With Interpretation for Today (Neh. 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Cor. 12:23-31a; Lk. 4:14-21)
This is the date on which we think about and celebrate our congregation’s birthday, and the day we have our Annual Meeting. Each year on this Sunday I try to have some word that might help us to think about a course through the year ahead. This is the 164th year of our existence as the first organized congregation in the city – actually begun in 1852, before La Crosse was incorporated in 1856. Today we look back with pride and some amazement.
This is also the third Sunday in the Epiphany Season, and an apt time to think about the gift we have been given in Christ, and the gifts God has given us to show forth to our community today through the Holy Spirit. In short, it is a wonderful time to think about ourselves as “the church.” We can look backwards and forwards. We can think about old traditions, new ways of being faithful to them, and, maybe even new traditions we could be founding and carrying forth. Our scripture readings offer some thoughts that can equip us to go into our new year in a positive way, without fear or worry.
The Old Testament Lesson sets the context. Nehemiah was the Governor of the Persian Province of Yehud – once the Kingdom of Judah. He had been, as have many administrators since his time, involved in a building project designed to enhance and protect the community. He had rebuilt the city wall that had fallen into disrepair. When it was completed, the project shifted to rebuilding the spiritual lives of the people. So they gathered, and Ezra the Scribe read aloud from a book in a public square by one of the city-gates called the Water Gate (no relation to the infamous building in Washington), probably on the east edge of the city, south of the Temple. There, in that public place, the men, women and older children who heard it were moved to worship, and even to get emotional as Ezra read.
Let me say a couple of things. First, and briefly, our passage calls what Ezra read the Torah, which has been unfortunately (for Christians anyway) translated as the Law, which can make those of us with a little remembrance of the Apostle Paul break out in spiritual chilblains, and the slightly superior conclusion that this reading must have been dry and, well, legal, not to mention boring as sand. But the Hebrew word Torah does not mean law in that sense, but, rather, “teaching,” such as a parent might give to a child. In spite of what some of us may have been taught, the Bible does not teach that Jews thought that Torah-keeping made them children of God, it rather showed they were already. You’ve heard me say this so often over these years that it must seem almost second nature to you now, like breathing out and breathing in. What Ezra read was the wider biblical tradition of Israel. At least that’s part of it.
Second, that day at the Water Gate Ezra did not just read the torah to the people – as if that were enough. As you know, I am a proponent of reading the Bible aloud when we are together. But that isn’t enough for worship to take place. In our Old Testament passage the words of the tradition were explained or interpreted to the people, not just by Ezra, but by a whole team of interpreters. Our text says:
So they (and the text names a whole group of “theys”) read aloud from the scroll, from the torah of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense so that the people understood.
And the people heard reading with interpretation and were moved to worship and even to get a little emotional about it. And it was said to them, if I might translate it myself here:
Stop playing the part of mourners and crying, today is special to the LORD, stop being grieved…for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
It seems that what was happening is that folks were teaching and learning. Historically, of course, the Bible as these folk had it was written in Hebrew, but by this time, Hebrew had pretty much been replaced as a daily language by Aramaic. The interpretation, the sense, that they were getting was hearing the word of the Bible that had become a foreign tongue, in their own language. And it was being explained. Get over just being emotional in your worship and understand that what you are initiating today makes this day special to God (which is what that word “holy” means here). Ezra says that these folks who heard should use what they were learning to allow God to make them strong for the course ahead. And, when they heard, they really got it, they truly worshiped. The only words of explanation that our author has chosen to give us readers now in the Book of Nehemiah, begins with today. The life of God’s people is not about doing just what we always did yesterday, nor even what we might do someday. It is about and for today. And in hearing and understanding for today is the strength-giving joy of God. The very core of our identity as a Christian community at worship comes in reading God’s teaching and explaining it, so that we begin to understand what God is up to in the world today, and what, in fact, our role might be expected to be. Without that “today” at the core of its mission, the church is missing something. The reading might very well have been about something long ago, but it’s not just a history lesson. The importance was grasping its reality today. What ought we to do with the scriptures today? We should do more than repeat them and think we need to do nothing different than our parents or grandparents or their parents or grandparents did back in 1852. We should not harden the words of scripture into lists of rules that are designed to give a promise and a command to meet every situation. We need to think about and grapple with the direction in which the principles of scripture point us in our day. The faith must be rethought all the time. Annual meetings are about today, not just yesterday, and, certainly not just someday.
