On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus stops by Lazarus’s house in the town of Bethany. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are overjoyed to have him in their house, because Jesus is so special to them. Yes, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus literally owes his life to Jesus. A nicely prepared dinner is served for Jesus and his disciples. And it is during all the festivities that Mary breaks open a jar and anoints Jesus with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and wipes his feet with her hair. Then, the Gospel says, the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:3).
This got me curious, what is nard? And what does nard smell like? A quick Wikipedia search tells me, the full name of nard is actually “spikenard.” It’s an amber-colored essential oil extracted from a flowering plant of the Valerian family, which usually smells like lavender. I also checked Amazon to see if I could purchase it. And I was so happy when I finally found the pure spikenard essential oil among many other fake ones. Yes, I had to read a lot of reviews. Anyway, when you entered this sanctuary, did you smell any fragrance? I dropped a few drops of oil on this diffuser. If not, no worries. Please take one of these test strips. You can definitely smell pure nard from it. What does it smell like? To me, it smells like a mixture of lavender, peppermint, natural wood with some earthy scent. I find it quite soothing and comforting. Now, think about it. What did it actually smell like in Lazarus’ house that night, when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard? Even a few drops of pure nard on this diffuser and on the test strips spread fragrance in the air around us. Then, imagine, what would it be like, if it were a pound of it, almost 95 bottles amount of this little bottle I have here? No doubt, the house must be truly full of fragrance.
And you also have to know, this nard oil was not a cheap perfume at all in Jesus’ days. It was very expensive because the spikenard plant grew only in the Himalayas of Nepal and India—not in Palestine. It’s a completely imported good, something that couldn’t be used like Mary does in such a generous way. Even today, this little bottle cost 25 dollars on Amazon. Then it’s not very surprising to see Judas Iscariot who has a problem with her and says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:4-5) Some explain three hundred denarii of gold was worth a year’s wages. Yes, it’s a lot of money.
Then, why does Mary use such a generous amount of extravagant oil to anoint Jesus? I think, Mary does it because she felt Jesus being resolute and determined to do something groundbreaking, something final, as soon as she heard about his way to Jerusalem. Jesus once told, Jerusalem is the ultimate destination of his ministry where he will undergo passion and death. Out of love for Jesus, Mary wants to anoint him in a best way she can. She wants to bless his arduous journey to the cross and deeply thank him for his grace. Although she understands, Jesus is the only one who must bear such burden, she wants to do at least something to help him and support him. So she willingly sacrifices the valuable nard oil without any reservation.
That night in Lazarus’ house, a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, with excellent fragrance and prime value, is being dedicated to Jesus, to his anointing. For Judas, it seems such a great loss, such a great waste of expensive perfume, because he mainly focuses on the cash-value of the nard oil. But for Mary, it’s great gain, a great opportunity to bless Jesus for his unending love and grace. Why? It’s because Mary focuses primarily on the meaning of Jesus to her and to others. For Mary, the cash-value of the oilis no match for the surpassing value of Jesus. And the cost of oilis no match for the costliness of graceshe has experienced through Jesus. She’s confident that, Jesus is going to be the savior of all as he already has been to her brother.
With this sincere heart, Mary anoints Jesus. Then the house gets filled not only with the fragrance of nard but also, I believe, with the aroma of love. Jesus senses this and talks to Judas, “Leave her alone. I know, she bought the nard oil to keep it for the day of my burial. But instead, she chose to anoint me with it today, because I now go to Jerusalem and die. Like her, please know that you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me here” (John 12:7-8). By her sacrifice and dedication that night, Mary has been remembered until now as a woman who anointed Jesus for his work of salvation.
Looking at Judas and Mary, today, a simple question comes before us. What can we dedicate to Jesus? In this season of Lent, what can we sacrifice to bless Jesus’ name, to thank his grace, and to support the continued mission of the church, the body of Christ? I know it’s so hard for us to give up things that seems valuable to us. I know it’s so hard for us to sacrifice our time of pleasure for more time of prayer and meditation. It’s so hard for us to dedicate our treasure to others and to our works of mercy. It’s hard, because the sacrifice and dedication we make sometimes seem like a loss to us, just as Judas sees it.
But here, Paul gives us an assurance from his lifetime experience: whatever sacrifice and dedication we make for Jesus, it truly is gain. It may look like a loss, but it truly is gain. In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul says, for Jesus, he gave up his reason to be confident in flesh—his status and pride as a legitimate Jew. He was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; …as to righteousness under the law, blameless(Philippians 3:4-6). However, Paul says, he can let it all go away because he may gain, what he calls, “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” For Paul, anything in the world is no match for this surpassing value, no match for the costliness of his grace.
Look at this diffuser spreading the fragrance of nard oil now. The candle gives up its wax to warm up the oil, and the oil gives up its fragrance to spread it out. In the same way, without sacrifice, without dedication, we can’t spread the aroma of Christ, the aroma of love to fill this church and fill our lives. Jesus gave up his life on the cross to share his abundant love and grace with us. By his sacrifice, we’ve become God’s children. We’ve earned our new life—the life in communion with God and in loving fellowship with one another. The cross of Jesus, his death, looks like a loss but it truly is gain, indeed, the ultimate gain of everlasting life.
So today, what can we sacrifice for Jesus? What can we dedicate to his kingdom on earth? Today Jesus is calling us to think about the things that we can give up for him in our daily lives. And he is calling us to learn how to focus on the surpassing value of following him and the costliness of his grace over all the other material values in the world. Let us offer ourselves to Jesus and his ministry so that our life may diffuse the fragrance of faith. And let us offer our lives to one another so that the people around us may smell the aroma of Jesus Christ, the deep aroma of love and grace, from us always. Amen.
The Way of Salvation: Home – lost and found (Joshua 5:9-12) (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
Everyone here probably knows John Denver’s timeless song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Its famous refrain goes, “Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong. West Virginia, Mountain momma, take me home, country roads…” Yes, this song is so familiar to us. But have you ever pondered over its lyrics? Actually, it sounds quite vague and implicit. We hear about some images of West Virginia, and there are some implications of a love story, but the song doesn’t tell any clear narrative, any story. Nonetheless, so many people still love this old song. Why? I think it’s because the song sings about home; it beautifully captures our common emotion and nostalgic memories related to home. Home sweet home, the place we belong… what does home mean to you? It must be hard to summarize, but for sure, it means something special.
