The Starting Point

Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 1 February 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.


For those who are not aware, there is a football game tonight. Now, were it not for the endless hype that proceeds this game, I would not even know which teams were playing. But, nonetheless, I imagine that the coaches at this moment thinking about what they will say to the teams just before they go out to play.

Actually, in my mind, the speech the coaches will say tonight is pretty much the same speech every coach gives in every sport just before the last game. It will not be much of an emotional speech (not withstanding the films of Knute Rockne’s speeches to his Notre Dame teams that we sometimes see) but it will be thoughtful. The words differ but the meaning is the same; the team has reached the goal it set for itself back at the beginning of the season. The coaches won’t speak of winning because that is still in front of them. Rather, they will speak about the hard work, sweat and practice that each player went through at the start of the season.

If we forget how we got to a point, then it is very difficult to value the reaching of that point. You cannot have a goal to reach unless you have a starting point. The Gospel readings for the last two weeks have marked the starting of Jesus’ public ministry. Two weeks ago, Jesus did his first miracle at the wedding in Canaan but that was an unplanned event and not known beyond the few involved in the serving of the wine.

But Jesus’ actions in the temple were deliberate and planned. Jesus fully intended that everyone know who he was and what he intended to do. It was the starting point in his ministry. One would think that Jesus meant for it to be a good start; when doing something monumental or seemingly important, you would like to do it in your home town or in a setting where you are the most comfortable. All you have to do is look at how those seeking to be president make their announcement; most times, it is in their hometown or at a place to which they have a connection.

Jesus was from Nazareth and so it was natural that he come to the temple where he grew up (note that those present knew who He was and who His father on earth was). It is hard to say whether Jesus knew what the reaction of those there that day would be; but the commentaries clearly suggest that He knew that any reaction would not be positive.

From the establishment point of view, Jesus did not have the qualifications to be a prophet, let alone be the Messiah. And as time went by, Jesus actions and violation of one Jewish law after another convinced the powers that be that Jesus was an imposter and charlatan.

The reaction of Jesus’ announcement that His ministry was a fulfillment of the law was an interesting one. For the most part, it was a reaction that we might find amongst the populace of today. We react to any overtly Christian message with skepticism and disdain. Why should we think that those hearing the first message of redemption through salvation should react any differently?

And that is where the problem lies for us today? We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We do not want to take the actions that Christ took. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we need not do anything since Christ died for our sins.

We see those who hear Jesus’ call as one that requires that they be persecuted. But this response leads to a martyr-complex, the basis of which is self-pity. But Jesus would have said that this doesn’t pay any dividends and is a sign of spiritual decay. Ultimately people will persecute themselves if they can’t get anyone to do it for them. They might sleep on a bed of spikes, or walk on hot coals, or in a more civilized country, they might wear a shirt of hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter what hurts them, just so they’re hurt and therefore have a legitimate reason to feel sorry for themselves. Those who do this, those who see Christ’s call as an inward call will never understand that it was a call for action and a call to move outward.

But Christ did call for action. He may not have wanted everyone to be a martyr but He did expect those who say they believe to do something. (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan)  Only in rare cases have Christian communities ever been hidden from the view of the public. In most cases, they have been situated where people could see them, where they could be eternal witnesses to the way people should live.

And that is the problem. We may want to hide, we may want to enjoy Christ by and for ourselves. But it can never be that way. The Christian community is God’s light that he has lit up with the glory of his own Son and He has no intention of hiding it. When we come into the fellowship, we become a part of God’s light. While we can determine the intensity of the light, we cannot escape the fact that we are part of the witness, for better or for worse.

As much as we despise overt acts of Christianity, we also no do not want to be the one who God calls on to do His work. We are like Nehemiah, who claimed that he was only a boy and was incapable of doing things. We are like Moses, who said that his stuttering would keep him from leading the people. We are like Jonah who ran away from the call of the Lord, only to be swallowed by the fish.

It has long been noted that

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his heritage on the Farne; but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called. In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Thins like this — and they are constantly happening — gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be. (From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill)

We don’t want the call because we feel that we cannot handle the challenge and we don’t feel that we have the skills that are needed. But it does not matter what our skills might be or how well we are prepared that will determine our success; rather, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, it is our attitude that determines our success.

If we do not use the gifts that God has given us as He gave them to us, that is with love, then our gifts are wasted and unused. God intended that the gifts that He gave us were to be given away in love and not as an expression of power or might. To use them in any other manner, to bolster our own ego or power would destroy the gifts.

Paul insisted that love alone can fulfill the role of empowerment for it was the opposite of ego. Love will succeed because it turns outward, whereas ego turns inward. And it is the outward expression of God’s love that people will see and experience.

We are presented today with a unique opportunity. Today can be a new starting point in our own lives and how we experience and use God’s love. It can be the starting point for someone you encounter this week who is searching for the peace found through Christ. We have the chance this day and throughout the coming days to reach out to all in this community, both those members not here today and those new to the community.

Yes, it is going to be difficult; no one said it would not be. Yes, it is going to be frustrating. Yes, we are going to be rejected and not just once but many times. But the very people who He grew up with rejected Jesus in His hometown. Perhaps it was one of his school friends who was the loudest to jeer Him. But Jesus moved on, going to Capernaum and the next stop in His mission.

It was a mission that would ultimately lead to death on the cross. But His death on the cross would be our starting point of our journey through a life free from sin and death. Jesus would leave Nazareth but he would be free to preach the Gospel, free to preach the Good News that would free the slaves and bring life to the dead. He would preach the Word to a world that might not necessarily want to hear it.

But we have heard the word and now, like Jeremiah, we are asked to take the word into the world. This is our starting point; this is where Jesus’ ministry through us begins. Jesus is calling us; are we ready to start?

UMH #398 — "Jesus Call Us"

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