Sermon delivered on Sunday, Epiphany 3, January 27, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19.1-14; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this morning’s OT lesson, we read the poignant story of God’s people being reintroduced to God’s Law. We also see Jesus reading God’s word from the prophet Isaiah to make his dramatic announcement to the hometown folks in Nazareth that in him they were witnessing the coming of God’s long-awaited Messiah. And so I want us to look briefly at what this all might mean for us who struggle to live faithful lives in the 21st century.
Have you ever wondered why stories like our OT lesson end up being read on a regular basis as part of the lectionary? I know when I was younger and still finding my way around Scripture, I wondered that a lot. After all, what did it matter to me as a Christian what Jews in the late 6th century BC did? But as I discovered years later, it had plenty to do with me because they were God’s people and like us, they too are part of God’s story. Consequently we need to pay attention to these stories because they have much they can teach us.
But before we can learn anything from our OT story, we must first look at the broader context in which it takes place. The immediate setting for today’s lesson is Jerusalem shortly after Israel’s return from their Babylonian exile. However, the writer surely wants us to see more than the immediate setting because he tells us Ezra is reading from the Torah on the Feast of Trumpets, both tangible reminders that the people are God’s people and are part of a larger story than just their deliverance from exile. As the people gathered to hear the Torah read and interpreted for them, they would have remembered how God called them to be his people through the patriarch Abraham to help bring God’s healing light and love to a sin-sick and broken world so that ultimately all people, Jews and Gentiles, could be freed from their slavery to sin and death. They would have remembered how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and led them through the desert by the pillars of cloud and fire to the promised land, routing their enemies along the way. And of course they would have remembered that God’s glorious Presence came to dwell in the temple at Jerusalem, the very place where heaven and earth intersected so that God’s people could draw near and enjoy being in God’s Presence.
But those days of God’s mighty acts and Presence among his people were now long gone. The unthinkable had happened. As the prophets had warned, God had withdrawn his Presence from the temple so that the invading Babylonians were able to burn it to the ground and drive God’s people into exile. All this had happened because they had been disobedient to God’s call to them to be God’s light to the nations. Instead they had become haughty and proud and had suffered the terrible consequences of God’s wrath against them.
Now they were back home in Jerusalem, itself a sign of God’s grace toward his stubborn and rebellious people. But the glory of the Lord’s Presence had not returned to the rebuilt temple nor were there any tangible signs of God’s spectacular power and Presence as there had been in the days of old. There were no pillars of cloud and fire or manna from heaven. They didn’t hear God’s voice thundering from Sinai. There were no spectacular victories over God’s enemies on the behalf of God’s people. In fact, the story the book of Nehemiah tells us is just the opposite. Those who had returned from Babylon were living quite ordinary and mundane lives, and were generally fearful of the hostile people who surrounded them. In other words, God’s people were living in between the times of God’s past glory and God’s future glory when he promised to return to fully heal and restore his people. So what’s up with that? Had God simply abandoned his people and left them to their own devices? Or perhaps the stories of God’s Presence and mighty acts on behalf of his people just weren’t true. Sound familiar?
The answer, of course, is none of the above. The stories of God’s mighty acts of deliverance are true and God had not abandoned his people. Instead, God had given his broken and fearful people his word to sustain them during this interim period. With that in mind, we are now ready to see what lessons this holds for us today.
The first thing we notice is not so much what God’s word is, but what it does for God’s people. The writer tells us that all who could understand gathered together to listen to God’s word read to them. This reminds us that God’s word is able to attract people make them long to hear it because God’s word does not disappoint, providing we do not attempt to place ourselves over it but rather resolve to listen humbly to what it has to say. This ought to make sense to us if we think about it. If Scripture really is God’s word, who would know better than our Creator what is needed to sustain us and make us experience real joy, peace, and fulfillment?
Second, we see that God’s word needs to be interpreted to help us better understand God’s story. To be certain, the meaning of God’s word is often plain so that we need no help interpreting it. But there are times and passages that are more difficult for us to understand for a host of reasons so that we need the help of expert commentators to help us make sense of the text and see how it fits into the bigger picture of God’s story of creation, incarnation, and re-creation. Unlike you, who get brilliant and incisive interpretation each week so that you know how to fit individual stories into the Big Picture story of God’s plan to rescue his good but fallen creation and creatures and to apply its lessons to your lives (I blush at my modesty; isn’t it just awesome?), some folks have sadly used and abused Scripture for their own purposes (think slavery for example) and this always gives God and his people a black eye. Precisely because we are so broken and fallible, it is critical that we learn Scripture together in the context of God’s assembled people, the Church, and this is where Paul’s insights in today’s epistle lesson are so valuable. We will never learn the wisdom of Scripture without the help of others and those who try to do so alone are doomed to failure.
