Unexpected Challenge

91663143 Christ Preaching by Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn, Etching, image courtesy of Superstock, gettyimages.com …. Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:21-30 …. sermon for the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time …. My former Princeton homiletics professor Tom Long tells a story about an old revival preacher. The preacher began his remarks by opening the Bible and reading from a passage of Scripture. When he had finished, he closed the Bible, went to a window near the platform, and flung it outside.

The congregation sat in stunned silence. Were their eyes playing tricks on them? Did the preacher really throw a Bible out a window?

The preacher looked at them, and said, “There goes your god!” He proceeded to preach a challenging sermon on the difference between worshipping the pages of the Bible and worshipping the God who is made known through the words of Scripture. Throwing the Bible out a window seems blasphemous, highly disrespectful at the least. But the preacher understood his dramatic action be a prophetic challenge.

In the Gospel of Luke chapter four, we read about Jesus preaching a sermon with a similar shocking effect. At first, it seems like a normal worship service, and things are going well. The attention of the worshippers is fixed upon Joseph’s son who has grown up to be such an eloquent speaker.

But then Jesus goes too far. This hometown boy knows something about the pride and prejudice of those in his congregation. He has lived with it for years. Now he challenges it.

Jesus throws the Bible out the window, figuratively speaking, in the way he interprets two well-known stories from scripture: Elijah’s encounter with the Widow of Zaraphath (1 Kings 17:8-24), and Elisha’s ministry to Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-14). Jesus’ interpretive twist highlights the context of these stories in a new way. He points out that there were many widows in Israel, yet Elijah was sent not to them, but to the Widow of Zaraphath. There were many lepers in Israel, yet Elisha was called to provide healing not for them but for Naaman.

What gets Jesus into trouble is his suggestion that God’s promises are for those outside the established religious order. Like the revival preacher, Jesus recognizes the desire of his listeners to preserve the old order and keep God to themselves. He understands this desire as worshipping the words on the page rather than the God revealed in the Bible. He challenges their assumptions about the world, and how God is working in it. In commenting on this text, preacher and scholar Fred Craddock says that “it is important to notice that Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected; he is rejected because he goes elsewhere.”

The divine call to something new often is resisted by those who look to Jesus for leadership. But Jesus keeps on calling, and many eventually do respond in trust and obedience.

We see a similar tension at work in the opening chapter of the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s call narrative seems stylized enough that some scholars suggest that it once was part of a liturgy used in ordination, with certain predictable features: divine initiative, followed by human resistance, followed by rebuke and reassurance, and final commissioning to new service. If true, then the words record not only the experience of Jeremiah, but also the liturgical history of the Jews, who recognized in Jeremiah’s call a general pattern among people of faith. They recognized that God’s words to Jeremiah were a suitable challenge and comfort to all who put up a defense when first hearing God’s call: Don’t make excuses – “for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you . . . .”

The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber once pondered the final judgment and said: “God will not ask me ‘Why were you not more like Moses?’ but ‘Why were you not more like Martin Buber?’” In a similar spirit, I believe God does not ask us why were are not more like our favorite preacher, missionary, saint, or hero of faith. God asks, “Why are you not living like the person I created you to be? Why are you not using as fully as possible the special gifts and talents that I gave you to live a life of meaning and purpose?” Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner suggests that if you’re really fortunate, you will recognize when this is the state of your life. He describes it in this way: “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When we consider our particular gifts and talents, we realize that not everyone is called to be a minister or elder or deacon. Not everyone is called to be a worship leader. Not everyone is called to talk to others about financial gifts, or organize task groups. Not everyone is called to care for hurting people, teach unruly students, bring parties together at the negotiating table, or parent special needs children. But if God’s will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven, someone must be called. If we are to be “Christ for the world today,” we must be attentive to God’s voice, and respond when we hear it. The more we practice listening, the better we become. The earlier we work at translating the divine voice into God’s word to us today, the more works of God we may accomplish.

Kyle Childress is a Texas pastor who describes what happened in his congregation back in 2005. A tall, self-conscious seventh-grade girl in the congregation was also a member of the middle school girls’ track team. A Saturday track meet was postponed to the following Saturday, a date on which the church had previously scheduled a mini mission trip. The girl went to her track coach and told him about the conflict. When he told her, “Your teammates are counting on you and you can’t let them down. I expect you here for the meet,” she went home in tears. The next day, she composed herself, and talked to him again. He responded, “You are either here for the meet, or you turn in your uniform.” More tears were shed that night. She went to him a third time, handed him her uniform, and walked away.

Pastor Childress ponders the way adults in the church responded to this incident. A few people said that they wanted to whip the coach (the standard Texas response). Some dreamed of launching a campaign to take over the school board, and banning school functions that conflict with church events. Many parents were upset, but also willing to go along with the coach’s discipline. So they were surprised and even shocked when the girl translated her actions in terms of a divine call, saying, “This is about God.” One of their own, a girl they had baptized and nurtured, was choosing God and church over her track team. They were surprised even though that was the way they had raised her.”

Choosing God instead of the track team – or the marching band, or the German Club, or the theater group, or the swim team, or the drum line, or the baseball team – is not exactly like standing up against racism or war, or ending up on a cross. But, like Pastor Childress says, prophets all start somewhere.


~ by JohnH1962 on January 31, 2016.