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Hope and Challenge

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Jeremiah and Jesus – two young men about to go public with their message. Their responses raise questions for us.

Today’s texts – Jeremiah 1: 4-10 and Luke 4: 21-31

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

You may have noticed that we are starting to get into the crunch time of the presidential primary season. The Iowa caucuses are tomorrow and the New Hampshire primary is a week from Tuesday.

There’s a phrase from the presidential campaigns of eight years ago that came to mind as I was reading over the two scripture passages that we heard today. Barack Obama’s theme was “hope and change.” I think the theme from these readings is “hope and challenge.”

They are the stories of two young people at the early stages of their public lives. Jeremiah describes himself as “only a child.” Jesus has just started to become a recognizable figure in his home region of Galilee.

They are both starting out in some perilous times, seeking to offer messages of hope to people in despair. And they both take on the task of challenging the people they encounter along the way.

Hope and ChangeHope and challenge. Two words that are there for us today.

Jeremiah is called to speak God’s word in a time of total disorientation for the Jewish people. And those words that Jeremiah will speak are filled with pain and trauma.

There is disorientation when Jesus is speaking as well. The people of Galilee are existing under the occupation of the Romans. They have clung together suspicious of, even hostile to outsiders.

Let’s explore the call of Jeremiah a little bit, focusing on the hope and challenge in his story.

Jeremiah is probably like most of us. If we have some sense that God is calling us to address the woes of the world around us, our first response may well be, “I don’t know how to speak.”

That reluctance is a common theme in Biblical stories.

Solomon responds to God’s call by saying, “I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing.” Sound familiar?

Moses responds to God’s call by saying, “’I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before and certainly not now.” Or, as Jeremiah put it, “I don’t know how to speak.”

Jeremiah“Don’t be afraid,” God tells Jeremiah. There’s another familiar phrase that recurs throughout the Bible. Yes, easier said than done, but that’s one source of our hope in difficult times. “I’m with you to rescue you,” God tells Jeremiah…and us.

One commentary describes the Book of Jeremiah as both disaster literature and survival literature. Here’s how a scholar in the Common English Bible put it:

“When the prophetic text names Judah’s disaster and grieves its losses, when it refuses to let death and destruction have the final say, and when it imagines a future beyond destruction it serves as a map for finding hope. In a world crushed with pain, the book imagines God shaping new beginnings from the ruins of a fallen world.”

Jeremiah will dig up and pull down, destroy and demolish…and then build and plant.

One more thing about this introduction to Jeremiah. In God’s call to Jeremiah, God says “I made you a prophet to the nations.”

Some Biblical scholars note that “the nations” refers to places other than Israel and Judah, often nations who were the enemies of Israel, nations committed to its destruction. So in addition to addressing his own people, Jeremiah was called to speak to Israel’s enemies. No easy task for the reluctant prophet.

What Jeremiah is doing at the beginning of this book of the Hebrew Bible is asserting his credibility as one who speaks for God. And that’s always a bit of a challenge for the ones who listen to those who act as prophets.

Tom LongOne of my favorite contemporary preachers is a fellow named Tom Long, a Presbyterian minister who teaches at the Candler School of Theology that is part of Emory University in Atlanta.

Tom tells the story of being a guest preacher at a church one day. As he settled in at the pulpit, all of a sudden a man in the choir loft began shouting, “I have a word from the Lord.” The ushers quickly hustled the man out of the church.

As Tom noted, when he says from the pulpit, “I have a word from the Lord,” people nod respectfully. He wondered if maybe the ushers ought to hustle him out of there quickly as well.

Which brings us to Jesus in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth. He’s about to get hustled out.

Last week we heard the beginning of this story. He arrives at the synagogue and is given a scroll from the Prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolls it to the part that says:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,

to liberate the oppressed,

and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled as you heard it.”

The friends and neighbors from his hometown think this is pretty cool at first. Joseph’s son is making quite a name for himself in the region. They had heard about his teaching elsewhere in the region, they had heard he had even healed people. They knew he had taken us residence in Capernaum, that fishing village some 30 miles away.

There might have been a bit of rivalry between these two villages. Think a more blue-collar town like Jefferson and a city on a lake like Madison.  Jesus has a sense what they are thinking: “Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.”

They want a little razzle-dazzle from this Jesus who has grown up into a bit of sensation. They’ve heard his eloquent speech. Now how about a miracle or two?