In today’s Gospel story, there comes a special home where we meet one father and his two sons. This home looks like a good place filled with the father’s love and generosity. But unfortunately, his two sons don’t feel that way about their home.
The younger one feels like his home is not a place for him anymore. He thinks, as a grown-up, he should be out there, exploring the world. So he asks his father to give him the property he will inhere. This request can be heartbroken to the father, because in a way, it means, I wish you would be dead. Anyway, he receives his portion and travels to “a distant country,” and there, he wastes all his fortune on wild living. A severe famine hits that country. He is now desperate and hungry. So he even eats the food for pigs. At that moment, he finally sees who he has become and realizes who he truly is. “Right, I am not meant for this. I have home and father.” Now, he returns to home and asks his father to forgive him. And this gracious father not just forgives him but fully accepts him again. And out of his exuberant joy, the father even throws a big party for him. The father says, “Oh my son, you were once dead but now has come to life; you were once lost but now has been found.”
Now the older son has an issue with his father. He’s not happy with the return of his sinful younger brother. And he becomes resentful as soon as he finds his father bringing his brother back without asking him any responsibility. His discontent boils to the surface, and he bursts out complaining, “Over all these years I have worked like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed you. Yet you have never rewarded me. But now you are throwing a party for my sinful brother who has squandered your money? I can’t believe this!” Then, the gracious father reminds him of how blessed and beloved he still is, saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
The younger son lost himself in a distant country, away from home, in pleasure-seeking and self-indulgent life that eventually led him into misery. Whereas, the older son lost himself at home, in hatred and in judgmental self-righteousness. Whether going away from home or staying right at home, both of them got lost and forgot who they truly are—the beloved sons of the gracious father. So both of them need to come back home, to their father and reconcile with him.
Today, I think, Jesus gives us this parable in order that we may find ourselves in both of them. In their weakness and brokenness, we may see ourselves. Take a look at this classic painting of Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” The younger son is in his father’s embrace. The worn-out shoes with the torn heel and his bare left foot with the crusted skin show the hardships he had to endure. His cloth looks dirty and his back looks weakened by hunger. In contrast, there is the elder son on the right side. He is wearing a red robe like his father and looking good and rich. But he stands still and never goes closer to his brother or offers a hug. Grabbing a stick tightly, he looks down upon the reunion with judgmental eyes under the furrowed brow.
Sometimes we are like the younger son. We just follow our desire. We just let it drive us. We squander our time and money for morepleasure and let loose on excessive self-indulgence. Then, we realize our fault, get down on our knees and repent. And other times, we are like the older son. We behave like seemingly faithful Christians. But we find it so challenging when we have to forgive and accept others with God’s love. We often hate and judge others, losing ourselves in self-righteousness. We don’t see any need for forgiveness because we don’t even recognize these as our sins.
Yes, we, sinners, either like the younger son or like the older one, also have to go back home. But the good news for us is that the home is not far from us. This home is not somewhere in West Virginia, where country roads take us. Rather, this home is anywhere God dwells, anywhere God’s love and grace is deeply experienced. So I believe this home can be now within us, right here in our gathering. Even though we are weak and broken as humans, I believe, today God joyfully embraces us in this spiritual home. And God feeds us with love, dresses us with grace, and celebrates our return.
“Habitat for Humanity” is devoted to building simple and affordable housing all over the world for the people in need. You may know this group too. And they asked, to Habitat homeowners, volunteers, and staff, “What does home mean to you?” And here are some of their favorite responses. “Home is a safe haven and a comfort zone. A place to live with our families… A place to build memories… A place where we can truly just be ourselves. And whether our houses are big, small, fancy or modest, they are our shelters and our sanctuaries (Linda).” “Home means a future. Once we had a stable home, we could think beyond where we were going to live from week to week… Home is the base where everything begins (Kelly).” “I think that home is simply wherever you’re surrounded by people who love you (Mary Kate).” So true, home is the sanctuary where we find safety and comfort, love and support. Home is the base where we belong and where everything starts for a hopeful future.
Today I suggest we also add our response to the question, “What does home mean to you?” “For us, believers of Jesus Christ, home is where God the father always waits for us—his children. At home with God, we experience the grace that always forgives and the love that unconditionally accepts us. At home with God, we are always found with our sacred worth and beloved-ness no matter who we have become, no matter what we have done for good or for ill.”
Today, I invite you to make yourself at home here in this place with your sisters and brothers in God. I want you to come as you are, as weak or broken, feel God’s grace and love here, and be renewed and revitalized in joy and thanksgiving. Then, I invite you to make sure that this home is also available to those who are out there. I want you to open doors to everyone, to all God’s children. Make God’s loving and graceful family with true forgiveness and radical acceptance. With the heart and mind of Jesus Christ, I want you to embrace all the sinners just like us, welcome all the younger sons and all the older sons around us, give them the best spiritual food, and celebrate with them our beloved-ness, our kinship in our heavenly father. In this way, we may grow in faith and become more like our father day by day. And we may grow in love and make this place a sanctuary, a base for many people to truly belong. Home sweet home…may the Holy Spirit be here with us always. Amen.
Every season of Lent, I try to come up with a theme, a theme that flows through the Bible readings for the entire six weeks in Lent. What is the theme for the current season of Lent? Look at the altar. The draping purple cloth and the six candles are not just there to make our sanctuary beautiful. Yes, they do symbolize the theme, “the Way of Salvation.” It tells us, our way goes along with the way of Jesus to the cross. And through worship, we have been reflecting on the things we experience as we journey through the way of salvation. On Ash Wednesday, we meditated on our beginning and end, our dust-ness and mortality. On the first Sunday in Lent, we thought about Jesus in the wilderness and the three temptations of human desire, will, and fear. On the second Sunday, we reflected on our way of being the church, being the community of the saved in this secular, skeptical, and individualistic age. And today, we are looking into a rather uncomfortable and yet essential topic of Lent: repentance and forgiveness.
I know, these days, repentance is not a popular subject of any sermon. Who would want to hear that you are a sinner or there’s something seriously wrong with you? And I also know, these days, preachers have been reluctant to present Jesus as the one who fiercely fought the evil in the world. He was not just a gentle guy, meek and mild, not a buddy, a therapist, or a life-coach. Jesus got very upset with people. He criticized evildoers and cursed hypocrites. He frequently admonished his disciples. And he even overturned the tables of money-changers and wielded the whip of cords in front of the temple. For sure, Jesus unconditionally loved the people around him, but at the same time, he was just and righteous to their sin. This is why he demanded them to truly repent.
