Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/fi-wuUiCzUg
Epiphany 3C 16
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
I don’t often give my sermons titles but today’s has a title that I am borrowing from a scholar called Rolf Jacobson- he calls this week’s readings, particularly the one from 1 Corinthians “A Critical Call for the Season of Epiphany”.
Does this wake apprehension in your heart? I know when someone tells me that something is critical I always feel that I will fail before I even start. So let me give you the good news- there are two key words this morning and the first is JOY and the second is POWER. And of course, the power is God’s power, given to us through the Holy Spirit, so really we have nothing to worry about- indeed we are released to take great joy in our ministries.
In the passage from Nehemiah we see both these big ideas going hand in hand and also a feast, like that we discussed last week. Actually what is described is very much like our Christmas or Easter celebrations- with a couple of notable differences. This occasion takes place as part of the Festival of Booths, and it ends with a feast. The reading of the scriptures is very significant to the people gathered here- they have returned to Israel after the Babylonian Exile and they are trying to remake their world and their culture. They have settled in the towns and here at this first festival they are privileged to listen to the word of God. Now, we take the reading of the bible, both public in our worship and privately at home, very much for granted, but for these people who have not had this opportunity before it is a really heightened moment. They were almost all illiterate- even the King needed Ezra to do the reading, so the Torah was only available through the mediation of the priest. It is a symbolic act, it is their identity as “people of the book” that they are affirming- “this is who we are, the people of Torah”, we are a people to whom God has spoken. Did you notice that this was not restricted to the rich, the powerful, the male, the educated- no anyone who was able to understand could be there. They were so honoured to hear this, their Holy Book- that they stood to listen. You might say to me that you always stand to hear the Gospel read but let me tell you that according to scholars what was read was the whole of the Pentateuch! So, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. That beats our reading of the Passion Narrative all hollow! Imagine them all standing in the sun- though I suppose it was Autumn- listening and being so excited to hear it that first of all they bowed their faces to the ground to worship God. And read they did- but not just read, they also interpreted what they were reading, so that none of it should be empty words. And the reaction it produced was that the people wept. Now I can think of many emotions that might have caused them to weep- first of course, that they were convicted of their sin, and contrition is the emotion most often ascribed to them. But perhaps they wept for all the Israelites who were not there to share in this experience, and perhaps they wept for sheer joy at being back and being able to hear the word of God! We take it very much for granted, but for them, as for other oppressed people being able to hear God’s words is a huge blessing. I can imagine weeping for joy.
Ezra tells them not to weep, but to feast, because the day is
‘holy to the Lord’ and that the “joy of the Lord is your strength”. And if we had read a little further we would have heard that they did just that- feasted and rejoiced! As I said before, I am reminded of our great festivals Christmas and Easter where we sit here and hear the word of God, about God’s great acts of reconciliation and grace, we have them interpreted for us and then we feast with great joy. But I am also conscious that every Sunday is a feast day for us- even the Sundays of Lent, which is rapidly approaching. Do we see our holy book as the bringer of joy and the channel for us of power? I think we have perhaps, through familiarity and a lack of persecution, lost the sense of what a wonderful gift it is to be able to read the bible together and have it interpreted and indeed, read it in private.
The psalm for today also reminds us of how beautiful and valuable is the law of the Lord. I used to sing bits of this psalm as a song, in my fellowship group and I always had a sense that the law of the Lord, rather than “reviving the soul” was a stern list of prohibitions that made my soul cringe- immature understanding for sure, and the chorus line, “more to be desired are they than gold” was just ridiculous! I am glad to tell you that I now understand that the word is THE WORD- the creative impulse in the person of Christ and that is what goes out into the whole world. In fact there is yet another wedding here and great joy again. God’s law- which is the law of love, is perfect and it does transform us into people of joy. That is the great reward of keeping God’s law, love God and love your neighbour as yourself, that is the ‘fear of the Lord’- the desire to keep those two overarching commandments.
The psalm doesn’t directly mention power, but that is implicit in what it says about God. Luke however does directly mention the power of the Holy Spirit at the commencement of Jesus ministry. In fact in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel the power of the Holy Spirit is a constant refrain. And here the power leads Jesus straight into making a dangerous and controversial statement.
We know the story, Jesus goes into the synagogue at Nazareth, always tricky to do this kind of thing in your home town, and chooses some bits out of Isaiah. This is a summary, I think because it encompasses two different chapters of Isaiah, 58 and 61. But listen again to what he reads,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim releases to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
And then, the really brave bit, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. Whoa! This is very controversial stuff. This is a political and economic gauntlet laid down for everyone to hear. If the reading of the holy book caused the people of Nehemiah’s day to weep, what will this do to the people of Jesus’ day? Well, for their reactions you have to tune in next week! But just let’s think what Jesus is doing and saying here.
First he is claiming to BE the anointed one- he quotes the greatest prophet, Isaiah, who was anointed to bring God’s words to the people, and says that he fulfils that here and now. This is a very big claim- to assert that you are the anointed one! Then he gives them his mission statement- this is what he is going to do- no, in fact, has done and is doing. Good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and the year of Jubilee- a permanent year, if I am reading it right- where the debts are forgiven, the slaves set free and the land is restored to its original owners. This is mind blowing, and also let me say, it was slow suicide because he couldn’t possibly offer these things and get away with it. The world that Jesus lived in was tightly controlled by a government, who taxed the poor, who oppressed people of religious minorities, under whose care the poor got poorer while the rich thrived and who threw into detention anyone they didn’t like the look of. It was a world of oppression and the Jewish leaders were complicit. When people tell me I am “too political” I should just quote this incident to them. Of course, our government is not as corrupt, nor as self seeking as the government in Palestine at the time, but while the poor are oppressed, and there are people held captive who have committed no crime, we are still in the same position. But do you notice that Jesus says that he has fulfilled this in their hearing? By proclaiming the Kingdom of God, by giving people the hope of a world where Jubilee exists all the time, by reconnecting and reconciling people to their God, Jesus has achieved all this. It is still being worked out in our world but in this is joy. It is achieved through the power of the Spirit. This is an epiphany, it reveals God’s will and God’s agenda- it tells us who God is at the most basic level- a God of love and joy!
So what does all this mean to us? What does the revelation of Jesus, the Word, call us to? We are called to be people who hear the word and then weep as we compare our world, both personal and global to God’s standard of love and freedom and joy. We are called to be people of joy and the power of the Holy Spirit, gifted as we are taught in Corinthians, with many good and complementary gifts to enable us to live out God’s mission for us. We are people called to celebrate God’s enormous gift to us in restoring us to relationship with God, and reconciling us so that in God we live and move and have our being.
May the words of our lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to our Lord, our rock and our redeemer.