The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) is one of my favorite post-resurrection stories. As you hear this story, you can feel the grief-stricken disciples’ pain and disappointment. But, as Jesus reminds them through Scripture of God’s great redemptive plan, and then reveals himself in the breaking of the bread at table, the story takes on the joy and relief that these two must feel. Here’s the sermon I preached last Sunday titled, “When Jesus Opens Our Blind Eyes.”
This Sunday’s Gospel reading brings us to Luke 24:13-35. It’s the story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus on resurrection Sunday evening. The road to Emmaus account rates as one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. I’m working on my sermon for this coming Sunday, April 30, 2017. It’s titled, “When Jesus Opens Our Blind Eyes.” I’ll post it when I’m done.
But, in the meantime, if you need another sermon about the Road to Emmaus, here’s one I wrote six years ago titled, “When the Bread was Broken.” Same story, but a slightly different approach than what I’m planning for this Sunday. What a wonderful story to share with our congregations this Sunday, or anytime!
Last Sunday I preached on the Transfiguration of Jesus. But the lectionary reading this year couples the story of the mountaintop Transfiguration of Jesus with the healing of a young boy down in the valley. The common interpretive wisdom on this passage (Luke 9:28-42) is that you have to leave the spiritual high of the mountain to go down to the valley where the real work of ministry is done. But, I think these two stories say something different. Could it be that the Light of Transfiguration on the mountaintop changes everything in the valley, too? Here’s the podcast. Let me know what you think.
I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow on Ascension Sunday. Unless we understand the Ascension of Christ, we cannot understand the Great Commission.
Changed Hearts, Changed Lives
44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”
50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God.
This is Ascension Sunday. There is probably no Sunday among the significant Sundays of the Christian year that is more misunderstood than this Sunday. The reason for that misunderstanding is a failure to appreciate the significance of the Ascension for our lives and for the lives of those in the first century.
For many, the Ascension seems less real, less credible than the miracles of Jesus. We can understand the miracles of healing, feeding, and even raising the dead as indications of Jesus’ compassion. People were sick, so he healed them. People were hungry, so he fed them. People were grieving, so he raised their loved ones back to life.
Or we can understand the miracles of Jesus as indicators of what the kingdom of God is truly like. Jesus says that there is coming a day when there will be no more sickness, crying, or death. When everyone will have everything they need. And so the miracles are previews of the kingdom of God.
But when it comes to the Ascension, we don’t seem to be able to make sense out of it. The story of Jesus being taken up to heaven in a cloud seems a little like something out of Star Trek: “Beam me up, Scotty,” as Captain Kirk used to say. It seems like a science fiction fantasy, ripped right from Ray Bradbury’s screenplay. Except of course that the Ascension predates Star Trek by 20 centuries.
So, what do we make of this strange event where Jesus floats up to heaven on a cloud, or surrounded by clouds, in plain sight of his disciples numbering maybe as many as 500 people? Baptists, in our typical pragmatic fashion, latched on to the final words of Jesus, which are similar in this passage and in Matthew:
Matthew 28:18-20New International Version (NIV)
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Of course, since we could not explain the Ascension, we focused on the Great Commission, as the Matthew passage is called. But, usually we leave out verse 18, and usually on quote Matthew 28:19-20, the part about us going and making disciples, etc, etc.
But verse 18 is so intimately connected both to the Great Commission and to the Ascension, we cannot understand either without it. Jesus claim to have “all authority in heaven and on earth” is an amazing claim. But that is what both the Ascension and the Great Commission are about.
Let me explain. And for an explanation we have to turn back to the Hebrew Bible, Daniel 7:13-14:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[a] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
In this brief text, we have the account of a dream that Daniel himself had. In the dream, Daniel dreams of four kingdoms. Most scholars believe that these four kingdoms represent Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Here’s what happens after Daniel sees these four kingdoms:
9 “As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
So the Ancient of Days is clearly God. And once God has dispatched the rebellious kingdoms of this world, then “one like a son of man” (a human being, in other words) comes on the clouds of heaven TOWARD the Ancient of Days. He is led into God’s presence and there he receives AUTHORITY, GLORY, AND SOVEREIGN POWER! And, people from all peoples, nations and languages (which is another way of saying “the ends of the earth”) worship him.
Okay, so get ready for this. Imagine that you’re making a movie and you are filming the final scene in the life of Jesus. You need two cameras for this scene. One camera is shooting the disciples’ eyeview from the earth. That camera records Jesus ascending from earth into heaven. And he ascends on the clouds of heaven up and up until the camera cannot see him any longer.
Then, imagine that the scene shifts. Camera number two is positioned in the throne room of heaven. You’re no longer standing on earth looking up, but you are standing in the throne room of heaven looking “down” toward the earth. (Down, of course, is a nod to our notion that heaven in up and earth is down, but you would not really be looking down.)
As you look through the viewfinder of the camera, you see in the distance a very small figure, seemingly surrounded by clouds, approaching the throne room of God. As the figure grows larger and closer, you see it is Jesus — one like a son of man, a real human being. You continue to film.
Then, Jesus is in the presence of God. And God, the Ancient of Days, confers upon Jesus authority, glory, and the power of God (sovereign means ruling, kingly, none other like it).
