Top of your game

Top of your game

Luke 4:21-30

by Danielle Jones

Have you ever had a moment when you were at the top of your game?

A day? a week? several years even? where you can look back on a time in your life
and think to yourself… that was it! That was the season when I peaked and I was at the top of my game! In that moment, you had the world by the tail and fully understood who you were and what you were called to do.

I have had a day or two like that here and there… moments when I thought without a doubt that I had finally arrived. The pieces of the puzzle had fallen together. The road ahead seemed well lit and full of promise and I was on my way. And the way, I thought, was sure to be easy! After all, I could see where I was going and the future looked bright.

I had one of those “top of my game” moments my junior year in college. I went to Iowa State University and, looking back, Iowa State was the place my leadership gifts really began to flourish.

Junior year was particularly wonderful as I settled into majoring in sociology and psychology–after taking tours through marketing, econ and political science. It was also the year that I was recognized by my peers in many capacities as a leader. I was voted onto the senior leadership team for the senior class planning for the entire university.

I had been given an internship at a local church in counseling ministry, and I was elected president of my sorority. Not to mention the fact that I was dating a guy who was kind of a big deal–he was smart and kind and a member of the coolest fraternity on campus. My friends… I had arrived. And I knew it.

I remember one snowy morning walking to class and ticking off the list I just gave you in my head. Thinking through all the ways I had made a name for myself. I remember briefly thanking God for all of these things and then moving on to think about all the ways I was sure people around me probably wished they were me. I’m not kidding!

I was really thinking that!!

As I said, it was a snowy morning and I was walking down a hill to class when at the very moment I was as full as I could possibly of myself–truly convinced I was at the top of my game–I hit a patch of ice and fell down that hill.

I didn’t as much fall as I slid and kind of rolled, so fast that my bag opened and all the contents inside were strewn across said hill.

And I cut my hand — well both hands really — and my pants ripped on both knees!
So much for being at the top of my game. I remember collecting my things off that hill after a few people asked me if I needed help… and a few others chuckled under their breath… and in my 20-year-old mind I knew this fall was a message from God.

While I was sure God did not make that fall happen, there was a message within that fall to slow down, eat a piece of humble pie and rethink what it really means to be at the top of your game.
If you were here last week, you heard Jeff’s sermon on the passage just before this passage in Luke. Jesus-filled with the Holy Spirit had been traveling around teaching. And word was spreading all throughout the country about who he was and what he could do when he arrives back in Nazareth, his hometown, to worship and teach in the synagogue.

The scripture passage he read that day just happened to a prophetic quote about the coming messiah from the book of Isaiah. A quote that was about him — of course, saying “the spirit of the Lord was upon him because he was anointed to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to recover the sight of the blind and to let the oppressed go free- and all this to proclaim the Lord’s favor.” And after reading the passage he rolls up the scroll and sits down. Then, after he sits he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus–in that moment–is at the top of his game. He is teaching — word was spreading about the works and miracles he was beginning to do — and he has now proclaimed — in his hometown, in the synagogue he grew up in — that the Messiah has arrived, and he is the Messiah. God is on the move and a new season has begun.

And amazingly, the people gathered in worship that day could see it too! They start talking and whispering and Luke tells us they were amazed at the gracious words that came from Jesus’ mouth. They couldn’t believe what they had heard — that the anointed one, the Messiah, the one who generations had been waiting for, was finally here. Not only was he here, but he was from their hometown. And so they whispered to one another “Isn’t that Joseph’s son?” amazed and in awe that the one they knew from the time he was a little boy was truly the Son of God.

And Jesus, in response to the awe of the people, does something very different than he usually does in scenes like this. Jesus begins to answer questions–questions that were not even being asked.
You will recall that many times in scripture Jesus asks questions of the people he is with and at other times in the gospels he either doesn’t answer a question that he is being asked or he answers in a very veiled way. But on this day, at the top of his game, he goes for it and he tells the people what he wants them to hear. God is certainly up to something.

And so Jesus first says to them, I know what you are thinking… if you are the Messiah– prove it. He calls them out! Telling them what they want to say to him before he even says it. And then he tells them what this new work that God is going to do will look like by reminding them of two different stories from the Old Testament.

The first is the story of the prophet Elijah who is sent by God to a widow during a time of famine.
God tells Elijah that this widow will feed him and take care of him as they wait for the famine to pass. And so it happens that this widow, who is an outsider and does not believe in God before Elijah comes to her, is used by God and God is revealed to her both in the provision of flour and oil each day as they wait for the famine to pass and in the healing of her son who dies but is later healed by God through Elijah’s prayers.

The second story Jesus recalls to the people is the story of Elisha, another prophet who God uses to heal Naaman who had leprosy but was healed by God. Through his healing and experience with God, he comes to believe. Naaman was also an outsider, and at the beginning of the story doesn’t believe in God but through this experience comes to know the living God.

These two stories show God’s great love for the outsider. God uses whom he chooses to reveal himself to, and in both of these cases God does not choose to use the faithful insider as the bearer of the good news but he instead uses the unbelieving outsider.