The season of Lent is called the season of repentance—forty days of honest reflection on our identity as sinners. We know, by God’s grace through our faith, we, though sinners, are saved by Jesus from sin and its consequence—death. Jesus opens us the way of salvation. However, please remember, our journey on this way can begin only when we repent. Yes, we should repent first, to be redeemed and to walk the way with Jesus. Some people say, Lent is only a penultimate journey; Easter, resurrection, the victory over death, is our ultimate destination. But before reaching that point, today we better pray honestly and solemnly looking into our spiritual status quo. And we better strike at the root of our complacency and comfort, and get down on our knees to repent.
You may ask, what does it mean to repent? The word, “repentance,” originated from the Greek word, “metanoia,” which simply means, turning around, the change of direction. Let’s say we all are driving down to south. We would usually take either the Garden State Parkway or I-95. But some of you might take some other local routes too. It’s totally up to you. And let’s say that these roads and routes represent our ways of life we choose. Then here, repentance is not a matter of choosing between the Garden State Parkway and I-95. Repentance is a matter of changing direction from south to north. It’s about turning back from death to life, turning back from self to God, turning back from sin to Jesus Christ on the cross.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is telling us about this repentance. In the days of Jesus, there were two tragic news that everybody knew. Pilate, the Roman governor, massacred the Galilean pilgrims who came to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices with no clear reason. And there followed a unfortunate accident at Siloam where eighteen people died by a fallen tower. To comprehend such tragedies, people thought, the dead were worse sinners than the alive, and their sin caused the wrath of God. So the crowd asks Jesus what he thinks about their reasoning. Jesus answers them, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”(Luke 13:3; 5). What does this mean? First, Jesus denies their reasoning, “No, God is not the God of wrath.” Second, Jesus moves their focus to a more pressing issue, the issue of repentance, “Sooner or later, you will all die too, so when you still have time, you should repent. And this is much more important than finding reasons for those tragedies.”
According to Jesus, we can’t figure out why good things or bad things happen in our lives. They are out of our control anyway. Some may choose the Garden State Parkway and unfortunately have all the roadside constructions and lane closures. Others may take I-95 with some traffics but somehow go along rather smoothly. That’s life. Be that as it may. But one thing is clear: unless we change our direction, we will go down and perish. No matter how lucky or unlucky we are on our ways of life, if we don’t change our direction, we will go down and perish. So Jesus is telling us today, repent and change the direction. And this is something we can surely do today, and every day.
Now some of you might wonder, “I confess my sins personally and in every worship service. I got baptized and have faith in Jesus. Doesn’t it mean that I am saved and I already changed my direction of life?” Yes, it does. By God’s grace through our faith, we are saved. Our sins are forgiven and now our direction of life is towards the new life in Christ. But at the same time, we should be keenly aware that we can very easily move backward. Although we changed the direction to north but we can still move backward to south. Yes, we can still relapse. This is what we Methodists call backsliding.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus also tells us about this backsliding through the parable of the fig tree. In the parable, a man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard and it bears no fruit. So he asks his gardener to cut it down. Then the gardener replies, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9). We know for sure that our God is the God of grace who gives us a certain time to repent and move forward. Yet it is also clear that our God is the God of justice who will surely judge our sin at the end. So in our limited time on earth, we need to intentionally walk on the right track, and like the John the Baptist says, we need to bear fruits worthy of repentance on our way of salvation.
Faithful companions in Christ, I know, today, I am talking much about a topic that is not just good to hear. But please remember, from time to time it’s really necessary to be aware of who we are and what we ought to do. We still have time, although it is yet limited, and we still have one another who journey together in the right direction. In this season of Lent, let us do something to bear good fruits in life. Let us keep staying in the loving relationship with God and with people around us, keep growing in faith and holiness by joining the works of piety and works of mercy in our church, and keep repenting when we fall back, and keep submitting ourselves to God to be redirected. May God be with all of us with the grace that abundantly pardons. May we drink the living water from our rock of salvation, Jesus Christ, and wash our sins away. And may the Holy Spirit be with us and empower us to step always forward to the new and everlasting life. Amen.
The Way of Salvation: Way - Journey and Destination (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18) (Philippians 3:17-4:1) (Luke 13:31-35)
In the remote mountains in Northern Ethiopia, a Coptic Christian priest makes an incredible journey to his church every day. He doesn’t walk or drive to the church but “climbs” up to the church. And this climb is incredible because his church is not just somewhere on a hill or in a valley of the mountain. Rather, it is located above a staggering cliff. His church is one of the rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia, which is carved into the side of a towering sandstone pinnacle. Can you believe it? Let’s find out.
Ethiopia’s Chapel in the Sky
Isn’t that inspiring? For the priest and the members of Abuna Yemata church, joining a worship service is, truly, a matter of life and death. On their journey, they have to climb one 35-foot steep cliff by only using carved footholds; they have to cross a few rickety bridges, and at the end of their journey, there is a narrow ledge with a 650-foot drop on its side, which finally leads them to the church. If this were a United Methodist Church, the church should do something for their handicap accessibility…but anyway, after watching the video, who cannot admire these Ethiopian Christians. What they demonstrate on their journey is their serious commitment to their faith.
How was your journey to the church this morning? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking this as a setup to eventually tell you, your journey is way too easy breezy. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. I think the journey each one of you had to take to come here this morning also demonstrates a serious commitment to your faith. I’m not saying this just to make you feel good, because it’s true. Yes, we don’t have physical challenges like climbing a steep cliff, crossing a rickety bridge or a narrow ledge. But we do have a different set of challenges here in North America on our way to the church this morning, and moreover, on our lifelong journey of salvation.
On our way, what kind of challenges do we encounter? I see the steep cliff of secularism. Many people don’t care about the church anymore. They don’t care about seemingly obsolete ideas such as discipleship and salvation. For them, the church should be consumer-friendly and at least entertaining with hip music and trendy messages. On our way, I see the rickety bridge of skepticism. Some criticize, Christian faith is irrelevant and unreasonable in this scientific age. Others denounce, churchgoers are intolerant, hypocritical, and judgmental. And on our way, I see the narrow ledge of individualism. Fragmented and polarized individuals don’t find a meaning of building a loving community with different people. It looks tiresome for them to accept and forgive one another, and love one another beyond political, racial, and cultural barriers.