So, two perspectives are captured by the two cameras. First, there is the disciples’ perspective as they watch Jesus ascend into heaven. Second, there is the perspective of the hosts of heaven as Jesus enters the presence of God and receives all authority, glory, and sovereign power that is rightfully his. God gives this authority, glory and power to Jesus because of his willingness to be born as a human being, live, die, and rise again. All because God so loved the world.
That’s what the Ascension means. And if you need further proof, Paul picks up this same theme in Philippians 2:5-11:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Okay, so what does that have to do with changed hearts and lives? Just this: The One, and the only one, who is worthy is Jesus.
John records this scene in heaven when he is searching for someone worthy to open the seals of the 7 scrolls. John says:
4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign[b] on the earth.”
11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
-Rev 5:4-14 NIV
Back to our passage from Luke 24:
46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
“A change of heart and life” is usually translated “repentance.” But repentance is a word we hardly ever use now. And, repentance too often is shorthand for “accepting Jesus.” Which is fine if in accepting Jesus there is a change of heart and life.
The followers of Jesus in the New Testament had their hearts and lives changed because they realized who Jesus was, is, and will always be — the One to whom God has given all authority. The King of kings. The Lord of lords. The only One worthy of praise, glory and honor.
That’s why their hearts and lives were changed. Because they realized that the Ascension of Jesus was really his return to his rightful place at the right hand of God. That Jesus had done all the Father had asked him to, and had done it willingly. And that Jesus was now the One on whom God had bestowed a name above every name.
The Ascension was the final vindication and recognition of the faithfulness of Christ to the love of God for all the world. It was the moment in which Christ returned to God the Father, victor and victorious.
I’m preaching from Luke 4:1-13 on this first Sunday of Lent. The story of Jesus in the wilderness packs lots of significance and symbol for us to reflect upon during these next weeks leading to Easter. I trust that you will have a wonderful Sunday worship experience today as we begin our journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.
Three Tests In Forty Days
Luke 4:1-13 NIV
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.
The Beginning of Lent
Today marks the first Sunday in the season of Lent. As you know, the Lenten season comes in the forty days preceding Easter, not counting Sundays, so Lent actually lasts about 46 or so days. Usually, when we think of Lent we think of a time for reflection, a time to consider the life and ministry of Jesus that led him to the cross and to the victory of the empty tomb.
Typically, when we think of Lent, the event in the life of Christ that is representative of this season is the passage we read today — Jesus in the wilderness. In this passage we have all the classic signs and symbols of focusing on God.
Forty Days: A New Way of Reckoning Time
First, there is the period of time — forty days. The number 40, while it certainly can be a literal number, has a greater theological significance. The number 40 indicates a sufficient time, a time when what needs to be completed can be completed. It is a time that extends beyond the ways in which humans keep time. It is longer than a lunar month, and so represents another way of keeping time, a way of keeping time that accommodates the plans and purposes of God.
For example, Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai in the presence of God. The nation of Israel, after its disobedient refusal to enter the Land of Promise, wanders for 40 years in the desert until the unfaithful generation has all died out. The prophet Elijah retreats for 40 days after his encounter with the prophets of Baal and threats by queen Jezebel.
In the past few years, a spate of books have been published which emphasize a 40-day period of study. But, 40 days or years isn’t a magic number, or even a number that is somehow more adequate for study and reflection. Forty days represents the time needed for God to fulfill his purposes. It’s God’s time, not ours, and during this new way of counting time, God is at work.
Luke sets the stage quickly for the significance of Jesus’ time in the desert this way —
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
We know God is at work here in Jesus’ life because Luke places the Spirit of God front and center in this particular event. Jesus is full of the Spirit, and led by the Spirit into the wilderness. God is at work here, and the time for God’s work is measured in a different kind of time, a time that Luke says takes 40 days.
The Wilderness: A New Place To Encounter God
The second sign and symbol is that this work of God takes place, not in a town or city, not in a synagogue or even the Temple itself. If 40 days or years marks a new way of understanding time, then the wilderness symbolizes a new place to encounter God for Jews in the 1st century.
We have a hard time truly understanding the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem. This massive structure that dominated the skyline and physical boundaries of the city of Jerusalem was thought to be the place where heaven met earth, where God dwelled among humankind. God was resident in the Holy of Holies, God’s presence was assumed and revered by righteous worshippers. Only on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, did anyone enter the Holy of Holies to encounter the presence of God.
But the wilderness has a long and marvelous history of being the place where God is found. Wilderness has always been a place of seclusion, of revelation, and of danger. Moses encounters God in the burning bush in the backside of the desert, and it is that encounter which sets the stage for the rest of the history of Israel and the world.
The wilderness is where the Law of God is given, where prophets retreat to find God again, where God sends the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist to preach and baptize. When John the Baptist establishes his preaching and ministry of baptism in the wilderness near the Jordan River, John is speaking a rebuke to the Temple in Jerusalem, to the sacrificial system, and to the corruption of the religious leaders and sects who control access to God, and who set the acceptable ways in which God can be obeyed. John the Baptist wasn’t in the wilderness because he wore animal skin and ate a strange diet of locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist was in the wilderness as sign and symbol that God was doing something new, stripping away the old systems of religious habit, and calling his people to a new life of obedience.
So, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Mark’s Gospel dramatically says Jesus is thrust into the wilderness by the Spirit. God is up to something, and the wilderness, in all its stark devastation is the place where Jesus is to meet God, his Father.
