SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
and at St Luke’s, Augathella
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (4th July) 2004
2 Kings 2.5.1-14Psalm 30
Perhaps as he told this story, Luke recalled the story from the book of Numbers. So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself (Num. 11.16-25). Certainly Luke does not use numerical indicators lightly, and the number “70” would have reminded him of this anointing of the eldership of Israel.
It is equally possible he had in mind another passage, Genesis 10, where, in the Hebrew text, seventy nations or tribes are described as descending from Noah, after the flood. To Luke these nations were all the nations of the world. He tells the Jesus story always with the subsequent events, the Acts of the Apostles, in mind: from the time of the empowerment of the disciples at Pentecost, the word of the gospel reaches out to the ends of the earth, the seventy nations.
It is in the upper room of Pentecost that meaning is given to the teachings on mission given by Jesus. There the voices of the world, disunited by God at Babel at the beginnings of time, are able to speak as one once more. But there is a proviso to the unity: they speak with one voice (not by accident the name of our hymn book) only when they proclaim the deeds of Jesus, the revelation of the purposes of God. The seventy missionaries of the Lukan Jesus are at least in part us, commissioned to rewrite God’s actions at Babel by proclaiming, in action and if necessary in word, God’s transformative justice and compassionate love and demanding judgement throughout space and time.
There is also a tone of urgency in this sending of the seventy. The language is what scholars call “eschatological” a commissioning to be carried out in the shadow of the “eschaton,” the last things of God. The Church has veered between over-emphasis and under-emphasis on this shadow throughout its history. There have been times when the eschaton was no more than the utter enslavement of the earth and its species. There have been times when believers have danced and pranced around and cheerfully taught terrors, or even run out into the desert to watch the crisis unfold.
Neither is a correct response, for we are called to live each day, as each century, under the shadow of the coming judgement. As Luke’s Jesus speaks to his seventy missionaries they are reminded of the urgency, to travel light, to expect the harvest. Do we prioritize, with urgency, the telling of the Jesus story in word and compassionate actions? Do I? Do you? “We have sinned in what we have done, and in what we have not done.”
Yet Jesus offers no theology of retribution. The calling of God’s destruction on those who fail to demonstrate response to the gospel is anti-Christian. Where the missioner is received with Christlike peace, or with compassionate love, there the blessing of God dwells. But where the missioner is rejected, she or he is simply to move on, with a minimum of action, shaking dust from their feet. The wrath of God is expressed not in hellfire, though many preachers would have it that way, but in the disassociation, disconnection, of not knowing God.
Jesus goes on to pronounce woes on the unrepentant cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. “Deeds of power” had taken place in these communities. They had received the opportunities open to us as we encounter the gospel, but they demonstrated only cosy nonchalance. Here, rather than in the dust-shaking of the earlier segment, is the warning to the complacent western church: “woe to you, for you have had two thousand years in which to demonstrate compassion, justice, and the love of Christ, and yet you have demonstrated only a lust for power, a greed for wealth, and an obsession with imposing your will on the world around you. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Mecca and in Beijing they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.”
Ultimately blessings are spoken, too, on those faithful who return, symbolically from all the earth’s communities, and bear witness to the powerful impact that Christ’s healing compassion has on communities they’ve entered: “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Here the compassionate face of God-in-Christ is seen once more, the one to whom the broken woman or the grieving father or the paralytic reaches out in desperation and hears those oft-repeated words, “Go, your faith has healed you. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The demons of divorce from God and Godly compassion are exorcised, and the opening vision of Luke’s vision is being fulfilled:
“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.”