Sunday, January 27, 2019

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

He began to tell them, ĎToday, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.í

I donít know who has it better: those of us who live in this modern age, who truly know how big and vast the heavens truly are, or those who lived before the telescope who could only imagine what is happening in that sphere above the earth. For them there was constancy in the stars, but mysteries also. The comets and the planets that move visibly to the human eye acted as signs or omens. This may seem superstitious to us, but it was one way of explaining what they could not explain. Perhaps that is why it is better to live today. We know what it is and what is happening, so we do not have to rely on our imaginations or superstition to understand that which is beyond our understanding. Yet, our scientific minds have lost a sense of mystery, and perhaps that sense of awe, because we know that a comet is only a comet and not a sign of impending joy or disaster.

Though we see Godís hand in His creation and it speaks to us of His glory, the stars and planets and animals cannot speak. The creation speaks of God with praise but we cannot learn of Godís will through their words. We can see Godís magnificence, but not know His mind. So we need something more. We need a voice that tells us how to live in relationship with the Creator. The trees bud and the flower blossoms in the right time of year, but they do not have a spirit that can choose to please the Father. Such a gift has been given only to the human race. It is only to men and women that God has given the chance to know Him and to choose to follow or reject His will.

Our psalm includes these two different perspectives: the awesome praise of the creation that cannot willingly obey the Lord and the words that make it possible for us to follow Him. The second half of this psalm talks of Godís Law, the Word which is not spoken by the creation but only by the Creator. It is perfect, it is right and it is true. We can certainly glorify God with praise like the rest of creation, but we have been given something greater. We have been given the opportunity to live a life that glorifies God by our actions and our words. Yet we are imperfect. We fail. We do not follow Godís Law perfectly, so we turn to God for help. It is by Godís word that we can approach the throne of grace with the request found in verse 14, ďLet the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, Yahweh, my rock, and my redeemer.Ē

I have been writing and teaching a study on the book of Revelation. I began the class with a brief study into the book of Daniel. We know Danielís story, mostly from Vacation Bible School. It seems like every year Daniel appears in the Lionís Den or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego get thrown into that fiery furnace. Heís also known for his prophecies about the end times, which is why we went to the book in the first place.

Yet, as I studied his story, I realized that there is a more important reason for studying his story. Thatís why it is the focus for an upcoming womenís retreat about prayer I have been organizing. Danielís stories teach us how to face the difficult times of life, and prepare us for the end times to come. Those stories give us keys to the character of one who lives in hope and peace when facing difficulty. Those stories teach us how to be faithful people of prayer.

The Israelites had been in exile in Babylon because God used foreign powers to discipline His disobedient children. In exile Godís people were far from God, though the separation had happened much earlier. They did not know the law and they did not live according to the Word of God.

Daniel lived for more than seventy years as a captive in a foreign land. Despite the struggles, Daniel remained faithful and yet he also succeeded in the Babylonian government. He remained hopeful over the years because he knew Godís promises from the book of Jeremiah. He knew that God would return His people to Jerusalem after seventy years. King Cyrus of Persia did indeed return Godís people to their home and allowed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. Though Daniel died in Babylon as an old man, he lived to see Godís faithfulness.

Todayís Old Testament text reports the next part of the story. Once the temple was rebuilt and the people resettled - and Godís promises fulfilled - Ezra gathered the people together to hear the Law. They filled the square and stood for hours while they listened to the words in the book as they were read. Ezra read beginning early in the morning until midday; the Levites translated and interpreted the Word for the people. They were cut to the heart as it was read, they mourned about how they had been living.

The reading of the Law cuts us to the heart because we see that we are far from God. Yet, Godís Word is a gift, and we should rejoice at what God has spoken to us because we can always find words of grace even in the midst of His Law. He does not seek to punish us; He speaks to give us guidance and discipline to make us disciples. He cuts to our heart not to break it but to grasp it in His hand and make it His own. We might be sad when we realize what we have done wrong, but we can go forth rejoicing in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises.

We often get it backwards. We hear Godís Word but think that we have to get things right with our lives before He can fulfill His promises. Too many people wait to go to church to hear about Godís forgiveness until they feel worthy. They refuse to receive Godís grace because they think they have to earn it. They try to obey the law, making it a burden. They believe that once they get it all right, then God can fulfill His promises. We can never get it right.

God did not wait until His people were worthy of His Word; He fulfilled His promises of redemption and restoration before they repented. He sent them home when He promised to do so, and then showed them the life He intended for them. He answered their mourning with His grace. ďDo not cry over the past. You are forgiven and you are mine. Rejoice!Ē That is what He does for us. He calls us into His heart through baptism and offers the forgiveness that has been bought with the blood of His Son. We spend our lives listening to His Word, learning and growing in His grace. Sometimes we want to mourn as we realize the things we have done wrong, but God says ďRejoiceĒ because the promises have been fulfilled. For the joy of the LORD is our strength.

Shakespeare wrote, ďAll the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...Ē I am not sure this is true, but from the stage we are reminded that the troop needs many different kinds of players to make the whole. There are stars and there are members of the chorus. There are lighting people and those who take care of the costuming. The troop even needs those people who carry the heavy props on and off the stage, the ticket sellers and the people who clean up after the show. Everyone has a job and everyone is needed.

