December 1, 1991
Hurry Up and Wait
(1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
The wee hours were our time, my Dad and me. After wives and children were in bed, after whatever late shows we set ourselves and the set to watch, after snacks — and in his case smokes — after all of that, when it was just “we” in the wee hours, those hours were ours.
The wee hours are a unique moment, situated as they are between yesterday and tomorrow; a time of reflection and expectation, of remembrances and resolution, of recollection and hope. You can muse on the day or days just past, can muster for the day or days just ahead — it’s a time between times, the wee hours. And it always seemed fitting somehow that in the between times is when Dad and I talked: about life and the church, (ministry and the faith, disappointment and heaven. His life and ministry were all but over, and mine were just getting under way. We were a parable of reflection and expectation, and, I believe, evidence of God’s faithfulness and promise to all generations.
We talked about other things, too, as father-son kinds of stories passed between us. Sometimes Dad would talk about his time in the army and the war. He would chuckle at the memories of great danger escaped, tear-up to remember a buddy who didn’t make it, and get excited all over again recounting how he flew behind enemy lines.
My favorite of his stories, though, concerned the preparations for the European invasion. “Hurry up and wait,” he dubbed them. “Hurry up and wait.”
“That’s what we did. Some order would come down. ‘This is it,’ and we would scramble here and there, move a few miles down the road, get ready to go, and then it would turn out to be an exercise, a maneuver, a false alarm. And we would sit again. Hurry up and wait! You do a lot of thinking when you’re waiting — the people back home, about the battle ahead. You do a lot of praying, too. You’re ready to go now, but not yet. Hurry up and wait! It’s like you’re in between times.”
II
In those in-between times of the wee hours, we talked about the in-between times, when preparing for battle, or when working in the church. There we were, enacting a parable of remembrance and anticipation, all the while exploring how the most people like us often have — given that we are all in between times — how the most we have is memory and hope, and both of them based upon the faithfulness of God; how the best we can do is to remember and anticipate. That and pray.
Paul seems situated just so in our reading for this first Sunday of Advent — in between times. And the best he can do, it seems, is to remember his friends in Thessalonica with joy and thanksgiving, all the while anticipating seeing them again, either face to face by means of a visit, or “spirit to spirit” on the day of the Lord.
It’s not a late night chat, what we have in this letter, but it, too, seems a parable. They are testimony — Paul and his Thessalonian friends — to the faithfulness of God toward succeeding generations of Christians. Paul is their father, they the children. For all he knows, his time may be short — all time may be short if Jesus comes back. There is so much he wants to say to them — but the best he can muster is to remember the past, while at the same time remembering with them their future, the future God has promised them.
Much has passed between them, and now distance, too, has passed between them, and Paul can only wait — remembering, anticipating, praying for them. Praying that they be fit for the day of Christ, that they be ready for the Last Things first.
III
Advent is a time of mixed emotions. It’s a season of “Hurry up and Wait,” a time in between times, when one set of realities drag us on while nostalgia and the rest pull us back. But lest we get lost in the mix, in the “hurry up and wait” of Advent, there abide three things — remembrance, anticipation, and prayer. I demur to say the greatest of the three, confident that taken together they will see us through the mix. (TRS)
December 8, 1991
Poems, Prayers, and Promises
(Philippians 1:3-11)
… and talk of poems, prayers and promises
and things that we believe in:
how sweet it is to love someone,
how right it is to care;
how long it’s been since yesterday;
and what about tomorrow?
What about our dreams,
and all the memories we shared?1
I frankly don’t know, can’t imagine, whether the Apostle Paul would like the music of John Denver. I have the distinct impression that John Denver would be somewhat uncomfortable with the theology of the Apostle Paul. No matter. The gospel continually forms unlikely couplets.
And here, on this second Sunday of Advent, I find myself humming the tune to the John Denver song as I read the lesson from Philippians. It seems a poem, prose notwithstanding, and a prayer, and both in the light of God’s promises.
