January 31 2016

4th Sunday of Epiphany

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Luke 4:22-30


Who doesn’t want to be a lottery winner? The images of retiring early, going on a luxurious cruise in perpetuity, flying first class, etc. have enticed many people to try their luck in lottery. But what most people often fail to acknowledge is that winning lottery could also spell disaster for the winner.

For example not long after Jack Whitaker of West Virginia became a lottery winner, he had a number of lawsuits filed against him. Obviously other people tried to take advantage of his newfound wealth. In another instance, Jeffrey Dampier was only 26 years old when he won the lottery. Unfortunately he would later be kidnapped and murdered by his own sister-in-law and her then boyfriend. They hoped that they would inherit the prize money after his death.[1]

Friends, ‘success’ doesn’t always come free. Often there is a high price to pay in ‘success’.  I once read an article in a magazine, if I’m not mistaken, about the outgoing US President George Bush giving a bipartisan advice to then senator Barrack Obama. Bush, again if I’m not wrong, told Obama to be ready because as his ‘star’ rose more and more above the other stars, he would create more and more enemies.

That was what happened when Jesus returned to Nazareth, his hometown; the place where he grew up. Jesus returned to his hometown as a famous person.  He was no longer only the son of Joseph, the carpenter; he was now a well-known Rabbi who had done wonders especially in Capernaum.

But Jesus’ ‘success’ in Capernaum didn’t mean that the people in his hometown would accept him. What happened was the opposite of that. Many people in his hometown were jealous of him. Others even questioned his credibility as a rabbi because of his background: he was only a carpenter’s son. But instead of trying to appease the crowd in his hometown, Jesus challenged their hardened hearts.  “Prophets are never welcomed in their own hometown, among their own people,” Jesus said. “But this is nothing new. Even the great prophets of old, Elijah and Elisha, were rejected by their own Jewish community,” he must have continued to say. “But God would not be stopped by that kind of rejection,” he must have said, “God would work amongst the non-Jews, like the widow in Zarepath and Naaman, the Syrian; those whom you rejected, but who accepted God’s message.”

And Jesus’ words added fuel to the fire. The people’s anger turned into a murderous rage. They tried to kill him by pushing him off the cliff. But it wasn’t his time yet and somehow he survived and left the crowd unharmed.

Friends, Jesus indeed followed in the footsteps of other prophets before him. No Jesus wasn’t the only person in the Bible who suffered because of who he was and what his message was all about.

One of the well-known prophets of old who suffered rejection and violence because of his message was the prophet Jeremiah. When God asked Jeremiah to be a prophet, just like Moses before him, he responded to the call with dread. “Lord, I’m too young. How would people listen to my word?” he tried to give an excuse.

And Jeremiah’s fear was not unfounded.  People did reject him and his message. Some even turned violent against him.

When the Babylonians army surrounded Jerusalem, most of the prophets prophesied that Jerusalem would survive. But Jeremiah said otherwise. He prophesied that disaster would come to Jerusalem if they didn’t repent. Being God’s people would not save them from disaster because God would punish them through the hands of the foreigners for their sins. So he advised the people and the King to surrender to the Babylonians. But Jeremiah had to pay a very high price for his words. Some officials in the palace thought that his message was dangerous and asked the King to put him to death. Jeremiah was soon put into a dry well and was left there to die; and it was only because of a servant, a eunuch in the palace, that his life was saved.[2]

Indeed when God asked Jeremiah to be God’s messenger, in our reading this morning, God didn’t say to Jeremiah that the road ahead would be easy. No, God was not lying to Jeremiah. God knew what lied ahead. That was why God asked Jeremiah to be brave and promised that God would be Jeremiah’s companion and protector. What Jeremiah needed to do was to speak with courage the words that God gave to his mouth.

Friends, being the messenger of God is never easy.  There is often a high price that we must dare to pay when we choose to tell the truth to people.

On January 8, the American people celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We all know about Martin Luther King and his fight for freedom and justice, and also about his tragic death. But there are hundreds and thousands of unknown people who have paid the same price like Martin Luther King because they have spoken the truth.

One of them was Siphio, a 20-year-old student activist who was a leader in the movement against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1981, the year I was born, he was picked up by the police and held in prison for six months without trial. He was beaten and tortured in the prison. When he was finally released he was unrecognizable and had to spend months in the hospital where he was declared paralyzed. He told his mother that the police would finish him this time and he wouldn’t survive long.

But he returned to student politics even though he was now bound to wheelchair for the rest of his life. He launched a prosecution against the police and named his torturers. A few days later, he disappeared again, but this time he never came back home to his family.

A year later, seeking amnesty from South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a policeman confessed that he killed Siphio. He confessed that even though he was in a wheelchair, Siphio had become potentially so dangerous politically that he had to be killed.[3] Indeed Siphio became one of many activists in South Africa during Apartheid who disappeared without a trace because of what they fought for.

Friends, one day God may ask you and I to be God’s messenger; to bring God’s words to others; to challenge evil in the world in God’s name. What would we do? Would we choose safety in silence and bring God’s words to our grave? Or would we brave, like Jesus and Jeremiah and many other people after them, and speak the truth? The truth, however, is not cheap; there may be a high price to pay. But God has promised that God will be with us no matter what. And that promise, I believe, should be enough for us to spread the word of God to the ‘end’ of the world.


[1] Rev. Danáe Ashley, Putting God’s Expectation above Our Own, February 3 2013 (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/01/12/4-epiphany-c-2013/)
[2] Jeremiah 38
[3] Trading in Truth © 2002 Lateline - Australian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcasted on 11/8/1998 (http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/stories/s12259.htm)