1/27/19: Fulfilling Scripture, Nehemiah 8:1-10, Luke 4:14-21 (full service, sermon starts at 33:30)
First Lesson: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Second Lesson: Luke 4:14-21
Rev. Scott Dickison
As we’ve noted these past few weeks, we’re in the season of Epiphany, which celebrates the revealing of Jesus to the world and the beginning of his ministry. Last week we looked at how the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus’ first public appearance, when he turned water to wine at the wedding at Cana. And we noted then some of the surprising elements within that story, namely it’s humor and its humanity—things we don’t often associate with “scripture.”
—the playful exchange between Jesus and his mother, who forces his hand in producing more wine for this party that neither of them were throwing…
—how the chief steward gushes to the unknowing bridegroom about how most folks serve the good stuff first and the cheap stuff later when no one can tell the difference anymore.
We turn this morning to how the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus first public appearance. It wasn’t a party, it took place at Jesus’ home synagogue in Nazareth. And it didn’t involve a miraculous conversion, but the preaching of his first sermon. But like the wedding in John, this story from Luke again lifts up something important about how we read scripture, with an assist from the passage from Nehemiah we read earlier. Because both of these readings from scripture are stories about people reading from scripture.
Nehemiah is not a book we read from much, and is a continuation of the book directly before it in the Bible, Ezra. These two books tell the story of the return to Jerusalem of those who had been taken away into exile in Babylon. The Babylonians were eventually overthrown by King Cyrus of Persia, and this new king has no interest in keeping the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon. He encourages them to return to Jerusalem and even helps them rebuild the city and the temple, which had been destroyed. So this is what they do, some 80 years after they—or at least their grandparents —had been taken away. And, as you might imagine, this return was not easy.
To start, the home they returned to was not the home they had left, or at least been told of. Bryan Whitfield told me once that when he teaches about this time period he likes to tell his students at Mercer that it must have been something like when you return home from college for the first time, and you find that life there had continued while you were gone. It can be jarring to learn how home changes on you. Maybe your old bedroom has been converted to your father’s home office and your sister is now driving your beloved Jeep Cherokee and has a Hawaiian lai hanging from the rearview mirror and has put this hideous hot-pink sticker on the back of it—which is just a total slap in the face. For instance.
The people return to Jerusalem to find that life has continued there. Those who were left have created new lives for themselves amid the ruins of the old city. And of course, the people who have returned are different from who they were when they left. In many ways they’re Babylonians now—having adopted different clothing and hairstyles, speaking a different language, having different customs. Of course, they still worshiped the God of Israel, and kept many of the same practices and customs of their religion, but it was also true that Judaism itself had changed over that period. Many scholars believe it was during that time away in Babylon, the temple back in Jerusalem in ruins, that much of the Hebrew Bible was edited and compiled into something close to its current form, and scripture became the center of worship instead of the temple.
And it’s against this backdrop, of the hope-filled but complicated process of the people of Israel rebuilding a life together, that Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the scribe and priest bring all the people together to listen to a reading of the law of Moses. And you can imagine this dramatic scene of Erza climbing up a platform that had been made for this day, all the people gathered below him—men and women “and all who could understand” it says, probably meaning even the children who were of age. And they they all came together and listened from early morning until midday and all ears were attentive as Ezra spoke these words, and the people were hearing these, likely for the first time. And it must have been an overwhelming experience because we’re told that the people wept when they heard these words read. They wept.
Have you ever wept at the reading of scripture? There’s something about the 23rd psalm recited at a gravesite, the earth cut open, the valley dark, and here we are saying together and meaning it, I believe, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Even that day.
Ezra read and the people heard—for the first time—the words of what would become the Bible: they heard the promises, the blessings, the assurance of love and of presence, and they knew, it seems, that all these words, even so manygenerations later, were meant for them. And suddenly everything was different. All things were new. And they wept. And without even knowing it, in their tears, all these people became a People.
Fast forward about 500 years or so. We’re now in Nazareth, in the region of the Galilee to the north of Jerusalem. Jesus has just begun has ministry, having been baptized by John and driven out to the desert where we was tried and tested, and upon returning to his home region has already begun to make a name for himself. Now it’s the sabbath and Jesus is back home and he does what he always did on the sabbath, he goes to worship at the synagogue.
