Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
January 24, 2016
You have already been on the interim journey between pastors for a while. Today I join you on this journey, which I believe can be an adventure with Jesus for all of us. As your interim pastor my role is to coach us in listening for and recognizing the voice of Jesus with us on the journey. To help us with that, I will preach from the Bible passages suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary with the goal of tuning into what God is saying to us. Though I will be somewhat flexible with this, I will not pick passages to play “gotcha” with a hidden agenda. As we listen for the voice of God together, I hope to encourage and guide you in conversations about the congregation’s heritage, mission, leadership, connections and future.
Two weeks ago we looked at how the Holy Spirit dramatically came on Jesus at his baptism. Today in Luke 4:14-21, we see how Jesus began his public ministry after forty days in the wilderness of testing in which he overmastered the devil.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:18“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,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The scheduled reading from the Prophets on the Sabbath when Jesus went to the Nazareth synagogue must have been from Isaiah, since that scroll was handed to him. But he unrolled the scroll to purposely skip the assigned reading to find the passage about the Spirit’s anointing to the ministry of justice. That passage from Isaiah 61 is also quoted in Psalm 146:7-8, which is call a “Hallel” Psalm that the Israelites sang in procession to the Jerusalem Temple on holy days. No wonder the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. He changed the order of worship! What was he going to say about this passage?
Jesus began to speak to them. As we shall see next week, what he said was so shocking that they interrupt him. By saying this scripture was fulfilled, he did not imply that justice had been permanently established. Rather, he claimed that the Spirit had authorized and empowered him for the ministry on which he was embarking.
We are so used to having books in print, radio, television and now electronic media that we may miss the power of hearing Scripture read aloud as Jesus did in the synagogue. As we read from Nehemiah, this same power is clear when Ezra read what quite possibly was part or maybe all of Deuteronomy. Significantly, the people are gathered as a single body to hear from God. Men, women and even children who were old enough to understand. They responded as one body, much as today a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.
This was not a dull experience of sitting still in silence while Ezra read. The people were actively engaged and responded with voice and body. When Ezra unrolled the scroll to read, in unison the people stood in respect, much as liturgical churches today stand for the reading of the Gospel. The people lifted their hands and answered, “Amen! Amen!” much as we might see in a Pentecostal church today. At the pauses in the reading, they bowed their faces to the ground to worship, perhaps somewhat like we might see in a mosque today. In these pauses, the reading was translated for those who could not speak Hebrew and then interpreted or explained so they could understand and have their questions answered.
The people responded emotionally to hearing Scripture read. They wept! They wept for joy to hear God’s Word after generations of exile in Babylon. And they wept in repentance, knowing that had not been living by Scripture. But Ezra thought the weeping defiled the Scripture, so sent them out for a festival that included the wine of joy.
The people responded to hearing Scripture read with a celebration of sending festive food to those who couldn’t afford their own parties. Rich and poor alike were one single community of God’s people. Justice and compassion demanded that everyone share the joy.
Jesus read from Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth some four centuries after Ezra read from Deuteronomy at the Jerusalem Water Gate. In both cases the reading of Scripture aloud made a powerful impact on those who heard it. In both cases the theme was justice and freedom for people who were brittle, broken and bound. As we have heard these two stories today, are you hearing the voice of God for you and First Christian Church of Albany, TX? I am just starting to get to know you and the people of Albany, but I am certain there are people in this congregation and in this community who are poor, captive, blind, oppressed, who have no celebration prepared.
On your interim journey with Jesus, I believe he will let you know who they are so you can be Jesus to them. I am not necessarily suggesting programs but personal relationships with people, paying enough attention with spiritual sensitivity for the Spirit to prompt you.
Twenty some years ago Candy and I took a four month sabbatical, living in the L’Arche Daybreak community for mentally disabled adults in Richmond Hill, Ontario. We were coached to be alert for the presence of Christ in the pain of the disabled core members. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my adult life. I continue today with a spiritual discipline at the end of each day of identifying a wounded person I contacted that day and asking how I saw Christ in them. This has been my spiritual reward while driving funeral cars for 7 months.
As I have walked this journey with Jesus, I have learned to recognize his voice when I face my own wounds.
Jesus came to Galilee filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Nehemiah and Ezra turned the mourning and weeping of the people into joy and strength by sending them to share the celebration of God’s Word with those who had nothing prepared. As we listen for the voice of Jesus on this interim journey, I believe we too will receive God’s joy and strength.
Let us soak in Scripture until we are so saturated with the voice of God that the Spirit can echo when we speak.
Let us pray for God to fill us with power and joy that draws us into intimate relationship with Jesus on this interim journey.
Let us find and celebrate the joy of Christ’s presence by including the wounded people God sends us in our individual circles of relationships and into the embrace of this congregation.