Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 – Ezra reads the Law of Moses to the returned exiles in the public square, reminding them that the joy of the Lord is their strength.
Psalm 19 – The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a – The church is a body with many members. One member of the body cannot disown another.
Luke 4:14-21 – Jesus in his hometown synagogue, part 1. Jesus announces his job description at the Synagogue of his hometown: 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.”
The week of Prayer for Christian unity began in 1908, running between the feasts of St. Peter (January 18) and St. Paul (January 25). This octave was conceived by Father Paul Wattson, founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars, according to Wikipedia. During this week, Christians from around the world gather to pray for Christian unity, remembering Jesus’ prayer,
…that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
The 6th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service will take place on Thursday, January 24, at ChristChurch Presbyterian in Bellaire, 5001 Bellaire Boulevard 77401.
6:15 – Gathering with a light meal
7:00 – Prayer Service
Pastors and deacons, I ask you:
- Plan on coming
- Bring a group of lay people from your congregation
- Publicize the event as widely as you can in your congregation and community
Ezra in Nehemiah
This first part of this post will focus on Ezra, from the Old Testament reading in Nehemiah. The gospel readings for these next two Sundays are Jesus in his hometown. I will take up Homecoming 1 below.
After the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), come Joshua, Judges and Ruth. Then the two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings. Then Chronicles. Then come Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra and Nehemiah are actually one book in the Hebrew.
Ezra was a fifth century priest and a scribe skilled in the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6), during the reign of the Persian King Artaxerxes. He went up to Jerusalem from Babylon, to reintroduce the Torah. Artaxerxes sent along a generous amount of financial support in this endeavor.
Nehemiah, “God comforts” is the longer version of Nahum “Comforter.” He was the governor of Judea under Persian rule, during Artaxerxes’ reign (465-424 B.C.). He started out as Artaxerxes’ Cup Bearer. A Cup Bearer was actually a high ranking officer. To keep the king from being poisoned, only an extremely trustworthy person would be put in this position. He asked to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city.
Our reading comes from Nehemiah 8. Of the first ten verses in this chapter, our text leaves out verses four and seven. I’m always curious about surgical edits, so here are 4 and 7 for your perusal, I can only guess why they were left out. Perhaps the framers of the lectionary felt they were too difficult for the average lay reader to wade through, and irrelevant to the point of the text, not to mention a gauntlet for the lay reader.
4: The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.
7: Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.
Ezra and Nehemiah appear together in this passage, Nehemiah 8:1-10, though some believe verse nine, where Nehemiah is mentioned, is a later addition.
Ezra reads from the Torah. The people stand. Ezra also expounds on the Torah, so that the people understand what they are hearing. The day will later become Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
It becomes clear why the framers of the lectionary chose this passage to go along with Jesus’ hometown visit. Just as Ezra stands and reads from the Torah, Jesus stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah.
At Ezra’s reading, the people begin to weep. They have been through so much during the last forty years of exile. Their temple, their city and culture were wiped out. The restoration touches a deep chord. The tears are inevitable. But Ezra and Nehemiah told the people not to grieve, but to rejoice, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
It doesn’t take much for the preacher to tap into the irretrievable losses on our hearts and minds – a recent school shooting, a terrorist act, Harvey flooding, Katrina, 9/11. Whether personal or public tragedies, all of us have been touched, more some than others.
What gives you strength in the midst of loss and tragedy? How do you get through? When the rug has been pulled out from under you, and you’ve landed hard on your back, what buoys you up? What makes it humanly possible for you to get up in the morning? Be aware that there will be those listening to the sermon who are going through their dark night of the soul now. Some may be hanging on your every word.
Hope is the only way through. Hope comes in many forms. You cannot offer yours. One person’s hope seems trite to another. Each person must find their own.
The preacher is called, anointed by the Spirit, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to those in slavery, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and news of God’s favor.
Life can be hard. The struggles of life can only be borne through an abiding faith and hope that gives us joy, and a peace that passes all understanding. The good news is that through God in Christ, we are offered such an abiding peace and joy. These are fruits of the Holy Spirit, given to sustain us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes I think that we spend all our lives, growing into the faith, hope, love, peace and joy that will sustain us for our hour of trial. We pray, hear the word and receive the sacraments that are means of grace, so that we grow to the place where we can say the best words of this reading from Nehemiah:
The joy of the Lord is my strength.
Homecoming 1: Good News for the Poor
I really like Luke 4:14 – “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…”
What a joy, to act, to do life’s tasks and callings “filled with the power of the Spirit.”
The Spirit figures prominently in Luke’s gospel. He uses the word Spirit twice as many times as Matthew or John.