Against all these critical challenges in our time, in our culture, today, you chose to come all the way to the church and to be a precious part of this church family. You chose to climb and navigate the mountains of our time with one another. So I thank God for that, for your commitment to your faith, for your willingness to be the church in times like this. Here, you may ask, “Did I? Really?” But let me tell you, “Yes, you did.” Each one of you are a living testimony of faith here today. Your presence here actually means much more than you think…to me, to the world, and more importantly, to God.
As we continue to be the church, to build a compassionate community against the tough challenges of secularism, skepticism, and individualism, there’s one more thing I should thank God for. I thank God for our forebears of faith, Abraham and Paul and our Lord Jesus Christ who showed us how to journey faithfully.
Abraham heard the call of God at age seventy-five. Then he left his home, all that he knew and loved. In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, he doesn’t even know where he is going. He has fears and doubts. Nevertheless, he is still on his way through the wilderness to the land that God may show him someday. Here, God reassures him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1). No matter what the challenges are, Abraham keeps on going on his way of faith.
Paul wrote today’s Epistle, the letter to the Philippians, in prison. From the letter, we see, even in a prison cell, he’s dearly worried about his friends in the Philippian church where some false teachers caused threats. He says, “I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears…their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven…. stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 3:18-20; 4:1). No matter what the challenges are, Paul keeps on going on his way with his friends in Philippi, the way of heavenly citizenship.
Jesus is warned by some Pharisees in today’s Gospel story. They say, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Hearing this threatening news, Jesus tells them, “Go and tell that fox for me…today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way” (Luke 13:32-33). Then, Jesus laments over Jerusalem that he tried to gather people together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they were not willing (Luke 13:34). Jesus has too many challenges to bear in his ministry. But no matter what the challenges are, Jesus keeps on going on his way to the cross.
Faithful friends in Christ, on our way forward, we will continue to face challenges. Your way to the church will be blocked off by so many mountains of earthly things, and the spirits of this age. The churches in North America in general have been already declining and losing members. A crisis, it is. And here’s what I want you to do this week. I want you to take a moment and think about the challenges that may keep you from this faith community and keep you from God. And I want you to pray honestly, find some hopes you may still have for the church, and hold on to them.
By God’s grace through faith, we are called out from darkness into the marvelous light. No matter what these challenges are, they cannot change our sacred worth and beloved-ness. Look around, look at one another’s face, because of you, there’s an undeniable hope for the church. There’s no cliff steep enough, no bridge rickety enough, no ledge narrow enough to keep us from climbing up the mountain with Jesus and to be the church with one another. So let us continue to trust God who is our shield, to focus on our heavenly citizenship, and to put our best effort to be on our way and to build a loving, forgiving, and life-giving family of God, here and now. Amen.
One of the biggest joys for me as a United Methodist pastor is that I have good colleagues. Through our connectional church system and our clergy small groups, we get to know one another quite well. When we meet, honestly, we don’t always spend time praying or meditating on the Bible, but we always eat, and we talk and talk and talk…and talk too much. Yes, because we are preachers, I guess, it’s quite natural for us to talk and share stories. Among those chatty meetings, there was one that was exceptionally chatty meeting I remember. It was filled with stories after stories; we were so into them that we didn’t even recognize how fast the time passed. Can you guess what kind of stories we shared that day? Believe it or not, they were the stories about our funeral experiences.
As you can imagine, these stories were quite heavy. One of the stories I can’t forget came out while we were talking about the smallest funeral we’ve ever officiated. A very seasoned pastor said that he officiated a funeral with only one person. One day, he got a phone call from a funeral home in town urgently asking him to officiate a brief funeral. Fortunately, he was available so went there right away. He didn’t know anything but the name of the deceased. As soon as he entered the room, he was quite surprised that there was nobody but one person sitting in the room. The person was the daughter but she seemed not to care that much about her father’s funeral. Then, the pastor got even more surprised as he looked at the casket. That casket was just a pure plastic box. He said, even the word casket felt too luxurious for such a thing. It really was a shabby box made with thin plastic panels. Composing his mind, he somehow finished that funeral. But he said, that experience was deeply engraved in him. And as he recalled the experience, he again and again asked one question on “how to live and how to die.”
How to live and how to die? This fundamental question about human life is always before us, even though we usually ignore it or we are too busy to reflect on it. But here we are, today, in the Season of Lent. We are in an opportune time to ask this question in all seriousness. How should we live and die? What would be a Christian answer to this question? As our way of looking for an answer, I invite you to see Jesus Christ once again. Especially today I invite you to the all-too-famous story about his temptation in the wilderness once again on this first Sunday in Lent. And it is my hope and prayer that from this short story, we find the way of salvation.
In today’s Gospel story, we see Jesus walk into the wilderness. Following his baptism, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness where he goes through three temptations. You remember, every time the devil tempts Jesus, he turns it down with such inspiring words. This conversation between the devil and Jesus clearly depicts the contrast between our human way of life and Jesus’ way of salvation. Let me tell you about these temptations and Jesus’ answers one more time. The first temptation is targeted at Jesus’ hunger, his human desire. To Jesus who is so famished, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds obvious, “A typical way of human life is to strive for satisfaction of their hungers and desires. And for this, you use whatever means at your disposal.” But Jesus teaches us, “The way of salvation is to find the lasting joy and fulfillment in God. And for this, we shall empty our hunger and desire to give room for the Holy Spirit.”
The second temptation is targeted at Jesus’ ego, his human will. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promises that if Jesus worships him, all the glory and authority will be his. Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds sweet, “A typical way of human life is to worship and seek power, authority, wealth, and fame—something that inflates your ego and inflames your will.” But Jesus leads us, “The way of salvation is to follow and carry out not my will but God’s will. And for this, we shall humble our ego and surrender our will to give ways to God.”
The third temptation is targeted at Jesus’ fear, his human nature for survival. The devil places him on the pinnacle of the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, God will commend angels to protect you.” Then, Jesus answers the devil, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Here, the devil’s word sounds so enticing, “A typical way of human life is to ensure safety amid fears even by taking extreme measures.” But Jesus guides us, “The way of salvation is to hold on to faith in God’s steadfast presence in our lives, to believe without doubt, we are beloved children of God no matter what.”
