These notes copied up after my two note-less (i.e. not a transcript) talks from the lectionary this morning.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ mission is to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Having been rejected by his own community (over interpretation: they probably understood Jesus’ claim that this was the time Isaiah’s prophecy would be fulfilled as referring to God giving them the city of Sepphoris, which they were rebuilding for others, who would now serve them instead; whereas Jesus insisted that it had always been God’s intention to include the Gentiles in the scope of his favour - a claim so offensive, those listening dragged him from the synagogue and took up broken-down stones to stone him to death), Jesus found the person who welcomed him – Peter – and from there demonstrated what release looked like, for those held captive by sickness or oppression or guilt or shame or exclusion from community. In time he sent out ‘the Twelve,’ who had seen what he had done and taken part in it, to go and do likewise. Then he sent out seventy-two to do the same. There is a momentum to what he is about.
At this point, Jesus tells his disciples that he has come to bring fire on the earth, and wishes it were already kindled; but first, he must undergo a distressing baptism. What is he talking about? Well, where does Luke record fire on the earth? At the start of his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles: at Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Holy Spirit is poured out with the appearance of fire, as a sign of God’s Spirit being poured out on all humanity, male and female, young and old; where three thousand people from across the known world respond and are baptised and that fire – light for dark places – is passed from life to life, spreading out from Jerusalem across the earth…But first, there is a pre-requisite: Jesus’ ‘baptism’ of death. Paul will write to the church in Rome that in our baptism we are united with Jesus in his death and in his resurrection (Romans 5), that the power that raised him from the dead lives in us. Our baptism is our commission into Jesus’ mission.
Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to overthrow the Romans and usher-in a Golden Age of peace. Rather, his presence will be divisive. It will create division between those, on the one hand, who ask “What is in it for me?” – whether that is articulated as “If God is so great, why doesn’t he do something about poverty [etc.]?” or as “God is on our side: things might look bleak at the moment, but he will vindicate us!” – and those, on the other hand, who say, “I don’t fully understand what God is doing in and through Jesus, but count me in – I’m in it, for him!” Jesus’ presence will be divisive, even within families.
Then Jesus turns back to the crowd and challenges them: they think they are wise because they can interpret the world around them; how, then, are they so blind to what God is doing in the world?
Fast forward thirty years. Pentecost has come, the fire Jesus came to light has set the world ablaze, the church has grown right across the Empire. But…some of their leaders have been executed, more have been imprisoned, and things will soon get worse (Nero will dip Christians in tar and set them on fire to light up his garden parties)…and Christians are asking, where is God, what is God up to in all this? So someone (we don’t know who: some believe it was Priscilla who, with her husband Aquila, taught Apollos; others think it was Paul) determined to write a response to those questions.
At this point, they are telling stories. We pick up the thread with Rahab. Rahab’s parents had dedicated her to a powerful chaos goddess. We see echoes of her through the Old Testament: when God separates out the land from the sea, we see an echo of her defeat; and Job says, no-one can lay a finger on Rahab, but when the Lord defeated her, it was so easy, it hardly warrants listing in what he has done. Not surprisingly, this woman’s life is marked by chaos. When we meet her, she is running a motel for travelling businessmen, with extra services offered. The spies sent out by the Israelites as they prepare to cross into the Land come to her, and she informs them that the whole city of Jericho knows that God has given them into his people’s hands: and when he does – when her whole world comes crashing down – she wants to be counted in. And she is. Not only does Rahab experience God’s mercy, she also experiences permanence: she will become the ancestor of King David, the ancestor of Jesus.
Next up, Gideon. Gideon is fearful. When we meet him, he is hiding in a hole. He is trying to thresh wheat. The way people did that was by clearing a large, flat, exposed rock; throwing out the grain over it, and dragging a wooden sledge with wooden teeth on the underside over it – throw the kids on top for extra weight. Then they’d take a winnowing fork and toss the grain in the air, and the wind would blow away the chaff while the good grain would fall back to the ground. It is a metaphor for the very thing God was doing to his people through the oppression of the Midianites – getting rid of the chaff in their lives. And Gideon is attempting this in a hole. The angel of the Lord (who I think is the pre-incarnate Jesus) turns up and says, “Hail, mighty warrior!” and Gideon looks over his shoulder to see who he could be addressing. But Gideon is used by God to lead his people into freedom. (Though in his old age, Gideon will lead them back into captivity.)
