Like the Wideness of the Sea (Jer. 1:4-10; 1 Cor. 13; Lk. 4:21-30)
Our readings for the morning are diverse. We have the story of the “call” of the prophet Jeremiah. We have what many consider to be the high point of Paul’s writing, a hymn, or a poem on the topic of Christian love. And we have (the other half of) Jesus’ sermon in his own hometown synagogue.
As different as these readings are, they are tied together by the fact that they all arise within conflict. Jeremiah was called into the political and social chaos that whirled about the end of the Kingdom of Judah. Jesus conflicted his listeners to the point that he was nearly thrown from a cliff by his different take on God’s love, which was broader than that which was common among his family and friends. Even that classical “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, is not just something to be written on a plaque and hung in the family room. It is caught up in the mess of the Corinthian’s church situation – and is Paul’s bottom line to their contention that true Christian spirituality had more to do with having certain kinds of spiritual signs that marked one as elite in God’s sight. In this passage, Paul used a term agape, “love,” to indicate that which is the underlayment for all church life worthy of Christ’s name; not power, not ecstasy, not even logic, intellect, or doctrine, but love. That word refers, not primarily to a feeling but to an action. In other words, these passages are intended to be about Christian discipleship as a life to be lived rather than a system to be defended or even a warm feeling to be enjoyed.
Jeremiah had the sense that, somehow, for some reason, God had summoned him to be a prophet to speak into the international situation of his day. Jeremiah had the sense that God had been planning this for him his whole life, and was not going to take “no” for an answer. It’s hard to be a prophet. It includes both the destruction of what is and the building of something else. People are bound to become fearful, become angry, and resist when their status quo is questioned, let alone actually changed. Jeremiah’s call was burned into his consciousness with six verbs that, he was convinced, came from God: “pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant.” It seemed that two-thirds of the job was destruction and only one-third construction. Through many difficulties Jeremiah finally understood that being God’s prophet in that day involved standing up for what some people thought unthinkably unpatriotic and unacceptable. He had to say that God’s will was for the People of God to be spiritually powerful to bless the world, not politically powerful to bless themselves in the world. This meant standing against some things in his day that were popular and for others that weren’t. He had to say “We’re not going to win a power struggle with Babylon.” “Our role is to be a community of witness within that Empire.” As I say, it’s hard to be a prophet.
It was hard for Jesus, too, although he jumped into it with both feet when he came to his hometown in Nazareth and preached there. Last week we left him preaching in the synagogue where he grew up. He started by interpreting the Hebrew Scripture in Isaiah 61:1-2 in a particular way. He claimed that God had promised to free captives, cancel debts, and turn not only the spiritual order but the social order upside down. That much was there in the text. I should also say that Jesus added a line from Isaiah 58:6 about letting the oppressed go free, and eliminated the line from Isaiah 61:2 about a day of God’s vengeance. Jesus then told the group “Today this scripture is filled full in your hearing.” The very least he meant here was that he was the one that brought about such a divine reversal today in his own life and work. Whomever Isaiah 61 was originally about, today it was about him. Now, that’s a pretty high claim for the kid of a local woodworker. Some may have thought, “He speaks well and I like what that text promises,” but we know Joseph and his humble roots.” Doesn’t it seem odd that little Yeshua could be and do anything like that?” “Isn’t he getting too big for his boots?” But there was more to it than that.
We need to remember that this is a story from an ancient Mediterranean culture, and then and there, acquiring honour in the eyes of the community was the centerpiece of public life. If someone claimed honour, it had to be approved by the community or it didn’t count. In fact it was dishonour or shame for the family. There was a constant jockeying for honour in Jesus’ culture. We dare not assume that in the midst of all this, it was only Jesus who had our values. No he, like they, lived within this structure and lived by it.
Public life in Jesus’ day was a continual series of claims to honour (as Jesus claimed to be that prophet of Isaiah 61), challenges to that claim (as by the synagogue folk, “Isn’t he only Joe’s kid and so what right has he to claim this?”), and responses to those challenges by the claimant to honour (again Jesus). It is this challenge and response that is Luke’s story. It wasn’t as easy as saying, “O I think (or I’m sure) that God made me a prophet.” People had to underwrite that aspiration. Or not! It’s not easy being a prophet.