Jesus’ ministry is conducted under the power of the Holy Spirit, about whom Luke will tell us more in Acts 2. Is your ministry driven by the power of the Holy Spirit? Is your life?
You can hear that question as law or gospel. As law it sounds something like this: “You’re not spiritual enough.” However, as gospel it invites us to consider the resources available to us for living our lives. We are like a person rowing furiously through life and ministry. We suddenly realizes the wind is blowing, and raise our sail. Our sails billow and burst as they are filled with the wind of the Spirit. Our boat lurches forward.
What might it look like for us to allow ourselves to be more filled, lifted, carried by the Spirit, and less dependent on our own frantic and frenetic activity? This is not a theological proposition, but as a practical experience. What are the obstacles keeping this from happening?
In Luke 1-2 we have the Prologue, with Infancy Narrative.
Luke 3 has John and Jesus’ Baptism.
Now, Luke 4 begins Jesus’ ministry with the Temptation in the Wilderness which we will read Lent I. Then we have today’s story, starting at verse 14. The narrative has bounced us around between Nazareth in Galilee and Bethlehem/Jerusalem in Judah. In Luke 3 the adult Jesus emerges in the region around the Jordan and is baptized by John. After going into the wilderness, we are told he returns north to Galilee, and begins his public ministry there. He begins by teaching in the synagogues. When he arrives back in Nazareth, his hometown, it gets interesting.
His φήμη (fame) spread quickly. Luke says it was his custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, so when he strolls into his hometown congregation, they immediately know who he is; they’ve heard his fame spreading.
Jeffrey (“Luke”) Helps us understand the likely synagogue order of service:
- Reciting the Shemah (Deut. 6:4)
- A reading from the Torah
- A reading from the Prophets
- Commentary by a member of the congregation
The Torah reading (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy) would have been prescribed by a lectionary. Then the local synagogue leader would choose a reader for the second reading, perhaps from the prophets. The synagogue leader chose the famous hometown boy. Famous hometown boy is handed the Isaiah scroll. He can choose his own text. Taking his time rolling through the scroll he arrives at Isaiah 61 and reads aloud:
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.
Jubilee year. Interesting choice. Jubilee may never have actually been practiced as proscribed, but it casts a vision of grace, and freedom from debt and slavery of every kind. Jesus reminds them about Jubilee, a time of redemption for the indebted poor.
He closes the scroll and sits down quietly. Every eye is fixed on him. The room waits in silent expectation. It is time for commentary, but the young preacher employs an age old rhetorical device: Extended silence draws attention and builds anticipation. Then: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
One can imagine the response. “Yeah… Wait… What?” We don’t get to hear the second-guessing and sarcasm until next week, when we will hear “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say. What he says to them next causes them to take him to a cliff with the intention of throwing him off, but you’ll have to wait a week to hear about that. If you’re not in a series, perhaps this is a two-part sermon that leaves people hanging until next week. It reminds me of the old Batman series where Batman and Robin would be strapped to a lumber-cutting conveyor belt, headed toward the spinning circular saw blade. “Is this the end? No more dynamic duo? Tune in next week and find out…” Invite people to tune in next week.
Personally, I would prefer to read Isaiah 61 as the first reading in our lectionary. I have nothing against Nehemiah. I love “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” (Nehemiah 8:10), but if you’re going to preach on Jesus in the synagogue, Isaiah resounds with the Luke 4 passage. The repetition is good. The congregation needs to hear this again. This is Jesus’ theme verse for his ministry. Our people will not hear Isaiah 61 again until Advent 3B, nearly two years from now.
Jesus chooses two verses of Isaiah as his theme verse as he begins his ministry. They are his mission statement. The theme is Jubilee:
- Good news for the poor.
- Recovery of sight for the blind.
- Release for the captives.
- Freedom from oppression.
- The year of the Lord’s favor.
This is what Jesus is all about. Whatever you may believe about the gospel, this is what Luke’s Jesus says about his agenda. It is his mission statement. It’s fairly aggressive. Whoever is going to preach on or understand Luke’s gospel will have to come to terms with what this means. This is no “pie in the sky when you die” gospel. This is engagement with the poor, blind, imprisoned and oppressed of this very existential world. It has real-world implications – implications that will ultimately cost Jesus his life.
But don’t hear this as law. Jesus is announcing good news, recovery, release, freedom and Jubilee. This is undeserved grace for all who are in debt or slavery of any kind. A sermon of law and gospel will first announce the law: the debt and slavery that we are in. The preacher must name this truth for the sake of integrity. And the good news Is the gospel vision of a love that transcends the human condition.