(a sermon for February 3, 2019, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21)
I know it’s an increasingly rare thing these days, what with every phone having a digital camera and photos being stored in a nebulous “cloud” in cyberspace, but I would dare say that most of us here probably still have one or more of these: some sort of bin filled with old photographs; with a great many of them still in the developer’s envelopes, waiting for someone to find the time to sort them out and maybe even put them into albums (remember photo albums?).
I’d also wager a guess that most of us have pretty much the same pictures: countless shots of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, camping trips and first days of school; not to mention two generations’ worth of pictures of the same people sitting around the same kitchen table at the in-law’s house! And even if you get to the point with all these pictures where you know you’ve got to start reaming out the lot of it, you discover that every photograph sparks a special memory and so you hang on to them for a few more years!
Actually, the blessing and the curse of old photographs is that they are stark reminders of what we used to be, and perhaps are no longer; trust me, every photo album we have makes it increasingly clear that I used to be much younger, a whole lot thinner, beardless and less gray than I am today! What’s more, old photographs have a way of making us confront the truth of where we’ve been on the journey of life, the choices we’ve made and opportunities either seized or lost. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you – most times, in fact, it can be life affirming (!) – but sometimes these old pictures also manage to remind us of who we were as opposed to what we are, and maybe even what we’re supposed to be but somehow lost along the way!
Think about that in the context of our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the book of Nehemiah, which is the story of the people of Israel returning home to Jerusalem after having spent many years living in Babylonian exile. Actually, this was what was left of the people of Israel, because after years of slavery, there were far fewer of them than before; and those who remained were poor, demoralized and frightened, having literally suffered for generations only to come home to face a totally ruined land and a city that’s been destroyed. All they could really do now was to buckle down and begin the process of rebuilding their city and their lives.
To that end, two men of God come forward: Nehemiah, who’d been appointed Governor of Israel and sent to help the people rebuild their land; and Ezra the priest, who comes to help rebuild something almost more difficult than the city wall: the integrity of their faith and worship. You see, over the years of exile much of the tradition and practice of their faith had been lost, along with their understanding of the law, and perhaps most importantly, their memory of God’s presence, his power and his gifts to them across the years. To quote Old Testament Walter Brueggemann here, it was the “memory of those gifts and that relationship [that] was the glue that bound the Israelites together. It was what kept them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God.” But now after so many years there were fewer and fewer who even could remember God’s Word, much less follow it; so in essence, these people of God had become but a shadow of their former selves. Quite literally, all that was left of their faith were the stories told by parents and grandparents, and even those were fading from memory.
So on this particular day, just after the walls of the city had been rebuilt “all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate,” that they might hear the Torah being read. Understand how significant a thing this was; it was the first time in many, many years that the Word of God had actually been spoken aloud! And what makes this even more significant is that it wasn’t Ezra the priest who initiated the event; it was the people who told Ezra to “bring the book of the laws of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel,” so that everyone, “both men and the women and all those who could hear with understanding” would be able to hear the Word of God. But here’s the key point of this story, friends; we’re then told that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”
It’s a big moment, and it goes on for over six hours (!), but the enthusiasm of the people never wanes! Rather, it grows with each word spoken; this word of the Lord that was at once brand new to them, and yet was as familiar and as close to them as their very breathing! And while this is going on, some of the people are pacing up and down the square, shouting “’Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands,” as Ezra blessed the Lord. Others are on their knees – faces to the ground in humility and awe – and all of them, every one of them, are weeping: weeping for themselves and weeping for their nation; mourning for what had been lost so many years before; rending their hearts in the realization of how far they’d strayed from their faithfulness to God’s law.
So there was mourning; but the point here is that at the end of this incredibly holy experience, there was joy! It was as though in the reading of the scripture – this “album” of Israel’s memory of God – they had regained their identity as God’s people, and at that moment their lives began anew, because they knew that from that moment on, they would live as they were always supposed to live; they would be who they were always meant to be: a people who lived knowing “the joy of the Lord [was] their strength!”