Poems deal with emotions, according to C. Hugh Holman, Kenan Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Poetry, he says in A Handbook of Literature,2 presents the emotions of the poet as they are aroused by some scene, some experience, some attachment.3 Certainly Paul’s emotions are aroused in our lesson for the day. Is he remembering some scene from Philippi, a moment when he was with one of his friends, over a meal? Sharing a laugh, or a deep moment of prayer?
His emotions are certainly aroused on account of his experiences there, and the joy he still gleans from the memories of them. And the attachments he still feels for that church and its work is evident throughout the lesson. It is a kind of poetry, I think, this section of Philippians.
II
The poetry is a prayer, too, of course; a prayer deeper than the words he writes. Paul’s prayers are often more profound than the words he can muster (Romans 8:26). He finally invokes the “bowels of Christ” as an indicator of just how deeply his love for them is situated, just how much he agonizes to see them, just how hard he prays for them, and not only in thanks for their sharing of the gospel with him, their partnership in his work, but that they may grow in faith and love for one another until the day of Christ.
The day will come, Paul says, when God will complete among all the faithful the work begun through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that God will fit all the faithful for kingdom. That’s the promise on which the poem and prayer are founded. God will be faithful to the work He has started — and so must the Philippians be faithful to the work started in them. He prays that his Philippian friends will, on that day, be “pure and blameless,” having “harvested the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” It is a prayer not only that they continue in the way they have chosen, but that they walk in the way more and more, loving one another more, and knowing and understanding more and more, that they might know the right thing and do the right thing, and all for Christ.
Paul’s prayer is for those in Philippi, but it is a prayer for all the church, I believe, and, in reality, a prayer for God. Paul prays not only that our lives will be fit for the kingdom, but also that our praise will be fit for God — that our praise may increase the glory and praise of God (verse 11; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:15).
III
Advent, I believe, is a time to talk, as Paul does, about poems, and prayers and promises, about the things we believe in — the coming of Christ and His coming again; to remind ourselves how sweet it is to love, how right to care, how precious to love our friends as Paul loved his; to recall God’s past, and anticipate God’s future; to remember our dreams — as well as those of Joseph — and to remember that together we share, and participate, in the past, present, and future of God’s work on earth. (TRS)
1. John Denver, Poems, Prayers, and Promises. On the RCA album by the same name, 1971.
2. C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 4th Edition, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980.
3. Ibid., p. 341.
December 15, 1991
A Rather Curious Joy
(Luke 3:7-18)
This third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, a joyful interlude in the midst of what traditionally has been observed as a penitential season. Purple for repentance is the liturgical color for the other three Advent Sundays, symbolizing both our sorrow over the sin that necessitated the coming of Christ, and our unworthiness to receive Him. On this third Sunday of Advent, however, the color is not purple but pink. Pink for joy.
It’s a nice reprieve if you are fasting, doing penance, and otherwise sacrificing in honor of Christ’s kenosis. It’s nice to have a little break, to have liturgical permission to enjoy the festivities of the season that no doubt are by this time surrounding you. It is well, too, to remember how the coming of Christ, as the supreme act of God’s grace, is the basis of our joy — both before and after the fact, in anticipation of as well as reflection on the promises of grace in the birth of Jesus.
The coming birth will herald a great joy which is for all peoples, a news too good to wait two more weeks for. Even the lessons for this Sunday can’t quite wait until the Nativity before bubbling out.
“Sing aloud!” exclaims Zephaniah. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart! For the Lord has taken away the judgments against you.”
“Sing praises to the Lord,” echoes Isaiah, “for he had done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy …”
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” sings Paul; “again I will say rejoice … for the Lord is at hand …”
A great day for joy.
