Least, Last, Lost

The biblical story of God with us, as of last Sunday, has brought us to a place of invitation.

Our recent Scripture lessons have brimmed and teemed with simple, straightforward, yet gracious offers from Jesus to “follow me.” Accepting the Lord’s invitation to discipleship with humility and gratitude holds the potential to change each of our lives and every part of our world – if, and only if, you and I are willing to let our everyday living be shaped by the Cross of Christ.

By one of the great mysteries of our faith, we are one with Christ in his death on the Cross – just as we are in lockstep him as he rises from a stone-cold tomb. Thus, the Cross re-makes and re-fashions us into new creations, dead to beliefs and behaviors of who we were, alive in the fullness of peace and grace that just is the Christ of who we are – if, and only if, the Cross and the empty grave of Easter morning provide the blueprints and gameplans that shape the words and actions of our daily being.

The catalyst that sparks such dazzling resurrection is honest repentance – turning your life in a completely new, radically changed, more holy direction that allows you to see the world and its inhabitants in a wholly different light. “Kingdom Vision,” I and others call it: Eyes that recognize the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near.

Turn that way. Toward the Kingdom. Everybody. While there is still time, Jesus fresh on the heels of his baptism pleaded last Sunday in the Gospel of Mark.

Turn away from worldly ways of madness, ignorance, cruelty, idolatry, shallowness, and blindness. Turn toward the Kingdom ways of tolerance, compassion, sanity, reconciliation, empathy, forgiveness, restoration, hope, and justice – all those heavenly impulses and desires that dwell within you, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells richly and abides strongly in the hearts of you, me, and all God’s people in Christ.

Pray for the Kingdom. Watch for its signs. Live as one of its signs – as though it is here already, because there are moments when it almost is.

You’d think that everybody would be absolutely giddy with excitement over such incredibly Good News.

And many people are thrilled and delighted.

But the good folk of Jesus’s hometown cannot be counted among that joyful chorus.

In this morning’s Scripture lesson, Jesus at the synagogue of Nazareth proclaims to his family, former neighbors, ages-ago high-school buddies, and one-time co-workers that he – the humble son of Joseph the carpenter – is – of all people! – the fulfilment of God’s plans to save the world from its sinful and broken self. And the eager crowd likely expects that Jesus, the hometown-boy-made-good, will start God’s work of rescue and redemption with the people who’ve watched him grow up and known him the longest. After all, charity starts at home, right?

As it turns out, not so much. The glad tidings quickly turn sour when Jesus announces that God sends him to earth to seek and save, first and foremost, not the ones who think they have an “in” with Jesus but rather the last, the least, and the lost. And the crowd goes wild, not in celebration but in anger.

Yet, thanks be to God, the dramatic moment ends with a scene of hopeful assurance that nothing, absolutely nothing – not even a vicious, riled-up mob of murderous scorn and hatred – will stand in the way of God’s purposes in Christ Jesus.

With Kingdom Vision, listen for the Word of the Lord midchapter in Luke 4.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. 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.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luke 4:14-30)

If you had to choose the words that best capture and explain who you are and why you’re here, what would those words be?

Think, for a moment, about the particular words that most clearly define and communicate the true essence of yourself, your life, your commitments, and your faith.

Can you picture yourself standing before the community and declaring, as Jesus did, “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.”

Imagine standing up in the middle of the Wellness Center, or the S&D Café, or the high school cafeteria, or the weekly auction at Sweeney’s, or the kids’ Saturday morning soccer game, and proclaiming that the day is surely coming when every person in Waukon will be cured of his or her illness!

The day is surely coming when every unemployed person in Allamakee County will find meaningful, fulfilling, family-sustaining work.

The day is surely coming when all the addicts in Iowa will be freed from their addictions, and all the meth labs in this country will be shut down.

The day is surely coming when every broken relationship will be repaired, restored and reconnected.

The day is surely coming when every broken-down hovel will get an “extreme makeover” such that every such remodeled home in every renovated neighborhood will shine and gleam like some swanky, multi-million-dollar retirement home perched high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.

Those are pretty bold proclamations – the kind of wild talk that surely creates a buzz on Main Street, and the predictable storm of public ridicule and gossip is probably why you don’t hear too many of us making such wild-eyed proclamations these days.

But I’m going to climb out on a limb here and say that each and every one of us ought to be able to stand up and speak with full confidence and all assurance the exact same words of Isaiah that Jesus does:

“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.”

By no means are you proclaiming how great you are, but rather you are proclaiming how great God is! – along with a proclamation that every blessed one of us is blessedly one with Jesus! Your baptism proclaims that you are one with Christ not just in his death and resurrection but also in his work and ministry. The same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus in the anointing of his baptism is the same Holy Spirit who comes upon you and me in our baptisms.

By that same Spirit in Christ, God begins the work of repairing and fixing everything in the world that is broken and shattered. And in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, that work of reconciliation has been handed over to us, along with all those diverse gifts and talents given to the various parts of the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit to serve God’s purposes.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to doubt what Jesus proclaims, plenty of reasons to keep each of us from proclaiming that message to our friends and neighbors. Fear of ridicule is an ever-present danger to the Gospel’s spread. And there’s still plenty of bad news – plenty of poverty and captivity; plenty of blindness and illness; plenty of oppression, and segregation, and separation; plenty of anger, fear, and distrust, and oftentimes precious little that makes it feel like we really are the recipients of even a smidgen of the Lord’s favor.

