REFLECTIONS ON MISSING VERSES
I need to begin today with a mini-lesson about the lectionary. [Extemporize brief explanation.] I begin with this explanation because I think that makers of the lectionary have done something both helpful and unhelpful with today's propers.
First, the helpful part. Today's Gospel Lesson is clearly one of mission. We, as followers of Jesus Christ, are given a mission. In the words of Jesus, we are to proclaim to others, "The Kingdom of God has come near you." What does it mean that God's Kingdom comes near us? Another prominent word, or theme, in the passage is peace. God's Kingdom means peace. And so this morning's assigned Prayer of the Day, that we read just a few moments ago, is very helpful in praying:
God of glory and love, peace comes from you alone. Send us as peacemakers and witnesses to your kingdom. . .But what exactly does it mean to be peacemakers, to be witnesses to God's peace? Here, I'm not sure that the lectionary makers were quite as helpful in this regard. In fact, I'd like to do something a bit different today. I'd like to reflect on some of the verses from Scripture which we didn't read, verses that were skipped, actually. Let's begin with the first reading.
The passage from Isaiah 66 is one of the most comforting in all of Scripture in using the beautiful image of being comforted at a mother's breast. I remember that comfort well when our children were very young and were hurt or in need in any way; they received great comfort by being able to go to their mother's breast to nurse. Isaiah tells us we have a God who comforts us as a mother nursing her child.
But we cut off our reading of this passage at the words, "...it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies." That indication of God's anger against enemies is a tip-off to how the passage in its entirety actually concludes. The next verses continue the theme of God's wrath:
For the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire. For by fire will the LORD execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many. (Isa. 66:15-16)I'm not sure I blame the makers of the lectionary for cutting off this passage before its ending! Can you imagine two such disparate images of God side-by-side? God as a mother comforting her child at the breast, and God as a warrior slaughtering his enemies in a consuming wrath of fire. This latter image of God's judgment challenges us to understand the nature of God's peace.
Or perhaps we should turn things around: in order to understand God's peace, we need to understand the age-old notion of God's judgment. I propose to you that Jesus came to help us see a different understanding of God's judgment -- and peace. But, as with the First Lesson, that aspect of judgment has been excised from today's Gospel Lesson. The verses in which Jesus speaks words of judgment are skipped over. Take a look at the reading in your bulletins. Notice the missing verses between verses 11 and 16. I'll read them for you now, but as I do see if you can notice something different from the words of judgment from Isaiah.
I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. (Luke 10:12-15)What's Jesus doing here? Do you notice anything different? I would invite you to see three things. First, notice that God is not explicitly mentioned in these words of judgment from Jesus. We might want to fill that in and assume that God is behind the judgment, but it is a significant difference, isn't it? Isaiah makes it crystal clear that it is God who will slay God's enemies. Here in Luke' Gospel, Jesus is conspicuously silent about who will carry out the judgment. What I'd like to propose to you is that there is something substantial behind this conspicuous silence: Jesus is making it possible for us to change our view about judgment.
I'm not trying to say that there isn't any judgment. If I was, I wouldn't have bothered you about any of these missing verses. I would have let the lectionary remain silent about judgment for today's readings. No, there is a judgment, but it is a judgment like the one we see at the Cross. God doesn't make peace with superior firepower, which is our tactic. No, Jesus is even taunted and mocked on the cross in that regard. They challenge him to call upon a legion of angels come to his rescue. Instead of fighting us, on the cross God is suffering our violence in love, through Jesus handing himself over to it, and then raises him from the dead as his judgment on our violence.
How, then, are we judged? At times, God suffers with us, too, when we are handed over to the consequences of our violence. But we must come to see this violence precisely as our violence, not God's. God has never wanted to be partner to our violence, though our idolatrous ways have constantly pushed to make God so. In the cross, God judges us, effectively saying, 'Enough! This is not my violence. It never has been. It's your violence, so don't try to give me credit for it! Violence is so far out of my nature that the only thing I can do to finally get this across to you is to suffer it in love through my Son. I refuse to do violence in exposing yours. I can only suffer it in love.'
But, of course, that's not really the only thing God could do in judging us. God could also raise Jesus from the dead, showing forth that the divine power of God's loving forgiveness can never be vanquished by our violence. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God also says, 'Yes, you have persistently made idols for yourselves in order to justify your violence, but I also forgive you for that. Not only that, but I can forgive you because my power of life is never ultimately threatened by your power of death, anyway. Christ is raised as a promise that your powers of death and violence can never have the final victory.'
So the first thing I want you to notice about these missing verses to our Gospel Lesson today is that they leave God out of any hint of carrying out violence. If these towns that Jesus names suffer the consequences of violence, it is our violence, not God's.
The second thing I'd like you to notice might require a brief geography lesson, since we aren't necessarily familiar with the significance of all those towns named. Sodom we know, and perhaps Capernaum, but what about Chorazim, Bethsaida, Tyre, and Sidon? What's significant about these towns? This: they virtually reverse the message of Isaiah to his people in Isaiah 66. There, it's comfort to God's people of Israel and woe to God's enemies, the other folks. Here, in these missing verses from this morning's Gospel Lesson, Jesus reverses the message of judgment. Chorazim, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were towns of his own Galilean ministry, and it is they, God's people, who will fare worse than the other folks, the Gentile towns of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom.
