Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: A Sermon

A sermon preached at Christ Church (Tara) and St. Paul’s (Chatsworth)

Texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30

I.

Being a prophet is thankless, indeed, impossible, work. It is not a job for which people are lining up to volunteer and it’s not a career aspiration parents have for their children. Sure, there will always be those who claim to be prophets and sages with some new spiritual revelation, but in reality they are self-appointed narcissists who peddle little more than feel-good navel-gazing. The easiest way to discern if someone is a prophet is to check their lifestyle and bank account; false prophets are typically motivated by making quick profits.

A true prophet, on the other hand, is a person chosen and sent by God to speak God’s truth. In the biblical witness, true prophets are known by the near universal rejection of their message: ‘It’s too harsh!’ ‘Enough with the fire and brimstone – give us something more cheerful, would you?’ ‘I don’t want to hear about repentance! I’m doing just fine, thank-you!’ Indeed, prophets in the Bible, with the exception of Jonah, typically receive less than a warm welcome: Elijah was forced to live in hiding because of death threats; Jeremiah was attacked by his brothers, beaten by a false prophet, imprisoned by the king, and thrown into a dry cistern; Jesus was driven out of town and nearly hurled off a cliff.

Initially these reactions might seem a bit overblown – why not simply ignore the prophet instead? However, when you consider the fact that prophets are called to speak out not only against those who control power – kings and rulers – but also members of their own faith community, including family members, you can understand why God’s prophets are universally rejected and live under the threat of death. We prefer our prophets to tell us exactly what we want to hear; we want our prophets to tell us everything is going to be fine and that I’m OK and you’re OK just the way we are.

Rather, God’s prophets speak out against the ways in which we participate in and tolerate injustice toward the poor. This proliferation of injustice is, the prophets insist, rooted in the unfaithfulness of God’s people. Time and again, God’s people turn toward idols, forsaking their calling to be a blessing unto the nations, neglecting their mission to be a people that embody God’s reign on earth. The refusal to live according to God’s ways, the prophets insist, leads to injustice and moral chaos. So, God leaves his people to their own devices and desires, seemingly withholding his mercy.

But all is not lost – while the prophets condemn injustice and idolatry, they remind God’s people over and over again that God still loves us and that God remains faithful to his promises. God promises to restore and heal his people if they will turn away from idols and return to him.

However, the call to repentance is too much to bear for people who insist on going their own way and doing their own thing. Our culture tells us that no one should tell us what to do; no one has authority over me. So, one of the ways to ignore the message is to shoot the messenger. This means that a prophet must be willing to entrust their entire lives to God as they fearlessly proclaim the message with which God has entrusted them. Because this message is a matter of life and death, a prophet is willing to give their life in order to fulfill their calling to bring God’s message.

II.

Luke intentionally begins his narration of Jesus’ earthly ministry with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth. Luke wants to emphasize that Jesus is a prophetic Messiah.[1] This means that the character of Jesus’ earthly ministry is prophetic – he will announce God’s truth; he will call people to repentance; he will proclaim the good news.

The good news is that although each and every one of us is captive to sin, poor in spirit, blind to God’s love, and oppressed by our own desires, God has not abandoned us. Indeed, the good news is that God, through Jesus Christ, is liberating his people from sin. No longer must God’s people worship idols who cannot hear and cannot speak; God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ; the Word speaks to us, coming to earth as one of us to live among us, showing us the reality of God’s Kingdom. The reality of God’s kingdom is good news for the physically poor, sick, and oppressed to because through Christ, God promises to end all suffering and death once and for all. The entirely of Jesus’ earthly ministry, culminating with his death and resurrection, is a prophetic embodiment of God’s promise.

But the message of a prophet is seldom welcomed as good news. This is because in order to hear the gospel as good news we need to accept the fact that we are captives, that we are not the masters of our destiny. Like those in the synagogue of Nazareth who were incensed at Jesus’ words, it is easier to attempt to murder a prophet than it is to heed what he is saying. We would rather accept the cheap sentimentality conveyed by the song ‘All you need is love’, than to accept the radically dangerous love of God shown to us through Jesus Christ. The irony, of course, is that it is in the very murder of Jesus on the cross, that God’s scandalous love is most clearly revealed. And yet, this remains a truth that seem too good to be true; this is a love that is impossible for us to accept.

