Sunday, January 24, 2016
You may have heard in the news that back in December ConAgra Foods decided to lay off about 1500 employees and move their headquarters from Omaha to Chicago. There have been a few big companies laying off people in Omaha this year, Union Pacific also comes to mind. Unfortunately, my dad was one of those ConAgra people who knows that after May 31st of this year, he will no longer have a job. What’s been especially difficult for my dad is that he is sixty years old – not quite old enough to retire. We’ve had several conversations that not only is he not quite ready financially to retire, he doesn’t know what he’d do with all of that free time he’d have in retirement. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about those people who suddenly have to look for a new job, or figure out what to do in early retirement. How do they make decisions about what to do with the rest of their lives and in particular, to be engaged in work that matters?
My guess is that many of you have found yourself in similar shoes at one point or other in life. The uncertainty can be overwhelming. Perhaps it was in college, when you were SURE you were going to major in one thing and ended up graduating with a completely different degree. Maybe you took a “temporary” job that lasted a lot longer than you thought, or had to decide whether to stay home with the kids or return to work. Or maybe suddenly you were at retirement age and not sure what to do with more free time.
Whatever we do with our time, whether we’re a stay at home mom, retired, or working two jobs, we want our lives to have purpose. We want what we spend our time doing to have purpose. Most of us would not be happy spending most of our days binging on Netflix, for example! That gets old pretty fast. In our gospel for today, Jesus unveils his mission statement to his church family, in his hometown. Jesus is clear about his purpose. And after he reads these words in the synagogue, some of his friends and family are angry and perhaps even a little jealous that Jesus has the audacity to not only have it all figured out, but to assert that God has given him this purpose. Sometimes we might wish that we had more of an idea of what our purpose was, too.
This year will be my ten-year college reunion. I have friends who tell me they STILL don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives. Most of these friends are deeply committed Christians who believe that their lives matter and that God has called them to a special purpose, so they’re pretty frustrated at this point that they don’t have more of a sense of what that purpose is. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have someone unroll a scroll for you, point to a chapter and verse, and there you would read your purpose, like Jesus does: “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.” Most of us are not as put together as Jesus seems to be.
Some of us gathered here today have been fortunate enough to find work that we love, and ways to serve and live out our faith with a clear purpose. But a lot of times, God isn’t so clear with us about what decision we ought to be making or what direction we ought to be pursuing. What do we do in the meantime, while we wait for God’s direction?
It is reassuring to know that even Jesus didn’t necessarily discover his purpose out of the blue, although it might seem like it at first read of this gospel passage. I think we may have a tendency to assume Jesus had it all figured out from birth because after all, he’s God, right? But scripture tells us that Jesus learned and grew in wisdom and understanding as he grew into an adult. We know he spent time in prayer with God to continue to discern God’s will for his life – Father, not my will, but yours be done, he says before he’s crucified. In this passage today, Luke reminds us that Jesus returns to Nazareth, his hometown, where he’d been brought up by a Jewish family who taught him Jewish values. Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day as was his custom. He reads words from Isaiah, words that he was probably familiar with because he went to worship God weekly on the Sabbath, and he had heard them before in that very same synagogue.
When we’re unclear about God’s purpose for our lives, God gives us passages like this one from Luke to remind us that even Jesus had to spend time with God to figure out what his purpose on Earth was. Especially when we have difficult decisions to make, Jesus can be our guide as we look at what Jesus does to be able to articulate his purpose: He spends time in prayer with God. He spends time with God in worship with other believers. He spends time reading and studying scripture and applying it to his life, with the words of Isaiah. This is the process of how Jesus is able at this point in the gospel to clearly articulate not only what he’s about, but what he calls us to be about as his followers. Bringing good news to the poor. Release to captives, recovery of sight, freeing the oppressed, proclaiming the Lord’s favor. God sent Jesus to be about these things and to bring about these things, but remember, Jesus is thirty years old by the time he figures this out. It might take us even longer to know more fully what God’s purpose is for our lives!
Living a life with purpose matters – we’re surrounded with ads for political campaigns now, right? Notice that each presidential candidate is clear about his or her purpose – usually they have a slogan, and they talk about how they have a plan if they were to be elected. By being clear about their purpose, we are able to know better as voters who we’d like to vote for. Churches need to be clear about their purpose, too, just like Jesus is. As a congregation, you all hopefully know that we have been discerning our purpose as a church. We have this new mission statement that we say at the end of each worship service, that’s on our new Bethel logo, on our T-shirts and stationery. God has given us, Bethel Lutheran Church, a purpose, too. We didn’t arrive at this purpose overnight, and I’m sure over 100 years of Bethel’s history our purpose has changed to fit with the changing times. We spent time as a council in prayer and Bible study together. We talked about it as a community of faith – – people with whom we can bounce off ideas and who will be honest enough to tell us when we’re making a dumb decision. Through this community and through Bible study we’re able to apply the ancient words we hear in scripture to our lives today.
Now, like Jesus, we are trying to move from knowing our purpose and being able to say it here in worship every week to going out and LIVING it – serving God and sharing our faith with all. Our purpose first and foremost is to be about God’s larger purpose, which Jesus shares with us right here in Luke today. Our council spent time in retreat yesterday outlining three goals for our congregation to be about this year: 1)growing and nurturing the faith of our members 2) expanding our service ministries and presence in the community 3)being more intentional about evangelism. Spending time in prayer, Bible study, and with each other yesterday helped us refocus on God’s purpose for us with these three goals. We’re excited about carrying out these goals – so stay tuned! Our hope is that Bethel Lutheran Church can be a place where you are able to discover God’s purpose for your life and find purpose through these things here! But it’s not just about us as a church, it’s about you and me, individually.
The REALLY good news is that when we’re not sure where we’re going or what we’re called to do next, God gives us Jesus. Yes, God gives us a process through being in relationship with God to discover that purpose: prayer, Bible study, worship, community. But we must also remember that in our very creation, God has said that we matter – we matter to God, and our witness matters to the world. God has created each of us for a purpose. And God sends his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to show us how much he cares about every single one of us, that we matter to God for a much larger, cosmic purpose. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide you as you discover your purpose. Amen.