Hearing a Word from God -- A Lectionary Reflection
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Hearing a Word from God
It’s said that a prophet finds it difficult to get a listening audience from the hometown folks. This is especially true if you’re young and inexperienced. There’s that rule about being seen and not heard, and often it extends well into adulthood. We’ve all been young once, and know that feeling that the message we wish to share is being discounted by those who are older than us. Now that I’m a bit older than I used to be (I’m now in my mid-50s), I do have this sense that I’ve “earned” a right to be heard due to my longevity. That being said, I’ve been in meetings where a young adult or a high school student speaks a word of great wisdom. Unfortunately that word isn’t often heard or at least it’s discounted. We know all about generational conflict, which often erupts because people can’t hear each other. Maybe that’s why a mentor pastor writes to a younger pastor in 1 Timothy and counsels him to not let anyone “despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
In the passages that stand before us in the lectionary, we hear echoes of this counsel offered Timothy. A prophet hears a call and is concerned that his youthfulness will disqualify his voice, and another (Jesus) finds resistance to his voice, perhaps because the hometown folks seem too familiar with him. We know his father. We know the family. Why should we listen? But the word that comes is one that is couched in love – an others-centered love as described by Paul.
The call to ministry is always received with fear and trepidation, and the call to prophetic ministry is even more so. Who am I that God would call me? What gifts do I possess that will enable me to take on this responsibility? How will I know what to say or when to say it? Besides, I’m young and inexperienced. Those of us who have answered the call to pastoral ministry know this feeling well. In fact, I doubt it ever goes away completely. But the word that comes to Jeremiah is clear – Don’t say I’m only a child,” because you must go where I send you and say what I tell you to say. Don’t be afraid, because I’m there to save you. Yes, remember that I’ve created you for this purpose. I knew you in the womb. I designated you, from before your birth “a prophet to the nations.” Yes, Jeremiah isn’t just God’s spokesperson to Israel; he has a much bigger venue – the whole world. Yahweh isn’t just a tribal deity protecting a small strip of land, but rather Yahweh paints on a much bigger canvas, and Jeremiah has been called to deliver this word. But don’t worry, God provides the words. Not only that, but God has commissioned Jeremiah to rule over nations and empires, “to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant” (Jer. 1:10 CEB). It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s also the call of God.
If Jeremiah speaks for God, so does Jesus. After delivering the sermon in the synagogue, drawing upon Jeremiah 61, which speaks of the mantle of the Spirit, Jesus declares – “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Now there is a question left open – is Jesus applying this to himself (as I suggested in my previous meditation and in my sermon this past Sunday), or is it more open-ended. That is, the Age of the Spirit has begun. Anyway, people seemed to like the sermon. In the translation found in the Common English Bible, we’re told that “everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips.” They were awed by the power of his words, much like the teachers in the Temple who were “amazed at his understanding and his answers,” when as a twelve year old he engaged them in serious theological conversation (Lk. 2:47). They wondered about all of this, because this was Joseph’s son. Somehow it doesn’t seem as if this was meant as a compliment, but more wonderment that Joseph’s son could be so erudite!
Jesus’ response to their embrace of his speaking ability is interesting. He seems to want to dampen mood – quickly. He tells them – I know you want me to conduct healings here like in Capernaum. But, “no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.” It’s almost as if he’s saying -- enjoy the sermon because that’s all you’re getting. But he goes on from there and speaks of Elijah’s provision food for widow of Zarephath in Sidon. Why did God send him there when there were so many widows in Israel? That sounds awfully close to what we hear said about foreign aid – why help feed the hungry in Africa when we have so many starving in America? Then there’s Naaman, the Syrian, who was healed of his skin disease by the Prophet Elisha. Why Naaman, when there were folks back home needing healing? Are you surprised that Jesus’ retort riles the crowd? This wasn’t a great way to end a sermon. No, instead, it angers the people and in what seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy they reject his ministrations. Like Jeremiah, his calling may have come while still in the womb, but it isn’t received any better than Jeremiah’s. Luke tells us that they ran him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. They would have succeeded, but apparently the time wasn’t right, because he “passed through the crowd and went on his way.” How this worked, I’m not sure, but the passages from Jeremiah and Luke remind us that prophetic words aren’t always well received. It’s true that in this case Jesus’ words could be seen as overly abrasive. I’m not sure I could get away with this any better than he did, but still, is there not truth to the idea that prophetic words rarely meet with warm embrace. As Walter Brueggemann suggests:
The preacher must remember that when the congregation (or some part of it) is deeply and convincedly embedded in the dominant narrative, prophetic preaching that advocates the counter-narrative sounds like unbearable nonsense. [Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word. (p. 6).]
It seems clear that the people of Nazareth were committed to the dominant narrative and didn’t appreciate Jesus’ prophetic message.
If Jeremiah faces a call that appears overwhelming and Jesus moves the people from awe to anger, which seems to be the dominant position of prophets, Paul offers a rather different perspective. In fact, it might seem as if Jesus could benefit from Paul’s approach. We all think of Jesus as a man of love, but his words in Nazareth seem harsh, while love is that which is without end! Paul’s word might not seem to fit with the other two passages, but in many ways 1 Corinthians 13 offers us a context for engaging in ministry, especially difficult ministries. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. Paul writes to people who are facing heartbreaking divisions. People are fighting over who has the best and most important gifts. They’ve ranked certain gifts above all others and are holding this over the heads of the others. Tongues is one, but prophecy also seems into be highly valued. Paul doesn’t discount such gifts, but he puts them in context. Indeed, he puts all of our ministries in context. Eloquent speech, effective communication, and more, they are of little value outside the power of love. It is common for us to be reminded that the kind of love mentioned here is agapic, others-centered. This love, which is patient and kind and isn’t jealous, doesn’t brag, isn’t arrogant, rude, seek its own advantage, irritable, or subject to fits of complaining. Do you see yourself in these descriptions? I’ve been there, done that. I know that I don’t always allow this form of love to define my life, let alone my ministry. Still, Paul is clear – it is this love that will endure. Everything else is irrelevant.
What, however, is this love Paul speaks of? I’m partial to the definition of agape provided by theologian Tom Oord: “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.” Oord notes that agape isn’t the only form of Christian love, but it’s not only others centered, but it pursues the good of the other even in the face of efforts that would produce “ill-being.” That is, Oord says – “in spite of love” [Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 56).
We love others despite pain and suffering and seek to promote what is good. I think this is the intent of Jesus and Jeremiah. Their words might come across harshly at times, but their goal is to produce well-being in the face of ill-being.