A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 27, 2013.
Psalm 19:1-14; Luke 4:14-21
The publisher Henry Luce bought Life magazine in 1936. Prior to that, it was a humor and general interest periodical. Luce purchased it solely for the purpose of acquiring the name, and turned it into a photojournalism magazine. For the next sixty plus years it chronicled life in the United States.
My grandmother kept every issue of Life. As a boy, when we visited with my dad’s parents on Bradburn Street in Paragould, my brother Steve and I would raid their attic just to see what we could find that might be of interest to us. Amongst their ever-growing supply of snuff glasses, we found their stash of magazines, and I still remember marveling at the images that were there. I learned a lot of American history, and developed a better sense of culture, from my foraging in their attic. Life portrayed – well, life – as it used to be, and I found it to be fascinating. Those attic adventures may also be why I have always had such a love for photography.
Perhaps the most notable Life cover was of the photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1945. It portrays a sailor taking a nurse into his arms and kissing her joyously, if not passionately, as they celebrated VJ Day in New York City. Over the years, Life portrayed the glamorous adventures of movie stars, as well as the stark reality of those living in poverty. It gave rise to illustrators like Robert Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe It or Not fame, and Norman Rockwell.
For its final publication, Edward Sandford Martin wrote its obituary. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was extolling a real person. “As for me,” he said, “I wish it all good fortune; grace, mercy and peace and usefulness to a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next.”1
“…a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next.” I thought of that quote upon reading once again of Jesus’ return visit to his hometown of Nazareth. Evidently, some things don’t change, even over hundreds, and even thousands, of years. The world that Edward Sandford Martin described is the kind of world Jesus has already confronted in his public ministry. He has come to a world filled with oppression and illness and sadness and a total lack of direction. And as he comes back home to share his calling with those people who know him best, who watched him grow up as a young carpenter, he faces those issues yet again in all their stark reality. “…a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next.”
I thought of another quote as well. This one is by one of my mentors, Fred Craddock, who is talking about the Bible and how it came to be. He says, “The Bible was not written by some relaxed person, all lathered up with sunscreen under an umbrella by the beach drinking lemonade. The Bible was written by people who had to put life together with short pieces of string.”2
That’s pretty much the way the world is, don’t you agree? Always has been, always will be. It was in Jesus’ day, and it is in ours. If I may put these two quotes together, I think it describes things pretty well. We live in “…a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next…” that is put together “…with short pieces of string.”
Jesus was a realist, and he understood how things were and are. But, he had one foot in the kingdom of heaven as well, and he knew how life on earth could be and should be, and he came to embody those kinds of kingdom aspirations. It is not merely wishful thinking that in his model prayer Jesus asked that the Father’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” That is what he came for, and you and I worship in this place because, to some degree or another, we want to join him in that enterprise. In so doing, we fall down and get back up, and fall down and get back up. But it is in the getting back up that we find “grace, mercy and peace and usefulness” in “a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next.”
You know the story, I think. It is Jesus’ first trip back home after having inaugurated his ministry and set up shop in Capernaum. He chose to do so there, in Capernaum, rather than in Nazareth, if perhaps for no other reason than Capernaum was by the sea and was larger and afforded the opportunity to rub elbows with more and different kinds of people. And it was there, for the most part, that he found his disciples.
Now, on the Sabbath, having come back home for a visit, he goes to the local synagogue to worship. He has been asked to read scripture and expound on it. In small-town synagogues, there were no trained priests or clergy. Worship was always led by lay-folk, and was quite simple. It generally consisted of prayers, the reading of scripture, comments about the scripture, and taking up an offering for the poor. So it would not have been unusual at all for someone like Jesus to be asked to do this. How he did it, though, proved to be quite unusual indeed.
These are not just curious folk who have come to hear what Jesus has to say, though there may have been some of that. No doubt, they would have been in worship anyway. It’s what you do on the Sabbath in Nazareth. But, their curiosity may have been piqued just a little bit. They’ve heard some things… of what Jesus has been doing over by the sea. Could it be true?
“Maybe he will do it here.”
“Let’s go see.”
They remember him when… when he used to run around his father’s carpentry shop, and as he got older helped Joseph make things for the locals. They watched as he and his father took their wares to the markets in nearby Sepphoris. In a small village like Nazareth, not many people go unnoticed, certainly not unique people like Jesus. They had all taken notice of his ability with scripture. He had a certain way about him, was in possession of a deep understanding of spiritual things. Jesus may have left, but his siblings have stayed in town. His mother Mary is still around. It’s good that Jesus has come home. Worship at the synagogue should be interesting this morning, to say the least.
