Sunday, January 24, 2016

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19:(1-6) 7-14
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:16-30

And all bare him witness, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth: and they said, Is not this Joseph's son?

I am always dumbfounded when the lectionary texts skip a verse here and there. Why not read the whole ten verses? Why take out verses four and seven? This makes me look them up to see what they saw. Sadly, the missing verses often make a point that matters; they often talk about sin or wrath or something we would rather ignore. Sometimes, as in today's Old Testament passage from Nehemiah, the missing verses simply list names that seem to be unimportant to the text. In verse four, Nehemiah tells us that Ezra was flanked by six men on one side and seven men on the other. In verse seven, the men listed were Levites that helped expound upon the text being read so that the people would understand. Their names are not terribly important, few are even mentioned anywhere else in the scriptures. The lectionary probably ignores those two verses because it is just not central to the subject matter at hand.

While the names may not have much interest or pertinence to our lessons for today, I think there is something about those two verses that is important for us to see. The names and placement may have had significance to the people in Nehemiah's day which we do not understand. I couldn't find anything of value in my research about these men today. But we can realize the importance of their presence: Ezra did not do this alone.

See, if we look at the text from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God's work is accomplished not by one person, but by a body of people whom God has called and gifted with faith and everything we need. Together we can accomplish God's Work.

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 Godís 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 today's lesson 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 His mercy and grace to the world. They were willing listeners because they had suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness. In today's story we see how they began a new, transformed life. They began by gathering around his Word. Just as Jesus read the scriptures to the people gathered around Him, Ezra and Nehemiah read the scriptures to the people gathered in the square. And they explained it to them so that the people would understand. They gave it to them in their own language. They made it relevant to their lives.

And the people did understand. The reading of God's Word made them weep because they saw how lost they had been. But now they are found, and Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites spoke that word of grace into their life. "This day is holy unto Jehovah your God; mourn not, nor weep. 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." They told the people to go celebrate, for God was pleased with His people and blessed them.

The people of Nazareth were not quite so ready to hear God's Word.

About a year had passed since Jesus changed the water into wine at Cana in Galilee. He had been preaching and teaching around the region, impressing people with His authority. The people praised Jesus for His teaching and word spread. When He returned home to Nazareth, Jesus was invited into the synagogue to preach and teach. They wanted to hear and experience what had been rumored about this son of their own town.

It must have been a remarkable moment for the people of Nazareth. After all, this Jesus was special and He would bring acclaim to their sleepy little town. He would take care of their hungers, their hurts and their desires. They would no longer be the rejected and downcast of the cities, but would rise above all the others. Nazareth was an unimportant town, but Jesus would make it important. Isn't it interesting how in the desert it was very easy for Jesus to reject the temptations thrown at Him by the devil? Jesus would face the same temptations, but coming from those He loved. They would look to Jesus to prove Himself so they could believe. We will learn that God does not perform on demand.

Word of Jesus' power and authority had preceded Him to Nazareth. As His family and friends, they thought they deserved the proofs that they had heard Jesus could perform. There were already people who were claiming to be the Messiah. The Jews were crying for freedom from the oppression of the Romans, and some of the messiahs were calling for the people to revolt. They thought salvation would come with the arrival of a new king, a king who would rule Israel like the golden age of David.

Jesus did not establish His credibility with a sword, but 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."

Isaiah was alluding to a year of Jubilee, a time of restoration and redemption. It was a time of transformation. 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. In the reading, Jesus was not referring to a specific calendar year; He was pointing toward the day when God would set His people free from the bondage that keeps them from living as He has called and gifted them to live.

This was good news for those who were tired of living in bondage under the Romans. Jesus was fulfilling the expectations they had about the Messiah: expectations of a man with power and authority, who healed and who brought change. They saw Jesus as the fulfillment of all their hopes. He would be the king for whom they had been waiting. It is not so surprising that the anointed king of God's kingdom would take care and provide for all the human needs of the people to whom He was sent. Preaching and healing would provide the proof they needed to know that God's hand was on the life and ministry of the One who claimed to be the Messiah.

Jesus' preaching was shocking because He did not simply read a text and teach on it. He read a text and identified with it. They were waiting for the Messiah, preparing their hearts for the coming of a Savior like the one that was written in the prophecy of Isaiah. The text was certainly good news. And then Jesus said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

"How can Joseph's son make such a claim?" They asked this question with the expectation that Jesus would answer it with acts of power or authority, but Jesus knew they didn't have faith. He could not do the miracles they desired, not only because God does not submit to human demands, but because they wouldn't believe even if He did. They were truly amazed by what they heard in the synagogue that day, but as soon as Jesus told them that they would not see what they hoped to see they became angry and threatened Jesus. They didn't have faith, they demanded God's grace.

