The Gospel of Luke: 7.18-35
Happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving probably looks different this year as some of us are away from those we love, which is always hard, and others aren’t enjoying our regular traditions because of cancellations or safety restrictions. But I’m ready for Thanksgiving this year more than ever, and not just because I have a crippling weakness for stuffing. I need Thanksgiving more than ever this year because I need gratitude more than ever when it’s so easy to become pessimistic or disheartened about life in a pandemic.
Even though Thanksgiving can get a bit cliché, thankfulness rituals are not only healthy but profoundly Christian at heart. Before we think gratitude is just about the power of positive thinking, we should remember how gratitude roots us in the Christian story. That story goes that God is good and generous, even when the world isn’t, and that we’re eternally welcome at his table of abundance. The Bible is shot through with invitations to give thanks. In fact, you get the feeling that giving thanks to God is not only the right thing for humans to do but is good for humans to do. St. Paul, for example, never shuts up about the power of gratitude whatever our circumstances, pandemic or otherwise: “….give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Ephesians 5.20).
Gratitude helps us settle into where we are rather that daydreaming about where we are not. Gratitude reminds us we are human beings not human doings and to sit still for a while to enjoy simple things. Gratitude reminds us that even if things look dismal, at the very centre of our Christian faith is an announcement of good news, not bad news, of hope and a future, and for that we can be thankful and not afraid.
So even if Thanksgiving looks different this year, I say bring it on! God knows we need it. Thanking others for their presence in our lives, thanking God for every gift we know of (or don’t know of for that matter), delighting in fall colours or enjoying another slice of pie – these are some of the most Christian things we can do. I for one am going to have an extra scoop of stuffing this weekend just to make sure I’m practicing my faith right.
And how fitting that we celebrate baptism this Thanksgiving! Baptism is where we hear God assure us that he hasn’t flown the coop and that he’s tremendously pleased with us as children who he loves dearly. So in baptism, like in communion, we’re learning to say thank you to God. In a way baptism and thankfulness are at the heart of our scripture today as we step back into the Gospel of Luke. We’ve been reading St. Luke’s biography of Jesus over the past couple of years and today we pick up again in the middle of Luke chapter seven.
Questions & Answers
I don’t know how many dungeons you’ve visited but I’ve seen my fair share. Being a tourist in Europe often means finding yourself in the damp foundations of a castle. I wonder what people who lived hundreds of years ago would think of us paying good money to cramp into a nasty underground cell and then making our way out through a kitschy gift shop? Well, the scene in Luke seven opens not in a giftshop but in a dark dungeon with Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist who’s been locked up for criticizing the local authorities. As a prophet and disturber of the peace John’s whole confrontational life has led to this moment. This is the last we’ll see or hear from John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel as he won’t get out of that dungeon alive. This is where John’s story ends and Jesus’ story really takes over.
Luke tells us that from prison John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one who will finally bring forgiveness and freedom to his people, labouring under the thumb of the Roman empire. “Are you the Messiah, the one we’ve been expecting?” asks John, apparently even himself a little unclear on exactly what to expect from his mysterious cousin. The passage we heard earlier is Jesus’ response:
“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” 23 And he added, “God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.” (Luke 7.22-23)
Jesus’ answer is typically Jesus. He doesn’t respond with a simple yes or no, but fleshes out what he’s up to on his own terms. John is told, along with the rest of us reading, that Jesus hasn’t come to tick people’s boxes. Instead, Jesus sends word back to the dudgeon saying that yes, God is on the move, as evidenced by the healings and signs, but that God’s movement won’t square exactly with people’s expectations of what a messiah should do or be. That’s part of what Jesus means when he says: “blessed are those who don’t turn away because of me”. So if we thought John the Baptist was controversial and divisive, Jesus warns that he’s going to be just as disruptive, if not more so.
