Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Preacher's Paradox

Luke 6:17-26
Ordinary 6
February 17, 2019
William G. Carter

[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Through the winter, we are working through Luke’s account of Jesus. His ministry is that of a prophet preacher. Through Luke’s writings, we have remembered where Jesus comes from, what he comes to do, and how far he wishes to reach.

At the heart of it all is a paradox, an apparent contradiction, a potential inconsistency. And here it is: the prophet preacher speaks of heaven while standing firmly on the earth.

Some preachers speak of heaven as a far-off destination, a possible goal. The popular notion is that, if you live right and fly straight, you go to heaven when you die. The Christian version of that is, if you put your trust in Jesus, some day you will live with him in heaven. Either way, heaven is somewhere else, up on a cloud somewhere, full of angels strumming their harps, and loaded with immaculate golf courses.

Other preachers don’t seem to aim so high. I think of the popular preacher with an expensive haircut. He packs in the crowds in the former basketball arena, and gives them a lot of advice, mostly on their attitudes toward life. He says things like, “Think positively, look up, imagine good things, and they will all be given to you.” If you listen carefully, you hear precious little heaven and plenty of earth.

The remarkable thing about Jesus is that he will not separate heaven from earth. He comes to unite them. He says such things as “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Ever stop and consider how remarkable that is?  That there would be no distinction between “here” and “there,” no difference between “now” and “then”?

What if we were to live each day in the complete presence of God? Would that happen in heaven or on earth? Jesus says, “Yes.” It’s a good bit of both. In the work of Jesus, in the words of Jesus, indeed in his very incarnational existence, heaven and earth are married. They come together. And that is the paradox.

By definition, heaven is God’s dominion. It’s where God lives. It’s where God rules. Jesus comes to declare that heaven is here to rule over earth.  

We hear the evidence in the beginning of our text from Luke. Jesus is surrounded by an enormous crowd of people. They come “to hear him,” says the account, “and to be healed of their diseases.” In his voice as in his touch, Jesus makes them well. That is the grace of heaven touching down on earth.

Whenever any of us experience some kind of healing in body or spirit, this is what heaven desires of us, what heaven promises for us. It is a release from the pain and the brokenness that comes with living on earth. When that happens, it is very clear that God is ruling over our situation. It’s so much more than the simple affirmation that “God is in charge.” It’s the truth that God is mysteriously here, at work among us, not off in the distance somewhere, but right here.

This is the best way to comprehend the Beatitudes of Jesus. They hold together the blessing of heaven with the brokenness of earth. “Blessed” (there’s the heaven) “are the hungry” (there’s the earth). “Blessed … are those who weep.” “Blessed … are those who are hated,” especially if they are hated on account of Jesus. And, of course, “blessed are the poor.”

Now he doesn’t say “the poor in spirit,” that’s the Gospel of Matthew. This is Luke. Luke doesn’t spiritualize poverty; poor is poor. Poor means you don’t have anything, or at least, you don’t have a lot. According to Jesus, these are the ones who are blessed.

Luke keeps the list of blessings to four: poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. He also adds a complimentary list of curses: rich, full, laughing, and those who are well spoken of. That’s so typical of Luke. He often says, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” God’s kingdom is a complete reversal of the world’s aggressive values. We heard this on the lips of Mary before Jesus was born:  

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. (1:52-53)

With the coming of Jesus, and the union of heaven and earth, there is an equalization, an evening-out. Nobody is any better than anybody else. Everybody has equal access to the same heavenly grace. There will be no real distinctions between hungry and full, or weeping and laughing. Heaven exposes it all. This is the revolution that happens when heaven infuses the earth.

It really is a revolution, the kind of revolution that has no weapons, in the name of a heaven where there will be no weapons. If you spend all your energy to get ahead of the competition, to climb to the top of the heap, you will be surprised when heaven says competition does not matter. If you regard yourself as superior to somebody else, due to your good genes, good breaks, or good religion, imagine how surprising it will be to discover how heaven is populated, and who’s welcomed there.

It’s all there in the first of these beatitudes: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Let’s stay with this one. All of us begin our lives poor. We are born naked. We possess nothing. We are totally dependent on the care of others. And we end our lives in pretty much the same way. Oh there’s that rancher down in Texas who wanted to be buried in his Cadillac. He thought he could take it with him, but he was surprised after his death to discover the car wouldn’t run and he didn’t have the energy to turn the key.

We begin poor, we end poor. And in between, what do we do? We try to escape our poverty. We go to school, get out and get a good job, make some money, or marry somebody with money, invest what we have and make some more, only to get to the end of it all unable to carry it forward. That’s further evidence of our true poverty.

I’ve been watching Marie Kondo on Netflix. Know about her? She is the Japanese expert on tidying up your messy life. She has a new reality show where she goes into American houses to help them tidy up. It’s sobering. Those people have a lot of junk. There are stacks of clutter everywhere. They have mountains of possessions. Some of them can’t even walk through some of their rooms. What has become of them – what has become of us? They have so much stuff, and curiously, they have so little.