And so it is curious in a way — a curious joy, if that’s what it is — a curious call to joy, that we find in the gospel text for today. It is John the Baptist doing the calling. The people’s faces — if they are a color at all and not blanched with fear as they listen — if they are a color at all are not pink but purple, with anger and embarrassment. John’s face is red to be sure.
“You brood of vipers!” he screams. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance …”
It is one of John’s favorite terms, repentance, and well-suited for all the Sundays of Advent, but why here? Why on this Gaudete Sunday, this Sunday of joy and can’t-hold-it-in good news? On this Sunday we are so happily aware of what God has done for us, is doing for us, will do for us. Why mix that message with one of present and coming judgment?
“… even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And it is a curious joy, or a curious call to joy, that we hear on this third Sunday of Advent.
Yet, the forerunner of Jesus aptly challenges us to remember that true joy is not a private emotion; that true joy is never a matter of selfish excess, but rather a matter of selflessness: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and she who has food, let her do likewise.” Jesus’ cousin and way-maker calls the people to a curious joy, a surprising joy, the joy not of getting, but of giving; the joy, as Fred Craddock dubs it, of coming clean and coming empty to receive the gift of God.
John reminds us that one cannot come to the stable to receive unless one has come through the wilderness, leaving there all that we hold so tightly onto, and leaving it all so as to have open hands for the new gift.
All repentance is like that, is aimed at our coming clean and coming empty. Fasting, giving alms –or coats or food — all of it is a way of coming clean and coming empty, of opening our hearts and hands in order to receive God’s gifts.
III
Repentance itself, then, is a joyful act, a curiously joyful act. John calls us to this curious joy on this third Advent Sunday. John calls us both to an awareness of our sin, and to a hope of forgiveness and cleansing. John calls us both to fear the winnowing hook — the judgment of God which will thresh us like wheat — and to a hope that God will in fact separate what is our chaff from what is worth saving. John calls on us not to trumpet that Abraham is our father, but to be thankful that God is, the same God who gives good gifts to His children, if they are ready to receive them. And that is a joy for which it is too good to wait. (TRS)
December 22, 1991
Of Micah and Mary
(Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55)
The gospel continually forms unlikely couplets, and here as the living Gospel is ready to burst forth from the womb of a young girl, the truth of it has never been truer. Take that very one, for instance — the Almighty, Sovereign of the Universe, en-wombed in the belly of a woman-child, nurtured in the womb of Mary, hanging on to the world and His saving of it by a cord. An unlikely couplet.
So unlikely that Mary herself sings out for wonder:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed …
The humble handmaiden, a nobody to everyone but Joseph, but famous now for all generations. Who could have figured it? And it is the arm of the Lord that has done this thing, the arm of the Lord that coupled them — He and Mary — the same arm that couples all the couplets.
Micah envisions an unlikely couplet, too. His faith, like Mary’s, beholds the coming of a child, a new ruler. What he can see in the historical foreground of his prophetic vision is the holy city of Jerusalem under siege, walled in by the Assyrians who are prone to amuse themselves at the expense of the king, to the utter shame of all Jerusalem’s residents. Micah sees how the mighty of God have fallen, and dramatically so.
But Micah sees something else, too, how the humble will be magnified to the glory of God:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from old, from ancient of days.”
The time is not yet, as Micah can see. Before the ruler can come, the people shall be given up — a reference, in all probability, to the Exile. But as it is in Isaiah, the promised time is promised by way of a young woman.
“… when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of (the ruler’s) brethren shall return to the people of Israel.
The strength of Israel shall come from the travail of a maiden. From the womb of a woman-child shall come the Ancient of Days. Unlikely couplets, coupled by the arm of the Lord.
“He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree,” sings Mary.
“He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God,” anticipates Micah.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” The recitative is Mary’s.
“(All the people) shall dwell secure,” and now it is Micah again, “for he shall be great to the ends of the earth, the one of peace.”
