A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on December 11, 2011.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
I don’t like people who meddle. And Lord knows, we have plenty of them!
Years ago I was flying out of Atlanta back here to NC, and wound up on a plane with Bobby Cremins, who had recently stepped down as the basketball coach of Georgia Tech (he is currently the coach of the College of Charleston). When we landed at the airport, many of us men on the plane predictably headed directly to the men’s restroom, including Bobby Cremins. I remember watching complete strangers approach Coach Cremins and asking him very intrusive and personal questions about how and why his coaching career ended at Georgia Tech. Coach Cremins couldn’t have been more gracious. But, I was amazed at how people automatically assumed they had the right to meddle in the affairs and emotions of Bobby Cremins.
There’s another kind of meddling that gets on my nerves. It’s the kind we have in mind when we say the pastor went “from preaching to meddling” in his sermon.
Like most people, I suppose, I like to live in my comfort zone, with my own creature comforts and my own version of reality undisturbed. I don’t appreciate it when people confront me with inconvenient truths or competing versions of reality that challenge the way I think.
My need for comfort is especially strong during the month of December. My Decembers are typically very stressful, and I frankly don’t need anybody rattling my cage during the season of Advent.
So, it would be nice to go to church (especially in December) and be comforted by all that was said and done. The people would be polite. The coffee would taste good. The sermons would be short, with extra doses of sweetness and Christmas light. I would be affirmed as somebody God loved unconditionally. And all would be well with the world.
Now that’s my fantasy. But if you commit to preach from the lectionary, or that collection of scriptures recommended for the third Sunday of Advent by the church at large, then your reality doesn’t conform to that warm and fuzzy fantasy. Because as it happens our scriptures for today introduce us to messengers of God who seem determined to burst our bubbles of comfort, to mess with our minds and meddle with our lives.
Take John the Baptist, for instance. Nothing about John was conventional.
He was born miraculously to parents who were way too old to bear children. And he was the second cousin to another kid would come into this world through a virgin birth of all things—a kid named Jesus.
We know nothing of John’s childhood. What we know is he suddenly showed up in the wilderness of Judea out of nowhere looking and sounding like a man from another planet. It had been 300 years since Israel had heard from a prophet of God, and then John showed up. John was a freak of nature, and people flocked by the thousands to hear him.
Everything about John made you uncomfortable. He dressed in camel’s hair and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. But it was his message that really got under your skin, especially if you were a loyal, law-abiding Jew.
John preached that whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, you were as sinful as the next guy, and you better repent and get right with God lest you be cut down at the roots like a tree, and thrown into the eternal fire. If you repented of your sin, then John invited you into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized. Some scholars estimate that as many 300,000 people—many of them Jews who had been taught only Gentiles needed to be baptized—were immersed by this strange prophet.
But John didn’t just preach individual righteousness. When people asked John how they should live God-honoring lives, he pivoted unexpectedly into the realm of social compassion and justice. He called upon people to share clothing and food with the poor. He insisted tax collectors to stop cheating people by overcharging them. He ordered soldiers to stop bullying people and extorting money from those who were vulnerable.
Meanwhile, people were beginning to think John was the Messiah they’d been hearing about. And that presumption had to be very flattering to John. But rather than letting his ego get the best of him, John quickly pointed out that he wasn’t the Light of the World, but the messenger called by God to prepare the world for the light. In fact, John said he wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of the coming Messiah, a shocking statement since not even slaves were expected to untie their masters’ sandals.
But John bowed down to no one else, including the mighty King Herod. One day John had the audacity to meddle with Herod’s love life by telling Herod he had no right to simply take his brother’s wife as his own. That bit of meddling ultimately cost John his head—literally. Even though John wondered aloud before he died if Jesus was in fact the One the world had been waiting for, Jesus loved and admired John, and said that of all the people born before the Kingdom of God arrived, John was the greatest of them all.
John the Baptist was a meddlesome messenger sent by God to preach inconvenient truths and prepare the way for the Son of God. And as it turned out, the Son of God was an even more meddlesome messenger than his cousin.
Now to be clear, Jesus wasn’t just a messenger. He was the message. Through his birth and life and teachings, through his death and resurrection, through his ascension and abiding presence in the Holy Spirit, God said to humanity, “I love you so much that I died for you, and then I defeated death so you can, too. If you follow me, you will have abundant, eternal life. And you will change the world in the process.”
