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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

11-ORD4-G-C Luke 4:21-30
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
February 1, 2004

What Would Jesus Do? A couple of years ago, the W.W.J.D stuff was really hot. There were W.W.J.D. bracelets, bumper stickers, T-shirts. I even saw a W.W.J.D. hedge trimming. When you can get people to trim their hedges in the shape of your logo – that’s effective marketing. Did any of you have one of the bracelets? Did any of you trim your shrubbery that way? Are any of you wearing one of those bracelets today?

I’m not knocking the W.W.J.D. stuff at all. I admire its intent. I wish I had come up with the idea and gotten a copyright. But you see, that’s the problem with slogans and marketing campaigns: what’s hot today is cold tomorrow. If you do come up with a great idea, pretty soon the kids who loved it will be saying, “Oh, that’s just so last-September.” Fads come and go, whether they’re about Jesus or Ben & Jen.

In today’s scripture, Jesus gets his 15 minutes of fame in his hometown of Nazareth, and 15 minutes is literally about right. Last Sunday we read about his ascension to the pulpit on the Sabbath day morning, when he read the scripture about the Spirit of the Lord anointing him and declared it fulfilled, and all the people were, like, “Cool. Dude, where’s my bracelet?” Three sentences later, they’re ticked off, driving him out of town, and trying to throw him off a cliff. That’s harsh. Howard Dean got better treatment in Iowa. There are no cliffs in Iowa, but that’s beside the point. Even in Nazareth, today’s “it-guy” is tomorrow’s cold soup.

Whenever we reduce Jesus to a fad, a fad is exactly what we get. Whenever our shrubbery says more about faith than we do, God is, like, so last-September. Now, obviously, I’m preaching to the choir, here. (That’s a figure of speech. Statistics show choir members are no more sinful than the average church-goer. Except for the ones on the back row.) What I mean is, you folks are the ones who are here every Sunday, week after week, year after year. God is obviously not a fad to you. You are not “sunny-day” believers. But here’s the thing: neither were the people of Nazareth.

The folks of Nazareth were the ones who brought Jesus up. They were the ones who kept him in the nursery when Mary & Joseph were at a Stewardship Dinner. These were the people who taught him right from wrong, who were used to seeing him trotting along behind his Dad every Sabbath day morning when the doors to the synagogue were open. They’re the ones who heard him preach and said, “Look at Joe’s little boy now! Didn’t he grow up well?”

And they’re the ones who tried to toss him off a cliff.

Sometimes the good news of Jesus Christ is bad news. Sometimes Jesus’ entertainment value is non-existent. Sometimes we’d prefer how he was last September than how he is today. Despite the highs and lows of our attention spans, Jesus stays Jesus. Jesus stays constant, stays true to God’s word. When times are good, that’s great. When times are hard, we remember the hope of Jesus, and it makes things better. But when we’ve gone off chasing the rabbits of our own breeding, or the fads of our own illusion – even if those fads are about Jesus himself – Jesus calls us back to reality, even if it hurts.

“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb: Doctor, cure yourself. And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.” They didn’t have the Internet back then, but they had something almost as fast: small town gossip. Jesus was drawing crowds and his fame was growing all around the region, the Bible tells us so. “I heard he cast out a demon,” one person said. “I heard he cast out seven demons,” said another. “Oh yeah? Well, I heard he cast out seven demons, cured Aunt Esther’s rheumatism, AND installed flooring in a sanctuary. In one day.” So maybe the people of Nazareth aren’t expecting too much to want Jesus to do some of his tricks for them. The Bible doesn’t say it precisely, but I’m guessing Jesus was bristling at the insinuation that his miracles were done for entertainment.

And so these good, faithful synagogue-going people get beaten to the punch. Jesus says no, even before the question comes out of their mouths. Maybe he saving from embarrassing themselves with such a rude request. Some things are better left unsaid. At any rate, Jesus beats them to the punch. And then they punch back. “Why, you little…”

There’s no way to study this, but I’ll bet the State Lottery has produced more prayers in two weeks than all the churches in East Tennessee put together. Those coins start scratching and, “Oh God, if you’ll just let me get one more seven.” And you’ve got to know God just loves to hear that sort of thing. Now I have no objection to the lottery, as long as you remember a tithe is ten percent. And suppose a prayer-scratcher does win big; I hope that doesn’t mean God liked their prayers better. God does miracles. God doesn’t do tricks. That’s what Jesus’ preemptive strike leads us to hear.

It’s true that prayers are free. But some prayers are cheaper than others. Some prayers are cheap because they don’t cost the person making them anything. “Wishes” would be another name for cheap prayers. I’d imagine God bristles at wishes the same way Jesus did. True prayer always costs something, a whole lot more than ten percent of our lottery winnings. The first price of prayer is our pride. If we dare to speak with Jesus on his home turf, the price of admission is the act of surrender. Americans don’t like to surrender. The whole concept of surrender is foreign to us. And that’s why so much of our prayer life is cheap.

