Epiphany 4C Sermon (1998)

4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Luke 14:21-30;
1 Cor 13; Jer 1:4-10


Today’s gospel lesson is Part Two of last week’s gospel lesson. It continues the very dramatic story of the start-up of Jesus’ ministry, right in his hometown of Nazareth. And last week we commented that it is really difficult to separate the halves of this story because they could hardly be more different from each other. We need to take a moment to get the full drama of both halves of the story again.

The first half, last week, tells us of the positive start Jesus makes. People in Galilee are beginning to talk about him. Luke tells us that Jesus “was praised by everyone.” Then, he comes to his hometown of Nazareth and the excitement has apparently already built up. All that Jesus does in the synagogue is to read from the prophet Isaiah and sit down. But Luke tells us that, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Jesus has a chance to famous here. He’s attracted the riveted attention of the crowd. This week’s text picks up on this and comments, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” If we you or I were Jesus’ Press Secretary, we might advise him at this point, something like, “This is it Jesus. You have the crowd eating out of your hand. This is your chance to be famous. Choose your words carefully! Don’t blow it! Don’t lose them! This is the hometown crowd, after all. If you lose them, it might be really hard after this.”

Well, Jesus no doubt did choose his words carefully, but the effect he has on the crowd could hardly be worse. If you or I were his Press Secretary, we’d probably resign at this point, because Jesus totally blows his chance to secure the hometown crowd. Oh, he makes a couple right moves. He picks a couple of heroes like Elijah and Elisha, for example. Playing up the local heroes is usually a good move. But it’s what Jesus does with those heroes. Of all the features and stories about these heroes, Jesus picks out the strangest point. Elijah, for instance, had won a fabulous showdown against 400 priests of the pagan god Ba’al. Does Jesus mention that? No. Instead he picks up on the fact that of all the starving widows that were in Israel, God sent Elijah to a nearby foreign woman. Elijah by-passed all the locals and went to help someone normally counted as one of their enemy neighbors. Same thing with what Jesus picks out about Elisha. He points out that of all the lepers that lived in Israel, Elisha went to heal a Syrian leper.

Wow! Did Jesus ever blow it! He had the chance to get the hometown crowd on his side. They were no doubt just waiting for him to say something like, “Well, you’ve all heard the reports about me doing some amazing things on my way home here. I’m finally home to help you all. Together we’ll put Nazareth on the map, by god! We’ll make everyone sit up and take notice, including those filthy Romans.” But, no, Jesus says almost the direct opposite. He gives them examples of how God calls people to reach out, even to one’s enemies. Last week, we said this is a bit like Reggie or Brett addressing the hometown crowd and telling folks, “Well, I felt kind of sorry for John Elway, and I really wanted Denver to win.” We wouldn’t stand for it. And neither did Jesus’ hometown in Nazareth. They drove him out of town and almost off a cliff.

You see? The two halves of this story could hardly be more different. After a promising beginning, with the eyes of everyone fixed on him, Jesus blows it and the crowd turns on him. The cheers turn to jeers, just like that, and the potential for fame turns into infamy, an occasion for an attempted lynching.

There are at least two questions that might pop up in hearing this story. One involves how it is that Jesus was able to resist the crowd and even stand up to it. We answered this question last week by emphasizing that Jesus played for God, not the fickle crowd. He drew on his baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit to find the courage and strength he needed to pioneer a new way. It is the same baptism, and the same Spirit, that we each have received, in order that we might follow Jesus in the Way he pioneered.

But the second question is the tougher one: why would we want to follow Jesus and his crazy God who apparently calls us to reach out so far that we even would reach out in love to our enemies. Who is this crazy God?

The answer isn’t as easy as we might think. I’m going to use an example which might get me run out of town, but I think it is especially helpful because of this. It involves one of our Packer heroes, Reggie White, and the fact that he is also a minister. Out of all of last week’s hype before the Super Bowl, I thought one reporter asked an especially challenging question. He asked Reggie: ‘As a minister you spend your life trying to help people, but on Sundays, within the rules of the game you focus on trying to hurt people. How do you resolve doing both things?’ And Reggie’s response was basically that in the Bible we see God doing both things.’ In other words: Yes, God helps people, but there are many passages in the Old Testament where God hurts people, where God carries out divine wrath against people.

