The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 3 February 2019

February 3, 2019 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Psalm 76:1-6 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Luke 4:21-30

Jeremiah 1:4-10
The text before us is a classic example of a stereotyped prophetic call narrative, which has five component parts: 1) theophany—“the word of the Lord came to me” (v. 4); 2) prophetic commission—“I knew you . . . I consecrated you . . . I appointed you a prophet” (v. 5); 3) prophetic denial of the ability to be a prophet—“Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (v. 6); 4) divine reassurance—“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you . . . for I am with you to deliver you” (v. 7); and 5) sign of prophetic call—“The the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth” (v. 9). You just cannot say no to God.

Seriously, however, prophets did have such call stereotyped experiences remembered to legitimate their calling (Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and perhaps Second Isaiah). They may have recited these experiences, or the writers of the prophetic scrolls may have included them to prove the legitimacy of the hero or the prophet. The most important part of the call narrative may have been the prophetic denial, since that indicates the prophet or hero did not desire this mission; rather, God forced it upon the individual. This could protect a prophet from a negative crowd reaction, if the prophet were to speak a stern judgment oracle (that would include Jeremiah, especially). The prophet would be saying, in effect, “Do not blame me for the judgment message, I did not want to be a prophet and speak these words, but God made me do it.”

Part of Jeremiah’s call narrative, in the divine reassurance, includes God’s statement, “for I am with you to deliver you” (v. 8). These are powerful words that speak of a deep personal presence of God. The process theologian immediately recognizes this as language often found in the Old Testament that testifies to God’s presence in the world to care for and protect people. This language needs to be stressed more and more by preachers to people who live in the modern world and so often ask the questions, “Where is God?,” “Where is God in my life?,” and “Is there a God at all?” It has been said that in the Reformation era people sought to find a gracious God; now it appears that people seek to know if there really is a God and how is that God even present in our world. We must increasingly speak of God as being present in our lives, just as God was once present in the form of the little baby.

Psalm 76:1-6
This appears to be one of the older psalms, a psalm of Asaph, which some scholars have hypothesized came from the northern state of Israel down to Judah in the late eighth century BCE. It is written in challenging, perhaps older, Hebrew. As a hymn of praise it speaks of Yahweh as a God of war, comparable to the ancient hymns of praise found in Exodus 15 (the exodus experience) and Judges 5 (the victory of Deborah and Barak over general Sisera of Hazor). Israelites recalled with excitement the deliverance their God brought in such past victories over their enemies. In verse 6 the phrase, “both rider and horse lay stunned,” appears like it belongs in the Song of Moses in Exodus 15.

We might not be comfortable with the extreme martial and war-like imagery, but it was the faith language of those ancient Israelites, and we must respect that their national experiences and their world provide us with our sacred texts. We have to read past some of the text as we bring the message over the great divide of the ages into our modern churches.

They were praising a God who acted immediately and directly for them in their national history to save them politically. We, too, confess a God who has acted directly for us in the person of Jesus. We also confess a God who acts in our world today, in our very own lives. We need to see the presence of God in our lives, in the people around us, and in the actions we undertake. The warrior God of old is the God of presence in our lives, not necessarily in dramatic ways, but so often in the stillness of life and in our common everyday activities. In those ways God is still present and “majestic” (v. 4).

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
This is Paul’s famous passage on love. Paul immediately says that the gift of love is more important than the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues, “the tongues of mortals and of angels” (v. 1), which he then humorously compares to “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (v. 1). By that he does not condemn speaking in tongues, he simply points out the value of love as a spiritual gift.