N. T. Wright believes that Luke is offering a parallel between the life of David, the most revered king in Israel’s history, and the life of Jesus. After David is anointed by Samuel, while Saul is still king, David goes to fight the giant Goliath. After Jesus is baptized by John, and receives the anointing of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit descends upon him and God’s voice declares “this is my Son in whom I am well-pleased,” Jesus goes immediately into the wilderness to face the adversary, satan or the devil. Wright sees other parallels as well, but if that is the case, Jesus’ wilderness experience places him in the legacy of King David, not only biologically, but also spiritually.
The Temptations Reveal The Conflict Between This World and The Kingdom of God
Often when we read this passage, or the account in Matthew’s Gospel, we tend to zoom in on the temptations of Jesus, and then seek to apply them to ourselves. But, I’m going to suggest today that we zoom out, and look at the temptations of Jesus in a new light. While it is true that these temptations are given for our benefit, or else they would not be in Scripture, if we stand too close to them, and reduce them to moral do’s and don’ts, we miss the greater message.
There are three temptations or tests that we are told Jesus encounters toward the end of his 40 days in the wilderness. We can only assume that the bulk of the 40 days is spent in prayer and fasting, but we also know that Satan is working on Jesus all during that time.
I think its interesting that the only way we know this story is because Jesus must have told it to the disciples himself. And while 40 days is a long time, and fasting for that long is a spiritual feat in itself, the part that Jesus chooses to tell the disciples focuses on the end of the experience, and the choice Jesus makes.
In my estimation, the temptations of Jesus highlight the contrast and conflict between this world, and the Kingdom of God which Jesus is about to announce and begin to usher in.
The first temptation is the same type of temptation that Adam and Eve faced. The choice to eat or not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is posed as a choice that can make Adam and Eve like God. But in Jesus case, Satan knows Jesus is God, and so couches his temptation in challenging language by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”
Of course, Jesus is the Son of God, and of course he does possess the power to turn stones into bread — after all he turns water into wine, and multiplies bread and fish. But the contrast between this world system and the Kingdom of God is this — who do you trust for your daily provision?
When Jesus quotes Scripture back to Satan, he recalls the Exodus experience, and the fear of the Israelites that they would starve in the desert. They want to go back to Egypt because at least they had food to eat. Israel would have traded freedom for food, affirming that the power of Pharaoh was greater than the power of God.
But Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses is reminding the people of their history, their mistakes, and how they are to live in the future when they get to the Promised Land.
“He (God) humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” — Deut 8:3 NIV
And, what was the point of that? The point wasn’t that you don’t need food, or that reading the Bible is a good substitute for a meal. The point is who do you trust? Do you trust the lying, deceptive words of Pharaoh, or do you trust God to feed you? Do you trust what you know — food that you age in Egypt — or do you trust God to do something new if he needs to — provide manna — to feed you? This world, or God’s kingdom? That’s the point of the first temptation.
Jesus echoes this in the Sermon on the Mount when he describes what life is like in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” (Matt 5:6 NIV).
But, Jesus reiterates this point of trusting God’s ways for material provision later in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus teaches us to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” And, he then encourages us not to worry about having enough to eat or wear, not because its not important, but because in God’s Kingdom, God provides for everything, even the flowers and the birds.
The second temptation raises the level of conflict, and gets right to the point.
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
So, no more subtleties from Satan. In this temptation, Satan cuts right to the heart of the matter. If you have ever traveled in the southeastern United States, you have no doubt seen signs painted on barns and billboards that say, “See Rock City.” Rock City, located near Lookout Mountain close to Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a roadside tourist stop that capitalized on the natural rock formations typical of that part of the state.
In addition to the rock formations, and the additions of not-so-natural-features like miniature golf, Rock City touted its magnificent views. “See Seven States From Rock City” was the message plastered all over the southeastern US. And, on a clear day, you can.
Well, I always think of seeing seven states from Rock City when I read this passage in Luke. Satan takes Jesus up on a high place — we don’t know where — and Luke says, “shows him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” Pretty good view, but I think something else is at work here, too.
Then Satan offers all he sees to Jesus, if Jesus will worship him. And, that brings us back to our conflict between this world and the kingdom of God.
Now a lot has been written about whether or not Satan really could have delivered the kingdoms of this world to Jesus. Of course, Satan is a liar and a deceiver, so there is the real possibility here that he’s blowing smoke. And considering where he came from, he may literally have been blowing smoke.
But the point isn’t the power of Satan. The point is the contrast between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. I think it’s interesting that Satan promises Jesus “all their authority and splendor.”
But the authority of the kingdoms of this world is a fleeting, temporary, and false authority. Mao Zedong is quoted as saying, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That was Mao’s authority. Jesus authority came from a different ethic when he said, “Love your enemies.” And, I think it’s interesting that at the end of his earthly ministry, right before he ascends into heaven, Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and in earth, Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…”
The promise Satan makes, whether he could deliver or not, is an empty promise based on temporal authority. Of course, read any newspaper or watch any network news program and you will see daily the scramble for power and authority. From politicians to bloggers, everyone wants to be noticed, to be powerful within their own sphere of influence, and to be able to exert that influence for personal benefit. But the Kingdom of God talks about things like the “last shall be first” and the “peacemakers will be called the children of God.” Jesus knows there is no shortcut to glory, no easy way to claim his rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords. The only way is the way of the cross, and Jesus chooses that instead of the power and glory of this world.
