Focus: God’s promises are made real in Christ.
Function: that the hearers find their security in Christ.
Today we continue in our five-part sermon series focused on distinctively Christian hope – Where it comes from, what it points to, what it makes us do now. This is the third of five, Hope Made Real.
What does it take for something to become real to you?
For me, when I think of making something real, I remember my last year of seminary school in the spring. I had been running on the same shoes for about a year longer than I should have and at the end of a run, I ran up the ginormous last hill into campus, I slowed down, stretched and started up the steps to my dorm room. And then I heard it. My right knee sounded fine, but my left sounded like quuuuuukkkkkk… like a rock tumbler. And in that moment I got clued into the reality that had been around me all that time – if I wanted to keep my knees, I needed to treat them nice. It became real to me. If I wanted to keep my body, I had to take care of it.
I tell you that to tell you this, for most of us, or for me at least, it takes us actually getting down into the reality of the situation, bucking heads in the nitty-gritty of the moment, before we have a real appreciation for the reality that’s been there the entire time. For some pastors, it takes putting on the stole for the first time before they understand what it means to be a pastor. For newlyweds, it takes the first major fight to realize that marriage has always been hard work, and it's the hard work that makes it good. For the man sitting in the hospital, it takes getting his first stint put in after his heart attack to understand what he’s been doing to his body all these years and how something needs to change…
When have you been in that moment, where your perception of reality and what’s important comes up against reality itself and what’s actually important? What does it feel like to you? At least for me, when that happens, first I get angry. I think, “This can’t be true. It must be a mistake.” And then I start to feel ashamed. I think, “I don’t want to face this because I never should have let it get to this point.” But then I start to realize that I have two choices, and either I can face reality and do something or I can give up and try to ignore it, knowing full well that it can’t be ignored.
Today is the story of Jesus confronting an ugly and false reality in his hometown. He’s been walking around preaching the same message in all kinds of small towns up to this point, and he travels home to do the same thing in Nazareth. He reads these verses from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind” (that’s Isaiah 61), and “To set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (that’s Isaiah 58).
And then Jesus says these words: Today, this Scripture is fulfilled.
And the crowd goes ballistic. They just go bonkers. You see, these texts from Isaiah were understood to talk about the Messiah, about how the Messiah would come and what he would do to set all things to right, and the crowd had a picture in their mind of the reality that the Messiah would usher in.
Their perception of reality at this point included a hometown boy (which Jesus was) going around (like Jesus was doing) healing people, gaining popularity, and now that he’s come home, he’s going to heal people and gain popularity right there in his hometown. And they’re pretty happy about the whole affair. It’s a win-win situation for them.
Except for the fact that Jesus can see into their hearts.
The hometown boy quotes this against them, he says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’” Those are the same kinds of words they say to him on the cross, “He saved others, why will he not save himself.” And it echoes in our society when people say “We spend X amount of billion dollars overseas. Why don’t we just use it all to take care of our own?” We should take care of our own. And then he uses the examples in the Old Testament about Gentiles that the prophets healed, and they become enraged to the point that they would throw him off a cliff and drop stones on him.
The false reality they held in their hearts was twofold. First, they thought they had a favorable status with Jesus because of things that didn’t matter to him. Second, they confused good things like healings with the ultimate thing: salvation.
And they go ballistic. They just go bonkers. They are confronted with a reality that doesn’t match up with the one in their mind, and their first reaction is to reject the hope that’s made real right before their eyes. In their anger, they choose to follow their own wishes rather than their God.
Jesus says to his people then, your perception of reality doesn’t square with the mission that I have here. My mission is a ministry to all. My mission is a running after the poor, the impoverished, those who have no favored status with the divine. My mission is to first give salvation and then pour out all kinds of gifts on my people, so that they can do the same. My mission is to look you unflinchingly in the eye and see the worst sins that’ve set down deep in the hearts of my people. My mission is to dive down to the bottom of your soul, to dredge up the mucky bottom of your hearts, to pull up all kinds of nastiness, all sorts of failure. My mission is to sink down with the lowest of the low, to die the lowest of deaths so that I can be humiliated with the burden of the whole world’s sin.
Because before all healing, all health, before all social standing, before even food and water and shelter, your need, Jesus says, your need, is forgiveness and salvation. Everything else in this life and beyond flows from forgiveness and salvation. Every day is the best day ever, because you are saved, and you are forgiven. Every night is the best night ever, because you are saved, and you are forgiven. Every success and every failure is ok, because you are saved and you are forgiven.
You’re free to do what God has designed you to do.
Christianity is about strong morals and doing the right thing. It is about being good to your neighbor, and suffering patiently in affliction. It’s about supporting the God-given authority of those in power and assisting them in what is right. It’s about social justice and putting clothes on backs and food in mouths and helping people to stand on their feet.
But none of those is the most important thing.
It is Christ and Christ alone who is offensive to all other religion. It is Christ, the God-made-flesh that sets our Christianity apart from the religions of the world. It is Christ who is the stumbling block and Christ who is the lynchpin of our entire life.
So then, the question is, how then shall we live? How do you live as if forgiveness and salvation is the best thing ever?
First, we recognize that excess in this life is toxic. To the Nazarenes, the best thing in this life looked like having a specially favored relationship with the Messiah, with all the perks that come with it. To a hungry man, the best thing in this life looks like a crust of bread. To a fat man, the best thing in this life looks like a good diet. To a love-starved lonely man, the best thing in this life looks like the companionship of marriage. To a man fed up with his family, the best thing in this life looks like peace and quiet.
The lesson that we learn in each of these is first that excess in any category is toxic. But here’s the greater lesson: even in a life without excess, toxic things still creep in.
Second, we recognize that the very best thing of this life is not in fact of this life. He is beyond this life begotten before all creation, and he decided to come to us, so that in the end, we might go to be with him.
Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther