Sermon from January 30: Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On
Epiphany IV; January 30, 2022
Luke 4:21-30

This week Eugene Goodman was interviewed on the podcast “Three Brothers No Sense” (January 24, 2022). You remember Officer Goodman, don’t you? He was the Capitol Policeman who led the mob away from the Senate chamber during the January 6 insurrection. This was his first interview in the year since the attack on the Capitol. You saw him honored to escort Vice President Harris at the inauguration last year, but he has generally kept his peace about what happened on January 6, 2021. He is a veteran of the Iraq war and he said that his military training prepared him for what he needed to do that day. In particular, he said his training taught him to “think on the fly.”[1] He assessed the situation, got the mob’s attention, and started to run away, giving that mob of White people a Black man to chase, thereby saving Vice President Pence and the members of the Senate.

Perhaps it would be an exaggeration for me to use the line “Keep Calm and Carry On” to describe Officer Goodman’s attitude and behavior; perhaps he felt anything but calm. What I want to emphasize is his behavior: he behaved thoughtfully. His training prepared him for this sort of emergency; that training and quick thinking served him to save others.

There are so many aspects to this story about Jesus in Nazareth, but the one I’m fixating on today is Jesus’ own attitude and behavior. As the mob gets ready to throw him off the cliff, Jesus remains calm and walks away. Perhaps they had second thoughts, perhaps somebody else appealed to them, but above all Jesus didn’t weep or plead or lose his cool, but remained calm and walked away.

Of course, Jesus had been calm all along. He assessed the situation in Nazareth, and realized they wanted to be proud of the hometown boy. “Do something stupendous here too, just as you did in Capernaum.” There’s a troubling bit of irony in this story and I want to call your attention to it, so let me recap for you.

Jesus was in the synagogue in Nazareth, the town where he was raised, and people admired the hometown boy who had become the famous preacher. Last week we talked about what he said there and why it’s important to us. Now here’s the irony: he said that his mission, among other things, was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s acceptance” (v. 19), but then he said to them, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s homeland” (v. 24). Yes, it’s the same word in both places: I’m here to tell you that the Lord accepts you, but you will not accept me.

And why didn’t they accept him? Why was the crowd so angry? Probably – we can’t be certain about this, but it seems likely, given the way the story goes – they were furious because Jesus didn’t do something there to help them feel special but instead made clear that he was there for the whole world. Not just Nazareth, but all of Galilee. Not just Galilee, but all of Israel. Not just Israel, but the entire world. I hear Jesus saying, calmly, “Look, folks: you don’t own me. Elijah could have stayed with a widow in Israel, but instead went to Sidon. Israel didn’t own him. Elisha could have cleansed Israelite lepers, but instead healed the Syrian. Israel didn’t own him. You don’t own me.”

If you’ve ever seen famous people refuse to behave the way their fans thought they should, you may have seen the mob turn on them. That’s what happened to Jesus. They went after him, but he was prepared for it and remained calm. In the podcast, Officer Goodman talked about how his training served him; how did Jesus prepare for this moment? How did he remain so calm? Luke doesn’t tell us; this is part of the mystery of all the missing years of Jesus’ life. We learn about his birth, we have a story about when he’s twelve, and then suddenly he’s thirty. What prepared him for this moment?

Well, I suspect that the spiritual discipline of his childhood and youth prepared him. Luke told us that Jesus was in the habit of participating in synagogue worship; given what we know about Mary and Joseph, it’s reasonable to assume that he had been participating in it all his life. I think one of the impressions I got from attending worship with my family when I was young was that my parents were acknowledging Somebody bigger than they; I saw them bowing their heads and heard them singing hymns and I knew that they were not the entire world. They taught me the discipline of weekly worship, in season and out, whether we were home or travelling, whether we were alone or had company. Nothing interfered with the discipline of weekly worship. The hints Luke gives us suggest that Jesus had that sort of upbringing.