Finally, the last temptation is one last futile attempt to call into question the character of God. Satan dares Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple, because God will send his angels to save him.
Jesus’ reply is “Don’t put God to the test.” You either trust God or you don’t, you either believe what God says or you don’t, you either give you life and all you are to God or you don’t. And if you don’t cheap displays of pointless power will not sway one individual. After all, Jesus, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, said that even if someone comes back from the dead, they wouldn’t believe him. Which is of course, what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead.
Our Time in the Wilderness
During these next 40 days, our time in the wilderness is a time to reflect on our own choices. Are we choosing the kingdom of God, or the kingdoms of this world. Do we trust the provision of God, or the frantic consumer culture in which we live? Do we live by Kingdom values, which are not the values of power and might projected by governments and politicians?
Jesus was tempted for two reasons, I think. First, so that he could become the representation of righteous Israel. In every temptation Jesus faced, Israel had already faced them and failed. In the manna in the desert, the quest for kingdom power, and the failure to trust God, Israel had failed almost every test she had been given. When Jesus resists Satan and affirms his faithfulness to the Kingdom of God, Jesus becomes the representative of all of God’s people. This will give him the right to die for the sins of all God’s people on the cross.
But, Jesus was also tempted to demonstrate that we can choose the Kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. In order to proclaim God’s Kingdom, Jesus had to choose it. If we are to proclaim God’s kingdom, we too must choose it. We must make a conscious choice to live our lives differently, with different values, than the current world system.
That’s what our time in the wilderness is about. The only question is, what choice will we make?
Dr. Sun* of Yunnan province in China made his choice. The son of a doctor and hospital administrator, Dr. Sun survived the Cultural Revolution in China, and in 1977 was admitted to Beijing Medical University. He obtained his MD degree in 1982, and joined the staff of a hospital in Suzhou. Dr. Sun’s skill as a surgeon, and is concern for helping patients quickly elevated him to the role of hospital administrator.
The Communist Party bosses in Suzhou saw Dr. Sun as a promising young physician. They awarded him a car for his own use, and all the perks that went with his position. However, Dr. Sun was more interested in helping patients than in enriching himself. He told the local political leaders to sell the Volkswagen Santana he had been given, and to give the money to help the hospital. Dr. Sun rode his bike to work each day afterward.
Dr. Sun also disrupted the cozy relationship between Chinese hospitals and Chinese pharmaceutical firms. Cheap medicines are available in China, but even in the 1980s, doctors and hospitals would prescribe the more expensive medicines, and charge exorbitant fees for their services. Dr. Sun drew the unwanted attention of local political leaders who also benefited from the arrangement.
In 1990, disenchanted with the China’s communist government and its failures to actually help medical patients, and seeking direction for his own life, Dr. Sun attended a prayer service with several of his medical school students. A year later, at a Christmas service in a Chinese Christian’s home, Dr. Sun said he “felt his heart touche in a way it had never been touched before.” He was soon baptized.
In 1997, Dr. Sun’s boss presented him with an application to join the Communist Party. A membership in the Chinese Communist Party was the first step in becoming one of China’s elite leaders in his field. However, Dr. Sun told his boss he could not fill out the application.
“I believe in Jesus Christ,” he said. “I have already made my choice, and this is my only choice.”
His boss was visibly upset. “You are a communist official. You enjoy the salary and the benefits of a Communist official, yet you believe in Jesus Christ? Can he provide you with food and clothing?”
Dr. Sun looked into the man’s face and said, “I am quitting now. I need to save my soul.”
Banned from working in government hospitals, Dr. Sun worked in Thailand for a while. But on a return trip to China in 1999, Dr. Sun met a former student of his. The student told him of a very sick woman in a remote village from the student’s own province. The next day he showed up to take Dr. Sun there.
For the next 10 years, until 2009, Dr. Sun served quietly and without pay, providing medical care for people in the remote areas of Yunnan province. Often, villagers would not be able to pay anything for their treatment, but fed Dr. Sun, and gave him a place to stay in their homes. Donated clothes, and the financial support of other doctors and Christians allowed Dr. Sun to continue his work until 2009. Finally, Chinese authorities accused Dr. Sun of having subversive motives, and banned his medical practice from Yunnan province. Dr. Sun was invited to the United States by a Chinese Church to tell about his medical ministry, but the government of China refused him re-entry. Dr. Sun lives in California today, where he is planning to replicate his medical ministry in Africa. Dr. Sun made his choice. What choices do we make?
*Dr. Sun’s story from God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, by Liao Yiwu. Published by HarperOne, 2011.
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on Transfiguration Sunday. I trust that your experience of worship will be rich and wonderful as you see the light of the glory of God together.
Seeing The Light of Glory
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate (reflect) the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
4 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Cor 3:12-4:6 NIV
When We Couldn’t See It
Debbie and I have lost some weight these past few months. Several of you have commented on our progress, and we’re pretty happy with the results ourselves. We have been following a diet developed by Dr. John McDougall, a physician in California, who began practicing in Hawaii. Dr. McDougall noticed that the older Hawaiians were slim, did not have cardiovascular disease, or all of the symptoms that go with it, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and so forth.
