Sunday, January 31, 2010

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

For thou art my hope, O Lord Jehovah: Thou art my trust from my youth.

They all spoke well of him, in the beginning. They were amazed at His words and they wondered how a carpenter’s son could be so gracious. He should have been strong and gifted with his hands, versed only in the scriptures as would have been the average Jew. As a carpenter, He may have had some learning so that he could calculate measurements and deal with the business of building. He certainly coulc read and we know He could write at least a little based on another story in the scriptures. He was not an uneducated man, but He would not have been formally educated as a preacher or priest.

For those in the towns and villages around Galilee, His lack of education would not be known. They didn’t know Him. They hadn’t seen Him grow up. They didn’t have a table that He built in their dining room or walk through the door He carved. The people in Nazareth knew His parents and they knew His heritage. They’d seen Him play with their own children, or were His childhood friends. They had seen Him covered in sawdust, sweating in the heat as He worked the wood.

They also knew He was an unusual boy. Certainly the story of Jesus in the Temple at twelve years old was one of those stories remembered at neighborhood gatherings. In some of the non-canonical literature we have been given other stories about Jesus’ childhood. Though we can’t be sure those are true, there are stories of Jesus doing miraculous things as a child—even raising animals from the dead. They all spoke well of Him, at the beginning of this passage.

I’ve always looked at this passage from the point of view that they just can’t get over who the know Jesus to be to believe in who Jesus is. They remember the Jesus of Nazareth that grew up in their midst and they can’t see Him as what God created Him to be. This is a good lesson for leaders to remember when they have difficulty receiving the respect they need in their own hometowns. Pastors have a hard time returning to their former churches because the members remember the old times and can not allow a new relationship. This makes sense when Jesus says, “No prophet is acceptable in his own country.”

But as I read this passage today, I noticed something different. The people were amazed and spoke well of Him. They don’t say, “Do this for us.” They don’t seek Jesus’ special treatment. Jesus confronts them with the probability that they will. He takes a very powerful moment when the people of His hometown are drawn to Him and turns it around to a moment when He tells them that He is going to give God’s grace to others because of their lack of belief. It is like He’s saying, “Yeah, you think I’m cool now, but you won’t believe me when I reach out to the rest of the world.” In Nazareth, Jesus confronts the reality of what will happen all over the Jewish world: they want the Messiah to be for them only. As soon as Jesus begins sharing God’s grace with Gentiles and foreigners and sinners and tax collectors, they will get angry and drive Him out of town: first out of Nazareth and then out of Jerusalem. This moment is a foreshadowing of what is to come. When Jesus reveals Himself as something more than they expect—an earthly king sent to restore Israel to her former glory—they drive Him not only out of their presence, but to death. But Jesus escapes Nazareth because it is not yet His time. There is more work to do.

Imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to go into His hometown synagogue to preach. Those of us who have done so know what it is like. It is nerve wracking. 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. “Ah, Lord Jehovah! behold, I know not how to speak; for I am a child.” Sounds like a good excuse to me.

My excuses might be different, but mostly my excuse is that I’m afraid I haven’t heard correctly. Is it really God’s voice? Is He really calling *me* to do this? Why would He call *me* to do this. I’m nobody. I’m nothing, really. I make typing and grammar and judgment mistakes every day. Most of the time what I am thinking in my head and what ends up on paper makes absolutely no sense at all. Wouldn’t it be better if God chose someone more capable of doing this work than little ol’ me?

But God says, “Say not, I am a child; for to whomsoever I shall send thee thou shalt go, and whatsoever I shall command thee thou shalt speak.” It is a matter of trusting in God. We are called and gifted to do His work. We will have doubts; they all had doubts. Jonah had excuses. Zechariah had excuses. Isaiah had excuses. But God does not call those whom He has not prepared. We have to trust that He knows what He is doing when we do not. We may not think we have the gifts to accomplish what God is calling us to do, but we do have the one thing that is necessary.

