Luke 14:25-33, and Malachi 4
A few days after I’d learned that these texts would be the first I would preach on in Lincoln, I was talking with my brother on the phone. During our conversation, I told him the general gist of the gospel lesson for today. After a short pause, my brother’s voice came back across the line to me, “What gospel are you reading?”
What gospel are you reading? That’s a valid question. This isn’t the happy or easy proclamation we like to hear on Sunday mornings. The fact that today we have the last of our prophets, Malachi, is no coincidence, either. These last words of what has become our Old Testament proclaim the possibility of a curse. If we back up just a bit, we find out that Malachi is criticizing the Israelites for being lazy. They’ve been offering sub-standard sacrifices—the lesser choices from their flocks and herds—and practicing empty or meaningless ritual. Essentially, Malachi points to the truth that the Israelites are becoming complacent in how they honor the God who brought them back from exile. Their actions are not reflecting the visions that earlier prophets had for them. Their worship life has become an empty gesture…meaningless without the actual devotion of the people. So he tells them they’d better wake up and start paying attention. Elijah is coming, and if things aren’t better, God’s curse will follow.
Like Malachi’s pronouncement to Israel, Jesus’ words in Luke seem equally harsh. Jesus tells the crowd they must hate their family and give up everything to follow him. Wow. That’s a big order. Now, we must take into account the context of ancient Israel. In its time, “hate” likely meant to detach or remove yourself from the care you had for something, rather than the strong emotional word we know it as today. Since the family or clan to which you were attached was almost a possession in itself—a name that established your status, honor, and societal position—removing yourself from that would have been extremely difficult. To do this really meant giving up possession or privilege.
Detach yourself from the opinions of your family. Act without care of what they may think in order to follow the life that God has called you to live. Give up the best things in your life. That’s still a really big order—one I’m not sure I could ever fill, and I’m not sure the crowd can, either. Jesus says three times that they’re “not able” to be his disciple. The builder may not be able to finish the building, and the king cannot defeat the enemy. Jesus doesn’t ask anyone to go into this blindly. Jesus wants his followers to have faith, yes, but also to understand—to count the cost and know the outcome. Likewise, we need to realistically look at the things asked of us. We may be laughed at for trying—as the builder is. We may realize we cannot do this on our own—as the king does. That is the truth—we can’t do this on our own. We can’t ever do enough on our own to ever earn any part of our salvation. We cannot even fully follow Jesus on our own; we need God’s help for that, too.
This doesn’t get us off the hook, however. Although we are saved from sin through grace alone, we’re not given a license to go out do whatever we want, knowing it will be fine. We are called to let go of the things that society tells us we should cling to. We are called to a life of discipleship—of following Jesus—and we may do this not in order to be saved, but because we already are. The grace that saves also inspires. It inspires us to live in a way that reflects what we have been given. It inspires us to find our gifts, our passions, our callings, and asks us to live them out—giving them as freely as we have been given them…to live as one who loves God so much, all else is hatred by comparison.
Following Jesus is more than just a state of mind. It’s not about thinking the right thoughts. It’s about knowing that we are, as Luther said, freed from sin through faith alone. The question, then, is what have we been freed for? How do we live as those who are free? How do we live faithfully?
This weekend, many of us will get a day off to recognize the fact that we do work—all the time. We have to work—to act—in order to function and survive. If we look a little closer at our readings, we find that the stories in Luke—and Philemon and Malachi, for that matter—are calling us to ask ourselves what we are working for and how we are acting in a way that reflects our beliefs. Okay, that makes sense. Generally, we do act in ways that reflect our beliefs. This weekend is also the Husker season opener, as one or two of you may know. Chances are, those football players have acted in a way that reflects their belief that football is a worthwhile activity. They’ve practiced over the years, run miles, endured physical pain even, to play football this year. Some of them maybe had to even live through not being the best at their sport right away, but worked to get better.
So back to the question my brother posed at the beginning…what gospel are we reading? Are we reading a gospel that is full of musts and have to's? Have to do this in order to get that. Or, are we reading a gospel that is full of possibilities and challenges?
I like to think it’s both. We’re reading gospel of musts and have to's which help us realize how lost we are if we don’t have God’s grace. We’re reading gospel that challenges us to look at ourselves and our lives—to find out where the Holy Spirit is giving us gifts, passions, and callings, to serve God and God’s world. We’re reading gospel that asks us where we’re holding back or hiding our gifts. We’re reading gospel that hopes that we will disregard public opinion and risk not being our family’s favorite for the sake of doing what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do. We’re reading gospel that challenges us to dissolve the distinction between family and non-family, between friend and stranger, and give all people—rich, poor, weak, strong—the same consideration.
Malachi makes it easy for the Israelites, in my opinion—he evaluates the situation at hand and tells them exactly what they need to do to live more faithfully…stop being lazy when it comes to the choice of sacrifice given to God and remember who brought them out of exile. I can’t do that for you. I wish someone could do that for me—just walk up to me and say ‘on Friday, you need to go here and do this.’ Whatever ‘this’ is—watch a movie, call a friend…but the truth is, we are each unique, and I cannot tell you what gifts God has given to you or what passions and callings God has laid on your heart. I can only remind you that you’ve already been saved, and that you have been given the ability to live in a way that reflects whose you are. I can only encourage you to listen to God’s word and hopefully realize that you are in fact empowered by God to be God’s children.
It’s not easy—we’re being asked to take seriously what we could be. You know what I mean—potential. Potential is a frightening word, but I’d say it’s a word that’s worth the risk. This week, we recognize and remember that we work and act every day. I’d invite us all to risk remembering that we have been empowered to be God’s people and to act as such. That is an amazing gift—a gift worth exploring...a gift worth realizing. AMEN.