For generations this has been good news — that God consistently surprises us with his work, using obscure and unlikely characters to spread the word that God works, God heals, God saves, and He is alive. This really has been good news to the outsider, but historically the insiders don’t take this news very well.

When Jesus shares theses stories with the insiders in the synagogue that day, his message is not received well by the believing and worshipping crowd. Luke tells us that when they heard all this, everyone in the synagogue went from being in awe of Jesus to being filled with RAGE.

Not anger, or frustration or even disappointment. The people were filled with RAGE.

Just think of it… what if Jesus showed up here, proclaimed the good news that he has come and all will be set right again, but told us that work wasn’t going to happen here inside the walls of our church where we, the faithful are gathered. Instead it is going to happen out there somewhere, on the fringes, with an outsider. To contextualize it, if Jesus arrived today maybe he would tell us that the new thing God is doing will happen through a Somali immigrant who is even — of all things a Muslim! Or maybe he’d say that God was going to show up through a fringe and isolated young man who didn’t even believe in God. I think news like that might push even us to be filled with RAGE.
The worshipping people that day were so filled with rage that they chased him out of the synagogue, they drove him out of town, and they led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

So much for Jesus being at the top of his game. In a moment, in a few sentences spoken and a few stories shared, Jesus goes from being on the top of his game to having a whole group of God’s followers wanting to throw him off a cliff!

We can’t say it enough. “God’s ways are not our ways.” They never have been, and I am sad to say – they never will be. Our ways are constructed from our perspective. And our perspective is that we are smack dab in the middle of God’s story that is unfolding around us. And when you are in the middle of anything, it is hard to see what is truly happening. God’s perspective takes the full story – from beginning to send into account. Our perspective can only see the middle – we don’t know what the end will look like. This is why God’s ways look different from our ways.

These faithful worshippers and followers of God had their worlds rocked that day in temple. On the one hand, all their dreams came true! The Messiah was finally here – and that was such good news. But on the other hand, their definition of messiah and their definition of how God works was turned completely upside down – and that felt like bad news.

So what happens when the good news from God comes and it isn’t the good news we have been waiting for? What happens when God finally delivers the good news to us about the new thing he is planning to do and it demands that we let go of all we have constructed to make sense of God?

Jesus came to show us that God does not work in the confines of the boxes we construct for him. God will not be tamed by our well-worn narratives of how we think he should work. God arrives to do something new. God arrives to refresh us, to heal us, to give us sight, and to free the oppressed. As it turns out, we are the oppressed.

Although the world looks at us and tells us we are at the top of our game, we are oppressed by our own success, our own wealth, and the boxes we have build for God and for ourselves. These things we have, these seemingly wonderful things, are just the things that build walls between us and God. And when we pause to see who built the wall between us and God, we are shocked when we realize we built it ourselves!

One of Luke’s favorite words to use throughout his book is the word “today.” In this passage it shows up when Jesus says “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke uses the word today not to highlight the power of that very day, but to get our attention as readers centuries later – to get our attention today.

In this short passage Luke proclaims the messiah has come. He reminds us of God’s way of working in the most unlikely places and through the most unlikely people. And he announces that it is happening again through Jesus. He wants us to know it is happening again for us – TODAY!
We are given a chance to respond to the new thing that God is doing in one of three ways.
The first way we can respond is with absolute rage. It is very tempting to get mad at God for not doing it our way. We so convince ourselves that we know better than God, that when he surprises us with how he decides to work we become so frustrated that we are filled with rage.

The second way we can respond to God’s new work around us today is with complacency. I am convicted by the truth that God works in and through those who are on the fringe. Scripture shows us story after story of God using the most unlikely people to further his bringing of the kingdom — the widow, the prostitute, the old man, the child, the lame, the blind, the broken. It seems that everyone God uses finds themselves at the bottom of their game, yet they are the ones who we still tell stories about today.

This is a harsh reality if you are at the top of your game but it is real. And once accepted, releasing the need to be at the top of our game frees us up to stop wasting so much time climbing to the top. Instead we can enjoy the surprising gifts of being on the bottom which is the gift of being where God resides.

Our final option for response is to follow him. That day Jesus walked to the edge of the cliff right as they were about to throw him off and Luke tells us he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

We don’t know if anyone followed him that day, but they could have. God will do His work with us or without us. He will give us the chance to follow him but he won’t beg us, or force our hand, or drag us along with him. God gives us the choice to follow him.

The widow was given the chance to follow God through Elijah and she did. Naaman was given the chance to be healed by Elisha and he was and he believed. And Jesus offers us the chance to follow him today.

Following Jesus will not be easy. It will not take the top of your game but it will instead bring you to your knees. But remember what Jesus said, “the last shall be first, the least of these will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” and I think Jesus would say those who find themselves at the bottom of their game will one day find they have really made it to the top. Because in the kingdom of God, when you reach the bottom that is when you have truly arrived.