The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2010

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 12:12-31a
Saint Luke 4:14-21


In these readings there are two ideas that capture our imagination – the notion of “beginning”, and the notion of  “the word.”  Both of these ideas are tied to the theology of Genesis, where it is indeed God’s word and breath that sets things into motion.  Thus we have this idea of beginning and word tied together.  A more proper notion for the first reading is the idea of “starting over” or the idea of a “new beginning”.  In the Gospel we have a picture of Jesus beginning ministry, starting something innovative and new.  The thing about newness, and especially prophetic novelty, is that it is usually grounded in or informed by what is ancient.  Here we have to think of those acts, ideas, motions, prayers, gestures, and rites that are made sacred by their use over time.  The prophets in the past always announced God’s word for the here and now, while keeping in mind what those before had believed, prayed, and done.  That tension of what was and what will be will serve us well as we talk about Jesus beginning ministry, and our continuing his ministry in our community.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10


All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Nehemiah was one of those Jews who entered the Persian Civil Service while Judah continued to be a province of the Persian Empire (Fifth Century BCE).  As a Jew he was concerned about his homeland, and the land of his ancestors.  His desire to return to Judah, and to restore his homeland was probably well matched with Persia’s concern to shore up the Levant (modern day Palestine) and thus to foil the threats of both Egypt and Greece.  So, this confidant of both King and Queen (if we are to trust the text) comes back as governor of the land.  There is a legend about Nehemiah that is probably worthy of consideration, namely that he was a eunuch (since he served in the Queens court as well).  As such he occupied a lessor status in Judaism, neither having children to care for him, nor family to remember him after his death.  Also, as a sexually maimed person, he was forbidden from entering the Temple.

These pages are not only about the renewal and rebuilding of Jerusalem, but of religious and cultural recovery as well.  We probably owe our present editions of the “Books of Moses” and the Torah, Prophets, and Psalms, as well to the “renewalists” who returned to Israel to re-establish the old religion.  That seems to be the point of today’s reading.  It was not the first time the Law had been recovered, as a similar “recovery” was made during the reign of Josiah (Eighth Century BCE).  The scene is a romantic one with “all the people” gathered in a large public place, anxious to hear the Law.  Idealized though it is, the notion was a necessary one in order to give the people a sense of not only who they were, but of what they could become as well. 

Breaking Open Nehemiah:

  1. What do you understand “the Law” to be?
  2. How would the Law, say the Ten Commandments, help order a society that was attempting a renewal?
  3. What values and principals do you honor that are based in the Ten Commandments?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

In Psalms 1, 19, and 119, we have psalms that are devoted to the Torah, or the teaching of God’s Law.  This psalm, 19, is actually in three sections.  The first section, verses 1 – 6, devotes itself to the witness of creations, with images and phrases that reflect the religious culture that surrounded ancient Israel.  Here heavens and earth are not made divine, but are rather part of the “divine witness” that proclaims the goodness of the Creator God.  The second section, verses 7 – 11, devotes itself to the delights of the Law, to its justice, its enlightening nature, its ability to order those who follow it, and its ability to reveal God’s will to humankind.  The final three verses is a prayer, perhaps from the author, asking for a faithfulness to the Law.

Breaking open Psalm 19
  1. How might the Law give “light to the eyes?”
  2. What does nature say to you about God?  How does the endless cycling of days and time speak about God?
  3. How does the Law reward you in life?

I Corinthians 12:12-31a

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Paul continues his discourse on the gifts of the Spirit, and works to develop a theology of the church – a sense of how the many who have been chosen can work together in spite of the many differing gifts of the Spirit.  In doing so, he begins to break new spiritual ground by talking about Jews and Greeks, slaves and free.  This is a new way of thinking, and it will put Paul on a collision course with the higher-ups in Jerusalem.  Paul’s message will win out in the end, and it is our heritage as Gentile Christians.  It does us well, however, to go back over this well-sown field, and to remember what might be if we take seriously Paul’s notion of the Body of Christ.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What does it mean for all of us, in our diversity, to “drink of one Spirit?” 
  2. What are the diversity of spiritual gifts in your own family?
  3. What are the diversity of spiritual gifts in your congregation?
  4. What are your gifts?
  5. How do you make use of them?

The Synagogue at Kefer Nahum (Capernaum)

Saint Luke 4:14-21

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When 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, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"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 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. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Luke, introduces us to Jesus the Prophet, who speaks God’s word to the here and now.  We know that Jesus is the Prophet because he is introduced to us as “filled with the power of the Spirit.”  In this reading we also get a sense of the synagogue service that Jews from the first century participated in.  Like our Liturgy of the Word, the Synagogue Service had a component of readings from a cycle of scriptures, read over time.  So Jesus, the Rabbi/Prophet returns to his home-town, and is invited to read to the assembly.  His reading is from Isaiah 61, and in it, the latter Isaiah describes the Messianic Era during which captives are released, the blind see, and so on. 

Jesus’ sermon, or homily on the text is succinct and telling.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, is a startling claim – and thus we meet the Jesus, fresh from baptism and temptation, as the Prophet who announces God’s new word.  The messianic signs (good news to poor, etc.) will be a sign Jesus gives to others, such as the disciples of John the Baptist who ask, “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another.”  Jesus message is radical – it goes to the root (Latin – radix) of what business the messiah should be about.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are the signs of the messiah in Isaiah?  Write them down.
  2. Which of these signs have you seen in your own life or time?
  3. Compare the reaction of the members of the synagogue to the hearers of the Law in Nehemiah.  How are they different?
  4. What do you understand by the term, “The year of the Lord’s favor”?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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