January 31, 2016 “Tough Crowd”

posted Jul 6, 2016, 4:02 PM by David Hawkins
Old Testament Reading:  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."

New Testament Reading: Luke 4:21-30

Then he 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.

Sermon: "Tough Crowd"             Rev. David Hawkins

Today, we are introduced to two prophets: the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the destruction of the Southern Kingdom, called as a prophet to all the nations, and Jesus, six hundred years later, who, in no uncertain terms, outlines his own appointment as a spokesman for God.
Of course, we tend to think of Jesus as being a bit more than just a prophet, but in today’s text, we are looking at him through the eyes of his hometown, and h is most certainly not quite yet a messiah, or a savior, or the Lord, or Almighty God. 

He’s just Joseph’s son. And it appears that he’s gotten a little too big for his britches. 

We also have heard this morning the stories of two different kinds of call, the call of Jeremiah to speak to the nations, to convey God’s intention to pluck up, to destroy, to overthrown, to build and to plant. 

And we’ve heard Jesus’ own sense of call, as represented by his reference to the prophets Elijah and Elisha to bring good news to the outsider, to those who live on the margins, to bring a message of hope and life to those who are not in the ‘in’ crowd. 

And the reality is, neither of these two prophets’ messages are particularly welcome. Neither of them are hailed as heroes for bringing God’s word to the people. Neither of them are given the sort of attention, the sort of adulation, that you would think those who bring the word of God ought to have received. Far from it. They are preaching to a tough crowd.

Jeremiah was constantly under attack, persecuted, imprisoned, thrown into a muddy well to die. 

And Jesus is thrown out of the synagogue, thrown out of town, and was nearly thrown off a cliff. Not by a mob of strangers, in a foreign city, mind you, but by the people of his hometown, the people he grew up with, his friends, his neighbors, his teachers, the people he had known all his life. 

What is it about the Word of God that is so offensive that it drives people to do whatever they can to shut it up? Why is it so difficult for us to hear what God wants us to do?

And even more perplexing, why, in the face of such opposition, did Jeremiah and Jesus persevere in their message? It would have been much easier if they had just given in, if they had gone with the flow. Why put up such a fight? Why risk your social status, your reputation, your own life, to say things that are so wildly unpopular that people literally want to kill you in order to not hear it? 

You know, this issue of God’s call is a difficult one. 

How do we know that we are called by God? And how do we know what we are called to do, or called to say? How do we know that the little voice in our ear is God, and not the sort of voice that insane people hear when they are all alone?

What does it really mean to be called by God?

It’s easy to simplify the idea of call. It’s easy to think that maybe only professionals are called, you know, clergy, pastors, preachers, etc. That it’s only people like me, that are called to go to seminary, to preach, to be pastors. 

It’s easier, because then we can relax a little bit. We can let the pros handle it. We can let the pastors say the difficult things, we can let the preacher say those things that we know, in some deep part of our heart might need to be said, but are afraid to say out loud. We can let the clergy name the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. 

And of course, if we disagree with what the pros say, we can either dismiss them out of hand, or get rid of them. 

But I think we all know that that’s not how ‘call’ works. We are all called, in our own way, to be messengers of God. We are all called, in our own way, to bring the word of God to the nations. We are all called to stand apart from the crowd, to risk our reputations, to do and say what we believe to be true, even when it is uncomfortable, even when it goes against what our friends think, even when it involves things like politics, social issues, cultural idols, and yes, even religion. 

We are all called as prophets. It’s a scary thought, but it’s true.

Now, let’s be honest. We are not all called to be the same kind of prophet. In fact, we see that in the Bible. Some prophets were called to the Northern Kingdom. Some prophets were called to the Southern Kingdom. Some, like Jonah, were called to speak to outsiders. Some, like Isaiah, to the people of Israel. Jeremiah was called as a prophet to all the nations, bringing the word of God to insiders and outsiders alike. 

Sometimes being a prophet might not mean speaking at all. It might mean doing. St Francis of Assisi is famously quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” Of course, like many great quotes, we’re not really sure he said exactly that; the best written reference we actually have is him telling his students that “…everyone should preach by their deeds.” It’s not quite as catchy, but it’s carries the same meaning. 

Bringing the Good News to the world can happen in many different ways – through talking, through working, through healing, through teaching, through loving, through forgiving, through helping, through caring. In short, by doing the sorts of the things that Jesus did his whole life. When the Gospel of John identifies Jesus as the Word of God, we hear the message loud and clear. Jesus is the walking, talking, doing, Word of God, and we as Christians, are called to be the same. 