Of course, at the time of this scripture Jesus was walking a part of the earth where the concept of surrender is maybe even more foreign than it is to us. So when Jesus goes off and starts naming places like Sidon and Syria, he’s driving home the point in more than one way. Prayer is costly because it not only requires our surrender, prayer is hard because it invites us to venture away from home, and enter a land that’s completely foreign. When we pray, we’re daring to step onto God’s turf, and God’s turf ought to feel foreign.

Imagine how we’d feel if Jesus came today, and instead of talking about how great the people of America were, if instead he told us about how God had blessed a Syrian named Mohammed, or an Iraqi named Saddiq. Here, we thought Jesus would be making an appearance in East Tennessee to tell us how great we are. And instead he’s talking about those foreigners. Like the people of Nazareth, we’d probably be a little put out with him, too.

In a literal sense, God has always been more open to foreign people than those who call themselves “God’s own” would like to believe. This truth has driven the missions work of many a church. And because of what we’ve learned from this missions work, learned from the spirit of the missionaries and from the people of those foreign countries, we are richer, spiritually speaking. When we pray with our sisters and brothers in foreign places, we are no longer limited by our national boundaries.

But in a symbolic sense, when we pray God calls each of us to make a journey outside of our own little worlds. When we pray, we aren’t limited by our personal boundaries. Imagine it – we’re lifted to a place where we can actually talk, maybe even listen, to the One so great He can create stars, sun, moon… and us. When we pray, we’re lifted to where we can be on God’s turf, where petty little differences like race, and wealth, and age and looks don’t add up to a hill of beans. When we pray, we come this close to touching heaven. Prayer OUGHT to be a frighteningly wonderful experience of something foreign.

Some time next week, when you’re off by yourself – and for some of you that’s not easy, I know. But some time next week, close your eyes and think about how God really is inviting us to come this close to heaven in our prayers. Don’t do it when you’re driving; find some other time. Or maybe closing your eyes makes driving less stressful for you. That’s your call. Close your eyes and think about how magnificently foreign God’s world must be – and how incredibly loving God must be to even give two hoots about us in the first place. And yet God not only cares, God listens. And sometimes, we shut up long enough to hear God whispering back to us.

All of this is to say that prayer isn’t a one-time wish that we can throw up at God in hopes that it’s going to stick. Prayer is an exercise, a long walk to a different place. Prayer takes time and practice. None of us have it exactly right. No one of us does it better than another. But if we try, we’re learning. We’re setting our eyes on God who is God, on Jesus who is Jesus, a Holy Spirit who stays the Holy Spirit – despite the highs and lows of our attention spans.

Back to the original question – W.W.J.D.: What Would Jesus Do? The scripture about his homecoming to Nazareth tells us that no matter what Jesus might do, he isn’t always going to make us happy. Sometimes he’s going to tell us that we’re looking for the wrong thing, that we’re chasing illusions, that we’re wishing upon a star and we’re not going to get everything we want. That can sound like bad news. But the good news of Jesus Christ is that what we want isn’t the be-all and end-all of the world. Our boundaries can be expanded. We can surrender our pride. We can believe in a God who’s big enough to care about Syrians and Sidonians, “Nazarillians” and South Knoxvillians… and you.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

10-ORD3-G-C Luke 4:14-21
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
January 25, 2004

What’s your purpose?

Is there a more important question any of us could try to answer? Most of us spend our entire lives trying to find a purpose. We try this, then we try that. We change jobs, change homes, change families. Or these get changed out from under us and we go looking for a replacement. Most of the time we’re not really looking for anything different; we’re looking for something meaningful. We’re trying to find a purpose. Something to make our jobs, homes, families or whatever worthwhile.

In today’s scripture, Jesus walks into the synagogue, reads the scripture, and declares it fulfilled as soon as he reads it. Jesus knows his purpose. He knows why he’s on earth. So not only is the scripture fulfilled, he’s fulfilled.

When serving God becomes our purpose we become fulfilled. When serving God becomes our purpose we realize there’s no such thing as the perfect job, the perfect home, the perfect family. God is perfect, and that’s enough. When serving God becomes our purpose, God changes our lives so that we don’t have to live in the frantic search for the next right thing. We’ve found it; or rather, it’s found us. We, as well as the scriptures, can be fulfilled.

Jesus finds his purpose at home.

The Bible tells us that Jesus had been all around Galilee, teaching in synagogues and getting rave reviews. Jesus was the “next big thing,” the new preacher that everyone agreed was so much less boring than the last guy. His sermons last two sentences and then he sits down – no wonder everybody loves him. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he proclaims, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

Jesus had been preaching, presumably this same message, all around the county – but it’s not until he comes back home to Nazareth, where he was brought up, that the Bible picks up the whole story. Jesus finds his purpose at home, and in his hometown, he as well as the scripture are fulfilled.

We’ve made it through Christmas into January. Which means a lot of us have taken our annual roll of film for developing. We can revisit the memories, in color more vivid than real-life. We see certain members of the family with red dots on their eyes, and we know this confirms that they really are possessed by Satan – a sign that only shows up on photo paper. We think about home at Christmas. We visit, we phone, we remember it. Sometimes the memories are enchanting. Sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes home is a place that shows us how things ought to be. Sometimes it’s a place that shows us how they shouldn’t. No matter how lovely they might have been, our earthly homes are, well, earthly homes. They aren’t exactly heaven and they aren’t precisely hell. They’re earthly, which spiritually is located somewhere in between the extremes. And so are the people who live in these homes. And so are we.

