A Play on Words
Examples of a play on words would be puns, double entendres, spoonerisms; in fact last week's example involving Wren and Queen Anne had several. Plays on words are usually funny but they can be used to make points sharper. Take this dated one: Why do we still have troops in Germany? To keep the Russians in Czech." That's "check" spelled Czech.
The first wordplay I'm using for our text is one on what bosses say to an employee seeking a raise. They ask, "What have you done for me lately?" With our text I ask, "What hasn't Jesus done for you lately?" That's not where the Nazirites start, is it? They all testified and were amazed at the words of grace pouring out of Jesus' mouth, but that wasn't enough. They wanted deeds not creeds, they wanted works not words. "What have done for us lately? Do here in your hometown the miracles we've heard you did in Capernaum."
And we join with them; we no more speak out loud then they did, but in our heart we're thinking: What have you done for me lately, Jesus? Where's the visible healing of the sick we hear you did in the Bible? Where are the demons being cast out? Where's water being walked on or changed into wine? Where's the raising of the dead? Where are the wounded soldiers getting new limbs, and not even leprosy being healed but psoriasis?
Turn the question around. Play with the words. What hasn't Jesus done for you lately? Has He failed at granting you the mercy you pray for in the Confession? The mercy you beg for in the Kyrie? He hasn't received your prayer as you pray for in the Gloria in Excelsis? Or given the strength and protection you prayed for in the Collect? I know. He's failed to create a clean heart, renew your spirit, and restore the joy of your salvation that you pray for in the Offertory. No? Then He's failed to "save now" as you call for in the Sanctus. Maybe then, He hasn't given you His Body to eat and His Blood to drink for forgiveness? Could it be that He's failed at showing you His salvation so that you are unable to depart in peace?
I'll tell you what the problem is. Amazing Grace is not so amazing to you, and it's not really sweet in sound or in fact. Grace is so bitter and unamazing that is it tamped down in our Collect. Our insert has a 1558 revision by Queen Elizabeth of a 6th century prayer. The original states that without Almighty God's strength and protection "we cannot at any time stand upright" (Reed, 484). That is, without grace we can only fall and re-fall. Why was the word "always" added? Why say "we cannot always stand upright" because that means sometimes we can. Sometimes we don't need grace. Sometimes we can stand on our own two feet.
But how come grace isn't so amazing? Listen to the text. Grace means that God can send food and healing to unbelieving foreigners. While believing widows baked in the sun a foreign widow baked bread. While believing lepers washed their skin off the general of the foreign power that had defeated God's people washed off his leprosy. Grace delivered people outside of the Old Testament Church while those believing and praying for deliverance were left starving and diseased.
The Law says do this and you shall live. Man's law says you can't always stand upright, but do your best and you will live. Grace says living, dying thriving or declining are solely in the hands of God. Grace says you can do everything wrong - wish your father was dead, demand your inheritance, go off to a far country, end up eating with pigs - and come home to a hero's welcome of sandals, rings, and fatten calf. Grace says you can do everything right do all that your father asks, never asking so much as a lamb from him, work sunup to sundown and end up outside the Father's home. Grace says the person who doesn't eat right or exercise and likes his tobacco too lives to a ripe old age while the person who does it all right gets a horrible cancer at 51.
The real kicker is that both are God's grace. The Lord called the thorn that Paul 3 times beseeched Him to remove "My grace." Paul calls the office that saw him shipwrecked several times, in danger from thieves, beat with rods, cold and hungry his "grace." It's a long journey to seeing such hard things and hardships as graces. Can you make it? It takes a miracle because grace fills unbelievers with fury and precipitates the unexpected. In our text, grace drove these good church-going people to try to murder the One they admitted had grace pouring out of His mouth. The place they took Jesus to throw Him off is called the Mount of Precipitation from the Greek word here. "To throw him down the cliff" is to "cast down a precipice."
