Scientists tell us that there are, in general, four capacities that we humans have that the rest of the animal kingdom does not: a capacity for verbal speech, for art (the arts), for music, and for faith – an awareness that there is another realm, a divine world. When we gather for worship, verbally expressing our faith, we are surrounded by art and music. We would not be fully human without any of these. They form part of our identity; we are human: we speak, we love and long for beauty, we make and love music, and we are people to whom faith is crucially important.
Speaking is easy. Music, we hear with our ears, art we take in with our eyes, but faith is the odd man out. Faith is harder. Faith is concerned with a world we do not hear or see directly, and yet we are aware of the spiritual world. Sometimes the right words, or music or art become doors into that transcendent realm – when goose bumps rise because we have been moved, at some deep level which goes far beyond simple words or notes on a page or color on a canvass.
Glimpses are all we get, of a world that is not this world, but is one that we were ultimately made for. Longing is often the feeling we have – to be in that place where the words and music and the art has allowed us momentarily to go – but cannot keep us long.
We long to know the God of whom we sing, the God to whom our hearts are drawn in those goose-bump moments. We long to understand our place in God’s world – to know why we are here; what we were meant for. We believe that we are not just groping around aimlessly in the darkness, but that God wants to be found, and that he has provided us help; guiding lights to show us the way.
God has, in the past, provided Spirit-inspired poets and prophets, including Moses, whose works we read, and they help, but we believe we have been given even more. We believe that when God sent his Son Jesus to live among us humans, as one of us, God was giving us enormous help on our quest to know God. Jesus gives us profoundly deeper insight into the God we long to know.
As we watch Jesus and listen to Jesus, sometimes his words bring us comfort: we hear him teach that God is our Heavenly Father – and even if we are his prodigal sons and daughters, he runs to meet us upon our return.
Jesus teaches us that God is our good shepherd who will search high and low, night and day until he finds us, calls us by name, and brings us back into the safety of his fold.
Jesus teaches us that God is the King of the Universe whose justice is incorruptible, who cares for the weak and the oppressed, the widow, the orphan and the stranger, who opens the eyes of the blind, sets the captives free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor: Jubilee; Freedom, restoration of all that evil has destroyed.
These are “gracious words” of Jesus and we love to hear them. We, just like those people listening to Jesus teach back in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth are impressed that “Joseph’s son” has such depth of insight.
Here is the question that today’s text puts to us: is our deepest longing to know God, or merely to find comfort? We face the same question when we visit the doctor, don’t we? Do we really want to know what is wrong with us, what is causing the pain, or do we just want to feel good? What if the truth about the God we long for makes us uncomfortable: what then?
The text we read today began with people who were pleased to hear “gracious words” from Jesus, but one paragraph later were attempting murder to shut-up those words. What happened? What made them so angry?
All he did was to remind them of two stories – and they were stories they all knew well – they were Bible stories; mamma had read them at bed time, and no one wanted to throw her off the cliff!
The widow of Zarephath
What could possibly get people upset about that wonderful story of the prophet Elijah who, in a time of famine, asked the poor widow from Zarephath in Sidon for something to eat? It was a great story. She says she only has a handful of meal and enough oil to cook it into a cake, and it will be the last meal she and her son will eat before they die of starvation. He tells her to go ahead and make it up for him, and promises that the meal and oil will not run out until the famine ends!
And that’s exactly how it happened; what a great story! The only comment Jesus adds to the story is that there were many widows in Israel, but that Elijah went across the border in to Sidon and his presence saved a foreigner. – Not much grounds for murder in that innocent observation, is there?
Naaman the Leper
What could possibly get people upset about that wonderful story of Naaman the leper? His domestic servant, who was Jewish, convinced him that to be cleansed of his leprosy he needed to go to Israel, from his native Syria, and find the great prophet Elisha – which he did, and, long story short, after finally following Elisha’s advice to bathe in the Jordan River, he was healed.