“Blessed are the poor… woe to the rich.” I watched some of the people on that show. They broke into tears as they confronted the need to get rid of the stuff that they do not need. They have so much, but they aren’t rich, not in the ways that matter. They are carrying too much baggage.

“Blessed are the poor.” Do I know anybody poor? I guess you could say all of us are poor. But have I ever met anybody poor? I have to think about that…

And then I remembered O’Shea. That was his name: O’Shea. It took a phone call to my mother to recall his name. Now I did remember his wife. Her name was Evelyn. She was a piece of work. She got a job as the part-time janitor of my home church, and I think she and O’Shea lived on the money from that part-time job. They didn’t have much else.

Evelyn was kind of squat, or as she said, “close to the soil.” She hobbled around with a crazy eye that looked northeast. She had a few curly whiskers on her chin. The church ladies grumbled that she talked like a sailor and didn’t wear enough undergarments. And she could be tough. If you tracked mud across her clean floor, she let you know about it. Not only that; Evelyn presided over my Eagle Scout project, and she made me do it over.

O’Shea was completely different: gentle, calm, serene. He always wore the same pair of overalls with patches on the knees. They had an old ramshackle house by the creek, right across the Talcott Street bridge, down by the water. Inside, the crooked floors creaked. Outside, O’Shea had a garden full of vegetables. He was a resourceful gourmet cook.

One time, he invited our pastor over for a home-cooked dinner. The pastor and his wife took their place at the table, and O’Shea carries out a steaming hot platter of meat, along with buttered potatoes he had dug out of the garden. He was so proud - the pastor’s over for dinner. “I caught this myself,” he said. The pastor puts a slab of meat on the plate, reaches for his knife and cuts it. It smells so good, so he takes a bite just as O’Shea says, “Yep, that old possum was giving me trouble, but I caught him and cooked him up. Ain’t God good to us?”

I’m not making this up. He really believed God was good. After that story made the rounds in the church, thank to the pastor’s wife, O’Shea and Evelyn invited me and my friend Jonathan over for a meal. That was about the time I decided I wasn’t much of a meat eater. Not to worry. O’Shea carries out a steaming hot platter of fish, cooked in tomatoes, peppers, and onions out of his own garden.

We put some on our plates, reached for our forks, and he declared, “Yep, I pulled that catfish out of the Susquehanna. It gave me some trouble, but God is good. Ain’t God good to us?” And he believed it. He lived simply. He didn’t have very much, but what he had came from God, and it was all he needed.  

So I think of O’Shea when I hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  heaven.” He didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but he was blessed with everything he needed, with absolutely no desire to make his life more complicated.

It was Henri Nouwen who once said, “Jesus, the Blessed One, is poor.” He is poor because “he freely chose powerlessness over power, vulnerability over defensiveness, dependency over self-sufficiency.” Here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spends an entire day ministering to a “multitude” of need. Luke says he stands on level ground, not high and lofty above the people but flat-footed among them. There’s power emanating from him, power to heal and power to speak a Word that penetrates their defenses.

This is how heaven touches down on earth. On level ground. Among the poor.

And so Henri Nouwen asks,

How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: “What is my poverty?” Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! “How blessed are the poor,” Jesus says. This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty. We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden.

Then he adds,

When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs… When we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.[1]

I don’t have anything to add to that. In a minute, I think I’ll sit down and see if any of this sinks in for me. Maybe some of it will sink in for you, too.

In the meantime, I do know you can’t turn a beatitude into a rule. You can’t reduce it to a mere behavior. All you can do is put the beatitude into the air and invite God to do the rest. So here goes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Culled from Nouwen’s writings at

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Preacher's Vision

Luke 4:21-30
Ordinary 4
February 3, 2019
William G. Carter

Then Jesus began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

This winter we are sitting before Jesus, the remarkable prophet preacher of the Gospel of Luke. We have heard how he comes from God, how he works through the temptation to be famous, and how he brings the ancient promises of God into the present tense. Now we hear the whole sermon.

And some sermon it is! He says, “Today the scripture is filled up to the brim.” It’s about to bubble over. It’s completed, it’s consummated, it’s carried through to the end. That’s exactly what we want. The Word of God becomes an event right here, right now. The crowd in Nazareth roars with approval. They are delighted at the words of grace that dance off his tongue!

Five minutes later, they want to kill him. Now, that’s quite the sermon.

I probably should have thought more about this, especially on the day when all of you vote on my salary. The preacher speaks so graciously that he ticks offs the congregation. Jesus preaches to his own people and they want to get rid of him. And by Luke’s account, this is his very first sermon.

Generally speaking, that’s not the way it works. Most of our visiting preachers have stood in this pulpit, and you’ve been very gracious… at least to their faces. Once in a while there might be one who comes across like some of the hymns that I select, and one of you will say, “We don’t have to hear that one again.” In fact, somebody said that to me just last week: “Don’t ever pick that hymn ever again.”

