The Power of Love

January 31, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 4:14-30

 

Our gospel reading from Luke today is actually the second part of a very interesting account in the life of Jesus. If we had worship last week we would have read the first part where Jesus after having been baptized and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, began to teach in the synagogue. He stood up and unrolled the scroll where the Scripture was written and read from the prophet Isaiah, “ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has send me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Luke says, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The people in the temple were fixed on him alright. Jesus had gained quite a reputation as a dynamic teacher and preacher. Luke says he “was praised by everyone.” Everyone in Galilee. On that day in the temple, he was in his home town of Nazareth, the place where he grew up. He was Joseph and Mary’s son, a carpenter, the boy who ran with the other young boys, and went to the synagogue to learn the Torah. The youth who at 12 wandered away from his parents and was preaching those lessons in the synagogue. Everyone knew him. Everyone recognized him, but there was something different about Jesus that day. He picked up the scrolls and read with such……power.

The word power in Greek is dunamis. Sounds like another word doesn’t it? Dynamite. And we know dynamite is powerful. It’s a force to be reckoned with. You have to handle it very carefully because dynamite has the power to destroy things. It blows things up, it tears things down. Just like the power that was within Jesus. The power to blow people’s minds with his radical new ideas. The power to tear down the old temple and rebuild it in three days. Yes, that’s the kind of power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the kind of power that was and is released through Jesus.

And the people that day in the temple were so amazed at how this home-town boy now had such power. He was speaking with such gracious words, a powerful man now speaking with authority. They had heard about the miracles he had performed elsewhere. And now that he was home, certainly he would help them. With the kind of power he now had Jesus would fulfill all their expectations. Things were finally going to change; things were finally going to turn around. They had great expectations!

But just when things seemed to be going so great, it all turned bad really quick. And it was Jesus, himself, who made the change. Instead of reveling in the glorious accolades of the people, he started saying things that were sure to get them riled up. He told them what he thought they were going to say next. “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” You see, Jesus knew these people. He knew exactly what they really wanted even if they didn’t say it. At first they were welcoming, but deep down he knew they just wanted him to do what they wanted. They wanted him to perform miracles just like he did for others. And Jesus could have done that. It would have been easier. But Jesus was here to do God’s will and not to make things easy for himself. And speaking the truth certainly didn’t make it easy for him. Jesus saw right into people’s hearts and it stirred things up. They started murmuring among themselves and asking what had gotten into Jesus? Instead of being glad they were beginning to sound resentful, angry, and eventually enraged.

They were enraged because they didn’t want anyone – least of all Jesus who knew them so well – to point out their flaws, to reveal their secrets, or to point out the things they wanted were not part of God’s plans. The words, ‘Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” sounds like good news. It sounds like all one’s hopes and dreams might finally be realized. I’m sure the people of Nazareth felt like finally, finally after all the years of praying “how long O Lord” that God was going to answer their prayers. They probably said, “Yes, our enemies will finally get what is coming to them and we will finally get what we deserve. Vengeance for them and prosperity for us. Yes! Preach it Jesus!”

But then…..Jesus reminded them from the Hebrew Scriptures of how the prophet Elijah was sent by God to help the widow of Sidon and not the widows in Israel. That was not something they wanted to hear – how all their widows needed help and the outsider, the Gentile woman from Sidon (enemy territory) was rewarded. Was that wise of Jesus to bring up that subject? And Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to remind them of all the lepers in Israel who needed cleansing and how God sent the prophet Elisha to cleanse not them, but the Gentile Syrian commander named Naaman – their enemy. Seriously? Didn’t Jesus know this was really going to get the people in Nazareth angry? His hometown crowd wanted a victory rally, not a reminder of how everyone who hurt them and didn’t deserve it was rewarded.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise for Jesus that they were growing angrier by the minute. They didn’t want to hear their enemies – the people who didn’t even practice their own religion – receive favor from God instead of their own people. They were angry all right. So angry that they go up and drove Jesus out of town and wanted to hurl him right off the cliff. That’s some serious rage! And if we’re honest wouldn’t we be just as angry? It’s easy to get angry when we’re challenged to look at things in a new way. It’s easier to shut people out and build walls than to try and work things out. We don’t always want to look at things from Jesus’ perspective because that may mean we have to give up something.

