Epiphany 3C Sermon (1998)

The Conversion of St. Paul; Epiphany 3
Texts: Luke 4:14-21;
Acts 9:1-22; Gal. 1:11-24


What would it be like to be famous like Brett Favre or Reggie White? What would it be like, for instance, to walk into a restaurant and instantly have everyone’s eyes fixed on you? Perhaps even some cheering? If you were tired that day, it might be annoying to have lots of people come up to you for autographs. But there’d also be something very nice about it, wouldn’t there be? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a hero to so many people, that the instant you walked into the room everyone would be excited in such a positive way? Everyone would have their eyes fixed on you?

One of the few network shows that the boys watch regularly is Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. It’s not exactly an inspirational show, but it is a fun diversion. I remember watching a recent episode with them, and Sabrina was staying with one of her aunts, who was also a witch (and played by Raquel Welch). And her aunt had this door in her apartment that she would open whenever she started feeling down or depressed, which was about every few minutes. It was an instant picker-upper, because all that was behind this door was a crowd of people who would cheer her on and offer her loud praise and compliments. Talk about a hometown crowd!

I think it must be similar being a Brett Favre or Reggie White, especially here in Wisconsin. There must be a hometown crowd wherever they go. People who cheer them and shout out loud praise and compliments. Wow! That must feel great! Everywhere you go, you become the center of attention, with all eyes fixed on you.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry in front of his hometown crowd, and it apparently started out pretty well. All he did was to get up and read from the prophet Isaiah, and St. Luke tells us that when he sat down, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” They also seemed to cheer him on offer their praise and compliments. The verse that follows where our reading cuts off this morning is: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Not a bad hometown crowd, hey? Jesus was just getting started with his ministry, and it seemed like he had the hometown crowd behind him. It must of felt good. Like being Brett Favre or Reggie White.

But, before we jump to conclusions, we need to realize that this story doesn’t end here. Next week, we’ll hear the continuation of this story, and its ending goes much different than this beginning would seem to indicate. In fact, the turn around couldn’t be more dramatic! We go from the verse we just quoted, where we read that “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” — to the last verses of next week’s conclusion to this story, which reads:

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:28-30)

Wow! What happened in between?! What did Jesus say to change their hometown cheers to deadly rage?!

What did Jesus say after his promising beginning of reading the prophet Isaiah? This is what he said:

“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24-27)

That’s what came in between. They may seem innocent enough words to us. But it is helpful to know that this widow from Zarephath at Sidon whom Elijah chose to help, and the leper Naaman of Syria whom Elisha chose to help, were both Gentiles, non-Jews, outsiders, in short, the enemy. Jesus’ hometown crowd didn’t need to be reminded of these stories from the past that implied God’s help to the enemy. Even worse, it seemed that this is what Jesus was saying his ministry would be about, that he would be siding with the enemy. What hometown crowd wants to hear that?! It would be like Brett and Reggie walking out to the cheering Wisconsin crowds this week and saying, “Well, we’d really like Denver to win on Sunday.” We’d ride them out on a rail! Just like Jesus’ hometown crowd did with him.

Luckily, Jesus was shiftier than Dorsey Levens and slipped away this time, unhurt. But right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we see the fickleness of the crowd. It’s the same fickleness that we see at the end of his ministry, the last week of his life on earth. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the cheers of a hometown crowd, and by Good Friday those cheers have changed to jeers and to shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Yes, the fickleness of the crowd.

In this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we also glimpse how it is that Jesus could turn the hometown crowd from cheers to jeers. He seemed to be claiming that he was playing for the opposition, that God had called him to minister especially to the outsiders, not the insiders. Thinking about that game tonight and counting on our heroes to play their best for us, we can understand why Jesus’ hometown crowd was not happy with his first sermon. We very well might have been among the crowd who tried to drive him off a cliff, just like we might do with Brett or Reggie if they were to declare their allegiance to Denver.

Now, this story raises at least two difficult questions: (1) If Jesus was right about his call from God to reach out even to outsiders, to the enemy, then who exactly is this God? What kind of crazy God sends his Son to help the enemy? And (2) how was it that Jesus could muster the strength and courage to follow this strange God? I’m not going to try to answer both questions today. I’m going to save the first question about this crazy God for next week, when we will read again the conclusion to this gospel story.