The only comment Jesus adds to the story is that:
“ 27 There were also many lepers in Israel …and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
– Not much grounds for murder in that innocent observation, is there?
Uncomfortable Observations about God
What do these two innocuous observations that Jesus made have in common? They both highlight the fact that God’s work of redemption extended beyond the confines of Israel; that God’s care for the people made in his image was not limited to one race or nation – that it embraced widows from Zarephath in Sidon, and lepers from Syria.
That means that when Jesus said those “gracious words,” that everyone liked:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,”
He was teaching them something about God that they were not prepared to hear; something that did not increase their comfort-level.
God’s love is not limited to people like us. God loves people from across the border in Syria and Sidon, in Haiti and Iraq, in North Korea and Iran. God loves people who are not ethnically Israelite; he loves people whose skin pigmentation, facial features, hair characteristics, whose language, culture, music and art are different from ours; Haitians, Chinese, Brazilians, all of them made in his image – despite differences of language, art, music and forms of expressions of faith.
So, back to the story, Jesus is teaching that God does not hate the Romans, and if all they wanted God to do for them was to baptize their hatred of the Romans and make that hatred feel blessed and comfortable, sorry; God has other plans. He actually wants to redeem Romans! That’s what made them angry enough to attempt murder at the top of that cliff.
Another amazing human capacity: identity shifting
The Superbowl is next Sunday, Feb. 7: Indianapolis Colts vs. the New Orleans Saints. Who should you cheer for? Down here, we are for the New Orleans Saints.
If you are a sports fan, you identify with your team. You look for things that you share in common with your team that differentiates you from the other team’s identity. We identify with the Saints, because they are from the Gulf Coast, like we are, even though we are not from New Orleans, nor even Louisiana. Clearly that regional connection differentiates us from Colts – all the way up there in Indiana.
But of course, we all know (at some level) that this region-based identity is a fiction. I checked: the Saints have only two players on their roster who attended college in Louisiana. One player actually attended college in Indiana – sorry Colts (- but he is actually from Louisiana! go figure.)
The Colts have only one player on their roster who attended college in Indiana, their backup QB who went to Purdue, though he is originally from Illinois!
So, the Saints aren’t really from the Gulf Coast region, and the Colts are not really comprised of Hoosiers. And yet, even knowing that our regionally-based shared identity is fictional, we can still get excited for our team, take their side in every disputed penalty call and yard measurement, and feel happy if they win and disappointed if they loose.
This capacity to shift our identity, to embrace a team, that is, a group of people who are not really like us, and are not at all from our region, just because they put on a jersey with our teams colors this year, is amazing. It means that we have the power to shift the criteria of our in-group. We have the capacity to decide on what bases we understand “us” and “them.”
The people of Nazareth wanted the criteria to be ethnic: God is for “us,” and for “us alone.” Jesus came to show us God at a profoundly deeper level. The criterion that counts is Creation. Let’s hear that again: the criterion that counts is Creation.
Even though the New Orleans Saints are not from the Gulf Coast, they wear the jersey of my team, so they will be my team; I will be for them. The criterion for being a good fan is the team jersey. The criterion that counts for us as Christians, is the criterion of Creation.
All humans on the face of the earth have been made in God’s image. All of us, unless something unusual happens, have the God-given capacities of speech, music, art and faith. All of us are objects of God’s will to redeem, to restore, to heal, and to save from the destructive, debilitating effects of evil.
Does this new knowledge of God that Jesus brought make us uncomfortable? Maybe so, maybe at first; but think of it: we – us, mostly European, mostly Caucasian, English-speaking Americans were not originally in the “in group”. God’s embrace of non-Jews, of Syrians and Sidonians, as Jesus taught, opened the door that we walked through into the Kingdom of God.
It is that door that leads us to the great banquet at the end of the age, hosted by Messiah, people of every nation, tribe, and language will gather, knowing God, our deepest longings fulfilled.