Luke 4:21-30: Tough Love

Old Testament Lesson: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Gospel Lesson: Luke 4:21-30

Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And 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.”

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him 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.

Last week I was telling you what a cliff-hanger the gospel lesson was. Well, this week that description turns out to be literal! To give you the recap, I feel like I need to be speaking in a dramatic baritone, “Last week in the gospel according to Luke . . . .”

Jesus has gone back to the synagogue in his home town and read from the scroll of Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed 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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, handed it to the attendant, and sat down to preach. And, the gospel says, “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.” They weren’t just looking at him with a kind of dispassionate curiosity. They were leaning in, standing on tiptoe, hands cupped at their ears, straining to hear every word.

After all, this wasn’t just anyone. This was the home-town boy. The one about whom wild tales were circulating: tales of the very voice of God coming out of nowhere, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and Satan himself tempting him and being driven away in humiliation. This was the one who is reputed to have the power to heal and to drive out demons. And furthermore, this was not the son of a rabbi, whom you might expect to see preaching in the synagogue. This was the son of Joseph, the carpenter. This was something everyone had to see and hear for themselves.

“Today,” Jesus said, “Today”—not tomorrow, not sometime in the near future, not years from now, but today—“this scripture has been”—not is being and not will be, but has already been—“fulfilled in your hearing.” And I can almost hear the gasp of surprise. At first everyone was mightily impressed and agreed that he spoke so well—for a carpenter’s son. His words were gracious—the Greek word is charis, from which we get the words charisma and charismatic. Jesus spoke words of grace, good will, loving-kindness, favor, benefit, gift, reward. And I imagine everyone in the crowd began to think about how poor they were and deserving of good news, how captive to the power of Rome they were and deserving of release, how blind to the outcome of this captivity and deserving of sight, how oppressed they were and deserving of freedom, how long they had waited for the Lord’s favor. So when Jesus told them that these words were not necessarily aimed at their own benefit, but the benefit of others, they became angry. Why can’t he heal us as he healed the people in Capernaum? Why can’t he cast out our demons as he cast out demons in Capernaum? They became so angry that they drove him out of town. So angry that thy laid hands on him and dragged him to a cliff where they intended to hurl him off. A cliff-hanger indeed! But Jesus broke free and slipped from the midst of them.

Did I ever tell you about buff Jesus? I learned about buff Jesus when Chris and I went to Israel three years ago. Our guide Hani Salameh had taken us to “Precipice Mountain,” the very spot just outside of Nazareth where they tried to throw Jesus off the cliff. While there Hani invited us to recall all of ancient buildings we had seen on our trip so far. Huge market places and royal palaces made from massive stones. Ancient temple and altar sites made from stones stacked on top of each other. The massive stones of the temple mount. Even the humblest of houses, like the home of Peter in Capernaum, were built on foundations of large hand-hewn basalt rocks. Then Hani told us about the Greek word, tekton, that is often translated “carpenter.” Tekton is probably better translated “builder,” as in builder of stone buildings . Jesus was not a carpenter, but someone who moved and cut and stacked huge stone blocks to build houses. In other words, Jesus was not the wan, weak, wishy-washy sort that European art and the children’s Bibles we grew up with showed us. He was powerfully built, strong, a force to be reckoned with. That’s how he managed to break free of the crowd that wanted to throw him off the cliff. He was buff Jesus!

That good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom from oppression, and the Lord’s favor are not necessarily for our benefit can feel disappointing, certainly. I don’t know if it is disappointing enough to hurl a body off a cliff, but it is certainly the opposite of what a lot of folks expect when they show up in church on a Sunday morning. Think of how we talk about worship: “I didn’t get much out of that sermon,” “Church just doesn’t do much for me,” “I just don’t feel fed in church,” “I get more value out of a hike in the woods than I get in church.” I bet all of you have said or thought something like that at one time or another. I know I have. About ten years ago, I became so burned out and disillusioned that I took a year off from church. While Chris was at the Kirk singing in the choir every Sunday, I was out hiking the surrounding parks and trails.

But the truth is that no one—not me, not you, not this church, not any church—is meant to be the end point of the gospel. Jesus never said the gospel stops here. The only reason to receive the gospel is to pass it along to others who need it. And the gifts—the charisms—that God gives us in service to the gospel are never ours to hold, but ours to use for the benefit of others.

This is what Paul was saying to the Corinthians in that beautiful hymn to love that Michael read for us:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

In other words, love—like Christ himself—is never self-serving, but self-giving. When the love of Christ is in us—individually and as a church community—it never ends in us, but passes through us to others.

The prophet Jeremiah had a hard time accepting his call to pass along to others the gifts that God had given him. He was called to his ministry at a very young age: “before I formed you in the womb,” God said. And when God told him what he was called to do, to be “a prophet to the nations,” Jeremiah objected. “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!” But God placed his hand on Jeremiah’s lips and gave him the words he was to say. Certainly Jeremiah’s call was never easy. He was called a liar, his scrolls were burned, he was ignored, beaten, put in stocks, publicly humiliated, thrown into a pit, and given a death sentence—rather like Jesus. But he was never abandoned. God never once left him. “Do not be afraid,” God said, “for I am with you to deliver you.” But he lived to see his words fulfilled, and he remained faithful to God and the people to the end—choosing to stay with them even as they made the disastrous choice to seek shelter in Egypt.

This afternoon, after lunch and certainly well before, whatever it is that everyone is so eager to watch on TV this evening—what is it? some kind of football game?—we’ll have the second in a series of evangelism workshops. This one will be about learning how to tell our faith stories. Each of us has one, you know. I once led a women’s retreat all about telling our faith stories, and as I was introducing the idea, one woman spoke up. “But I don’t have a faith story!” she said. When I asked her to unpack that for me, she told me that she had never had any kind of supernatural or miraculous experience. She had this idea that a “faith story” was some kind of extraordinary experience. For most of us, however, Christ comes in the ordinary, everyday experiences of our lives. In the people, places, and events that make up our ordinary lives, Christ comes to us and transforms us into bearers of good news. And of course my friend did and does have a very powerful faith story. And the best way we can pass that good news along to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed is to share our own stories of God’s grace.

Most of us are not unlike Jeremiah in doubting our fitness, our ability, or our call to be bearers of good news. As a community of faith, we are all too aware of our limitations: we are small, we are older and not as energetic as we once were, we are scared to step out of our comfort zone. But together, we the members, friends, leaders, sinners, and tagalongs of Butner Presbyterian Church, are called to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. It is not our news to keep, but ours to pass along to whoever needs it.

We are like Jeremiah in other ways. Just as God called Jeremiah to a ministry that was specific to him, so does God call us to our own ministry, not to the same ministry as a larger, younger, more energetic church. And just as God touched Jeremiah’s lips to equip him for his ministry, so will God equip us for our ministry with gifts that are uniquely ours. Last weekend at our planning meeting, I asked the Session members to look at a list of spiritual gifts and to choose the ones they believe they have. The Session members who were there are strong in the gifts of shepherding, serving, and showing mercy—not surprising for a church that feeds 200 hungry, homeless people once a month. We will need to work together to discover what other gifts we have and how we can best use them to spread the gospel, but we do that work out of love, and in the faith and hope that God never sends us out alone. For we go in the name and in the company of a Lord and Savior who is love incarnate: not a soft, sentimental love, but a tough love, a love that is patient; kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; not insisting on its own way; irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in the truth; a love that  bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; a Love that never ends.

And so to Jesus Christ, who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests of his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.

Amen.