A sermon based on Psalm 19 and Luke 4:14-30 preached January 15th, 2017
There’s a parable that comes from both the Buddhist and Jewish faith traditions that goes a bit like this:
Several disciples went to their teacher and said,
Sir, there are living here in this village many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal, and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?
The teacher answered,
Once upon a time, there was a certain King who called to his servant and said,
‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of the village who were born blind, and show them an elephant.’
Very good, sire,
replied the servant. And he did as he was told. Once the elephant and all the blind men were gathered in one place, the King said to the blind men,
Here is an elephant.
To one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.
When the blind men had felt the elephant, the King went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’
The blind man who was presented with the head answered,
Sire, an elephant is like a pot.
The blind man who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ The one who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. He who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle; the tuft of the tail, a brush.
Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘An elephant is like this, not that!’
‘Yes, it’s like that!’
and so on, till they came to blows over the matter. The king was delighted with the scene.
Then the teacher said,
Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing. In their ignorance, they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, from their own small point of view, each of them maintain that reality is thus and thus.
Then the teacher rendered this meaning:
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his own view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.
This week, there will not only be elephants gathering together in DC. There will also be donkeys. Red and blue, and every color in between. Democrat and Republican, and every other kind of political creature. If Washington DC wasn’t already a veritable zoo, it will be this week. On Friday, we will inaugurate a new President. And next weekend, and not so far away in the same city, millions of women and their significant others will gather together for the Women’s March on Washington. Some of our own will be a part of that assembly.
Since we’re coming up on such a politically loaded week in such a politically charged time in our country’s history, I began to wonder what kind of approach Jesus would take to all of this.
We live in such a noisy nation, and it’s right for us to ponder where our voice should be in all the cacophony, what we who call ourselves Christian should be saying and doing in and among the chaos of it all. Where in all of this commotion and confusion can we find Jesus speaking and God working? And what is the Holy Spirit saying?
That’s our vocation as disciples, by the way. To listen for another voice—to pay attention in a different way than most everyone else does. To search for God’s Word in whatever situation we find ourselves.
There’s a theory that many New Testament scholars have about Judas Iscariot. Judas was, of course, the disciple who betrayed Jesus—who ratted Him out to the Roman officials who arrested and ultimately crucified Him.
It could be that Judas turned Jesus into the occupying government intending to force Jesus into a scenario where there would be a clash of Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Rome meets the Kingdom of God. It could be that Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of the power players of the day, expecting Jesus to put up a fight, to finally become the Messiah that Judas and every other Jewish person expected the Messiah to be—someone who would take up sword and armor, and confront the oppressive Kingdoms of the day with His own political might, finally bringing the reign of God upon the earth.
Of course, that didn’t happen. To Judas’ dismay, this theory goes, Jesus never put up a fight. In fact, if you’ll remember that moment when the Roman soldiers raided the Garden of Gethsemane and arrested Jesus, one of Jesus followers—never named in any Gospel account—took out a sword and lopped off an ear of one of the High Priest’s servants. Jesus scolded this follower, saying
Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Jesus was not the Messiah anyone expected.
Yes, Jesus confronted the injustice of His day. Yes, kingdom’s clashed in that moment—the Kingdom of God and kingdoms of this world went head to head that first Good Friday, but not in the way that anyone ever expected. God refuses every expectation we have of Him. Just ask Judas. God stubbornly refuses to be what we want or need Him to be. God is much bigger than any of our notions or desires or categories. Judas wanted Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that Jesus was never meant to be. And anyone who tells you that God is on their side—on their side of the aisle or on their side of history—has exchanged the God of the Bible with a lower-case g god of their own making. Just as Judas found out 2,000 years ago: our God is too big for sides.
At the end of our story this morning, the crowds who gathered in the synagogue that Sabbath day became angry with Jesus. After having read from a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus gave them an 11-word sermon, declaring,
Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it,
in effect, declaring himself to be the long-awaited Messiah. This was Jesus’ inaugural address.
Luke says the crowd revolted against Jesus. His claim to be Messiah angered them enough that they wanted to throw him off a nearby cliff. But, somehow, Jesus alluded their grasp and passed through the crowd and went on His way. God refuses our attempts to take a firm hold of Him. God alludes every one of our efforts to hold Him captive. And on that first Easter morning, Jesus defied human grasp in the most definitive of ways: by escaping the hold of death itself, showing the entire world once and for all that there’s no container, no box, no category, no tomb big enough, and no stone heavy enough to hold onto Him.
And if Jesus’s words sound politically loaded to you, perhaps that’s because they are. Even though Jesus wasn’t here to be the sort of political Messiah His people longed for, He still had an agenda. Jesus spent His earthly ministry confronting the hypocrisy and social injustice built into the political systems of the day. He spent His life speaking truth to power. Indeed, He was the Truth, come to show the world what God cares about most. And these words from Luke 4 encapsulate that.
If we take the Gospel seriously, there’s no way around it: our role—the role of the church—is to speak prophetically, just as Jesus did here in His first sermon, confronting any unjust system of power in place among us, and speaking up for anyone who suffers injustice. And in order to see the injustices of our political systems as clearly as Jesus saw the injustices within the political system of His day, we have to take a big step back so we can see the entire elephant for what it is, so we can see all sides of the thing.
We who call ourselves Christians are called to dismiss the false dichotomies among us: Democrat/Republican, conservative/liberal, black/white, or any other false dichotomy that the loudest voices in our nation try to sell to us. God is not part and parcel with any of them, and God’s truth will never be found entirely in any one of them. Instead, we are called to devote ourselves to looking at everything in the Third Way. And the Third Way has always been and will always be suspicious of any one ideology or perspective, any voice that wants to tell us how things are.
Instead, we who call ourselves followers of Christ must concern ourselves with finding, speaking, practicing, and being truth. This means living in such a way that no matter who’s in power, we give ourselves over to the task of bearing Christ’s image into the world by lifting up the overlooked, the oppressed, the forgotten, and the discarded among us. By preaching Good News to the poor, proclaiming release to those held captive, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s favor to those who are too often trampled underfoot.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t depend on any government to carry out justice. At times it will, usually it won’t. But, no matter who’s in charge, God calls us to the holy work of looking out for the common good of all—of creating spaces for our fellow human beings to live full and dignified lives.
Through these words from Luke, Jesus’ first sermon, we are given our Kingdom task. Jesus’ vocation is also ours. And we have lots of work to do.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!