What do you think? Is Reggie right about that? How does that square with the God that Jesus confronted his hometown crowd with? A God who even reaches out in love to enemies? What about the God we sometimes see, especially in the Old Testament, who sometimes is seen as destroying enemies? Reggie’s right about that. In our Bible study a week ago, the comment was made that sometimes it seems that God went through a dramatic personality change from the Old to the New Testament. So which God is it? The God who helps? The God who hurts? Both?

I want to propose to you this morning what I think is a central tenet of our Christian faith, namely, that God is love, and that, because God is love, then any god who gives us the O.K. to hurt someone is a god of our own making whom we have made up to justify our hurting people. This is the message that Jesus began preaching to his hometown crowd that day, and it was not a popular one, because the fact is that we need that other god of our own making. He’s a god we have great trouble letting go of. He’s a god who constantly creeps back into our thinking. I wasn’t trying to pick on just Reggie. I think we all have trouble letting thoughts of this false god back into our minds and hearts.

Maybe it’s Sadaam Hussein, or maybe it’s that rapist-murderer who preys on children. Or maybe it’s that guy at work who’s a real…a real…oh, I can’t say what he is here. Or maybe it’s that black sheep in the family who you have such a love-hate relationship; you love them because they’re family but they cause you so much pain, and you want to blame them for all that pain. Whoever it maybe, we have had those persons in our lives that we want to blame or hurt, and we think we are right to feel that way. Why? Well, we say, because God hates people who want to hurt others and will someday do away with all of them. Don’t we think those kinds of thoughts? But precisely when we do that, we have made ourselves enemies of God, because that’s precisely who God is not! Yes, God hates it when we hurt others, but God never comes to the point of hating us. God never comes to the point of wanting to do us harm, to do anyone harm, whether it’s Sadaam Hussein, or that rapist murderer, or that guy at work, or that black sheep in our family. God is love, even to the point of loving enemies. That’s what Jesus came to show us on the cross.

In fact, that’s precisely the amazing grace we always sing about, that God even saved a wretch like me. This is central tenet of the Christian faith #2: namely, that the Christian faith does not really take hold of us until you and I come to see that we have acted as enemies of God. It’s not until you and I see that we are God’s enemies precisely by playing all these games with the false gods who support our hatred of others. And so God’s love for enemies turns out to in fact be a love for you and me.

St. Paul was the epitome of the beginning of the Christian faith, as we saw last week. He was literally an enemy of the early Christians, one who wanted them dead. And God loved precisely him so much that he empowered him to preach this crazy faith of God’s love for enemies. Listen to what St. Paul himself said in Romans:

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. … For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8, 10)

Amazing, isn’t it?!

Before we leave this story from Luke 4 behind, there’s one more question which we are just now in a position to answer. The question is this: why did Jesus escape from the crowd? If he knew that they were going to get him later, and much more horribly on the cross, then why didn’t he just let them succeed right here in Nazareth? God could still have raised him from the dead. Why not do it right there at the beginning and get it over with?

The answer, I believe, involves this very point that we just now lifted up, that Christian faith begins when those who think they are friends of God find out they really have acted as enemies. You see, in Nazareth, Jesus hadn’t yet called his disciples, his friends. So he may have died there, and God could have raised him from the dead. But with whom could the Christian faith have gotten started? I would say, “No one.” There at the beginning there were certainly enemies, but there weren’t yet those who saw themselves as friends who acted like his enemies. It took the disciples who had become Jesus friends but who, at his hour of greatest need, deserted him, denied him, betrayed him. The Resurrected Jesus had to appear to them to grant them a word of forgiveness, so that they could see just how far God’s love of enemies extends. This is how the Christian faith grabs hold of us.

It is the same each time we come to the table as we do this morning. We come thinking we are friends only to be reminded again that we, too, have deserted Jesus and denied Jesus in crucial ways. We have acted as God’s enemies precisely be refusing to extend God’s love even to enemies. Yet Jesus is here once again to forgive us and to feed us, so that from our head to our toes we may once again know God’s love for enemies that we can share with others. How do we know that God loves enemies? Because God has loved us. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1998

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