The rough places shall be smoothed, the valleys filled, the mountains leveled — all unlikely couplets, all a part of the gospel. And this last one especially: the Great One shall be One of Peace. A very unlikely couplet, given our world as it is. But the gospel continually forms unlikely couplets, like Mary and Micah; couplets that promise, through the strength of God, a world as it could be.
Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus. To Micah. To Mary. And to us. (TRS)
December 29, 1991
Too Soon Gone
(Luke 2:41-52)
It would be easy enough to “socialize” on this passage a bit, especially given that it is situated on the Sunday after the Nativity, when so many students are back home and, for many of them, back in church for the first time since they left for school.
“Too soon gone.” That’s what a lot of parents think and feel when the nose of the car points down the road toward college. Or when it comes home for a spell, only to leave again. My baby, too soon gone. (I personally had trouble when my daughter started kindergarten, thinking much the same thing.)
I could talk about Jesus and His parents, Jesus and His mother, especially — the love we hope they shared, much as we hope all mothers and children love one another; or her fears over Him, fears all mothers feel on account of their children, and her other fears, knowing at last a little of what was coming for Him.
I could reflect on how she treasured in her heart this episode, as I am sure she treasured many episodes, more of which I wish we knew. But we don’t. Many things that pass between a mother and a child are private, as most of Jesus’ childhood is private.
Still, the text is social to be sure. It shows that Jesus and Mary and Joseph were a family, a good example of Jewish piety, a family that did God’s will.
Already we have seen Jesus’ circumcision according to the Law of Moses, and similarly, we have been told of Mary’s purification and Jesus’ dedication. And now we have this story of Joseph’s family making an annual pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. All of it according to the Law, and all of it pretty normal for a pious Jewish family.
II
There are other stories of Jesus’ childhood, not in the gospels but in the apocrypha, a body of extra-testamental writings about Jesus and the disciples. And there are some really good stories in there, really dramatic.
One of them recounts how one day Jesus was playing near a fresh puddle after a rain-shower, and rather than mud-pies He was making little clay doves. Some bigger boys started making fun of Him, so He clapped His hands, and the birds came to life and flew away.
One time Joseph, who was a carpenter, made a mistake measuring the wood he was using to build a bed-frame for a very important customer. Good wood was scarce, and Joseph was lamenting how he had sawed one of the side beams a cubit or two shorter than the other. Not to worry. Jesus told Joseph to hold the two pieces flush at his end, whereupon Jesus simply stretched the wood at His end to make the beams even.
Good stories, all, but not in the gospels. There are a lot more of them, most of them introducing the miraculous into Jesus’ childhood, making Jesus’ power part of His adolescence.
III
You have none of that here, however. The best word for this scene is normal. Even Jesus’ remaining in the Temple is less extraordinary, I think, than it is exemplary, a case-in-point of the entire family’s deep faith, and a logical consequence, too, of Jesus’ dedication to the work of God.
No, nothing spectacular, miraculous, or apocryphal here. Only pretty normal stuff as Jesus grows and matures and continues on His way toward fulfilling God’s will for His life.
And that’s the point at which I would socialize, given that part of what lets Jesus get on with His life is just normal family stuff. “Normal” doesn’t have to mean rebellious, contentious or strife-torn. Jesus Himself is “normal” — very faithful, to be sure, but normal. Which is good news and bad news to folks like you and me.
It’s good news in that Jesus is one of us, and therefore we recognize each other, speak the same language, have the same concerns and dreams and disappointments. That Jesus finally can save us is based on the fact that He is — though divine — yet in reality one of us.
It’s bad news in that it won’t let us off the hook. We can’t excuse Him as we might like to. If Jesus is really different than we are, then we don’t really need to worry about being “conformed into his image,” because the image doesn’t fit.
The image does fit, however, and over and over again in the New Testament we are called to be like Jesus. Not to be Jesus — Jesus, like all of us, was unique — but be like Him. Those who follow Christ are to be like Him, are to love the way He loved, are to give the way He gave.
