“The Troubling Call of God”

January 31, 2016

 

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Luke 4:16-30

 

The prophet Jeremiah sensed the weight of the majesty of God upon him in a way that can only be described as a “call”—as if the voice of the mystery in which we live and move and have our being spoke directly to him saying: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you we born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

The words of Jeremiah are in no way part of an argument about when life begins. They are an expression of a faith that all of life—indeed, all of creation—is of value to the Creator. Jeremiah’s sense of the call of God was so deep, so strong, that it felt as though it developed, not in his lifetime, but sometime earlier, sometime in those ages that preceded him.

And here’s the point: Even if the voice of God does not sound as loud in your heart as it seems to in Jeremiah’s, you, too, are called.

Novelist and Presbyterian minister, Fredrick Buechner, famously said that “There are different kinds of voices that call you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.”

He suggests, “By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that you need most to do and that the world most needs to have done….The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

That place is different for each one of us—but the task for each of us is the same: to find that place, to pursue that call.

And yet some of the greatest obstacles come from ourselves.

In spite of an awareness of the deep nature of this call—Jeremiah resists. He is only boy, after all. Who was he to speak for God?

Read through the rest of the book the bears Jeremiah’s name. His resistance continues through all fifty-two chapters. In this prophet we see fear, anxiety, and anger, along with a sense of inadequacy—all understandable reactions to the call of God. And none of those reactions disqualify Jeremiah—or us—from that call. As we cultivate our own interests and abilities, as we seek and follow the desires of our hearts, that call sounds more clearly and ability to answer it grows, even in the face of our resistance.

A half-century after Jeremiah, someone writing under the name of the prophet Isaiah—a common practice at the time—expressed the same sense of call that we heard from Jeremiah, saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Why was this person so certain? “Because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The guarantee of the call was found in the message: good news, release, recovery, freedom. These are the words God speaks. These are the words we all called to speak in our own ways as well.

Isaiah’s call was as different from Jeremiah’s as Isaiah was different from Jeremiah. The call came in a different way for a different purpose.

The call of God is as unique as each one of us.

Some five hundred years after Isaiah, after being baptized by John in the Jordan River, after a time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus of Nazareth returned to Galilee and came back to his home town. Those of us who follow Jesus try in all sorts of ways to describe him. We say that in this Jesus the God who is beyond all time entered time. We say that the God who is infinite took on finite human flesh. We say such things with conviction and also with the awareness that our words are just not capable of expressing who this Jesus was and is.

When our words fail, we turn again to the Gospel stories and watch.

Jesus comes to the synagogue in Nazareth. Here we see the Jewish Jesus, faithful to the tradition in which he was raised, honoring the Sabbath day, worshipping God along with the rest of the community. When we hear about Jesus and his confrontations with the religious authorities, we must always remember that both Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish and sought to be faithful to the God of the covenant. His arguments with the leaders and the people were not condemnations of Judaism. They were more like disagreements within a family.

Jesus goes to the synagogue. He reads the words of God’s call from the scroll of Isaiah: “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Our sight becomes blurred. Our purposes and goals become obscured. As individuals and as a congregation we can get caught up in self-preoccupation, captive in dark prisons of our own making. We reduce the vastness of the Christian faith down to something small and tired and predictable. It’s comfortable—but not very liberating.

So we need to be reminded of the hope of the prophets: release for the captive, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed—something greater than ourselves and our little plans.

After reading the prophet, Jesus sits down and begins to speak.

His first word is “Today.” With that word we find ourselves in the living present. Most of us look backward or forward, remembering times of God’s presence, hoping that God might be real in the future. Jesus says “Today,” which is really all that we have anyway.

Today is the gift that we have to cherish. We are the stewards of these hours to use them wisely and fully.

How we live today is of great importance. This is the day that we have to choose to live according to our principles, to love, to give.

Hearing Jesus, all the people speak well of him. They stand in wonder at the gracious words that proceed out of his mouth.

Everyone has something good to say about Jesus.

But we know how the story ends, don't we?

The same people who were speaking well of Jesus listen a little more to what he has to say. He reminds them that often their ancestors—his own ancestors—missed what God was doing in their midst. He reminds them that God's favor is often with the outsider.