The same has occasionally been said of the visiting preacher who was declared substandard: “Never again!” Although I have to say this is a gracious congregation. The criticism would be infinitely more polite. Like the lady who stopped me in the hall after I returned from vacation. She said, “The guest who filled in for you was different from what we’ve come to expect. After one sermon, I think we’ve heard all she has to say.” I got the message.

Somebody else offered a different critique of another guest preacher. “Hey Rev,” he said, “who was that joker you lined up while you were gone?” I said, “A joker, eh? Was he funny?” “Yeah,” was the reply, “he was so funny that when the ushers passed the offering plates, I asked for change.” Once again, I got the message.

Now, of course, I need to mention that next Saturday night, I’ll be getting back late from a conference. In case the weather is bad or I’m tired out, I’ve booked the first substitute preacher of the year. Be kind to him. He’s going to do the best he can. Besides he is one of our own. So don’t throw him over a cliff.

That’s what they wanted to do to Jesus. I’ve seen that cliff in Nazareth, stood right on the edge of it. It’s eight hundred feet straight down. They wanted to throw him over – and, here’s the point, he was already one of their own. He was not a visitor. He was the hometown boy, the hometown hero. According to Luke, Jesus was already building a big reputation, and here he comes to the hometown synagogue to open the scriptures for them.

I’m sure it was a big day. His brothers were there (remember, he had some brothers). I’m sure were there. Joseph might have been there, a few splinters in his hands, callouses on his fingers. The people say, “He’s really good. This is Joseph’s son, right?” I mean, what did they know?

We can be sure his mother Mary was there. She wasn’t sitting with the men. This was a first century synagogue, and the women were kept out of sight. But Mary was there, and her daughters were with her. And Jesus comes to preach. Everybody knew him. He was one of their own. They were glad to see him. They all knew the passage that he read from the book of Isaiah. He was feeding them out of their own basket.

But then he told them two more stories out of their own Bible, and that’s when they decided to kill him. So what are the stories? A wise preacher ought to be careful of such stories.

Story Number One: Once upon a time, there was a famine in the land. All the crops dried up. Food disappeared. Everybody was hungry. Nobody had anything to eat. But there was a man of God, and his name was Elijah. He had power from God, the power to do whatever God called him to do. And in that time of famine, Elijah was not sent to feed any of the children of Israel. But he did go to feed a widow in Sidon, and she was a foreigner.

Story Number Two: Once upon a time, leprosy was a scourge across the land. The disease was filthy. It separated you from the purity of God. Many people in Israel were afflicted with the disease, separated from the society, segregated from the people, kept away and out of sight. But there was a man of God in the tradition of Elijah, and his name was Elisha. He had power from God, the power to do whatever God called him to do. And in that time of illness, Elisha did not heal any of the lepers of Israel. But he did heal a leper named Naaman, who was a commander in the Syrian army. He was a foreigner.

With that, the good people of Nazareth were inflamed with wrath. They grinded their teeth. They saw red. They began to shout. They grabbed Jesus the preacher and pushed him to the brink of that eight-hundred-foot cliff. They didn’t care if he was the former youth group president. They were going to shove him over, get rid of him, purge him from their midst.

Why? Because he told a couple of Bible stories? Oh, it was more than that. He was telling them the truth behind the Bible: that God really does love everybody. That was Christ’s vision. That is what he saw: he could see the wideness of the mercy of God…and his own people didn’t want to hear it.

It’s a painful moment, a premonition of the crucifixion, when, in words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus is pushed out of the world and onto a cross. It’s because the preacher sees what the people don’t want to look at.

I remember a painful moment from my own life. One night when I was studying to become a preacher, my father stopped by to spend the night. I was thrilled. He offered to sleep on the floor of my dorm room. I was glad to get some uninterrupted Dad Time. I said, “Let’s go down to the school cafeteria,” and he said, “We can do better than that.” So we walked downtown in Princeton to a wonderful Mexican restaurant.

We had a great meal and a couple of margaritas. The restaurant offered a delicious green salsa made from pureed jalapenos, so we had a couple more margaritas to wash them down. Then some more of that salsa and another round to wash them down. We walked, and hadn’t driven, and we were in a jovial mood.

As we walked back to the dormitory, we started talking about preachers we had known. For the first and only time, my father started opening up about one of the preachers who had served our church. This was not typical. My dad was a professional and kept such opinions close to the chest. He was never much of a drinker. But that night, he was in a talkative mood.

“That minister was bad news,” he said, “and really hard to take.” Did he do something wrong? “Oh, he was a rabble rouser, fashioned himself to be a prophet.” We walked a bit more and I just listened. I asked why he didn’t like the guy.

Dad said, “He didn’t know when to shut up. Apparently, he had walked the bridge in Selma with Martin Luther King, and he couldn’t stop talking about it. Every Sunday, it came up somehow in his sermons. I mean, this was six or seven years after Selma, and we kept hearing about it. We didn’t have any black people in our church. I didn’t know why he had to keep talking about it.” I was quiet. I didn’t know what to say.