Our faith is in this Jesus, this boy who grew up to give Himself for us. Our challenge is to be like Him — and the challenge is urgent, lest our changes to meet it be too soon gone. (TRS)
January 5, 1992
We Have God’s Word On It!
(John 1:1-18)
To a culture that has become visually stimulated, the spoken word has much to be desired. Yet it is through the power of a spoken word that we reveal what it is we hope to communicate to anyone who will listen. The text for our consideration involves the Word. This Word is God’s self-revelation of Himself, of His will, of His identity.
Through the Logos, the Word, God is seeking to reveal to human-kind His nature, His will, His identity. And while this Word is identified with Him, it is also separate from Him. It is in this prologue to John’s gospel, that John introduces us to the paradox of God’s nature which will later become known as the Trinity.
As John proclaims this powerful testimony of who God is seeking to reveal Himself to be through the Word, John speaks a relevant word to both Jew and Greek. John seeks to draw together what two different cultures have in common. For the Jew, the logos is the means by which God enacts His power and carries out His divine will. The author of Genesis understands this motif as he shows God create the world through the word: “Let there be,” and there was.
The Greeks — through the philosopher Heraclitus — believed that the will of God could be known in the reason of every man, dwelling within him through the logos, the word of God. It is no mistake that John seeks to bring two worlds together using that which was common to both, the word.
The Word, however, is more than just God speaking or communicating His divine will. This Word is God. This word stands as the most personal and intimate way in which God could possibly seek to reveal Himself to His world. The biblical word “Glory,” helps us to realize that this is God’s revelation of Himself. This Word is taking on human form and seeks to live among us, full of grace and beauty. John’s words are bordered with meaning as he sets the stage for the drama to unfold. The image, the stories, the portrayals that follow continue to seek to reveal this logos of God that has become a man — unified yet distinct from the One who sent Him into a hurting world.
The image that comes to mind to this preacher finds expression in the title, “We Have God’s Word On It!” Remembering the day when a person’s word was his bond is an image that seemingly expresses that through Christ, God is making good on His promise to love us. In a culture that neutralizes once powerful words, this text seems to provide a good springboard as to the place of this definitive word in our lives. What has happened to a society where a person’s word is no longer good enough? In such a society, is God’s word good enough?
Exploring the power of what happens when God’s Word is revealed would be a must to help us see that God’s Word involves both revelation and action. God didn’t just say He was going to become flesh; through His Word, He became flesh. The correlation between God’s speaking and that expression taking on a life all of its own is an important distinction to make. When God speaks, people do more than just listen. When God speaks, by the nature and the character of the Word, people are transformed. Through His Word, God seeks to act out His love for us in clear and definable ways.
A little girl came to tell her Daddy she loved him. Her father was in the den, in his easy chair, reading the newspaper. “Daddy, I love you!” the little girl blurted out. With the paper still in front of him, the father mumbled, “I love you, too.” The little girl, somewhat disappointed with this half-hearted response, jumped in the middle of her daddy’s lap, gave him a kiss and a hug and exclaimed, “I love you Daddy, and I just had to do something about it.”
God loves us and, through His Word, He has done and is doing something about it. We have His Word on that! (TF)
January 12, 1992
The Missing Link
(Acts 8:14-17)
As Luke tells the story of the birth of the church, he tells the story in a most dramatic and moving style. Preceding the story of interest to us is the climactic, tragic drama of the martyrdom of Stephen. This event in the life of the early Christians set in motion a series of events that set up the story of our focus.
Stephen’s death provoked a persecution of the church. As the church was under persecution, the apostles located in Jerusalem; Jerusalem became the place of authority and power. This persecution, however, also took on a somewhat different expression as Philip, one of those selected by the twelve (Acts 6:1-6) to assist them in ministry, began the first missionary journey to Samaria, proclaiming the gospel to the despised Samaritans.
