The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 27 January 2019

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 27 January 2019

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

Background: The Ancient Synagogue Service


There is an excellent article on the services in ancient synagogue by Ernest De Witt Burton that was published in August 1896 in The Biblical World, The University of Chicago Press. You can have access to the article at this URL:


Dr. Burton saw the ancient service as consisting of these elements:[1]


1.           Benediction I, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

2.           Benediction II, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

3.           Shema

4.           Prayer

5.           Eulogy I, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

6.           Eulogy II, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

7.           Responses

8.           Eulogy III, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

9.           Other Prayers including ex tempore prayers.

10.        Eulogy XVII, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

11.        Eulogy XVIII, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

12.        Priestly benediction

13.        Eulogy XIX, by the Sheliach, with the congregation responding.

14.        Reading of the Law by seven readers from the congregation selected by the ruler and notified by a Verger-like officer. Interpretation was offered by another officer of the Synagogue.

15.        Reading of the Prophets by one reader from the congregation as above.

16.        Sermon by a member of the congregation.

17.        Benediction.

First Reading: 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."

This story, taken in the context of the repopulation of Jerusalem and the restoration of the worship of YHWH and refamiliarization with the Law, is ostensibly a story about Ezra, but may be seen as an instruction on how to read the law. You may want to look at the Background (above) to see the context of the reading of the Law in the Synagogue service that develops from these ancient practices accompanying the restoration of worship in Jerusalem. The reading is especially interesting in its relationship to today’s Gospel in which Jesus is appointed to read and interpret the prophets. This ceremony surrounding the Law was kept not only by official types (Nehemiah – the governor, Ezra, and the Levites) but by everyday people both men and women. Jacob Wright in his commentary on Nehemiah[2], makes a very interesting observation on the reestablishment of religion in Judea following the release of the exiles by Cyrus the Great. There was no longer a government that was allied to the worship of YHWH for the people were living in the context of imperial rule. There needed to be a program of reeducation and community building that relied on people being reacquainted with the prophetic traditions. 

Breaking open Nehemiah:
  1. What does your community teach you that is consistent with the Bible?
  2. What is not consistent with the Bible?
  3. How do you reconcile the two?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant


1      The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2      One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3      Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4      Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5      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.
6      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.
7      The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8      The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
9      The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10    More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11    By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12    Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13    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.
14    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.


It is not just the mouths of prophets and priests that declare the goodness of God, and the effect of God’s law, but it is the very heavens themselves – indeed all of creation that speaks of the wisdom and law of God. To speak requires breath to form nthe words, but the elements that “speak” of God’s wisdom do not possess such breath – except that they are the product of God’s creative breath that called them into being. Beginning with verse five we have either a borrowing from an Egyptian poem celebrating the sun god, or a paraphrase of the same, or the use by this poet of images inspired by Egyptian or Canaanite texts. Perhaps it is only a digression embellishing the notion of the glories of creation, here, the circuit of the sun. 


The clear focus of the psalm is in verse eight, “The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart.” We move from a celebration of creation to a celebration of the Law of God. Rather than seeing the Law is restrictive and debilitating, the poet sees the Law as joy, rich, and sweet, all sensual understandings of its effect. But there is another consequence, and that is an awareness of one’s faults, “who can tell how often he offends?” And yet there is a graciousness that God extends, a redemption from the sins that might occur in life. In verse we have a glimpse of Jewish prayer life, where the “words of my mouth” is better translated as “the silent murmurings” of the prayers said three times daily by Jewish worshippers. In the end it is God’s strength that buoys us up in life.

Breaking open Psalm 19:
  1. What is the beauty of God’s Law?
  2. What do you find difficult?
  3. Where in life have you been forgiven?

Second Reading: 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.

One commentator has named the section of I Corinthians in which this pericope is found as “Gathering as the Body of Christ”. Indeed, all of the readings today focus on the formation of the worshipping body whether in synagogue or in church. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wants to rejoice in the gifts that have been given to those who have chosen to follow Jesus, but also wants to remind them that the gifts should not separate them, or distinguish them one from the other, but rather are a gift of the Spirit that gathers them into one body, through baptism. It is all the gifts that function to bind the community into one body. Paul uses the body metaphor to describe the intense variety and diversity of the Christian community. And in a message that needs to be deeply heard in our own time he notes the “weaker” members of the body – “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.” In a culture that despised (true in our culture as well) weakness, Paul lifts up the week, and commends them to the “same care for one another.”

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What are your spiritual gifts?
  2. What makes them spiritual?
  3. How do you use them?

The Gospel: 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."

With this reading, Jesus returns to Galilee, to the land of his parents. We have been fully apprised of who Jesus is in the initial chapters of Luke. Now we are invited to be in ministry with him. The question is – what does it mean to be a Messiah? We shall begin to find out. What happened in the Jordan River valley seems to have spread to the northern regions – to Galilee. A reputation precedes his coming into Galilee as he makes himself known in synagogues and countryside. All of this is done, Luke reminds us, “with the power of the Spirit.” 

What happens in the synagogue here in this reading is what normally happened in a synagogue (see Background, above). A member of the congregation is invited to both read from either the Law or the Prophets and to interpret the reading, which is what Jesus does here. He reads from the prophet Isaiah, and the people hear Isaiah’s messianic hopes. Jesus wants the people to understand his mission in light of Isaiah’s hopes. We know the message will not be well received, but that is not the point of this pericope as it has been edited for liturgical use. We need to understand the ministry of Jesus in the light of what Isaiah hoped to see. That is worthy of some meditation.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. What are the challenges of returning home?
  2. Why did Jesus choose this particular reading?
  3. What does this reading teach you?

Central Point:             Being enriched by the Scriptures

Point 1:                        The Bible as Revitalization for the Community (First Reading)

Point 2:                        The Bible as Beauty and a witness to the beauty of life (Psalm)

Point 3:                        The gifts of the Spirit that accompany God’s Good News (I Corinthians)

Point 4:                        Living into the Prophet’s hopes and vision. (Gospel)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Courtesy JSOR.
[2]    Gaventa, B. and Peterson D. ed., (2010), The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville.


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