The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2016

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

Background: The First Century Synagogue

It is probably no accident that both the synagogue and the early church made use of civic structures for their worship and communities. While visiting the second century synagogue at Capernaum earlier this spring, I was surprised at this visit to realize that it is really the remains of a basilica, and that is not an extraordinary feature. The development of the synagogue has its roots in both Babylon and Egypt, and its purposes grow gradually as the Temple, as an institution is altered, and eventually destroyed by the Romans. In my mind the synagogue was always a feature outside of Jerusalem, having very much to do with the absence of the Temple. Actually there were several synagogues in Jerusalem adjacent to the Temple and functioning as adjunct facilities. The purposes were still mixed: community meetings, political activities, and educational efforts were all centered there, but there was more, as we see in the Gospel reading for today. It was not Temple worship that was done there – that sacrificial system was limited to the center of the cultus in Jerusalem. Even though architectural and artistic features from the temple were depicted in the stone and plaster of the synagogue, the worship was limited to the reading of the Torah, commentary on that reading, and prayer. That is where we find Jesus, as he attends the synagogue at Nazareth – reading from the prophetic lectionary, perhaps someone else had read from the Torah, and then commenting on the passage from Isaiah. The clear focus of Luke’s account does not let us see or have a feel for all the other aspects that the synagogue enjoyed for both men and women. We do, however, get a glimpse.

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."

In the seventh chapter, Nehemiah essentially repeats the account that is given in Ezra 2. Readers may want to acquaint themselves with that material as a point of comparison. What we have here however is an insight to the development of the Synagogue, and the gradual transition from a Temple-centered cultus, to that of the more local congregation, the rabbinate, and the educational effort that the synagogue represents. What is absent this text is any mention of neither the Temple at all nor the High Priest Eliashib. At the walls, the people, both men and women, and “those who could understand” direct their attention to the reading of the Law. This is certainly religious education, but there is an aspect of cultural remembrance and reorientation. Ezra is the main character here and leads a “service” of blessings, reading from the Torah, and blessing the day. These are nascent elements of the Synagogue liturgy that will soon become the center of prayer, and civic and cultural life in the decades to come. The reading points to the Gospel reading for this day, and the role that Jesus takes on in the Synagogue at Nazareth. The attitude of the congregations, however, is quite different.

Breaking open Nehemiah:
  1. Do you have a family Bible? Where do you keep it?
  2. How often do you read from the Bible?
  3. How does the Bible aid you in daily living?

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.

We have here a poem in two major sections, if not three. The first four verses comprise a hymn to creation and God’s inventive power in Creation. It is a wordless language, “although they have no words or language…their sound has gone out,” that speaks to all of us about God’s role and eternal presence in forming the created world. The next two verses have the sun as their focus, and several scholars see this as a deliberate borrowing of Egyptian, or at least images influenced by Egyptian theology, taken wholesale into the poem. Others disagree, and see the verses following it as an anti-pagan argument. The images are striking and have a full mythological bent with the sun compared to a bridegroom, an athlete, or a warrior. Apollo-like, the sun rides the heavens. A clever pun ends this section with the effect of the sun described as “nothing is hidden from its burning heat.” In Hebrew the word for “sun” and “heat” are the same vocable.

Now the poem takes a totally different tack, concentrating on the Law of the Lord. The final verses are devoted to a longing reverie about the Law. The verbs are telling, “reviving”, “giving wisdom”, “giving justice”, and “giving light” among others. If this is not the conjunction of two separate poems, then this may be the argument about YHWH’s superiority and justice. There is also sensuousness to these verses, where the Law is described as the “goldness of gold” and the “honiest honey”. Such a reverie reminds the psalmist of his own faults. Thus the closing prayer us quite appropriate, asking that the words of the psalmist be acceptable to the purposes of God’s Law. This phrase is a nice bookend to the wordless, yet communicative creation in the beginning verses.

Breaking open Psalm 19
  1. What does the “Law of God” mean to you?
  2. What are the parts of the Law that are meaningful to you?
  3. How does God speak to you?

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.

For readers who live within the Anglican Communion, this reading from I Corinthians, that expresses the variety, and interdependence within the Body of Christ, will seem more than appropriate and applicable following the actions coming out of the Meeting of Anglican Primate’s that seemingly attempted to punish the Episcopal Church for its stance of Marriage Equality, the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) persons, and the ordination of women. Paul is dealing with his own problems within the congregation at Corinth, some of which may be more of a cultural nature than an expressed theology. The body metaphor is used to underscore God’s role in forming and making humankind with all of their attributes. The dependence of the different body parts on one another mirrors the dependence that Christians (with their various gifts) have with one another. There are comments here about weakness or inferiority. The whole body supports the weaker or inferior parts (clothed with “greater honor”) so that the whole is maintained. The gifts are visited again, ranging from Paul’s own gift of apostleship through a hierarchy of gifts that terminate in the gift of tongues. The gifts, like the various parts of the body, cannot go it alone.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What role do you play in the Body of Christ?
  2. Whom do you admire or honor the most in that Body?
  3. How do you honor yourself in that Body?

St. 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."

As last week in John, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, but not a Cana. Jesus literally goes home, to his own, and there begins the proclamation of his Good News. The Spirit that made an appearance at his baptism seems to impel Jesus to Galilee, and there is an advance word (I am thinking of the “wordless message” in Psalm 19 (above)) about him and his work. This is a return to Galilee – Jerusalem is only the final destination. The appearance in the Synagogue is not an unusual occurrence, “as it was his custom.” Nor is the invitation to read from the scroll unusual. The picture we have, thus far, is of a son, returning home, recognized as already having somewhat of a reputation, and then taking up a usual role in the congregation.

Luke, however, wants us to understand the messianic implications of Jesus appearance here, and that is telegraphed to us in the previous material, and in the passage that he will read and in the application that he will make. The reading is from Isaiah 58, and some readers may want to investigate commentary on those passages as well. There are several aspects of the reading that lead to a focus upon Jesus, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, “he has anointed me,” “he has sent me to proclaim”, “to let the oppressed go free,” and finally, “to proclaim”. The recipients of these actions further accentuate the focus, “the poor”, “the captives,” “the blind”, and “the oppressed.” In the account of the Baptism, Luke describes the people as “filled with expectation”, and here too one can almost fee and hear the held-breath as Jesus returns the scroll and sits down. We don’t have all of his commentary, only the initial words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At this point the lectionary plays games with us – holding us in suspense. We shall have to come back next week to know the effect of Jesus’ preaching.
Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you think Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus?
  2. What did the people of Nazareth hear?
  3. How might you have reacted to Jesus’ comments?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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