It would seem that they would be sympathetic and understanding, and in no small way would be proud of this hometown boy. He has brought back with him a growing and glowing reputation, not to mention a group of newfound friends he is discipling, and so the good folk in Nazareth are eager and pleased to see what Jesus is going to do and say.
My junior year in high school, my brother Steve came home one weekend with three or four of his buddies to conduct a weekend revival at our church. We had a wonderful time. They brought from college their youthful enthusiasm and a little bit of what they were learning at Ouachita since most of them were ministerial students. The place was packed every for every service. A number of folk from our hometown, who were members of other churches, came to participate and worship with us. It really was a joyous experience.
Isn’t this the way it would be on the Sabbath when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth? Let’s see…
Jesus reads from the scroll the words of the prophet Isaiah, who says…
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.
What Jesus doesn’t read, but is also a part of the prophet’s message is this:
to provide for those who mourn in Zion –
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
And do you know why Isaiah offers these words of hope? Because he is giving witness to “…a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next…” that is put together “…with short pieces of string.” According to Isaiah, God is going to put the pieces of string back together again, and Jesus tells his hometown folk that he has come to do it, to fulfill what Isaiah prophesied. “Today,” Jesus is telling the good people of Nazareth, “I have come to proclaim to you that I am the one who puts the pieces of string together.”
Sadly, it was not a message that was received gladly, not even by Jesus’ hometown folk. Especially by Jesus’ hometown folk.
You see, scripture is looked upon favorably, especially prophetic scripture, as long as it is kept in the past. These words belong to Isaiah, and Isaiah has been dead a long time. Not only that, but the context in which they first were spoken had to do with the Babylonian exile, and that was over a long time ago. It is true that the people of Jesus’ day are living with their own kind of exile, but at least they are exiled in their own homes. They haven’t been taken to a foreign land. They are classic, living examples of making lemonade from the lemons that life has handed them. It may not be the sweetest nectar in all the world, but it was what they knew, and they didn’t appreciate it when someone came along – even their very own Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary – and turned over, in this case, not the apple but the lemon cart.
Back in the day when the Israelites were in exile, there were plenty of poor who needed good news. Captives needed to be released because they were being kept in a foreign land against their will. There are the blind in every generation who would be happy to have their sight recovered, but surely Isaiah was referring also to their ability to see their native land once again. So, perhaps the reference to blindness has to do with their going back home to Judah. The oppressed go free? Obviously that was yet another promise that they would be able to return home and celebrate together the year of the Lord’s favor. All past tense, the sad history of a proud people of God restored to their beloved homeland.
Scripture is always celebrated when it refers to the past, and sometimes even the future. But when you bring it into the present, scripture is not always looked upon so favorably, if for no other reason than scripture has to be interpreted. And while a lot of lofty words are used in regard to our devotion to the Bible, when someone comes along and tries to apply it to the issues of whatever the current day might be, some people tend to take exception to it. Their response, of course, is not taken out on the Bible but on the person who is interpreting it.
You see, scripture can bite. Scripture can reveal that which sometimes we prefer to keep hidden. What is it that the writer of Hebrews says, that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow (a rather painful choice of words, don’t you think?)… able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”?
“Today,” Jesus says to a people who live in ‘…a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next…’ that is put together ‘…with short pieces of string,’ “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
When was the last time you came to worship, here or anywhere else, and expected – really and truly expected – to hear some good news, a word from the Lord? It may be found in something that is said in the sermon, or in the familiar words of a hymn, or in a prayer, or just in something you see or experience. The Spirit of God implants something totally unexpected in your heart, and when it hits you at full speed you know without doubt it is a word from the Lord, and you find it piercing you, dividing soul from spirit, joints from marrow, judging the thoughts and intentions of your heart.
When that happens, do you know what is really going on? God is taking the pieces of string with which your life is put together, and is giving them eternal purpose and meaning. It may be completely imperceptible to the eye of anyone else, but you know it, and instinctively you come to understand that your world – as distracted as it may be, so that you do not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next – takes on a new perspective you’ve never known before. And those pieces of string, with which your life is held together, suddenly start to have meaning and purpose because you have found that for you the kingdom has come and God’s will is made known to you here on your earth as you believe it to be in heaven.
If that is true for you, share your good news with someone else. Everyone you encounter – everyone – will be carrying their pieces of string with them. And you may just be the one to help put them together.
Lord, may Jesus’ words give us hope as we continue the journey of putting the pieces of our string together. In his name we pray, Amen.
2 Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 20021), p. 21.