These temptations show us the contrast between human life and the way of salvation. Through the devil, the story reveals the nature of human life—hunger-driven, ego-driven, and fear-driven. But here we gathered to find and live the way of salvation as Jesus proclaimed. We want to empty our hunger and desire, surrender our ego and will, and trust God’s steadfast presence more and more so that we can be more like Jesus. How to live and how to die? On this way of salvation, we live our new life as we die to ourselves and live only with Christ who leads us into everlasting life. We struggle to make our small victories over the constant temptations, on our journey through the wilderness of life. Then, someday, we will die. But we will die to be alive evermore in peace of Christ.
In this season of Lent, Jesus calls us to the forty-day journey on the way of salvation. Jesus calls us to a spiritual wilderness, a time of solitude and a space away from our familiar routine to see God and see our life more clearly. He calls us to an intentional time of prayer, listening to God as we search for guidance and direction. He is sending us a wake-up call. We are asked to take the journey leaving where we stand and write our own stories of victory with Jesus. How would you live and how would you die? Are you ready to take a step on his way of salvation today?
July 23rd, 2018 was one of the saddest days in my life. On that day, I was on my vacation in Acadia National Park in Maine until I got the shocking news. The news was about a South Korean politician and activist whom I had admired for a long time; he took his own life. I was devasted. I couldn’t believe it. He was a person of integrity who dedicated himself to making a better society for the working class, for the poor, and for the marginalized. He graduated prestigious schools; in the past, it was a ticket to an affluent elite-class life. But he chose to live as a welder in a steel factory sharing his life with manual workers until he became a politician. I deeply respected him. I even met him a few times as a member of his party. He was my hope for South Korean politics. But that hope was completely lost that day.
Broken hearted and saddened, I went out to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia next morning. I just tried to compose myself watching over the sea from the summit. But the mountaintop was surrounded by thick cloud and fog. So as getting to the top, I couldn’t see anything. It was frustrating. But as soon as driving down the mountain, I could see some sunlight gradually coming through and the cloud and fog began to clear away. Right then, this wonderful view caught my eyes. The cloud was passing by the islands around Bar Harbor. To me, it felt like the cloud was comforting the islands struggling in a sea of suffering. It felt like the cloud was consolingly patting the islands on their shoulders and saying, “it’s alright. It’s okay. Carry on.” While I was looking at the view, there was one Taize song playing in my car. It was Da Pacem Domine, which means, “Give peace, oh Lord.” The song played, “Da pacem domine…give peace, oh Lord, give peace, oh Lord…” At that moment, I felt the Spirit moving in my heart and mending my wound. It was an extraordinary moment of profound comfort and peace beyond words.
As we live our lives in faith, we sometimes experience small extraordinary moments when we feel God is with us, comforts us, and guides us. We may sense this presence of God in our prayers or worship services, when reflecting on the Scripture and having holy communion, in the love and care from our family and friends, or at some unexpected events. Life sometimes knocks us down on our knees like it does to anybody else. But we Christians can somehow muddle through sufferings and pains in our lives and keep on living in faith, because we have those inspiring and spirit-filled moments, and because those small extraordinary moments lead us to this simple assurance: our living God is with us always in our ordinary lives.
From today’s Hebrew Bible and Gospel stories, we see Moses and the disciples experience not just small but huge extraordinary moments on the mountaintops. They directly encounter God and the divine epiphany. Moses was on his way down from the Mount Sinai after he personally met God and received the two tablets of the covenant. His face was shining because he was with God and in the direct presence of God’s glory, so he had to put a veil on his face. It’s incredible.
How about the disciples of Jesus? Peter, John, and James went up to the mountain with Jesus. While Jesus was praying, they were sleepy but suddenly, their eyes got opened up wide. They saw the appearance of Jesus change and his clothes become dazzling white. And they saw Moses and Elijah talking to Jesusabout his upcoming passion. Peter, trying to stay in this ecstatic moment a little longer, said he will make three tents for them. But then a cloud came and overshadowed the disciples. And from the cloud, they heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
The mountaintop experiences of Moses and the disciples…these are truly extra-extraordinary moments of divine wonder. Although they are so amazing, Moses and the disciples cannot stay there forever. They need to come down from the mountaintop. And they have to go back to their ordinary lives and face their reality full of challenges. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the people of Israel are waiting for him in the valley with weary and tired hearts. On their long journey to the promised land, they have been complaining all the time and recently, they even made an idol, a golden calf, and worshipped it. Moses knows well. Still, it’s going to be hard to lead them.
When the disciples of Jesus come down from the mountain, they face a great crowd in the valley with a child seized by an unclean spirit. The disciples struggle and fail to cast it out. So Jesus has to do it. Even it is right after they experienced the divine glory revealed in Jesus on the mountaintop, the disciples are still unable to bring good news to the crowd in the valley. They still are the same humans with doubts and fears. And the reality before them is still tough to deal with.
The mountaintop experiences were of divine majesty. But as soon as Moses and the disciples come down, they face their mundane reality. But, needless to say, that’s where they belong to and that’s where their lives and ministry go on. So what should they do? They should keep on muddling through the valley of agony with the assurance they have from the mountaintop of glory. Our Christian life is exactly the same. We should keep on living our lives in faith, keep on our journey of salvation through our messy ordinary life as we faithfully remember small extraordinary moments that we experienced our God of Immanuel, God with us. Then, only then, we will be gradually transformed and transfigured by the Spirit and become more like Jesus day by day.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, today, I hope we may remember and even newly experience another small extraordinary moment of God’s presence here and now. Therefore, as we continue to worship and share holy communion, it is my prayer that we may be deeply mindful of the Spirit moving in our hearts and filling us with the grace and glory of the mountaintop. So as we leave this place, we may be inspired and empowered to keep muddling through the valleys in our lives. Until we reach the glory of Jesus through our journey of transformation and transfiguration, may the light and joy of Christ be in our hearts always and enable us to keep on muddling through any shadow or brokenness of the world. Amen.
