The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 3, 2019
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

From Jeremiah: “(The Lord said), ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I thought I’d start out this morning with a few questions. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone here this morning was able to speak in “the tongues of mortals and angels?” Imagine how wonderful it would be to never need an interpreter and never be misunderstood or use the wrong word at the wrong time. How about if we understood “all mysteries and had all knowledge?” Imagine that for a moment. (I keep telling our grandchildren I do but they don’t believe me.) Well, how about faith? You know the kind of faith so strong you could move mountains or just change the world?  All right, here’s one more. How about an abiding trust in God so deep that you could do everything Jesus said like sell all you have and give it the poor, and yet never worry about tomorrow? Well, the truth is, none of us have all those abilities. And even if we did, St. Paul tells us in this morning’s reading from 1stCorinthians, without love – God’s love –  without God’s love as the sole motivator of our every word and action - all those gifts and abilities mean absolutely nothing. 

     In today’s Old Testament lesson, we hear the profound depth of Jeremiah’s call to ministry. And typical of profound callings in the Old Testament, Jeremiah objects and for good reason. He knows that people don’t like him. You see, while his ancestors had been respected High Priests in the Temple at Jerusalem, upon the death of King David those same ancestors threw their support behind Prince Adonijah to succeed King David instead of Prince Solomon. Well, we all know how that turned out: Solomon became King and from that moment on anything Jeremiah’s ancestors, and then his parents and his own family, said or did was treated with suspicion and distrust. How can you choose me, Lord? People aren’t going to listen.

Nevertheless, God says he has called Jeremiah for a purpose: “to pluck up (root up), and to pull down (tear down). He is to destroy and plow under, and he is to build up and plant.” These verbs speak about preparing the land. Now, every farmer and gardener knows you must clear the land or plow under the old crop before planting a new one. Similarly, every builder knows you must tear down the old and clear the rubble before you can level the land to build something new. God tells Jeremiah and us as well, that before something is planted, the ground must be cleared: before something is built, the site must be prepared. If we don’t do that work, everything else we do – our labor - will be in vain. Planting seeds for change in our communities, working together to enable growth and expand ministry, or simply experience new life cannot take place until the land – that is our hearts and minds – are ready: until our hearts and minds not only embrace, but embody and consistently demonstrate God’s love.  

     Today’s Gospel lesson continues from last week’s reading. When Jesus proclaims to his hearers that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that he is the promised Messiah, the people are thrilled. After all, this is good news for Nazareth. We can already see the billboards, “Welcome to Nazareth: The home of Jesus the Messiah and Redeemer of the World.” Think of the commerce as people flock to Nazareth to visit Jesus’ home and buy a souvenir commemorating their pilgrimage. Nazareth would become its very own “Biltmore Estate!” This is great news! Preach it Lord! We’re with you Jesus!

But then the scene changes: Jesus recalls Israel’s history of ignoring her prophets and leaders. He reminds his hearers that there were times when in rejecting the ways and values of God, Israel faced famine, disease, drought and captivity – that’s what happened when they rejected Jeremiah’s message - while God’s blessings abounded in the Gentile lands of Sidon and Syria. God’s grace, mercy and redemption is not limited to covenants or to a single race, or solely to those with gifts of tongues, or wealth and wisdom, but rather, it is available to all who believe whether Jew or Gentile.

And the synagogue explodes with anger. How dare you say that the covenant is not ours alone! How dare you suggest God might bless someone outside our tradition! How dare you say all are welcome in God’s kingdom! See the Hebrew people believed, just as many Christians believe today, that salvation was their exclusive right regardless of how they lived. The Church at Corinth believed that speaking in tongues and wealth proved they were saved regardless of how they treated each other. In Jeremiah’s day, the people pointed to the Temple as the sign and proof of their salvation, rather than how their lives reflected God’s ways and values, reflected God’s love.

     So, a mob carries Jesus out of the Synagogue and tries to throw him off a cliff but, Luke tells us, Jesus walked through them and went on his way. God’s mission of restoring all people to unity with God in Christ cannot be silenced by an angry mob. Jesus leaves and his work among the Gentiles begins in earnest. All are welcome in God’s kingdom if they will believe in our Lord and choose to walk in God’s ways. And the church then, just like today, is called to embrace and love them as equal sons and daughters of God.

    But in order to do that, to live as equal sons and daughters of God, we must first clear the land. As many of you are aware, our Adult Christian Education class has been studying St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Last week we wrestled with Paul’s condemnation of various sexual relationships and we recognized how often Christians will cite passages like these to condemn someone else and yet, ignore all those passages that condemn our own choices and attitudes. St Paul’s response to such self-righteousness was this and, frankly, his response was chilling. Paul says, “…You have no excuse whoever you are when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the same things” (Romans 2:1). Paul goes on to remind the church that God shows no partiality: all have sinned, and, thanks be to God, all are worthy of God’s forgiveness and grace simply by faith and trust in Christ Jesus.

    And that promise of grace and forgiveness is where the hard work of clearing, tearing down, plowing up, and preparing the land begins. It begins in our hearts and minds: it begins with repentance and turning once again to God and embracing God’s ways as our own.

     A week or so ago, we stood together and renewed our baptismal vows promising to be faithful in worship, in study, in prayer, in giving and seeking Christ in every person loving our neighbors as ourselves. And those vows remind us that in baptism, friends, each of us was grafted into the body of Christ: we became beloved daughters and sons of God with whom, and in whom, God is well-pleased. In baptism, God called each of us by name: called us with a purpose; to be Christ’s light, to be living examples pf Christ’s grace and mercy, Christ’s way of life, to the world. At baptism, like Jeremiah, St. Paul and even our Lord Jesus Christ, God said, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” As this Season of the Epiphany slowly draws to a close let us honestly examine our own hearts and minds, to see where we need to change and make amends so that those words make a difference in us and our communities; to grasp how we might better embody that grace, that love, of God.

     You know, St. Paul says everything we do and say, everything we build will eventually end. It will probably be forgotten and lost. But not God’s love.That is the love God has had for us since the dawn of creation and still has for us and the whole world today. God’s love never ends: God’s love forever welcomes and forgives – and so must we!

    “The Lord said to Jeremiah, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” May God grant us grace to always speak and demonstrate those words – and do so in love – God’s love – the love that changes and reshapes and rebuilds my heart and your hearts, my mind and your minds, and can change, reshape and rebuild the whole world. Amen.