Sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Have you ever been so angry at someone that you thought that maybe… just maybe… the world could be better off without them? Or maybe you just didn’t like them so much, dare I say even hate them enough that you just didn’t want them around anymore? I’m not talking about just a mild annoyance or dislike so that you’d think that they should just go somewhere else, hang out with other people, or step down from the presidency or anything like that, but I’m talking more than that, I’m talking about an intense anger and hatred where murder could actually be a viable option for you. Ever feel that way?

I’m not sure if I ever had either, I mean that sounds pretty mad. But if you have, then I’m glad that you didn’t give in to those murderous impulses (that we know of). There is this series on Netflix right now that I’ve been watching, and it is all about that. That anger, that need to solve your problems with extreme violence, that strong hatred and anger for someone that their death is your only respite. It’s all pretty intense stuff. Actually, I’d recommend you watch it if you’re into complex story lines, deep psychological drama, and gratuitous graphic fight scenes because so far it’s pretty good. It’s called Marvel’s The Punisher, based on the Marvel comic series of the same name.

And if I know this group as well as I think I do, I’m relatively certain you all know of the Punisher’s origin story. But in case any you shockingly don’t, I’ll break it down for you. Basically the Punisher, (aka Frank Castle, nee Francis Castiglione) is a highly trained lethal weapon, maybe a cop or a marine depending on your source, and his innocent family is killed at the hands of some bad guys for various reasons, again depending on your source. This sends him on this rage mission to exact revenge, but even after it is achieved he continues on his vigilante shtick to stop crimes using the most violent means possible. Basically the Punisher stories are just huge bloodbaths that are super attractive for young comic book-loving adolescents such as myself.

But I admit there are times when I wonder how long the Punisher’s anger can fuel him. It starts with revenge sure, but that hatred carries on even after he had gotten to those who killed his family. I mean that is a lot of anger to not just kill the perpetrators, but then to continue killing every other bad guy he that he comes across.

The point is, it takes a lot to want to kill someone, doesn’t it? It takes a lot of anger, hatred, and perhaps mixed with some mental illness or something. With all the stories we hear about gun violence and mass shooting after mass shooting, we wonder what on earth could have happened to trigger someone to want to just end someone else’s life.

We read about these kind of murderous thoughts in today’s gospel lesson. Of course, they didn’t have guns or vigilantes back in those days (that we know of) so they had to use what they had to kill people. They used things throwing rocks, or slings to throw those rocks further, or if they’re really angry, they throw them at the rocks, like off a cliff for example.

And you know, we think that is super extreme. We think that there must have been something seriously wrong to make people so maliciously evil that they would want Jesus dead. We think it is just a bit over the top that they have so much anger and hatred in them that they feel the need to resort to murder.

Especially when we see what Jesus did to make them so angry.

Well, as I mentioned last week, this is actually the second part of the story that we already started. If you remember, Jesus was just sitting in church and he read that passage from Isaiah where Isaiah was proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the captives, sight to the blind, and that year of Jubilee that was named after the street directly to the west of us. And if you remember, the year of Jubilee was the year that the big reset button was pushed, when everything goes back to how it was, when all debt was wiped clean, and all people made equal again.

And the passage from last week ended off with the same verse that started today’s passage, the one that sparked all the hatred and anger and controversy: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

So… all that good news that we heard last week about today being the day, that was infuriating to the people of Jesus time? All the stuff about us all being equal and invited and welcomed into God’s community, that is what made the people hate Jesus so much? All the things about bringing people together and proclaiming God’s love on all people was enough for people to want Jesus dead?

I guess so… because that is what eventually got Jesus crucified.

Of course, they disguised it under some legal loophole of sedition. If Jesus claims that he’s the king of the Jews, that must mean treason, right? So they were able to have him crucified under that guise. Sure, we have no record of Jesus ever saying that he claims that title, so it may be that he actually never did, but they killed him anyway because quite honestly they hated him that much.

Hated him because he wanted to include those they didn’t want to include. Angry at him for suggesting that all can be and are equal in the eyes of God. Killed him because he proclaimed forgiveness and freedom to those, in their minds, just didn’t deserve it.

And in our modern-day times of political correctness and the move to a more equal society, this is just appalling. We frown upon the racists and bigots. We shake our heads at stories that incite hatred and violence. We mourn for the state of the world because it just seems like it is just full of people who would rather exclude than include, would rather shout insults rather than speak encouragement, would rather just allow to die rather than work to save. You know what I mean, don’t you? The world seems like it’s full of people who hated on Jesus for teaching what he taught and lived the way he lived. Full of people who killed Jesus for his audacity to even suggest that there could be love in spite of difference. Full of people who would rather build a wall to keep people out rather than a bridge to bring people in.

People who we’d rather be on the other side of that wall. People who we’d rather just not have around. People who we might think that the world would be better without…

…oh wait.

Maybe… we are capable of that anger and hatred too. Maybe not to those “Punisher” levels, but don’t we sometimes rather exclude than include? We might not be building a wall to keep others out, but we don’t always welcome people into our country, communities, or even churches. We might not deny that God loves all these people that we don’t, but we don’t always proclaim it either.

And that’s the thing, don’t we sometimes make excuses for those we exclude? Things like: “they don’t believe what we believe”, or “they don’t act like we act,” or “they claim to know what is right and wrong better than we do.” And I get it, we sometimes need to justify our feelings of indignation, because otherwise we are just admitting that we can hate someone enough for them to die. We might not be pulling the trigger on them, but we might just not do everything we can to allow them to live.

Now, before you gang up on me and try to throw me off a cliff, hear me out. From the beginning, humans have had broken relationships and have been looking to mend them. By design, we all have a need to not be alone, but for some ironic reason we also sabotage those very relationships that we need, not always on purpose, but because at the very core of our being, we are broken. We are full of unintentional or at times intentional selfishness and pride. We are a people in dire need of a Saviour.

And guess what, we have one. One that showed us the ways of right relationship. One that taught us how we are dearly loved and how we can love. One that revealed to all true forgiveness and mercy that even death couldn’t hold down. This is the Saviour that we need but didn’t know it, and was given to us when the time was right, and then died at the hand of human ignorance and arrogance. But for reasons unfathomable, he still declares us all beloved.

This message that the Saviour brings us isn’t an easy one to hear. No one likes to be told that they are worse off than they think they are. It is never pleasant to open up that closet of skeletons that we’ve kept hidden for so long. But by the power of the cross Jesus wipes that slate clean, alleviates us of our guilt, and tells us that while there are many people out there that we just don’t like and perhaps would want punished, that God’s love is so big that it can cover even them as well as us. And praise be to God that it’s not up to us who receives God’s love and grace or not, as really if it were up to us there’d be a lot of people not included. But God decides who to invite and welcome. God decides who is saved and redeemed. God decides who belongs and who is loved. And it might surprise us that more people are included than we want, but let it also fill us with joy that we, by God’s grace, are as well.

That even in all the anger that we might feel, the hatred that we deny that we have for others which in turn might turn into hatred for ourselves, God remains patient with us, kind, giving us the space to grow and learn, rejoicing when we see the light, and above all, never changes. That love God has for us never changes. It bears, endures, and never ends. And this unending love changes us, lifts us up, and brings us and all people into God’s community and kingdom, freeing us from our anger and hatred, and redeems us as God’s children.

In this season after the Epiphany, let us break down any intentional walls we have put up between us and whoever we deem as “them”, that we might see more fully God’s inclusive and welcoming community and kingdom and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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