Epiphany 3C: Reading Between the Lines

Bible with LightOLD TESTAMENT:  Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10

To read the Old Testament passage

This passage that we read from Nehemiah may be a strange one for us.  Essentially, in very detailed precision, it recounts a public reading of the Law of the Torah for a community, not totally unlike the Scripture readings in which we participate each and every Sunday.  The public reading took place on the day that would be the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month, late in September or early October, according to our modern-day calendar.  The day would be a holy day.

This was not merely a requisite reading as part of a worship service, though.  It was instead a gathering of the community to celebrate and hear the word of God for that community. It was a time of thankfulness, a time of realizing what God had done, a time of becoming who they were called to be before God.  And this community was receptive, was indeed hungry for this word.

The context of this eighth chapter of Nehemiah is set soon after 539 BCE after Cyrus and the Persians conquered Babylon and the Jewish exiles began to return home.  But the city to which they were returning was very different from the one that their community had left.  Their land had been taken and redistributed so they had no way of making a living.  The infrastructure that had previously been there was no more and even the temple, long since destroyed, had not been rebuilt.  They were returning home but for most of them, there was no home to which they could return.  And so, for the most part, the fledgling city of Jerusalem remained unpopulated and unable to move forward and rebuild their lives.

The Book of Nehemiah is mainly about the work of the man Nehemiah, the Persian appointed governor of Judea whose responsibility it was to see that the city of Jerusalem was rebuilt following the return of these exiles.  The walls had to be rebuilt, the city had to be repopulated, the social abuses had to be corrected, the worship life had to return as a central part of the community, and the community of faith had to once again become who God intended them to be.  Needless to say, this was no small feat!  The first six chapters of the Old Testament book that we know as Nehemiah outlines the beginning of that rebuilding process.  Then in chapter 7, we are given a long list of returned exiles who have settled back in their towns.  These were the ones who had come home.  These were the ones whose character and traditions would lay the foundations to rebuild the community.  They knew what they needed to do that.  They knew that they needed some help.  And so, they ask Ezra to read the “law of Moses” to them.

Here they are, it says, gathered in a square opposite the Water Gate.  This was an area of the worship space in which laypeople could enter.  It may have been in the vicinity of the spring of Gihon, which was once Jerusalem’s main water source.  And they all came—men, women, and at least some children (all who could “hear with understanding”).  This was a very inclusive gathering.  And here were these people—concerned about their homes, their families, whether or not they would ever recover from what they had been through.  So they asked Ezra the scribe to read from the book of Law, the Torah, those words that had guided them for centuries and provided a compass for their very lives.

So Ezra stood on a raised platform, surrounded by some of the lay leaders, unrolled the scroll, and began to read.  And as he began to read, the people stood, a sign of reverence and respect.  This was not a passive crowd.  They really wanted to hear.  They really wanted to understand.  They really wanted to find in those words the comfort and strength and hope that they had always found.  As he read, it says that there were responses of “Amen, Amen” as they listened and understood.  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  The passage says that Ezra read from early morning until midday and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of law.  Can you imagine?  A Scripture reading that lasted at least four hours.  Oh admit it, most of our congregation would have been long gone.  (Good thing there wasn’t a football game that day!)  So the next time you complain about a sermon or a prayer that is too long, I want you to remember this passage.

This reading is about both the faithful and joyous reception of God’s Word seen in the people.  For them, the Word of God comes to life through these words.  The point is that these were not just words…this was the story, their story, and ours.  The celebration at the end is not, as we might think, because the reading is over.  It is because the sacred memories were alive once again.  Once again, the people have remembered who they are.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this:  The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love.  And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did.  That is all.  That is meditation…Do not ask “How shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?”  Then ponder this Word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does it mean to you for the “Word of God” to come to life?
  3. What is a “faithful and joyous” reception of the Scriptures? What stands in our way of having that?
  4. What does it mean to “hear with understanding”?
  5. What does it mean to you for the Word to “take possession of you”?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Corinthians 12: 13-31a

To read the Epistle passage

This passage is a continuation of the Epistle that we read last week.  Once again, the passage focuses on our unity, our common body in which we live.  Paul is speaking here to some disunity and discord that had taken place because of views toward gifts.  Paul is affirming the presence of spiritual gifts but in his own way is also warning that just because someone possesses “spiritual gifts” does not necessarily make them “spiritual”.

According to Paul, whatever does not embody and reflect love is not Christian spirituality.  Paul claims that because we are of one body, the Body of Christ, there ought to be a sense of unity and solidarity.  According to the passage, all of these gifts, indeed, all of these roles are vital for the life of the whole Christian community.  The roles relate to particular functions, not to any sense of status on its own.  Paul’s list is not a complete compendium.  It is about functions within the roles that make up the community.