We still see and suffer from a sin-sick litany of evil’s cruel handiwork:

Way too much love of money, way too much scandal and corruption, way too much hunger for power.

Way too much brutal war, way too much vicious persecution, way too much slaughter and genocide.

Way too much bloody murder, and senseless violence, and extreme terrorism both foreign and domestic.

However you want to measure it, way too much brokenness to easily believe that the Kingdom has come in Christ Jesus.

Way too many people are feeling way too much pain from illness, and sickness, and cancer, and death, and divorce, and separation, and addition to easily believe that the world is, even now, being ruled by the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

But in announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom and new rule of the Lord, Jesus doesn’t say that all the pain and heartache of the world will end in a flash.

What Jesus says is that the poor, the lame, the blind, the imprisoned and the sick are all seen and known by God. Really and truly: The lowest of the low in body, mind and spirit – the ones so marginalized, pushed off to the side, and overlooked by much of the world as to barely register a blip on our human radars – those are the folks who are seen, known, and loved by God the Father Almighty.

And, as co-creators with the Lord, you and I need to be noticing those folks, too, and to be bringing them the Lord’s message of healing and hope, and to be receiving from them that same message of restoration, reconciliation, resurrection: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, too, and I have come bearing the good news that God’s healing and freeing favor is upon you. Really! Right here, right now!”

The agony of living in the already-here-but-not-yet-completely-finished world of God’s Kingdom is that the Kingdom is just that – a work in progress. One of the most-startling of all divine revelations is that, with the coming of Jesus Christ, God launches a quiet, evolutionary Kingdom where things are slowly changing, rather than a loud, over-the-top Kingdom where everything gets fixed in the blink of an eye.

But we nevertheless get to be a part of that Kingdom and part of the Lord’s renewal of all things, even as the forces of sin and evil in the world around us seem to be doing everything they can to knock the stuffing out of our hopes for that Kingdom and kicking the tar out of our assurance that the kingdom is really here.

Whenever we celebrate communion, as we did a few Sundays ago on the Feast of Pentecost, I hold up a whole loaf of bread as a reminder of the whole, perfect presence of the Lord among his people.

But then that loaf is shattered, broken, and torn, and the crumbs fall onto the table. It is a reminder that our perfect wholeness, that peace that we yearn and long for, is not behind us but up ahead and yet to come. Wholeness is coming, and the broken loaf reminds us that it is coming through what Jesus has already done. His brokenness is what one day will put our lives back together – whole and complete, relationships and all.

A preaching colleague tells the story of a time when he was asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.” The idea was to hold the service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall, where families would gather around tables, and in the center would be the ingredients for making a loaf of bread.

The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the pastor would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of communion. 

It was a great idea, at least on paper anyway. But its execution didn’t go so well.

Within minutes, the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough clung to the walls as children hurled bits of the sticky mixture at each other. Husbands and wives began sniping at one another, and already-tense nerves began to fray and eventually snap.

Then the ovens didn’t work right, and it took forever to bake the bread. Children whimpered; babies screamed, and nasty glances were cast upon noisy families who were on the verge of coming apart at the seams.

But finally, and mercifully, came the end of the service. The script called for the visiting preacher to pronounce the blessing. Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, the preacher just said the usual blessing straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.”

And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up: “It already is!”

For many of us, it is what it is: We come to worship each week from the dusty, sticky, frayed-nerve mess that just is our life in a fallen Creation.

The Kingdom of God is here, yes, but we know full well that there’s a lot that remains broken, incomplete, and wounded – either in our own lives or in the lives of those around us.

Yet, we’re able to get ourselves out of bed in the morning and get through each difficult day, because we hold onto God’s Kingdom vision that, as I suggested to you last Sunday, allows us to see the world differently, with the eyes of heaven. And we cling to Christ, the peace that God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit gives to us – peace not in the sense of the absence of hardship or conflict, but peace in the sense that God will see us through hardship and conflict.

Really! Right here, right now! Peace that comes from assurance that God is making all things new, even if that divine newness isn’t happening fast enough for our tastes. Peace that comes from confidence and belief in Jesus, because the Lord God anointed Jesus and sent him to us to announce the time of the Lord’s favor – the peace of God that already is.

If you’re still struggling to choose the words that best capture and explain who you are and why you’re here, let me suggest these: “I am a child of God, and because of that, the peace of God that already is is upon me. The Spirit of the Lord who always was is upon me. And God by the Spirit anoints me to bring good news to you, my friends and my neighbors.

And the Good News is this: God will see you through whatever is it that’s got you down: Captivity, blindness, oppression – whatever it is, the Lord will see you through. Evil isn’t going to win, because the time of the Lord’s favor is here. God sends me to you to tell you that heaven sees you, knows you, and loves you, and to remind you that the Lord’s peace upon you will see you through your captivity and oppression.

For those who follow Jesus Christ, that ought to be the essence of yourself, your life, your commitments, and your faith – simply and graciously because “it already is.” The peace of God already is, and it already is upon you.

And in the ongoing story of God with us, the invitation from Jesus still stands: “Follow me,” in grace and peace. Follow me to the people and places hungry and thirsty for that same Kingdom nourishment.

Ancient words, ever true. Thanks be to God. Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, June 19, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by R. Alan Culpepper, Scott Hoezee, and L.T. Johnson inform the message.

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