Today I preached from Genesis 45:1-15. It’s the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers who do not recognize him. Of course, there’s a lot to this story, and it’s one of the great stories of the Hebrew Bible.
It is also a timely story for the circumstances we in the United States are facing today. Where Joseph could have demanded retribution and revenge because his brothers sold him to passing merchants, he instead offers grace, mercy, and peace. Joseph is able to do this because he realized that God was at work in the life of his family and the nation. By offering forgiveness and reconciliation Joseph turns the brothers’ guilt and his father’s grief into joy and unity. I also ran across a great story that I think you’ll enjoy. Here’s the audio podcast:
What a week this has been for our nation! I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow in light of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the debates over the Confederate flag, and The Supreme Court ruling that marriage is a right open to all couples, including those of the same sex. If there ever has been a time in the life of our nation and community to address these concerns, this week has provided that opportunity.
How The Mighty Have Fallen
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 NIV
After the death of Saul, David returned from striking down the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days.
17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):
19 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
How the mighty have fallen!
20 “Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
21 “Mountains of Gilboa,
may you have neither dew nor rain,
may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.
22 “From the blood of the slain,
from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
23 Saul and Jonathan—
in life they were loved and admired,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24 “Daughters of Israel,
weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished.”
A Week of Extraordinary Change
To say this has been an extraordinary week is an understatement. And, I hope you will bear with me as I read this manuscript today because I want to be very precise in choosing what I say and how I say it.
When we gathered this time last week our hearts were broken for our brothers and sisters in the Emanuel AME Church congregation. Nine of their members, including their pastor, had been gunned down during a Bible study in their church on the Wednesday night before last Sunday.
In the midst of that tragedy, we were astonished at the grace and forgiveness offered to the hate-filled assassin by those who had lost loved ones. We marvelled at the courage, dignity, and resilience with which Charleston and the Mother Emanuel community faced this tragedy.
In keeping with their response, many of us gathered in front of the Pittsylvania County courthouse this past Monday. Black and white together we prayed for those who had been killed, the martyrs of Mother Emanuel. We prayed for our own community, asking God to spare us a similar tragedy. Most importantly, we held hands — black and white — to say to this community, “We are one!”
I am very proud of you because many of you came out last Monday and stood and prayed with us. Others called to say that previous commitments kept them from coming, but they were with us in spirit.
I sense we passed a milestone in our community last Monday. My prayer is that we will make the most of this opportunity to continue to get to know each other, to talk about our community, and to work together to make it truly united.
Along with the tragedy, came an opportunity for those of us in the South to rethink an historic social symbol, the Confederate flag. While 150 years of post-Civil War argument failed to achieve consensus on the appropriate display of the Confederate flag, one photograph of a hateful young white man brandishing a pistol in one hand and the Confederate flag in the other accomplished. That one photograph moved political and business leaders to action.
Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina took the extraordinary position that the Confederate flag that flew on the grounds of the state capitol should be removed. She was joined in that position by United States Senator Lindsey Graham, and by the grandson of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. No matter what decision the South Carolina legislature makes, the public stand of these political leaders was extraordinary. Not long after that, Alabama removed the Confederate flag from its capitol grounds.
Here in Virginia, Governor McAuliffe ordered that the emblem of the Confederate flag on the Sons of Confederacy license plates be deleted. Governor McAuliffe was aided in that decision by a recent Supreme Court ruling. The Court held that the state of Texas could prohibit the use of the Confederate flag on license plates because license plates are a type of “state speech,” and the state could not be compelled to “speak” for special interests.
But, the big ruling came on Friday. The Supreme Court, divided 5-4 as it often is, ruled that the right to marry is a constitutionally-protected right which extends to all couples including those of the same sex.
I can’t recall a more extraordinary week in the course of our nation in my lifetime, with the exception of the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954 which ended school segregation.
I will return to how we address all of these topics in just a moment, but first let’s look at the Scripture reading for today.
The Deaths of Saul and Jonathan
In the passage we read this morning, Saul and his son, Jonathan have been killed in battle against the Philistines. Saul has ruled Israel for 42 years (1 Samuel 13:1). But, his kingship has been under a cloud since Saul disobeyed God early in his reign. Saul did two things that God did not like. First, he offered a sacrifice instead of waiting for Samuel, the prophet-priest, to offer it. Secondly, Saul did not carry out God’s command to do battle with the Amalekites, and to completely annihilate them.