Flash-forward about 500 years; at a synagogue in the village of Nazareth, where a local boy – the son of the carpenter, no less (!) – is about to preach in his hometown pulpit. Now, the locals had known Jesus and his family nearly all of his life; and what’s more, there’d been word from places as far away as Capernaum that Jesus was mightily impressive as a teacher. So as they’re gathering at the temple they’re all thinking, this ought to be good. But turns out that what they hear from Jesus is neither expected nor wanted. Jesus simply reads from the prophet Isaiah,“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” proclaiming release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom of the oppressed; and then he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the usher and sits down, saying, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
But unlike Ezra’s reading of the word, this short sermon is not met with tears or prayerful affirmation; just anger! In fact, if you read on beyond today’s passage, you’ll find that almost immediately their amazement over “the gracious words that came from [Jesus’] mouth” turned to rage, and the hometown folk were ready to run Joseph’s boy out of town and hurl him off a cliff! And why, we ask? Well, perhaps it was true what Jesus said about how “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Or maybe there was something about his reading of that portion of God’s Word that hit too close to home for those folk in Nazareth; perhaps revealing somethng about who they were as opposed to what they were supposed to be as God’s people.
Who knows for sure; but that’s the thing, you see, about the word of God… because however you might hear it or even receive it, there’s something about it that always reveals the truth; and that truth will affect us!
I think that one of the big mistakes we make about scripture, and by extension our very faith, is that too often we think of God’s word as merely a blanket laid out for our lives and living; because then it has no more function than to make us feel all warm and fuzzy in the chill of life. And yes, do not misunderstand what I am saying, it can be and often is that; but God’s Word is also meant to reach out and take ahold of us, so to enliven and redirect our lives. It is meant to confirm and reconfirm our faith, setting us on a new and right and ultimately different path.
That’s what was so powerful about what the people of Israel heard that day at the Water Gate in Jerusalem, and that’s certainly what the people of Nazareth could not handle about Jesus! Simply by lifting up God’s Word, Jesus challenged them to a different way of thinking and doing and being: to be involved in a ministry directed not to the proper, the good and the pious, but rather to the improper, the sick and outcast; and then, by the way, proclaiming the vision to be fulfilled by his very presence! It’s unsettling, to say the very least; but then, that’s what that’s what God’s word is supposed to do: it unsettles us, it challenges all of our assumptions, it moves us forward and it gives us life; all the while moving us closer to where we’re meant to be, this new realm, a kingdom of God.
That’s the Word of God, beloved… so it just stands to reason that you and I ought to be attentive to it!
Ultimately, the reason we’re here every Sunday morning is so that we can be truly be attentive to the word of God; this word that calls us to be the church and challenges us to follow Jesus as true disciples’ bringing good news to the poor and healing to those afflicted by all manner of pain and suffering. It’s that word of God that truly holds us together as the church; and yet how many times have we treated holy scripture as though it were little more than story or poetry or mere philosophy? How often have we left here inattentive to the word of God?
Once when my son Jake was in grade school, he had to read the book “Treasure Island,” for purposes of a book report; a task, which by his own admission (and mine, too, to be honest!) was pretty rough going. Truth be told, as classic a tale as is that story, the words of Robert Louis Stevenson don’t always translate well to the vernacular of our time! So finally, we decided that the best thing we could do was to read the story aloud, of course in the requisite pirate voice, complete with “arrghs” and “ahoy mates” for proper effect! And it worked; because what happened is both of us began to hear not only what a great story “Treasure Island” is but also how beautiful and lyrical that language can be! It was all about our having been attentive to what’s being said and to give voice to what it all means!
What would happen, friends, if as God’s people we were not simply reading the Bible or hearing scripture be read on a Sunday morning, but truly being attentive to God’s word as contained in that scripture? What would we learn about God, about our faith? What would we discover, you and me, about our own lives and living? What would our lives then become? And what would we end up doing here as the church of Jesus Christ?
I wonder… all I know is that if we were to truly be attentive to the Word, along with devoting ourselves, through prayer and study, to seek to understand it – and, might I add, to open ourselves to the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as we do – there’s no telling where and how we might be moved as God would lead!
Scripture tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1:1); and we know in faith, that God will have the last Word. What you and I need to remember is that what God has said and will say in this time between the now and not yet needs our full attention!
So let us truly listen, beloved, so that God’s word indeed takes root in you and me and this church, and lead us into all rejoicing.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry