Sermon: 1/3/19

Epiphany 4C2019
Luke 4:21-30

by Pastor Sarah Stadler

Contrary to popular understanding, prophets of the Old Testament tell the truth, not the future, the truth.  And they tell the truth not just according to them but the truth according to God. Being a prophet is a hard job because, generally, people are not fond of the truth according to God.  And for that reason, prophets of the Old Testament try to get out of the prophet gig.

Moses’ excuse for questioning his call?  “O my LORD, I have never been eloquent...I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."  

Jonah’s excuse for fleeing his call?  “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  He is sure God will relent and all Jonah’s efforts declaring the people’s destruction will be for naught.

Jeremiah’s excuse for questioning his call from this morning’s scripture?  "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

Telling God’s truth is a tricky business.  These Old Testament prophets tried to get out of the prophet gig because they suspected—quite rightly—that serving as God’s mouthpiece to the ornery people of God, not to mention the people of all other nations, would put them in some difficult spots.  Nine plagues and a punishment of no provision of straw to make bricks in their slavery later, the Israelites complain bitterly against Moses. Called by God to go to Nineveh but fleeing instead on a boat in the opposite direction, Jonah finds himself at the bottom of the sea and then in the belly of a great fish.  And poor Jeremiah, while the Babylonians destroy the temple in Jerusalem and enslave Israelites, Jeremiah declares the message of an angry God to an unfaithful people—making a bad situation worse from the perspective of the Israelites—and making Jeremiah terribly unpopular.

The difficulty of the prophet gig extends into New Testament times for Jesus says today to the people of Nazareth, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  The people closest to Jesus, presumably his family, his friends, his life-long community turn against him when he speaks God’s truth. At first hearing, they praise him, praise the gracious words that come from his mouth, words of justice and love, radical forgiveness and release, the words we discussed last week.  And then, Jesus goes and tells the truth—about two people from the Old Testament: the widow of Zaraphath and Naaman whom God feeds and heals, respectively. Jesus actually begins by saying: “The truth is…” and then tells the stories about these two non-Israelites who receive the justice and love, radical forgiveness and release of God.  Now, many people of Jewish faith receive similar gifts from God—in both the Old and New Testaments. But Jesus lifts up the widow of Zaraphath and Naaman whose lives demonstrate that God’s abundant grace flows even to people who do not worship God, a move that sets the tone for Jesus’ whole ministry. For in the gospel of Luke especially, Jesus reaches out to both Jews and Gentiles, healing, feeding, befriending, and calling diverse people into community.  And suddenly, the people of Nazareth no longer praise Jesus’ gracious words. Instead, the people of Nazareth drive Jesus out of town and lead him to the brow of a hill in order to throw him over the cliff. But he passes through the midst of them into safety.

Why do Moses and Jonah, Jeremiah and Jesus find telling God’s truth so tricky?

Honestly, I think it’s because we, whoever we are, always assume that God is on our side—on our side of the argument—and not on the side of whoever or whatever we oppose.  We believe that God agrees with us, or maybe more accurately, we believe that we understand God’s truth and stand with it. But what the Old and New Testament prophets tell us again and again is that the people of God don’t understand God’s truth, actually, and we’re not too jazzed about listening carefully and diligently following.  So we, the people of God, challenge the prophets who speak the word of God. We don’t like to hear that we got God’s truth wrong; we don’t like being convicted of our sin and reminded of our limitations.

While many aspects of God’s word challenges us, the abundance of God’s grace may, ironically, challenge us most of all.  In this morning’s gospel, Jesus tells stories of God’s grace—not just for people who know and worship God but for people who don’t know and don’t worship God.  There is little else, it seems, that irritates us as much as this: people being forgiven and loved by God as much as we are forgiven and loved by God even when those people don’t go to church and don’t believe what we believe and don’t follow the rules we follow.  This abundant grace doesn’t seem fair. And of course, God isn’t fair. God is generous, compassionate, loving.

This past week, I received a survey from a food bank that has for the past couple years generously supplied us products we would normally have to purchase, like toilet paper and paper towels, in addition to staples like rice and pasta that we have used mostly for heat respite and GLOW.  Each year, the food bank conducts an audit of the organizations who utilize their products by sending this survey. Among other questions on the survey, it asked: How do people qualify to receive your services? Boxes to check appeared below the question with answers like income guidelines, identification, and demographic markers like single parents, domestic violence survivors, and unemployed.  Reading through the possible answers, I initially wondered how I would answer. Because there is nothing a person needs to be or do to receive food at heat respite or GLOW or pancake breakfast but show up on time and respect on a basic level those around them. Rich or poor, single or partnered, employed or unemployed, even Christian or not, these are not relevant questions for us. Whether someone is hungry is really the only relevant question.  Because each one of us gets hungry every day, we all qualify. We are all worthy of these gifts of God’s grace.

Today, the good news, the hard news, the prophetic news from Jesus is that each of us and every person we will encounter today and tomorrow, every person who hurts us, the author of every destructive act, the one who gossips and triangulates, the ones who belittle and bully, every single person is worthy of God’s abundant grace.  Including us. We don’t get more grace or more love because we’re here this morning. We don’t deserve God’s blessings more because we attempt to follow God’s law. This is good news, especially when we’re struggling, good news but hard news. It’s prophetic news that is hard to proclaim. But even if you complain bitterly like the Israelites before Moses or persecute me like the Israelites did Jeremiah, whether I get cast into the sea like Jonah or led to the brow of a hill to be thrown over the cliff like Jesus, the word of God stands: God finds each of us—YOU—worthy of God’s amazing grace.  Thanks be to God! Amen.