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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany February 1, 2004.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71: 1-6

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

First Reading

The first reading is the call of Jeremiah or, better yet, Jeremiah's commissioning, since Jeremiah was called before he was born (v. 5). In this passage, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and informs Jeremiah of his place in God's work of salvation. God puts God's words in Jeremiah's mouth and appoints Jeremiah over nations and realms. God makes clear that Jeremiah's prophetic word is "to pluck and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (v. 10). The God revealed in this commissioning story is not content with the status quo but seeks to bring about genuine change. Knowing people's resistance to change, the call to be a prophet, which many preachers today seem to step into so easily, is a frightening task. Wisely, Jeremiah objects to God's call on the ground that he is only a boy. But God assures Jeremiah that God is with him and will deliver him. The prophet is sustained only by the knowledge that the word the prophet brings is from the Lord, who assures the prophet not to be afraid.

The second readings for these Sundays after the Epiphany provide a semi-continuous reading of 1 Corinthians 12-15 and are not intended to connect with the other readings. 1 Corinthians 13, read at many weddings, is so familiar that the preacher might well undertake to hear it again for the first time. Long ago I discovered this helpful paraphrase: "Without love, nothing counts--Nothing. And so we are to love. How? Be patient, be kind--even to people who are clearly in the wrong. Don't envy, don't boast, don't toot your own horn--ever. Don't be arrogant, don't be rude--even to people who really deserve to be knocked down a peg or two. Don't insist on your own way. Don't be irritable. Don't be resentful. Don't rejoice in doing wrong--even a little wrong. Bear all things--all things. Believe all things--even when to do so is to be gullible. Hope all things. Endure all things--all things." For Paul, this is what it means to love as Christ loved us. These are the rules for life in a Christian community.

Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet so aware that God is with him that Jesus moves through threats and dangers without the slightest sign of being afraid. The lectionary divides Luke 4:16-30 so that, as we enter the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus is finishing his sermon with the pronouncement, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21). While the congregation's initial reaction to Jesus' reading of Scripture and announcement of its fulfillment is positive, the congregation's mood changes when Jesus goes on to interpret the text. First, Jesus criticizes the crowd for their desire for signs (v. 23). Then (vv. 25-27) Jesus recalls two biblical incidents in which the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miracles for foreigners (1 Kings 17:1, 8-24; 2 Kings 5:1-19). In this way Jesus makes clear that, more than not having a special claim on Jesus' ministry, the signs the people of Nazareth desire will be granted to those considered to be outside the people of God. Jesus declares that God's gift of healing and life is not limited to Israel but intended for all people. Jesus' announcement that God's promises are available to all people turns the crowd against him. Rather than speaking well of Jesus and being amazed by the gracious words that came from his mouth, the congregation was so enraged that they drove Jesus out of town and attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff (cf. vv. 22, 29). When Jesus challenged the congregation with the gospel's radical inclusion, their privileged status as God's people was threatened, and they rejected Jesus.

Pastoral Reflection

Our readings make clear that, if we take God's word seriously and dare to speak it, conflict will result. Jesus comes across as one of those young preachers who just can't leave well enough alone. Jesus has the hometown crowd eating out of his hand. Everyone is speaking well of him, remarking at his gracious words. Sure, they are surprised, given Jesus' family background. But, all in all, they are impressed. But instead of smilingly accepting the accolades of his fellow Nazarenes, Jesus turns provocative. First, Jesus offends the crowd by describing what he sees as his role in salvation history--"The spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me...." The crowd could overlook this as the arrogance and naivete of youth. But then Jesus insults the town he grew up in. Jesus seems to mock the whole people of Israel. Shocked and outraged, the congregation becomes a lynch mob. They drive Jesus out and try to do him in.

From his very first sermon, the shadow of rejection hangs over Jesus' ministry. It culminates in Jesus' crucifixion. Again God's people become a lynch mob, only this time they succeed in doing him in. Why? Jesus challenged tradition. Jesus failed with the pillars and power brokers of the day and succeeded with the poor and the powerless. Jesus was anointed by the Spirit for the extraordinary task of ministry. Jesus' life was a journey to God according to God's plan. Jesus made clear that God's love and promise are intended for all. As Jeremiah makes clear, the problem with being anointed by the Spirit, living according to God's plan, and proclaiming God's promise in all its fullness is that our power structures and social systems do not easily accept the Spirit's power and direction. And so opposition, hardship, and scorn become the scenery along the journey of discipleship. Conflict is a fact of faith, an appropriate response to the gospel.

So when was the last time God's word caused us conflict? When was the last time we heard something--in a sermon or a reading, in a prayer or a hymn--that so outraged us that we wanted to kill the messenger? Why is it that so many Christians today are never disturbed or upset at worship (except, of course, when the acolyte does acrobatics, the soloist strikes a sour note, the liturgy runs long, or the kids are cranky and crying)? Why is it that so many churches today say that we should tailor our messages and do everything that we can so that people won't get upset at worship? Why aren't we disturbed by the gospel? Why aren't we upset by God's word? Could it be that we aren't paying attention? Could it be that we're afraid of what we'll hear? Or have we heard so often that we no longer listen? Or, when it comes to God's promise extending to those traditionally considered beyond God's promise, are we ready to drive the messengers out of the church and off the cliff?

If Jesus and the gospel never cause us conflict, perhaps we've forgotten that we too were anointed by the Spirit for the extraordinary task of ministry. We too are called to understand our lives and the life of our church according to God's plan. And if we are so outraged by what we are hearing, perhaps this is a sign of both God's impatience with the status quo and the seriousness with which we take God's word.
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Title Annotation:Preaching Helps
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Previous Article:The conversion of St. Paul January 25, 2004.
Next Article:Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany February 8, 2004.

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