Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (1.31.10)
Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30
Please pray with me: Dear God, May we turn and listen when you call; may we open our eyes to see what you have given; may we let you live in us so that people, knowing us, may also know you. Amen.
From today’s New Testament Lesson: Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Last weekend, I finally saw Avatar. Now I can’t see a film without wanting to critique it, but as you can imagine—knowing my passion for the earth—there was much in this story that pulled me in. Afterwards I kept thinking of the enormous energy shared by the native people of Pandora and the creatures among whom they live and with many of whom they hook up. It’s wonderful, if a little scary: Each person’s head has a long braid ending in tendrils that are alive with nerves. By plugging these long braids into similar neural cords that hang from giant animals and birds, the Na’vi achieve union with them. The coupling isn’t easy, but, when successful, the thoughts of the Na’vi now govern the creatures’ behavior. And it isn’t brute conquest. This bonding, blatantly physical as it is, is possible because of the deep spiritual interconnection among all living things in that world.
There is something of this raw energy in our psalm today. Even from our translation, we realize that the speaker is up against it, terrified, and not for the first time. But there’s more. This is not a politely-worded cry for help. Throughout his life, the psalmist has known that God’s power to rescue is loving but also very physical. So when he asks God to “deliver me,” in verse 2, the verb really means “snatch.” In a tough world, God, you’re going to have to reach down and snatch me away from, tear me from, those who now grasp me with their own wicked hands (in verse 4).
Then, the psalmist adds, what I also need, God, is “a strong fortress.” Fortress is a wonderful—and traditional—metaphor for protection, but what it means is the need, the requirement for a sturdy place, a safe place, a sacred space which a person can always find, a place where that person is held in God’s hand. After all, life began in God’s hands. Verse 6 tells us that “it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” But our translation is once more too abstract. The Hebrew might better be translated, you were the one who “pulled me out of” my mother’s womb, or even who “cut me out.” This is not some vague comforting memory. It insists that God’s power and love are physically present for us. More like: I am alive because you wanted me to exist, you chose me to be. The point, I think, isn’t so much that the psalmist wants us to think of God as rough and tough. But, on the other hand, it isn’t a polite gloves-on exchange either to someone we hope might be listening. The person praying this prayer has strong needs and, through faith, must believe that The Creator is strong and present.
The words put in Jeremiah’s mouth by the Lord confirm both strength and presence. We don’t know how young Jeremiah was. But like Moses, he feels insecure amd frightened: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The answer is that of a Commanding Officer who is not aloof but active and engaged in the lives of his people, a CO to whom, through respect, fear, and experience, one can only say “yes.” And so God replies, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you”—to snatch you away from danger. And the reason is that you are mine.
C.S. Lewis answers question about our relationship with God in words too direct to ignore: “God made us,” writes Lewis, “invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other” (Mere Christianity, 39). So God will lift us up, as on eagle’s wings—and with the help of eagle’s claws because we are God’s and therefore God cares.
So much so that God made God’s physical presence known on this earth through the incarnation of our Lord. Where then is the energy in our meeting with Jesus in the Gospel today? This passage is amazing. I’m sure you recognized it as the second half of the Gospel lesson from last week. Last week, all was well in the synagogue after Jesus finished reading. There was the kind of stunned silence that can mean that the words have sunk in. After their epiphany, there was the happy conversation about it. People were amazed by this young man who had simply been seen as “Joseph’s son.” I don’t hear any sarcasm in that remark. The trouble hasn’t started yet.
It’s Jesus, in fact, who stirs things up. By the time he’s finished speaking, they are “filled with rage.” Why doesn’t Jesus let well enough alone? Because like Jeremiah, words have been put in his mouth and he cannot be afraid. “I’m not going to let you accept me as your hometown boy. I haven’t been sent just for you.” He’s actually pretty heavy-handed. Not once but twice, he reminds them that the prophets Elijah and Elisha were not sent to the widows and lepers of Israel—“to none of them…none of them”—but to unbelievers. This is a new narrative for Jesus’ neighbors. A message to dismantle the status quo requires a new understanding that can be too much to bear. And so, in a move that Satan in the desert temptations would have applauded, they try to hurl him off a cliff at the edge of town. In a way that we don’t really need to understand, Jesus was able to pass through them and go on his way—to much harsher moments, as we know.
What about us? Does our faith—do our prayers—raise questions that are hard to bear? Certainly our lives do, and so like Jeremiah, the psalmist, and Jesus himself, we ask God for help. Sometimes it seems that the deeper we go into our time with God, the more challenging are the demands that God throws back. A real life with God is not always comfortable. Maybe Epiphany has a side that’s a little tougher than basking in this glorious light that we have been given. That real side of life with God is clearly explained in the familiar passage from I Corinthians.
This passage, which does not mention God or Christ, can easily seem like the perfect manual for human relationships. That’s probably why it’s often used at weddings. But we should also remember that it is part of Paul’s letter to his difficult church in the sophisticated and pagan city of Corinth. Here, in a pastoral crisis, he is calling them to account for their behavior. Various members there were doing everything Paul said love or caritas should not do. They were boastful, competitive about their various spiritual gifts, still interested in the mysterious religions of their culture, and condescending to the poorer members of their community.
The whole letter makes it clear that the love that Paul is describing is the love of which Christ gave us an example, in fact the love of God revealed in the cross: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It’s not an emotion or feeling, this love. It’s an action that seeks the good of another. It is not one more spiritual gift, but the way through which God wants us to live out each of our gifts. It’s the basic deal maker or breaker, and without it, as Paul says more than once, “I am nothing…I gain nothing”—or most pointedly of all, I’m just so much ugly, pointless noise—“a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
God snatches us from harm so that we can live in and live out the fullness of Christ’s love. Fullness of love is not a bargain; it’s what God longs for. This is what God has chosen for us, each doing so in our own way. Martin Luther was fond of saying that since parenting was a Christian vocation, even changing diapers is for the glory of God. One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, spoke of vocation—God’s choice for us—as “fellowship with Jesus Christ…and therefore” service to God and our fellow creatures. Vocation, so understood, gives us so many options. Maybe this is the true gift of Epiphany: recognizing that the light of Christ, the radical loving grace of Christ must transform all that we do.
Let us pray: Dearest Lord, when we are distressed, help us to remember that you are there; when we are afraid for ourselves or others, let us remember the sanctuary your strong love provides; when we despair of “getting it right,” let us remember that we are chosen to be agents of God’s love in this world, working in fellowship with and for one another. Amen.