Paul challenges us to see ourselves as the embodiment of Christ in the world, not primarily as individuals but as local communities, yet belonging also to a larger whole. Difference is acknowledged. People are not all the same. They do not all have the same abilities. The common life is nothing other than the life of Christ, the life of the Spirit. This remains the constant. We are not asked as individuals to be Christ or Christs, let alone saviours of the world, although many suffer from this misconception and the burn out it produces. We are asked to be members of a body, of Christ, and to play our part – not more, not less.

It is essentially a discussion about stewardship, about using what God has given you and infused into your life to build up and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  But it is also about using the gifts of others, honouring them and empowering others to use their gifts.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In what ways do gifts contribute to or deflect from the unity of Christ’s Body?
  3. What, then, does this say about what the Body of Christ is or what it should be?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 4: 14-21

To read the Gospel passage

So, here, Jesus returns to his “hometown”, so to speak.  They had heard about how the hometown boy was doing good elsewhere and they all showed up to be taught by one of their own.  They had high praise for him.  As was the custom, Jesus stood in the synagogue to read.  He unrolled the scroll and began to read.  But something happened in the midst of the reading.  He saw himself differently after reading the lyrical words from the scroll.  So did those who heard him that day.  Through this reading, the community was born anew.  They saw things differently.

We probably pretty much take our ability to read or to hear the words read for granted.  But, there’s reading and then there’s reading.  Renita Weems says that “public reading of the Bible today would scarcely move anyone to weep or even to look up from reading the bulletin or filling out the offering envelope.  But every word in the Bible was written with the expectation that most of those who encountered it would hear it as a text read to them in a gathering of believers. This explains the lyrical, poetic, engaging style of much of the language found in the Bible.”

The point here is that reading the bible is more than entertainment or “information gathering”; it is transformation.  The Scripture that was read is a calling to something else.  It is meant to move the hearers (and the reader) beyond where they are.  The Word changes things.  Nothing will ever be the same again.

 

Hear the Scripture that was read: (Isaiah 61)

 

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,  and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,  and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; 6but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7Because their* shame was double, and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;  everlasting joy shall be theirs.

8For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Much of that language is summarily tossed aside by us, relegated to a time gone by.  And yet, Jesus stood up before that crowd and read this aloud.  You could say that it was his manifesto.  He was meant to do this from the beginning, meant to shake the world out of its complacency and wake it up so that it might see where the need is the greatest, meant to show us what the world could be, and, indeed, what we were called to be.  Jesus was pointing to God and God’s vision for the world—a vision of good news and release, of recovery and freedom.

So, what do these words mean for our time?  How are we supposed to take them today?  (OK, do we need to read them again.)  These words ARE the words.  What do they mean for our time?  They depict a vision of good news and release, of recovery and freedom.  The fact that words are not comfortable for us to hear does not mean that they are not the truth.  So, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Can you hear me now?  Take the words, roll them around in your heart, and then imagine what vision they hold.  That is the vision to which we are called.  We just have to learn to listen.  We just have to learn to open ourselves to the Spirit that they hold.

Scripture has been compared to a lake whose depths have never been fully plumbed.  On the surface it looks like any other lake; that is, we see human words like those in other books.  But when we jump into the lake and begin to swim downward, we may be unable to find the bottom.  It is as if those human words become transparent to some mysterious and infinite depth we can never fully grasp.  Perhaps that is why one writer can say “Sounding in and through the human words of scripture, like the sea within a conch shell, is another reality, vaster than mind or imagination can compass.  God has chosen to be bound to the words of Scripture; in and through them, the Holy One comes near…It is not that the words magically or mechanically contain God’s Presence, but that as we allow the same Spirit through which the scriptures were written to inform our listening, the presence of God in and beyond those words becomes alive for us once more. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 19-20)

 

  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. What would it mean to truly live these words, to digest them and make them a part of our very being?
  3. Why does our reading of Scripture today fall short of this?
  4. What would happen if we really heard what the Scripture was saying, if we really allowed the Spirit to trickle into our lives from the words?

 

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The larger the island of knowledge, the greater the shoreline of wonder.  (Huston Smith)

 

We do not always realize what a radical suggestion it is for us to read to be formed and transformed rather than to gather information.  We are information seekers.  We love to cover territory. (Macrina Wiederkehr)

 

If  then you are wise, you will show yourself as a reservoir than a canal.  For a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus communicates, without loss to itself, its superabundant water. (Bernard of Clairvaux)

 

 

Closing

 

All-seeing One, above me, around me, within me.  Be my seeing as I read these sacred words.  Look down upon me; look out from within me; look all around me; see through my eyes; hear through my ears; feel through my heart; touch me where I need to be touched.  And when my heart is touched, give me the grace to lay down this Holy Book and ask significant questions.  Amen. (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast:  The Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY:  Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995), 23)

 

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