February 3, 2019

4th Sunday after the Epiphany 

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:21-30


In the old days, physical punishment was an acceptable form of discipline. I remember how my primary school teacher used to hit the palm of our hand with a ruler. It was painful when you were at the receiving end. But, whenever it happened to someone else, we used to giggle.

My mother herself used to hit us with a stick whenever we behaved badly or broke the rule in our house. She once slapped my older brother in the face. He crossed the line and that was the only time that I saw her did that. 

But, we never hated our mother because of what she did. Back then, we all thought that it was a normal kind of discipline and my mother was never abusive anyway. After all, it was during the time when “putting soap in one’s mouth” was both metaphorical and literal.

Today, people have different opinions about disciplining children with physical punishment. We never do it to our son and there is a fine line to walk between discipline and abuse if one chooses to do it.

Slapping one’s face/mouth appears a number of times in the Bible. Interestingly, it appears especially during the calling of the prophets, including Jeremiah.

We hear today how God called Jeremiah by reaching out God’s hand and touching Jeremiah’s mouth. If you think that it was a gentle touch, think again. The Hebrew verb for ‘to touch’ can also mean ‘to strike’ or even ‘to harm’.[1]

So, it’s possible that, instead of giving a gentle touch, God slapped Jeremiah’s mouth! And Jeremiah wasn’t the only one. Isaiah and Daniel were also treated the same way when God called them to be prophets. In Isaiah’s case, he was even slapped by a live coal![2] 

Indeed, God called Jeremiah as a prophet not only to deliver good news, but bad news also. God appointed him not only to build and plant, but also to uproot, tear down, destroy, and overthrow.[3] Jeremiah’s role was not only to soothe, but also to shock and jolt Israel’s conscience.

Friends, every now and then, we too need to be ‘shocked’ and ‘jolted’. We need to be shaken to wake us up from slumber, free us from complacency, or take us out of comfort zone.

It’s up to us what to make of that shock. We may think of it as an injustice done in our life. We may resent it and become a bitter person. We can ignore or deny it. 

Or, we may see it as an opportunity to grow; to learn from our mistakes; and to make our future a better and brighter one.

I used to learn Mandarin many years ago. It is a pictorial language, which means that each word is based on a picture or a combination of pictures. And the word for crisis in Mandarin is a combination of two characters that mean danger and opportunity. Indeed, crisis is dangerous. But, it can also be an opportunity for change.

If you love tennis, you would have been thrilled by the women final in this year’s Australian Open. It featured two female champions. On one side was a 21-year-old Japanese, Naomi Osaka, who won the US Open last year. On the other side of the net was two-time Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic.

The game seemed to finish on the 2nd set when Osaka had three championship points and a serve. But she floundered and wasted all her opportunities and handed over the 2nd set to Kvitova.

During the time break, Osaka was visibly devastated by her failure to finish the game. She left the court with a towel on her face, sobbing. Many commentators thought that the game was over then because she seemed to have a mental breakdown. After all, she was only 21 and the pressure of the final of a grand slam seemed to be too much for her.

But she proved all of them wrong. The person who came back to the court was different to the one who left. She somehow managed to transcend her disappointment and learn from her mistakes in the previous set. She overpowered Kvitova in the 3rd set to finally clench her second Grand Slam title and world number 1 ranking. 

Friends, Naomi Osaka may be young, but she showed the world how to turn disappointment into a winning spirit.  

But, instead of learning from our mistakes like her, we often behave more like the people in Jesus’ hometown. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was back in his hometown and was teaching in the synagogue there. Everyone was impressed by him and by what he said.

But, the adoration didn’t last long. As soon as he told them the hard truth, they didn’t want to hear what he was saying anymore. In a short of time, their attitude changed from welcoming and admiring him to despising him. They even tried to push him off the cliff.

Now, we may not be as violent as to try to kill the messenger of bad news. We, however, like to kill the message itself.

But, just like Jeremiah, Jesus was called not only to build up, but to also to tear down. When Jesus was a child, his parents took him to the temple in Jerusalem. There, they met the old Simeon who had been told by God’s Spirit that he would not die until he met the Messiah. When he saw Jesus, he took him in his arms and praised God and said,

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”[4]

Like the prophets of old, Jesus was to expose things hidden, to right wrongs, to make straight what was bent.

Last Sunday, we heard about God’s words that uplift and build up. But, God’s words can also challenge even rebuke us. Indeed, the building up can only happen after the old structure has been demolished.

My next-door neighbor was used to be an empty block of land. It used to be filled with overgrown weeds and home to hundreds of snails who liked to invade my yards. In Summer, the weeds would get dried and turned into a fire hazard. Some people also used the vacant land as a kind of dumping place for their rubbish. 

But, one day, someone came to cut all the weeds and clear all the rubbish. Not long after, builders came and filled parts of the land with concreate. Now, there are four two-story houses standing in what used to be my empty-lot neighbor.

The same with our life. Before the new life can be born, the old must be destroyed. The hypocrisy, bitterness, jealousy, greed, obsession, addiction; all of these need to be torn down before the new building can be built.

Friends, God is our parent. And the responsibility of a parent is not only to soothe us when we are sad or comfort us when we are afraid; a parent is also to correct us when we are wrong and challenge us to reach our true potential.

 The truth, especially God’s truth, exposes and it is painful to hear. But, it can bring healing. It can even bring growth in our life, if only we let it ‘touch’ our heart. Amen.

 Toby Keva

[1] Anathea Portier-Young, Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10, on www.workingpreacher.org (February 3, 2019).

[2] Isaiah 6:6, Daniel 10:16.

[3] Jeremiah 1:10 NIV.

[4] Read Luke 2:25-35.