3 Epiphany—Year C
January 24, 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a,
Our reading from Luke presents Jesus’ first sermon at his home parish in Nazareth. I was still in seminary when I gave my first sermon at Saint Anne’s, Atlanta, and I’m pretty sure no one remembers what I said, but I am sure it met all three criteria for a bad sermon from a joke my father used to tell: the one about the young curate after giving his first sermon asks the rector if he had any critiques, to which the old priest said there were only three things wrong with the sermon: “You read it, you didn’t read it well, and it wasn’t worth reading.”
Jesus’ sermon, at least the first part of it we’re looking at today, outlines the agenda Jesus has for his ministry. This agenda is taken from an Old Testament sermon which was preached by a prophet 500 years before Jesus was born.
The Old Testament is the only Bible Jesus ever has and he quotes from it often, which should remind us that the old belief that the Old Testament is about Law and judgment while the New Testament is about grace and love, is simply wrong. The Old Testament, which tells the story of God’s covenant with Israel, is built on God’s unconditional love and not on Israel’s ability to keep the Law.
And in the passage Jesus quotes it is clear that God is promising to come to his people not because they finally became perfect, but because God is doing a new thing, a new Exodus, to save the beloved children of Israel, and through them to save the whole world.
Now in Jesus Israel’s God is showing up to do what was promised 500 years ago and intended from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3).
Jesus embodies this in his stories about a shepherd who searches for a lost sheep, a woman who searches for a lost coin, a father welcoming his lost son. Jesus embodies this by seeking out the poor and oppressed in order to bring them the good news that God has returned to be their King.
Later in the sermon Jesus will flesh this out by showing just how far God will go, but we’ll save how the sermon ends for next week.
For now let’s focus on Jesus’ agenda because this agenda is still working today.
My guess is that the major problem most of us have, me included, with what Jesus says is grasping the enormity of the grace he is presenting.
Eddie Snipes says trying to understand the immensity of God’s grace is the same problem we have trying to understand the immensity of a mountain if all we’ve ever seen is its picture. See his user-friendly book: It is Finished! Step out of condemnation and into the completed work of Christ
I had seen pictures of the three great peaks of Grand Teton National Park, but didn’t truly understand their grandeur until my son and I hiked up Table Mountain which sits at 11,000 feet right across from those peaks. Getting there was literally breathtaking; being there was figuratively breathtaking.
Think about the times in your life the reality overwhelmed the two dimensional picture.
It is said that once during the Second World War an American soldier ran into Pablo Picasso in Paris and complained that Picasso’s paintings didn’t look like reality. To which Picasso asked if the GI had a picture of his girl back home. So the soldier showed him a photo from his wallet. Picasso looked at it and said, “Is she really this small?!”
Our pictures of grace become tiny when we run into the real thing.
Grace of course comes every day in the form of life, love, and being a part of this amazing creation, but we’re often too busy to notice.
But even when we’ve become aware of the deep experiences of grace we tend to forget them and revert to our default setting of wanting god to be about judgment and fair play.
There is a voice in us that says, “So god is going to let the prisoners go, but what about the crimes they committed?! Aren’t they going to have to atone for their crimes, you can’t just let guilty people off the hook without punishment! They won’t learn a thing. You can’t just announce the year of the Lord’s favor equally to good and bad people, because that’s not fair!
Yet, we remember that story Jesus tells about the workers in the vineyard: the ones who work about an hour in the cool of the evening get paid exactly the full daily wage just like those who worked all day in the heat.
Is this fair? No.
Is it a sign of God’s mercy and grace? Yes.
Can you build a sound economic system on it? No.
Can God build a new human community with such grace? Yes.
Tony Campolo, retired Sociology professor and lay preacher, tells of being in a greasy spoon in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning when a group of nine prostitutes comes in, loud and boisterous. He overhears one of them named Agnes saying that tomorrow is her birthday and that she’s never had a birthday party.
When they leave Tony asks the guy behind the counter, named Harry, if he knows them and if they come in every night. He says yes. So the next night Tony with the help of Harry and his wife decorate the diner and present a cake to Agnus while singing Happy Birthday. Agnes is deeply moved and runs home to show the cake to her son. Tony then says a prayer for her and Harry the counter guy is shocked to hear Tony is a preacher. He asks, “What kind of church do you belong to?”
“I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry waited a moment and then almost sneers as he answers, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”
Tony writes, “Wouldn’t we all?!…Well, that’s the kind of church that Jesus came to create! The Kingdom of God Is a Party Do yourself a favor and watch him tell this story at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWlMV-UmueM
We might have a problem with this story, if we think the only way to fix our life is first to deal with our past with all its problems. This makes sense to us, so we spend enormous amounts of brain space replaying and rethinking our past. Back in the day you could spend years rehashing your past with your analyst, because we believed the only way forward is by wading through the muck.
But this is not how God works because God isn’t limited by our past. I like the way Karl Barth puts it: “Jesus does not first look at their past, and then at their tragic present in the light of it. But from their present He creates for them a new future.” Church Dogmatics IV.2, page 223
Jesus announces God’s agenda to bring a new future that creates a new present through the grace of God. This is what the church is—Christ’s Body acting out his agenda among people who don’t deserve grace.