By Paul Koch –
When you go to a church, not just this church but really any church, you enter a place that is intentionally designed and laid out for a specific purpose. There are places to sit, these days padded pews or even chairs that are designed to keep you engaged and comfortable but not drowsy. There are the places where music is played and where the word is preached. There may or may not be various symbols of the faith in a church, there to give the wandering eyes something to focus on. Often times there is a large cross that serves as a focal point. There could be screens upon which images are projected that are used to help convey the message and set the mood, to keep the hearers up to speed on what is coming next. We have things like air conditioning for the warms summer days and heaters to keep us toasty during the winter. All in all, church is something we’ve come to see as a comfortable, predictable, reliable place—something that is well established and controlled.
But maybe, just maybe this is all just elaborate scheme, a thin façade that hides the truth of the matter. Perhaps the church is anything but safe, predictable, and comfortable. In fact, I think that one of the fundamental flaws of churches is that they try and present themselves as the ones who have finally controlled what is uncontrollable. Each place of worship thinks they are the ones holding the reigns and that they have the key to direct and guide the gifts and workings of our God. And from this façade of control there comes the belief that we are the possessors of all that is good, right, and beautiful. We know who is well prepared to receive the blessings of our God and who has more work to do. We lay out the proper steps in the proper order to ensure an experience with the Almighty.
But our God is not so small. He is not controlled by us. We do not design the channels and the flow of his blessings. We have as much control over God as we do the storms in the mountains. When my wife and I hiked through the High Sierras last summer, one of the biggest concerns we had was the dreaded afternoon thunderstorm. Now, a storm isn’t all that big of deal when you can retreat into your home and sit comfortably in front of a fire all warm and dry. But when you are trying to make your way over a mountain pass, high above the timberline where there is no cover at all, a storm is a terrifying force. The close crack of lightning thundering off walls of granite causes your heart to race. My bride won’t soon forget what it was like to hike in the midst of those storms as we hoped for some sense of shelter from the rain and hail beneath the branches of pine trees. And even as we got used to them, even as we grew accustomed to seeing the large clouds forming in the afternoon, we still hoped that they would be short-lived or perhaps blow over us all together. But we couldn’t control them or do anything about their fury and power. All we could really do was try and run from them. And something like that is the truth that lies at the heart of the church, something we can’t control.
In Luke chapter 4, we have the famous story of our Lord returning to his hometown of Nazareth. Now when he gets there, he does what is his usual custom he goes straight into the synagogue to engage in the religious life of his people. He stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). And then he makes a stunning statement, he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now this pleases all those who heard him, and rightly so. Today is the fulfillment of the arrival of God’s anointed one, the coming of the Christ. Today is when good news will be preached to the poor. Today freedom is given to those in prison and today even the blind will see. How exciting, they have front row seats to the outpouring of God’s favor. But it gets even better. For not only is this the fulfillment of God’s promises, but they are being fulfilled through Joseph’s boy. He’s the hometown hero who has come home. They know this guy; they saw him grow up, and he probably still has friends in the town. If he is the fulfillment of the Word of God, then they are truly blessed for he will certainly take care of his hometown first and foremost. Oh, what a glorious day.
But our Lord is not bottled up by their hometown loyalties. He isn’t so easily controlled, nor are the gifts of God that he proclaims. They may be ready to make some comfy pews and fire up the praise band and celebrate the great work that God is doing in their midst, but he has another word for them. He says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” Physician, take care of your own—it makes sense, and it makes them excited and eager. But Jesus follows up with some examples of God’s work they need to be reminded of. When God’s great prophet Elijah was sent to a widow during the great famine, he wasn’t sent to a widow in Israel, one of God’s chosen ones, but to Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And when Elisha the prophet was sent to cleanse a leper, he didn’t heal any of the lepers of Israel though there were many to chose from. No, he was sent to heal Naaman the Syrian. Jesus makes it clear that the grace and mercy of God is not directed nor controlled by bloodlines or hometown loyalties.
This news they don’t take so graciously. In fact, they turn drastically on our Lord. They rise up against the one who proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. In wrath they begin to drive him toward the edge of the town. They force him to the peak of the hill upon which the town was built so that they might throw him off the cliff. You see, the words of Christ cause them to realize that this is not a hometown boy that they can control but the powerful storm of God’s working. This arrival of Jesus in Nazareth reveals their own smallness, their own weakness, their own inability to force the movement of God’s blessings. Like a storm gathering on a mountain pass, they are exposed by his freedom, and so they try one last ditch effort to rise up and take control. For a God that becomes flesh is a God they can get a hold of, a God that they can rid themselves of, a God that they can kill.
This place, this church is not a safe place, if by safe you mean the location of a God you can control, a God that heeds your demands and expectations. For your God doesn’t play your games. He is not tamed by your desires. He is the uncontrollable storm that terrifies the sinner and brings comfort to the repentant. Those who think that they have it made, those who believe they are good enough, who pray enough, who know enough to receive the blessings of God are exposed as empty-handed sinners. And all those that you believe to be beyond the gifts of God, the homosexuals and the pro-choice activists, the idolaters and addicts, they just might be the receivers of his rich forgiveness and blessing no matter what you think.
Christ works again and again outside the expectations and demands of others, and his hometown people will not be the last ones that will seek to kill him because of it. Yet those who would try to limit and control the uncontrollable God will actually unleash his radical mercy at the very moment they think they will control it, when they presume that death will be his end. Jesus cries out, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do!” There he dies for sins not his own; there he does what no one saw coming. Through a broken body and an outpouring of pure blood, he proclaims liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind. He sets at liberty those who are oppressed and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus gives liberty for those far outside the land of Israel. Liberty for sinners trapped in the blindness of selfish desires. Liberty to people thousands of miles away and thousands of years later. You see, an uncontrollable storm has gathered here today for your salvation, for your hope, for your confidence. Today the Lord’s favor rests upon you! Not because you have earned it, deserved it, or gone through the right channels to receive it. No, outside of your control He calls you by name. He embraces you as his brothers and sisters and says once again, “I forgive you all of your sins.”