November 14, 2021 / 25th after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Daniel 12:1-3 / Second Reading Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25 Gospel Mark 13:1-8
Thanks for Provoking Me
Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.(Hebrews 10:24)
These days many people seem to be provoked by one thing or another. Tempers are short and patience is in short supply. People are set off by vaccine mandates, masking requirements, politicians, supply chain shortages, internet conspiracy theories, etc., etc. Due to the stress of the pandemic there are more people who seem to be easily provoked. We often think of being provoked as being incited into negative behaviors. People are provoked by being frustrated, criticized, annoyed, neglected, persecuted.
Today’s reading from Hebrews presents “provoking” in a very different light. It promotes provocation that leads to healthy and constructive behavior. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” What a concept! We don’t usually think in this way. We are familiar with biblical proposals to love one another, forgive one another, pray for one another, build up one another. It’s different to consider how to provoke one another. It sounds a bit aggressive and intrusive to consciously intend to provoke another person. We tend to be suspicious of provocateurs who stir things up – and common courtesy means not meddling in another person’s life. Most of us could subscribe to a general attitude that says “Please don’t provoke me.”
And yet when we consider the life of Jesus, it is apparent that he was a very provocative person. By his words and his actions, Jesus was continually provoking people to think different and act different. In many and various ways the ministry of Jesus was all about provoking people to love and good deeds. His parables were provocative vignettes that challenged common assumptions and inspired new behaviors. When asked, “Who is the neighbor I am supposed to love?” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan - concluding: Go and do likewise.
Jesus provoked strong reactions by choosing to break bread with well-known sinners – tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus stunned the good citizens of Jericho by inviting himself to have lunch with the tax collector named Zacchaeus. This unexpected move provoked Zacchaeus to give half his possessions to the poor, and to repay those he had cheated four times as much. No doubt this incident provoked many conversations among the townspeople of Jericho.
When a woman was caught in the act of adultery, they brought her to Jesus and asked him if she should be stoned to death, as the laws of Moses said. Jesus said, “Let the one who has never sinned cast the first stone” – causing those who had rocks in hand to drop them and walk away. And to the woman who had presumed she would not live to see another day, Jesus said: “Now, go and sin no more.” Mercy provokes some very interesting reactions.
At the Last Supper, Jesus took on the role of a lowly servant and surprised his disciples by washing their feet. To make sure that they understood his actions, Jesus explained that he was setting an example that they would be moved to wash one another’s feet. He was provoking them to love.
By far the most provocative thing Jesus did was submitting to death on a cross. He could have avoided this painful fate, but he chose to lay down his life for us all. He said that there was no greater love than this. He showed how far God was willing to go in order to save us. His death and resurrection have provoked a countless number to love and good deeds.
The Gospel is by its very nature provocative:
We are reminded that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
We are instructed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
We are told that the last shall be first and the first last.
We are encouraged not to worry about the very things we all worry about: having enough to live on and being thought well of by others.
It tells of a God who is humble and gentle in spirit, who saves us by suffering and dying.
It declares that love is stronger than any earthly power, stronger than death.
Jesus provoked individuals he met by inviting them to step away from the life they were living to come and follow him. Those first disciples were slow learners, but ultimately their experience with Jesus moved them to become bold proclaimers of the gospel. They joyfully shared the good news that provoked many others to join the community of believers where love and good deeds are the order of the day. They dared to be different.
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During the Second World War a small Protestant community in France, Le Chambon, determined on their own to shelter Jewish children and families from the Nazis. They were provoked by Jesus to love their neighbors. At great risk to their own well-being, they managed to save the lives of over 5,000 people. A leader of the Reformed Church in France urged the pastor in Le Chambon to stop aiding the Jews, for fear it would bring harm to other French Protestants. The pastor refused, preaching in a sermon that, “the Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon from God for its cowardice.” When a government official threatened him about sheltering Jews, he replied, “We do not know what a Jew is – we only know people.” What an amazing story of Christians in extreme circumstances who courageously provoked one another to love and good deeds.
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Our lives as Christians ought to be in some way provocative – causing others to wonder: why do they do what they do? Why do they forgive those who hurt them? Why do they give generously of their time and money? Why do they welcome and care for refugees and homeless people? Why do they speak out against injustice, greed, vanity, cruelty, discrimination? Why do they return good for evil? Why do they dare to be different, to go against the flow of society?
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If we cause anyone to notice, if we provoke any curiosity about our behavior – it will be because we have been provoked by the gracious love of Jesus. Love can provoke a person to do incredible things. We love because we have experienced the transforming love of Jesus.
How did that love come to you and provoke you to want to follow Jesus? Was it through your parents and grandparents? The love of brothers and sisters? Was there a teacher or friend whose kindness toward you provoked you to go and do likewise? Is it the love you have experienced in this congregation: care, support, encouragement, that provokes you to want to keep on living the gospel? However it happened, you may want to take time to acknowledge them by saying:
Thanks for provoking me – provoking me to aim to be a little more like Jesus.
Thanks be to God.