My dad said, “You can only put up with so much from a preacher like that. So a few people started talking about getting rid of him. Quietly, you understand. Pretty soon, the preacher got the message and moved on. They made sure the next preacher in our church wasn’t going to annoy us like that.”

I loved my dad. I respected my dad. He was the tallest man in my world. He was a church elder, a presbytery moderator, chair of the Boy Scout council committee, a wise and compassionate Christian. There was a packed house at his church funeral and some of you were there. But like any of the rest of us, there was a season in his life when a preacher got under his skin.

And why? Because that preacher saw what Jesus could see: that God loves more people than we do. Any prophet preacher is going to see that. And that is the risky work of speaking the Gospel and living it.

To this day, I wish I would have had the clarity and the courage to have an additional conversation with my dad, because there was a lot more that needed to be said. But I do know he was a very good man who kept getting better with age. And I trust that the Risen Christ can forgive all of us and widen our view.

As for me, to this day whenever I hear somebody put down a group of people because of the color of their skin, or the language they speak, or whom they love, or how they worship, or where they are from, I flinch - - because I know God doesn’t see it that way. God looks at every single person, whoever they are, and God says, “That one looks like me.” We bear the divine image, every last one of us. We are, all, worthy of the grace and love of God.

That’s what Jesus could see, even if his own people didn’t want to hear it.

So I guess the question is this: do we clam up and not say anything, or do we speak up and live like it’s true?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Preacher's Task

Luke 4:14-21
Ordinary 4
January 27, 2019
William G. Carter

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent 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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. 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.

For the past two weeks, we have been getting ready to hear Jesus. Luke describes him as the prophet-preacher. He comes from God for all people. He will be tempted to distort his work yet stays faithful. Now here he comes, fresh from a forty-day retreat and filled with the power of the Spirit.

That’s now merely a footnote. Luke points regularly to the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. It is the unseen force from heaven that prompts the joy of Aunt Elizabeth and provokes Uncle Zechariah into song. The Spirit hovers over Mother Mary to create life in her womb. The Spirit guides old man Simeon to see the baby Jesus when he’s brought to the temple in a blue blanket. John says, “He’s coming! He will baptize you with Spirit.” And on the day Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit breaks out of the clouds above and spills all over Jesus.

Fourteen times before Jesus ever says a word in public, the Gospel of Luke names the presence of the Holy Spirit. So it’s no surprise in this gospel that the first public words of Jesus are these: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

That’s what we want from him, I believe. We want an experience of the Holy Spirit. We want to know that God is here, that God is speaking. When the preacher opens the mouth, we want to hear more than funny jokes, motherly advice, political opinions, or bar room chatter. We want God to come out.

Now, that’s not to say God can’t speak though funny jokes, motherly advice, political opinions, or bar room chatter. According to the book of Numbers (22:28), God once spoke out of the mouth of a donkey. I’m guessing that doesn’t surprise you. The important thing to remember is that it is God who is speaking. Holy wisdom can come through human words.

When it does, that’s the Holy Spirit. It’s more than the preacher. The Message is coming from headquarters.

That’s what Luke is signaling here when he says, “Jesus is full of the Spirit.” That is what he is announcing when Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah, finds his place in the text, and reads with a strong voice, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Something important is happening right then and there. It’s something big. It’s something holy. The words ring true.

And I will be the first one to admit this is rare.

One of my preacher friends slipped out of his well-mannered congregation one Sunday. He decided to take the day off. So he pulled on his blue jeans and a sweatshirt. He went over to the Big Box Church that prided itself in stealing some of his church members. He wondered, “What’s the attraction?”

He picked up a cup of latte in the lobby, found a well cushioned seat inside. The rock band was warming up the crowd, singing songs that most of the people didn’t seem to know. He waved to a couple of former Presbyterians, who suddenly seemed nervous. The lights dimmed, the leader stood up in the spotlight, and he gave a 35-minute talk on how he gets along with his wife.

“It was really entertaining,” our friend said, “and I can understand the attraction.” We asked him, “Was God there?” He thought for a minute and replied, “It was really entertaining.” He paused for another minute and said, “It was a lot more entertaining than snoozing through one of my sermons. But no, I didn’t sense the presence of God.”

I’m at the point in my professional life when I believe one church isn’t any better than any other. They may differ in their demeanor. They may rearrange the furniture. They may try to create a mood through the lighting or the soundtrack. Some pattern their gatherings after pep rallies and NASCAR races. Others hunker down with silent meditation and a lot of candles. The challenge is the same.

That monastery that I like to visit in New Mexico has seven worship services a day. The first takes place at 4:00 in the morning. It’s populated by monks in black robes who yawn and scratch themselves as they chant through the psalms.