In the time of a famine, the prophet Elijah was sent only to a widow in Sidon, foreign territory.

Elijah’s successor, Elisha, healed none of the many lepers in Israel but only Naaman, the Syrian, the foreigner.

Reading through Luke’s gospel, we keep hearing this theme—that God is concerned with the outsider, with those who live on the margins. Lepers and foreigners, the despised and disregarded often receive or show the love of God more than those on the inside track.

As we listen, we begin to wonder what we might be missing; we worry about those whom we might want to exclude.

Who’s in, who’s out?

Too poor, too rich, too old, too young.

Wrong gender, wrong sexual orientation, wrong race, wrong political party.

For 2000 years, church people have drawn lines to keep people out—lines that God refuses to draw. Desmond Tutu was getting at this when he said “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”
I’m always thankful for God’s low standards.

The good news is that in the United Church of Christ in general and in this congregation in particular, we seek to open ourselves to all people. We say: “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” This comes as a wonderful surprise to many who had never imagined that a church could be like that. In declaring ourselves an Open and Affirming congregation, we announce that we are working to erase those lines of exclusion that Christians have so often drawn, that some still want to draw. As Jesus suggests, it is just through such “outsiders” that God often acts.

Still, we should realize that when we listen for the word of God, we might not like what we hear. Words about release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind are good news. But they first might only make us aware of just how imprisoned, how unseeing we are—even with all of our liberal, progressive sophistication.

God’s word can sound like judgment.

But that word also sounds like grace. Because knowing we’re captive is a moment of opportunity. Then we can seek freedom.

To the captive, the poor, the sightless—to the lost of the world good news is spoken. In Christ we are set free from trying to save ourselves. 

The word of God comes to us as we are, but does not leave us that way. It informs our choices. It transforms our lives. 

As the people listen further to Jesus, as they take in what the hometown boy is saying, they become “filled with wrath”—a great biblical phrase that means they were really angry—angry enough to kill. The people who speak well of Jesus want to throw him off a cliff—dash his body on the rocks below—as soon as he says something they don’t like.

An Anglican bishop is said to have lamented: “Everywhere the apostle Paul went, there were riots. Everywhere I go, they serve me tea.”

After hearing the reading from the Gospel of Luke, my own thoughts take a similar direction: When Jesus preached, the people wanted to throw him off a cliff. When I preach they line up to say “Good morning,” and tell me, “Nice sermon.”

What is wrong with that picture?

All of us can speak so well of Jesus.

At the same time—admit it—we’d just as soon throw him over the cliff when our values and our lifestyles are threatened by his words and his actions:

When Jesus suggests that the quest for more and more things might be keeping us from loving God and neighbor—THROW HIM OFF A CLIFF!

When Jesus suggests that our labeling people “good” and “bad,” “acceptable” or “unacceptable” might be contrary to God’s way of seeing—THROW HIM OFF A CLIFF!

When Jesus suggests that we confront evil in the world rather than look the other way or passively accept it—THROW HIM OFF A CLIFF!

“Crucify him.” That's where this story is going. And all of us—those who preach, those who listen, those who would speak well of Jesus—we are all ready to join in as soon as we hear something we don't like.

I love the ending to that story in Luke.

The angry crowd rises up. We take Jesus out of the city and lead him to the brow of the hill in order to throw him down headlong.

What happens next is one of those strange incidents that keep people from opening their Bibles.

What happens next is a mystery, and one that points to the ways of God in our world and our lives: Jesus walks straight through the crowd and goes on his way.

How did that happen? I have no idea. That it happened seems perfectly in line with who the living Christ is and how he works among those of us who are foolish enough to want to follow him.

The way of Jesus Christ is his own way—and all the hatred, anger, and violence of the world will not stop him from going on that way. Even death will not stop him for his life is a witness to a love that is stronger than death.

The choice to follow on that way or not is ours. Christ will continue on the way of life giving love whether or not we choose to be a part of that way.

But here and there, now and then, we will find the grace to follow—individually, as a congregation.

Here and there, now and then, we will find Christ working among us, giving us strength where we are weak, courage where we are cowardly, helping us to love when hating would be so much easier.

The living Christ goes on his own way. May we—all of us who would rather toss him off a cliff—be so transformed by the love of God that we too might follow on his way of love.