It was last Wednesday afternoon when snow was starting to fall heavily. I had to go somewhere so I was driving on I-95. Every car on the road was slowing their speed down and carefully moving along to keep enough distance. But there was this one car in the next lane; this car suddenly cut me off without any proper caution. I was quite surprised and had to press the brake pedal fast and hard on the slippery road. Let me tell you, it was very annoying. But there was one more thing that surprised me even more. It was the plate number of that car. As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t help laughing. The plate number was, “AMENOOO.” Seriously, I’m not joking. It really was, “AMENOOO.” I felt sorry to the driver, but it was so funny. And I got to laugh even more when I saw two bumper stickers on this car. On the left side of the bumper, one sticker said, “Let the Church Say.” And on the right side, the other sticker said, what? Yes, “Amen!” Again, I am not joking at all. I also noticed, there was a shiny chrome trim around the plate, saying, “Peace in Christ.” I thought, “Oh my God…where did this driver get all these from?” Anyway, it was too obvious. The driver must be a Christian, must be a very faithful one. But the problem was that he kept on driving way too wild and reckless. Indeed, the driver decorated his car as godly as he can but drove the car as ungodly as he can. So I asked myself, “does he know what amen even means? And ultimately, to what, this person says amen? To what?” I was curious but there was no way I could find the answer.
Do you know what “amen” means? The word “amen” is a special form of response. In the Bible it’s a declaration of affirmation to a certain message, word, prayer, or command. It’s a solemn expression of strong agreement and hearty approval. So when we say amen to something, it’s like we say, “Yes, I do so believe,” “I certainly agree with it,” or “So be it!” Thinking of these meanings, I hoped the driver might have a great word of God he cherishes so much in his heart that he has to say amen to it all the time even with the plate and the bumper stickers on his car. If not, the word amen is meaningless. And I know there’s no such thing like Christian driving or Christ-like driving, but I think, if he would care more about others on that snowy road, his amen must be more meaningful.
Today, right after I read the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, we all said, “Amen.” Do you remember? By saying this amen, we gave our full consent to nobody else but Jesus Christ. We replied back to Jesus himself, “Yes, I do so believe.” “I certainly agree with it.” “So be it!” But if we look at the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading for today again, we may realize, the amen we just said about five minutes ago would be the heaviest amen we’ve ever said. Let me read you again, to what message, you and I did say amen. Listen carefully. It’s two parts. The first part goes, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (Luke 6:27-30). And here the second part goes, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:36-38). How about that? We said amen to these words. We said, we believe them as the truth. We faithfully approved the message and decided to abide by them.
But can we? Can we possibly follow those teachings of Jesus? If we try hard, we may be able to practice the second part somehow in our lives—perhaps not every day but on some good days. We may be merciful, forgiving, generous, and not judging or condemning others on some good days. But then, what about the first part? Can we really love our enemies? Can we truly bless, pray, and give even to those who curse, abuse, and take? Can we possibly meet this high standard ever in our lifetime? Let’s be honest. It’s impossible. It’s beyond our ability and goodwill. Then, why did we say amen to such message? To this impossible command of Jesus Christ? If we were not truly able to abide by them, our amen would be also meaningless and empty like on the car plate and the bumper sticker.
But let’s not be discouraged. I know, what Jesus asks us to do seems truly impossible. Nevertheless, I believe, saying amen to his word can make a difference, if we do it from the bottom of our heart with our good intention and serious commitment. I believe Jesus hears our heartfelt amen to his message and helps us to follow it. I know, by just saying amen, by just giving our consent to Jesus, we are not going to be a special person right away. But by saying sincere amen, we may hold Jesus’ guiding hand that keeps us on his path. By giving our genuine heart to Jesus, we may have the Holy Spirit on our side who always inspires us to keep on loving.
With our ability only, with our effort only, we will never be able to love our enemies and bless and pray for those who curse and abuse us. But with Jesus’ love and grace that transforms our hearts, our life, our action, we certainly can. So here, saying amen mindfully and willingly to the teachings of Jesus is the first step to make a difference.
Do you want to keep on loving even if you can’t do it anymore? In the face of enemies, temptations, challenges, and violence, do you, as a Christian, want to keep on loving as Jesus did? I’m sure we can, when we say amen with your full heart to the words of Jesus today. Amen Jesus! “Yes, I do so believe.” “I certainly agree with it.” “So be it!” Let us hold Jesus’ helping hand, stay in the presence of his empowering Spirit, and try to make a difference in our lives. (5) “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” And now let the church truly and wholeheartedly say. Amen.
Today I am delivering the third sermon in the sermon series, “Keep On: the Jesus Way of Life.” What do we have to keep on today to follow Jesus in our lives? Let’s find out together another life principle that conforms to the way of Christ.
When was the last time you prayed so desperately for something? When was the last time you searched for God’s help so urgently? Take a moment and think about it. When was it? Was it when everything was going well with you? Was it when you were well-off, well-fed, and well-accepted? No. I don’t think so. We human beings tend to seek God and yearn for God when we have nothing but God, when we have nothing to depend on but God.
For me, I prayed one of the most desperate prayers in my life about a year ago. You may remember the coldest week in last winter. It was the week when the activity of the so-called polar vortex was very strong and dropped temperature below zero in North East. The boiler in Verona United Methodist Church broke. Yes, what a timing. The rotten bottom of the feedwater tank burst and the boiler stopped working. If you see a steam boiler system, there’s a feedwater tank that collects the returning condensate water and feeds it back into the boiler so the system can keep running. What I’m saying is, it’s an important part of the boiler. Anyway, I urgently called the plumbing company right away but they said, it will take a few days to get the tank delivered. And the weather forecast terrified me. It said, the cold snap will last for a week! I felt miserable. And I was so much worried about the pipes in the church. They will definitely get frozen and burst. So I had to manually feed the water into the boiler like every 4-5 minutes and pump out the leaking water from the tank. I almost camped out in the boiler room for about three days until the tank finally got fixed. In the boiler room, my prayers…they were so desperate. I kept praying. Not just for the boiler situation, but later, I also got to pray for the church, for the church members, for their families, and for all the other things. Sitting in the boiler room, cold and dark, I was really tired, but in such a weird way, I had an intimate time with God for three days. And that was a blessing I found in a misfortune.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is preaching on this kind of blessings. In his famous Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:20-23). Here Jesus tell us that the blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the afflicted. This good news of the Kingdom of God turns our value system, our world, upside down. What does he mean? He tells us, “God is the God of those who have nothing but God.” God gives blessings to those who desperately call upon God and to those who can barely sustain their lives. In their unfavorable circumstances, they get to know God better and deeper. They humbly realize that they truly are in need of God every day and every moment. And that’s the blessing—nothing else, having a close relationship with God, which is the channel for all other profound blessings in life.