This is even more clear in a passage that I take to be very similar to these missing verses. It is a passage, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, in which he speaks tearful words of judgment upon her.
As Jesus came near and saw Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God." (Luke 19:41-44)Notice, first of all, that it is even more clear in this passage that God is not the one who is destroying Jerusalem. God is not the one doing violence. No, Jerusalem will be destroyed by human hands, just as Jesus will be on the cross. And what is particularly tragic about that for Jerusalem -- as it is for Chorazim, Bethsaida, and Capernaum -- is that God's visitation of peace in Jesus Christ came particularly close to them, yet they missed it. God's Kingdom, God's Culture of Peace, came near to them, and they still failed to recognize the things that make for peace.
Before we put this on Jesus' people, though, we'd better take a look at ourselves. Have we done any better? We Christians, who have claimed faith in Jesus Christ for two thousand years now, what is our track record?
This came home poignantly to me at a recent conference I attended. We were blessed by the presence of two missionaries from the Congo. And, as we began the conference with personal sharing, John, one of the missionaries, had a gripping confession to make. He had undergone, in recent years, a crisis of conscience as a missionary. He shared that he had been a missionary in the Congo for going on twenty years now. His missionary work had begun wonderfully with droves of new Christians coming into their churches. The harvest was indeed plentiful, and they had seen themselves as among those faithful laborers to help bring in the harvest.
But, as we might also be aware, the Congo in recent years has become embroiled in Civil War. It's an offshoot from the events of 1994 that we are still trying to comprehend: in a 100 day period in neighboring Rwanda, members of the Hutu tribe rose up and killed 800,000 people of the Tutsi tribe. The Tutsis, which had been the more powerful tribe economically and politically in Rwanda, did recover to the point of driving the Hutus out of Rwanda into the Congo. But their continuing feud has now entangled many of the Congo's tribal people, as well. And a particularly tragic aspect of all of this for John and his missionary friends is that all these tribes are largely Christian. These are Christians killing other Christians in great numbers, each feeling righteous in their cause, as if God is on their side.
John had to wonder what his ministry had been about that this could happen. How could he have failed such that his fellow Christians could slaughter one another so? Had the Gospel he'd been selling been nothing more than fire insurance, life insurance? Something to soothe and comfort folks about a peaceful life in the Hereafter with no consequences for living in peace in this life?
And before we let go of John's soul-searching questions too easily, writing this off as something that happens to 'primitive' tribal people, we'd better quickly remember our history, namely, two world wars in the last century. Where did the African peoples learn genocide? Wasn't the Europe of the 1940's a model for them? Think about those European wars in the same terms that John has been forced to think about the Civil War in the Congo. Christians in Europe were killing other Christians in astronomical numbers. American Lutherans were killing German Lutherans, and vice versa. So how much have we really understood the Gospel, we who proclaim God's Culture of Peace to have come near to us in Jesus Christ? Does Jesus look down on us as he did on Jerusalem that day and weep, saying to us, now two thousand years later, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes."
We might ask: how could these things have remained so hidden from us, even after two millennia of 'Christian' history? We don't have time today to give the full answer. But let me get to the third thing I wanted for us to notice from the missing verses, as at least part of the answer. I'll read again verse 15: "And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades."
I think that Jesus is trying to say here that we have some misplaced priorities. We have the emphasis on the wrong syl-LA-ble, as they say. It's a misplaced emphasis that hides our more urgent calling as peacemakers from our eyes. It's what John, our missionary friend, has been feeling in Africa these last few years, in feeling like he has only been selling life insurance. What good is insurance to get to heaven if in the meantime you descend into the hell of our own human violence. Jesus might say to us still, "Wauwatosa, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades." If Christianity remains for us primarily about getting to heaven, then we will find ourselves, sooner or later, descending into the Hades of our violence. We did several times last century, and I'm afraid that things won't change this century unless we learn to recognize the things that make for peace. Unless we learn to see that God's Culture of Peace has come near to us in Jesus Christ, so near that we are invited to step in and to begin to live it.
Does this mean that we should forget about heaven? No, this passage closes with Jesus urging us to rejoice that our names are written in heaven. But the value of this hope for heaven does not come for its own sake. It comes as a reassurance for our call as peacemakers. It comes that we might have hope even though we go out as sheep among wolves, knowing that we will be rejected. It's like what Gladys and David sang for us this morning [from the Bill Gaither song]: "Because he lives, we need not fear." The hope of heaven gives us the courage to be peacemakers in a world where scorpions and snakes still sting and bite. We may still be bitten and stung, but we cannot ultimately be harmed. The power of Satan is falling to earth where we can trample it under foot like scorpions and snakes. Because he lives, we need not fear. We continue to pray, as we began this morning, "God of glory and love, peace comes from you alone. Send us as peacemakers and witnesses to your kingdom. . . ." Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, July 7-8, 2001