But we’re missing the point. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. It means we are giving something up. We’re giving up our old life and taking up our cross and following Jesus. And that’s not easy. It means we have to change the way we want to do things and live the way Jesus wants us to live and love the way Jesus wants us to love. God’s love is for everyone. It’s so easy to blame people for our troubles, to get angry at someone and instead of confronting them to seek out the truth we turn them into our enemy, to try and always be right and in control instead of listening and being willing to admit our own mistakes. It’s easier to leave people out of conversations, and decisions, and plans rather than to include them, which may mean change. And most people would rather drive others off a cliff – including Jesus – than really hear the truth and be open to change.

Jesus was incredibly brave to speak the truth and he asks us to do the same – to speak the truth in love, always in love. St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 13 that love “rejoices in the truth.” It rejoices in the truth because the truth sets us free. Yes, it can be hard to hear the truth. It can be painful to admit we’ve been wrong, which is why repentance is a word people try and avoid. But if we can be open to the truth it will transform us into the people that God created us to be. Repentance means turning around and that is what Jesus wants us to do, to turn around and see the truth and let it set us free.

Back in September, Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress about repentance. He spoke about caring for the poor and the oppressed. He spoke against those who want to hold on to money at the expense of others. He spoke words of truth, and like Jesus, the people in Congress didn’t want to hear these things. They didn’t want to hear about all the money they were spending on things that were not helping God or others, but helping themselves. When the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, heard these words from Pope Francis it made the headlines because he cried. And even more than that, several days later he resigned as Speaker of the House. Now I don’t know John Boehner personally, but something unusual certainly happened as a result of Pope Francis’ address to the Congress. It was evident that the words of truth that Pope Francis spoke touched his heart and led him to look at his life differently. Speaking the truth in love – not keeping secrets -has the power to do that. It’s not the love of power that changes people for the better, it’s the power of love.

Love is the essence of who God is. Love is the heart of what being a follower of Jesus is all about. Love is what being a church is all about, and when love is our focus everything else becomes clear. Love needs to drive everything we do. If we aren’t living and loving like Jesus, we aren’t really being disciples.

That powerful Spirit will break our hardened hearts and allow us to be the means through which God will proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed if we don’t get in the way. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to hear God’s truth, to love like Jesus, and to proclaim that love even in the midst of opposition, even when pushed to the edge. Amen!

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The Right Time

January 17, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 2:1-11

God’s grace is found in the most unexpected places. In today’s Gospel reading the wedding takes place in an unexpected place. Cana was a small village less than ten miles north of Nazareth. It’s not mentioned in any of the other gospels. It was seen as rather insignificant, but not for the gospel writer John, and not for Jesus. In the small village of Cana, Jesus was invited to a wedding and it was His presence at the wedding than turned that special event into an extraordinary one.

Wedding celebrations in ancient times lasted for days- almost a week – not like today. Time plays a significant role in the gospel reading. In the story of the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ mother notices that they have run out of wine. In many respects that meant they were running out of time. It would have been a great embarrassment to the groom and his family if that had happened, just as it would today. It’s a matter of honor to provide enough food and wine to guests. Running out of wine could have meant the end of their joyous time. Time is precious.

We pay a lot of attention to time and yet it seems like there is never enough. How often have you heard or said, “There’s just not enough hours in the day.” Or, “If I only had a little more time.” And kids and adults alike often hear the alarm go off and say, “Just a few more minutes…” Time is precious. But not only are we wishing we had more time, we often put things off. “Not now, we’ll get to it later.” Not now, I’m busy.” “Not now, we have to wait until we have more money. Then we can stop working so hard, spend time with family, and have some fun.” At times we don’t want to wait and at other times we want time to stand still. Timing is everything and we have to act when the time is right.