Here, we may ask, “Well, I understand what Jesus says, but isn’t Jesus romanticizing poverty and suffering? Does Jesus mean that we better be desperate to be blessed?” Well, that’s not what Jesus means here. We don’t have to be sick to get better. Right? And the boiler doesn’t have to be broken again for me to get closer to God. No. Way. I don’t think Jesus wants you and me to suffer to be blessed. And we need to remember clearly that Jesus’ ministry is all about healing, liberation, and joy. So by telling us about those blessings, Jesus is actually giving us a promise. Even if you are in those misfortunes, rest be assured, you can still be in the blessing of God as you seek God and ask God’s help with humble hearts. Why? Again, it’s because God is the God of those who have nothing but God.
If today’s Gospel reading just ends with blessings, I would be a happier preacher today. But the Sermon on the Plain doesn’t end with blessings, unlike the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to talk about “woes.” He says, in short, “Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.” The words of Jesus here are quite radical and blunt. We have to ask again, “What does he mean? God’s prosperity is not a blessing but a woe? Isn’t he judging those well-off people? Is he warning us not to be rich, full, happy, and popular?” Again, the answer is no. Here, Jesus is just talking about the truth, this plain truth: if we are in favorable circumstances, we become not that desperate for God. We are not keenly aware of our need for God’s help. We may go for days without talking to God, without thinking about God. It becomes hard for us to kneel down before God with a humble heart. And God is not our priority anymore. There are other things to enjoy and other things to ensure our cozy and happy life. So everything related to God becomes a postscript, a supplement to our lives. And that’s the woe—nothing else, feeling no urgency to be in a close relationship with God. Yes, the woe, it is.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, our God is the God of those who have nothing but God, of those who seek God in their sense of urgency and desperate need. Therefore, if you are in misfortunes now, I hope and pray that you call upon God, the God who promises us the blessings of grace and joy in the midst of hardships and the blessings of getting closer to God even through the stony roads of life. And if you are in a comfortable situation now, I hope and pray that you be watchful of the growing complacency in your hearts and be alert to your spiritual slumber. Then it will help us keep the relationship with God as number one priority in our lives. Let us keep on walking with our God every day and keep on trusting our Lord every moment. Let us stay in the loving relationship with God. And yes, that’s the blessing—nothing else. Amen.
Keep on following the call even if you need to leave things behind (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) (Luke 5:1-11)
When was the last time you felt like Jesus was calling you? For some, calling is like a gentle breeze; the voice of Jesus softly whispers and nudges them to change their mind and make different choices. For others, calling is like a wild thunderstorm; the Holy Spirit abruptly interferes their lives and turns their life upside down to follow Jesus right away. In any way, we may have such a moment that we feel like, “I better do this because I believe in Jesus.” “I’m tried and busy but I’ll go to the trustees meeting, Souper Saturday, and so on to serve others.” “I’m going to be more loving and kind to someone because I’m a Christian.” “I will forgive somebody with Christ’s love.” These may be some small moments of calling, calling to follow the way of Jesus Christ.
As a pastor, I have my call to ministry. In The United Methodist Church, the candidates for ordained ministry are required to take a long time to complete their coursework, paperwork, mentoring process, psychological assessment, and a series of intensive interviews. But for what? All of these are for them to discern their call to ministry as clear as they can, because that calling is an essential prerequisite, a must-have, for their ministry.
One spring day in 2012, I got a phone call telling me that I may be appointed to this church. Back then, I was quite sure about my calling. But as soon as I finished the phone conversation, honestly, I was afraid and became doubtful. For sure, I was happy for the opportunity and glad to move to New Jersey. But there were things that I had to leave behind. Especially, I needed to leave my way of life, the student life, for the first time. My life as a graduate student…it was financially challenging, but there was much freedom. I had weekends and long summer to enjoy. I only had duties and responsibilities for myself, nothing for others. Later, when all got settled that I would be really going to serve our church, my anxiety level got up. The role of a pastor seemed so big to me. So big. And it grew even bigger and bigger in my heart, pressing me down. What if something goes wrong? What if the church declines? What if the church members don’t like me? What if they don’t understand my Korean accent? Oh Lord, can I really do this? Am I really ready for this? I was not sure.
It was the day when I had the first meeting with our church members before getting officially appointed. From the Bronx, I drove across the George Washington Bridge to get to New Jersey and to Montclair. As crossing the Hudson River, on the bridge, I felt something deep. I felt that Jesus was asking me a question, “You left your home country for what? You left Boston for what? Now you leave the Bronx for what?” Then, I realized, “Yes, it’s been for my calling.” It was a moment of assurance. I don’t have to be afraid but just keep on following the call leaving my way behind.
Today’s Gospel story is a very famous calling narrative of Jesus’ first disciples. It’s early morning, and Simon Peter is cleaning his fishing nets after a miserable night out on the lake. He and his partners, James and John, sons of Zebedee, have worn themselves out, casting nets from dusk till dawn into the dark water. The sun rises, and unfortunately, they have nothing but sore muscles and weary hearts. Their nets are empty. Just then, Jesus shows up, steps into Simon’s boat, and tells him to “put out into the deep waterand let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). Simon protests with full of doubt, “Master, we have worked all night long.” But then he changes his mind and obeys, “Yet if you say so, I will” (5:5). Then, Peter and others have a miraculous catch that they have never seen before. Peter says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) Then, Jesus calls him out from his shame and regret, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Luke 5:10). Simon Peter, James and John leave their way and follow the way of Jesus.
What brought you here today? As you left behind your warm and comfortable home today, I am so sure, it was Jesus who called you here. Let us go back a little bit more, what brought you to this church initially in the past? I am so sure, there was a calling like a nudge, like a whisper, or like a thunderstorm, that made you leave behind the way you were before to be children of God. And Jesus calls us now, calls us each and every day to make faithful disciples out of us, to make us, the sinners, walk his way of love and grace. Sometimes, we are doubtful and unfaithful, afraid and anxious, tired and weary. Sometimes, we think we are not qualified and not ready. But Jesus calls us anyway and asks us to walk with him as we are, as work-in-progresses.
