Our Luke story is a bit like this: A young man attends seminary, graduates, and returns to his home church to preach. Everyone is so proud of him, the son of members who are leaders in the local church. Look at him now, they say, standing in front of his friends, his mentors, his Sunday School teachers and pastors, ready with his new knowledge to preach the Word of God! He reads the Scripture and then starts into the sermon. But his words seem harsh. They hear him saying that they are not following God, and they will not reap the benefits of being the children of God, that someone else will get that reward. Almost all of them then become angry at this young man and begin hurling insults and wadded up bulletins at the pulpit until he left and walked out the door. It might not happen in a Presbyterian church, since we are the Frozen Chosen, but it could happen!
In the Gospel of Luke, the story of Jesus rejected by his hometown people comes at the beginning of his earthly ministry, just after his baptism and the temptation. In Matthew and Mark, this story appears later in Jesus’ ministry. But it makes sense here. The text indicates that he already had some fame in the area, that he was teaching in other synagogues and being praised. So, the hometown boy stood and read a scripture from the prophet Isaiah. We do not know if there was a sort of lectionary at that time like we have now that lays out texts for us each Sunday and on special Christian days. Maybe Jesus chose the text himself. But he quoted loosely from Isaiah, perhaps from memory:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4:18-19)
This was probably a text and theme that most in the synagogue would know. It was typical prophetic rhetoric. It refers to the year of the Jubilee, a year proclaimed by God in Leviticus for restoration in many ways: in the Jubliee year, which would come every 50 years, land would lie fallow, to allow it to recover for better crops in the years to follow; all debts would be cancelled; any indentured servants would be set free; and, any ancestral lands that had been sold out of necessity would be returned to the original owners. Imagine the havoc such a year would cause economically, politically, even socially. In fact, history never indicates that a Jubilee year took place, even though it was mandated by Scripture. The upset it would have caused would surely have been noted in some historical way. But it is an ideal, a utopian view, a Godly graciousness meant to restore, to put the world back on an even keel.
Those in first century Palestine, who were basically indentured and oppressed by the ruling Roman government, would like hearing this passage of deliverance as much as the Israelites in exile would have when Isaiah first uttered the words. So the reading of the Scripture was well received. The crowd was expecting something great when Jesus sat down. (Sitting was the posture for rabbis to teach in the synagogue; I figured I should not illustrate this because then you would not be able to see me at all!). Jesus began by saying simply, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in me." The text tells us that the crowd spoke well of him, and noted that he was Joseph’s son. They were with him, waiting to see what he might say about the passage he had read, just as you are waiting to see what I will say!
But then Jesus brought up other Scripture passages, and they were all ones noting that the rewards of God went not to Israelites, the children of God, but to Gentiles, those the Hebrews would have seen as undeserving and outside of the faith community. They heard Jesus saying that God would deliver first the non-believers – those who were outsiders, strangers, aliens. And that is when they became angry. They got up in mass and pushed him towards a cliff outside of town, seeming ready to throw him over. Yet the text tells us that Jesus "passed through the midst of them and went on his way." In the passages to follow, Jesus performed miracles of healing and called his disciples, and of course went on to lay his life down for our sakes.
Our Jeremiah passage was also about the beginning of a ministry, this one for a prophet around the time of the Babylonian takeover of Israel. Like the other major prophets, Jeremiah called for the Israelites to turn from their idolatrous ways. But when the Israelites were in trouble, then Jeremiah and other prophets delivered messages of comfort and deliverance to come. In our brief passage, a very young Jeremiah received the call of God with reluctance and resistance. "I do not know how to speak," he said, "for I am only a boy." God immediately rebuked the young boy not to say such things, and told him to trust in God’s presence and power to deliver him. The passage continues from where we read with God laying a hand on Jeremiah’s mouth, saying, "Now I have put words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:9-10). With this one passage, the Book of Jeremiah established a theme that runs throughout the book – that God is sovereign over all nations and that God directs history. This was a common biblical belief, and we see it also reflected in NT texts. The world was seen to be governed and directed by God. In modern times, we believe more in a world governed by cause and effect, by scientific occurrences. Yet we still also hold on to the belief that somehow God rules all that happens, and that can be good or bad at times.
