Sunday, January 24, 2010

Epiphany Three
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

We don’t exactly know what word was read to the people in today’s Old Testament lesson. It might have been the Pentateuch or just a portion, but even still it was a long recitation, made even longer by the explanation of the text for the understanding of the people. The people—men, women and children—stood in the square for hours listening to God’s Word being read.

Can you imagine going to church one Sunday and having the pastor tell you that he’s going to read the entire Bible and you have to stand during the whole reading? I can hear the groaning here in my quiet room! In my church, we don’t even stand during the reading of the Gospel if it is too lengthy, such as those passages about the Passion on Palm Sunday. Perhaps we have gotten too lazy, but I can’t imagine standing for so long. Now imagine standing also through the sermon!

What does make us stand for hours? We’ll stand in line to audition for “American Idol” or to buy that really cheap television on Black Friday. We’ll stand for hours to ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland. We’ll stand along side a road to get the best view of a passing parade or to be the first in line for tickets to the next great concert experience. We’ll stand for hours if it is required of our work, but even then we demand breaks so that we can sit down once in a while. I can’t imagine any of us standing in the square to hear the Bible read and explained.

But then again, we have access to the scriptures. Most of us reading this post even study the Bible on a regular basis. We have at least a few copies on our bookshelves and we probably have one open on our desks. We don’t even need hard copies of the Bible because just about every version is available online, most of them free to use. God’s word can be a daily part of our life, and for most of us it is. For the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time, this is not true. They’d lost the word of God.

The story in Nehemiah is about the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. This is preceded in the book of Ezra with the rebuilding of the Temple. The people had been in exile in Babylon and were restored to their homeland by God. The books tell the story about the renewing of the relationship between God and His people. Nehemiah continues the story begun by Ezra. There were those, of course, who did not want to see the Temple or the city rebuilt. However, King Darius searched the archives and discovered the sacred writings of the Jews and demanded that all the leaders in the region allow the building of God’s Temple according to the Word of God. He even ordered that it be paid out of the royal treasury. Once the Temple was rebuilt, the people could once again follow the religious practices of their forefathers, made known again to them through those newfound writings.

The generation of Israelites at the square in the passage from Nehemiah had never heard God’s Word read. They’d forgotten what had been written on the hearts of their forefathers. They did not know God’s will or His expectation of His people. They did know that the entire nation had suffered greatly for their lack of faithfulness, and they were ready to be changed. They gathered to hear so that they would be the people God created them to be. They gathered to learn how to live in the covenant that God faithfully continued with His people despite their failure. They were mesmerized by what they were hearing because they knew it was the Word of the God who saved them.

The Law had been given to Moses at Mount Sinai and they had lost touch with what it meant to them as a people. This is why God gave then into the hands of the Babylonians—to discipline them and to make them whole and new. They needed to see life outside of God’s grace to understand how to live within His grace. God did not do this as a form of punishment, but as a way to bring His people home. All along He intended for them to be renewed and gathered as one people again, manifesting God’s grace to the world.

Our scriptures today all speak about God’s manifestation to His people. In the Bible we see many examples of such. Moses saw Him in a burning bush. He was a tower of fire to the Hebrews fleeing Egypt. He comes in a still small voice and His voice can sound like roaring thunder. He comes in dreams, through the visitation of angels. He even spoke through the mouth of a donkey.

The psalmist tells us that the heavens speak of the glory of God. The heavens do not speak with words or talk with a voice we can hear with our ears, but they declare God’s majesty and proclaim His goodness. Even the sun, which was known among other peoples as the greatest god, has a home because of God’s hand. It moves according to God’s will, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the earth. We can see God’s creative hand in creation; know God’s grace in the rising of the sun and the flowering of the spring bulbs. But God’s will is hard to understand in the language of creation.

The psalmist continues by telling us that God is visible in His Law. Through His Word we can know Him and know what He expects of us. God’s word, described in this passage in so many terms—law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances—can provide us with all we need to know. The people of Israel understood this, which is why they stood for hours in the town square listening to it read and explained. They knew that God’s word is perfect, trustworthy, right, pure, true and altogether righteous. They knew, as the psalmist says, that the Word of God restores the soul, makes wise the simple, gives joy to the heart, enlightens the eyes, endures forever, is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.

In the reading of God’s Law, the Israelites were reminded of God’s Word for them. It cut them to the heart as they recognized their sin against God and against one another. They mourned their failure and the brokenness of their relationship with God. Yet Nehemiah told them that it was not a time for mourning—after all, they had been saved and restored to God. Instead of mourning, they were called and gathered together as one community, one body, to worship God and rejoice. Nehemiah said, “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength.” To God the past is gone and To-day is the beginning of something new.

I think, sometimes, we take the Word of God for granted, perhaps because it has become such a common part of most of our lives. Which of us doesn’t understand what someone means in the end zone when they hold the sign that says “John 3:16”? But do we really carry the promise of John 3:16 in our heart, or even better, the promise of John 3:17 which says, “For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.” Perhaps that’s what the Israelites needed to know more than anything, that God’s promise of salvation would be fulfilled wholly and perfectly one day.