Whatever we think today of the instruction to Saul to kill all the Amalekites, including men, women, children, and all their flocks and herds, the point for us today is that Saul disobeyed God. That disobedience caused Samuel again to rebuke Saul and to prophesy that God has torn the kingdom from Saul, just as Saul had torn Samuel’s cloak when Saul grabbed him.
In his final battle with the Philistines, Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, are killed. Jonathan and David have become close friends over the decades of Saul’s rule. They are such good friends that Jonathan warns David that his father, Saul, is trying to kill David.
Ironically, the nation of Israel wanted a king to lead them to victory of the Philistines, but at the end of Saul’s reign the Philistines controlled more territory than they controlled at the beginning.
Nevertheless, when news of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths reaches David, he is grief-stricken. David had passed on several chances to kill Saul because each time he had decided that he could not kill the Lord’s anointed.
So, Saul and Jonathan’s deaths become an occasion for mourning for David and the nation. David instructs that the men of Judah to learn the Song of the Bow contained in the Book of Jashar.
We no longer have the Book of Jashar, but the writer of Samuel includes the Song of the Bow in this passage. The song is a lament for a fallen leader, much as David is lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.
The Song of the Bow recalls the heroics and nobility of the fallen leader. It recounts his valor in battle, and inserts the names of Saul and Jonathan as heroes of the nation’s wars.
But three times, the Song of the Bow laments “How the mighty have fallen.” (2 Samuel 1:19, 25, and 27). And, that is my point today. Just as the mighty Saul and Jonathan could be brought down in battle, the mighty are always susceptible to defeat and loss.
Saul’s failing, among others, was his own arrogance and pride. He assumed positions he was not entitled to assume, and he replaced God’s command with his own judgment.
The Bible states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18 NIV.
That brings us back to the events of this past week. How can we learn from Saul’s failures, so that it is not said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”
How Do We Respond?
What is our response as a community of faith to the events of this past week? To the shootings in a Charleston church? To the debate about the Confederate flag? To the ruling of the Supreme Court on same sex marriage?
First, let me set the stage for my answers to each of those questions. I am a pastor. I am your pastor. The word pastor means one who is a shepherd, one who cares for the flock. I perform my pastoral duties faithfully by caring for you. At times that means comforting you when you have mourned. Or rejoicing with you when you have good news to share. Or challenging you when we need to make a decision for the good of the congregation.
But always, foremost in my mind is my responsibility as your pastor. You are my flock. I pray for you. I check on you when you’re sick. I visit you when you need pastoral care or guidance. I counsel you when you have questions or concerns. My first priority is your spiritual health and wholeness.
That means that while I may have opinions about all of these issues, just like you do, my opinions are less important than my relationship with you. I am your pastor. That means I do not have the luxury of saying anything I want to on social media like Facebook or Twitter because what I say reflects on this congregation. I am aware of that responsibility.
Whenever we face decisions or challenges, I have a responsibility to pastor this church consistent with the views and values of this congregation. On those rare occasions when I have had a question about a pastoral function, I have sought counsel from the Deacons and they have guided me wisely.
I am not an itinerant prophet who stands apart from you with harsh words and then moves on to the next audience. I am not a bishop who oversees you and commands your ecclesiastical loyalty. I am your pastor, and I want you to know today that I take my role and responsibility as your pastor very seriously.
On these issues, and others we will face, I believe that we as a church must have a conversation and reach consensus on what we believe, whether we make that position known publicly or not.
Having said that, let’s return to the manner in which I believe we should respond to these issues.
First, we should respond in love. Whether we are discussing racial reconciliation or same-sex marriage, we have to be loving. Christians often damage their witness with hasty, ill-conceived responses to the latest blog post or newspaper headline. The church is to be the light of the world, not just an additional source of heat.
Whether we agree with others or not, our responses must be loving because that is what Jesus would do. It was only in response to the self-assured, arrogant religious leaders that Jesus was himself sharp and prophetic. With others like the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the dishonest tax collector, the outcast Mary Magdalene, and other seekers Jesus was redemptive and loving.
We also must be loving because there are people we know personally who are affected by these issues. Most people today know someone who is gay. We respect these people because they are our neighbors or coworkers, or because we’re related to them. Whatever our relationship with them, we want the best for them, just as we do for ourselves.