Jesus does more than disappoint them. He challenges their insular view of the world. They think he should be there just for them, his friends and neighbors. He has a wider vision, one that would embrace, as Jeremiah might say, “the nations.”

Hence these two references to a couple of Biblical stories that might seem obscure to us but caught the attention of his listeners.

elijah-widowFirst, there was the story of Elijah, one of the great Jewish prophets. There was a drought and then a famine in the land. As the area where Elijah had taken refuge dried up, God sent him to Sidon, an area where people worshipped other gods, where good Jews would not go. It was one of those “other nations.”

When Elijah arrives at a widow’s house, she is gathering sticks to bake the last morsels of bread before she and her son lie down to die. But she shares it with Elijah and the jar of meal keeps getting refilled and the jug of oil never empties until the rains return.

The message in short – God, through Elijah, was looking out for the stranger, the outcast, the one who did not belong.

Then there was the story of Elisha, a follower of Elijah, healing the skin disease of a Syrian named Naaman – another outsider, someone whom the Jewish people of Elisha’s time would treat with suspicion, even rejection. Yet the story is a vivid reminder that the God of Israel is the God of all.

What Jesus was saying to his town folk was pretty clear. You don’t have an exclusive claim on God.

God’s grace, God’s words, God’s miracles are not just for you.

Jesus in synagogueYou are the insiders, the ones with power in this community, yet the word of God is not about looking out for yourselves – it’s about preaching good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind and liberating the oppressed.

You want me to work some magic, Jesus seems to be saying. Instead, listen to my words, to the words that come from God. I have a word from the Lord.

The people in the synagogue that day reacted about like the ushers in Tom Long’s story. They chased Jesus out of the synagogue right to the cliff at the edge of the town, intending to throw him over it. In their frenzy, they lost track of him and he slipped away and went back to Capernaum.

There are so many questions that grow out of these two stories.

When do you feel inspired by God to speak out in our world?
How do we decide who speaks with moral authority and who is a charlatan?
What do we do once we listen or once we speak?

Let me end with two people whose lives and words might offer some insight into those questions.

Pope Francis has gathered quite a following well beyond the world’s Catholics since he became pope in 2013. One of the reasons I think is that his approach to people, to faith, to religion reflects a genuineness of spirit that gives credibility to his words. His concern for those in poverty, in particular, goes way back to his days as an archbishop in Buenos Aries and carries through in so many of his actions as pope.

Thus last week, when he sent out his message for Lent in 2016, his words had both bite and authority.

Speaking of the wealthy and powerful of the world, Francis said they are often “slaves to sin” who, if they ignore the poor, “will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is hell.”

Keep in mind that on the scale of power and wealth in the world, those of us sitting here are in the upper brackets. So we would do well to be attentive to the next sentence: “The greater their power and wealth, the more this blindness and deception can grow.”

Remember that scroll that Jesus was reading, those words about bringing good news to the poor and letting the oppressed go free? That’s one challenge to us.

If Francis is a contemporary voice with moral authority, an ancient voice was Paul, the man who changed his life to embrace the message of Jesus. He had been persecuting Christians, then he became one of them, subjecting himself to persecution.

Paul writing (1)He took the message of Jesus to, using the words of Jeremiah again, “the nations.” He did not limit himself the Jewish enclaves in the cities he visited. He broke open the boundaries that separated people.

In doing that, Paul knew the conflicts that posed challenges for himself and for these emerging Christian communities. So he reminded them that they not only had a role in taking on the oppressive powers in the world and finding ways to co-exist among themselves, but they had a calling to do all that in a spirit of love.

Among the most famous words Paul wrote were those in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the people of Corinth. We often hear those words at weddings in the context of how two people getting married ought to treat one another.

They have great value in that context, but Paul did not write them for a wedding. He wrote them for a community struggling with how to move forward.

They are words of hope in the midst of challenge.

If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing.

If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

Love is patient,
love is kind,
it isn’t jealous,
it doesn’t brag,
it isn’t arrogant, 
it isn’t rude,
it doesn’t seek its own advantage,
it isn’t irritable,
it doesn’t keep a record of complaints,
it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 
Love puts up with all things,
trusts in all things,
hopes for all things,
endures all things.

Love never fails.

As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end.
As for tongues, they will stop.
As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end.

We know in part and we prophesy in part;  but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end.

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things.

Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face.
Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known.

Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.

Let us join together in singing #461, “Let Us Hope When Hope Seems Hopeless.”