A Costly Kind of Love


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February 3, 2019. Pastor Stephanie talks today about what is expected from a sermon, the rejection of Jesus in his hometown synagogue from Luke 4, and the costly kind of love that God exhibits for us and for all.

 

*** Transcript ***

 

I’m going to ask you a risky question. Well, it would be risky if this were a one-on-one conversation, and if I were to give you the impression that I would adjust my behavior to your specific answer, above all the other answers I might receive from other people. But since there are many people gathered here today, we might each answer this question differently, and it’s relatively safe then for me to ask it. My question is: what do you expect from a sermon? And maybe a follow-up: what would you most like to happen to you when you are listening to a sermon?

 

Over the years. I’ve heard a lot of responses — some solicited and some not. But all are still valid in their own way, perhaps. One person might say, “I like a sermon that helps me to think about a Biblical passage in a new and fresh way. I think a sermon ought to increase my understanding of the word of God.” Another might say, “I want inspiration. I like a feeling that it takes me to a higher place than I can get to by myself. I need to feel the love of God through a message.” Still another might offer this: “The best sermons are those that give me something practical to hang onto, something that I can do in response to God’s love and message to me. I need to understand how this works out in my daily life.” There’s some value in each one of those types of responses. Any one of those or a combination of them is appropriate.

 

But that means, if those are the prevailing expectations of sermons, I might have a problem today. None of those responses line up well with today’s gospel reading. It’s the story we began last week and conclude today, where Jesus is preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus certainly taught and preached often, yet we really have very few accounts of his actual preaching besides this passage, the Sermon on the Mount, and a few other snippets. So knowing that Jesus was very purposeful in his ministry, we have to wonder what was he trying to accomplish here in Luke 4.

 

I think we’ll do a quick review of what came before, since this passage was divided in two. We had the first part of it last week, and now we are concluding it. So what happened in the reading from last week was that Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah when he showed up in his hometown synagogue to preach. He read wonderful words of promise from the scroll, including, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to preach good news . . . to the captives . . . recovery of sight to the blind . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . . . These words have been fulfilled in your hearing,” he concluded.

 

I tell you, there must have been a stirring in the congregation when Jesus read those stunning words. At long last, they thought, this long-awaited time of deliverance, foretold by the prophet Isaiah, sounds like it’s being fulfilled now, today. Undoubtedly there was ├╝ber excitement in the congregation at Nazareth. After all, who is more deserving of God’s salvation, God’s restoration, than these people who have, for centuries, awaited and prayed and longed for their deliverance? At last, God is making good on his promises. At last, God is coming for us. Good news! And not only that, but there had to be thoughts of: this guy, our hometown son, he’s the real deal. Notice how charismatic he is? I’ll follow him anywhere. He’s headed in the right direction. Then Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down to preach, as was customary. And that’s when the trouble started.

 

The expectation in the room was sky-high. Imagine the people who are thinking, “This is going to be a fantastic sermon. We are the oppressed, and we’re finally going to get some release.” But Jesus’ message took a turn from where the expectations were headed. He did have them in the palm of his hand, until he started to preach. Being a student of the sacred scriptures, he says something like this: “Isaiah says that God is coming to deliver the faithful. I tell you, the day of the Lord’s advent is now. Now, let’s see. When was the last time that God came to us? Yes, it was during the time of the great prophet Elijah. We have waited a long time to see this happen again. But let me remind you, there were many, many famished Jewish women when there was a great food shortage in the land. Isn’t it interesting to find that God’s prophet gave food to none of those hungry Jewish women, but rather to a pagan Gentile woman?”

 

A hush fell over the crowd. And not a good kind of silence. It was more like, “Wait, what did he just say? Why is he talking about those troublesome Gentiles? God’s promises are for us, for God’s people.” And then from the other side of their brains, they perhaps said, “Okay, cut him some slack. Surely he’ll get around to the true message here.” But Jesus continued: “And there had to be lots of people suffering from various illnesses during the time of the prophet Elisha. But God’s prophet healed none of them. Only one, a Syrian army officer, was healed.” I imagine, don’t you, that the words “Syrian army officer” fell on the ears in much the same way that that would be perceived today, if someone says that God is showing some preference, or some healing, for a Syrian army officer and maybe not us as much.

 

Luke writes: when they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built, so that they could throw him off the cliff. Well, I’ve had some reactions to my sermons over the years where people thought I was meddling in areas that I should not venture. But so far, no one has yet tried to murder me. I hope to keep that good record, although if I want Jesus to be my model, maybe I’ll have to rethink that.