To make a long story much shorter, McDougall has devoted his life and medical practice to teaching people that a low-fat, plant-based diet leads to improved health and longer life. Now, Debbie and I started reading Dr. McDougall’s books back in the early 1990s. And, off-and-on we would try to eat as he recommended. McDougall recommends no meat (which means beef, chicken, pork, and fish), no dairy (which means no milk or cheese), and no animal-based foods such as eggs. In other words, a plant-based diet.
That sounds pretty simple, and we tried it over and over. But, its really hard to eat just vegetables and fruit, so we would add things like eggs to our diet. And of course, real butter–because it’s real and not artificial–has to be better for you than fake butter, so we ate real butter. And, we also ate peanut butter, which is vegetarian, but not low-fat. And, we didn’t lose weight, and things like my blood pressure and cholesterol only kept getting worse.
Last year, Dr. McDougall came out with a new book titled, The Starch-based Diet. In this book, McDougall said all the same things he had said in his other books about not eating meat, dairy, or added fat. But in this new book, Dr. McDougall had a new wrinkle — or at least I thought so. He made it very clear that the foundation of healthy eating is starches. I know that flies in the face of the low carb diets that are popular, but McDougall demonstrated that all of the world’s primitive cultures ate a starch based diet. In Asia rice was the starch of choice. In the America’s some form of corn or maize sustained entire civilizations. In Africa, root vegetables, rice, and other starches were the basis for their diets. In the Pacific Islands, poi is a starch-based staple. And, I come from Scots-Irish ancestry, and we all know the Irish ate potatoes, which is why the potato famine in Ireland created such a devastating result.
McDougall also said that you feel more satisfied eating starches, because starches generally are the foods that fill you up and give you as sense of satisfaction. Of course, you need vegetables and fruit, but starches should form the basis for your diet.
For some reason, when we read Dr. McDougall’s new book, The Starch-based Diet, something clicked. We understood what we had been doing wrong. You can’t successfully lose weight and improve your health on this diet without following it exactly as Dr. McDougall and others suggest.
So, this time around, we eliminated all the things that we thought we could have a little of, such as eggs, butter, oils, fats, fried food, along with meat, and dairy (all of it including cheese). We started this diet in May of 2012, and by November of 2012 — 6 months — I had lost 40 pounds and Debbie had lost 30 pounds.
Okay, I do have a point here, and today I don’t have time to answer all your questions about where do you get your protein, and shouldn’t you be eating more fat, and isn’t it boring, and what does tofu really taste like. That’s for another time and another discussion.
But my point is that for the first time in over 20 years of reading Dr. McDougall, we finally got it. The light went on in our heads, the plan made sense, and we followed it, and lost weight, and improved our health.
What happened? Why did it take us 20 years to get it? Why didn’t we see it before? I think it was a combination of the culture we grew up in where you were encouraged to clean your plate, and where fried was the preferred method of food preparation. We just couldn’t see past our own life experiences into a world of thinking about food differently.
Two Experiences of The Glory of God
In the same way, and for some of the same reasons, we miss seeing the glory of God. Okay, let me back up here, because today is Transfiguration Sunday. We’ve read that story before. Jesus invites Peter, James and John — the three disciples to whom he is closest — to come with him for a time of prayer. Luke tells us that while they were praying Jesus’ “face changed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:28-36 NIV).
And, while Jesus is radiant as the sun, two figures appear with him. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets in Jewish life, appear and converse with Jesus. Luke says they spoke to Jesus about his “departure” which we understand to mean his death, burial, and resurrection.
The disciples were sleeping, but when they awoke, they awoke to this dazzling display of the glory of God. Peter, of course, has to say something, so he suggests that they build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Of course, you know that Jesus does not allow that, and further that the disciples don’t even tell anyone else about this experience, until much later.
But there is a backstory to the Transfiguration experience. Apparently, this is not Moses’ first experience with glowing like the sun. In Exodus 34:29-35, we have a very interesting account that we read earlier in the service this morning. When Moses came down off of Mount Sinai, he called Aaron and all the Israelites together to hear the word of God.
But, Aaron and everyone else saw that Moses face was radiant, shining like the sun. Apparently, Moses couldn’t tell this himself, so after he tells them what God has said, Moses puts a veil on his face to keep from scaring everyone half-to-death. Which is why whenever anyone encounters an angel in the Bible, usually the first words spoken to that person are “Don’t be afraid!” There must be something about people and angels glowing like the sun that is rather disturbing, to say the least.
So, that’s the backstory behind our reading from 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 today. Paul is referring to this incident where Moses wears a veil to hide the glory of God. But then Paul turns the image around to use the metaphor of a veil as that which can in itself keep us from seeing God’s glory.
How Do We See The Light of God’s Glory?
Our question today is then, How do we see the light of God’s glory? Well, between these three passages, we can find some answers.
First, we see the glory of God by being in the presence of God. It was only when Moses was in God’s presence that his face shone like the sun. Moses left the people to spend time with God, and when he returned, his countenance glowed and radiated brilliantly. It is only as we spend time with God that we can see, or hope to see, God’s glory.
But, what is God’s glory? Well, in the Bible, the glory of God is usually represented as the dazzling bright light. So, we have Moses’ face shining, and Jesus face and clothes being transformed into a radiant presence. But the word “glory” itself, actually has the idea of “weight” or significance or an imposing presence. So, glory, especially God’s glory, isn’t just light. The light is the expression of the glory, the announcement that God is present, the translation of God’s magnificent presence into something we humans can understand.