Reading the gospels you see over again that everyone has expectations of Jesus. The same goes today as we still have assumptions about Jesus or who God is supposed to be or what God is supposed to do. Some people think God’s job is to validate their perspectives, even if they might not readily admit it. Others harbour a deep fear that God wants nothing to do with them at all. Just like those people in the gospels Jesus often seems full of surprises to us because of how easily we settle into patterns of pride and self-assurance, or on the other hand into the ruts of despair and self-loathing. Jesus is a disruptive character as he routinely turns the tables on the expectations we have of him.
The Christian faith emphasizes Jesus so relentlessly because the Bible is crystal clear that Jesus is the person who shows us what God’s like. And what we find in the gospels, like we see here in Luke seven, is that Jesus brings comfort to some people and confrontation to others. That’s what this little back and forth between John and Jesus depicts. Even though Jesus is eagerly welcomed by many, his message won’t go down well with everyone. As others have said, this is because Jesus has a way of questioning our answers rather than answering our questions. In other words, if we assume Jesus will play by the rules we make in life, he usually ends up breaking them. Something new is happening through Jesus and he challenges much of what we cling to for unrealistic and unhealthy control.
There’s a lot in that for us today, so how does Jesus both comfort us and confront us?
First, Jesus and gospel are deeply comforting, which is of course still too weak a word. But comfort is what Jesus brings to people throughout the gospel of Luke: “the Good News is being preached to the poor.” Jesus’ words to John the Baptist flesh out Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. “With gentle words,tender and kind, assure Jerusalem… that her battles are over.” This is the good news to the poor from Jesus.
The comfort Jesus brings is multi-layered. He comes preaching that that change is in the wind; it’s a comfort that God is righting wrongs and is on the hunt for what been lost; it’s a comfort for the outsiders and impoverished because God’s doing something about exclusion, evil and injustice. As we read in Luke chapter one, Jesus comes “to give light to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death”. The gospel of Jesus is a comfort because it means that humanity doesn’t have to ask for love because love has already come asking after us.
But for many of us Jesus’ good news for the poor is hard to accept because no one interacts with us the way Jesus does. It’s hard to fathom that we don’t have to do anything in order for God to pull out chair and dish us up a meal. In human interactions, even deeply loving ones, there is always an element of transaction. Yet Jesus shows us that God doesn’t need anything from us, so there’s nothing to trade. Christian faith then is about accepting that God has a lot more to offer me than I have to offer God. That’s part of what St. Paul means when he said that “God has shown us his great love for us because while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 8). Another way of saying that is that in every relationship God has he always says I love you first.
So if we feel we’ve not got much to show for our lives; if we know we’re a mess and desperate for healing and forgiveness, kindness and restoration; if we’re hungry and naked and shameless about our need for God – Jesus arrives with good news for the poor. And for those who assume God wants nothing to do with us, or even that God is more likely to give us a bruise than bear hug, Jesus preaches the opposite. He preached that there is seat at God’s table of abundance with our name on it, along with the names of all our brothers and sisters. Later in Luke’s gospel this same sentiment is depicted in a story about how Jesus characteristically interacted with children. When his disciples assumed Jesus wouldn’t want to waste his time on kids he fires back, “let the little children come to me!” My guess is those kids had grubby paws and snotty noses, and none of that stopped Jesus from embracing them as he did so many unsanitary looking people just like you and me. Trusting Jesus and his gospel is about seeing ourselves as those little children, safe in God’s arms, so long as we’re willing to reach up and say “help please!”.
Jesus says you don’t need to clean-up for dinner because you can’t infect God with your shame or despair. Instead, Jesus always contaminates us with compassion and hope.
Jesus and the gospel really are deeply comforting, but Jesus is also confrontational. For some people Jesus’ good news to the poor is disruptive because they don’t see themselves as impoverished and are quite happy to pretend they’ve got more power and status than they really do. They might even be fighting to hold on to that illusion by any means necessary. And those people, Jesus’ warns, may very well be looking us in the mirror.
