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4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 31, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

When last we left our hero, he was seated in front of an admiring crowd.

They wanted to claim him at that point – such a nice you man, and faithful, too. I am sure his teachers and youth group leaders nudged their seatmates and said, “I always knew there was something special about Jesus.” But then… but then…. Jesus opens his mouth and gets to meddling. He starts interpreting the Scripture he has just read and he talks about Sidon and Syria, Zarephath and Naaman. He says, “God went to them, not the Israelites.” And then he drops the mic. And the hometown crowd gets the point. They know those stories from 1 and 2 Kings. They get the context. They understand that Jesus isn’t just talking about including outsiders in the circle of God’s care; he is pronouncing judgment on the insiders who have done the excluding.

Jesus is tying his ministry to the ministry of the prophets, to Elijah and Elisha, the very ones who went into the belly of the beast of Baal worship and said, “Not up in here!” By tying in the stories of 1 Kings 17:1-16 and 2 Kings 5:1-14, Jesus is letting his listeners know that the Good News he brings may not be experienced as good to those who are currently holding the keys to the captives’ cells. Fred Craddock in his commentary on Luke notes that the Gospel writer puts this story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and as such, “this event announces who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists, what his church will be and do, and what will be the response to Jesus and the church.”

One of the issues for us in hearing, teaching and preaching this Luke text is that we don’t get the in-your-face-nature of Jesus’ hometown homily. Why, exactly, does the congregation go from fan club to lynch mob as a result of Jesus’ words? I have tried to imagine a contemporary scenario, and one experience came to mind. I attended a “homecoming” service at a church I’d been a part of at one point in my life. I had returned for the occasion – in the pew, not up front. I can’t remember what exactly had been in the news that week, but it was something about immigration and refugees. (Sound familiar? This was quite a while ago, but some issues persist.) The preacher – a guest, but one who’d been an integral part of that community in the past – got up and read the texts. I can’t remember exactly what the readings were, but I think one might have included Leviticus 19:34. Then he started his sermon and he lifted up text after text after text about how God’s people are to treat the foreigner and the alien. Exodus 22:21, 23:9, 24:17. Jeremiah 22:3, Ezekiel 22:29, and on and on. He laid out the texts, said without ambiguity that we were not doing what each and all of these texts instructed and then dropped the mic and sat back down.

The seething silence was deafening. For the love of God, this was homecoming! This was a celebration! This was supposed to be a time to feel good about our history and ourselves. The service was to be “uplifting” and then we were going to eat fried chicken and banana pudding in the church basement. One man got up and left the sanctuary. I did not see him at the covered dish celebration that followed. Looking back, I think there was a sense of betrayal. They invited this person they thought highly of, someone they imagined knew and loved them back, and darn if he didn’t come and tell them they weren’t very nice people! In fact, he more than implied they were not just a little unfaithful.

I confess that as I listened I thought, “I don’t think I would have said that.” I wondered if homecoming was the proper context for such a challenging message. But isn’t that what prophets do? They say the right thing at the wrong time because there is never a good time to tell people a truth they don’t want to hear. Jesus is setting the agenda for all of his ministry to come and, I am afraid, he sets the agenda for our ministry, too.

That’s the challenge for us this week and really every week. How do we speak the truth that God calls us to speak? How do we speak whatever God commands us to speak? How do we pluck up and pull down and how do we know which to do when? This is dangerous territory because we aren’t Jesus and we often get it wrong. We are no more or less righteous than those on the other side of the pulpit or desk – and yet, we have been called, maybe not as dramatically as Jeremiah (or maybe so!), and appointed to give voice to the gospel, the Good News, that is not always received as such.

Perhaps that is why 1 Corinthians 13 is paired with this Luke text. Maybe in preparation for this Sunday we should read that chapter aloud daily. We know it well, no doubt, but still we need to know it not only by heart, but in our hearts. We can be as prophetic as prophetic can be, but if we don’t have love we are nothing. That’s critical to remember. We aren’t Jesus. (That’s also critical to remember!) That means we are always part of the congregation to whom we preach. That prophetic word of truth ought to be painful for us to hear, too. If that isn’t the case, then I suspect we have gotten it wrong and/or we do not have love.

Ultimately, the Good News that Jesus came to bring, that Jesus fulfilled, is Good News for all of us: those in Sidon and Syria, Sudan and South Dakota, and to the ends of the earth. If we remember that Jesus was sent to save God’s beloved world, then maybe we will be able to hear the truth that when we exclude and oppress and disdain any part of creation, we need to be called on it. We need to remember the more excellent way of love and live it. Only then will we rightly hear and know that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for everyone.

This week:

  1. Go back and read the texts from 1 and 2 Kings. Refresh your memory on the deeds of Elijah and Elisha.
  2. Consider the contrast between the rage of those in the synagogue and the love we are called to in 1 Corinthians. What contemporary examples do you have?
  3. Think about Jeremiah’s call and look at the back-and-forth of the dialogue. Note how God counter’s Jeremiah’s protests. Have you ever had a similar conversation with God?
  4. What word of prophetic truth might you be called to speak in your context? How do you do so with love?
  5. Can you think of a time when someone spoke a word of truth that was necessary but difficult? What was it? What happened as a result?
  6. What do you think of this excerpt from Mark Link’s “Rejection”? Luke’s report brings the starry-eyed Christian down to earth with a thud. It previews something that will take place often in Jesus’ lifetime: his words will fall on deaf ears. Nor is rejection of Jesus’ message a phenomenon peculiar to his day alone. Many centuries later, Thomas Carlyle wrote: “If Jesus were to come today, people would not crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, hear what he had to say, and make fun of him.”

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