NOTE: No worship service was held on January 21st due to inclement weather.
4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 4:21-32 Sermon
January 28, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
57 “Bright And Glorious Is The Sky”
32 “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn”
558 “How Firm A Foundation Ye Saints Of The Lord”
309 “Thou Whose Almighty Word”
531 “Jesus Saviour Pilot Me”
WHEN PERFECT JUST ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH
TEXT (vs. 28-32): “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath began to teach the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.”
It hasn’t been too long ago, the beginning of this month actually, that I received in the mail a copy of two letters written by two pastors who were resigning their call at a congregation. These pastors, one a senior pastor and the other an associate pastor, had experienced what I would like to call “irreconcilable differences” with the large, 1,000+ member congregation they were serving.
I found the letters disturbing, because they brought to light problems and difficulties that have existed in that congregation for almost fifty years. Of course the problem isn’t with all the members of the congregation; it is just a handful of people that are causing the problems. Unfortunately, just a few can cause difficulties with many—something like the proverbial rotten apple spoiling the whole barrel.
What has happened is that this congregation has gotten the reputation of chewing up pastors and spitting them out like so much tobacco juice. In the congregation’s fifty year history, they have gone through six pastors or senior pastors, notwithstanding associates. The longest pastorate I believe they’ve had lasted for 13 years.
Each pastor has been different—different ages, preaching styles, backgrounds, and personalities. None are ever good enough; and so after a short time, they’re ushered (sometimes quite rudely) to the door, with the hope that the next one will be the perfect one.
Each of the pastors has handled this differently as well. Most have simply accepted a call to a different congregation. One retired. And in this most current case, both the pastor and associate have simply tendered their resignations without another call in hand.
Of course the question arises as to why this situation has been allowed to go on as long as it has. Church officials have known about this situation in the past, and have made some bad decisions; or in some cases, they have chosen to simply “sit on their hands” and do nothing. Pastors are usually reluctant to expose internal problems they’ve experienced, especially after they’ve left the congregation, since they don’t want a new pastor coming in based upon another pastor's jaded opinion of the congregation. They don’t want someone to come in with their mind already made up, since past problems might be perceived to be nothing more than a personality clash between some of the members and a former pastor.
I admire these two pastors for writing the letters they did and bringing the problems to light. I believe they did this, not seeking revenge or recompense, but with a spirit of genuine love and concern for the people, with the hope that the problems can be dealt with and fixed before a new pastor is called. From all indications, they believe that the problems have gone on long enough, and it’s time for some definite and decisive action.
As I read through and studied today’s Gospel lesson, this situation immediately popped into my mind. You couldn’t find a better pastor and theologian than Jesus Christ himself. The sinless Son of God was indeed the perfect pastor. There can be no question about that.
But yet, this congregation in Nazareth had some real and definite problems. In their estimation, Jesus was nothing more than the son of the carpenter. He had grown up in that congregation, and many members of his earthly family were still there.
The church in Jesus’ day did things in a similar fashion as we do today. There were Scripture lessons appointed for each Sabbath, which were read in the worship services. Since Jesus was visiting them, he was given the honor of reading and giving a message to the group.
What followed was nothing short of a riot. The members of that Nazareth congregation not only wanted to show Jesus the door, they wanted to kill him. The audacity of this simple carpenter’s son to come and preach God’s Word to them! He has no authority! We don’t have to listen to him! Let’s take him to the edge of a cliff and throw him off!
Christians everywhere look at the situation presented in our text today, and they are horrified. They say to themselves, “How could these people be so heartless as to so mistreat Jesus this way! Shame on them!”
But then you have congregations like the one I mentioned in the beginning of my sermon that seemingly without any compunction at all can read this account in our Gospel lesson for today, and then proceed to chew through pastor after pastor, regurgitating one perceived fault after another, and then fail to equate their actions with those people of this Nazareth congregation which caused Jesus so much trouble.
How and why do things like this happen? I believe it happens when a seemingly insignificant handful of people in a congregation want to run everything, and they develop an attitude of “it’s either my way or the highway.” This is then coupled with general Biblical ignorance, especially when it comes to the doctrine of the call and the office of the public ministry. The result is a potentially volatile and often spiritually lethal combination of things.
For those who are power hungry and insist on controlling everything in a congregation, the Apostle Peter records these words of instruction in I Peter 5, 5: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." The congregation of God’s people is not a place for power struggles amongst the members or between the members and the pastor; rather, the members and the pastor are to serve the kingdom of God together in humble service. Members who insist on being in control and getting their own way tend to do little more than to be a huge irritation to everyone around them.
Secondly, Biblical ignorance often shows itself in the way people regard the pastor’s call to a congregation. People will sometimes value the congregation’s call to a pastor with no more regard than a secular employer/employee relationship—something like the manager at the local BP service station hiring somebody to work the three to eleven shift at the cash register.
Some time ago, I read what the “perfect pastor” should be. I’ve since seen this in varying forms and lengths, but it carries the same idea. Allow me to share this with you:
“A recent survey has compiled all the qualities that people expect from the perfect pastor. Here we share some of them with you. Results of a computerized survey indicated that the perfect pastor preaches exactly 12 minutes. He frequently condemns sin but never upsets anyone. He works from 8 am until midnight and is also the church janitor. He makes $60 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $80 a week to the poor. He is 28 years of age, and he's been preaching for 30 years. He is wonderfully gentle and handsome. He gives of himself completely but never gets too close to anyone lest he be criticized. He is a good husband and father, but would never think of wasting any money on a night out with his wife or Baskin-Robbins ice cream cones for his children. He speaks boldly on social issues, but never becomes polically involved. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends all his time with senior citizens. He makes 15 calls daily on parish families, plus he visits shut-ins and the hospitalized, spends all his time evangelizing the unchurched, and is always in his office when needed.”