In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul testifies, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). Paul was not just a sinner but a persecutor of the church. But Christ called him on the way to Damascus, on his way to destroy other churches. And by the grace of God, he became an apostle and founded many Christian communities. Today we believe, the same grace, which called Paul to leave his way, is with us; the same grace, which made an apostle out of the persecutor of the church, is with us today. With this grace, Jesus calls us to be his disciples. To follow his call, there is one thing we should do. We should leave our ways. Leave our ways to walk the way of Jesus. This is not just a life time decision, but it is also an everyday practice. Everyday leaving and following.
Now the call is clear to us. Leave the way of sin behind and follow the way of new life. Leave the way of hatred behind and follow the way of love. Leave the way of regrets, unresolved anger, attachments, past memories of rejection and hurt behind and follow the way of new life in peace and healing. Leave the way of discrimination and division behind and follow the way of reconciliation and unity. Leave the way we are, our strong intention and egotism behind and follow God’s will and the mind of Christ. And leave ourselves behind to become more Christ-like disciples. Keep on leaving and keep on following. Every day. Every moment. Jesus Christ is calling us. Are you ready?
Keep on believing in something even if it means sacrificing everything (Jeremiah 1:4-10) (1 Corinthians 13:1-13) (Luke 4:21-30)
For the next 5 weeks starting today until the beginning of the season of Lent, we will explore the Gospel of Luke and reflect on some life principles that conform to the way of Christ. I hope and pray that our journey may be fruitful as the Holy Spirit empowers us to keep on following the Jesus way of life.
You might have heard his name several times since 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a football player who was once a quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He has become renowned and influential for his political activism. What he did was to kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to NFL games. And he did it as a protest against racial injustice going on in the country. He says, he wanted to raise awareness of racism, social injustice and police brutality against “black people and people of color.” His action immediately set social media ablaze with debates. He was praised by some and denounced by others. And he hasn’t been signed by any teams since then. Last September, Nike made an advertisement campaign around Kaepernick. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” he says in that ad. And no doubt, it sparked another flood of reactions from different sides of people.
Today, as a preacher, I am not here to tell you if Kaepernick is politically right or wrong, nor about Nike’s marketing strategies. But I’m here today to ask you to think about his belief—not the contents of his belief but its quality, its intensity. His belief must be so strong that it led him to act boldly even if he ended up losing his career. Have we ever had such strong belief in something and acted on it like him? Have we ever believed in something so firmly, even if it means sacrificing important things in our lives? We are Christians. It means that we are believers, the believers of Jesus Christ. But have we ever sacrificed something in our life because of our belief?
If we read today’s Gospel story closely, we see Jesus uphold his belief in something, even if it offends the people big time, and the people almost throw him off a cliff. Here, we shouldn’t miss that these violent people are not strangers to Jesus; they are people in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. They are neighbors of Joseph and Mary. Even so, they try to kill him! What’s going on? Earlier on the same day, Jesus preached at the synagogue. He was center-stage reading a beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah and the people got impressed by his gracious words. They talked to one another, “Wasn’t this Joseph’s boy? The carpenter’s kid with the iffy birth story? Who would have imagined he’d grow up to become a healer! A preacher! A miracle worker!”Now, the hometown people assume, if their boy, Jesus, was willing to perform miracles to perfect strangers in other places, he would do a hundredfold back at home to his friends and neighbors.
But soon, their hope turns into frustration and their delight gives way to anger. From Jesus, the townspeople expect an answer like, “Sure, you got it!” But instead, Jesus tells them about the stories of God taking care of the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger. Jesus says, God sent Elijah to take care of the widow at Zarephath—not the widows of Israel. And Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian—not the numerous lepers in Israel. What does he mean by telling these stories? Here, Jesus makes a clear point to the people. “You have no priority to receive the good news from me. God’s love must reach beyond hometown walls, beyond homeland borders, and for this, I came to the world—to break down the walls. So, don’t take me for granted just because I was born among you. Don’t think you are the only chosen people. God saves whomever believes in me.” That’s it. And people get infuriated and try to shove him off the cliff.
In this story, I think, Jesus shows us the way of belief. And on this way of belief, Jesus teaches us, we may endure sacrifices and risks; we may upset some people and not be welcomed like before. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Indeed, this ad slogan well fits Jesus’ message for us today. But here, the question is, what is that “something”? As the followers of Jesus Christ, what do we believe in spite of sacrifices? I understand, even though we all are Christians, we may hold different propositions of belief. Our life experiences and cultural backgrounds are different. But there is one essential belief, which can’t be diverted. And without this belief, we can’t be even called Christians. What is this belief? This is our belief in love, in God’s unconditional love for us.
Because of his belief in God’s boundary-crossing love, Jesus was threatened to death. And because of his belief in God’s unconditional love for us, later, Jesus even sacrificed his own life on the cross. Following Jesus, many faithful Christians in history believed in God’s love, even if it meant sacrificing everything. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. firmly believed in God’s love that overcomes any walls of discrimination, even if it meant sacrificing his life. Our belief in the power of love…without this belief, we are nothing. In his Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote these unforgettable words on love, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).
Now, sisters and brothers in Christ, do we believe in God’s love firmly and act on this belief even if it comes with hardships and difficulties in life? I know, sacrificing everything sounds too much to us. But can we at least give up our convenience, our safety, our comfort, our ego, our will, our pride, for our belief in God’s love? Look around the landscape of our life in this country. Can you see the wall of hatred, bigotry, and division? Can you see the swamp of anger, depression, and hopelessness? Can you see the wild fire of violence, injustice, and oppression? Can you see the shadow of selfish desire, greed, and materialism? Here, do you really believe that the power of love can change something now? We shall say, “yes,” to this question with no hesitation. The Christian answer to all the questions from the world shall be love. Without this Christ’s love, we are nothing. So, let’s proclaim together following Paul, “I believe in love that is patient and kind; that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I believe in love that does not insist on its own way; that is not irritable or resentful. I believe in love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. And I believe, this love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And this love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). I pray, we keep on believing in this love, even if it means sacrificing everything. Amen.
Debie Thomas, “Leaving Home,” The Journey with Jesus (accessed January 31, 2019: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2067-leaving-home).