I often ask my students, when I lecture on Paul’s theology, to name some of the gifts of the Spirit. The conservative Protestants among them quickly name speaking in tongues, interpreting the tongues, healing, etc. Then I say, “What are the really important gifts of the Spirit?” I often get blank stares. Then I say, “faith, hope, and what else?” By that point they are alert and they say, “love.” I ask, “And the greatest of these is . . .?” They say, “love.” We so often forget that these are the truly highest spiritual gifts, perhaps because they are the simple ones and they belong to all people. The charismatic gifts are glitzy and belong to a few, but the important gifts belong to everyone. That is because God is present in everyone, and God is present in the simple gifts and the small things of life. God began life among us as a baby. You cannot get smaller and simpler than that, I suppose. Jesus identified with the small, poor, and insignificant people of Palestine. The Christian movement grew most quickly among slaves and women (who by Graeco-Roman standards were not much higher in the pecking order than slaves). God is present in the simple, the small, the common, the everyday, and in us.

This chapter talks about love. Love is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, does not insist on its own way, not irritable, and it bears and endures all things. That’s a pretty tall order, if we really take this passage seriously. Paul has provided what almost appears to be a virtue list, things we should do if we really have love. I think most of us fall short on this checklist many times in our lives. I sure do. (What was that line about “insisting on its own way”?)

The chapter has quotable quotes: 1) if I “remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (v. 2). 2) “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (v. 12). 3) “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13). Each one deserves a sermon. The whole chapter is a quotable quote by itself.

Luke 4:21-30
The gospel account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is a classic account. It speaks of the prophet who gets no respect in his own home town. It is a story that many can empathize with, for so often when we go back to our roots, our childhood home, our childhood family, our childhood neighborhood, we feel that we do not get the respect we have earned in our lives elsewhere in our jobs, new home, and new family. That is simply a way of life. Your parents will always see you as that little baby they once held in their arms regardless of whether you are a CEO. The people back home will always remember you as “Bill’s son or daughter” or “Bill and Elizabeth’s son or daughter.” Thus spoke the folks at Nazareth, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (v. 22).

A parallel to that is also the common phenomenon where people take those folks around them for granted and talk or desire someone or something far away. Every minister has the experience of people who will speak the praises of some clergy person they knew in the past, or the former pastor of the congregation, or some clergy person elsewhere, and they overlook the clergy person serving in their midst. That is human nature.

Jesus summed this up by saying how prophets are not accepted in their home countries. He said some other things that were slightly rude, too (like Elijah and the Sidonian or Phoenician woman, Elisha and the Syrian leper). His allusions to foreigners chosen over Israelites in those Old Testament narratives made the people angry enough to try and throw him off a cliff. If you are a clergy person and your people haven’t tried that yet, don’t complain too much. Anyway, he passed through their midst, and the biblical text doesn’t really tell us how he did that.

The really important part of our reading actually depends upon verses prior to our lectionary selection. In verses 18-19 there is reference to how the prophet, whose words were read by Jesus (Isa 58:6; 61:1-2), proclaimed the year of the “Lord’s favor.” (This so-called “year” may be an allusion to the seventh year release of debts and debt slaves undertaken by Jews in response to the law in Deuteronomy 15.) Jesus read that old prophetic text in the synagogue and then said that he fulfilled that old prophetic expectation. That was rather dramatic. That could have been seen as a messianic claim. That would get anyone back then in trouble.

As we hear this text many years later, we would say, “well of course Jesus fulfilled those expectations ultimately with his death and resurrection.” The acceptable year of “debt release” would have been an allusion by Jesus or later Christians to the release of sins brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection. His original listeners certainly would not have sensed that. They would not have sensed that Jesus was the messiah or even God in their midst. So let us not be too hasty to condemn them.

But then let us ask ourselves. Do we sense God in our midst today? Do we sense the presence of God in ourselves, in those around us, and in the everyday events of our lives? God is in our midst, if we have the eyes of faith to see the presence of the divine. Do not take the ordinary, everyday aspects of life for granted, for God is there. Do not take Jesus for granted, as the folks did at Capernaum. We have God in our midst today in many ways.

Robert Gnuse (Ph.D., M.A., 1978-80, Vanderbilt; M.Div., S.T.M., 1974-75, Concordia Seminary in Exile) teaches Old Testament at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he is the James C. Carter, S.J./Chase Bank Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. He also serves as part-time pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  in Marrero, LA (since 1989).