Or there’s the Sephardic synagogue that my dad and I visited on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As the congregation chanted the Sabbath liturgy, a guy with a yarmulke pulled out a fly swatter and gave it a whack. The people kept chanting. Business as usual. Are any of these congregations better or worse than the rest of us? I think not. The challenge is the same.

For the thirty-three years of my ministry, I have been haunted by words from the book of First Samuel, the first verse of the third chapter: “Now the Word of God was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Those are haunting words. They may still be true. Anybody have a vision recently? 

What is it that we want when we gather for worship? Friends, maybe. Some good coffee, certainly. Some music to get us through a tough week, absolutely. But when you scrape it all away, what we really want is to hear a Word from God. And in Nazareth, that’s what happens.

It’s Friday night, Sabbath night. Jesus is there. He’s already created a buzz out in the villages. Here he is, returning to his hometown. He stood up to read the scripture, and they handed him the scroll of Isaiah. He opened it, found his place, and started to read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent 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. 

They know those words. They have heard those words before. There is nothing new about those words. But this time, they are the words for them . . . because the Spirit of the Lord is there. God is in the room.

That’s an experience that cannot be predicted. It cannot be manufactured, as if somebody could set the thermostat on “holy.” God cannot be coaxed, coerced, or manipulated to show up for worship. And try as anybody might, God will not be forced to speak. We wait on the Word of God. Without that presence, the preacher’s temptation is to fill the air with a lot of his or her own words.

But if God should come, if the Spirit of God were to fill the preacher or inspire the prophet, then the ancient promises of long-ago happen again, right here. Jesus comes into Nazareth, full of the Spirit, reads the prophet Isaiah, and begins the sermon by saying, “Today these words are fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. Not yesterday, not tomorrow. Today.

That’s what is going on in that old story from Nehemiah. We couldn’t give that to any reader; we had to give it to somebody good! Don’t get distracted by all those unpronounceable names. Here’s what is going on. The people have rebuilt the Jerusalem temple under the leadership of Nehemiah. It’s been a long time since they have worshiped there. It’s been a really long time since anybody had heard the Bible. To borrow that other Old Testament phrase, “The Word of God was rare in those days.”

Then Nehemiah calls on Ezra the scribe to bring the Torah, to open the scroll, and to put the ancient words back into the air. When people hear them, really hear them, they are blessed and they begin to weep. The ancient promises are brought forward in time and offered to them. The impact is so moving that everybody declares the day to be holy.

This is what the Word of God can do when it is brought alive by the Spirit of God. Those who are poor and have nothing are now given good news. Those who are bound in a hundred different kinds of captivity are now released and free. Those who could not see now perceive with perfect clarity. Those who have somebody’s foot on their necks are now on their own two feet. And the day of Jubilee, the Bible’s long-promised day of justice and equality, is today. Not sometime else, somewhere else, but today. Right here.

The last couple of years, I have taken some time around the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. to read his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Eight white clergymen told King to cool it, to move more slowly, to wait for the inevitable slow wheels of justice to turn. Dr. King wrote back and said, “No, today is the day.” As he put it,

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television
… when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over… I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.[1]

Do you know what King was saying? Today is the day. Here is the good news for the poor. This is release for the captives. Now is when the blind shall be given their sight. Today the oppressed go free. For those with ears to hear, the ancient promises of God are for us too, all of us.

This is the task of the prophet preacher: to dwell in the Spirit of God so sufficiently that the ancient promises are brought to these people right here, right now. For this is the good news to the poor: that the poor are blessed, that the kingdom of God belongs to them, not anybody else; that those who need God belong to God; and that God comes in the power of Spirit and Word to free all who hear this Word to live with dignity, purpose, justice, and compassion. Anything less is not worthy of the Lord.

Today is the day we welcome God into the room. Today is the day we invite the Spirit of God to do her work. Today is the day when everybody in Nazareth hears the Word that Jesus released into the room. The story says, “They spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.” (4:22)

A few minutes later, they tried to kill him. And that’s the subject to which we will turn next Sunday.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] I encourage you to read the letter again for yourself:

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Preacher's Temptations

Luke 4:1-13
Ordinary 3
January 20, 2019
William G. Carter

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

We are considering Jesus in this winter series. The Gospel of Luke portrays him as the prophet-preacher. Last week, we considered his heritage: Jesus is both the child of Adam and the child of God. He comes for the benefit of the whole human race. And immediately after Luke tells this profound truth, he speaks of the preacher’s temptations.

The temptations are three: turn stones into bread, sell out to the devil, and arrange for a few angels to rescue him from deadly behavior. On the surface, these are strange invitations. Nobody that I know has the power to turn stones into bread. No rational soul would give himself to Satan. Jumping from the tip-top of a temple is generally a stupid thing to do.

But this is the scope of what Jesus is tested to do, and the temptations do not go away. Luke says the tests will come up again and again. At the outset, Jesus needs to work them through if he is going to serve and save his Father’s world. If he gives in to any of these temptations and what they represent, God’s entire mission will fall apart.