Of course this is intended to be humorous, but there’s a sad ring of reality to it as well. Everybody has their own ideas and expectations of a pastor; and when these ideas are coupled up and listed, the result is something akin to what I just read to you.
Let’s look at what the Bible says. Certainly there are qualifications set out for a pastor. II Timothy 4:2-5 gives us a basic overview of these things: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction; for the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
This speaks very well to those who have a distorted view of the pastor and his ministry. Where the pastor is to faithfully preach and teach the Word of God, there are those who are instead looking for someone to satisfy their own ideas and fancies; and they’ll keep on chewing up and spitting out everyone who comes along that doesn’t give their itching ears what they want to hear.
So how is a congregation to regard its pastor? What does the Bible say? Let’s begin with I Timothy 5:17-18: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’”
Is a church who routinely discards pastors giving them double honor? Are people who demand their own way guilty of “muzzling the ox?” Are such people seeing to it that the pastor is supported both morally and physically? Those are rhetorical questions, by the way.
The next directive from Scripture I’ll share with you is from Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
As I read through those two letters of resignation from those pastors, I saw no words of joy. The actions of those few people in that congregation and their persistent refusal to submit to God’s authority had made the ministry of those two pastors a burden that had to be borne. Those people had successfully removed the joy of serving the Lord in the midst of that congregation.
Finally, Ephesians 4:11-12 says: “It was [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”
People who demand their own way and are hungry for power have no desire to be prepared for works of service. They’ll say things like: “Works of service? Building up the body of Christ? That’s what we pay the pastor for!” But that’s not what God says in the Bible, nor does he even allude to that line of thinking.
The Biblical examples of the Christian Church in its infancy right down to the present day all show that the Church has flourished and grown through the faithful work of the laity. The Holy Spirit works through us so that people may come to know the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved. And for this to happen, God’s people need to be prepared for works of service so that the body of Christ, namely the Church may be built up.
God’s called servants do get frustrated however when there is dissention amongst the ranks, and people rebel against his authority and turn to their own ways. Moses felt this frustration with the Israelites too. He shares some of this frustration with us in Numbers 11:
“[Moses] asked the LORD, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant…? I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin."’
Now that’s frustration! And I would imagine that many of God’s called servants down through the ages have echoed those same sentiments when dealing with bossy, stubborn, and rebellious people.
Allow me to share a story with you, and I understand this to be true:
A member of an official church board, undergoing the painful process of calling a pastor finally lost patience. He'd watch the pastoral relations committee reject applicant after applicant, for some fault, alleged or otherwise. It was time for a bit of soul-searching on the part of the committee. He stood up to read a letter purporting to be from another applicant.
"Gentlemen: Understanding your pulpit is vacant, I should like to apply for the position. I have many qualifications. I've been a preacher with much success and also have had some success as a writer. Some say I'm a good organizer. I've been a leader most places I've been. What I do is a labor of love from the grace of God that is with me and I require no other payment. I am over 50 years of age. I have never preached in one place for more than three years. In some places, I have left town after my work caused riots and disturbances. I must admit, I have been in jail three or four times, but not because of any wrongdoing. My health is not too good, though I still get a great deal done. The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities. I've not gotten along well with religious leaders in towns where I have preached. In fact, some have threatened me and even attacked me physically. I am not too good in keeping records. I have been known to forget who I baptized. However, if you can use me, I shall do my best for you."
The board member looked at the committee. "Well, what do you think? Shall we call him?"
The good church folks were aghast. Call an unhealthy, trouble-making, absent-minded ex-jailbird? Was the board member crazy? Who signed the application? Who had such colossal nerve?
The board member eyed them all keenly before he answered, “It is signed, the Apostle Paul."
We can see how human wisdom can differ from God’s, and thankfully it does. The pastor’s call is something that is of divine origin, and not some form of human arrangement. The congregation makes a unanimous decision to call a pastor, and he is there because God wants him to be there. And since God is the one in charge, he spells out in the Bible what he expects of both pastor and congregation in this relationship. Biblical ignorance in this and other areas can only lead to disaster.
In our text for today, the perfect pastor who is Jesus himself is faced with a problem congregation, which happened to be his own home-town congregation. The situation was so severe, that he did the only thing he could do, and that was to turn and simply walk away. The two pastors whose letters of resignation I read felt they had no other choice but to do the very same thing.
I know for a fact that many of you have done the same thing too. You found yourselves in the midst of an impossible situation, and you chose the only God-pleasing solution there was, which was to simply turn and walk away.
And so here we are. We aren’t a perfect congregation, and I’m certainly not the perfect pastor. But we’re all here together, gathered around God’s Word and Sacraments.
We’re here because we know God loves us and wants us to be part of his divine family. We know that when we come to him confessing all of our sins and faults, that we will find forgiveness through faith in our Saviour Jesus Christ. We know that our past has been forgiven and forgotten, and that God has wiped the slate clean. Through Jesus, our sins have been completely removed from us, as far as the east is from the west.
Therefore we can show the world that we are a Gospel church, a church that celebrates the undeserved love God has for us and all of humanity. There is no power struggle or politics when it comes to our humble service in the kingdom. God is in charge here, and he is indeed the Lord of our lives. May he always keep us prepared for works of service, so the whole body of Christ may be built up.