He also knew the Bible. He told stories that reflected truths from the Bible. He quoted both the Law and the Prophets. Children of his era would have committed portions of Scripture to memory, just as we learned Psalm 100 in fourth grade Sunday School. But Jesus knew a lot more than Psalm 100. It wasn’t because he was special, because he was the Son of God, that he knew Scripture; it was because he was taught when he was a child.

All the Gospels tell us about Jesus’ prayer life: his deep, rich life of prayer prepared him for crises. Worship, study, and prayer are essential elements of spiritual discipline; because of his training in the spiritual life, he was prepared to stay calm and carry on when his life was threatened.

People of God, I admit this is not the most important aspect of this story, but I believe it is something that you and I need to hear right now. I want to commend the parents of this congregation who unfailingly bring their children to Sunday School and to worship, or who sit down with them in front of the TV set and turn on our Church’s YouTube channel, and are helping them develop a disciplined spiritual life. We live in an era in which parents are encouraged to enroll their children in sports and cultural activities, to get them to practice or rehearsal four times a week, but are actively discouraged from treating the spiritual life with a similar discipline. Without a grounding in spiritual discipline, when the crisis comes, they will not be equipped to deal with it. They will not keep calm and carry on.

In a previous community where I was serving, a woman from the neighborhood called me. She was concerned because her daughter had gotten involved in a coven. I knew a bit about the practice of Wicca – I had friends who identified themselves as witches – and so she was encouraged to call me. I listened to what she had to say, I said and asked all the right things, and then I asked her what faith tradition she was raising her daughter in. She said that they didn’t go to any church, that she wasn’t raising her with any spiritual life. I said something along the lines of that it was no wonder to me that her daughter had gotten involved in a coven; young people often look for spirituality, and if they haven’t learned it from their parents, they will find it where they can. She probably went around telling her friends what a mean man I am – maybe I am – but I also told the truth.

If you were not raised with a disciplined spiritual life, it’s not too late. One thing I learned from studying Aristotle[2] years ago was that if we are not taught moral discipline when young, we can teach it to ourselves as adults. Likewise with the spiritual life: if you want a life in God but your parents did not teach you to worship, to study, and to pray, you can learn it now and discipline yourself now. It’s harder to learn something as an adult than as a young person, but we can do it.

In our Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 1:4-10) God calls the Prophet, who is reluctant to follow. But God turns back his excuses – “I’m too young” – and says he’s prepared for the job. I think actually the Lord sees through the excuse and puts the divine finger on Jeremiah’s real issue; God says, “Don’t be afraid of them.” When you’re given a big job, as Jeremiah was, and you know it isn’t going to be popular, fear is a natural reaction. Those of you who did the Year of the Bible and read Jeremiah’s story last year may remember that through all the opposition, and there was plenty, Jeremiah kept calm and carried on.

Another icon of our time is Chesley Sullenberger, popularly remembered as Sully. He is the US Airways pilot who ditched his Airbus A320 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. He had to make a very quick decision about what to do after the engines were disabled by a flock of Canada geese; his training allowed him to focus on a decision and then to act on it. He decided to save the people and lose the aircraft, and landed safely in the river near where there would be boats that could rescue the passengers and crew.

You and I may never have to make so momentous a decision as Sully did, or Eugene Goodman did. We may never be threatened by a mob and need to keep our cool, as Jesus did. But we will face difficult times and frightening challenges. Many of us already have. A disease; loss of an important relationship; loss of a job; a crisis of self-worth, the ongoing pandemic. “Keep calm and carry on” is a way of saying remember what you have learned, stick to the basics, and place your attention where it needs to be. Participate in worship, read your Bible, say your prayers and your soul is in training for whenever the crisis comes. You can walk with Jesus when he passes through the mob and goes on his way.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Eugene Goodman, on the podcast Three Brothers No Sense, January 24, 2022. He also talked about the importance of “situational awareness.”

[2] Nicomachean Ethics