The late, great preacher William Sloane Coffin Jr. suggested a fourth temptation for our time. If Jesus walked among us today, he would be tempted to appear on national television. Coffin may have been on to something. Do you think Jesus, the prophet-preacher of God, was tempted to be famous?

It’s there in that unusual second temptation: all the glory, all the authority, all the power. Satan says, “Bow down before me, Jesus, and I will make sure everybody notices you.” You will be the lead story every night on the news. You will make the headlines of newspapers. You will have a lot of friends on Facebook. Your life will become one big Tweet on Twitter. “Just sign here…”

The same temptation is in the offer to turn stones into bread. Jesus has the power, presumably because he is one with the Father and together, they created stones and bread. Here in Galilee, he is surrounded by scores of hungry peasants. They don’t have a lot of bread, but they have a lot of rocks. If he can perfect that magic trick out in the desert, he can feed a lot of people and satisfy that growl in his own stomach. It would make him famous.

Just imagine how famous he could be if he gave into that third temptation. The Tempter says, “Do a triple flop from the top of the Temple.” Use God to catch you. Be sure to quote Psalm 91 all the way down, ‘God will catch me, God will catch me, God will catch me.’

“After all,” says the devil, “you command all the angels. Right? So take a flying leap and prepare to autograph everybody’s Bible.”

At the heart of these three tests is the singular enticement of becoming famous. If Jesus should give in, everything he has come to do will be at risk.

The spiritual life is never aimed toward fame and glory. The prophet preacher will remind us of this after he makes his way through the desert. He will say, “When you give your money to the poor, don’t blow your own horn.” When you pray, don’t call attention to yourself – because prayer is not about you. When you fast, don’t moan and groan about it, lest your spiritual growth be suffocated by the attention you seek.

There is something risky about being famous. Ever notice how many famous people go off the rails or smash into the wall? Every week we hear about some new movie star going into rehab, some famous musician who develops destructive habits, or some sports hero who smashes up a bar room. And no preacher is exempt from this, even Jesus. In fact, there’s something about celebrity status that seems to have magnetic power for attracting trouble.

We have a love affair with fame, and we hate it, too. Maybe that’s why we secretly love to see famous people fall apart before our eyes. Maybe that’s why we crave the sordid stories. We amplify their troubles, push them toward the cliff, and then buy the books they hired ghostwriters to write. It’s a way to cope with the sadness in our own souls, to see someone soar in the stratosphere of public appeal, and then to be knocked down into the mud.

Nobody talks about Vickie Lynn Hogan any more. She quit school after failing ninth grade, bounced from one job to another, and read a lot of tabloids about Hollywood stars. Her idol was Marilyn Monroe, and Vickie Lynn decided she wanted to become like her in every way. She dyed her hair, had a couple of surgical enhancements, and changed her name to Anna Nicole Smith. Then she married an 89-year-old billionaire and buried him fourteen months later.

Fame was fickle. Just like her idol, she died of a drug overdose. I remember thinking, “That poor soul.” Even with 400 million dollars in the bank, she was a poor soul, a victim of her own need for attention. She didn’t invent anything, make anything, or contribute anything. Her reality show was so bad it was re-labeled a comedy. A line from her obituary is now repeated regularly: “She was famous for being famous.”

As someone said about her, “She was a giant cartoon version of the universal danger. Her tragedy is the extreme danger that faces every one of us… to be something that we are not.” To live larger than life. To forget who we are.

Jesus won’t have any of it. At least, not for himself. He resists the fame and fortune that the tempter offers him in the wilderness. He will not take the easy way out for feeding the hungry, nor will he order God’s angels to give him preferential treatment, nor will he skip the cross to gain the power and the glory,

In fact, it is on the cross, at an opportune time, that the tempter tries again to twist Jesus’ understanding of his identity. The soldiers say, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself (23:37).” Jesus has no interest in saving himself. He is the prophet preacher who comes to save the world. In his mission on earth, as in his authority of the resurrection, Jesus shrugs off the fame machine.

It is hard to keep this straight. Someone reminded me recently of the off-the-cuff remark that John Lennon once made. The Beatles were at the peak of their fame. They filled football stadiums with frenzied fans. Their recordings were flying off the shelves of stores. Ever the wise guy, Lennon said to a London reporter, “We are more popular than Jesus now.”

The religious response was furious, even though in many corners the statement was probably true. The Vatican demanded an apology, while the Southern Baptists declared it was an unforgivable remark. The Ku Klux Klan sponsored record-burning bonfires, which meant people had to buy Beatles albums before burning them. Lennon and his bandmates received death threats, and the response was one of the reasons why the Beatles stopped touring.

It is ironic that the Christ who refused fame and fortune would be defended by people who were unforgiving and threatening. It is particularly curious that a world that first rejected Jesus would not acknowledge that he is still overlooked and rejected. And the saddest bit of all is that John Lennon was later murdered by a man who had once adored him. It was being more popular than Jesus that eventually did him in.