It is a very peculiar thing about God’s presence in our world and in our lives that, generally, it is when we look back that we can see the hand of God acting in our lives, directing, comforting. Yet there are times when we are assured of God’s presence in the very midst of turmoil and change.
Theologians and church members have debated and argued over where God is in the midst of world and personal events perhaps throughout all of human history. Why would God allow the Holocaust or Sudan or terrorist attacks that kill so many innocents? Why would a young girl, with so much life ahead of her, have terminal cancer, or a young boy die in a car accident? Why would God let that happen? If God is directing history, why doesn’t God step in and do something to stop these awful things and evil people?
When I was studying for ordination exams, there was a consummate book that seminarians said helped prepare one to do well on the exams. And I studied it and still refer to it for help on heavy theological issues. The book is called Christian Doctrine and was written by a seminary professor by the name of Shirley Guthrie. On the subject of "The Doctrine of Providence and the Problem of Evil," Guthrie reminds us that Jesus told us that evil was unleashed at the beginning of history and has been at work throughout history and will be there until the very end. "Until the end of history," quotes Guthrie, "there will be wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, famine, earthquakes, suffering, false leaders, injustice, hatred, and persecution of the righteous (from Matthew 24:3-14). But Jesus, Guthrie reminds us, is the very embodiment of God’s answer to us – that through everything that happens, God is with us. In the life and the cross of Christ, we see that God does not conquer with sword or war or violence, but with love. God did not smite the people of Nazareth who wanted to kill Jesus. Jesus quietly slipped away that time. We know that he did not slip away the last time.
Yes, there will be disasters, natural and hand-made that affect our lives. But we make it through those dark times, and we help others make it through as well, when we hold on to the promise that God gave us in Christ – that a light that shines in the darkness, that there is Bread for the world, and Living Water, and so much more. Some of, perhaps a lot of, the suffering in the world comes from human source, in the ways we abuse the earth and its creatures and how we treat one another. It comes from the weaknesses that make us human and not God. But what God desires most is to see us bringing about the very things Jesus and the prophets proclaimed – good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed. Through us, these things can happen in the very midst of the horrors and sorrows of our world.
And yet we still can get up in arms about how things are said, or who says them, and we can make judgments and even laws against whole groups of peoples without even knowing the people themselves. We would rather wage war than work for peace. We would rather make more money and have finer homes and vacation homes than share our wealth so that no one is hungry or homeless or without health care.
So it is still hard to get up and try to interpret God’s Word. Honestly, I am a bit scared each time I preach that something I say will offend someone. And yet I continue because I know from my calling that I have to follow the instincts that were given to me as I studied and prayed and labored over what words to share. For this is my calling, and I have to trust that God will give me the words, even if they are words that offend. And, really, they are the same words over and over again that the prophets used to try to get the Hebrew people to change their ways, and that Jesus proclaimed when his own people drove him out of the temple. They are words of justice and equality and peace and love. And yet they are still words that can rile people up, especially when we say that you, the people, are not doing it right, that perhaps we are not doing God’s will, that we are not doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. Try to tell people what ought to be done, and they get up and walk out, or they throw words in anger.
Yes, it is a peculiar calling, this calling to ministry. But perhaps the most peculiar thing about it is that it is not my call alone, or Haywood’s or Chris’s or Taylor’s. For the Bible also tells us that God has called us all to be a royal priesthood, and to proclaim to others inside and outside of this community that they are perhaps doing it wrong, and that we all need to turn around and concentrate on working together to bring about the kingdom of God – a place where all weapons are laid down and destroyed, where all creatures lay together in peace, where war is no more, where love rules the land. It may seem a utopian kingdom, but it is possible, and it starts with each one of us and every one of us.
So, please open your Bibles to Luke 4:18 , and let us read and proclaim together the words Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry, because it is also our calling and ministry and mission:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
Now, friends, let us go out and make it so – through the power and the glory of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.