Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about speaking out against oppression. I challenged everyone then to do the same. (1) Today, the questions must be “What are you going to say?” and “When are you going to say it?”
It isn’t so much that there is a war in Iraq that threatens to take the heart and soul out of our future. There is fighting in Somalia, there is genocide in Darfur, there is fighting in the Holy Land. How many other wars or skirmishes take place each day that don’t make the news?
There is still poverty. New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast has yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina. I think we were lucky that there were no major hurricanes this past year. For if there had been any and the damage from those hurricanes was even half the damage of 2005, then we might have completely forgotten that awful summer and early fall of 2005. Then where would we be?
Perhaps it is because we are so detached from the problems that dominate this world. For many of us, the war in Iraq is only an item on the evening news show. For many of us, there is little impact; we do not see the dead coming home (in what is an excellent manipulation of the news media). Can you imagine where we might have been forty years ago if Lyndon Johnson and, then, Richard Nixon, had controlled the news output from Viet Nam like President Bush has done with Iraq? We might still be involved in Southeast Asia still today.
We choose to ignore the homeless in this country. The lead story on any local news item should be the opening of another Habitat for Humanity house, but I am willing to bet that most people don’t even know that such a home was built in their neighborhood.
We choose to ignore poverty. We would rather have heroes that make more money in a day or a month than many people make in a lifetime. We would rather hear preachers tell us how God means for us to be rich. We are more like the rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus when he was told to sell all he can and follow Jesus. We should be more like Zacchaeus who returned the money that he had cheated out of people four fold. (2)
While we make songs out of 1 Corinthians 13, especially verses 4 through 7, we ignore the words that Paul wrote in verses 1 – 3. As long as we are centered on what the world can do for us, as long as we are centered on what we can get out of the issue at hand, nothing that we do will matter.
Our Christianity, if you can call it that, is no better than the Christianity that drove John Wesley to seek reformation in the Church of England. Neither John Wesley, his brother Charles, nor his friends ever imagined that they would create a new religion. All they wanted to do was fix the one they had.
But the 18th century Church of England that they all grew up in was in decline because it had neglected the essential doctrines upon which it had been founded. It would be quite easy to say that John Wesley was as zealous in his beliefs concerning the church as was Saul in his persecution of the early church. Wesley believed that a lukewarm Christianity was worse than any imaginable sin.
Accordingly, Wesley labored to bring every part of his life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal and his methods openly provoked ridicule and gave birth to the name that we so proudly wear today, “Methodist”. But, as even John Wesley admitted, the semi-monastic existence and devotion to good works left them short of what they sought, the certainty of God’s love. For all their strict self-examination, rigorous spiritual discipline, and sacrificial good works, the assurance of salvation eluded them. All that they did, they were doing for themselves and not for others; Paul would probably have said that there was no love in their work.
It was not until that night in the prayer meeting in the house on Aldersgate Street that John Wesley understood that it was not what he did in the name of God that gained salvation; it was what God had done and would do for him.
It was this transformation that brought the Methodist movement, through John and Charles Wesley’s own spiritual transformation, from law to grace and changed it from a legalistic viewpoint to an evangelical viewpoint.
This transformation gave the early Methodists the spiritual peace that they had so long sought; it gave them the impulse for evangelism and a sustaining motivation to address the evils of society. It has long been said that England did not suffer the violent revolution that occurred in France during that same period because of the Methodist revival that occurred.
It wasn’t a new church that John Wesley sought to create. All his life he would remain a minister in the Church of England. All he wanted was a church that was responsive to the needs of society, a church whose members answered the call of Christ to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and needy, and free the oppressed.”
But the response of that 18th century, much like the response of the church today, was anger and resentment. In the Gospel reading for today (3), it seems as if Jesus’ actions in the synagogue that day were deliberate and planned. His reading of the passage from Isaiah, that was the Old Testament reading for last week, was the point where He would begin His ministry. Jesus wanted everyone to know who He was and what He intended to do.
Jesus might have hoped that such as announcement that the prophecies of old were filled would have been a good thing. It was made in the synagogue where He had grown up (remember that those present knew who He was and who His earthly father was). But from the establishment’s point of view, Jesus did not have the qualifications to be a prophet, let alone the Messiah. And as time went by, His actions and violation of one Jewish law after another convinced the establishment that Jesus was nothing more than an imposter and a charlatan.
The reaction of the people that day some two thousand years ago was to be expected. We do almost the same thing today. We react negatively to almost any overtly Christian message; we view such messages with skepticism and disdain. Why should we think that those hearing the first message of redemption through salvation would react any differently than we would?
We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we do not need to do anything. We hear the call but do not understand that it is a call for action, a call to move outward.
We are like Nehemiah who claimed that he was only a boy and incapable of doing great things. (4) We are like Moses who said that his stuttering would keep him from leading the people. We are like Jonah, who upon hearing the call from God, tried to run away only to be swallowed by a fish.
Like Noah, we wonder if we can do what we are asked. God commanded Noah to build an ark because He was going to make it rain for forty days and nights. But this was an area that received at most one inch of rain a year. Surely Noah thought God was kidding. Moses insisted that he could not do what God asked him to do because he could not speak in public without stuttering. God said that Aaron, Moses’ brother, would do the speaking. Moses would deal with the Pharaoh. And God told Nehemiah that He, God, would provide the words and the thoughts that he, Nehemiah, would need.
No one ever called by God has had to do God’s work by themselves. We are presented with a unique opportunity today. This can be the day that we experience and use God’s love in our lives. This can be the week in which a single encounter might help someone find Christ, simply because they have seen Christ in our lives.
It is no doubt going to be difficult to do this. No one said that it would not be. It is going to be frustrating and we can anticipate many, many rejections. After all, the very people that Jesus grew up with were the first to reject Him. It was probably his school classmates that were the loudest to jeer Him. They were not willing to hear the message.
But Jesus was not alone that day. He had been empowered by the Holy Spirit and He would leave Nazareth that day and go to Capernaum and begin His mission, the one He announced to his friends and family in Nazareth. He would preach the Gospel message, the message that would free the oppressed and bring new life to the spiritually dead. He would preach a message that would bring hope to a world that had lost hope.
We have heard the same message. We have heard from Paul that we will not do it alone but that through the Holy Spirit we will receive the gifts that will allow us to take the message out into the world. Now, you are asked, “what are you going to say?” and “when are you going to say it?”
(2) Luke 19: 8
(3) Luke 4: 21 – 30
(4) Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10