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.

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