28 Jan Beware the “Onlys”
Luke 4:21-30 and Jeremiah 1:4-10
January 28, 2018
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
It’s a word I’ve come to treat with caution, if not outright suspicion: the word “only.” It will “only” take 15 minutes. It is “only” 60 calories. This offer will last “only” through the weekend. Joining this group will “only” cost $25. I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess that I’m not the only person who has been bitten by the “onlys”—getting sucked into more of a commitment than I intended because I bought into the promise that something was less work or time or money than it really was.
But, there’s a flip side to the culture of “only.” Being an “only” can make something extremely valuable. Like the Mona Lisa. Or the Sistine Chapel; the Grand Canyon or Victoria Fall. Or…you. There is, after all, only one of you. No matter how tight-knit your family, no matter how many brothers and sisters you shared a bedroom, a bathroom, or clothes with, the reality is that we each grow up as individuals with unique histories and experiences that make us into the people we are today. It is this “only-ness” that gives us our unique sense of self. But it can also strand us in a sea of only-ness.
The drive for separateness and autonomy defines us just as strongly as does our search for community and companionship. We are a vast population of “onlys”—all standing side by side. It is ironic that as hard as we struggle for a sense of self, as much as we like to celebrate our real or imagined independence, we also use our sense of only-ness as one of our biggest excuses for our inactions and inabilities: I can’t have an impact on that issue; I’m only one person. I wouldn’t be any good at that; I’ve only got a high school diploma. My contribution won’t make any difference; I’ve only got a little bit to give.
Certainly Jeremiah stood firmly in this all too human tradition. Suddenly confronted by a God-sized mission, divinely ordered to deliver a depressing message, Jeremiah succumbs to the “onlys”. He pleads an excuse of youth and inexperience: “I am only a boy!” But, as Jeremiah quickly discovered, this “only” excuse didn’t impress God. It was, in fact, a whine God had heard many times before:
- Moses tells God, I can’t stand up to Pharaoh. I’m only a shepherd. I can’t even talk good (Exodus 3:12, 4:1).
- Gideon tells God, “I am only the least in my family,” when God calls him to deliver Israel from Midian (Judges 6:15).
- Saul tells David, you can’t go out there and take on Goliath. “You’re only a boy” (1 Samuel 17:33).
- David, when the opportunity came to become the king’s son-in-law said: “I am only a poor man and of no repute” (1 Samuel 18:23).
- Solomon, when facing the challenges of being king like his father before him, got cold feet: “I am only a little child” (1 Kings 3:7).
- When asked for bread and water by Elijah, the widow of Zarephath replied: “I have only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug” (1Kings 17:12)
- Jeremiah, when called by God, protests: “I am only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6).
- Jeremiah, when sent to Jerusalem, protests: “These are only the poor” (Jeremiah 5:4-5)
- The disciples, when told by Jesus to go feed the multitude, protested: “We have only five loaves and two fish” (Matthew 14:17).
The “but I’m only” excuse will never hold water with God, because we forget who we’re dealing with. To each of these halting, hesitant responses, God has basically one reply: “I am the only God. I will choose whomever I will choose. I will call whomever I will call.” God doesn’t get mixed up and call the wrong number by mistake. God wasn’t trying to reach Hilkiah and reached his son Jeremiah instead. It’s a truth we see throughout scripture:
- God wanted the stuttering Moses.
- God wanted the leadership of Gideon
- God wanted David’s slingshot to take on the giant
- God wanted the shepherd boy to marry a princess
- God wanted the mantle to pass to young Solomon
- God wanted the widow’s smidgen of flour and oil
- God wanted Jeremiah no matter his age
- God wanted Jeremiah’s message to go to the poor as well as the rich
- God wanted to feed 5000 on a ration of five loaves and two fish
It seems that God has a habit of intentionally choosing the “only”. In fact, God uses all of us “onlys” to make an only—the only voice of truth, the only beacon of hope, the only spirit of love, the only words of wisdom. To be such an only, like Jeremiah, Moses, David and all the rest, means to stand firm, stand against and stand for. But in each place an “only” is called to stand, in every word an “only” is called to deliver, God’s strength is there as well—and God’s strength is always sufficient.
In today’s gospel reading, we see just how wrong-headed it can be to assume that an “only” cannot be divinely appointed and divinely empowered. When Jesus returns to Galilee and appears before his hometown crowd in Nazareth, his authority is doubted, and his words are dismissed in anger because those listening to him hear “only” the son of a local family, “only” a craftsman by trade, “only” Joseph and Mary’s boy, “only” Jesus. Called to offer the message of God’s kingdom first to his own people, Jesus obeyed. But when the unappreciative and uncomprehending crowd turns ugly and plans to physically attack Jesus, God’s grace and sufficiency are made evident. Unharmed, unfazed and unencumbered by the crowd’s threats, this “only” Jesus walks out of that unreceptive place to take his ministry to Galilee and the world.
As Christians we have each been called to bear witness to the greatest gift of love, the greatest sacrifice for our sake, that has ever been given. We have been called to live to the glory of God, enacting God’s kingdom here and now. Like Jeremiah, we are called to preach a message in word and action to a world that is often so self-centered it refuses to hear the gospel or is downright hostile to the vision of redemption that the church offers. The size of the mission God is asking us to undertake seems as overwhelming as feeding 5000 out of a boy’s meagerly stocked lunchbox. It’s tempting to beg off with a bad case of the “onlys”: only human, only ordinary, only young, only old, only half-up-to-it, only an amateur, only a small church, only a few years left, only one good lung or kidney, only me, only this, only that.
Haven’t we all at some time or another recited an “I am only” litany about ourselves when we feel overwhelmed and underprepared? Instead of clinging to the insecurity of being an “only,” we are invited to take hold of the power that our status as “one” reveals. Try replacing the defeatist four-syllable message, “I am only,” with a different four-syllable mantra: “I am the one.” One is enough for God:
- Only one person
- Only one family
- Only one congregation
- Only one neighborhood
- Only one business
- Only one town
- Only one state
- Only one nation
A God-powered “only” can have an extraordinary, eternal impact in our world. That is true of us as individuals, as we were reminded a couple of weeks ago with the potent words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it is also true of us as a church. I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons we in the church struggle with our sense of call and mission is that we’ve bought into the lie that size and strength determines our ability to make a difference. Here’s the truth: a church’s size, how big the staff is, how big the budget is, does not say one single thing about the impact it is having for the kingdom of God. What impacts the kingdom of God is hearts that are given to God in joyful, faithful obedience and service. We need to regularly remind ourselves of this truth, because it goes so against the grain of how the culture around us measures success. God chooses a very different way.
In God’s infinite wisdom, and with God’s infinite power, God has chosen you, only you, as the only one who can stand as a particular kind of witness, perform a unique kind of ministry, give a distinct shape to Christ’s body here on earth. In your particular context and setting, you are the only one God calls and chooses for this task. And then when we come gather as the church, specifically as Calvary Presbyterian Church, together, with every member of the body of Christ, we make up a community of “onlys”—a community that hears God’s call and responds by saying, “I am the one, we are the ones to bring hope, healing and reconciliation to the world.” Amen.