But, back to the glory of God. So, first if you want to see the light of God’s glory, you have to be in God’s presence. You’re not going to see the glory of God if you never are in the presence of God. I know that God does sometimes intervene, as he did to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, but in the sense that Jesus and Paul both talk about the glory of God, and in the sense in which Moses experiences that glory, you have to be in God’s presence.
But, the point of being in God’s presence isn’t for us to get all shiny. Moses apparently didn’t even know he was shining. The point is to be with God; the shining is for the benefit of others. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Secondly, to see the light of God’s glory, we have to understand that we’re only a reflection of God, we don’t glow on our own. As soon as Aaron pointed out to Moses that he was glowing, Moses knew immediately where the glow came from. Moses simply reflected the presence of God to the people. Which is why, I think, that as Moses speaks to the people, he doesn’t put on the veil. He wants them to know that these are the words of God, that he has been with God, and that God is speaking to them. It’s only for the daily routine of living life that Moses wears the veil so everyone will not be completely distracted.
Like the moon reflects the sun, we don’t generate our own razzle-dazzle. We only reflect the glory of God, and we may not even be aware that we’re reflecting God’s glory, but others will be.
Third, we see the glory of God as God goes about his work of calling people into his plan for all creation. In the desert with the Israelites, God speaks through Moses and allows the nation to see his reflected glory so they will know Moses has indeed been speaking with their God, the God who has made covenant with Israel. If you want to see the glory of God, you’ve got to be part of God’s new people, of the community God is creating to reconcile all things to himself.
Peter, James, and John get to see God’s glory, not because they are Jews, but because they are the first of this new community of the Spirit which God is creating. Many biblical scholars believe that the 12 disciples symbolized the 12 tribes of Israel made new, and that Jesus was symbolically reconstituting the nation of Israel into a spiritual community, not a biological one.
As Paul writes to the church in Corinth in our passage for today, he addresses another community of believers. The Corinthians are one of the first churches to be almost exclusively non-Jewish and formerly pagan. So, you can expect that they would have a lot of problems, and they do. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to correct errors in their worship and their conduct. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to re-establish his relationship with them, a relationship that has been called into question by some “super apostles” who are challenging Paul’s standing as an apostle. So, Paul writes to persuade the Corinthians that as a community they must remain faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
So, those are three keys to seeing the glory of God —
1. Be in the presence of God
2. Recognize that we reflect God’s glory, not our own
3. Be part of a community in which God has established a relationship
The Problems of Seeing The Light of Glory
But, there are problems we can encounter, because obviously seeing the light of God’s glory isn’t just an everyday experience. There are things we need to understand.
First, Paul uses the story of Moses’ veil to make a point. At first, Moses used the veil to conceal the glory of God. But then, the glory fades, but because of the veil, no one notices.
We can get so attached to the veils that make us comfortable in the presence of God, that we focus on the veil, and not the glory. And that’s true of both the leaders and those who follow. The veil that once gave us some relief, now keeps us from seeing that God isn’t with us anymore, that we’ve lost that intimate relationship with Him, and we no longer stand in his reflected glory.
Let me give you an example. Coming to church is a kind of veil. Of course, its a good thing to come to church because this is where the gathered people of God meet God together. But, if we’re not careful, coming to church becomes just coming to church. We can forget that the purpose is to meet God here, and so we can show up, greet each other, comment on how great or not-so-great the service was, and all of that can keep us from seeing the glory of God, because we can’t see past the veil itself.
But the answer isn’t that we quit coming to church. Of course, you expected me to say that. And, that is a popular approach today. Many are saying that what’s wrong with Christianity is the church, and if we can get rid of the church then Christianity will flourish again.
Of course, people have been saying that for about 2,000 years, and it is simply the wrong approach. They’re looking at the veil and not seeing past it.
What needs to happen is for God’s people to spend time in his presence, reflect his glory, and gather as his community. But how will we know if we are reflecting the glory of God?
Others will see it, just like others saw the glory in Moses face, just like Peter, James and John saw the radiance in Jesus’ face. Others will see it and be moved by it.
Iris Dement is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Iris asked her mother to sing on one of her albums the gospel song, Higher Ground. Her mother sounded about like anybody’s almost-80-year-old mother would sound singing “Higher Ground,” but I’ve got the feeling that Iris put her mother on that album because she knew her mother lived what she sang.
As a result, Iris Dement’s songs are filled with references to the Christian life she was exposed to growing up in Oklahoma with a mother who sang gospel hymns while she went about her daily chores.
In one of her new songs, titled, There’s A Whole Lotta of Heaven, the lyrics to the refrain capture what I’ve been trying to say today —
“There’s a whole lotta heaven shining in this river of tears…”
When the glory of God is reflected in our lives, so that others see it even before we’re aware of it, then there is a lot of heaven shining in this river of tears. When others see God’s glory in your life, even if you’re unaware of it shining, then they are transformed just like Aaron, the Israelites, and Peter, James and John were.
When our community sees the glory of God shining in our church in the ways we help those who need help, in the concern we have for young families and senior adults, in the programs and activities we plan for children and youth, in the leadership we give to this community, and in all the other ways that change lives, then that is when we can say with the apostle Paul —
“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
–2 Cor 3:18 NIV
This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 3, 2013. If you don’t read the whole sermon, skip to the end for a great story of Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, and of how he responded to the unexpected that God was doing. I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow.