What Jesus did in our text this morning was to respond to the challenge by quoting a proverb to those folk in his hometown (not from the Book of Proverbs, but a general truth in a specific example, like many that are found in that book), “You’re undoubtedly going to say to me, ‘Physician, heal yourself.” And he goes on to show that what he means is that the “yourself” they want this physician to heal is them. “Do here at home the deeds we heard you’ve done elsewhere already.” Behind this accusation is that you shouldn’t have done these wonderful things somewhere else first, and, probably, done them them anywhere else but here at all. If Jesus could quote proverbs, they could quote another, “Charity begins at home.” Jesus upped the ante on his challenge when he said that there were lots of Israelite widows in Elijah’s day. God did nothing for them, only for a dirty foreign widow outside Israel (1 Kg. 17-18). There were lots of Israelite lepers in Elisha’s day. God did nothing for them, only for Naaman who was a Syrian, from outside Israel. He says, in reality, physicians and prophets who follow the God of Israel do not believe that charity begins or certainly stays at home, but delight in taking the grace of God outside the box, outside the borders, outside the boundaries that narrow minds set upon them. That’s one reason why Jesus eliminated that line in Isaiah about God’s vengeance. In Hebrew, God’s “vengeance” is limited to groups of people outside Israel (never individuals, never insiders). Jesus simply eliminates the whole idea here. He says that God cares for outsiders, widows and lepers wherever they are. Jesus just didn’t recognize that outsiders existed. When he said that, his hometown folk got so mad they tried to kill him. They didn’t, but that’s often how it goes when we can’t answer someone with our reason, we just decide to pound them into the ground instead.
It’s not easy being a prophet, especially like Jesus who won’t back off. This isn’t confined to the ancient synagogue. It’s my experience that many Christian folks and even congregations today react with anger and the will to destroy those who want to extend God’s grace to those who don’t wear the right label. That urge to violence is rampant in American life now both inside and outside the church, we see it all the time. We see our lives as threatened and we decide that “others” are threats, and we determine to destroy them. We back legislation that seeks to ban and undermine those who are weaker and less able, from getting “our piece of the pie.” Jesus, like Jeremiah, has a mission with those six verbs: “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Like Jeremiah, he also announced an ending and a beginning. He announced an ending for people that are in it for themselves and those like them, and a new beginning for people that open doors wide to God’s love for the world.
Of course, that word “love” leads us to our Epistle Lesson from 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter comes after a long section (which we’ve read in the past two weeks) in which Paul has advised those scrappy Corinthian Christians that they needed to value one another more because of what they contributed to the lives of one another and to the work of mission in the world that for their individual Christian superstardom. Finally, at the end of all that talk in chapter 12 about capacities being diverse but belonging together in Jesus, Paul says, “and I’ll show you an even more excellent way to think about one another.” And, then, he delivered chapter 13.
He explains that the love of which he speaks is really God’s love for the world. Although this special word for love (agape) is the least common secular Greek word for love, it is the overwhelming choice of the writers of the New Testament. Now, here’s another one of those times in which we need to remind ourselves that ancient ways of thinking were very different from ours. We think of “love” as an emotion or feeling. Love is a feeling where I feel like I have never felt before. In fact, however, people in the ancient Mediterranean world didn’t really care much about emotions (I know that’s heresy in our world). They didn’t deny that they had them, they just didn’t think they were germane to much. They cared about actions. To love someone was to work together with them, to take care of them, to make common cause with them, to embrace them. To hate someone meant the opposite: to shun them, to work for their destruction, to cast them away and cut them off from our partnerships. When we think of agape it is of these kinds of actions that we ought to think. Love doesn’t ask what’s in it for me, but simply works for the good of the other for its own sake. Paul says that such love counts more than anything. No matter what I have and do, if there’s no love that simply loves, not for hope of reward, it’s not really important. He also says that such love outlasts everything. Faith is important now and so is hope, but one day, when we experience God directly, they won’t be necessary, but, one day we will live for ever immersed and permeated by this eternal love of God who has known all along who we are and has loved us, just because. It’s hard to be a prophet of such love as this because it’s hard to act like this. Nonetheless, it is this kind of love that issue in the kinds of behaviours Luke uses to sum up Jesus’ ministry from Isaiah 61: bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and proclaiming by what we do and say, that God’s Jubilee is for us all and is now.
It’s hard to be a prophet. It’s hard to say that the old kind of churchy structures that existed for, as many church constitutions say, “the sole benefit of our members,” has really passed away, and not quickly enough. It’s hard to say that God is doing a new thing, that does not drag the world into the church, but takes the church out to the world and stands with those others would rather shun, so that so that all may find welcome inside, simply because God loves the world, and so do we.
There’s a song that’s over 20 years old now that was written by Marty Haugen called “All Are Welcome.” Let me just cite the first and the last stanzas:
Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live.
A place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
Here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace,
Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. [ (c) GIA Publications CCLI 2421605]
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.