I’m not sure this is a message that is meant to become part of a sermon that will be spoken in front of a congregation, but is more likely a message to people who have seen the error of what is happening in many churches today but do not have the confidence or courage to speak out and prophesy to the people. Edification is more than simply encouraging people to do what is right. It is telling people what is wrong and helping them to change. We all too often preach high and lofty sermons that send people soaring in the heavens. Yet when it is all over, they walk out into the world unchanged. They are blessed, but keep it to themselves, thinking that what God has to give is for themselves only.

In Luke’s story, Jesus does not call the first disciples until after His experiences in Nazareth. The people of Nazareth should have heard Jesus’ preaching and become excited about the possibilities. They should have gone out to gather others to hear Jesus. They should have been the most passionate evangelists. Instead they demanded that Jesus be the kind of Messiah they wanted – separate, exclusive. Our demands might be different, yet even today we still expect God to be exactly what we want Him to be. We make Jesus fit into our expectations, try to mould Him into the kind of Savior we want, instead of seeing that He is bigger and better than anything we can imagine. We have made the gathering of believers little more than a place we have to go, one among many responsibilities we have during the week.

We know that a word wrongly spoken might send half the congregation out the door never to return. We hold our tongue out of fear of what they might do to us, but also out of fear of what might be destroyed in the process. We would rather suffer with the knowledge than hurt the body. It is almost shocking how abrupt Jesus is in the Gospel lesson. He answered their praise and positive reaction with a very negative statement about their unbelief. He did not mince words. He told them that they would not believe and that He would have to go to the Gentiles. This was not only hurtful, it was offensive. It was counter to everything they believed.

Perhaps it is time for a prophetic voice to rise out of the dust, to speak the truth no matter the consequences. In too many churches today we have made Jesus to fit into the mould we have developed and we expect God to satisfy our every whim. We have forgotten that God is God and that Jesus shook the foundations of the world and of the faith of the people to whom He was sent. He rocked the boat, but God was with Him. Perhaps we need to rock some boats, to speak the truth in love.

The passage from Paul, however, provides a word of caution. The gifts of God given wrongly are of no help and have no power. 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’ may mean something very special on the day of the wedding, but what marriage is 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, I think we all have times when we demand our own way, when we are irritable and resentful. We can probably all think of a time when we have rejoiced in wrongdoing.

This expectation on the wedding day leaves us tattered and torn when we face those moments when we, or our partners, fail. I suppose the high divorce rate in today’s world is simply a symptom of the topsy turvey expectations we have. Love – the love of God – bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love – the love of God – never ends. So, we are reminded by this passage that though we have amazing and powerful gifts from God, everything of God is to be built on the love of God. Our words are meaningless if they are not said in love. The gifts are given to be a blessing to the Church and to the world. But they are nothing without love. This passage should begin with verse 12: 31b, “And moreover a most excellent way show I unto you.” 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.

Those who choose to be so involved in life beyond the Church are missing out on the deep and abiding love and grace of God. They are chasing after the benefits of a life founded on law – gathering up rewards and successes for future days – while missing the extraordinary benefits of dwelling in the presence of God so deeply that gathering for worship is not simply a place to go on a Sunday morning but a date with the love of your life. He’s invited each believer to a party, a great banquet. One day we’ll be able to stay forever, but for now we only get a glimpse.

So while we may be called – like Jeremiah – to step out of our comfort zone to speak words which frighten us, we do so not on the expectation of any laws but on the grace of God. If God calls, He will not only be present but He will give everything that we need to get us through. We are cautioned to remember, however, that we live in the world and as Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known.” For now, we are called to speak the truth and to share the love of God. The people of Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff, but He managed to pass through them and continue on His way. We might face a similar response to our proclamation, but we need not fear. God is with us and He will give us all we need.

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