When Relationships Get Ugly (Thinking Through Luke 4:14-21)

Relationships can get very ugly very quickly. Whether between people groups or among family and friends, things can turn sour fast. I’m sure I don’t need to give examples as you probably have first-hand experience. Don’t we all!?

We have an example of relationships getting ugly fast when Jesus made a positive first impression on his hometown crowd and then that same crowd attempted to throw him off a cliff! Digging into this event will help us with our ugly relationships.

So what happened? Let’s see where it begins:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 (NRSV)

We will see why things got ugly when we compare what Jesus went on to say, and not say, with what Isaiah went on to say in Isaiah 61 had Jesus just kept reading.

The first thing we notice is that Jesus stopped quoting Isaiah at a significant moment. He stopped mid-sentence. Had he gone on to read further, he would have read:

…to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,

Isaiah 61:2 (NIV emphasis added)

Jesus stopped short of talking about vengeance. Maybe that is our first clue on handling ugly relationships?

To understand what is going on here more fully, it will help us to realise that Isaiah had prophesied to God’s people about the Babylonian invasion of the promised land, the exile of many to Babylon, and then here in the passage quoted by Jesus, their subsequent return. Isaiah was looking forward to the day God’s people would be set free from the Babylonians, a day of “release to the captives” when “the oppressed go free.”

According to Isaiah, not only could God’s people look forward to freedom from these foreign oppressors, the tables would be turned on the enemy. For example,

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the LORD,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.

Isaiah 61:5-6 (NRSV)

According to Isaiah’s prophecy God’s people would no longer be slave-labourers for the Babylonians but instead the foreign enemies would be labourers in the promised land. Also, the wealth of God’s people would no longer belong to Babylon, but instead the wealth of nations would be brought to God’s people. This is a reversal of fortunes.

Those in Jesus’ day would have latched onto this reversal of fortunes, especially when Jesus said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What those listening to Jesus would have been thinking is, “great, just as we needed rescue from Babylon, we now need rescue from these Romans who have invaded our land! This miracle worker may just be the one who will lead the rebellion!”

However, Jesus neither went on to read that part of Isaiah 61 nor to apply it to the current situation, making no insinuation that the tables would be turned and the Romans would become subject to the Jews. As much as the crowd would have loved to have heard that, he said this instead:

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

Luke 4:24-27 (NRSV)

Instead of speaking about the tables being turned against the foreigners, Jesus gave two examples from the Old Testament of foreigners receiving a greater blessing from God than God’s people. This is not what the crowd wanted to hear, and this is the point things got ugly and they took Jesus out to throw him off a cliff. This is also the point that helps us with ugly relationships.

Jesus did indeed come to set the prisoners free, but God’s people had bigger enemies than the Romans to worry about. Sin was the greater enemy. The Romans themselves were captive to that same enemy, and in fact, without Christ, so are we. The Romans, though being the oppressors, were themselves prisoners. They were captive to sin, captive to thinking that brute force was the way toward a better world, captive to life without God.

Indeed the brute force of Rome combined with the ignorance of the Jewish religious leaders in the execution of Jesus. Here again, Jesus stopped short of vengeance. Rising from the dead Jesus did not call for immediate destruction of his enemies, but instead sent out his disciples to tell people the good news of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is entered through the receiving of God’s forgiveness and grace. That forgiveness was, and is still, offered to all God’s enemies.

Our Ugly Relationships

Do you have ugly relationships with others? We have bigger enemies to worry about, enemies that all humans face, like hatred, grudges, gossip, and dangerous ideologies or theologies. Let us seek release from these enemies. Perhaps we should put more of our focus and energy on battling these sins than on doing battle with the people we have ugly relationships with. That battle may begin with our own hearts.

When relationships get ugly let us begin by stopping short of seeking vengeance. We might need to learn the art of stopping our thoughts and words mid-sentence, before things go too far. The thought of justice comes naturally to us. The jump from justice to vengeance is a short hop that comes naturally to us. The way of the cross does not. We have God’s Spirit to help!

When our relationships get ugly, let us be like Jesus and remember love first.