Meanwhile, the assassin’s parole board keeps turning down his appeals, noting more than once that John Lennon was killed by a man who craved a lot of attention.

So I raise all this because it identifies the ongoing temptation of the preacher. As we will hear through the Gospel of Luke, the fame of Jesus will increase and advance, yet he himself never acts like a famous man. He walked flat on the ground like everybody else. He spoke with great power but never used his power to lie, manipulate, or advance his cause. Jesus had the authority to shout down a wind storm and chase away a physical illness, yet he never used his abilities for his own benefit. It was always in service to the needs of others.

It is hard for us to keep this straight, to not let it spiral off in one direction or another. Maybe the best advice is to paraphrase what the apostle Paul gives us in one of his letters, “We don’t think of ourselves too highly or too lowly (Romans 12:3).” It’s probably best to stay somewhere in the middle, balanced, intact, and honest; confident of how God equips us, yet trusting God to finish what we cannot.

There are no experts in holiness, no famous people in the Christian life, no perfect heroes who have it finished or figured out. All of us are pilgrims on a journey, strugglers in the desert, disciples on the road, forgiven sinners who might be saints in the making.

So as we reflect on the prophet preacher and his temptations, let us walk with our feet flat on the ground and remember who we are. We are the children of God, claimed in the grace of the Son of God. We are God’s own people, called from the shadows of our own self-magnified glory into God’s marvelous light.  

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Preacher's Heritage

The Preacher's Heritage
Series: The Prophet Preacher
Luke 3:21-38
Baptism of the Lord.

This winter, we will consider Jesus as the “prophet preacher.” That is how the Gospel of Luke regards him. Jesus comes to proclaim the living word of God. He speaks in the voice of a prophet. Sometimes he raises his voice, which is often how we regard a prophet. Other times he chuckles, even whispers, and the effect is no less profound. This prophet preacher comes with the power of Holy Spirit, and his words change the world. So we will spend time this winter with him.

The first issue is his heritage. Where does Jesus come from? And to that question, Luke provides his answer. Listen:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.
He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 
son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 
son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 
son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 
son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 
son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 
son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 
son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 
son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, 
son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, 
son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, 
son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, 
son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, 
son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, 
son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 
son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.

I am reminded of an old story of a director on Broadway. He was working at his desk one night. In front of him was a tall stack of scripts, and he was looking for the one that would be his next successful show. The hour was late, as he thumbed through one thick manuscript after another. In his weariness, he accidentally picked up the Manhattan phone book. (Remember phone books?) Flipping through a few pages, he paused to write a critique in the margin: "Not much plot, but, what a cast of characters!"

It sounds like Luke is reading us the phone book. It’s a long list of names, difficult names, strange names. The liturgist is glad we didn’t assign him that reading. These are people we never met, who lived and died a long time before we ever were born. They have no immediate connection to any of us, except that this is the recital of Jesus’ heritage. It sounds to us like a list of names, but it’s more than a list. It’s a family tree.

A couple days ago, I was cleaning out a bookcase at home and came across an untitled manila folder. It was full of information about my father. Mom gave it to me after his funeral and I had stashed it away. What a wealth of information! There were news clippings about his accomplishments, letters of commendation from his supervisors, and a handwritten resume.

Then there was worksheet for a security questionnaire for the Defense Department. It listed his brothers and sisters with their birthdates. It also listed his parents. I did not know that my grandfather’s middle name was Milford, and did not remember he was born on Christmas Eve 1901. I had forgotten he had married a woman who was a Thorngate. Her family came from Wales. Now to you, those would merely be names. But not for me. Don’t call it a list. It’s my heritage.   

What is most curious is why Luke should include this list. Joseph was the son of Heli,  son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph . . . Joseph was named after somebody five generations before. They would have remembered the name.

My younger daughter is Margaret Rose. She hates it when somebody calls her Megan because that’s not her name. Her name is Margaret. My father’s mother was named Margaret, Margaret Thorngate. She was pleased that we named one of her great-grandchildren after her. I said, “Well, Grandma, actually we didn’t name her after you,” and Grandma said, “Oh yes, you did!” She lived for four more years after Meg was born. She held her in her arms only a few times, but the generational blessing was given. It’s stated in Psalm 128, “May you see your children’s children.” The human race continues; that is God’s blessing.

The genealogy of Jesus pushes us to the past. It points to those from whom we have come. If you go over to the first chapter of Matthew, he doesn’t restrict it to men only. He includes some women, some curious women. Go poking around in Jesus’ family history and who do you find? Rahab, the prostitute. Tamar, the incest victim. They are on the list, which is more than a list. There is Bathsheba, whom King David stole from her husband before ordering his death. There is old grandmother Ruth, who was a Moabite woman. Jesus had Moabite blood in his veins! Now, that’s interesting. It is Matthew’s way of saying the birth of Jesus was an unusual birth.