Secondly, we should respond humbly. If Saul’s sin was arrogance and pride, we face the danger of falling into the same pit. These issues are neither simple, nor do they have simple solutions. I have studied the issues of race, racism, and reconciliation extensively. The more I read and study, the more I realize how complex all of these social issues are. So, we approach all of these issues with humility. We neither know all the answers, nor do we understand the full scope of the problems.
Remember our past and build on what is best about our history and heritage.
Acknowledge that our past also contained prejudice and discrimination.
Engage in mutual conversation and confession with those with whom our church is seeking reconciliation.
Act with humility, in our words, our attitudes, and our actions particularly in how we as the majority race relate to minorities.
Demonstrate a shared commitment to work together with others to transform community institutions including churches, schools, civic clubs, criminal justice agencies, local businesses, and other institutions where needed. (The Reconciling Community, pg. 98-100)
In other words, in the area of racial reconciliation for example, we have to get on the same side as our black brothers and sisters. Their goals of equality and opportunity have to become important to us, too. We approach that work humbly because no white person has any idea of what it is like to be black.
That is exactly what happened here in Chatham on Monday. Black and white citizens gathered at the courthouse because our black brothers and sisters were grieving. We prayed with them, we grieved together the loss of nine lives, we stood together to say that in this community when one of us is assaulted, we are all injured.
As our community reconciliation group continues to dialogue, we as members of this church have to conduct ourselves with humility. And humility means we don’t have all the answers. Jesus reminded us that we don’t point out the mote in someone else’s eye until we have acknowledged the beam in our own. (Matthew 7:1-6)
Thirdly, we should respond honestly. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t understand this issue.” Or, “knowing what I know now, I don’t agree with you on this issue.” Frankly, there are aspects of the issues involving human sexuality I do not know nearly enough about. I look forward to learning and to understanding these issues more fully.
However, our honesty is not an excuse for insensitivity or rudeness. Nor is honesty an excuse for refusing to hear those who hold other positions. Until we can honestly acknowledge our own limitations, we cannot begin to understand others.
Fourth, we should stay engaged in the conversation. The world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and much dramatic change has come in the last 10 years. Some of that change we have embraced, some of it puzzles us, and some of it offends us. But the only way forward is to continue to talk, continue to try to understand, continue to look at how our own theology shapes our thoughts and actions.
Our church is facing its own challenges, challenges that did not exist in previous years. At the height of our influence, probably in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century, this congregation did some extraordinary things. We helped found Hargrave Military Academy. We planted Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church, and we wielded influence in community and denominational life.
Thankfully our contributions did not end there. In the past 11 years, we have reached back to our past, building on the best of our heritage. We helped start the Boys and Girls Club, we helped build a community center, and we host a community music school. In addition, our ministry to seniors through our Adult Fellowship and bus trips has enriched the lives of many in this community.
Finally, we will continue to follow Jesus Christ as Lord of all. While that sounds like a simple and obvious idea, following Christ historically has meant service and sacrifice. When Christ called his first disciples, he called them from the certainty of the fishing life to the uncertainty of life in the Kingdom of God. We are reminded that God’s Kingdom begins here on this earth because Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our responsibility is to do God’s will here, even as it is being done in heaven.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll have the opportunity to talk together about some of these issues. We need to work out our own theology in each of these areas. And, our community needs our leadership and our engagement.
If we learn to avoid the arrogant mistakes of people like King Saul, it will not be said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”
Rather, our prayer is that others will say, “Chatham Baptist Church has been a humble and loving beacon of hope in this community for generations.” May it ever be so. Amen.
The new subtitle of this blog is Churches as Communities of Reconciliation. Let me unpack this phrase one element at a time.
Let’s start with churches. This blog began with a focus on small congregations, but over the past seven years’ of writing, I have come to the conclusion that size is the least significant factor in church vitality. Rather, a church’s sense of mission — missional consciousness, to use the jargon — is a better gauge of church vitality than size. Churches with a clear sense of purpose, whether large or small, thrive and are vibrant members of their communities. And, just to be clear, my confidence is in churches, not other organizations, to embody and exhibit the Kingdom of God as a contrast society in contemporary culture. Those churches can be traditional, seeker-sensitive, neo-monastic, denominational, or any of the other flavors that churches come in today. The form is less important than the way in which local congregations live out their calling to be salt and light to their communities and the world.