The appearance of grace precipitates the unexpected. May it precipitate for you a long day's journey. Okay that's not a play on words; that's a play. Long Day's Journey into Night is a 1956 play by Eugene O'Neill published posthumously at the author's request. He actually wanted his wife to wait 25 years. She waited 3. It is a painful play and even comes across that way as a movie. It's one day in the life of a family struggling with drug addiction, disease, being a family, and love lost (http://www.shmoop.com/long-days-journey-into-night/summary.html)
"Journey" is a particular word for Luke. It's the last word in our sermon text. Literally we read "He passing through the midst of them was journeying." In Greek the first and last words of a sentence are emphatic. Here the first word is He' and the last journeying.' Luke uses this Greek word twice as often as you would expect him to. His Gospel is about Jesus setting His face to "journey" to Jerusalem. How the Samaritans won't welcome Him because He's journeying' to Jerusalem. How this journey is necessary and nothing can stop him from making the journey.
A new day dawns when God takes on flesh and blood in Jesus. That day is a long journey into night for Jesus. Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler but eventual follower, can only bring himself to come to Jesus at night. It is night when Judas departs for his final betrayal. When the arresting soldiers arrive in Gethsemane Jesus says that the hour belongs to His enemies and the powers of darkness. On the cross, the sun's light won't light the Son another wordplay and darkness fell over the earth for 3 dread hours. The journey Jesus continues on in our text is a date with darkness, devil and death and it's a long one. It takes only about 2 more years from the point of our text, but it began in eternity and has eternal effects.
It should be you and I on this journey. No one can complain if their life is like O'Neill's fictional Tyrone family: diseased, dysfunctional, desperate, and despairing for that is what we all deserve. Since the Fall fallen mankind can plant all the good fruits and vegetables he wants, he can follow all the rules of gardening and growing but this fallen earth will still produce thistles and thorns.
The only One who didn't deserve such a life as this is Jesus Christ the Holy One. Being God in flesh and blood He is without sin and could not sin. No thistles or thorns should grow in His garden, but they did to such an extent that His life was crowned with them. Jesus didn't have to make the long day's journey into the night we deserve. But He entered into a sinful, fallen family just like ours. Was raised in a fallen home just like ours. Joined a church with just as many sinners as we have to come and redeem all of us out of all the pain, sorrow, sadness, and suffering we deserve.
That's right; you and I should be a hapless, hopeless, lost, and losing as the Tyrone family, but Jesus journeys into our sadness, our despair, our desperation, our punishment, and into the profound hopelessness which must come over a sinner who sees his sins. He bears all this in our place and not only in our place but in place of every man, woman, and child you know and even those you don't know.
Jesus kept on going on this long day's journey ever deeper into the night. Deeper into the night than you have ever dared go. Jesus bore the pain and shame of a sinner exposed before all men though not guilty at all. Jesus bore the judgment, the damnation, the darkness, and the despair that sinners before God rightly, fittingly deserve and should expect. But still He kept journeying ever deeper into our darkness till He could say: It is finished. Had He stopped one nanosecond earlier it might have been before that one particular sin of yours was paid for. One less tear drop, one less bead of sweat, one less smidgen of blood and it might have been that God was left just a tiny bit angry at you. And you couldn't bear even that.
All the forces of darkness tried to keep Jesus from completing this journey. They try here in His hometown. The Devil tried in the desert. Peter is going to try in Caesarea Philippi. The Agony will try in Gethsemane, and the leaders of the church will try at Calvary. But nothing can stop Jesus' from completing His long day's journey into night because that's what gives you and all the broken people of the world a new day. It's called Easter and it's a day of resurrection, life, and light, and it comes to you without any merit or worthiness in you but graciously for Jesus' sake.
You probably guessed that O'Neill wanted his wife to wait 25 years after he died to publish Long Day's Journey into Night because it was personal, autobiographical. His mother and his wife were addicts as was the female lead in the play. He gave his wife the play on the occasion of their 12th anniversary certainly nothing to play around with. With the play he gave her a letter with a play on words. The play ends sadly with the female lead in a drug addled state saying, "Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time." O'Neill ends his anniversary letter with "These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light into love" (Ibid.).
There you go. Jesus long day's journey into night is for you a journey into His love for you taking you out of darkness into the glorious light of forgiveness to a new day where life not death, hope not despair, grace not law rein, always. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (20160131); Luke 4: 21-30