As you may have noticed, Luke doesn’t have that much imagination. He mentions only men. Seventy-six men. A long line of men: Melchi was the son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er,  son of Joshua.

That’s what it says: son of Joshua. Joshua and Jesus are the same name. Did you know that? In Hebrew, it is Yeshua, which means “God saves.” According to Luke’s story, Jesus was named before his birth by an angel. It turns out that 26 generations prior, the name was already a family name. Trust me when I tell you the Jewish people have long memories.

I bet you thought the last thing we would be doing today is reciting a list of names – except it’s so much more than a list. Don’t call it a list.

Some years ago, I was preaching at the Massanetta Springs Bible Conference, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. It’s an annual summer pep rally for Presbyterians. Presbyterian pep rallies happen with a lot of sermons and I was one of the preachers. The director of development at the conference center was named a woman named Revlan. That was her name. She looked like she could model in a makeup commercial.

Revlan was a Virginian from the Shenandoah Valley. One day from our lunch table, I watched her work. An old duffer hobbled up with his food tray, his pants hiked up to his lungs. She stood and helped him take his seat. She sat down with a big smile. She offered her name, he spoke his, and then she said, “Who are your people?” That was the magic question. It must be the Shenandoah Valley Question: “Who are your people?”

This old guy sat up straight. He recited names, shared connections, told stories. Revlan sat with a radiant smile and took it all in. This is how she did fund raising, asking about relationships, discerning values. By the time she was done, she could have filled in the amount on his check – because she took him seriously. It began with a single question: who are your people?

“Jesus, who are your people?” He could tell you. Any Jew in the first century could tell you. He could trace the generations back for hundreds of years. This was the Palestinian way. This was the Jewish way. You could go to any town where a member of your family lived. If you recited your generations, the people would open their doors to you. This is how we can be certain that Jesus was not born in some backyard cave. All Joseph had to do upon coming into Bethlehem was to begin the recital of generations . . .

Simeon son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim,  son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David . . .

And with that, every home would be opened to Joseph the son of David.[1]  These were his people.

This was more than a local thing, more than relationship of Bethlehem. Luke is very clear that Jesus is a Jew. He structures the book that way, begins his gospel in the Jerusalem temple with the priest of Zechariah, and concludes it in chapter 24, with the Christian believers worshipping in the temple. Luke says Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, like every male Jewish child. Jesus was taught Torah and discussed it with the teachers in the Temple. His family kept Passover every year. They didn’t wink at the hold day; they journeyed by foot to Jerusalem. They did this every year! Because Jesus is a Jew. These are his people. . . for Luke goes on,

Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah,  son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. . .

That is the Jewish family tree. But the most curious thing of all is that Luke does not stop there. For Matthew, the line goes back to Abraham, father of the multitude, “exalted father” of the Jewish race.

Now, that is some heritage. My friend Lynn was interested in visiting our church some time, so I invited her to Christmas Eve. The church looked great, the choir was tuned up, and I said, “Come and enjoy Christmas with us.” She said, “Well, I’d like to, but we have a long-standing tradition to go to a family church near Philadelphia. Everybody looks like me, and although nobody says it out loud, I think you can only have communion if your ancestors were on the Mayflower.” We had a good chuckle over that.

But I had to wonder, whatever did they do before the Mayflower? If you talk to some folks, some rare folks these days, their family’s significance and stature go back only so far. But what happened before that?

So when Luke speaks of Jesus, he takes it all the way back. I mean all the way back . . . Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam . . . son of God.

Now, that’s something. At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens open, the dove descends, and God says directly to Jesus, “You are my son. You are my beloved child.” When the genealogy is recited, it goes all the way back to Adam, the first child of God, the original Single Father. Jesus is named “Son of God” at his baptism and traced back to the first “Son of God” in the genealogy. That is to say Jesus is a member of the human family and he is also mysteriously the source of the human family. He comes for everybody. Not just for some, but for everybody, because from the very beginning God created everybody. And what Jesus comes to proclaim is for everybody.

This is the preview of what is coming. Jesus speaks in the small town synagogue as well as the national temple. He instructs the rich and lifts up the poor. He eats at the affluent dinner party and feeds the hungry with loaves and fishes. Never in the Gospel of Luke does Jesus ever distinguish!

He calls the unclean tax collector to give up his dirty job and welcomes the touch of the unclean leper. He raises from the dead the son of a Jewish widow and welcomes the servant of a Roman centurion. He sits with the judgmental Pharisee and attempts to enlarge the man’s heart, and he welcomes the anointing tears of a woman with a questionable reputation. Men support his ministry, and women respond to by supporting him out of their own purses. Jesus will not divide or discriminate. He comes for everyone.

And where does the prophet preacher come from? Luke says, It was supposed that he was son of Joseph . . . who was son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. To put it simply, whether they know it yet or not, the whole human race is connected to him. And he comes to you and to me and to everybody else and says, “You belong to God.”

Just ask him, “Jesus, who are your people?” He looks at us and says, “You are.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 28.