Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Pastor Anke Deibler

  • Jeremiah 1:4-10
  • Psalm 71:1-6
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
  • Luke 4:21-30

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

          Nobody wants to be a prophet. When God calls someone into this job, they very often try to get out of the assignment. Moses argues that he has a stutter, Jonah tries to take a ship in the opposite direction, and Amos points out that he is just a shepherd and trimmer of mulberry trees. Jeremiah today points out that he is too young for a call like this. “I am just a boy!” he says.

          And he is just as successful as the other reluctant prophets, which is: not at all. He is pressed into this call. Our Bible text says that God touches his mouth with God’s word. That is not as gentle as the translation makes it sound. The same word “touch” describes in another place a wind strong enough to blow a house down. What Jeremiah experiences here is very powerful, something like a jolt, maybe even painful. Jeremiah is compelled, cajoled, forced, jerked into his assignment to be a prophet.

          Why is he so reluctant? The last line of our Bible text explains this. God says to Jeremiah: “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.” A prophet is called to redirect God’s people back to closeness with God, to God’s will, to faithfulness.

In order to do that, prophets need to point out where the people are currently going astray. They have to pluck up and pull down some habits. They have to destroy and overthrow some preconceived notions. Only after that is accomplished, can they show the people how to rebuild and replant in a better, more faithful, more blessed way.

Being the messenger of such words of critique and needed change is really hard, because the message makes you really unpopular. Nobody wants to hear where they are wrong. Nobody likes change. Prophets suffer because they know what needs to be said and what needs to happen, and they also know that it will be very hard to convince the people of this.

An example that came to my mind was the decision of this congregation to build a new church. For generations, Calvary Lutheran Church had worshiped above the train tracks in Woodbine. The building was beloved. It held so many memories, of milestones celebrated there, of loved ones baptized, married, and buried there, of high holy day services, of Sunday school classes and teachers.

Whoever the first person was who realized that the congregation was outgrowing its building and needed to move, probably felt quite a bit of pain over this realization. He or she or they knew that it was the right and faithful thing to do and that Calvary would thrive in its ministry to God’s kingdom in a newer larger facility, yet making the people of God realize they needed to give up their beloved building and build a new one must have been a difficult, painful task. The task of a prophet.

Jesus is feeling that pain of the prophet in our gospel story. He has just preached his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. His ministry was a few weeks old and word had gotten around that Jesus was an amazing healer and preacher. Now his old neighbors are excited to have Jesus come home, so they can see with their own eyes what has become of this young man.

The visit starts off really well. In last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Jesus was handed the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and selected this passage to read:

“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.”

The people know this passage. It is one of the scriptures that has helped them through some very rough times. When their kingdom was destroyed and they ended up in exile, when they were allowed to return and had to rebuild the nation from scratch, when they were occupied by the Roman army: time and again they would read passages like this one to gain hope and comfort and the assurance that, by the grace of God, better things were ahead.

When Jesus reads this text and then announces that in him the fulfilment of this prophecy is beginning, the people are really happy. The congregation loves it. This sounds amazing, wonderful, a dream come true, their hopes answered. Yes, they love Jesus and his message.

Until they realize something. When Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah, he skipped the last line. What Isaiah had said was: “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus left out the vengeance part.

The people had been mistreated by foreign nations for centuries. The dream of a day when God was going to exact vengeance on those people was gratifying to them. Whenever things got really tough, they would think to themselves, “You just wait; God is going to get you.”

But Jesus is skipping the vengeance part. Why would he do that? The mood is shifting in that synagogue. It shifts even further when Jesus confirms their suspicion that he dropped that line on purpose. Jesus reminds them of two stories from their own holy scriptures where God’s grace is extended to people outside of God’s holy nation. The Prophet Elijah feeds a widow and her son in Sidon and the Prophet Elisha heals the Syrian Naaman, not only a heathen foreigner but also the general of the enemy army.

No vengeance, says Jesus. Instead, the grace of God will reach all people, including foreigners, heathens, and enemies. The dream of life in God’s kingdom is a dream for all people. The year of the Lord’s favor is offered to all people everywhere, Jews and gentiles alike.

This is what makes the audience angry. They had expected Jesus to come and preach and heal and set up shop in his hometown and put Nazareth on the map. “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Jesus quotes them. ‘Charity begins at home’, is their thinking. They want Jesus for themselves.

When Jesus refuses to be so limited in the scope of his ministry, the people get really mad and rush him out of the synagogue in a wave of mob violence that almost gets Jesus killed.

Speaking with the voice of a prophet is very hard. People get defensive or angry when we relate God’s word to them, a word of destroying and pulling down that makes them stop listening, so they don’t hear the rebuilding and replanting part.

But when they do listen, great things can happen and people are blessed. I mentioned Calvary’s move to a new location and building before. The congregation listened to the prophets in their midst. They left the old behind and built new. And the ministry of this congregation grew in amazing ways.

Another example happened to me when my three children were small, about age 4 and under. My mother was visiting. After having been there for two weeks, she gently said one night: “I think you put Julia into time-out a lot faster and a lot more often than the other two.”

At first, I reacted like the people in Nazareth: I got angry and defensive. But then I decided to take her words to heart and watch myself. My mother was right. I was harder on my middle child than on the other two. Afterwards, I was more careful about that, and that was a blessing not just to my child, but also to our relationship.

I know my mother thought long and hard about saying something. Speaking with the voice of the prophet does not make you popular with others; it can damage relationships. But if the words are listened to, new and blessed realities can grow.

Where might we be called to speak God’s word?

Child, I am afraid that the kids you hang out with are having a bad influence on you.

Mother/Father, the way you belittle or control your spouse is painful for me to watch.

Spouse, the amount of alcohol you drink worries me.

Co-worker, I am bothered by some of your work habits and the way they affect the team.

Hard words to speak. Words that tear down and thus will be met with defensiveness and anger. Yet words that can lead to new and blessed realities.

How will we make sure it is God’s call and not just our opinion or pet peeve, that we do not come across as know-it-all busy-bodies? There are two important controls.

The first is: We have to speak in the context of love and commitment to the relationship. Jeremiah cared deeply about his people, stuck with them through the fall of Jerusalem, and sent them encouraging letters into exile. Jesus loved his old neighbors; they were among the people he was willing to die for. My other loved my child and me and would continue to do so no matter what. Love and commitment are the necessary context for prophetic words.

The second is: Like Jeremiah and Jesus, we need to be rooted in God’s word. God put his word into Jeremiah in a powerful way. Jesus reads scripture to anchor his ministry. God’s word is at the core of our identity as people of God. In times of change and visioning and dreaming forward, that word of God is even more crucial than usual.

At our Steven Ministry meeting this past week, we pondered how we should speak to people suffering the loss of a loved one. “What does the Bible say?” was one of our first questions. What is God’s word for this situation?

God’s word is there to help and guide us. It is even more powerful when we read that word of God with a group of faithful people. Bible study, Jumpstart, coffee hour conversations are all great venues for reading and debating God’s word and what way it guides us forward.

We are called to be God’s prophets and visionaries today. We are called to share God’s dream with one another and the world. In order for us to be sustained in this challenging calling, to speak powerfully with the voice of God, and to maintain the vision of the Kingdom of God that leads us forward, let us be rooted in love and in the word of God. They are God’s gift to us, today and always. Amen.

 

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