Philip’s message is well received and many are added to the church including the famous Jewish magician, Simon Magus, who became most enamored with the miracles and healing performed by Philip in the name of Christ. Philip baptized in the name of the Lord and many believed.
One thing was missing as to the work Philip did. Philip’s preaching, not his healing nor the baptisms done in the name of the Lord, bestow the gift of the Spirit. Up until this point in Luke’s telling of the Christian story, converts received the gift of the Holy Spirit during or shortly following their baptism. As Carl R. Holladay, associate professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, points out, “The Acts narrative makes clear that ‘baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus’ and the reception of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands are two distinct acts, and they may be separated by a considerable space of time.” This marks a new shift in the way the early church understood water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The conclusion of the text makes it very clear that the oversight of Philip’s work is made complete at the hands of the apostles, Peter and John, who are sent by the church in Jerusalem.
The story for our consideration is a most powerful one as the church focuses its attention on the theme of baptism. Anyone who works in the church today and who baptizes knows that there is much confusion regarding this transforming and powerful act. Luke’s story from Acts provides a very appropriate spring-board into a much-needed discussion of the act of baptism in the church. What is it that the church does by offering this sacred means of grace to people? Any serious attempt at answering that question must address the distinction between symbol and transformation. How many confirmation classes, upon receiving baptism, understand what it is the church is doing?
Philip’s baptism, while effective in symbolizing the reception of the Samaritans into the family of God and thus becoming God’s children, failed to bestow that personal, intimate, life-giving Spirit that provides the transforming link with this God who loves us and who claims us for His own. To help illustrate the point; there is much more to having children than being able to produce a birth certificate that states the child was born and designates who the parents are. The power of bringing a child into the world is made complete as that child comes to know, realize, experience, and accept the love of the parents. Although the analogy is not complete, it does provide a point of reference in helping us understand the relationship between parent and child, between baptism and transformation.
The church of Jesus Christ must not provide an incomplete experience of baptism. The early church made sure that its authority was not misused nor misunderstood. Luke provides us with this vignette that helps us to see that, as the church of Jesus Christ, we must be a faithful witness to His baptism as recipients of baptism today, understanding both the symbol and its power.
Baptism seen and experienced only as a symbol becomes nothing but a membership card. Baptism, however, that moves beyond symbol to the reception of God’s most Holy Spirit, becomes transformation that empowers us to become God’s person called forth, sent forth, to witness to a hurting, broken world. In today’s search as to why the church is ineffective, or why Christian people seem as apathetic, or why we feel as though we are not quite whole the answer may be discovered in realizing that the missing link as to our witness, our ministry, and our baptism is none other than God’s most personal, intimate Holy Spirit. (TF)
January 19, 1992
Every-Day Miracles
(John 2:1-11)
Everyone loves a wedding! A wedding is a time of celebration, a time of new beginnings. A wedding is one of the festive occasions we experience and enjoy with friends and family many times.
If that’s true today, it was even more so among the Jewish people of Palestine in Jesus’ day. A Jewish wedding lasted an entire day or more, and involved not only the actual ceremony but a host of festivities — food, dancing, and more. It was certainly a special day for the couple, but it was a normal part of Jewish life. Weddings were a part of the normal fabric of life.
Into that event comes Jesus, with perhaps five of His disciples. Could it be that the extra, unexpected guests placed an unanticipated burden on the wine supply? Maybe that’s why Mary came to Jesus to tell her son that the wine was gone — a situation that would pose great humiliation for the bride and bridegroom.
In the midst of this every-day event, an extraordinary event takes place: Jesus turns water into wine. And we are able to observe how Jesus takes the ordinary and turns it into something special.