The reality is that Jesus Christ is the love of which St. Paul famously speaks in 1 Corinthians 13. This is not love enshrined by Hallmark and romantic comedies; it is a love that can only be understood by looking to Christ and him crucified. The message of God’s prophets announce and anticipate Christ; he is the meaning and fulfilment of their message. Indeed, Christ is the fulfilment of the entirely of Scripture; the very meaning of Scripture as a whole is found in and through him. Because Christ is the fulfilment and meaning of Scripture, he alone is the one who will have final domination over all nations and kingdoms; he is the one who will build and plant God’s kingdom.

To hear and accept the prophetic witness of Jesus Christ is to repent. The work of repentance is the means by which we turn towards God’s kingdom. Jesus himself says “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1.15). And yet, repentance is impossible for us to achieve by ourselves; it is not something we can do through sheer will power or through a rational process of thought. Rather, repentance is something more visceral: it is completely abandoning myself to the love and grace of God extended to us in Jesus Christ; it is about allowing the Holy Spirit to transform me into the image and likeness of Christ. Of course, this work of transformation is not automatic; it is the work of an entire life lived in repentance, of continually returning toward the God who will always love us and never forsake us.

As Anglicans, the work of repentance is embodied in our liturgy: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…” is a prayer of repentance. “Lift up your hearts…” is a prayer of repentance.

III.

As Christ’s earthly body, the Church is called to prophetically embody the love of Christ as it calls itself and the world to repentance through the proclamation of the gospel. This is a difficult task that will almost certainly result in open hostility directed toward the church, even by those who are part of the church. Nevertheless, the church cannot soften its prophetic voice in order to make its message more culturally acceptable. The message with which God entrusts is a matter of life and death; therefore we cannot mince words or use flowery language to soften the impact. The gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be compromised to societal norms or suited to personal taste; the gospel is all or nothing. It speaks about the totality of what God is doing through Jesus Christ; there is no room for niceties or qualification.

Although the gospel is for all people, many refuse to accept it; it simply demands too much. Indeed, we should not be surprised when people reject the gospel. Prior to his crucifixion, Jesus reminds his disciples, both then and now: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15.19, 20b).

This hardly sounds like encouragement or a recipe for church growth. How is this good news? First of all, we must remember, we do not grow the church; all growth comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, beginning with repentance. This frees the church to focus on its mission: going into the world to make baptized disciples. Secondly, the same promise that God gave to Jeremiah, God gives to his church: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jer. 1.4). God entrusts us – and as the reading from Jeremiah reminds us – God commands us (cf. Jer. 1.7) to speak his message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God has liberated the cosmos from sin and death. We are either obedient to this command or we ignore it and keep ourselves occupied with church busy-work. When we are obedient, we can be confident that God remains with us, even as we face hostile crowds who want us dead and gone.

The prophetic vocation of the church requires that we both speak and embody the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, a fearless and dangerous love that stands with the broken, the poor, and the outcast. The prophetic message of the church is: God loves you just the way you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.

This is a message that is for the baptized and the unbaptized alike. Indeed, it is a message that the church must be willing to hear and accept for itself before it is able to proclaim it to the world. We cannot assume like those in the synagogue of Nazareth that we are somehow off the hook assuming that God plays favorites. No; the church must be willing to allow God to break it down and destroy it; the church must be willing to name its own idols and turn away from them in repentance. It is only in so doing will the church open itself up to God’s promised growth.

Could it be that the current numerical decline of the church in North America is actually a good thing, a way of calling the church to return to its first love? Could it be that dwindling numbers are God’s way of waking us up from our cultural slumber and reminding us of our prophetic vocation?  Could it be that God’s promised growth comes insofar as the church is faithful to her calling?

The planting and building of God’s kingdom is God’s prerogative; it takes place within God’s timeframe; we cannot force immediate growth through strategic planning or clever programming. However, we can go fearlessly into the world to proclaim the dangerous and life-giving love of Christ, knowing that he goes with us along the way.

Amen.

[1] Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke (Sacra Pagina), 81.

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