Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Jeremiah 1:4-10 (17-19)
Psalm 71:1-6 (7-11)
1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13
Luke 4:31-44

Bow down thine ear unto me, and save me.

It is a wonderful experience. 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 do. You bend over or kneel so that you can look them in the eye and 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, 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 hurt them. Thank goodness children are so able to forgive and forget and they give us second chances.

The psalmist says, "Bow down thine ear unto me, and save me." I like the way the American Standard Version has translated this verse. NIV says, "Turn your ear 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 as I read it today, I heard it more as the voice of a child seeking a father's attention. Aren't there times that we do this with our God? We don't want to yell so that He'll hear us in heaven, so we pull on His robe and ask Him to bend over to hear us. "I love you" means "I trust that you will take care of me." This means that the Father will provide everything we need, including His overflowing heart.

The Old Testament lesson is about Jeremiah's call from God to be a prophet. Jeremiah trusted God enough to argue with Him. "I can't do this," he said. He, like Moses, did not feel he was eloquent in speech and therefore was unqualified for the task. "I am too young." We don't know how hold Jeremiah was at this time; most of the commentaries give the possibility that he may have been just in his teens, but all suggest that "young" in this case may simply mean that he was not old enough to take on such an important role in God's kingdom. Priests became priests at about thirty years of age, although they may have been working in the Temple as apprentices for many years. How could a teenager, or even a young adult ever hope to be heard by his elders?

God answered. He "bowed down" to listen to Jeremiah, heard his complaint and answered him. "Youth and inexperience do not disqualify you for the job to which I have called you. Do not be afraid, I am with you." See, God does not call us to do something for which He has not prepared to provide. God's prophets do not speak from age or experience, but from the heart and will of God. God then touched Jeremiah's mouth and said, " Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth: see, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

If you've ever read the book of Jeremiah all the way through (it is hard), you'll know that he was a prophet of doom (that's why it is hard.) His words were not well received. He had few friends. It isn't a life anyone would choose, made even worse by the lack of authority by human standards. Who is Jeremiah to speak these words? The false prophets gave a much better sounding message. We would all rather hear about peace than destruction. We would rather go about the status quo than hear the need for repentance. His warnings about the wrath of God were so uncomfortable that they did not hear that grace and mercy could be found in humble submission to God. Even though Jeremiah warned that they would face God's judgment, he also promised that there was hope. Forgiveness and cleansing would come, a new day would dawn, and God would restore His people.

We might be tempted to ignore those children when they tug on our pants or skirt because they are just children. What could they possibly say? But then we think about the times, those moments, when they said the most important thing and realize how prophetic their words can be. Jeremiah loved God and he loved His people. He warned them because he wanted them to live the blessed life that God chose them to live. They were God's people, how could they not respond? How could they not "bow down" and hear that the words he spoke were the most important words they could hear?

God knew it wouldn't be easy. "Gird up your loins!" He said. What does that even mean? We understand that it means to prepare for what is to come, but it is a phrase that is a little lost to us. There are pictures available that show how to gird one's loins, but I'll try to describe it in words so that you'll understand. See, in those days they wore tunics, not pants. They were often long, almost to the ground, making it difficult to do battle or hard work. To gird the loins, one lifted the fabric of the tunic above the knees and gathered the fabric toward the front so that the back us snug against the buttocks. You then pull the excess fabric underneath and between the legs to the rear. It feels much like a diaper. Then divide the fabric, half in each hand and bring to the front, tying the two halves together in the middle. This not only gives one freedom of movement, but it gives a little extra protection to the loins, the vulnerable mid-section of the body.

So, to gird one's loins is not just about being prepared, it is about trusting that God will provide you with everything you need to accomplish His work.

Jesus was a grown man by the time He entered the synagogue in His hometown, but He was still a son of the community. Of all the people in the world, it seems like His family and friends should believe Him the most, but as He said, a prophet is not accepted in his hometown. They didn't have faith because it was all too impossible to believe. How could this boy be the One? Jesus escaped and went to teach another congregation in the synagogue at Capernaum. They, too, were astonished by His lesson; they heard the authority in His voice and in His word.

In the congregation was a man who had a demon. The demon spoke out against Jesus. The demon identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. 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. "Who is this and what is this word that he speaks? He has power and authority even over the demons." 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.

