Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon -- 4th Sunday after Epiphany (January 31, 2016)

LUKE 4:1-12

JESUS' GRACE IS DANGEROUS.

In the name + of Jesus.

     In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)  These words serve as a powerful warning for us.  While it is important to cling to the word of God and to not yield even an inch of compromise regarding God's word, such faithfulness is useless if we have neither love nor compassion for our neighbor.  Our job is not to hoard God's truth, but in love to declare it.  In the process, we will declare God's love to people whose sins are so evident and so prevalent that people might think we are insane to tell such messed-up, self-destructive, and self-deluded people about God's forgiveness in Jesus.  And our own congregation might become much more messy by inviting such sinners into our midst.  But Jesus' grace is dangerous.  It means that we will deal with messed up people and their messy lives.  But that is good, because Jesus loves such people, and they need Jesus.
     Jesus went to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth to preach the word.  After Jesus read from Isaiah, he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  (Luke 4:20,22)  In other words, Jesus was declaring, “I am the fulfillment of the Scriptures.  I am the one God promised.  I have come to redeem, to restore, and to reconcile.  There is no Messiah, no salvation, and no life apart from me.”  The people in Nazareth did not misunderstand.  They recognized exactly what Jesus had claimed.  Their pride in the hometown boy turned quickly into outrage.
     Jesus knew that his fellow Nazarenes would demand that he back up his claims.  He said to them,“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” (Luke 4:23)  It was not enough that they knew Jesus had done miraculous signs; they would demand to see them personally.  They felt that they had a right to Jesus' miracles and a greater claim on Jesus' ministry.  After all, they were his family and friends in Nazareth.  Surely that earned them something!
     But the kingdom of God is not about favoritism.  Jesus does everything based on grace.  But Jesus' grace is dangerous, because it demands that all people be treated as equals.  Therefore, Jesus highlighted two Old Testament examples of God's grace.  One was when Elijah was sent to the widow of Zarephath during a famine.  God could have sent Elijah to any number of widows in Israel to aid them.  Instead, God showed favor on a widow from Sidon.  Likewise, the prophet Elisha could have cleansed any number of lepers in Israel.  Instead, he cleansed a Syrian called Naaman.
     The people in Nazareth were outraged by Jesus' examples of grace.  They would have claimed, “Foreigners!?  Gentiles?!  They do not deserve God's grace!”  And that is true.  They didn't.  The problem was that the people of Nazareth believed that they did.  They were the chosen people of God.  They had the covenant.  Jesus was their kin.  How could Jesus suggest that they did not deserve God's grace?!  It is because no one deserves grace.  Jesus' grace is dangerous that way.
     We have a similar lack of compassion for people who do not deserve God's grace.  We are all familiar with people who have made a royal mess of their lives.  Often, it is because of self-inflicted stupidity or self-indulgent moral failings.  Con artists, alcoholics, and pedophiles made choices which led to their ruin.  Co-workers are ostracized because they can't keep their mouths shut.  Or they are fired because they slanderous their boss on Facebook.  They paid the price for their lack of self control, and few people feel sorry for them.  They have messed up their lives.  They don't deserve God's grace.  They have earned his wrath.
    It is true: Sinners who have so brazenly proven themselves to be sinners don't deserve God's grace.  But like the people of Nazareth, we believe we do.  We have behaved better.  We have been in church.  We have kept ourselves out of the doghouse, or at least out of jail.  And we believe that should be worth something.  But if you pray that God will reward you for your deeds, then be warned: God will.  God will give you what you have earned.  You will be judged for putting sinners into categories of those who don't deserve God's grace and those who do.  And, of course, you have categorized yourself as better and, therefore, deserving.  But the kingdom of God is not based on favoritism.  It is based on grace.  And Jesus' grace is dangerous.  It demands that all people be treated equally—as sinners.
     The people of Nazareth were so incensed that Jesus would put them on par with Gentile lepers and foreign widows that they prepared to throw Jesus off a cliff.  But this was not Jesus' hour.  So, passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:30)  Jesus would not die on a hill at Nazareth.  Jesus would die on a hill outside of Jerusalem.
     Jesus' grace may be dangerous because it forces you to acknowledge that you are a poor, miserable sinner who has earned nothing but wrath.  But this is what Jesus preached on in that synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)  Jesus comes for poor, miserable sinners.  So, if you recognize that you are a sinner, then here is your good news: Jesus comes for you.
     Jesus comes with grace for you.  The very definition of grace is that Jesus gives you what you do not deserve.  He fulfills God's word which tells us that God does not treat us as our sins deserve.  Rather than repay us with the punishment we deserve, Jesus has taken our punishment for us.  Jesus humbled himself to counter the ways we have exalted ourselves.  Jesus groaned under God's anger for the times we have prided ourselves on our good deeds.  Jesus was condemned for all of our sins, because all our sins are worthy of condemnation.  In turn, Jesus gives us his righteousness, his blessing, and his salvation.  These are the gifts he gives to us—not because we have earned them, but because he is gracious to us.  And Jesus is not only gracious to us.  Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)  It is not because the world deserves it; it is because the world needs it.  Jesus has been gracious by paying for the sins of all.
     Jesus' grace is dangerous because it makes all people the same.  No one deserves God's favor.  Yet, God has revealed his favor to all people through Jesus Christ who has redeemed sinners.  He does not treat us as our sins deserve.  Instead, Jesus gives you what you do not deserve—forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.
     Jesus' grace is also the reason that we can live dangerously in loving the unlovable and in proclaiming his forgiveness even to them.  Yes, there are many who have made a mess of their lives.  But Jesus Christ can cleanse even the worst of sinners.  That his grace.  No one deserves it, and yet, God gives it.  As we proclaim it, there will always be some who say in disgust, “I can't believe that God would love them.”  But there will be others who marvel, “I can't believe that God would love me.”  And in righteous humility, you get to marvel with them and confess, “Yes, he does.  He even loves me, too.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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