Our relationships, our world, could be different if we become enthused by the grace of God, whose first response to His enemies, and ours, is love.

Water Into Wine? (Thinking Through John 2:1-11 and also Thinking About “Conversion Therapy”)

If you were allowed just one of Jesus’ miracles today, would you ask for water to be turned into wine?

You have likely heard of WWJD, meaning “what would Jesus do?” As we read through the Scripture Focus for today let us ask WWBD, “what would Baptists Do?” (You can substitute your expression of Christianity if you are not a Baptist.)

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:1-11 (NRSV)

Had we been there when Jesus turned water into wine, we might have questioned what Jesus did. We may have asked:

  1. Why encourage the drinking of alcohol? It seems irresponsible.
  2. Why waste a miracle on a party? It seems inefficient. Wouldn’t healing someone from a terrible disease be more productive than providing wine for partygoers?
  3. Why use stone jars that were set aside for religious purposes? It seems sacrilegious. It would be like using a baptistry as a hot tub in our day.

Let us consider each of these questions.

Why encourage the drinking of alcohol?

Some Bible scholars point to the place of wine in the future Kingdom of God such as in this prophecy:

The time is surely coming, says the LORD,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.

Amos 9:13-14 (NRSV)

Amos prophesied that God’s people would experience judgement, primarily through an invasion of enemy forces. Though such an invasion would lead to the devastation of the land and therefore the ability to produce wine, the prophecy also looks beyond that devastation to a time of plenty, a time of blessing. When Jesus turned water into wine he gave a sign that such a future time of great blessing was near, and was coming through him.

Further, on the the day before his crucifixion, Jesus did this:

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Mark 14:23-25 (NRSV)

Again wine is linked with future blessing in God’s Kingdom. It is also linked here with the shedding of Jesus’ blood, through which that blessing would be made available.

According to John, the turning of water into wine was not just the first miracle of Jesus, but more importantly, the first sign. It was a sign of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. It was a sign that the Kingdom of God would come through Jesus.

Why waste a miracle on a party?

Our scripture focus begins with, “On the third day.” Perhaps John is hinting at something else that happened “on the third day.“. The resurrection of Jesus is worthy of joy and celebration! The “third day” was a great day for a party. This brings us to the next point, namely that Jesus did not waste a miracle at a party, but again, gave a sign that God’s presence, specifically God’s presence in and through Jesus, should be joyfully celebrated:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?

Matthew 9:14-15 (NRSV)

There is much to celebrate with Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God including resurrection, re-creation, and renewal. This first sign of turning water into wine, pointed to a greater sign, the resurrection of Jesus.

Why use jars specifically set apart for religious purposes?

That Jesus would use jars set aside for religious purposes suggests that the religious life of the people had become rather staid and stuck in formal ritual. The worship of the Giver of life, had become lifeless. People were trying to do the right things, but often failed to do the right thing.

We see this, for example, in the parable about the Good Samaritan. The priests and the Levites were known for doing all the right things, keeping all the rules about ritual purity. Yet in the parable of the Good Samaritan they didn’t do the right thing. In fact some Bible scholars point out that it was their attempt to do the right thing in keeping ceremonially clean, that caused them to fail to do the right thing, which would have been to help the man left for dead. It was the Good Samaritan, and Samaritans were known for believing and doing the wrong things, who did the right thing. Likewise, while the religious leaders often condemned Jesus for not doing the right thing when he broke Sabbath laws, Jesus pointed out how he was doing the right thing in healing people.

Jesus came to bring something that lifeless religion could not, namely life. So here he is at a party, doing something unexpected, something unpredictable, something life-giving, something that inspired faith in the disciples. Using stone jars set apart for religious purposes was not sacrilegious. Empty formal religion is sacrilegious.

So what would we Baptists have done had we been in Jesus position?

I’m guessing that at least some of us, instead of turning water into wine, would have gathered up all the wine at the party and turned it into water. We would have missed out on the sign, the signpost to the Kingdom of God, of the life-giving, lively, exciting, joyful nature of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus knew what he was doing. Perhaps we might have done something different, thinking we knew better, but not really knowing what we were doing. Perhaps we still do this. Perhaps there are some things we do as Christians, as Baptists, where we turn wine into water so to speak, where we could instead provide signs of God’s Kingdom.