After Jesus left the synagogue where He cast out the demon from the man, He visited the home of Peter. Simon Peter's wife's mother was ill with a fever. She was sick in bed, separated from her family and her work by her illness.

Jesus went to her. I can almost imagine this scene as Jesus bows over the sick bed of this woman; perhaps He even knelt on the ground beside her bed so that He would be close to her. He rebuked the fever and she was made well. Jesus felt the tug and responded to the faith of those who prayed for her with and overflowing heart. This story is almost a side note in today's text, two verses about someone so important to Peter, bookended by the casting out of a demon and the healing of so many.

Luke tells us that she "immediately rose up and ministered unto them." Most of us look at that and think, "The woman has been sick, can't they give her some time to recuperate now that the fever is gone?" But I like the use of the word "minister" in the American Standard Version translation. Jesus restored her health, but He also restored her to her place in the Kingdom. Jesus didn't come to make the world as we want it to be, He came to make things right. He made Simon's mother-in-law well so she could minister as God had called her to do.

By that evening, word of Jesus' exorcism had reached the surrounding area and many people came to be healed. It must have been overwhelming for Jesus to have so many people seeking His healing touch. I think about the scene from "Jesus Christ Superstar," when Jesus is confronted by lepers, cripples and beggars, all wanting to be healed. He is crushed by their need, and He angrily tells the crowd to heal themselves. I do not know whether Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were interpreting these passages in that moment, but it seems like they might have been. Was Jesus overwhelmed by so many demands in Capernaum? Perhaps. But there's something more for us to see in these stories.

Jesus went out to pray early in the morning, but the people would not leave Him alone. They wanted Him to stay. They wanted to keep His gifts all to themselves. They wanted to ensure that everyone they loved was made well. They believed in the healing power of Jesus, but they still did not understand why He came. They were looking for the wrong kind of Messiah.

In Luke 4:43, Jesus says, "I must preach the good tidings of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for therefore was I sent." The people of Capernaum did not want Jesus to leave because He was making a real difference in their lives. He was healing their sick and He was casting out the demons. I wouldn't want Him to go, either. However, Jesus knew that His work was more than healing. He came to preach the Kingdom of God. The good news is more than what God can do for us today, in this world. It is more than what God can give to us. It is more than how God can protect us.

The reason why Jesus did not want the demons telling the world that He was the Messiah is because they were expecting a different kind of king. They wanted someone who would fill their bellies and defeat their oppressors. They wanted a king to sit on the throne of Israel, to give them a new Golden Age as they had under David and Solomon. The message Jesus came to deliver was eternal. He came to restore God's people to their Father, not return the nation to its glory.

I think sometimes we'd just as well 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 saw what you want me to say? How can I make a difference? Can't I have just a little while to heal completely? 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 didnít think he was eloquent enough. Jonah was angry and didnít want to share Godís 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 wonít 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 doesnít choose us because we are perfect for the job. He doesnít 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, as we heard in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians last week.

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. Sadly, at least a few of those missed moments with children were moments when I was busy doing the work I thought I was called to do. I was working a project for church or volunteering for my children's class. I was typing a devotional at the computer. Sometimes I was busy with the everyday tasks that were part of my vocation as wife and mother: cooking food, folding laundry, vacuuming the floor. My kids are long grown, but I can almost still see their looks of disappointment when I shooed the away when all they wanted was to give me a hug.

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. 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 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.

Love is patient. The American Standard Version translates this: "Love sufferth long." It endures hardship for the sake of another. It bows down to hear the words of a child filled with hopeful expectation. The perfect example of this is God. Love bows over the bed of a sick woman and restores her to her place in the Kingdom. Love kneels on the floor even when the back and knees hurt so much and getting up will be difficult.

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. He would never have given that promise of restoration to the His people through the prophet Jeremiah. He would have left them exiled forever. He would have never sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die for our sake. We would not know the forgiveness that we receive by His grace.

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.

God starts with love. He 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 even if it seems to be a ridiculous task. God knows our failing. He knows exactly when we should not be the one He is asking to do that work. 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. Remember, it is God's words we speak. And because we speak God's words, they 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. So, let's gird our loins, for God has told us not to be afraid and that He is with us. We can go out into the world with trust and faith, doing whatever it is He has called us to do.

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