Yes, Jesus was more than a messenger. But the fact that he officially began his ministry by reading from Isaiah 61 tells us that he was among other things, a messenger, and a meddlesome messenger at that. Luke 4 records the riveting scene when Jesus formally launches his ministry in the synagogue of his home town, Nazareth. One Sabbath Jesus attends worship, and when it is time for the scripture to be read, Jesus stands and reads Isaiah 61, our assigned scripture for today.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” Jesus says,
“Because the Lord has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the broken hearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is all the reading Luke records. But in fact Jesus may have read most if not all of Isaiah 61 before returning to his seat. And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
At first the Nazarenes were mighty impressed with Jesus. This was a remarkable performance for a carpenter’s kid. But the more they thought about it, the more upset they became. “The nerve of this guy! Who does he think he is? And what right does he have to meddle with things he has no business messing with?” Eventually they became so enraged they almost killed Jesus, before his ministry had even begun.
What was it that got Jesus’ hometown crowd so stirred up? The fact that one of their own claimed to be the “anointed one”, which translated in the Hebrew means “Messiah”, and in the Greek means, “the Christ”? No doubt this act of “unbridled arrogance” (as they saw it) sparked their fury.
But there’s a lot more going on here. For example, Jesus was claiming that Isaiah 61 was the definitive description of his mission on earth. Of all the passages from the Old Testament he could have picked, Jesus settled on Isaiah 61. And this was a very meddlesome, very troublesome selection!
Now it helps to remember that Isaiah’s prophecy was first delivered when the Israelites were still struggling to recover from their captivity in Babylon. They were returning home to rubble and ruin, and rebuilding what had been burned to the ground was no easy task. Isaiah’s word to the brokenhearted must have been welcome when it was first delivered some five hundred years before the birth of Christ.
But now the Jews were in a different place. These days they were under the control of the Romans, not the Babylonians. Even so, most of what we would call middle class, law-abiding Jews had built flourishing businesses and good reputations. They had managed to separate themselves from the riff-raff of society and the religiously unclean.
So it was frankly unsettling to hear Jesus say he was a messenger of good news not to the respectable, ruling class of Jews but to the oppressed peoples of the day. It didn’t help that Jesus said his primary audience were the lowlife prisoners held in captivity.
Most unsettling was Jesus’ desire to follow Isaiah’s lead and “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This was almost certainly a reference to what was called the “Year of Jubilee” in Leviticus 25. The Jubilee, the fiftieth year in a cycle, was a time when all slaves were freed, all debts were cancelled, and all land holdings were redistributed to their original owners. In other words, it was a time when all misfortune was reversed, and the poor who had fallen further and further behind had a chance to catch up.
In other words, it was a chance to make God’s dream for a just society a reality.
This was not good news for people who had amassed great wealth and land, especially by taking advantage of the poor. This was bad news, very bad news, and the Jews weren’t about to take it lying down.
It gets worse. If Jesus read further in Isaiah 61, as I suspect he did, he declared that part of his mission was to raise “oaks of righteousness.” What’s interesting is that an alternative reading of that phrase we rarely hear in church is “oaks of justice.” Why is it we rarely hear the phrase this way?
Then, in Isaiah 61:8, we collide with a phrase that has frankly made me squirm all week long, a word from God by way of Isaiah by way of Jesus that I would love to ignore. And that word is this—“I the Lord love justice.”
I wish God had said, “I the Lord love evangelism.” I know the Lord does love evangelism, reaching people with the gospel of Christ. Sharing the gospel with individuals is admittedly a scary proposition, but I can handle that at least some of the time.
Or, I wish God had said, “I the Lord love mercy ministries. I love it when my people show compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged. I love it when they feed hungry children over the holidays and shelter homeless people in cold weather.” Granted it can get a bit hairy to get overly involved with poor folks. Even so I can handle that some of the time.
But what unsettles me is that God says, “I the Lord love justice.” For that matter, Jesus says that justice, mercy and faith are the weighted matters of the law, and justice heads the list. Now, I’m starting to get nervous.
In his wonderful book, Just Courage, Gary Haugen says we Christians often dodge this inconvenient truth either by saying the Bible has little to say about justice, or by contending that justice is simply too complicated to define. But as Haugen describes his own ministry of justice that frees people from sex and slave trades with the help of police and government authorities, he quotes scripture after scripture that prove individual righteousness and social justice are both vital to God. And he defines social injustice as all the ways individuals and societies abuse their power by taking away the good things God intended for people—like their lives, liberties, dignity, or the fruits of their labor.
What’s the difference between justice and mercy ministries? Mercy ministries, for example, seek to feed those children in families over the Christmas holidays that don’t have enough food to make it. And these mercy ministries are vitally important. Justice ministries seek to do the unsettling work of exploring how it is that these families consistently remain so under-resourced while others seem to have so much, and acting in the social realm to redress that inequality. And that ministry of justice, says Gary Haugen, is just as important to Jesus as evangelism and mercy.
Friends, I don’t know about you but that’s preaching that goes to meddling, big time, in my life! And in your life. And in this church’s life.
“I the Lord love justice.” And so, for that matter, does Jesus.
What are we going to do about that?