There was once an evangelist named Billy Sunday. He was the Billy Graham of his generation. He was conducting a crusade in a particular city, and in one sermon he said something critical of labour conditions for workers in that city. After the service, several businessmen sent him a message which read as follows: “Billy, leave labour matters alone. Concentrate on getting people saved. Stay away from political issues. You’re rubbing the fur the wrong way”. Billy Sunday sent this message back to them: “If I’m rubbing the fur the wrong way, tell the cats to turn around”.
I wonder if the congregation in this morning’s gospel reading was just as upset by Jesus’ comments as the businessmen were by Billy Sunday’s message. After all, here was Jesus, a simple, common local man who was saying such profound things………things that they didn’t want to hear. He was welcomed as a hometown hero……..until he exposed the darkness of their souls. That darkness included the view that they were “holier than thou”. They thought that Jesus should save his miracles and teachings for them, instead of including people they regarded as human trash; namely the Gentiles and others who were rejected by society.
They did not realize something that we often fail to realize today. The church is not a club or a membership organization. It is a place where Christ is preached and proclaimed, where disciples are made and nurtured, and a place where we confront ourselves. We have to realize that we are not who we think we are, but instead we are sinners who have been redeemed by a God who sent his son to die for us. The church is where we gather as sisters and brothers who are different from each other but who are one people gathered at the font and the table and sent out to serve in so many different ways.
Jesus came to free sinners from the bonds of guilt, sin and corruption. He is the servant referred to in the passage he read from Isaiah. Now the Jews had been waiting for centuries for a Messiah to rescue them from the bonds of oppression, but they weren’t ready for him when he came. They expected a military-type of Messiah who would drive the Romans out and return Israel to the glory days of the reign of King David. Instead, what they got was someone who was far from their expectations-a simple, common man from a simple, common background who would do extraordinary things such as heal the sick, cure the lame, save sinners and associate with outcasts such as sinners and tax collectors. They did not realize that in fact they were the ones who needed healing and saving.
When someone is different or doesn’t meet our expectations, how do we treat them? Do we accept them for who they are, or do we reject them because they are different or because they don’t belong? I found myself in a situation like this when my family moved in 1973. When I started school that year, I was shunned to the point of being bullied, largely because I didn’t fit in and because of where I was from.
The people in the congregation were indeed “holier than thou”. They thought that they were better than everyone else. They wanted to keep Jesus for themselves and away from the social outcasts. We are the same today. We sometimes think that we are better than others because we belong to the right church or club, or go to the right schools, or live in the right neighbourhood. When we meet other people who do not go to the same church, club or school, or live in the wrong neighbourhood, we sometimes look down on them. For example, I heard my father tell the story one time of an incident that happened before my family moved here. One day he was in the post office in the community we were living in when a lady came in and started having a conversation with him. At one point, she asked him which church he went to. When he told her, she said, “Well, that’s what I was afraid of!” and stormed out of the post office.
We often judge people because of prejudices that are caused by the other person’s family, social status or other reasons. Jesus met with a similar reaction. He was welcomed by the hometown crowd when he returned, but when he turned the spotlight on their sins, they wanted to kill him.
Jesus told the crowd what they needed to hear instead of what they wanted to hear. He challenged their way of thinking and the status quo. He came to “upset the apple cart” called their way of life. He told the crowd that they did not have an exclusive relationship with God. He reinforced John the Baptist’s claim in Luke 3:8 about God being able to use stones to raise children of Abraham. Jesus reminded them of times when God passed judgment on Israel but saved a Gentile woman. He reminded them of God finding favour with Naaman the leper-a leper who was a Gentile. All told, his message was a reminder of the old adage that “the truth hurts”. In this case, the truth hurt the congregation.
Jesus dragged the margin boundaries of race, creed and colour to include all people. This was part of his ministry. The Jews were not necessarily at war with Jesus the man. They were at war with his ministry, just like the world is often at war with modern Christian ministry. The Jews felt threatened by the Christian movement, just like many in our world today feel threatened by the Christian climate. Christians are threatened throughout the world today, especially in places such as Iran, India, China and North Korea.
For centuries, people in India have lived under a rigid caste system in which every person is born into a set social group or caste. People who are born into the highest social group receive the benefits of honour and respect. Then there are different levels below this. A person’s caste at birth will determine what job he can have, who he can marry, and what rights he has in society. The very lowest caste is the Dalits, whose name actually means “broken, crushed”. The Dalits are targets of violence and discrimination in Indian society.
And now, they are targets for discrimination for another reason: their faith. The Christian faith is quite attractive to the Dalits. In fact, 80% of Christians in India are Dalits. They choose to follow Christ even when they know the consequences they might face. Why would they invite this treatment by becoming Christians? They do so because in Christ, we meet a God who loves and lifts up those who would be torn down by society. His heart is with those who suffer. He cares about those who are hurting, who are helpless, who are brokenhearted, and who are in bondage. He will not abandon us to despair. God is a God of hope. God is a God of justice.
Today, where do we see the church behaving like the congregation in the synagogue? Where do we see any group suffering from a toxic case of in-group loyalties, otherwise decent people making furious fools of themselves? Any group that considers itself to be favoured can behave in this way, from a congregation to a nation. Where do we see outsiders who welcome the good news and new life that Christ offers?
Jesus read the hearts of the congregation just like he reads our hearts today. How do we respond to war, abortion, divorce, conspicuous consumption, concern for the poor, racism, sexual orientation or child abuse and exploitation? Do we respond out of prejudice or out of Christian love? In our hymn book there is a hymn with this line: “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” Jesus calls us to come and go with him, to become servants, fishers and followers, witnesses—in other words, to become more than we are.
We are called upon to speak and act on God’s behalf, especially when we see injustice in our world. Do we feel up to the task? Can we face opposition? Can we do anything to bring about change? Yes, we can, especially with faith and God’s help. We are to see that the broken, bound and bruised are set free and made whole. By doing so, we show the radical nature of God’s love. God does not love just US. God does not love just people WHO ARE LIKE US. God does not just love people WHO LOVE US. God loves even OUR ENEMIES—people who hate us—people who hurt us
When we reject Jesus, we miss the opportunity of a lifetime. There is no guarantee of a second chance. Today, there are only two continents in the world on which Christianity is not growing–Europe and North America, two of the most prosperous places in the world where our faith was planted long ago. Today, many refuse to believe in the miracles of the Bible, including the resurrection, so God has sent the Gospel elsewhere. Jesus asks us the same question he asked Peter long ago at the shore of the Sea of Galilee; namely “Do you love me?” What he is really asking is “Do you love me more than anyone or anything else? Do you have faith enough to let me cleanse you of myth and prejudice, rearrange your priorities and set your agenda?”
ESV Study Bible
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