Note: This is part of a sermon series entitled “Skin in the Game” we’ve been doing at Northwest UMC since Epiphany to talk about the meaning of Incarnation.
Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) What Scripture? If you feel like you have come into the middle of a movie, you have. Pastor Tom Slack dealt with the first half of this text last Sunday. More about that shortly, but first I want us to think about how we react when things don’t go the way we want? Or we don’t get something we really are counting on, perhaps a Christmas gift that isn’t quite what you were expecting?
A little boy asked his grandparents for an iPad. Boy was he surprised when he opened his gift on Christmas morning and found a bandage for an injured eye. It was an “eye pad” all right, but not the kind that comes from Apple. When my son was driving his kids to school on the first Monday after the long holiday break he dropped first grader Audrey off at her school first and could immediately see in the rear view mirror that her 2-year old brother Brady was not happy when he realized he was next. It was like that moment when the family dog realizes you aren’t just going for a ride but are heading for the vet. Brady stuck out his lip, turned his head and wouldn’t look at his dad or talk to him all the way to pre-school. He was expecting Christmas vacation to be the new normal and made it quite clear he was not ready to have to go back to school.
I’m sure Brady was fine a few minutes after he bid a tearful goodbye to his guilt-ridden father, but some unwanted surprises are harder to take and last longer. A teen grounded for doing something that seemed like a good idea until it wasn’t, an elderly parent forced to have his or her driving privileges taken away or to move from an old familiar home. Broken marriage vows, political heroes who turn out to have feet of clay. Whatever the disappointment, it’s hard not to be upset, even angry, to blame everyone but ourselves, sometimes even God, and the bigger the disappointment, the harder it is to accept things we can’t change or have no control over.
In the Gospel lesson from Luke we have a complicated story where high expectations turn into disappointment. Pastor Tom did a great job last week of covering the first half of this story, but let me do very quick review for those who weren’t here. In part I of this story Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth after his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and some teaching and healing in other towns in the area. As was his custom, Luke tells us, he went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath to teach. He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read the passage that describes Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what his ministry was about. The passage talks about proclaiming good news to the poor, release of the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord because the Messiah is anointed by the Holy Spirit to do those things.
That part about the Holy Spirit is critical to understanding what it means for Jesus and for us to put our skin in the game to build God’s Kingdom. Luke links every important event in Jesus’ early life to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit descends on him at his baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tested and prepared for his ministry, and it is the spirit that empowers him to proclaim after reading those words about the Messiah, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
It’s that last line that gets the hometown crowd excited. Nothing Jesus read up till that point was new to them. Isaiah’s words had been around 500 years or so and similar pleas for social justice for the poor and misfortunate run through many of the prophets. God had sent prophets for centuries to proclaim that message, but people didn’t listen. So God decided he has to do a new thing, he has to go all in and put skin in the game. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the Gospel of John describes the incarnation. My favorite translation of that verse is the one that says, “God pitched his tent among us.” Not in luxury and ease but on the front lines of suffering, that’s where God decides he can’t just tell us anymore how to live together; he will come and show us in the form of Jesus.
Paul Harvey used to tell about a man who was angry at God and the church was home alone on Christmas Eve while the rest of his family went to church. Late that evening he looked out and saw a flock of birds struggling in his yard with snow that was falling so hard and was so wet and heavy that it coated their wings like a jet needing to be de-iced. They were flopping around trying to fly but couldn’t. The man went out and opened his garage doors hoping they would go in there out of the storm. When they didn’t he tried to herd them to safety, but that only made them more frightened and confused. He was thinking, “If I could just become a bird for a little while, one of them, they would trust me and I could save them.” Just then he heard the church bells ringing. It was midnight, the beginning of Christmas Day, and he suddenly understood why God chose to come to earth in human form.
Putting skin in the game means to be invested in something. If you’ve ever shopped at Aldi’s you know about their clever way of handling the problem of getting their grocery carts back where they belong. They don’t pay employees to round up carts left in their parking lot. They have their customers put a quarter in a gizmo on the cart that unchains it from the other carts, and when you return it you get your 25 cents back. Two bits is not a big investment, but it’s enough skin in the game that I’ve never seen anyone fail to return their cart. We all are more likely to show up for an event if it costs us something, even a token amount. I’m a big Ohio State fan, but on frigid January nights when the wind is blowing off the Olentangy River near the Schottenstein Center I might wimp out and choose to stay home in the comfort of my living room and watch the basketball game in HD on the flat screen. But since I have paid in advance for my tickets, I’m much more likely to show up. Because I have some skin in the game—even if it’s cold skin.
As Jesus’ conversation with the folks in Nazareth continues, we see just how much he’s risking by putting his skin in the game. His hometown folks are at first excited. “This is Joe’s kid. We remember him. He’s one of us, and if he’s the Messiah, wow, just think what he can do for us! We’ve heard all the amazing things he’s done in other places, it’s gotta be even more awesome here in his hometown. Jesus, do here what you did in Capernaum. You know us, Lord; you’re one of us. We changed your diapers, wiped your runny nose, put up with your childhood moods. You know how much we need your healing and miracles. You could get the lead out of our water; maybe turn some of it into a good Merlot? And while you’re at it, could you give us the power ball numbers for next week?