How do we know when the time is right to take action? For Jesus is today’s gospel, this was important. He wanted to make sure it was the right time too. When His mother told him there was no wine, He said, “What concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus needed to reveal God’s glory at the right time, not according to the schedule of His mother, or the guests or even us today. So why did Jesus change his mind?

Jesus’ mother saw a need and brought it to his attention. She believed that he would do something about it in her statement of faith to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She didn’t know what he would do, but she knew her son. She knew he would respond in some way. And he did respond with great unexpected extravagance – 120 – 180 gallons of wine extravagance!

Jesus could have responded with just enough to get the family by until the end of the party. He could have provided average ordinary wine just like the other wine they had been drinking. Jesus could have done the bare minimum. He could have given them exactly what they needed to get by, but instead Jesus acted out of the radical hospitality and extravagance that is the very nature of God. Jesus gave them more than they needed. Some would have called it wasteful, but Jesus gave out of God’s abundance of grace. This is the example that we as his disciples are called to do as well.

There are many people today who are in need. They need food, clothing, and shelter. They need the basic necessities of life like jobs, good healthcare, and to be treated with dignity and respect. They need to hear the gospel message. People are bringing to God’s attention in prayer that there are needs that need to be met and they are wondering when their time for justice will come. As Jesus’ disciples we are called to respond to their needs as the body of Christ here on earth, not by providing just enough to get by, but responding out of God’s radical hospitality and generosity that comes from a deep gratitude for all the blessings and grace that God has given to us.

There’s a great amount of need in this world and the church exists to proclaim the love, and extravagance of God’s grace. The church exists to give generously and with joy as Jesus gave. The church is important. And each week as we gather together around the Sacrament of Holy Communion we receive Jesus’ abundant and extravagant forgiveness, love, and grace that strengthens us to do God’s work.

Tomorrow our nation celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his example of giving extravagantly like Jesus. He, like Jesus’ mother, saw a need – people of color were being treated with disgrace and not like beloved children of God. He acted, like Jesus, in response to that need, not by doing what little he could, but by doing as much as he could. He didn’t give up until civil rights for all people was a possibility. It cost him his life – just like Jesus – but love gives extravagantly – 100 percent. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Standing up for the right things is never easy. Speaking the truth when the majority is against you is not easy, but God calls us to act with truth, justice, and mercy no matter what the cost. We are called to follow Jesus’ example of doing what is right.

We disciples of Christ are called to do what is right. We are called to live lives of radical hospitality, radical love, radical generosity, and radical joy out of the extravagant love that God has shown to us. God gave 100 percent in sending Jesus Christ who gave 100 percent. Jesus didn’t just do what he could to get by; he gave everything – his life – because we mean that much to God.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. We all have needs, but our story today reminds us that God is a God who responds to our needs and most often uses us to meet those needs of each other. As the body of Christ we are called to be the answer to prayers. We are called to be the signs of God here on earth. We are called to lavish the world with the extravagant overflowing love of Christ. The time to act is now. Amen!

 

In the Beginning

Sunday, January 3, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 1:1-18

 

“On the 10th day of Christmas my true love gave to me……” You know the song. Well today really is the 10th day of Christmas, and many people have already taken their Christmas trees down, put away the decorations, started paying the bills, and getting their lives back to normal. But in the Christian Church we are still celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas that do not officially end until Wed., Jan. 6th, or the Feast of Epiphany, when Christ was made manifest to the Gentile world when the Magi saw the baby Jesus. They saw what John in our text today was talking about; they saw that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. And that event changed their lives because when you encounter God in the flesh, nothing is the same.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory…” It’s an interesting way that John tells the Christmas story and it’s a hard one to visualize for many people. We’re used to the Nativity accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that are so easy to visualize. Matthew tells us about the Angel Gabriel, Bethlehem, the star and the wise men, and how the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt from Herod. Luke tells us about the census, how there was no room in the inn, the manger that Jesus was born in, shepherds abiding in the fields, and angels singing songs of praise. These are images of Christmas, the images of the birth of Jesus that we love. John’s account of the birth of Christ leave us without these beautiful images. His choice of words leave us wondering how to visualize this event.