But this still doesn’t explain why his hometown got so angry with him. Why, after marveling at his words that we heard last week, the way he interpreted Isaiah, do they suddenly turn on him? What did he say that made them so angry?

The problem was, when Jesus identified himself as a prophet, it became clear that he wasn’t their prophet. He wasn’t their own personal messenger of God. When Jesus describes his calling, he makes a reference to the prophet Elijah, saving the life of the son of the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. Zarephath and Sidon are outside the boundaries of Israel. The widow is a gentile, a foreigner, an outsider. In every way possible, she is different, she is ‘other’ than the Hebrews, and yet, it is to this woman that God displays his power and his compassion. 

And then, just to drive the point home, Jesus reminds his listeners of the prophet Elisha, healing a Syrian leper. A Syrian! A Syrian leper, in the midst of all the suffering in Israel, A Syrian! Again, he forces them to reconcile the fact that God is bigger than their own little synagogue, than their own little denomination, than their own little faith tradition. 

Jesus clearly tells them that he is called to preach a big gospel, one that reaches out beyond the walls of their rigidly defined doctrine, beyond their walls of language, faith, tradition, culture, status, and ethnic identity. 

Jesus is called to bring the good news of God’s love and forgiveness to all people, not just Israel. 

And they just can’t handle it. 

It turns out that what we really want in a prophet is someone who will tell us what we want to hear. We want a prophet who will tell us that God loves us, that God will bless us, that we are ‘in’, that we are the special ones, the favorites ones. We love the kind of prophet that tells us that we are blessed, that God wants us to be rich, that God wants us to have everything we always wanted, that lets us simply float through life, as my mother would say, fat dumb, and happy. Those kinds of prophets are extremely popular. We see them all over the TV. That’s obviously what the folks in Nazareth wanted. That’s what a lot of people want. 

But that’s not what Jesus is all about.

Now, fortunately, most of us aren’t called to be a prophet in the exact same way as Jeremiah, or Jesus. 

Jeremiah, truth be told, was a bit weird. He was a recluse, didn’t hang out with anybody, had no friends, no family. He once famously took his underwear and put it under a rock, and retrieved it sometime afterward to find that it had, surprise! rotted away. He wore a cattle harness, walking around in public until it was finally cut off by another prophet.

Jeremiah, let’s face it, was strange. Part prophet, part performance artists, part crazy person. 

But he spoke the truth about what was going on in Judah, and what would happen if Israel put its trust in other nations and their gods. 

Most of us won’t be thrown in a well to be left for dead for saying or living what we believe to be true. But there is the strong possibility that we might be ostracized for it. We probably won’t be driven to the edge of a cliff for speaking out against prejudice, or for offering the love of God to those who society thinks are unworthy of it. 

Most of us are not called to be messengers of God in the same way that Jesus and Jeremiah were called. And that’s OK. 

But we are all called. We are all personally, individually, uniquely invited by God to participate in some sort of ministry of good news. None of us are off the hook. 

And this can be frightening. It’s frightening to think that we might do or say something that makes our neighbors raise their eyebrows. It’s frightening to think that our message of radical forgiveness might make our friends think we just don’t know, or care about tradition, or religion, or correct doctrine. It’s frightening to think that our own sense of who we are as faithful children of God might be challenged if we extend the grace of God beyond our own comfortable circle of friends and family. 

But it’s OK to be frightened. It’s only natural to be frightened. The risks are real. The work of a prophet, regardless of what that work might look like, is difficult and counter-cultural. We are going up against some powerful forces. 

And so, fear is natural.Fear in itself is not infidelity. Fear in itself is not evil. If we are genuinely taking the Gospel to the world, we have every reason to be afraid. But when we allow fear to hold us back, we allow, in the words of what someone has written, “the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good.” 

If we are to live into our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to first allow “our overwhelming fears {…} to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.” 

   I can’t say what God’s call for your life and vocation is. No-one can say that for you. We are all called in many and different ways to reflect God’s glory. Some might do this privately, behind the scenes. Some might do it publically behind a pulpit. Some might live out their vocation through words, some through work. Some might teach God’s word through music or art, some might do through being a nurse, or a kindergarten teacher. 

The specific methods by which we are called to prophecy are as wide as God’s mercy. There is no boilerplate method that fits everyone. 

But make no mistake, everyone is called to prophecy in some form or another. Get used to it. Embrace it. Live out your vocation, trust that God will do amazing things in your life. 

And be ready for some push-back. 

Because we’re preaching to a tough crowd.
And in the house of the Lord, 
the people said, “Amen”