Ezra. of course, fulfilled this critical role of teacher/interpreter in today’s lesson as did Jesus in our gospel lesson. In Ezra 7.10 we are told that while in exile, Ezra devoted much time and effort to learn and observe Torah so that he could teach it to God’s people on their return from exile. Likewise with Jesus. While Luke does not explicitly tell us this in today’s passage (although he implicitly does in the passages and stories leading up to today’s story), Jesus had spent much time in prayer and the study of Scripture preparing for this moment. After all, one cannot be a teacher if one doesn’t have content to teach and being fully human, even God’s own Son had to do the hard work of preparation for his vocation as God’s Messiah.
Third, and related to the point above, we see that with proper interpretation, the word of God can bring grown people to tears because it can cut straight to the heart. In hearing about the life and death of Israel, the people were not just listening to some remote and distant history lesson. They were listening to their story. They were listening to the story of their life and their death. They heard the story of God’s infinite and merciful love for them despite their own sad rebellion against God and it brought them to their knees in tears. When we have the wisdom and humility to listen to God’s word properly interpreted, there will always be an element of “bad news” in it because our hearts are desperately wicked (cf. Jeremiah 17.9). But the bad news is never intended to punish or shame for its own sake. Instead, God wants to redeem us from our slavery to sin and death. But before he can do that, we must come to realize that we need to be redeemed! Otherwise, we are not likely to listen to God’s pleadings and warnings and change our disordered ways. God’s desire to rescue us is why Nehemiah told his people to stop their weeping and rejoice instead. God’s story is never about us. It is about God’s faithfulness, mercy, and mind-boggling love for his wayward and rebellious creatures. When we accept God’s gracious gift to us in Jesus, the only appropriate response is to throw a party and celebrate with the finest food and drink! This, of course, is exactly what we do each week when we gather together to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection. We hear God’s word and come to his table in anticipation of the day when we will drink wine anew in the new heavens and earth, celebrating all that God has done for us in Jesus to make that hope a reality. Do you know God’s story well enough so that it moves you in these ways? Do you come to Jesus’ table with this wonderful resurrection hope and anticipation combined with the sobering knowledge that you do not deserve to be there with your Lord, but thankful that he invites you anyway because he is who he is?
And of course, we as Christians today find ourselves in the position that Nehemiah’s people were in. We live in between the times of glory, between Jesus’ resurrection and return. Like the returning exiles, we find our lives to be mundane and ordinary for the most part. There are no resurrections. Miracles are far and few between and we struggle to live faithfully in an increasingly hostile culture. Like God’s people of old, we too wonder if God has not abandoned us. And like God’s people discovered, we too learn that he hasn’t because we have God’s word to remind us that in Jesus, God has defeated the powers of evil and freed us from our slavery to sin and death. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s proof of this and a tangible reminder that God’s project of new creation has been officially launched. And until that project comes in full with Jesus’ return, we are also given the power of the Spirit to help us live as God’s people and to interpret God’s word, just the way the Spirit helped Jesus do likewise in today’s gospel lesson.
All this reminds us of the importance of reading and studying God’s word, both individually and together, because God’s word read in the power of the Spirit has the ability to transform us into the fully human beings God created us to be. Is God’s word a regular part of your life right now? If it is, is it sustaining you and are you telling others about that? If it is not a regular part of your life, why isn’t it? Lack of time is not a legitimate excuse because we all make time for the things we value most. It very well may be that if we are honest with ourselves, we might have to admit we just don’t believe that God’s word has the ability to do what it advertises—to sustain, convict, heal, and transform. It’s a vicious circle kind of thing. We don’t believe because we haven’t tried and we haven’t tried because we don’t believe. But I can testify to the fact that systematic reading and studying does have the power to transform, heal, and sustain. So could Nehemiah’s people. So can countless Christians across time and cultures. If you are struggling with your faith or wondering if God has abandoned you, then I encourage you to pick up a good study Bible, pick a reading plan that you can handle (or learn to pray the daily office), join a Bible study group, and get to work. This won’t be a short-term fix and you will not likely notice sudden and dramatic transformation (then again you might). But if you stick with it and prayerfully submit to God’s word humbly and with faith, you will eventually discover that because the Bible is good to its word you are changed and so have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.