Secondly, I’m interested in churches which are practicing reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). I’m convinced that the Bible is the story of God’s reconciling love beginning in the Garden of Eden and concluding with the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21-22. The reconciling love of God finds its highest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul continues the theme of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
Down through the ages, Christian churches, evangelical churches in particular, have emphasized reconciliation between God and humankind. However, there exists also the unmistakable idea that we cannot be reconciled to God — we cannot say we love God — without being reconciled to one another. Theologians have called these the cruciform (meaning “cross-shaped”) aspects of reconciliation. We are “vertically” reconciled to God, while being “horizontally” reconciled to those around us, even our enemies. If God has given us the ministry of reconciliation — and I believe along with Paul that God has — then reconciliation should be the signature ministry of churches.
I wrote my DMin dissertation at Fuller on the subject of The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. In my research and writing, I explored not only the theological and theoretical aspects of reconciliation, but the practical, applied aspects as well. Of course, I wasn’t the first to come to this awareness, and I discovered that scores of churches in the US (and, other places), are actively practicing reconciliation in their communities.
Finally, to put it all together, I am focusing on the result that churches practicing reconciliation are building peace communities. In reconciliation studies, much of the literature is theoretical. Authors focus on the theology of reconciliation, the multi-disciplinary nature of reconciliation, and stories of reconciliation in places like South Africa and Rwanda. However, I found very few resources that could describe what a ministry of reconciliation looked like on the ground in real life. To that end, I synthesized the best of the theoretical research to develop a list of criteria for what reconciliation looks like. I’ll list those in a later post, but my point is that for churches to be able to engage in a ministry of reconciliation, we have to know what one looks like, and what result we seek as agents of reconciliation.
The goal of churches which practice reconciliation is, in my opinion, to build peace communities. I don’t mean peaceful communities, although they certainly would be. Peace communities are those neighborhoods and areas included in a local church’s ministry influence, that have been transformed in measurable ways by the practice of reconciliation.
When Jesus sent out the 70 (or 72) disciples, among other things he instructed them in the practice of peace: “ “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6 NIV). We have neglected this idea of speaking peace, finding the person of peace, and “staying in one place” to bring about transformation of an entire community. That’s what peace communities are — communities that have been transformed by the shalom of God into places where Kingdom ethics are lived out, hurts are healed, relationships are restored, and God’s children live in harmony. If that sounds like an improbably fantasy we must remind ourselves that Jesus said some pretty improbable things.
In future blog posts, I’ll tell the stories of churches that are practicing reconciliation and building peace communities in their own neighborhoods. I’ll also present resources, books, seminars, and organizations that can be helpful in your church’s quest to become a reconciling community. I’m convinced this is the church of the future — engaged, vital, and transformative — and I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.
By now the story that Paula Deen casually admitted she had used racial epithets is old news. Further revelations that she also considered a “plantation-themed” wedding complete with white-jacketed African American men waiters contributed to the narrative of Deen as racially-insensitive at best, and racist at worst.
The admission by Deen that she has used the n-word sparked a social media debate about whether or not she is being treated fairly by the mainstream media. The New York Times reported over the weekend fans still waited in line at Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, while Deen’s defenders rallied online to her cause.
On the other side of the argument, Food Network revealed it will not renew her contract, which means her Emmy-winning cooking show will disappear taking with it her TV audience. Cable TV shopping channel QVC said it is monitoring the situation but it has no plans for Deen to appear to hawk her cookware anytime soon. USA Today quoted public relations pundits who said “Deen is done.”
Why do fans defend Deen while cable TV shows drop her faster than you can say buttered biscuits? Because Food Network and QVC understand what Deen and her fans don’t — in the US market, commercial brands cannot appear to be racist.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case. Brands like the Aunt Jemima brand and logo have been revised over the years, transforming Aunt Jemima from the bandana-wearing “mammy” of an idealized Southern plantation life, to a contemporary portrait of an attractive African American woman.
For their own economic survival, US corporations have made conscious efforts to change logos and narratives that were tied to a racist past. Paula Deen built a cooking empire on the idea of Southern charm and eccentricity embodied in over-the-top recipes and her Southern drawl. What Deen never learned was that her brand had to steer clear of the darkside of Southern history and life.