But their high expectations soon turn to disbelief and disappointment. Jesus responds by reminding them that prophets are not usually accepted in their own hometown. Jesus has a bigger agenda than making his neighbors happy. He has an urgency to share a much more important message with the whole world. His mission is to go global with the Gospel, and he knows he doesn’t have much time.
That explains his strange references to Sidon and Syria. He says Elijah and Elisha didn’t heal their hometown folks; they went to Sidon and Syria, to Gentiles, strangers, foreigners. Why would they do that? Because those great prophets understood that the God of Creation is also God of the whole Universe. Yahweh’s power to heal and save cannot be hoarded by any one nation or people. Isaiah said, “It is not enough for the Messiah to save Israel, I will make you a Light to the nations.” Jesus and the prophets understood that to be God’s chosen people is not to receive preferential treatment, but they and we are chosen to be God’s servants to the whole wide world—to people of all faiths or no faith at all.
None of that is new. It is all straight out of Hebrew Scriptures. But when Jesus reminds his Nazarene neighbors of the universal scope of God’s love, they think he has stopped preaching and gone to meddling, just like we all do when our taken-for-granted expectations are challenged!
When I teach preaching classes to seminary students one of the key principles I try to impart to them is the need to build a relationship of trust with their congregations. The preacher’s job is not just to get God’s word said, but to get it heard, and that’s more likely to happen in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Based on the response of Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth, he flunked that part of preaching 101. I’ve often wondered why Jesus would stir up so much trouble so early in his ministry. It’s like he’s waving a red flag in front of a bull. But I’ve decided it’s because urgent situations where so much is at stake don’t allow time for the luxury of community building. Life and death matters require immediate and complete truth.
The Scriptures tell us that we “shall know the truth and it will set us free,” but what John’s Gospel doesn’t say is that first the truth may make us mad. When an addict is confronted with his or her self-destructive behavior, the truth still hurts. When I really see myself in the mirror, really see, or when I hear honest criticism of mistakes I’ve made, or am told my bad health is because of my poor lifestyle choices, I probably will not welcome that truth with open arms.
That’s why the folks at Nazareth react so violently. Luke tells us, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Jesus looks like he’s about to have the shortest ministry in history. Most pastors enjoy a little honeymoon with a new congregation, but not here.
That’s because Jesus’ words hit too close to home. The Nazarenes are expecting special treatment from their hometown hero, and instead they resent his including a bunch of foreigners in God’s mercy. They don’t want to share Jesus with the Syrians and Gentiles. They want to keep Jesus and God all for themselves. Of course they know better. They know their Bible. They know the truth – they just don’t really know it and embody it. Don’t we all have a tendency to read the Scriptures selectively? We choose to focus on Scriptures we like instead of the uncomfortable truth we need to hear.
To have skin in the game means we show up and speak the truth even when it’s risky. Jesus finds out early on in his home town that what he’s up to is dangerous to the max, but he is the young and fearless prophet who speaks the truth, not to make people mad, but to invite them to see the truth about themselves and the world God has created.
The question for us is do we have enough skin in God’s game to follow the example of Jesus? Do we care enough to risk rejection for the truth? To speak up for the downtrodden, to take the side of the underdog – to object to sexist or racist attitudes and comments? God does – no matter what it costs. God is all in – are we? That’s what it means when Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me.” God doesn’t promise us a rose garden, but the way of the cross that leads to the Garden of Gethsemane.
But here’s the best news—whatever Gethsemane you find yourself in, whatever disappointment or pain you are dealing with right now—you don’t have to face it alone. God’s powerful spirit that anointed Jesus is also with us in every up and down phase of life – every one! No matter how terrible or hopeless things seem, God is right there with you – not to make everything the way we wish it was, but to go through it with us.
Jesus’ situation looks pretty desperate. The people of Nazareth are so mad they want to kill him. But this brief story foreshadows much bigger things to come. They take Jesus out to the edge of a cliff and are ready throw him to his death, but Luke ends the story with one simple sentence: “Jesus just passes among them and goes on to Galilee.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because after Jesus’ resurrection, Matthew says the angels told the disciples at the empty tomb,”He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.”
The risen Christ is always going ahead of us to a Galilee far away – where no prophet has gone before. And he calls us to go with him. Notice, we are not asked to go alone – but with the same power of the Holy Spirit that enables Jesus to conquer his fear of death. We are all called to trust the God who loves us enough to suffer with us and for us, to show us the way and the truth and the life – because our God so loves the world that He puts his own skin in the game.
Some times are harder than others to put our skin in the game – to play the game of life full out. Often those times are when we are personally disappointed with our life situation or with ourselves. I was reminded this week of an experience that always speaks to me about that issue. This past Thursday was the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Some of you are too young to remember that tragedy, but most of you have seen the pictures. For me the most memorable thing about that day was the final words spoken by Commander Dick Scobee just before the explosion took those seven lives. They were just a couple of minutes into the mission when the crew was given the go ahead to go to full power, and Commander Scobee’s last words were, “Roger, go with full throttle up.”
That’s how I want to live my life, whatever the circumstances, full throttle up! That’s what Jesus came to show us, that no matter what happens to us or around us, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to live life fully and abundantly. So wherever God calls us to go this week, my prayer is that we can respond with confidence and faith, and go with full throttle up!