Then there is Barak. Barak is a general in the army. He has done fairly well in life. But he suffers from self-doubt. Perhaps what we would call today performance anxiety: you are only as good as your last win. Barak does not want to go up against the enemy general, Sisera. But Barak learns that victory belongs to God.
If Barak’s issue is self-doubt, Samson’s is self-indulgence. Whenever he says to his mum and dad, “Get me this! Get me that!” they oblige. He is spoilt; his whole life is a tragedy of self-indulgence. But at the end, Samson discovers something of God’s sacrificial self-giving.
Jephthah is a man of sorrow. When he had grown up, his half-brothers kicked him out of home: they wanted nothing to do with him, until they needed his help. And Jephthah declared that, if God gave him victory in battle, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house on his return. He comes home victorious, and his daughter runs out calling, “Daddy! You’re home! You’re safe! You won! You…” Now, I don’t believe that God wanted Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter, or that such a sacrifice was in any way pleasing to God. But here is this man of sorrow, listed in God’s great family.
Next, David. David is overlooked. God tells Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king. Samuel gets on the phone to Jesse, tells him that he wants to meet with him and his sons to worship God together. David doesn’t even get the memo. Later in his life, when he has arrived, he decides not to lead his men into battle – he won’t be missed, he is the overlooked one. And he falls into sin. But he thinks that he can get away with it – after all, he is easily overlooked. But David learns that, whether as a boy facing the lion and the bear, or as a man with Bathsheba, he is not overlooked but watched-over.
Finally, Samuel. Samuel is vain. When he is sent to anoint one of Jesse’s sons king, he thinks, “It must be this one; he’s so good-looking…No? Then it must be this one, he is also so good-looking…Or this good-looking one?” Why would he assume that the Lord’s anointed would have to be a good-looking man other than his belief that he himself, the Lord’s chosen prophet, was good-looking? But Samuel discovers that God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance.
Therefore, the writer says, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses to God’s faithfulness, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us – let us fix our eyes on Jesus. Let us throw off whatever it is that hinders us in following Jesus. Perhaps you have said, “My life is too chaotic right now. Perhaps when things settle down more, I’ll be able to follow Jesus closer…” Perhaps you believe you are too young, or too old – too fearful, too self-doubting, too self-indulgent, too sorrowful, too over-looked, too vain…It isn’t only sin that gets in the way: sometimes the good things we do for God hinder us from being close to Jesus.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. That is, he is the one who is writing our faith story; and he is the one who is bringing us to perfection through the discipline of our circumstances. As Paul writes to the church in Rome (Romans 5), suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. What is God doing in our difficulties? Working on our character.
Fix our eyes on Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…The joy of the Lord is our strength. If Jesus needed joy, to strengthen him, I’m confident that I can’t do without it!
Fix our eyes on Jesus…who…sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Where is Jesus? Sitting in heaven. And Paul writes to the church in Ephesus (Ephesians 2) that we have been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms – and that he has prepared good works for us to do. At times our circumstances are such that we feel we can’t see Jesus at all, we lose sight of him, we can’t see what he is up to. When we worship, whether corporately or in our own homes, Jesus does not descend to us (his return to earth is in the future); rather, we are caught up to where he is: and from there, he can show us our circumstances from the perspective of heaven, not an earth-bound perspective; from there, he can show us our circumstances from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven, and what it is that he has prepared for us to do in those circumstances.
Things that as I prepared I felt that God was wanting to do this morning, to which people would be given the opportunity to respond and to be prayed-with at the end of the service:
Those with a particular sense of something they have been telling themselves that is hindering them from following Jesus as closely as they want to, and who want to ‘throw off’ that thing – the Holy Spirit wants to help! (For me, the thing I have needed to throw off is the belief that I can’t make a difference here because I am only passing through).
Those whose circumstances are such that they feel they can’t get close to Jesus, who need to be lifted up into his presence.