The same is true about the Church. We need people with a variety of gifts to be able to do the work that God has called us to do. We need stars and we need extras. We need bit parts and we need understudies. We also need directors, producers, back stage crew and even the audience. Everyone is part of the whole and without every part, we cannot function. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about the different members of the body of Christ. Some seem more important than others, purposed for greatness and vital to the mission of the Church. Yet the others - those parts who seem unimportant - are also part of Godís plan. Without them the Church would not be whole.

I once talked with a woman who heard me share some thoughts on the scriptures. I had spoken about my fear of being in front of the group: knees shaking, heart pumping, hands sweating. She wasnít sure if I was telling the truth because I seemed so calm. I was telling the truth; I was really nervous, but I was blessed to be able to give the message so I willingly faced my fear. She told me that she was blessed by the message and she wanted me to know. She also told me that she was unable to do such things. She said, ďI could not have stood there and did that if I was afraid.Ē I answered her that she had other gifts, like the gift of encouragement. I reminded her that people like me who get in front of the crowds to speak need people like her to encourage us to do so. She thought she was unimportant, but her ministry to me in that conversation was as great - even greater - than anything I might have said in my speech. For it is the encouragement of the little toes that keep us mouths moving.

In todayís Gospel lesson we see Jesus returning to the world after having been sent into the wilderness by the Spirit. He had been tempted by the devil and faced the temptation down with the Word of God. He refused to be led astray by the desires of the flesh: hunger, greed or fame. After the temptations, Jesus was prepared to begin His ministry and to face the people who would cross His path. They would be tempted by the same desires - to be filled, to be satisfied and to be recognized. Many would seek Jesus for the wrong reasons and try to use Him to fulfill their own agendas.

After His time in the wilderness, He was strong and ready to face the world that would not understand His purpose or want what He had to give. They were looking for the fulfillment of certain promises and they would do what they could to ensure that they received those blessings, missing out on the real message God was sending to them in and through Jesus Christ.

I think it is interesting that this passage begins on such a high note. Jesus was gaining fame based on the things He was saying and the things He was doing. He was a charismatic figure in the country; He returned home after His time in the wilderness with something new, a spirit about Him. It was the Spirit of God. Heíd been anointed at His baptism and He grew in power as He faced the trials of temptation. He returned new and renewed, ready to preach and teach according to Godís Word.

We often think of Jesus hanging out on hillsides, drawing people into His presence with His words and His actions, but in this passage from Luke we see that He did not ignore or reject the established meetings of the Jews. He wasnít worshipping God in the meadows or forests, but was worshipping God in the company of other believers. He was welcomed in this forum, welcomed not only to visit but to be a part of the conversation.

Jesus had a reputation by the time He returned to Nazareth. He had some fame and the word of His teaching was spreading all over the region. By the time He entered the synagogue in Nazareth, most of the people in that town had heard some story about Jesus. There were probably some expectations, especially since Jesus was a local boy. If Jesus could do and say things with such amazing power and Spirit, then He would surely do even more in His home among His own family.

Jesus said that He came to preach good tidings to the poor. He came to bring sight to the blind. He came to heal the wounds of the people. These were all answers to promises God made throughout the Old Testament. God was proving, once again, to be faithful. Since Nazareth was among the lowest of all cities in Israel, this must have been Good News. Perhaps they would finally be filled, satisfied and recognized. Perhaps they would finally be accepted as a place of Godís blessings as He filled their stomachs, satisfied their needs and healed their hurts. Perhaps Nazareth would be the shining light, the place where God revealed His glory to the world. There in their synagogue they were hearing the fulfillment of scriptures. Perhaps today would be the day their desires would be fulfilled.

What were they expecting? We will know better when we hear their response in next weekís lectionary. What we do discover in this weekís lesson is Jesusí purpose. He came to set people free, to bring healing and wholeness to their lives. He came ďto proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.Ē Now is the time. Today is the day.

Our scriptures this week show us the ways by which God makes Himself known to His people. He could very well use a burning bush like He did with Moses or a still small whisper as He did with Elijah on the mountain. However, miraculous signs and unexplainable phenomenon make it difficult to really know Godís will and understand His purpose for our lives. So God also makes Himself known to us in very real and tangible ways. For the Israelites, He gave the Law. Their knowledge of the Law was restored as they heard it read by Ezra after the temple was rebuilt to its former beauty.

For the people in our Gospel lesson, the reading of Godís Word was a regular part of their lives. They went to the synagogue to hear the Law and the Prophets read and explained by those who were able to do so. In our Gospel passage Jesus reveals Himself as the Word made flesh this to the people of His hometown. God also reveals Himself through the Holy Spirit and the gifts He gives to His people. In using our gifts we build up the whole body of Christ, the manifestation of Godís love in the world.

In the final years of his life, Daniel prayed relentlessly for his people and for God to be faithful. They had forgotten Godís Word, and he prayed for mercy. Daniel knew the promise and expected its fulfillment, but he still knelt and prayed until he was ill for the sake of Israel. He seemed to be all alone, but he trusted God and remained hopeful until the day when God proved faithful.

There are times when it seems like we are the only ones working in the church, and times when there seems to be nothing of importance for us to do. However, God has brought us together by the power of the Holy Spirit to manifest His love in the world. Each one is important, willed and purposed to glorify God. We are part of one body, one body that is called and gathered to do Godís work in the world. Our gifts are not for our own benefit, but for the whole community, giving for us to love and serve one another and the Lord today. The scripture has been fulfilled, and we have been called as Godís people to Rejoice! and to confess Godís faithfulness to the world.

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