An Inconvenient Truth: 2 Kings 22, Luke 4:16-30
An Inconvenient Truth
2 Kings 22, Luke 4:16-30
Rev. Aaron Willett
It’s been a heavy week for sermon writing. These inconvenient truths were burning in my heart all week, and I hope that you will receive my words this morning with the same humble spirit with which I speak them. It's like another pastor once said, I'm just a blind beggar trying to show other blind beggars where to find food.
This morning we’re going to take a look at identity and chosenness, and we’re going to encounter some hard truths about both along the way.
We start with Ahab and Jehoshaphat, the respective kings of the divided kingdom: Ahab in Israel and Jehoshaphat in Judah. Their agreement to take back Ramoth Gilead, in present day southern Syria, seems like the kind of idea God would be behind. This is land that was previously part of their possession, and they are God’s chosen people, after all. Not only that, but the military effort was uniting the kingdom under a shared purpose, even if only momentarily.
But, if you’ve been reading the Bible stories, you know that Ahab and his wife Jezebel were the worst kind of rulers. But at the end of the last chapter, Ahab does change his ways and humbles himself before God. So when today’s drama unfolds, we don’t really know where Ahab is at. Jehoshaphat on the other hand is roundly praised in the Bible as a good king who encouraged the people to worship God rightly. Regardless, both kings believe they share in carrying the banner of God’s chosen people.
And so as they discern their course of action they summon 400 yes-men prophets. Now these prophets had rightly predicted that God would hand Ahab the victory in his last two battles, so to this point the scene was playing out just as expected. The prophets have affirmed their sense of chosenness, and have given the kings comfort and confidence as they move forward with their plan.
But then the narrative deviates from the expected path, as Jehoshaphat casually inquires: Are there any other prophets we could ask?
Ahab reluctantly summons Micaiah “who never says anything good.” Given what we know about Ahab, we suspect that this means Micaiah is God’s person in this scene. In contrast to the 400 yes-men, and under considerable pressure to agree with them, Micaiah speaks. At first he goes along with the crowd, and then, surprisingly, Ahab calls him out with evident exasperation, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”
It seems that Ahab may have had enough of these yes-men prophets, and his question to Micaiah exposes our collective love/hate relationship with truth-tellers.
And so Micaiah speaks Ahab’s inconvenient truth: The king rides to his demise. But not only that. Just as Samuel predicted that the King’s burden would weigh heavy on the people (1 Sam 8), so too does Micaiah predict the return of peace after the king dies. “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’”
Ahab believed that because he led God’s chosen people, he was also chosen. Micaiah, however, reveals the hard truth: God’s chosenness is not something to be possessed. In the death of the king, God brought peace to the little people.
In Nazareth, Jesus brings us back again to these notions of identity and chosenness. Here Jesus returns to his hometown, his very kith and his kin. They are proud of their local product - he's like Apollo Ono or Macklemore here in Seattle. In the synagogue he follows the normal custom by which any male could read a passage of Scripture and speak on it. His reading is largely from Isaiah 61, but may also include some paraphrasing of other themes in Isaiah. He says:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus, after Isaiah, is describing the year of Jubilee, when all debts were forgiven. To the assembled men of Nazareth, this sounded like good news! In fact, their only surprise is that this local carpenter’s son is so well spoken! And here Jesus was saying that it’s starting today!
Then Jesus turns to his hard truth--this good news isn’t just for Nazareth. The proverb Jesus quotes begins provoking the community, and his recounting of Elijah and Elisha’s stories about reaching across borders pushes them over the edge. Why would their local boy bring up stories from their own tradition about provision for a foreign widow in Sidon and the healing of a Syrian general?
They had wrongly assumed that because they shared a place of origin with Jesus, son of Joseph, they were in a position of relative privilege. But as we learn, Jesus had chosen to minister in Capernaum--a town probably constituted of more non-Jews than Jews--before coming to Nazareth. The idea that God’s good news belongs to others whips the crowd into a murderous fury and they chase Jesus to the edge of town, planning to throw him off a cliff. Their frenzy is borne out of the same nationalist impulse expressed by Jonah after Nineveh repents. Pouting on the edge of town Jonah complains to God that he is too graceful, and that he would rather die than see God forgive these foreigners.
Like Jonah, God’s chosen people in Nazareth weren’t ready to hear that the gospel was for the people in Capernaum too. As Jesus slips through the crowd, it is worth remembering: Jesus does not leave Nazareth because he is rejected--instead, he is rejected because his good news was too big for his home town.
It is rather inconvenient, the bigness of God’s love, the depth of God’s mercy.
