03 February 2013

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany - Jesus Came Into The World For...

There have been stories over the last few years about the difficulty of being a lottery winner.  You may have heard of this:  the first thing every big lottery winner should do, according to the people who run the lottery, is hire a lawyer and get ready for everyone you’ve ever known to come out of the woodwork.  Today being Super Bowl Sunday, the members of the Ravens and the 49ers have had similar problems dealing with ticket requests.  One former player interviewed on NPR said he made his spouse deal with ticket requests so he could focus on the game.  I can only imagine how well went over with the spouse.  But what it boils down to is this:  when a local boy or local girl makes it big, everyone comes running to share in the good news.  This was as true in Nazareth in the days of Jesus as it is today.  
The people of Nazareth were welcoming back the hometown boy who was building a good reputation for himself.  “Hey, did you hear Jesus will be back in town on Saturday?”  “If he healed that guy over in Capernaum, just imagine what he’ll do for us!”  “I remember Mary’s boy Jesus when he was still waddling around the house in his diapers.”  “I always knew Jesus would make something of himself.”  But Jesus had harsh words for these folks who thought they knew him so well.  First, as you heard in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus amazed the crowd by claiming that the promises of Isaiah were fulfilled as they listened to him read them aloud.  Odd, but that wasn’t the worst.  The worst was the moment when Jesus picked a fight with the hometown crowd.  
Jesus said, “I’m sure you’re expecting me to do some great things here, things you’ve heard I’ve been doing in other towns.  Well, you’re not going to like what I have to say to you here.  People who speak the truth from God are never welcomed in their hometowns.”
What happens here sets the tone for the rest of the gospel of Luke.  Jesus tells these people who have loved him that their connection to him is not what makes them special.  Jesus makes it very clear:  he has not come into the world to make sure that these people who’ve known him can exploit that connection for their own benefit.  Messiah came into the world for much more than the people of Nazareth.
Jesus came into the world for the Gentiles - for more than just one tribe, more than just one clique.  In Luke 2.10 the angels say that God has brought “good news for all people.”  A few verses later the prophet Simeon says Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  When John the Baptist arrives on the scene to prepare the way of the Messiah, he proclaims that in Jesus salvation will be seen by all flesh.”  Jesus was promised to Israel for centuries, but the promise was never limited to Israel.  
You have to ask yourself:  what’s the problem for the people of Nazareth?  That they want Jesus to do great things?  No!  The problem is that Nazareth wants Jesus for themselves at the exclusion of others who also need him.  If he is the Messiah, he’s our Messiah - and they will set up walls to keep Jesus in and keep the rabble out if they have to.  There’s no room for outsiders, no room for those who don’t look like us, act like us, don’t meet our standards.  Make no mistake - this is not a failing limited to Nazareth - the same problem lives in us today and will live in us forever.  Jesus is for Nazareth, but Jesus is also for those outside of Nazareth.
Jesus came into the world for sinners, no matter where they might be found.  The things he said to the people of Nazareth offended them because Sidonites and Syrians were sinners.  We can’t say this for certain, but it sure sounds like Jesus picked a fight on purpose to prove his point.  Want to know what it feels like to hear what the people of Nazareth heard?  Imagine that person who epitomizes everything wrong with the world, and put their name in the place of the widow of Zarephath or Naaman the Syrian.  It sounds offensive because it is meant to be offensive.  It is meant to be offensive because God wants to offend our sense of entitlement, which always rises up and gets in the way when we think we’ve joined the “in” group by being part of the church.  God blesses whomever God chooses to bless.  It is not under our control - God blesses whomever God chooses to bless.  
At a concert in 1997, a few months before he died in a car accident, Rich Mullins said, “Being a Christian doesn’t mean you build a community and fence it in, where there are no minorities, no gays, no sinners.  Being a Christian means loving what Jesus loved, and Jesus loved the poor.”  We simply can’t tell God what God should do, whom God should love.  God is free.  God is free to do whatever God wants, even if it doesn’t make us particularly happy.  God can and does call us to love and serve the outsider, the imperfect, those who aren’t necessarily what we think they ought to be.  Above all, the message from Jesus is this:  “DON’T YOU DARE PRESUME TO TELL GOD WHO IS IN AND WHO IS OUT.”  Living in Nazareth didn’t make for a special claim on the Messiah.  Neither does being a member in good standing of St. Petri Lutheran Church, or the ELCA, or the Roman Catholic Church, or any other community of faith.  God decides who is in and who is out, and if God wants to ignore what you might think is your better judgment, well, you’re going to have to take that up with God.  And I wish you good luck.  
Here’s the great thing, though:  you can indeed take this up with God, because if Jesus came into the world for the outsiders and sinners, that means that Jesus came into the world for you.  Or are you going to sit there and tell me you’ve never felt like an outsider - or that you’ve never been a sinner?  If being part of the hometown crowd didn’t do anything for the people of Nazareth, being here this morning isn’t going to make God feel any better about you, either.  It’s not about who you’ve been - it’s all about who Jesus is and who Jesus came into the world to save.  Ann Landers once wrote that the church “is not a hotel for saints:  it’s a hospital for sinners.”  Jesus also seemed to feel this way about faith and why he came into the world.  He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”  
Jesus didn’t come into the world to play favorites.  Jesus didn’t come into the world to be the eternal nanny, forever keeping track of our spiritual chore sheets and who gets an extra spoonful of sugar this week.  That’s not how it works.  The people of Nazareth were blessed by Jesus presence, but not because it got them better seats at the resurrection:  they were blessed because God Incarnate grew up among them!  The Word of God took on flesh and bone and lived with them, and they saw his glory - that’s all the blessing we people of God could ever need!  We aren’t righteous here at St. Petri because we’ve got our theology right, or because we got the budget in the black, or because we’ve braved the elements on a cold Iowa morning when it would have been more comfortable to just stay in bed.  We here at St. Petri are blessed because Jesus Christ, the truth of God, came into the world for sinners like us, and in him we’ve been set free of all those other things we think are so important.  God’s church is meant to be a safe place, a hospital for sinners, but it is NEVER a place where the blessings of almighty God are expected as a result of what we do or limited to a chosen few that look, act, and think the way we do.  God’s church is meant to be a safe place turning itself inside out, offering God’s mercy and love to a world that needs it desperately, welcoming those who don't know the story and who haven't been part of the 'in' crowd at the church before.  
This world is changing.  God’s church is changing.   But God’s love hasn’t changed.  From our deepest history, God’s love has always sought outsiders and sinners and made them free in mercy for the sake of the world.  God's reckless love isn't happy until it gives itself away freely.  In the church, God is creating the 'inside-out' crowd, gathered by the Holy Spirit, forgiven in Jesus’ name, sent into the world to proclaim the love of God for all humanity.  Jesus didn’t come into the world to play favorites - Jesus came into the world for outsiders, for sinners, for you.  Be blessed, God’s chosen people.  Amen.

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