Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church
Sabbath, January 17, 2015
Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16, 2 Kings 5, Luke 4:16-22
Within just a few months from his first sermon, he was drawing crowds of thousands. Of course, it wasn't just his words. He was also working incredible feats of healing. Then Jesus visited his home town. On Sabbath, he went to synagogue, as was his custom. And as was the custom in synagogues of that time, the visitor—in this case the home-town-boy-made-it-big visitor—the visitor was invited to address the congregation.
The lectionary, that is the scheduled reading for the day, was a passage in Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor;
he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to preach deliverance to the captives,
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the year of God's favor.
Jesus handed the scroll bad to the attendant and sat down. (In that worship culture, a rabbi stood to read the Scripture, then sat to do his commentary.)
Jesus paused. The congregation waited eagerly. This was their own kid. He grew up here in Nazareth. He had been friends with their kids. Eaten dinner at their table. Now he was famous. People said he was an amazing preacher. They could hardly wait for him to start. This was exciting.
“Today,” Jesus said, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
That was nice. It was encouraging, reassuring. Jesus preached that the people of Nazareth were living in God's favor. The waiting time was over. God was pleased with them. The audience understood Jesus to be announcing the imminent end of Roman subjugation. Soon, very soon, the Messiah was going to appear and vanquish the forces of evil. God's people—that is the good Jews of Nazareth—were finally going to be vindicated before a skeptical world. They were going to be proved right. The remnant people of God—the despised, ignored, insignificant people of God—were going to be shown to be the REAL people of God.
You could feel enthusiasm and exuberance rippling through the congregation. It was a great sermon. Jesus had the people with him. Then he pulled a surprise.
“I know you will quote the proverb, Physician heal yourself. You are wondering why aren't you doing the same kinds of miracles here that rumors say you performed in Capernaum? You figure you are just as good as the people of Capernaum, how come God has seen fit to accomplish through me here the same kinds of miracles I performed in Capernaum.
It's a good question, but it obscures the greatest challenge confronting us today: Just who are God's people? We are all Jews, the children of Abraham, heirs of the promise of God. Yes, but what do you make of the story of the Widow of Zarephath?
Jesus then launched into a famous Bible story.
There once was an evil king named Ahab. He was married to an evil queen named Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel were devotees of a false religion. They were ruthless in the use of eminent domain to take property from their citizens. They oppressed the poor.
The one lone voice that spoke in opposition to the evil king and queen was the Prophet Elijah. At one point God ordered the Prophet Elijah to announce to Ahab that there was going to be a ruinous drought as a punishment for all the wicked things Ahab and Jezebel were doing, especially their corruption of worship.
As the drought began to pinch the agriculture of the kingdom, the king attempted to find Elijah and arrest him. But he couldn't find him. Ahab even sent ambassadors to neighboring kingdoms looking for Elijah. No luck.
Where was Elijah? At first he was hiding in the wilderness, camping by a stream where he was fed miraculously by God. When the stream dried up God told him to go to Zarephath, a hamlet in the kingdom of Sidon north of Israel. There he was to find a widow and board with her and her son.
Elijah found Zarephath. He waited outside of town until the widow came out. He told her he would like to board with her. She regretfully refused. She was at that very moment gathering sticks so she could go home and bake the very last bit of flour she had in her house. After that she and her son would face starvation. The drought had driven the price of food far beyond her ability to pay. Food was so scarce that no one was giving anything to beggars. So, sorry. She could not give him any food.
“Look,” Elijah said, “I understand your predicament. But make my food first, then make food for yourself and your son. Because this is what God says—your flour bin will not go empty or your oil bottle dry until the famine is over.”
The woman had nothing to lose. If the wild man talking to her was a charlatan, and after she made food for him there was nothing left, oh well. She and her son would merely die one missed meal sooner. On the other hand, if the wild man really was a prophet and the promised miracle actually happened, it would be the salvation she had been praying for.
She made Elijah's food first, and somehow the flour stretched and the oil lasted. And they all lived happily ever after.
It was a wonderful story until Jesus applied its moral. Why did God send the prophet to the pagan town of Zarephath? Why did God trust a pagan woman to be the savior of the prophet? Why did God save a pagan widow from the famine?
What did all this say about Jewish specialness? What did it say about the flow of God's favor?
Jesus audience squirmed. This was not the sermon they were expecting. Jesus was not finished.
“Do you remember the story of Naaman?” he asked.
This story happened ten to twenty years after the story of widow. Naaman was the commander of the army of Syria, the nation just north of the Jewish kingdoms. His army frequently conducted raids into the kingdom of Israel chasing plunder—slaves, gold and silver and livestock. Then he was diagnosed with leprosy. This was worse than a death sentence. It was a horror. It was living death. There was no treatment. No cure.
So what does Naaman do? He heads south to Israel to request healing from Elisha—the successor of Elijah. The prophet healed him and sent him home. It is the only recorded healing of a leper during the time of the Jewish kings.
The audience understood Jesus' point, and they were furious. Jesus was arguing that God's favor was indiscriminately given to pagans and Jews alike. That was preposterous. It was wicked. It bordered on blasphemous. They charged the platform, grabbed Jesus and shoved him ahead of them toward the top of a precipice, planning to throw him off.
As they reached the precipice, Jesus exerted his magic power and released himself from the hands that were holding him. The crowd fell back and Jesus walked calmly back through the crowd to the house where they were expecting him for Sabbath dinner.
This story has forceful implications:
Most of us enjoy privilege of some kind. Many of us are Adventists. One of the deep historic convictions of our church is that we God's favorites. Just like the Jews. Just like the Catholics or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Church of Christ . . . and I could go on. Just like Muslims. Each group imagines that God's favor belongs us. Not to all those other people, but to us.
Jesus says otherwise.
Yes, God was present among the Jews. God blessed their worship and spoke through their prophets. Jesus did not deny God's presence among the Jews. He insisted it was also present elsewhere.
God was present in Jewish synagogues and among the huts of Zarephath and in the palaces of Damascus. Jesus' audience was deeply offended. When we understand the implications of what Jesus said, it may make us uncomfortable. It will certainly challenge our denominational pride.
Who is welcome at the heavenly table? If the commander of the army of Syria and the hopeless widow of Zarephath are welcome, who could not be welcome?
Today, we celebrate communion—the Lord's Supper.
There is a very long tradition in Christianity of using this occasion to ask haunting questions of worthiness. Who is worthy to eat the Lord's Supper? Who is worthy to receive the body and blood of our Lord? I know there are people here who find the communion service terrifying. They wonder, “Am I worthy? How can I be sure? What if instead of receiving a blessing I'm bringing a curse on myself?”
Jesus dismisses all these kinds of questions. There is no select group who has a unique welcome at the Lord's Table.
At the communion table, Jesus preaches the same message he preached in Nazareth: quit building imaginary castles of privilege in the air. Don't imagine yourself insiders in the castles of privilege or outsiders. Turn from visions of castles with walls and gates and focus your attention of the happy welcome God extends to all. Every category of worthiness is dissolved in the glory of divine light.
The Holy Supper is a festival celebrating God's extravagance, there is no human worthiness ticket required..
So come. And know that the more apparently unlikely your place at the table, the more delight God will take in seating you and serving you. We come with our flaws and our perfections, our glorious strengths and our disabilities. We come because we are welcomed and desired. Yes, even us.