When God Does the Unexpected, How Do We Respond?
Luke 4:21-30 NIV
21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Jesus Reads From the Prophet Isaiah
The problem with the lectionary reading is that sometimes it starts in the middle of the situation, which is exactly what has happened in the text we just read. To get the full impact, you have to go back and read the preceding verses:
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. –Luke 4:14-20 NIV
According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had just returned from 40-days in the wilderness, following his baptism by John the Baptist. Generally, Bible scholars regard the wilderness experience as Jesus’ preparation for his ministry.
Luke says that “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.”
We do not know how many days or weeks elapse between Jesus returning to Galilee and his trip to his hometown in Nazareth, but enough time passes so that Jesus has ample opportunity to establish his own reputation as a healer and miracle worker. Luke tells us that “news about him spread through the whole countryside” which can only mean that he immediately begins to announce the Kingdom of God and demonstrate its presence by healing the sick, casting out demons, and generally “putting to rights” (as N. T. Wright is fond of saying) each situation he finds.
Of course, this garners him an extraordinary reputation, and everyone is talking about Jesus. So, when Jesus shows up in his hometown of Nazareth, initially everything goes okay. Jesus comes to the synagogue there, which probably is a modest building since Nazareth is no metropolis itself, and someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah to read.
Apparently Jesus selects the text, which is Isaiah 61:1-2 in our Bibles. If you turn to Isaiah 61:1-2, you will notice that it reads somewhat differently than the words Luke records Jesus as reading. Don’t be alarmed at that because Luke quotes Jesus reading from the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture. But, the slight difference in wording is not our concern today.
The Idea of the Messiah
The point Jesus makes is this — He is the Messiah! That’s what the phrase “He has anointed me..” means. The Hebrew word which we pronounce messiah meant “anointed.” There were only two offices for which as person was anointed in the Old Testament — the office of priest and the office of king.
But the idea of an “anointed one” who would restore the fortunes of Israel also is referred to by the prophets, and Isaiah especially. The Anointed One — the Messiah or in Greek, the Christ — would be God’s deliverer, just like the Judges of the Old Testament were raised up to deliver Israel. But the Messiah would not be just any deliverer to put Israel back on track temporarily. No, the Messiah would come once and for all to make all things right and restore the fortunes of Israel and her standing in the world. In other words, God would send the Messiah to vindicate Israel and to save her from her enemies, and put all other nations under her ruling power.
If you go ahead and read the rest of Isaiah 61, that’s the picture you get. Listen to these next verses in context with Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Jesus stops here)
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.
6 And you will be called priests of the Lord,
you will be named ministers of our God.
You will feed on the wealth of nations,
and in their riches you will boast.
7 Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.
8 “For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants will be known among the nations
and their offspring among the peoples.
All who see them will acknowledge
that they are a people the Lord has blessed.”
Do you begin to see what Isaiah 61 is about? Not only is God going to raise up someone and anoint him to “preach good news to the poor,” but God is going to raise up this Messiah who will 1) comfort the nation of Israel, 2) restore her fortunes, and 3) judge other nations and give Israel their riches, lands, and make Israel their master.
That was how many first century Jews interpreted Isaiah 61. Whoever read Isaiah 61 would immediately know that God was coming to rescue Israel by sending the Anointed One, and that in that rescue all the other nations of the world would be subjected to her.
Now, let me point out that that interpretation was in error, but that did not stop an occupied Jewish people facing the hardships of over 60 years of Roman occupation from understanding Isaiah in that way.
Okay, so far so good. Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah, reads one of the favorite passages of the Jewish people, and then proclaims, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Wow. Of course, we know who Jesus is now, but they did not. So, his hometown audience undoubtedly heard Jesus say something like this: “I’m going to do my best to free us all from the oppression of the Roman Empire.”
Which explains their reaction. They are elated. The men in the synagogue turn to one another with knowing smiles and say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy? We all knew he’d turn out alright. What a fine young man and with such noble ideas.”
That’s my interpretation of Luke’s saying, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son? they asked.”
Jesus Does The Unexpected
At this point, Jesus has them eating out of the palm of his hand. And, if he had quit at this point and sat down, all the men of Nazareth would have crowded around him, slapped him on the back, and told him how proud they were of him.
But Jesus doesn’t sit down. And Jesus doesn’t stop talking. And in the next words he says, he shatters generations of hope in the coming of the Messiah. Here’s what Jesus says:
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” — Luke 4:23-27 NIV
Okay, what did Jesus just say? First, he tells them he knows what they are thinking. They’re waiting for Jesus to do his next trick. “Physician, heal yourself” isn’t referring to literal illness and healing. What Jesus means is, “I know you want me to show you what I can do, just like a sick doctor who cures himself and thereby proves that he knows what he’s doing.”
But Jesus is having none of that. He is not here to prove himself, but to tell them that what they expected God to do isn’t going to happen. Jesus is there to tell them that what they have talked about for generations, the way they have interpreted Scripture, the expectation that God will deliver Israel first and make her the ruler of all other nations is all wrong.