 

If you look at the photo on the cover of your bulletin you can see Mount Precipice, the crest of the hill where people took this son of their congregation, with the intention of casting him over the edge, to let the boulders and the gravity have their way with him. Now, why did the congregation in Nazareth become so very upset? What turned their initial adoration and praise into murderous rage? Because that day in Nazareth, the young hometown preacher reminded the faithful that during the days of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, some pretty high and elevated times in their corporate memory, God was also working on the other side of the street. God had worked compassionate wonders not only among them, the chosen people, but also for pagan outsiders. God had shown abundant love to those who didn’t even bother to keep God’s commandments or worship Israel’s God. If this were merely a logical matter, one could say of course this was consistent with the nature of God revealed throughout Old Testament history. After all, their beloved Moses was said to have shared in Deuteronomy, and in many other passages, that God said “you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in Egypt.”

 

And who can forget that compelling story from the Book of Jonah, where God sends the prophet Jonah to the outsiders, the foreigners, the pagan Ninevites of all people, to tell them that God cared enough for them to tell them to repent and turn to God, out of God’s love for them. Jonah was so outraged that God would love those people that he ran away, and he would have preferred death to seeing those people receive God’s love. Nonetheless, God’s love for them prevailed and they did turn to God. And surely they would have remembered the words from Isaiah, a prophet whom they really admired, who was more willing to do and say what God commands than Jonah. These words are recorded from Isaiah 49 as being God’s words: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to only restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept” — in other words, those currently on the inside track. “I will also make you a light to the Gentiles that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

 

But of course it wasn’t merely logical, was it? It was fraught with emotion and all kinds of hopes and expectations and mental images. The evidence was there that God’s love reaches out to all. But sometimes that can be hard to hear. But that’s a very good thing for us, since we are the Gentiles of which this is spoken. We were not the insiders. Unless you have a long ancestry of being part of Hebrew people, perhaps you would be in that same category with me. We are the ones who were formerly foreigners, for whom God was adamant that the good news of his love be shared. So now God reminds us, who now feel like insiders, that whoever we think of as Gentiles or outsiders are the ones to whom we need to bear the light of God. God’s barrier-breaking, inclusive, higher-than-the-mountains, deeper-than-the-deepest-sea kind of love is for everyone, because God is love.

 

So maybe it’s time that I owned up to a simple, working definition that I use for an effective sermon. The purpose of a sermon to me is to reveal something of the nature of God. Then, when we encounter the nature of God through word and spirit, we might also very well be inspired, or we might very well understand something more clearly about our lives than we did before. All kinds of responses are possible when we encounter the living God. We might even be moved to have a change of heart, in light of God’s revelation. Most times I hope we recognize the vast difference between God and ourselves. As one sage put it: there is a god and you are not it. When we encounter the nature of God’s love and see what the epistle today had to say about love, we recognize that it is much, much more than a sentimental feeling.

 

1 Corinthians 13 is a lovely piece to read at weddings, but it really is a 30,000 foot high view of love that only God can achieve. I’ll read a few of the words that are familiar to you anyway. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It is a costly kind of love. It is held up for us as the pattern that only God, who is perfect love, can weave into our very being. It is the kind of love that God exhibits for us and for all.

 

It was risky and costly for Jesus to preach to his hometown friends and family about God loving those, whom he knew from living in their midst, the people that they feared and disrespected. It was a costly love that compelled Jesus to wash feet and to serve in lowly ways. It was a costly love that led Jesus to stand up for the oppressed against powerful rulers of his day. It was a costly love that Jesus demonstrated as he faced rejection, humiliation, torture, and even death on the cross.

 

Well, another thing that people often like about sermons is when they wrap up nicely and neatly, where everything holds together. I gotta admit, I kind of like that too. This isn’t that day, however. It seems to me that this is an open-ended sermon. I think it’s supposed to get finished with a bit of silence as we each reflect on the nature of God’s costly love for us and for others. Instead of me making some suggestions of how you might respond to that, I suggest we all listen to God’s spirit speak to us. So, we’re going to take a couple of moments, maybe a minute, just for you and God to think together about love. And then I’ll say amen.

 

[A minute of silence]

 

Please rise as you’re able to sing our hymn of the day. The title is “In Christ There Is No East or West.” It again reminds us of the boundary-breaking God who loves expansively.

 

*** Keywords ***

 

2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:16-30, Rejection of Jesus