"Missing the Point"
Originally composed for Preston Hollow United Methodist Church, Dallas TX
Prophets: Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91.1-6; Epistle: 1 Timothy 6.6-19; Gospel: Luke 16.19-31

Note: this page uses the SP Tiberian and Ionic fonts. If you do not have these fonts installed, you will see odd characters instead of Hebrew or Greek letters at points in the text.


First, ask them if they have homework or chores, and how they feel about this. Then ask if they would like to have a robot or other device to do their work.

The question is then: would this be right–what are homework or chores for?

This leads to "missing the point" about hearing and doing, with a reminder of Jeremiah who buys a field in the middle of a time where he knew he’d be leaving the city, but he trusted God, even though he couldn’t see the result.

Among the books I read as a kid were
— the Hardy Boys, who could catch any bad guy[s]
— Tom Swift, caught the bad guys and went to space . . .
— there was Encyclopedia Brown, a nickname for a kid who could remember all sorts of things,
and that ability, coupled with his curiosity, always got him into various scrapes.
Of course he pulled through, like all good heroes.

book cover In one of those stories, his father, a scientist, had gained access to a computer
(this is back when they filled a room).
Encyclopedia had an idea, and talked his friend into it: they would save a trouble and work if they could use the computer to do their homework.

As the story unfolds, the boys had to program the computer,
and then fill its memory with the material from their books before they could start their assignments.

But the great day arrived – and, although everything did not come together until the last minute, they were off to school with a nicely-printed report.

But in the middle of that report, there were some problems.

They hadn’t had time to proofread,
and the computer had (so what else is new?) a few ideas of its own.

Thus, standing in front of the class,
Encyclopedia went from reading something like
“Mars is red”
to “oogl blerp.”

Of course, this being a book, it all turned out ok, because after all was explained, the teacher realized that Encyclopedia had spent more effort in this project than if he’d just done the assignment
– and that he’d probably learned more, too.

Encyclopedia and his friend processed a lot of information, and they did the job, but they also missed the point of it all.
There's nothing new about missing the point.
As a theologian and historian I read about a lot of people in the past who have missed the point. The Bible is a great source to find some of these people
— people who are often remarkably like me.
(And do I dare mention the people who fill the newspapers?)

One of the themes of the gospels, especially that of Luke, is that the people who lived in what we now count as about A.D. 30 missed the point in a big way.
They awaited a messiah tay#Imf (in Greek, xristo/j, christos) which means “anointed one”
– someone like Judas Maccabaeus (who started a revolt in 164 B.C.E. which was finished by his brother Simon in 142 B.C.E.) who would restore their kingdom and throw the Romans out.

The people with those expectations heard part of the message
—but they missed the rest.
God had indeed once sent them a king,
but as 1 Samuel 8 tells us, it was not willingly, and with a strong warning that a king would collect taxes to support himself, his bureaucracy, and the army he would want.
All told, having a king would distract them from God’s call to be a “light to the nations” that would tell all the world about God
(Isaiah 49.6; also 42.6, 60.3, Genesis 17, 1 Peter 2.9, Revelation 21.24).

This missing-the-point longing came to a head in A.D. 66, when the Jewish people revolted against Rome. The war ended in 73 with the defense of Masada and destruction of Jerusalem.
And, if you will, Luke/Acts is a bit of political propaganda:
one of the author’s major points is that Jesus was not the person behind this war.
Luke shows us that while Jesus had talked of a kingdom,
it was a spiritual kingdom of people who practiced love –
a peaceful kingdom of people who would suffer, even to death, to tell the message of the love of the one true God
– and thus Luke shows an often-misunderstood Jesus,
a Jesus whose followers keep missing the point
– let alone those who didn’t like him.

Luke makes this clear in Acts 1.6ff, where some of his followers still await “restoring the kingdom to Israel,” and Jesus tells them yet again what they are to do:
e1sesqe/ moi ma/rturej e2n te I0erousalh\m, kai\ e0n pa/sh| th|= I0oudai/a| kai\ Samarei/a| kai\ e2wj e0sxa/tou th=j gh=j
you will become witnesses in Jerusalem and also in all of Judea and Samaria, and even as far as the last and least places of the earth.
(NB: “witnesses” relate what they experience; “last place” is the same word as the seating arrangement of 14.10).

We see the same idea about missing the point in the case of today’s reading, where Jesus builds a common folk tale of the day into a parable. The story is simple enough: a poor man dies, and in the next life, sits with Abraham at a feast. At the same time, another man, well-off, but who ignored the poor man’s pleas, dies and lands in torment. It’s not unlike some of our own tales, such as that of the HMO manager at the gates of heaven, who is told he can stay, but only for three days, or the computer mogul who finds Hell delightful and decides to stay, but finds out it’s only a “demo” version.

