Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 4:21-30
Let us pray: Ever faithful God, you know our hearts, our hopes and despairs, our uncertainties and our sureties. Open us all to your radical grace as we listen for your word to us, each one of us and as your church. Amen.
One thing that strikes me time and time again is how incredibly complex good communication is. And in a world now reasonably dedicated to non face-to-face communication, we would have to ask how much nuance and understanding is lost when you can’t see the facial expression or the body language that accompanies the words. No wonder emoticons are needed –even if they are limited. Did you see that Facebook is about to launch 5 additional options to the ‘like’ button – we are also allowed to be angry, sad, wow, haha and love.
But the thing is that even being in the same room, listening intently to each other, does not guarantee any kind of perfect understanding of conversation either. Because we bring each individually our own experience and particular pre-loading if you like interpretations of a statement made can vary widely. But all the same we would hope to have more chance of understanding when we are in the same room and are listening.
But if I had been one of those people sitting listening to Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth that day I might have wondered if I had dozed off for a moment, missed something somehow or that his or our communication skills needed some serious work.
Because we were genuinely thrilled at the wisdom and hope that this boy that we all knew growing up brought to us this day. Is this not Joseph’s son, we said. It wasn’t meant as a put down, it was a statement of wonder.
And what did we get from Jesus in response – it wasn’t terribly fair on his part – we hadn’t said anything, or expected miracles – he just assumed what we would say and what we would want. What right did he have to get stuck into us like that?
I continue to be amazed at the depth and capacity of scripture to engage us, even today. Each reading a new question, a different perspective to the words and actions of Jesus.
So what was with this abrupt and less than gracious response that Jesus had to the people in his home town, and why tell them in one breath that the prophecy was fulfilled and in the next that they were likely to be shut out, considered unworthy?
I think that Graeme touched on one of the reasons last week – that the words of Jesus after he sat down and as he expounded on the reading were absolute dynamite – jaw dropping stuff that would have been completely outside their experience – ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. It would have taken time to assimilate I am sure.
But they didn’t really get that time. It sounds as if Jesus then went on to pretty much demolish their delight – quoting the instances of the prophets working well outside of the faithful Israel, bringing healing and sustenance to the foreigner instead of the chosen people.
But maybe he knew them better than they knew themselves. Maybe in their hearts they were rubbing hands and saying ‘Great, it is happening – how lovely - and we didn’t have to do anything!’ Maybe he knew that a short sharp shock was needed to make a difference in their attitudes, their behaviours.
Maybe Jesus sensed their infinite capacity for receiving as the assured and chosen people of God and wanted to jolt them into a new understanding of the breadth and depth that ministry in his name might take. That there would be unexpected directions, all-encompassing promise, and (here’s the tricky one) a call on the heart of every person who believed to, as James Davis said: ‘witness to the gospel by investing with radical grace whatever worldly roles God opens to us.
This was Jeremiah’s problem was it not? God had called him to a particular role, that of prophet to the nations, and Jeremiah was dragging his heels, sure that he was unfit for the task. Grace was in absentia and Jeremiah’s idea of what he was capable of differed from the possibilities that God saw in him. He was soon talked round – not a lot of room for discussion really – but he illustrates an approach to ministry that is still constraining us today.
Jeremiah didn’t see himself as equipped for ministry – God’s response is that of a deep knowing before he was born – a vocation before we have proven our skills at it. This doesn’t mean that we are therefore left ill equipped for our role but that in our living we have gathered skills to live out our potential if only we would have the courage and trust to do so.
Today for us we have established for whatever reason a bit of a mind-set that suggests we have to be trained properly to participate in ministry. Well yes and no. We all, ordained or not, need to be learning and growing in both our faith and our ability to live that faith out. If that is training yes. And the reformed church does put a welcome and strong emphasis on education – but not just for a select few – for all. Ministry is for all. I was asked at a Knox Centre Retreat at the end of last year to provide some devotions around the thought that it takes a whole church to raise a minister – and we ended up saying ‘it takes a whole church to offer ministry’. It may not be that everyone can preach a sermon but all have skills in their own way to witness to the radical grace of God in their lives.
Jeremiah might have looked back to someone like Isaiah and compared himself unfavourably, seeing the other as perfect and himself as flawed. No doubt they were two very different people – Isaiah you could almost say appeared to be of heroic stature – determined, focussed, accepting of his role. Jeremiah’s doubts and sense of inadequacy continued throughout his ministry – but what he did have was the sense that God would and did equip him for whatever was needed and so he could witness to God in this role with strength and courage. And I would bet if you could ask the question of Isaiah he too would speak of doubts and uncertainties and anxieties that plagued him throughout his considerable ministry
Sometimes I hear other people preach and just feel like I might as well zip it for the foreseeable future – just as I have heard say guitarists hear someone phenomenally skilled playing and think that they should just chop off their fingers – metaphorically of course. Yet how are we to learn to articulate our faith, share our journey but by sometimes halting words and unsure actions – and who wants someone perfect anyway? And it is not about having a certain level of skill before we can start – its about not being afraid to share what skill we have – trusting in a God who has known us before we were shaped in the womb to equip us in every situation.
And lastly, Jeremiah would have carried on arguing, we do that quite well don’t we, but God touched him in way that left the words unspoken, that encouraged him to submit to the task given him and to trust in the presence of God with him.
Interesting word that isn’t it – submit? In conversation with a friend during the week we happened upon the word submission – realised that although the gut reaction is that the word infers unfair subjugation, and that verse in Ephesians about wives submitting to husbands particularly, it is actually about recognising that God’s mission is a force to which we submit. Our problem is when groups of people declare themselves to be the mission to which others should submit. Quite a difference there isn’t there. So Jeremiah submitted to the role that God called him to in ministry, still doubting his abilities, unsure of his capacity, and certainly thinking others could be better at this – and he went out and prophesied.
And so the question for us is: what worldly role is it that we are called to embrace with radical grace? Is it to speak of our belief, certain that we don’t have all the answers, is it to act into need, pretty sure that we will feel inadequate at some stage, is it to speak out about unjust practices, knowing that we will be challenged by alternative viewpoints, and is it to embrace those whose difference scares us, knowing that God is with us and also with them. This is ministry for the people of God - all of us.
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Amen.