Sunday, January 27, 2013

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

Then he said unto them, 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.

About a year has 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.

The synagogue was a place that was likely created during the Babylonian exile. Though the people were being denied worship and sacrifice in the Temple, they could still gather together to pray. A synagogue could be established wherever there were ten Jewish men who wanted to assemble. Although the word has come to be understood as an actual place for prayer, synagogue means assembly, and so the gathering in our story today might not have been a specially designed worship space. The synagogue was where the people gathered around the word of God, to hear it read and to learn to understand it.

I love the image we have in today’s Gospel lesson, with Jesus at the center of a crowd of people who were anxiously waiting to hear what He might have to say. There may have been a few skeptics; after all they knew Jesus from when He was just a boy. Though we are proud when our sons and daughters find their place in this world, we are shocked and dubious when they seem to be reaching way above their station or former experience. I once heard the friend of a pastor say, “Who would have thought you’d become a pastor. I knew you when you were causing trouble in High School.” I wonder how many people were expecting Jesus to be exactly the same man as had left Nazareth a year or so ago.

They were certainly in for a shock, because Jesus 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. “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.” And Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The text was good news, but Jesus’ teaching was not. He wasn’t the first to claim to be the Christ, and it is no wonder that the people were surprised because these things just don’t happen to our neighbors or the kids of our friends. That neighbor kid couldn’t possibly be able to save the people of Israel. He has no power, position, and even if he seems to have authority in his speech, how could he ever be the one who is sent by God? “Is this not Joseph’s son?” In other words, “How can Joseph’s son make such a claim?”

They weren’t angry yet. They had heard the stories of Jesus, and they expected Him to do in Nazareth what He’d been doing elsewhere. After all, if he could visit Samaria and do amazing things in a village there (the story of the woman at the well likely took place before this visit to Nazareth) surely He could do amazing things among His own people, right?

Jesus knew what they were thinking. He said, “Doubtless ye will say unto me this parable, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in thine own country.” But He warned them that a prophet is never acceptable in his own country. Jesus knew that they didn’t believe that He could heal them or cast out their demons, they expected it. After all, if He could do these things for strangers, surely He should do them and even more for His family. But the healing touch of Jesus doesn’t come at our demand, but by faith. That’s why God sent Elijah and Elisha to foreigners instead of to Israel during those times of need. God’s people were not living by faith; they expected God to save them because they were Israelites.

God doesn’t choose us to give us special privilege. He loves us and He is faithful and gracious to those who believe.

In the Old Testament lesson, the people gathered in the square to hear the reading of God’s Word. Nehemiah continued the work that Ezra. The two books are often considered to have been one in ancient times. Ezra led the first exiles home to Jerusalem, and then oversaw the rebuilding of the Temple. During that time, Ezra, who was a priest, rediscovered the ancient scrolls of the Torah and began implementing God’s Law among His people. Later, Nehemiah was sent home with more exiles. They rebuilt the walls of the city. When the people were safe and the work was complete, Ezra and Nehemiah called the people together to hear the reading of God’s Word.

The Law was given to Moses at Mount Sinai, but God’s people lost touch with what it meant to be His 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. He always intended for them to be renewed and gathered as one people, manifesting His grace to the world.

In today’s story we see how they began that new, transformed life. They began it 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 didn’t rely on the people understanding what they heard, they explained it to them. 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 is pleased with His people and has blessed them.

God’s Law makes us weep. We have this negative perception because we think that we will be punished for our disobedience. We know we deserve to be punished. Yet, Nehemiah and Ezra knew that the people should not weep because the Word they heard is a gift. God’s word is not meant to confine us to some rules; it is given so that we’ll be set free from our sinful natures and live within God’s grace. Sin binds us more than any law, because we have to live with the consequences of our failure to be what God has created us to be. The Law is given to guide us, to help us live according to God’s expectations, which are good and right and perfect. Instead of weeping when we hear God’s Word, we are invited to celebrate the life God intends for us, the life He has created us to live.

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 the psalm 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; it is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.

The people in Nazareth heard Jesus speak God’s word and immediately they were amazed at the words coming out of His mouth. But as soon as Jesus told them that they would not see what they hoped to see—they would not experience the “proof” they thought they deserved—they became angry and threatened Jesus. They, like the Israelites before them, had lost touch with God. They were being handed over into the hands of the Romans. But like that last exile, 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 could never do that, so they saw His words as blasphemous.

The good news is that we are saved from ourselves. God is made manifest in the scriptures and He was made manifest 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 ways of their past and fulfilling the desires of their flesh.

In today’s Epistle lesson Paul is 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 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 our separation from our Creator. 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.

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