It reminds me of the game charades, where we try to guess the word a person is acting out. If we stick to Christmas words, some aren’t too difficult to act out like Christmas tree, or angels, or even shepherds, but it’s difficult to act out words like grace, glory, truth, or God. These abstract words are hard to visualize and translate into physical reality. We wonder, “what does grace look like? How do you show glory? Is there a way to show truth? And how does one begin to portray God?” To act them out is a real challenge. In order to explain these words we have to try to use other words, and often that’s where we can get into trouble.

Words can be so easily misunderstood. What means one thing to one person can mean something totally different for someone else. Take for example, the word fine. For one person it may mean that everything is okay and things are going great. For another person, the word fine may mean anything but fine. They say that’s what makes the English language so hard to learn, because one word can have so many different meanings. Words are wonderful things. They hold a lot of power and can build people, but they can also tear them down. The media – television, magazines, and even social media like Facebook and Twitter are filled with words that twist the truth and hurt. When we hear words like judgement, busy, critical, or perfectionist, they can hurt. They can remind us of how we fall short of who we want to be. Yet even words like truth and grace can leave us feeling uneasy. We might be afraid to speak the truth for fear others may not want to hear it. We may be afraid of grace feeling that we somehow have to earn it and it can’t possibly be for us. When John says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” some people hear them as good news and others may be left to wonder as to what they really mean. Are they really words of good news? If God really has become flesh and lives among us, will God embrace us or treat us as harsh as we often treat each other? At times we may even question, “Does God still live among us?”

The answer is yes, God is still living among us. God is still speaking to us and through us. And this is most assuredly good news of great joy! John chooses not to describe the birth of Jesus with the normal words we think of around that first Christmas because John wants to get at the heart of what the birth of Jesus really means and it is anything but normal. It is an extraordinary, life-changing event. John takes us back to the beginning. He takes us back not just to the beginning of Christmas, but to the very beginning, the very beginning of the world. His words echo those from the first book in Genesis…… “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness…..”  This light that we hear about in Genesis is the same light that John is telling us exists in Jesus. John is telling us that the same God who took the formless void of the earth and created all living things – came to earth on Christmas day and became flesh. God – the Word – became flesh. Wow! How do we even begin to comprehend that?

Why would Almighty God do such a thing? Because later in John 3:16 we hear “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is the Christmas story that John wants us to remember. More than angels, or shepherds, or magi, John wants us to remember why Jesus was born. He wants us to remember always how much God loves us that God would leave the glories of heaven and become human – one of us –so we would never be alone. God loves us that much. When you feel alone remember that.

So how do we describe words like grace, glory, truth, or God? We describe them by revealing Jesus who is grace, who is the glory of God, who is truth, and who is God, the Word made flesh. We reveal Jesus when we speak words of compassion and love and forgiveness to one another. We reveal Jesus when we live lives of peace and justice, when we pray to see people as God sees us – not with judgement, but through the eyes of love. We reveal Jesus when we accept the gift of grace that is given to us in Jesus for “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” God doesn’t require us to be perfect, he only asks us to be faithful. For God’s grace is sufficient.

In the beginning of this New Year, as we think about resolutions and make plans, John compels us to always begin with Christ. If every breath, every decision, every action we take begins with Christ we will have a year filled with grace upon grace. We will feel the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. For the Word has become flesh and dwells among us still and his light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Amen!