So I want to conclude this morning by answering the second question: how was it that Jesus could muster the strength and courage to follow this strange God? The answer, in short: because Jesus was playing for God, and not for the hometown crowd. When we read this morning, that “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” that attention may have been very tempting, but Jesus didn’t fall for it. In other words, he didn’t let that great feeling from all the positive attention sway him from what he needed to do for God. For Jesus, the most important eyes upon him were those of his heavenly Father, and not those of the hometown crowd.

We mentioned earlier the sudden turn of events from cheers to jeers, the fickleness of the crowd. Well, Jesus anticipated that fickleness. In general, we human beings are a fickle lot. Our heroes come and go; we can turn on a dime with them. What will happen to Brett and Reggie if, heaven forbid, they play badly tonight and the Packers lose? Will they become just a bit tarnished? And, John Elway, who’s been tarnished by three Super Bowl losses, will he all of a sudden shine like the sun again? No, Jesus wasn’t moved by that kind of fame. It might have felt nice for a time. But feelings are fleeting. Remember Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s aunt? She had to keep opening that door of applause and encouragement time and time again, every time she started to sense the good feeling slipping. No, Jesus wasn’t playing for the fickle likes of us. Jesus was playing for God. Because when God bestows a blessing of favor and encouragement on you, it lasts. It’s forever.

And that’s exactly what had just happened to Jesus. God had bestowed a blessing and a call on Jesus. Just a few verses before this story, which is also where we began two weeks ago in this Epiphany season, we read the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus comes out of the water and goes to pray, and:

the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Ah, it was the eyes of the One who spoke out those words of praise and reassurance which moved Jesus into his ministry, not the eyes of the hometown crowd who offered their praise. Jesus was playing for God, not them.

And what happens right after the baptism is Jesus being tempted three times by the devil, which Jesus is able to resist because he has received the power of the Holy Spirit, and he is playing for God and not for anyone else, even as tempting as the devil might be. And so this morning’s story, when the eyes of his hometown crowd are upon Jesus, is like facing a fourth temptation — perhaps the toughest one of all. We began this morning by noting how good it must feel to be famous, like Brett or Reggie. Well, this story seems to be telling us that Jesus had his chance, right from the start. He had the chance to be famous. The spotlight seemed to be turning to him. All eyes were fixed on him. The praises and accolades were starting to flow. But, no! Jesus was not called to play for them. He was called to play for God. Being rooted in God’s love for him in his baptism, having received the power of the Holy Spirit, and then always imagining the loving eyes of God fixed on him, Jesus was able to resist the temptation of playing to the crowd, and he was able to live his life for God. And living his life for God meant reaching out to everyone, proclaiming Good News to the poor, the captive, and the broken hearted.

It would be remiss of me to end this sermon without at least reminding us that we are all baptized with that same call and promise of the Spirit. God has said to each of us, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter; in you I am well pleased.” We can begin each day drinking in those words, remembering the promises of our baptism. We don’t need doors with cheering crowds behind them. We don’t need the eyes of others fixed on us. We need the assurance that God’s loving eyes are fixed on us, guiding us, empowering us. We need that promise that’s God’s Holy Spirit goes with us always so that we might follow Jesus in bringing Good News to the poor and in binding up the broken hearted. With those loving eyes and that Spirit, we can play always for God.

Oh, it isn’t easy! We’ve talked recently about the churches here in town that pull in big crowds. How do they do it? And it might be helpful to know some of how they’re doing it. But we also have to be careful, because that can become a way of playing to the crowds. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily bad if there’s a good crowd here on Sundays. In fact, even when the crowds here are smallish, our worship seeks to anticipate the day when the crowd worshiping God will literally be the whole heaven and whole earth. So a big crowd is the ultimate goal. But, in the meantime, there’s still resistance to this idea that some day the crowd might even include our enemies, the ones we thought excluded. And so we need to keep following Jesus, the one we excluded on the cross. Until the day of that final and eternal worship service, the crowd will continue to be fickle. No, we don’t want crowds here on Sundays just for the sake of crowds. We want crowds for the sake of following Jesus. We need God’s loving eyes and God’s Holy Spirit to make sure that we play for God and not just for the crowds. Lord, help us. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 24-25, 1998

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