The people of Nazareth saw it coming. They went to the synagogue one day as usual, to hear God’s word read and preached. It was normal for the people to gather together to hear the reading of God’s word, just as the Israelites had done in Jerusalem all those years ago. It was not unusual for visitors to be asked to read or teach. Since Jesus had been preaching and teaching throughout the region and word of His authority was spreading quickly, it is no surprise that the people of His hometown would also invite Him to speak. Jesus did not go and simply say, “I am the Christ.”

There were already people who were making such a claim. They were crying for freedom from the oppression of the Romans, calling for the people to revolt. They saw the coming of the Messiah to be the arrival of a new king, a king who would rule Israel into a new golden age, like the age of David. But Jesus did not establish His credibility with a sword; He established it with the Word of God. He chose a passage from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” The reputation of Jesus preceded Him. They knew He could heal people and cast out demons. They heard the good news in His speaking, a promise of Jubilee.

The year of Jubilee was a time of restoration and of redemption. The fiftieth year was called the Jubilee year and was a time when the slaves were set free and all debts were counted as paid. At the Jubilee, everything was made new. Everyone was given a new beginning, another chance. The passage Jesus read was a reference to the year of Jubilee, but not in the sense of a calendar year. It was a time of redemption, of salvation from God. In Jesus, we see God’s Word manifest not just as words on a page but as a living, breathing person who could tangibly make a difference in their world. At first they were amazed at his words and spoke well of Him, but we’ll learn next week just how quickly a people can turn away from God.

But for now, we are reminded of the promise God fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ. The good news for us, as for the Jews in the synagogue and the Israelites in the square, is that now is the time to be set free from the bondage that keeps the people from living as God has called and gifted them to live. The word might sound frightening at first, especially if we have forgotten what God has promised. Sometimes the Law seems to be impossible. The people who heard those words for the first time so long ago mourned over what they heard. How could they be forgiven? How could they overcome? How could they live as God wanted them to live?

But Nehemiah and Ezra said to the people, “This day is holy unto Jehovah your God; mourn not, nor weep.” A holy day is a time for celebration. It is a time for feasting and joy. God’s Word, as we heard in the Psalm is not given to bring us down, but to raise us up. The Law is a mirror that shows us what we’ve done and for that there is a reason to mourn. But it is in that mirror that we see what we have done and left undone so that we can seek God’s help and forgiveness. The psalmist writes, “Who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults.” And then asks God, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be clear from great transgression.”

The warning for us is that it is not when we do not know God’s Word that we fall into error, but when we become complacent about it. The Israelites still had the Temple, they still did their duty, but they’d lost touch of their God. We have the Word of God at our fingertips, but do we have it in our hearts? Do we live as God has called us to live? Do we really seek God’s help in our daily work and His forgiveness when we fail? Do we cry out, like the psalmist, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Jehovah, my rock, and my redeemer.” Or do we think that we act as we think we are supposed to act so God won’t look into our hearts?

The good news for us is that we are saved from ourselves. God is made manifest in the scriptures but He was also made manifest in our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus brought the promises of God to fulfillment so that we can be all that He has created us to be. And the promises continue to be made manifest through the body of Christ, which is the Church. Every believer is part of that body. We have been created to be a part of the whole. We have been given our own gifts and purpose so that the Church together might continue the work Jesus began.

The early Christians didn’t understand everything any better than we do today. Did we really see God in the burning bush or hear His voice in the thunder? We don’t always understand why God is speaking as He speaks or what He is trying to say. We still wonder if what we hear is what God really means to say. We still question our understanding. We still question what we are meant to do as the people of God.

There were many things about the new Christian faith that the Corinthians did not fully understand. They were torn between what they were and what they had become. It was so easy to revert back to their old ways. The church was located in a major Greek city, a place where there were many temples to the gods. Corinth was an important world community, a place of crossroads where many nationalities came together. It was a place of questionable morality, where worship of the gods included the satisfaction of many physical desires. The Corinthian church was plagued by questions of how to live in their world while also living according to the expectations of their new faith. They often failed, falling back into ways of their past and fulfilling the desires of their flesh.

They had incredible gifts, powers that were not from themselves. Yet they were immature and unspiritual. They did not understand the things of God or the place they held in His kingdom. They did not understand that they had been called and gathered for a purpose – the purpose that continues Jesus’ work in this world. They needed guidance about the gifts they had been given and about the expectations of God for them.

Some of the Corinthians thought that they were better and more important. They thought they had higher gifts or that their gifts proved that they were more blessed by God. Perhaps they were feeling a little complacent, forgetting the reality of the God who has made Himself manifest for us and following the whims of their own understanding. Paul tells us that God has created a perfect machine, a body that works together, all parts being valuable parts of the whole. We are individuals in Christ, gifted in our own unique ways, but all necessary to make manifest the grace and mercy of God in the world.

We can see God’s Word in nature, we can see it in the Bible. It is good that we have God’s Word so readily available to us, in books and on the computer. We don’t have to see God in the miraculous ways that our forefathers experienced it. God has given us everything we need. And, He has appointed us to be the last manifestation of His Word in this world, ordinary people in an ordinary world speaking the most extraordinary message every given. It is good that we gather together to hear the Word of God read and preached. Today’s scriptures remind us that we are called to live in that Word, not take it for granted. Perhaps it is time to stand as we hear God’s Word read, listening half-heartedly as if we’ve heard it all before. God has a plan for us; let us hear it with a new heart, fresh ears and a renewed sense of purpose.

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