Third Sunday after Epiphany C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
I had an Old Testament professor in seminary that I really enjoyed studying under. She’s one of the reasons that to this day I enjoy reading the Old Testament and in it, I see a loving God trying desperately to mend a relationship with a broken people.
One of the lessons I learned from her was that prophecies in the Old Testament need to be treated as what they are—words spoken in God’s name to a specific people. They are only properly understood in that way. So when Isaiah tells King Ahaz that God’s sign to him that everything is going to be okay is that a young woman will give birth to a child called Immanuel, he’s not talking about Jesus. He’s talking about a child that will be born at that time, or else the sign doesn’t make much sense. Similarly, when Jeremiah says, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD”, he’s talking to his own people, reassuring them that as they go into exile, God hasn’t forgotten them.
Reading the Old Testament this way, the whole Bible this way, opened up the Word of God to me in ways I hadn’t known before. Finally, I could understand what it was saying, what God had said to our ancestors in the faith. I could imagine myself in Ahaz’s place or the place of the exiles, hear the words spoken to them, and try to figure out how those words would have mattered to them and what the message was.
There is considerable merit to reading the Biblical narrative this way, of removing myself from the equation and focusing on the intended audience. It allows history to inform the words of the page and richen them, deepen them, turn them into more than words. They become words spoken and then passed down, the story meant to inspire and inform.
However, I will admit that there is a danger to reading the Bible this way (as there is a danger to reading the Bible in any way). Removing myself from the words on the page and letting history fill them does give one a better understanding of the power behind those words. But it also runs the risk of making the words so remote and in the past that they have no meaning today.
The same can be said of the liturgy, the words we say and actions we do together every Sunday. How many times have you heard, “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”?
When was the last time you paid attention to those words and really thought about what they meant? Do you ever marvel at the fact that through Christ, God forgives you every sin?
Or how about, “The peace of Christ be with you always?” The response is, “And also with you.” But what does that mean? Do you realize that when Christ told his disciples that peace was with them, that he was giving them the Holy Spirit, and that the peace he gave them he fully expected them to give to others? What is peace?
We hear words every day, every week, hoping that in the constant hearing we’ll actually remember them and their meaning. We say the Creeds, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we sing the Kyrie, Hymn of Praise, Holy Holy Holy, Lamb of God. But there is always the risk that in our recitation, in our repetition, the words will lose their meaning and become little more than letters on a page. The worst thing that can happen to the Word of God is that it dies on our lips and in our ears.
We are, of course, not alone in this. The history of Christianity and of Judaism, our brothers and sisters, is a history of letting the words God speaks die. This is why Ezra gathers all the people in front of the gate in our first reading this morning to read to them from the book of the law, the Torah, the first five books in the Old Testament. The people of the kingdom of Judah, who just spent a generation in exile, have finally been allowed to come home. The exile was a consequence of their actions, and as they returned home, as they set about trying to rebuild their city and their temple, Ezra and Nehemiah saw fit to remind the people of who they were and why they were rebuilding the temple in the first place.
So Ezra reads from the Torah. And as the people hear it, hear it new and fresh in their home once again, the story reports that the people were attentive to it—they heard it, they understood it. That’s actually why we, to this day in our liturgy, still read from these stories out loud, in a gathered group. And were that all that happened in our stories this morning, that would be enough. But I’d actually think that what happened in the Gospel reading this morning is even more important, and it’s why I opened this morning with a story about my Old Testament professor.
We’re familiar with the actions in the story. Just like in Nehemiah, the Judeans gather for worship and to hear the word of God spoken aloud and interpreted. It’s something they’ve done every Saturday for their entire lives. They’ve heard God’s words repeated over and over again. This time, it’s Jesus’s turn to read, and he reads from the prophet Isaiah:
“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.”
I wonder how many times the Judeans in Nazareth had heard those words. I wonder how many times they’d wondered about this prophet and his words of liberation, spoken to their ancestors 500 years before when they were going into exile. I wonder how mundane those words were, repeated over and over during the course of five centuries. In essence, I wonder how much like church it seemed.
But Jesus does something remarkable with these words. Without any further comment or interpretation, without any explanation, he simply says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today, these words are for you.
You see that’s the part I think we forget so often. No, the words of the prophets were not written about us—they were written about the people they were written to—but the words on the page, the Word of God, is for us. Which sounds like the simplest, “Well duh” I could say this morning, but I wonder, How often do we hear the Word of God in scripture and song, and not realize that it’s for us?
Maybe we think that the words are pretty, but aren’t relevant to our modern day situations. Maybe we think we aren’t good enough for God. Maybe we think that the words spoken over 2000 years ago just don’t have the life anymore after all this time. But maybe we’re afraid that God simply doesn’t notice us.
I want you to look at the words of Isaiah again, as spoken by Jesus: “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,”
The prophet Isaiah hasn’t been alive for over 2500 years. He didn’t write these words knowing that two and have millenia later they would be read by a small group of Americans in a little country church on the edge of Wisconsin. He didn’t write these words to us or about us—we can’t look at them that way. But, these words are for us, just as they were for the Judahite exiles, and for the residents of Nazareth.
They are for us because they tell us exactly who God’s love is for: the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, those in greatest need of grace and forgiveness. They are for us because there is not a soul here that has not experienced some level of unmet need, or captivity to physical or emotional distress, or blindness to God’s presence or oppression in any of its debilitating forms. They are for us because even in our best times, our strongest times, our richest times, there are still parts of ourselves that no one else knows, parts we try to keep hidden even from God.
They are for us in the same way that Christ died for us and rose for us. They are for us in the same way that in the Eucharist Christ’s body and blood is given for us. They are for us because God’s love and grace and mercy are and always have been for us.
You could easily argue that human beings are a conceited, self-centered collection of people only concerned with what we get out of life. I won’t deny that. We think of ourselves far too often, and that’s an entirely separate sermon waiting in the wings. But that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, many times, we do forget that God’s promises are not some distant relic of the past meant for other people. They really and truly are meant for us, too.
Today, the promises of God are for you. Today, when you receive the body and blood of Christ, you will know that they are for you.