This is why Paul’s message for today is so important to us. In last week’s passage, Paul talked about the different callings in the Church. Some are apostles, some are teachers, etc. The week before that, we were reminded that every part of the body is important and that there are many different types of gifts. But Paul ends that chapter with this verse, “But desire earnestly the greater gifts. And moreover a most excellent way show I unto you.” What are the greater gifts? After the long lesson of the different types of gifts, it is easy to think that perhaps Paul listed them in some order. Is apostleship greater than tongues? Is it better to prophecy or teach?

It is interesting that Paul say asks, “Do all speak with tongues?” He assumes in this passage that not everyone is given all the gifts, and that not everyone is given any one of the gifts. In this way, God makes us rely upon one another. No one Christian is given everything; we are joined together by our common faith and our diverse gifts.

However, there are those who believe that certain gifts are required: if those gifts do not exist in someone’s life, they question whether or not a person is even saved. The trouble with this is that it causes one of two inappropriate responses from Christians. Some, in an effort to be included in the work of the Church, will pretend to have gifts they have not been given. Sadly, the other response is even more heartbreaking. These are the ones who sincerely seek the gifts but when they do not manifest, they fall away from the faith. What God would require something that He does not give?

Paul shows us a more excellent way. That way is love. Paul tells us that if we do have these gifts but do not have love, then we are nothing. Isn’t it funny how we think we are not worthy of the work God is calling us to do, but the reality is that all we really need to do that work is love; it is the lack of love that makes us unworthy. We can love even if we can’t talk, sing, heal, teach, walk, preach, lead, cook, clean, garden, paint, type, write or use a computer. We can love even if we have nothing else to share. We do not need to doubt, we need only approach every opportunity with love and God will provide everything we need.

What is love? Love is difficult to define. It isn’t tangible, like a tree. It doesn’t breathe like an animal. You can’t hold it in your hand or see it with your eyes. But Paul does his best to describe it for us. “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

Love is patient. The American Standard version says, “love sufferth long.” It endures hardship for the sake of another. The perfect example of this is God. Imagine if God were as ‘patient’ with our faults as we are with the faults of others? We would not have the story of Jesus. God would have lost patience with us long before He was able to complete His plan. It is harder for us, unless we approach all things with love. This does not mean that we sit back and allow the world to step on us, but it does mean that we deal with them as God deals with us: with love. We give kindness where it is undeserved. We do not covet that which belongs to another. We do not respond with rudeness.

Ok, so we are fallible. We aren’t very patient. We do not always respond with love. But God is calling us to live this way. He draws us ever deeper into His heart so that we will see our neighbors, and our enemies, through His eyes. He draws us into love so that we will deal with the world as He might. That’s the greatest gift: that He is love and as we dwell in Him, He gives us all we need to deal with the world in which we live.

The psalmist writes, “In thee, O Jehovah, do I take refuge: Let me never be put to shame.” We take refuge in and deal with the world from there. The response we get won’t always be pretty. Oh, like Jesus, we might at first impress those to whom we are sent, but when we open our mouths, the words will not always be what they want to hear. The words may not even be the ones we want to say. But as we dwell in love, in God’s heart, and do what He has called us to do, we will also be driven away. This does not mean that we are sent into the world to judge the sins of our neighbors, or force them to be or do what we think they should do. For God will not give us words that will harm another. We may have to rebuke, or correct, or reprove, but not to doubt God’s love for any of His people.

Paul writes, “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.” We don’t always understand God’s plan for us. We sometimes doubt that we are hearing Him correctly. We wonder if we can ever do the work He has called us to do. We are uncertain that we have the gifts needed. It is part of our human frailty. Only God knows everything. This is why we live by faith, hope and love: faith that God knows what He is doing, hope that the fulfillment of His promises will be soon and love of God and one another.

The words of Jesus to the Nazarenes were hard for them to hear. They were separate, special and unique and the God for whom they’d waited so long fit into a tidy understanding. He was theirs. And they were His. We understand that point of view. We feel the same way sometimes when it comes to our faith, especially when we look at the faith of others. But Jesus tells us that He has come for others, too. If we reject them, we reject Him But if we dwell in Him, we’ll see them through God’s eyes and love them, just like He does, sharing His grace in whatever ways God makes possible. He knows what He’s doing, even when we don’t. We simply trust in Him and live in love and we’ll do the work He has called us to do.

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