I agree wholeheartedly with Karl Barth who said that we have to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Of course these days they're both right here on my iPad... But the concept holds. And so I’ve been thinking about a number of inconvenient truths this week. I thought about the NSA and this surveillance state of ours. I thought about my own frustration at needing to have an exterminator come and spray toxins around the exterior of our house to kill carpenter ants. As is obvious from my sermon title, I considered global warming and the small atmospheric science class I took back in 1998 at the UW where I first learned about these changes we’re now experiencing. I thought a lot about Rachel Dolezal and her co-opting of black identity and why it's so upsetting to my friends of color.
But then the shooting in Charleston happened and none of these seemed to matter much next to the truth of racism in our country. It is an open wound that demands our attention.
Last week, at the end of a camping trip my buddy and I toasted sampler trays at a brewery in Olympia. As we have for years, we toasted each sample and switched toasting duties back and forth. With some admittedly unfortunate though accidental irony, he toasted the porter to people of color. His toast made me uncomfortable. In all our years of tasting, I don’t recall ever having shared a racial toast. I mentioned this and he said that’s the point--we don’t ever have to think about it, while people of color do, every day.
And he’s right. I don’t think about race all that often. I can and do go through my days and weeks without considering my race at all, without giving the color of my skin a second thought.
In his essay The Uses of the Blues, deceased African American author and playwright James Baldwin opens up this experience with words that I, myself, could never speak:
"I'm talking about what happens if you, having barely escaped suicide, or death, or madness, or yourself, you watch your children grow up and no matter what you do, no matter WHAT you do, you are powerless, you are really powerless, against the force of the world that is out to tell your child that he has no right to be alive. And no amount of liberal jargon, and no amount of talk about how well and how far we have progressed, does anything to soften or to point out any solution to this dilemma. In every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself. I don't know what "the Negro problem" means to white people, but this is what it means to Negroes." In James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Vintage 2011).
Which brings us to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Founded by African Americans nearly two centuries ago, “worshipping for decades in secret because of a ban against all-black churches, seeing its building burned to the ground, taking an active role in the Underground Railroad, disrupted and harassed by white Christians in Charleston,” Emanuel has been a place of refuge throughout its history (Jack Levinson).
And on Wednesday evening, while forty of our Southminster men gathered in back for BBQ and Bible study, the people of Emmanuel welcomed a young white man named Dylan Roof into their midst. After joining with them in their prayer service for an hour, he allegedly shot and killed nine of them, men and women, pastors and laity, aged 26 to 87.
This was not an attack on faith. This is not just another example of the failings of our mental health system. This was an attack on black bodies. It is inconvenient to acknowledge the truth of what happened at Emanuel AME. As has been made clear in the intervening days, this was a white supremacist killing nine of our black brothers and sisters as they prayed. This was an act of racist violence, and another moment when we can insist that black lives do matter.
I suspect that Dylan Roof, our alleged murderer, would have been at the head of the pack looking to stone Jesus back in Nazareth. I don’t think he understands why Jesus came and what did.
Jesus never denied his Jewishness, but out of his own cultural and ethnic background, he revealed what it is to be truly cross-cultural. Jesus is the bridge between God and humanity. In Jesus Christ we see what reconciliation looks like.
Into this world Jesus brings hope. He embodies God’s love for the poor, the broken-hearted, the prisoners, the oppressed. And I mean EM-BODIES. Into his Jewish body he takes up all of humanity and becomes grace for all--grace for Micaiah and Ahab, for Jesus’ kinfolk, grace for Rachel Dolezal, Karl Barth, and James Baldwin, grace for Dylan Roof, for the families at Emanuel, and yes, even grace for you and for me. Jesus’ proclamation in that Nazareth Synagogue that this good news is fulfilled “Today!” is still true here and now.
Today, we believe that we too hold the promise and responsibility of the chosenness of Israel. But for what are we chosen? Not prosperity; Not abundance; Not happiness; Rather Christians of all colors and races are chosen for nothing more than to be gospel-bearers to the world.
Participation in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not an easy endeavor.
We are chosen to be for the other. We are chosen to stand up to speak truth like the apostles and like the early Christians. We are chosen to cry cry out against racism and the evil we see in our world.
I know this may not sound like good news. It’s certainly not soft or easy. But I assure you, there is good news here in our broken world too. We have hope in these hard truths. Just as Micaiah's truth brought peace to the people, and just as Jesus' hard truth in Nazareth meant good news for the world, so too can we find freedom in speaking hard truths today.
Our hope is in Jesus Christ, not our yes-men prophets. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, not our assumed ties to power and privilege. Friends, our hope is in Jesus Christ, not ourselves. And thank God! Jesus has done the heavy lifting, he has shown us the way. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has bound and is presently binding us together with our brothers and sisters here on North Hill, in Charleston, and around the world. Jesus Christ is calling us forward into the year of Jubilee, and all we have to do is follow.