Deen’s casual “of course” admission revealed her obliviousness to the changing world around her. Gone with more than the wind is the fantasy of the South that Deen parlayed into a personal fortune. While US consumers may not mind the extra calories in her dishes, she can’t serve them with a side helping of racism.
My family — the Warnocks — are of Scots-Irish ancestry. According to family legend, we left Scotland and arrived in Ireland just in time for the Irish potato famine. Call it bad timing, I suppose, but from that difficult experience three Warnock brothers came from Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century. Apparently the original family name was McIlvernock, indicating a native Scottish origin. But over the generations, the McIl was dropped and Vernock became Warnock, so by the time the Warnock brothers came to America, their name no longer betrayed their heritage. My paternal grandmother’s family name suffered a similar modification. They were Irish — the O’Callahams — but, because of prejudice against the Irish in America, they dropped the O’ and became just the Callahams.
An aunt relayed those stories about our lineage to me long years ago, and they stayed with me. She noted that when our Irish-immigrant ancestors arrived in the United States in the 19th century, prejudice against the Irish was at a fever pitch. When help wanted signs were posted in store windows many contained the caution, “No Irish Need Apply.” So much for the luck of the Irish.
It seems the dominant majority in America has always designated one or more groups as an inferior group in our society. In the 19th century, ethnic epithets tagged each arriving immigrant people — Irish were “micks;” Germans were “krauts;” Italians were “wops;” Spaniards were “dagos;” and, I’m sure there were other groups that became tagged with similar expressions of bigotry.
However, immigrants weren’t the only people who were labeled with derisive nicknames. Native Americans were referred to as “savages” or “redskins.” Sports teams like the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, and the Atlanta Braves receive continuing, and I think justified, criticism for using nicknames and images which Native Americans find offensive. Of course, the ultimate prejudicial identifier used by whites of African Americans is what we now refer to as the “n-word” because its use is socially offensive in public discourse.
In 21st century America, immigrants have become the new target of group prejudice, regardless of country of origin. Hopefully, we who are third-or-more generation Americans will remember that unless we are of Native American ancestry, our forebears who came to this country were also immigrants.
Group prejudice targets whole segments of population based on country of origin, but that is not the only criteria for group prejudice that exists. We also harbor prejudice against other groups for other reasons in this nation. In part, the recent activism of the “new atheists” was to counter the prejudice directed at atheists and agnostics as a group simply because they do not believe in the god to which most of society pays lip service. Of course, groups who do believe can also become the targets of prejudice, such as Mormons who were hounded out of Ohio in the 19th century, but who eventually found a home in the Great Salt Lake area. Mitt Romney’s candidacy helped to dispel the use of religious prejudice as a political weapon, but prejudice against religious groups still exists.
Now, we as a society are grappling with the issue of gay marriage. In doing so, we are having to confront our own prejudices against another group, the gay community. This group also has been the target of derogatory name-calling. Until the activist gay community adopted the term, “queer” was a widely-accepted heterosexual descriptor for homosexual men.
Of course, many evangelicals have described their ambivalent attitude toward gays with the phrase, “we hate the sin, but love the sinner.” We are now hearing that this is not comforting or encouraging to the gay community. They do not want to be referred to as “sinners” because they see nothing wrong with who they are. Behind the idea of homosexuality as sin is the long-held evangelical belief that homosexuality is a choice, and not genetically determined. Therefore, the argument goes, those who choose homosexuality are choosing to sin.
Clearly, this understanding is being challenged in our society today. How evangelicals will evolve on this issue is still up for grabs, but I believe that prejudice against homosexuals as a group eventually will become socially unacceptable, just as prejudice against other groups has also become socially unacceptable. Does that mean that churches cannot set their own criteria for participating members, including conduct based on the Bible’s ethical principles? Absolutely not, but personally, I have become more wary of prejudice against whole groups of people than I used to be.
Anytime we lump all members of any group into the same pot, let’s remember that not all Christians (or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists) believe exactly the same, not all Irish are hot-tempered, not all Asians are inscrutable, not all Italians are good cooks, and not all Germans are analytical. Stereotypical group characterization does not make our society better, lead to more understanding, or foster dialogue. Perhaps one day we will no longer see the need to denigrate another group of people in order to feel good about ourselves.
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:
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?