Jesus found his purpose when he returned to his earthly home, but there wasn’t anything magical about Nazareth. We all know Jesus’ real home was in heaven with God – and he’d be returning there shortly, but not yet. And so, Jesus’ pilgrimage back home is symbolic, just as our Christmas journeys home are for us. Like Jesus, our real home is in heaven with God – and we’ll be returning there shortly, but not yet. For now, Knoxville, or Maryville, or some other earthly place will have to do.

If heaven is our true home, then if we hang our hopes on a substitute – no matter how attractive – we’re bound to be disappointed. We can change as often as we want, but the place where we hang our hat is never quite what we’re searching for. If it’s true meaning, real purpose we’re looking for, we have to set our focus beyond the earthly stand-in, to what it really stands for. In this life, the best picture we can get of our real home comes from the pages of scripture. It’s not Nazareth, but the scroll of scripture he finds there, that’s actually the place where Jesus is “brought up.” The Father God who Jesus finds in scripture is the one who will “bring” him up in the final day, when he’ll be completely home for good.

Scripture isn’t magic. If scripture is a road map, it’s a pretty confusing one (not because it’s poor, but because our understanding is so partial). Scripture is filled with stories of people (and usually pretty flawed people) who’re searching for home. And scripture has the Holy Spirit’s own visions of that home, and God’s own commandments from home, to help us find our way. If we get far from scripture we lose our direction. Jesus’ true home is in a scroll that just happens to be in Nazareth. Our home is in a book that just happens to be in Knoxville. Like Jesus, we find our purpose – we ONLY find our purpose – at home.

Jesus’ purpose.

He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

It’s possible to read this as Jesus’ mission statement. Certainly, it’s a mission statement even Steven Covey would be proud of. Jesus is definitely a highly effective person, and although it’s hard to get seven habits out of this statement, it’ll do. You can read this as literal truth and find plenty of times in the Bible when Jesus did bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind, and so on. Only God’s anointed Son could do such miraculous things.

But you can also read this passage as the poetry Isaiah intended it to be. Poetic language is different because it intentionally doesn’t say everything. Poetry is symbolic. Poetry is poetry because it invites the reader to interpret its meaning, over and over again. Jesus reads these old words, and makes them come alive in his day and time. In other words, he fulfills them – fills these old words with new life – by adapting their meaning to himself.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both

Goes the poem by Robert Frost

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Now, you and I don’t literally have to stop, on horseback, where two roads diverge, to understand what Frost’s poem means. Maybe you can look back at your life to a point where you chose a path not everyone else has taken. And maybe you can see how that one choice made all the difference in your life. You have fulfilled Frost’s poem, and given it life.

The great good news of the gospel is that you and I can reinterpret the poetry of Isaiah. You and I can live out poetic mission of Jesus’ life. Whenever we try to be faithful, we adopt and adapt Jesus’ purpose as our own. Whenever we try to be faithful, the rhythm of his words makes our hearts beat. Now, you and I probably won’t literally bring sight to the blind or free the oppressed. That’s asking a lot. But we might drive a Mobile Meals route or hold a hurting person’s hand. Or we might keep the nursery for parents who need a break – which, believe me, on the right day can feel like setting the captives free. You can even write a check to help other people do these things. All of which is well within our reach, and isn’t asking too much. If we read Jesus’ purpose as poetry, then we have the right – even the obligation – to reinterpret it as yet another new testament to God. Except it’s a new testament that WE write with our lives. We can’t literally do all that Jesus did. But we can do what we can in his spirit. The words of scripture can guide us hence, and that will make all the difference.

And so Isaiah’s purpose becomes Jesus’ purpose. And Jesus’ purpose becomes our purpose. And step by step God brings us closer to home.

So, what’s your purpose?

One of our church’s old catechisms says our purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy him all of our days. That’ll certainly do. But somewhere between the ideal and reality, we choose other purposes, or other purposes get chosen for us. Glorifying God and enjoying him gets lost behind purposes like making a mortgage payment, or getting the kids to graduate, or staying healthy for another year. And hallelujah, praise God if we pull those things off. If more people made those their purposes, the world would be a better place. But whatever the purposes we choose, or get chosen for us, the truth is we’re always going to come up short. Reality never quite matches the ideal.

God’s purpose is this: to share communion and love with creatures that keep running away from home. God’s purpose is an ideal, but it’s also reality. We know this because Jesus came to our earthly home to tell us about it. Through Jesus, God made the ideal into reality, once and for all. So the captives could be set free and the blind could see. So we could be free to see that the prophesies have been fulfilled in our hearing, even if our doing misses the mark.

What’s your purpose? That’s an important question, for sure. We spend most of our lives trying to answer it. But God’s purpose has already been told us. And by grace, we can make God’s purpose ours. At which point, we don’t have to wonder how to answer anymore. And at that moment, scripture – and we – will be fulfilled. Scripture and we will be home.