At times in the past six months Dr. Bonnie Henry has reminded me a little of Jesus: kind and clear, but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her because her job is to bring us a reality check and her announcements are serious business. A friend of mine likes to say that with God we are safe but not always comfortable. Genuine love in any relationship will always challenge and change us and this is what God’s love does too. We meet a number of people in the gospels to whom Jesus brings a reality check and challenges with change. I’ve heard someone else put it this way: God loves us so much to take us as we are, but too much to leave us as we are.
Some of the people in Luke seven don’t listen Jesus because they don’t see their own poverty or pride. In the gospels these people tend to come off as immovably cold, overly self-assured or self-righteous. They’re certain they’ve got things worked out for themselves and everyone around them. They expect Jesus to answer their questions rather letting Jesus question their answers. In the gospels these people are inevitably confronted by Jesus. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ mysterious little poem later in Luke seven that seems to say that some people didn’t listen to John the Baptist and now they’re not listening to him. In other words some people want God to tune into their song, rather than them tuning into God’s song.
So Jesus and his gospel are a bit of a double edged sword. Jesus not only answers the question “is God in my corner?” (to which the answer is yes) but also asks us the question “are you in God’s corner?” (which we must answer ourselves). Humans sometimes have an awful tendency of objectifying and controlling each other, and sometimes we try to do the same thing with God. But our attempts at objectification and control never turns out well for anyone. When do we know we’re doing that? When do we know we’re not in God’s corner? Probably when certainty trumps kindness; when self-assurance overrides self-control; when criticism eclipses compassion; when selfishness dominates a servant heart and our ego tries to overshadow the eternal. There’s a lot unnerving certainty around these days in such an uncertain time. A certainty about who’s right, who’s truly moral, you could say a certainty about who’s got God on their side and who doesn’t. But Jesus didn’t come to validate our perspectives, to make our lives just a little bit better or to share some good advice. Jesus turned up and turned the world upside down. So the warning here is this: if we’ve got even a little bit of power and if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we had better ask ourselves how we use that power or we could find ourselves on the wrong side of God. Christians would do well these days to spend more time asking “am I on God’s side” as we do “is God on my side?” How do we do that? By sticking with Jesus, watching him closely, and embodying his character through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says toward the middle of Luke seven, “wisdom is show to be right by the lives of those who follow it”. (Luke 7.35)
Now I should say that if we’re overly concerned about getting on the wrong side of Jesus, the truth is we probably aren’t. I’m a deeply flawed parent but even I don’t waste time scrutinizing every one of my one-year old’s mistakes. I just want to hear her laugh and watch her grow. If we’re willing to hold open our hearts in humility to God in order to grow, be changed, even challenged, we needn’t lose any sleep. Too much damage has been done by people saying we had better always double check if we’re in good standing with God. Please don’t hear that message in Jesus’ message. As I said earlier, with Jesus we are safe just not always comfortable. If we find ourselves confronted by Jesus we can rest assured it’s for the good of the creation he deeply loves – you and me very much included.
Let’s Eat & Sing
“God blesses those who do not turn away because of me.” says Jesus. This is just the right place for us to pick up the gospel of Luke again. Luke’s biography gives us a resolute, compassionate, controversial Jesus who breaks our molds and questions our longstanding answers. He’s not always the God the world wants, but the one the world needs.
Poet R.S. Thomas wrote that “Christ comes to us in his weakness, but with a sharp song”. Today, Jesus is still turning up with new sheet music in hand and asks us to sing. He invites us to quit rooting around in the garbage for scraps and to join the feast at his cross-shaped table.
The good news is still today being shared with the poor – with you and with me, through you and through me. Will we be honest enough with ourselves and honest enough with God to admit our hunger? Will we be humble enough to sing a new song?
Happy Thanksgiving! Thank God for Jesus who came ringing a dinner bell loud and clear. Let’s eat.