We can't demand God's grace. We do not truly understand God's grace if we think we deserve it. There's nothing to transform if we believe that we are good enough. We have no reason to mourn and weep at the hearing of God's Word if we think we are worthy of His grace. They, like the Israelites before them, had lost touch with God. They were being handed over into the hands of the Romans. But like the exile to Babylon, God had a plan to redeem them and restore them to Himself. They just didn't understand that plan. They wanted the Messiah to be under their control. They wanted the Messiah to live up to their expectations. Jesus of Nazareth would never be what they wanted Him to be.

God has blessed us with the revelation of Himself in the world. We can certainly see God in nature. The psalmist talks about the praise of God in nature, how the creation declares the glory of God through all the earth. Yet the creation cannot speak the words of God or tell of His will for mankind. Only God's Word can give us what we need to know to truly and fully understand Him and His intent for us in the world. We know from Godís Word, Godís Law, what He expects. Though we have known for many generations, we have failed miserably to live up to His Law. That's why the Babylonians were sent to take the Israelites into exile for a moment, to disciple God's people and cause them to turn back to Him.

A passage from John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion" that I read yesterday talked about how we come to know God. We often talk about seeing God in the world around us. God is visible in the natural world in ways that amaze us. We see Him in the sunset and the rainbow. We see Him in the face of a newborn baby and in the life-long love of our grandparents. We see Him in the fields of wildflowers and in the fierceness of a storm. However, Calvin warned that our understanding of God manifest in nature is in vain. See, in nature we see what we want to see. He writes that we need something more: we need the Bible, God's Word, through which to truly see Him in His creation. We can't rely on our own hearts, we must seek understanding of God as He has manifested Himself to us.

God is made manifest in the scriptures and in our Lord Jesus Christ. We gather around the Word and we gather around Jesus to experience God's presence in our lives. 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 Corinthian church was a difficult congregation. There were many things about the new Christian faith that they did not fully understand. 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 the ways of their past and fulfilling the desires of their flesh.

In today's Epistle lesson Paul was addressing one of the questions of the Corinthian congregation. 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 and that the purpose was to continue Jesus' work in this world. They needed guidance about the gifts they had been given and about the expectations of God for them.

Some Corinthians thought that they had been given special privilege. They thought they had higher gifts or that their gifts proved that they were more blessed by God. Paul reminds 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 are necessary to make manifest the grace and mercy of God in the world. Gathered around the Word, both the scriptures and Jesus, we see Him as He is and ourselves as we are. The good news is that God sees us through Jesus, and that's why we can celebrate.

God's Word has a way of cutting to our hearts, bringing out emotions that we may not even know are buried there. God's Word convicts us. He causes us to see into the very depths of our souls. When we hear His Word with believing hearts, we realize how deeply we have grieved our Lord by our rebellion. We grieve with Him, knowing that there is no one but ourselves to blame for suffering the consequences of our sin. God's Word of Law helps us realize that we are nothing, that we have nothing without Him. Then God's Word of Grace calls us to celebrate as we are joined in faith to His body and gifted to continue His work in the world.

God had a plan, a plan to restore His people and to redeem them. When they returned to Jerusalem, God helped them restore the city and the temple to its former glory. Then He called them together to hear His Word. Though the hearing caused them to mourn, they were reminded that it was a day to rejoice. The salvation of God came to the people, they were set free to live and love and share everything they have with the world.

The plan was fulfilled for the people of Nehemiah's day, but God's people did not remain faithful. They needed a more permanent fulfillment, a Jubilee that would be forever. So, God sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be the Savior of us all. Not everyone believed, they demanded proof. The same is true today. Many people claim to believe in God, but they want to believe in the god they have imagined. They refuse to see the God that has been revealed in the scriptures and in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The good news is that we are saved from ourselves. God has given us the faith to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of all His promises. He was the Messiah for whom they waited even if they did not believe. Nothing He did would have changed that because they did not have faith. They saw the authority of His words, but doubted that Jesus was really the One because He was just Joseph's son. They called Him a blasphemer because He didn't do what they wanted Him to do.

Sadly, we do the same thing, sometimes, demanding from God what we expect from Him. But we can be like the Israelites rather than the Nazarenes. We can become part of what He is doing in this world because of the faith He has given us. He has been revealed in the scriptures and in His Son, and now He is revealed through us, ordinary people in an ordinary world speaking the most extraordinary message ever given.

So, let us be constantly vigilant about hearing God's Word as it is spoken and explained. Let us study the words for ourselves, to see God manifest as He intends. Let us never demand from Him something that proves Him to be what we want Him to be, but believe in Him as He is, manifest both in words and in the flesh of Jesus. Together we will celebrate our own new and transformed life, praising God for His salvation and the promise of His grace.

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