February 3, 2013
I. Today we pick up where we left Jesus teaching in the Nazareth synagogue. Luke 4:21-30 is a flashing series of snapshots of the people responding to Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61:1-2. Quite a bit more was going on than they highlighted. As was the custom, he was seated for teaching.
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
A. Verse 22 is difficult to translate, and the typical English rendition seems to suggest the first response to Jesus was positive. That is a possible translation but probably not the best sense of the event.
1. “All spoke well of him” could be rendered “all bore him witness” that they realized he had stopped reading before the line “the day of vengeance of our God.” They took some offense at that because they expected God to vent wrath and retribution on all Gentiles when the Messiah came.
2. “Gracious words” could better be translated “words about grace.” The people figured out Jesus was extending God’s grace to Gentiles, and they were perplexed and offended that someone who grew up in their town would break from common opinion.
B. Jesus answered the proverb about the doctor’s self-cure with a proverb of prophets not being accepted in their hometowns. Jeremiah was a prime example. He was the object of an assassination attempt; he was imprisoned; he was thrown in a muddy cistern, the king burned his letter. No wonder he was reluctant to become a prophet! With this proverb, Jesus associated the people in the synagogue with those who persecuted Jeremiah and the other prophets. Jesus used the same word for accept the prophet as the Greek translation of Isaiah used for the acceptable year of the Lord, which Jesus implied they’d miss out on.
C. As the hostility of the people’s reaction increased, Jesus did not reassure them or soften how they understood him. He purposely went on to give examples of Gentile enemies who received God’s grace. The widow of Zarephath through Elijah and Naaman the Syrian through Elisha. Jesus gave this hostile audience the same message Paul gave in 1 Corinthians 13. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.
II. From 1 Corinthians 12:31b to 13:3, Paul asserts the superiority of love over the power of piety. He is certainly not denigrating the gifts of the Spirit, but he is clear that love is superior.
A. His dissertation on spiritual gifts ends with “I will show you a still more excellent way.” Many translations use the comparative “more.” Some use the superlative “most.” Exclamative: “Most Excellent!” Living love is great!
B. This paragraph suggests that the power for great communication, great understanding, great action and even great self-sacrifice can all be done without love. We may think we’re working by the power of the Holy Spirit, but if it doesn’t grow out of and extend love, it’s useless.
C. Paul did not stop writing about the Holy Spirit between chapters 12 and 13. They are connected with the “Most Excellent Way!” Love is the culmination of the work of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can radiate God’s love to the people around us. Our human love is inadequate. Some people are just too difficult to love on our own. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.
III. Couples who are about to get married describe why they love each other like this: “She makes me feel secure.” “He makes me laugh.” “She brings out the best in me.” “He helps me grow.” Romantic love is measured by what the lovers get from each other. You may know that the New Testament uses the Greek word agape for God’s love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 describes love that gives without needing to receive.
A. These verses sound ideal when read at a wedding. They also need to be heard in the hospital and the courtroom, in the unemployment line and in the in-laws’ house. This paragraph says that love is specifically for when hard times come: when someone is injured or in trouble, when someone is discouraged, when someone has hurt you.
B. God’s love is always about the one being loved. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” That is the model for the love the Holy Spirit generates and radiates from within us. That is the love of Mother Teresa cradling the dying in the gutters of Calcutta with no expectation of even a thank you.
C. That kind of love calls for a strength none of us have. In July 1962 Martin Luther King used two weeks in jail to assemble a collection of his sermons that became the book Strength to Love. In those sermons he spoke about praying for the strength to love the people who opposed him, who mocked him, who beat him, who arrested him. I think he would even have asked God for the strength to love James Earl Ray who was convicted of assassinating him. In any case, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 describes how the most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.
IV. In the concluding paragraph of his lyrical treatise on love, 1 Corinthians 13:8-14:1a, Paul explains that love is the more excellent way than all the spiritual gifts because the time will come when the gifts will cease because they will no longer be necessary, but love endures eternally. Because God is love!
A. We all know that this interim time between pastors is temporary. Sometime this year you expect to have a new “permanent” pastor, and I expect to help another church through their transition. However, even if your next pastor stays with you for 25 years as Les Brown did, that is not forever. There will be other pastors to come further into the future. If you don’t believe it, just look at the portraits in the office hallway. But we do have a longing for permanence. That why most of us resist change. I believe that is a yearning for God’s eternal Kingdom, but to try to hang onto something that is not God’s eternal Kingdom heads us toward idolatry. That’s why Paul wrote that even the gifts the Holy Spirit gives the church are temporary. They are to help us on our journey to the eternal. Thus the godly love that we just barely sample now draws us deeper into God’s eternal love.
B. Love is not an abstract character quality. Love requires relationships. Relationships are dynamic and growing. So love is the journey of God’s relationship with us. Now we only know God partially, but love is drawing us to know God fully, just as God already knows us fully. Teenagers and even adults snicker when the Hebrew Scriptures describe sexual intimacy as a husband and wife “knowing” each other. Yet, when that human relationship is at its best, it does point us to the complete intimacy with God into which God’s love is drawing us.
C. The artificial chapter breaks in the Bible can make us miss some important connections. So we started with 12:31b “I will show you a still more excellent way.” We also have to include 14:1a to get the full impact of 1 Corinthians 13. “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Pursue love.” The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put these three in the context of our transitory lives.
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
“Pursue love,” Paul concludes. Love is the path through the temporary to the eternal, to know God as fully as God knows us. On that journey, conveying God’s love to others takes priority over even our spiritual accomplishments. On that journey, by God’s love we have the Holy Spirit’s strength to absorb abuse and disappointment from those we love. On that journey, passing God’s love to others guides us unerringly toward face to face intimacy with God. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.