Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 23 January, 2022. Texts for this Sunday: Neh 8:1-3.5-6.8-10; Ps 19; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Lk 4:14-21
“[T]he priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.” (Neh 8:2).
Last Sunday I talked about revelation, about how we only know God because God wants us to know God’s self. I want to continue to explore that idea today, because this Sunday’s readings also show us how God speaks to God’s people. Today’s readings tell us how our identity as a church and people of God is dependent on our hearing and understanding the word of God spoken to us in scripture.
In Nehemiah and Luke the people hear the words read aloud to them and react in quite different ways, reactions which speak to how these words have power, how they can challenge and even transform those who hear them. For we who hear the word of God spoken in our midst today, these readings remind us of we are formed and shaped as church, Sunday by Sunday, in our encounters with this word that comes from God.
As Anglicans, many of us have an uneasy relationship to scripture. Bible studies attract a dedicated minority of parishioners. Most of us are content to put the bible into the hands of experts, priests who have been to seminary and taken courses on Hebrew and Greek, and learned how to interpret it and explain it in preaching. Now experts have their place. Paul says in our second lesson that not all of us can be teachers (1 For 12:28-30). But our understanding of the bible as church never rests on any one person’s understanding of it.
Like many other preachers, I have my trusted commentators and interpreters that I consult before starting a sermon, because it’s not up to me alone to decide what scripture means. Preaching and interpretation should be guided by the received wisdom and discernment of the church built up over time. Preaching should not one person’s eccentric and uneducated opinion. That’s why we read it together, argue over it, and work together to try and understand the bible. Our decades-long discussions about same-sex marriage are an example of how this process plays out o ver time (some would say interminably).
We hear and read scripture together because it belongs to the church. We may not read or hear it all with the same confidence or knowledge base, but it is ours. The bible is our family story, it shapes and guides our actions, it gives us hope for the future and, most importantly, it is our best way of knowing who God is and how God relates to us. So the bible belongs to all of us, whether we have been to seminary or whether we are new to church and barely know our Philistines from our Philippians.
Our reading from Nehemiah is all about the relationship of God’s people to God’s word. We don’t hear this book of the Old Testament that often in the life of the church, so we need to understand the this is a book that’s about God healing and restoring, and healing and restoring are what we need after two years of pandemic!
Nehemiah writes about how the Jewish people return to Jerusalem and rebuild it after their long captivity in Babylon. As slaves and exiles they haven’t been allowed to be themselves as God’s people, and so this is a story about they re-discover who they are and who God is.
So our first reading describes a special occasion, as the people get to hear a reading the Torah, the first five books of the bible. As exiles and captives of Babylon, scripture was denied to them, but now they are free to hear their own story again as the people of Israel, God’s people. Nehemiah tells us that this is for ALL the people: “the men and the women”, and the reading takes half a day, “from early morning until midday”. This seems like an extraordinarily long time to us (the people stand – do they get to sit down again? (Neh 8:5) but instead of complaining, we hear that the people weep, even though they were told not to. Why would they weep?
To understand why they would weep, we need to remember what Nehemiah means by “the book of the law of Moses”. The book of the law, or Torah, includes the first books of the Bible, from God’s naming of Abraham as the founder of a people dedicated to God, through Exodus, where Moses leads his people out of slavery to the promised land, and then in Deuteronomy and Leviticus giving the people laws that will set them apart as God’s people. In other words, this is the story of creation, rescue and salvation by a God who loves, leads, and cares for his people. So of course the story is emotional for a people who God was rescuing again, leading them back to rebuild a shattered Jerusalem that had seemed lost.
If you have ever heard Martin Luther King’s last speech in Memphis, just before he was murdered, and heard him talking about his dream and of how he had been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land, and heard the African American audience cheering along because they believed that they were the children of a God even in a racist America, well, then you have an idea of why these people would have wept when they were allowed to hear God’s word read again and were reminded that they were no longer slaves.
Nehemiah and his priest, Ezra, thus read scripture to the people to remind them who they are and who God is. The message is about celebration, about having the freedom to rest and to worship God, and to share with one another. This is a totally inclusive message, for it calls the listeners to remember that they are blessed, and to share that blessing with those around them who may be less fortunate: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared” (Neh 8:10). This celebration is for all, not for a few, because no one is excluded from God’s family.
Likewise in our second reading, we also hear Paul talking to a people who have been set free. The church in Corinth included foreigners, free people and slaves, a whole cross section of the Roman empire. Paul reminds them that through their baptism and through the Holy Spirit they are, profoundly, remade and made together in Christ.
The transforming presence of Christ in the world is seen strongly in our gospel reading from Luke. Again we have a scene where the word of God, in this case Isaiah, is being read to the people, in this case the synagogue in Nazareth that Jesus has been part of all his life. The parts of the message — “good news to the poor”, release of prisoners, healing, freedom, favour – are from the Old Testament, so in this sense the gospel closely matches the situation in Nehemiah, God’s people being encouraged by the faithfulness and love of God as described in scripture, but here the situation is different because of who the reader is and what he says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
In other words – “this is all happening now”. Jesus, by announcing that he is the Messiah foretold by scripture, moves the promises of God from the future to the present. We go from “God will save us” to “God is saving you, now”. It will take a long time for the people around Jesus to get it, and in fact, in the verses that follow (4:22-30) there is a riot as the people try to kill Jesus. For the people that new him then, Jesus’ claim that he embodied God’s power, was unacceptable. For us, the people that hear him now, the challenge is, can we allow ourselves to be shaped and transformed by the word of God that we hear?
Our gospel today begins by telling us that Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit”, reminding us that he speaks with God’s authority and with God’s purpose. Likewise, when we hear the gospel read in the midst of our assembly, we remind ourselves that this an event that touches all of us. “The Lord be with you” says the reader, and we acknowledge, “and also with you”. That exchange of words brings us all together, as God’s people, waiting to hear what God will say to us through these stories of the words and actions of his Son.
Each Sunday, we are reminded of the same things that the returned exiles in Jerusalem hear, and that the people in the Nazareth synagogue hear, that God is faithful to his promises and faithful to his people. The exiles hear that God is their strength. The Nazareth synagogue hears that God is fulfilling his promises now. Likewise we hear the same thing this morning. We don’t hear the promise of some distant future, but rather, we hear that “the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” – right here, right now, God is delivering on his promises.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. Jesus uses that word “today” elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, especially towards the end. Just before he enters Jerusalem for the last time he enters the house of Zacchaeus and says “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). On the cross, Jesus says to the man hanging beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” ((23:43). We get the sense in the synagogue in Nazareth that the focus has shifted from future to present, that God’s promises are embodied and happening now in Jesus.
Today, dear saints, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. If you take away one thing from this sermon, it’s the encouragement that God is speaking to you, in the here and now, in the doldrums of Covid and in whatever situation you find yourself in. God is speaking to us, and God is promising us freedom, good things for the poor, healing, restoration. These things are happening in the here and now, thanks to Jesus’ presence in our midst, even in a remote Covid service!
The same joy that gave strength that allowed the Jews of Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem gives strength to us now. The same Spirit that sent him to Nazareth now touches us. That same Jesus who embodies all these promises is in our midst, making us his body, his presence for us to show one to another, and to the world beyond. We may still face troubles in our lives, but we know that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus which is our hope and our salvation, happens today, each day, right here, right now, through the word of God proclaimed in the midst of us. Dear saints, I pray that this knowledge gives you hope and strength. Amen.