The community of Nazareth has prepared for a joyous homecoming. Jesus has been gaining notoriety and they, not well known for producing great leaders, are probably looking forward to the recognition they may receive surrounding the success of their native son.
The people of Nazareth knew Jesus as a boy and know his parents. Some may have even joined the search after a young Jesus had gone missing at the Passover festival in Jerusalem. Surely, they’ll reap some benefit from this history. They might assume he’ll preach a word of hope and favor to them, or at least receive assurance that God’s favor for them is greater than that of their enemies.
However, they quickly find that his visit has gone differently than what they had hoped and so, in their rage, they chase him out of the community, seeking his destruction. How could they tolerate such a difference? How could someone who says such things offer anything good? How could he intimately know the pain of the community and not choose to soothe that pain as he has done for strangers? How could they have thought he was on their side?
Though one would assume their feelings of betrayal and hurt are strong, I wonder if it isn’t Jesus, but the realization that they were wrong that is the root of their anger. Rather than admit such, might they prefer to seek vengeance, discredit Jesus, end his ministry? Doing so could prove easier than confronting the pain of realizing they may have placed their hope in the wrong place. Anger and division are often rooted in fear.
Though the responses of Jeremiah and the community in Nazareth are quite different, we find fear in each. Fears of inadequacy, difficulty, and physical danger prompt Jeremiah to think of all the reasons that he isn’t the right person for the task at hand. Fears of misplaced hope and being wrong plague Nazareth. Favor is what the community wanted, rather than the truth that Jesus offered.
The assurance we take away from these and other stories of saints who have come before us is that in the midst of difficult change, through obedience and anger, God is present still. God’s knowledge, understanding, and care for God’s people are constant.
Over the past few days, talented young people of our church have performed the musical “Narnia” for sold out crowds. This was the first musical I have attended at UPC, and I left in awe of the time and talent that so many people in our church contributed to this beautiful production.
The musical, a retelling of CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, follows four siblings whose parents have sent them away from London during air raids. The story begins as they arrive at the home of a professor in the countryside. Throughout the story, they enter a magical Kingdom and learn of faith, forgiveness, bravery, and honor. Edmond, the younger brother of Susan and Peter, older brother of Lucy, clearly stands out among his siblings. At the beginning of the story, he is mean and combative, willing to belittle and betray those closest to him. He also proves to be the most complex character, undergoing the most significant transformation in the story.
In the first few pages, we find Edmund snap at Susan both for telling him to go to bed and for taking on the role of their mother. He taunts his little sister for being childish, belittling her in front of others. He defies his brother and mocks the physical appearances of others. It seems that to soothe his fears of not belonging and distract himself from his insecurities, he attempts to invoke such fear in others.
Perhaps he harbors jealousy from living in the shadow of his brother, Peter. He shows signs of being afraid of being perceived as immature or weak. Perhaps he even holds fears of being vulnerable and abandoned as his parents remain in London during the air raids.
Such fears would certainly explain his receptiveness to the White Witch’s promise of the throne. He believes she is offering something that would absolve all of his fears. A royal office would offer him power, self-sufficiency, exceptionalism, and strength. It would certainly prove his maturity and intelligence. It is fear that leads him to find ways to widen the trench he has placed between himself and those who love him.
For much of the story, others have responded to his anger with anger or coldness. It is when he meets Aslan, the Christ figure of this story who sees Edmund’s underlying fear and responds with compassion, that Edmund undergoes a transformation. It is when he receives compassion, that he is then better able to share compassion. It’s then that he finds that truly and intimately being known is far better at quelling his fears than distance and superiority.
There are periods of transition in our lives in which we may feel misunderstood, question our place in the communities we inhabit, feel we have been pushed off into unknown territory, or are unsure of when we might return to feeling any sense of normalcy.
Assumptions we made were proven wrong.
A prominent figure or leader in our lives is no longer present.
Trust has been betrayed.
We feel we’ve been forgotten.
The future is uncertain.
Our sense of belonging is questioned.
We begin to see differences in others that were once hidden, and such differences lead us to questions what other differences we may fail to recognize.
Still, God assures us that we are known and loved in the midst of it all.
Indeed, we find comfort in being known and loved by God, but that is not the sole purpose of such assurance. George H. Martin writes, “our call to serve the God who will shadow us is to speak a word of truth in daily life. We are asked to respect the dignity of every human being… letting the face of Christ emerge in love of neighbor.”[i]
The words of Paul’s letter to Corinthians seem less artificial when we remind ourselves that they are spoken to a community in transition, in conflict, in fear. Paul doesn’t claim that this love is easy. He never suggests that such love requires one to pretend that division doesn’t exist. He never suggests that we must hide our differences. Paul’s letter does not describe love when all is well; it describes love in the midst of conflict and uncertainty. When we understand that, it appears less saccharin and more convicting.
As I read these words from Corinthians, I hope you also consider Jesus’ community upon hearing his words. When they felt safe and secure, they welcomed Jesus with excitement and open arms. When they perceived Jesus as a threat, their attitude and actions shifted dramatically.
We might also consider how much more convicting this passage is when we think of how as a culture we have used it to describe romantic love, rather than community in the midst of pain and division. As those of Nazareth, we have often chosen to interpret scripture in a way that is less costly. Hear these words from 1 Corinthians:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
It’s in the midst of change that love is all the more difficult to give and to receive. It’s also in those places that it is all the more valuable. It’s on the margins that we are more prone to giving into fear and weakness; it is in those times that we human beings do terrible things to each other, making others feel unknown, misunderstood, unappreciated, unworthy of reconciliation. This love challenges our tendency to be boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful. It defies our satisfaction in the failure of others.
New Testament scholar Brian Peterson notes that we lose something in the translation of this passage from Greek into English. In Greek, love is described using verbs, but in order for it to sound more pleasant in English, they are changed mostly to adjectives. This letter is not about simply defining love, but about describing how it is acted out. He writes:
“Because of our disordered assumptions about what love actually is, we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather like-minded and likeable people together. We think that in such a community it will be easy for us to love or, more honestly, to ‘feel the love.’ But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Cor. it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.”[ii]
The core of how a community of faith must live lies in remembering we are known and loved and remembering to love and know others.
Difficult as it may be, we find strength in the assurance that we are known by the same God who told Jeremiah and so many others facing fear and change, “do not be afraid.”
May we all believe such a truth.
[i] George H. Martin, Feasting on The Word: Year C, Volume 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 294.