The water was available in large quantities because of the ritual purification requirements of Jewish tradition. Feet, dirty from the dusty roads, needed to be cleaned. Hands needed to be ritually cleansed on several occasions during the wedding meals and festivities. Indeed, George Beasley-Murray has observed that there’s an implicit contrast between the water used for the Jewish purification rites and the new wine that is created by Jesus. The change from water (used for ritual purification) to wine used for celebration is a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God in and through Jesus.
It was a wedding — the kind of event that regularly happens in every society. Yet Jesus took that normal event and filled it with divine significance because of His presence and activity.
Jesus takes ordinary people and events and produces miracles from them. What is Christ able to do through your life — your work, your home, your relationships? What can He accomplish in our lives — transforming the water of the old into the wine of the new — if we will yield ourselves to His touch?
You need not be a celebrity or be involved in extraordinary activities to experience the power of God working through your life. God has always done miraculous and remarkable things through ordinary people: people like Moses, a shepherd from the backside of nowhere; Amos, a simple farmer; Peter and John, fishermen running the family business. The transforming touch of the divine produced an amazing difference in each of them.
What is God seeking to do in our lives these days? Are you open and available to His presence and purpose for you? (JMD)
January 26, 1992
One of Our Own
(Luke 4:14-21)Jesus, in His hometown synagogue, has just read from the scroll of Isaiah’s prophecy. All of the worshippers’ eyes are upon Him as He tells His neighbors that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Those present spoke well of Him and were amazed, but questions were also asked. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In other words, “Hey, we know this boy. He’s one of us.”
Gone to Meddlin’
Why couldn’t Jesus have left well enough alone? Doing favorably at His homecoming, He spoke deftly at worship. Many had nodded approval. But, lest we forget, Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and this is a Spirit never leaving well enough alone. So Jesus continues.
Recounting two stories from His own people’s scripture, surely they would not miss the point. As Fred Craddock has commented, “There are two kinds of preaching difficult to hear: poor preaching and good preaching.” Jesus was putting the word on them in an unexpected way. The first story was about Elijah going in the midst of a severe famine to a foreign widow at Zarephath. The second story was about Namaan, the Syrian army officer. He was healed by Elijah, when many lepers in Israel were overlooked.
Evidently, the people understood! Their own holy writings had been used against them and they stood condemned. They were so angered by what Jesus had said, they drove Him out of the town and were going to hurl Him off a cliff. “But He passed through the midst of them and went on His way.”
Pride or Despair?
If the temptation for pastors, when everything is going well, is to believe people’s praises reflect reality, then the opposite might also be true. Reinhold Niebuhr notes that sin manifests itself two primary ways. One can sin through pride — a person thinks too highly of oneself and skills. The other end of the sin spectrum is that a person can sin through despair. In this broken relationship with God, which for Niebuhr was the essence of sin, one gives up on the world before God does.
Luke tells us the rest of Jesus’ ministry was spent helping people see that God, in Christ, came for all — not just certain insiders. God also comes for those society considers too profane for salvation. This is often the bad news which precedes the good news. Many religious folk are not sure about “amazing grace” for foreigners, outsiders, and enemies. This is why the story of the oxymoronic “good Samaritan” is so painful to the Jewish community. It is also why Jesus’ two stories in the Nazareth synagogue about God helping foreigners before He helps those in Israel is bitterly painful.
Be Not Dismayed
For young ministers the sin of despair is always looming, as is the sin of pride. Each view, in its own way, lacks proper perspective. In Lessons to My Students, Charles Spurgeon said, “The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble…. Even if the enemies’ foot be on your neck, expect to rise and overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not the saints. Live by the day — aye, by the hour. Put not trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. Trust in God alone, and lean not on the reed of human help.”
These are wise words, for Jesus Himself learned that speaking the truth exacts a cost. For Him and for us it was paid on the cross. (DNM)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Thomas R. Steagald, Pastor, Highlands United Methodist Church, Highlands, NC; Travis Franklin, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Winters, TX; Michael Duduit, Editor of Preaching; and David N. Moser, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Georgetown, TX.

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