We shouldn’t be surprised by now that in Luke, the circumstances of this life are reversed in the next,
but to use these stories, both then and now, to construct detailed plans of the next life is to miss the point
(NB: the text refers to a4|dh|, "hades" the place where dead await judgment, with some sorting according to the moral life they led).

This parable isn’t about the “temperature of Hell”
(Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man 2:294)
or eternal rewards, but about those who have failed to heed first the message of the prophets or their fulfillment in the gospel.

Recall that in this section of Luke, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem,
where the leaders of his day, who used every chance they had to proclaim how faithful they were to God (and even created opportunities to do so, cf. Matthew 6.1-7)
killed him, because they missed the point.

Just before he arrived in Jerusalem, he would raise another Lazarus from the dead (John 11).
Not only did those leaders not believe when someone came back from the dead
–they even redoubled their efforts to get rid of him.
And even after they had killed him –
when in the resurrected Lord someone came back from the dead –
many still refused to hear him.

We can see this in Paul’s letters, which are filled with agony as he preached to people who thought themselves religious –
but to whom the message was foolishness (1 Corinthians 1.18-25).

To human eyes there is a lot of foolishness in the Bible. Look at today’s story from Jeremiah.
Just as we might miss the point before by not looking at how Jesus used the tale of the rich man and Lazarus, we might be distracted from Jeremiah’s story line by the depiction of how business was conducted – an account that has been of great use to students of ancient culture.
It’s a story that shows us that things aren’t as simple as they look at first glance.
Jeremiah had money to buy the field. He wasn’t poor like Lazarus
– no, he was somewhat wealthy, like that man who landed in torment. ButJeremiah also wasn’t uncaring like the rich man. He bought the field to keep it in the family (which the Law commanded).
But at the same time, the city is under siege, and, as he has warned, its people about to go into exile –
a warning for which he’s been thrown in jail for telling the truth, against false prophets who say that everything is fine.

It seems foolish under those circumstances to buy land! –
unless, as does Jeremiah, you know that God really owns the land, and there is a greater use for it.
He doesn’t make the purchase based on a calculation of short-term profit, rather on concern for his family–
even though they are people he will likely not know in this life.

A decision like that is an act of hope that requires faith and trust in God,
trust that God will accomplish God’s purpose,
that God will work through us to redeem history – when the world –
(recalling the previous weeks’s readings) is in disarray and fear:
much like Jesus (for whom there was nothing new about threats of war, etc. that he spoke of)
and there is ample evidence in the Bible and other documents that at such times people turned to a great many spiritual sources.
The details have changed, but there’s nothing new about fascination with angels, foretelling the future, prosperity gospels (God wants you to be rich, and your wealth is a sign of faithfulness, as self-assurance of salvation), end-of-the-world novels (Left Behind), survivalists, or any other forms where almost anything that passes for the transcendent becomes a best-seller overnight.

And here is where the message of Jesus has been lost:
Psalm 65.5 (for one) tells us that the God of our salvation is the hope of all the earth.
1 Peter 3.15 tells us to be ready to tell people about the hope that is in us– the great thing which distinguished Christians from everyone else in the first centuries.

Jeremiah has hope.
He knows, in the face of uncertainty that he can trust God.
Hope does not say that everything is fine when we are in pain.
Hope does not say that everything is fine when we are troubled.
Hope is not a smiley face, like a bandage to cover an injury.
But hope does say that we can go on, because we know whose we are, as Paul wrote:
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38-39 NRSV).
And because we know that God loves us, we know that:
fo/boj ou/k e2stin e/n th=| a)ga/ph|, a)ll/ h( teli/a a)ga/ph e!xw b/allei to\n fo/bon
In the love (of God) there is no fear, rather, the fulfillment of love throws fear away.
— 1 John 4.18

We don’t have to be like Encyclopedia Brown, missing the point of the assignment –
because we live in the name of the resurrected Lord, we can live in hope,
both for today and for eternity.

With the permission of Bobbie Kerr, I add her comment:
Tired of mush mouthed, gap jawed, hymn mewling and politically correct God speakers in your conference?
Vermande has Voice, Verve, and Vision.
Once you have heard Tim Vermande you will understand the power that sent forth John Wesley, that sustained circuit riders and conquered and commands the gulf between head and heart.
Never again will you be content to take a back seat to the Baptists.


Photo of Roomba, Larry Moore, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roomba_original.jpg, Creative Commons Share-Alike license.
Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Encyclopedia_Brown_-_Boy_Detective.jpg, fair use.