And, to prove his point, Jesus uses two stories from Elijah and Elisha — two prophets who stand in high esteem. The return of Elijah is thought by first century Jews to precede the coming of the Messiah, and so they set a place at the Passover Table for Elijah each year. John the Baptist is thought by some to be the second-coming of Elijah. And, as we will see next week, Elijah does come and appears with Moses and Jesus at the Transfiguration. Elisha is Elijah’s protege, and Elisha receives a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when Elijah is taken into heaven in a chariot of fire. So, Jesus uses these stories because they have weight and importance.
The first story is the story of a widow who Elijah befriends. When Elijah finds out that this poor widow is going to use the last of the flour and oil she has to make some bread so that she and her son may eat it and then prepare to die, Elijah promises her that the oil will not run out, and the flour will not be depleted as along as she is helping him. Great story, and it was one of my favorites as a young Junior boy.
But then Jesus says, “25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”
In other words, Elijah helped a widow and her son who were not even Jews. And this during a famine in which many Jews suffered and died. Sidon is a region to the far northwest of Israel, and Zarephath was probably a Canaanite or Phoenician village. In other words, during the worst drought Israel had ever seen, God’s man Elijah helped a poor Sidonian widow, despite the fact that there were thousands of Israelite widows suffering, too.
But, Jesus doesn’t leave the story there. He uses another story, this time from Elisha’s prophetic ministry. The story of Namaan is another great story that I loved as a boy. Namaan is the general of the Syrian army. In his conquest, he captured an Israelite girl who is now a servant in his household. Namaan contracts some kind of skin disease which the Bible calls leprosy, although we know now that the term was used for a wide variety of skin afflictions. Nevertheless, whatever Namaan had was serious, was not getting better, and Namaan was desperate for a cure.
The servant girl implores him to seek out Elisha because she knows Elisha has the power to heal him. So, after contacting the king of Israel who thinks this is all a trick, Elisha hears and invites Namaan to come to his house.
Namaan appears with with horses and chariots at Elisha’s house and Elisha doesn’t even come out. Instead, he sends word for Namaan to go and dip himself 7 times — a very biblical numer — in the Jordan River. Namaan is furious and goes off in a huff. His servants remind him that if Elisha had asked him to do something difficult, he would have done it. So why not do something as easy as dipping yourself in the Jordan River?
Of course, Namaan does, he’s healed, and he worships God as the one true God.
But Jesus point in the story of the widow of Sidon and the story of Namaan the enemy general is that God passed over a lot of Israelites who were in just as bad, if not worse, condition. Only God provided oil and flour for the widow, and healed the leprous Namaan. Both were strangers, both were not Israelites, but both were saved by God.
Jesus told those stories as a very pointed way of saying to the men in the synagogue in Nazareth that day, “You think God is sending his Messiah just for you. You’re wrong, God is sending his Messiah to preach good news to all the poor, to free all the captive, to release all the prisoners regardless of whether they are Jews or not.”
And so, Luke says the men were furious, tried to grab Jesus and throw him over a cliff, but somehow he eluded them and escaped.
The Point of Jesus’ Stories
The point that Jesus was trying to make was this: “God isn’t up to what you expect. God is doing the unexpected. Get on board or get left behind.”
So, when a young cobbler says that God wants the Gospel preached to foreigners in India, William Carey is ridiculed by his fellow preachers because they’re sure “that God doesn’t need” Carey’s help.
And when a young Hudson Taylor believed that God wants the Gospel preached to those in China, others ridicule him, too. Of course, we now know that millions of people in countries other than England have come to Christ from the modern missions movement that Carey and Judson and others like them started. God was indeed doing the unexpected.
But, there’s a more current story, a story that speaks to God doing the unexpected today. Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, the fastfood restaurant chain, made headlines last year when he affirmed his company’s support for the traditional family. Dan is a Southern Baptist and identifies himself as a “follower of Christ.”
The ensuing controversy, which appears to have taken Mr. Cathy’s words out of context, made national headlines. Mike Huckabee, Fox News commentator and former Baptist pastor and governor of Arkansas, declared August 1 of last year, “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day.” News media reported that business was brisk that day at Chick-Fil-As all over the country.
But Dan Cathy wasn’t pleased with the tone the unwanted controversy had generated. One of Chick-Fil-A’s corporate values is “respect” for all persons, including those who are gay. Dan got the cell phone number of a gay activist, Shane Windmeyer, director of Campus Pride, and called Shane to open a dialogue. After several phone calls and face-to-face meetings, Campus Pride called off its boycott of Chick-Fil-A citing the conversations with Dan Cathy and other Chick-Fil-A executives as the reason.
But Dan Cathy didn’t stop there. He invited Shane Windmeyer to join him and his family on the field for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Shane Windmeyer said Dan Cathy spent the entire evening at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl with him, there on the sidelines.
In an article on Huffington Post, Shane Windmeyer reflected on the experience of getting to know Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A.
“Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian.” Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.”
That is a great example of how to respond when God is doing the unexpected. When God is inviting people we may have thought excluded from the Kingdom of God into it, do we react the way the men at the synagogue in Nazareth reacted — with anger that our cherished beliefs that God will choose us first are being challenged? Or do we respond the way Dan Cathy did — with love toward those we do not know, but wish to understand better.
Today we gather around the Table of Christ, and we must know that this is not our table. While we laid the bread and cup here today, we did not suffer and die to give these elements meaning. As we gather here this morning, we remember the words of Jesus — “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The only question is, how do we respond when God does the unexpected?