The Word of God often disturbs the one called to speak; those who are the hearers of the Word; and disturbs the social order of the community into which the word is spoken. Only last week we heard about the Word which enlivens and now we are being confronted by the disturbance from the word that comes to the people of God both in the time of Jeremiah and of Jesus. So why be surprised that the Word often disturbs us now? (RCL Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; and Luke 4:21-30)
The story we know as the Call of Jeremiah is a wonderful and disturbing one for those of us who believe that we are called to preach and speak into the issues of the day a word that reflects God. With Jeremiah we might resist the call by saying we are too young, or too uneducated, or too ordinary, or too broken ... too human. At one level all these excuses are probably true – who among us is really fit to speak a Word that we proclaim is from God or even about God? And yet Jeremiah is told not to be afraid and that he will be delivered, and his mouth is touched by the Lord. This is not gentle or automatically reassuring – it is the same language as the prophet Isaiah having a burning coal placed on his lips and the word translated as touched has some sense of being struck. Possibly Jeremiah’s reluctance is because he knows that the people need to hear not only the reassuring and encouraging but also the disturbing forewarning of judgment and destruction before the rebuilding to come. Who wants that job?
Who among us wants to tell people that what they cherish from the past, that their grandparents gave to the church, might need to be plucked up or pulled down? Who wants to be the one to challenge others we care for deeply that their list of whose in the kingdom and whose out needs to be overthrown by the very people they are afraid of? Who wants to challenge our betters, our elders, that their theological wisdom is very skewered and in need of repair if not destruction and replacement? (And to humbly be aware that our best offerings will soon need to be revised if not removed from the archive altogether!)
The gospel account of the reaction of the home crowd to Jesus when he begins to unpack the prophet Isaiah’s words underlines how disturbing the Word of God can be, not only to the one called to speak it but to those of us in the crowd. Jesus is set upon in a way that foreshadows how he will, three years later, be given up by the crowd and “thrown off a cliff”. Yes, those of us who hear the word are often disturbed also. I occasionally say to a congregation “If you are not squirming in your seats yet then you haven’t heard what has been said.” The word of God or about God can be comforting and encouraging - and that is how I prefer my messages. But the word can convict or forewarn of dangers and consequences. The word can provoke an awareness of how we have been ignoring or mistreating God’s creation and fellow creatures. The word can point out that we are more the oppressor or beneficiary of injustice than victim in some situations. Or the word can simply point out that we are lukewarm and not one thing or another.
The word of God often leaves us no hiding room, or we have to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to deceive ourselves and try and deceive others. And one of the ways that we try and protect ourselves from real challenge and change is to assume that we are always the good guys in any given story. Which is why, I suspect, that Old and New Testaments are so full of stories in which the chosen people are the ones who are, temporarily, cast as the ones who are going to be left out or punished in some way. The prophets often have to warn the chosen people that they are not worthy of the title chosen so they are going to, for a time, be left out of the promise. And Jesus is often portrayed as judging that the religious of his day had missed the point or not been worthy of their position. Was he really against Judaism or the Pharisees as a group? Much more likely that he told stories against the chosen and righteous in order to put us all on notice that we need to really hear and heed the promises and the warnings of the holy word.
And thirdly the word challenges us that unjust and excluding social and religious structures of our day must fall and make way for just and including ways of being the kingdom of God. The word given to Jeremiah is clear that he is to be part of plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, and then building and planting. I am disturbed myself at the implication that the destruction needs to take place before the rebuilding. I am conflict avoidant and confess that I would rather go straight to the rebuilding and planting, to comforting and loving but I think we need to hear the challenge that sometimes at least the old must fall before the new can emerge.
While we need to be cautious of those who advocate any aggression or destruction in the name of God – who is ultimately the source of love – we may well also need to be cautious about those who do not want anything to change or fall. Clearly sometimes the old must be dismantled in order to build the new. The test is most likely the question “Who benefits by staying the same” and “Who will benefit from the proposed changes?” If the answer to the second question is the poor, the widowed, the alien, the vulnerable then the change or destruction being proposed may just be what God is calling us to. Not always easy to discern but we need to be open to the disturbing possibility that plucking up as well as planting may be our calling, that pulling down may precede building up. And especially in this age many of us, with anticipatory exhaustion but a glimmer of hope, acknowledge that much must change in our churches and society if we are to make any movement toward reconciliation and justice in our world.
And in this area Paul has much to say about love that is vital to being able to dare to make disturbing changes because he reminds us that love, not righteousness, is the greatest value and that it is through the lens of love that we discern what and how to pluck up and to plant, of what to pull down and to build up. That rightness or cleverness alone risks being just a noisy gong. Love – which is more action than feeling, more conviction than romantic visions of group niceness, more neighborliness than complicated theology – must guide us to include all who are precious to God and to expand our hearts until there is no “other” who is left out.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come disturb us with your word of love.