And it seems he offered to read from the scriptures that day, what would have been standard practice in those days: any of the men within the community was allowed to read from the scriptures and would then be expected to offer some commentary on it, and so it seems Jesus has offered to do this. He’s handed the scroll of Isaiah and he unrolls it to find the 61st chapter—a passage written, we should point out, after the exile, around the same time that Ezra read before the people—and Jesus begins to read:
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 release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And we’re told that he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. And “the eyes of the synagogue were fixed upon him”—remember they were expecting him to speak, to say something about this passage he had read. But Jesus—still a young preacher and perhaps experimenting with his dramatic…pauses, lets it hang out there. And then he says, still seated, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, it’s worth pointing out, that when Isaiah first said those words, he thought they were being fulfilled then. These words of comfort and hope were first uttered after the exile, as Israel was finding itself again after being delivered by their God after so many years. This return, this restoration—this was the good news Isaiah was speaking about, first of all. That was the “year of God’s favor,” the year when people of Israel who had been taken away to a foreign land were able to return home. But now Jesus reads them so many generations later, and he breathes new life into them. He reads them and suddenly they aren’t writings from the annals of Israel’s history books. Suddenly they are present. They’re speaking anew—they’re speaking to what the people then were thinking and hoping and needing.
—They, too, were poor and in need of good news.
—They, too, were broken and needed to be made whole…
—They, too, longed for freedom of so many kinds,
—They, too, looked forward to receive God’s favor.
And Jesus tells them, It’s here.
Or really, he tells them I’m here.
Now, it would turn out that they weren’t quite ready to hear this message from Jesus at that time. Or in fact, it wasn’t this message that he was the messiah that they weren’t ready to hear, but when he would quote some other stories from the Hebrew Bible to them that suggested this restoration God had in mind would extend beyond them, to all people. Jesus, their golden boy, declaring himself to be the messiah: this they could handle. The promises of God applying to other besides you: this was too much, and so his home congregation would try and run him off a cliff.
But in the end, of course, the message of Jesus ushering in this new era of God’s presence and special love for vulnerable people, this would catch on. And in all of this the power of scripture as a living, breathing thing, would be revealed—
the mystery of scripture to speak to our deepest parts, our fears and insecurities as much as our hopes and our loves, or deepest passions, all of it would be revealed.
But I wonder where that leaves us this morning, sitting here as so many of us do more Sundays than not, listening to the words of scripture read and interpreted, and perhaps reading from scripture ourselves the days in between. Do we hear this words each week with the expectation that they will speak to us? Or even that they can speak to us? The world is so complex, technology moving us faster and faster, too fast for us even to make sense of it. News is good for about 15 minutes before something else grabs our attention. And here we are claiming that the slow, slow work of generations of wisdom and revelation still has something to say to us—something important and vital and even imperative. It’s a remarkable claim, but it’s a claim we make.
And of course, on the other side of things, we’ve seen the ways scripture still has the capacity to incite our deepest passions, often it seems, for ill. We’ve seen how scripture can become the ground upon which culture wars are fought. People lining up behind this verse or that verse—often, it seems, starting with their positions and then finding scripture to support it. It’s so often messy, and destructive, and more than anything hurtful. You could be forgiven for deciding, Why bother?
And yet if you’ve ever heard at its best, you know what scripture is capable of doing, in you and in others. I remember back in August of 2017, when we entered into our conversations about inclusion here at the church, for our first meeting, which happened after worship on that first Sunday in August, after eating lunch together down in the fellowship hall, we asked everyone to share around the tables the verses or passages from scripture that were most meaningful to. Not necessarily the one’s that had to do with the question of inclusion of sexuality, specifically—but just in general: what were the passages that have most shaped you in your faith? And each table wrote them don on butcher paper and we went through one by one and presented what we’d written down.
Micah 6:8: What does the Lord require but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
The Greatest Commandment—Love the Lord your God with all you are and your neighbor as yourself.
Romans 8: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, not powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Psalm 46: Be still and know that I am God.
They were all up there, and so many more. Many of them repeated.
And I remember as we went through table by table and then hung all those sheets of paper on the walls around us, it was if we were being held by them. It was as if we were being held together by them. As we read these words that bound us together, we were reminded of the power of scripture to do that when it could do so many other things. And it seemed in that moment, I think, that some of those words were being fulfilled right there in that moment.
And that wouldn’t be the end of it, there would be much more to do, and there would be pain and discomfort and different interpretations and opinions. But for that moment…
Jesus reveals himself in Luke not through signs or miracles but through the reading of scripture. Through that miracle. And he told the people that were gathered there that “These words are fulfilled in your hearing.” And what we learn, as the gospel continues, as Jesus would preach and teach, and die upon a cross and be raised on the third day, and then hand these things over to us, that the word would be fulfilled not simply in our hearing, but in our doing.
In our being.