And that leads me to our Gospel Lesson. It is the story of Jesus who came home to Nazareth to preach and teach in his “home church,” if you like. You need to know that today’s lesson is really Luke’s summary of what happened, and really only half of that! Luke tells just enough to make a point chosen for his congregation. And we’re going to end what we read halfway through. You will need to come back next week to find out what happened next. To summarize that: Jesus flunked his sermon.
Today’s summary by Luke gives us the way in which Jesus started by reading with interpretation (as in Ezra’s day). This young preacher, however, though he was handed the selected scroll of the prophet Isaiah containing the correct Lectionary reading for the day by the “attendant” (perhaps the cantor), if we read carefully, the text says he unrolled that long scroll and he found the place that he wanted to read. So he may not have stuck to the script, but did something he himself had prepared to do. Many folks think that he found Isaiah 61:1-2 and read it, but that isn’t what he did at all. Oh, part of it is that, but Jesus inserted one line comes from Isaiah 58, and he left off the whole end part from Isaiah about God’s day of vengeance. If you want to compare what Jesus “read” (or interpreted) next to Isaiah 61:1-2, I’ve offered you a translation of Isaiah on your bulletin insert. Take it home and compare it with a Bible. What Jesus is providing from the beginning is a reading that is also his interpretation. And he’s not interested in God’s vengeance.
He reads this first-person poem with all the “I’s” and “me’s” intact. He reads that God’s spirit has anointed “me” to announce that God brings good news to poor people who need some good news), that God releases captives, gives sight to the blind, releases oppressed people, generally, proclaims the Jubilee Year among God’s people. The Jubilee was the year when all debts were cancelled, all slaves were freed. It was the time of beginning again.
In this odd first-person way, Luke carries Jesus reference to a time of holistic change, not only in the spiritual sense of forgiveness of sin, but also in the socio-economic sense of forgiveness of debt. It is important to understand that the words “salvation” and “forgiveness” in the Bible are holistic terms. The Bible does not know of a “salvation” or a “forgiveness” or even a “spirituality” that is simply “religious, mental and other-worldly” but, rather these words (and the concepts behind them) always have a social, realistic, this-worldly shape to them. There is no salvation without justice. Over the last 1800 years and more, Christian interpreters, including some Baptists, alas, have not always been inclusive of the social dimension, not the least because the Church has often been deeply enmeshed in the privilege and the wealth that such a radical program as Jesus puts forth here would dismantle. It is no wonder that many folks in churches have wanted to stick to so-called “spiritual realities.” Don’t rock the boat. Jesus is preaching about rocking the boat. His hearers would have understood that, and as peasants should have applauded. As we’ll see next week, they didn’t, and one of the reasons, I think was because of what Jesus said next, which begins with that same word “today” we’ve already used this morning. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today is the time, not yesterday, not sometime, today is the time. And, when I used that first-person pronoun, I meant it. The God is about the Jubilee work of liberation today in my work.
Now, I think that Jesus intended for us to pick up the use of the first-person. It’s about us. For us, it’s not about memorizing Bible history or figuring out when Jesus is coming again, it’s about today, real work in the world today. If we the Bible doesn’t help with today, we haven’t got it yet. So, then, how does what I’ve called the Jubilee-work of liberation begin to start here, today, and be a part of our work? Well, we need to think about that. Living the Christian life today requires thinking every day how to do it.
I would suggest, quickly, one way that’s found in the Epistle Lesson in 1 Corinthians 12. This is the second part of the “gifts passage,” the first part of which we read last week. In it, Paul compares the Christian church (especially local expressions) to a human body. In fact, this was a common way of discussing organizations in Paul’s day. In most of these discussions, the honour was to be given to the “higher” parts, the head, the heart, and less to what Paul called the “less presentable” parts. Their job was to take orders from the important parts. This is, of course, a perfect way to keep the strong and wealthy in power. Paul stands this common body-analogy on its head (if you’ll excuse the body reference) and says that the more presentable, higher, pick your word that means powerful and excellent, should give greater honour to the less presentable, lower, poorer, pick your word that means weak and unsure. Perhaps, if we did that, everyone would feel honoured and we could begin to catch a hint of Jubilee. And, if we can practice doing it in here, can we not do it out there in the world, where the mission and the work really is?
Might it be a good way to start 2016 by honouring one another no matter who we are? What specifically might that mean in your life or mine? Or in our life together as a congregation? That might be something good to think and talk about in coming days? If we engage in such work, I think that we will find the Spirit of the Lord nearby to help us.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.