One example where I think we have been turning wine into water.

During this past week, it became law that conversion therapy is now illegal here in Canada. That is, to put it as simply as possible, it is now illegal to try and help a gay person become straight. Therefore there has been a call for pastors across Canada, and the United States, to preach on sexual morality today.

What I find strange is this: a conversation about sexual morality, that is, how one honours God, others, and one’s self with one’s body, is a completely separate and different conversation than one about so-called “conversion therapy.” Since the law is about “conversion therapy” I’d rather focus on that today.

Perhaps an illustration might help us start this conversation.

I have been described as being excruciating shy as a boy. Report card after report card said “Clarke is too quiet.” In Grade 6 the teacher called me out to the hallway for a private chat. “What do you want to do for a living?” he asked. I told him I wanted to be an airline pilot to which he responded; “Airline pilot? How are you going to be able to do that, for airline pilots have to pick up the microphone and speak to people on the plane.” Thankfully, I didn’t become an airline pilot, so I didn’t have to worry about that. God obviously has a sense of humour. My quietness continued on into adulthood and on a personality test I scored 9 out 10 for introversion vs extroversion.

So, what would happen if we created a world where there is no room for introverts, where one’s introversion is seen as something that needs fixed? Perhaps someone might come up with a therapy that promised to help introverts become extroverts. Those who score 6 of 10 on the introversion scale may find themselves seemingly more extroverted and the therapy may be hailed as a success. But people like me, scoring 8, 9, or 10 out of 10 wouldn’t experience change. Now not only is there something fundamentally wrong with us that needs fixed, but now there is something doubly wrong with us, for we are not fixable. We would become very frustrated in not experiencing change, frustrated to the point of despair. Some of us would take our own lives.

This kind of thing has been happening with “conversion therapy” for gay people all along. Actually it has been worse than my illustration of introversion, for not only have gay people had the label “broken,” but also “evil.” Making matters still worse, where we might have no difficulty having conversions about introversion, conversations about being gay can very quickly cease to be conversations. Bottom line: conversion therapy has caused more harm than good. People have been hurt, badly.

Back to the story of the Good Samaritan. What if, the beat up person left for dead in the ditch is the gay person who has been beat up by efforts to change him or her? What if we Baptists have been the priest and levite passing on the other side, or worse, the perpetrator of the crime? What if the Canadian government is trying to be a Good Samaritan here?

There may well be nuances on the wording of the law that needs attention, but much of what I’ve seen in the call to preach on sexual morality in response to the new law has not been honest discussion on how awful conversion therapy is, but rhetoric about how awful the “gay agenda” is, and how persecuted we Christians are. We are not the ones left for dead in the ditch.

Perhaps we need to do some thinking about where we identify in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps it is time to think about what it looks like to turn water into wine, what it looks like for there to be signs of God’s Kingdom within the LGBTQ+ community.

As a ban on conversion therapy comes into effect, instead of rushing to pulpits to speak about sexual immorality, perhaps we should begin by walking with someone who is gay, taking time to listen. That means making time to listen. That also means making room in our minds and hearts to hear what is said. Maybe listening could be one sign of the Kingdom coming?

I will never tell my gay son that he should not identify as gay. He will never tell me that I should not identify as introverted. I have never stopped being an introvert, but I have learned, with stumbling steps sometimes, how to survive and thrive as a quiet person in a noisy world. Maybe that speaks to what should be our focus, not how we get gay people to become straight as conversion therapy aims to do, but how do we help all people, gay or straight, walk with Jesus in faith, hope, and love. What does water into wine look like in each person’s life?

Conclusion

Had we been at the wedding at Cana, we might have done things differently, but Jesus, being predictably unpredictable, did what he did, and and it stirred faith in the disciples.

We ask “what would Jesus do?” He just might do something surprising, something unpredictable, something life-giving, something that leads to joy and celebration, something that points to the beautiful Kingdom of God.

While we began with What would a Baptist do, the question here is, what will we do, to show signs of God’s Kingdom?

(This sermon can be seen here)