THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our first lesson from Nehemiah takes us back to the beginning of the 5th Century and to the Water Gate at the north end of the newly reconstructed city of Jerusalem. Against all odds and under the able leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, both the temple and the holy city were rebuilt from the rubble to which they had been reduced by the Babylonian invaders in 587 B.C.E. Now, almost a century later, the temple has been rebuilt and the walls of the city restored. As she has done so many times before, Israel gathers as a community to recommit herself to the covenant with her God. Ezra the scribe, prophet, preacher and priest, regarded in some Jewish traditions as a second Moses, mounts his pulpit to read from the Book of Torah, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The people rise as Ezra opens up the book and he blesses them. Then the scribe reads the law to the people and the Levites “help the people understand the law.” Nehemiah 8:7.
Why would the people need an explanation of the law from the Levites? Perhaps for the same reason the church needs clergy. The temple cult had not been practiced for at least seventy years. Much of the Torah and its cultic practices presuppose the temple in Jerusalem and life in the promised land. To these returned exiles, who had lived most of their lives away from that land and without the temple, the ancient laws of Moses probably sounded about as foreign as the ways of Babylon seemed to the prior generation. Scholars also point out that the Hebrew language in which the Torah was written had long since been supplanted by Aramaic as the common tongue of the Jews. Consequently, it might have been necessary for the Levites to translate Ezra’s reading from Hebrew into Aramaic for the common people.
I think there might also be a third explanation. I offer it as a supplement rather than an alternative to either of the two above theories. It seems the people were caught up in a blue funk. Their return to the land of promise was not accompanied by the miraculous creation of a wooded highway through the desert promised by the prophet of Isaiah 40-55. Nor did the rebuilding of the temple usher in the messianic age of prosperity for Israel as the prophets Zechariah and Haggai had foretold. The new Jerusalem turned out not to be the capital of a restored Israelite kingdom rivaling the golden age of David and Solomon. It was merely the governmental seat for one of many regions occupied by the Persian Empire. The new temple was but a poor shadow of the one built under Solomon. Yet for all of that, Israel was still God’s people with whom God was abiding and through whom God was shining God’s light into the world. God was still with Israel and that should have been a source of joy. Such “joy of the Lord” at the very heart of the scriptures, says Ezra, is Israel’s strength. It is the “J” says our poet, Stuart Kestenbaum, that helps “us walk in a new way into this forest of language, where all the letters are beginning to speak, finding each other in just the right combination to be understood.” Perhaps the Levites were needed to help the people discover the ‘J” unlocking the ancient words of the covenant. Maybe their task was to remind the people that these words carried not merely judgment upon their unfaithfulness, but also joy in the certainty that, though Israel may have broken her end of the covenant, God remains ever faithful to God’s end.
While joy and lament might be at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, they are not mutually exclusive. A good friend and colleague of mine once reminded me that one of the miraculous attributes of humanity is its capacity to experience both joy and profound sorrow at the same time. I see that at so many of the funerals I have done over the years. At nearly every wake you can find people sobbing uncontrollably one minute and laughing hysterically at some endearing story from the life of the departed loved one the next. In the midst of all that sorrow and grief, occasions for thanksgiving are found, friendships are renewed, wrongs forgiven and family bonds strengthened.
Joy and sorrow pop up side by side throughout the Bible. God rejoices in a good world filled with good creatures, yet is so sorrowful over human violence that God comes close to destroying it. Human beings labor under the curse of sin, but God continues to bless and promise. Jesus calls his disciples blessed even as he invites them to follow him in the way of the cross. Jesus was not afraid of suffering, but neither was he morbidly obsessed with it. For Jesus, suffering is simply the cost of joy found in living wholly for God and for neighbor. Discipleship does not promise us the shallow and illusive shadow this world calls “happiness,” an ephemeral condition that depends entirely on one’s changeable outward circumstances. Joy runs far deeper than that. To be joyful is to know that the way of Jesus is the grain of the universe, the future of humanity and the life we will someday share under the gentle reign of God. Joy is found in knowing that God is at work forming in us the mind of Christ. Joy is finally what draws people to the reign of God. Every vibrant, healthy church I have ever encountered (and I have encountered many) is a place of joy, a place where the “J” of the biblical narrative rises up front and center. It is a community of faith where the Bible is rightly interpreted as God’s joyful good news that all things are being reconciled in Christ Jesus. Truly, this joy of the Lord is our strength.
Here is poet Stuart Kestenbaum’s prayer for joy.
Prayer for Joy
What was it we wanted
to say anyhow, like today
when there were all the letters
in my alphabet soup and suddenly
the ‘j’ rises to the surface.
The ‘j’, a letter that might be
great for Scrabble, but not really
used for much else, unless
we need to jump for joy,
and then all of a sudden
it’s there and ready to
help us soar and to open up
our hearts at the same time,
this simple line with a curved bottom,
an upside down cane that helps
us walk in a new way into this
forest of language, where all the letters
are beginning to speak,
finding each other in just
the right combination
to be understood.
c. 2014 by Stuart Kestenbaum. Source: Only Now,(Deerbrook Editions, 2014). In addition to the above mentioned work, Stuart Kestenbaum is the author of Prayers & Run-on Sentences (Deerbook Editions, 2007). He also served as director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine for twenty-seven years. More of his poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation Webiste.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
The book of Nehemiah and the book of Ezra (which precedes Nehemiah) are actually one book in the Hebrew Bible. Together they constitute our major source of information about the period following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. Talmon, Shemaryahu, “Ezra and Nehemiah,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Vol. (c. 1976 by Abingdon) p. 317. Together these books testify to the resurrection of Judaism for which the backdrop is narrated in First and Second Chronicles. The chronologies in all four books serve to establish the historical ties between Solomon’s temple cult and the rebuilt post exilic temple.
While Ezra, a renowned scribe, is credited with organizing the rebuilding of the temple, Nehemiah, a Jewish governor appointed by the Persian royal court, was chiefly responsible for rebuilding the ruined city of Jerusalem. Together these books tell the inspiring story of a broken people struggling to rebuild their community and live obediently under the covenant with their God in drastically changed circumstances. Our lesson comes at the completion of the wall around Jerusalem and the settlement of the exiles therein. Ezra the scribe calls the people together for a reading of the “law of Moses.” Vs. 1. Though it is probable that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Pentateuch” is referenced here, it is not at all clear that the version Ezra/Nehemiah was working with is the same one we have today. Citations found later in chapter 8 do not appear in any of the five books we know as the Pentateuch.
The peoples’ response to this lengthy reading is lamentation and weeping.vs.9. It is hard to know exactly what was on their mind, but we know that Nehemiah himself wept bitterly at the beginning of the section of this book bearing his name. Nehemiah 1:4. He was weeping over the ruination of Jerusalem and the plight of the returning exiles eeking out an existence in that ravished land. Nehemiah 1:1-3. He recognized, too, that this sorry state was in no small part the consequences of Israel’s sins against her covenant with her God. See Nehemiah 1:4-11. Perhaps the people were weeping for some of the same reasons. They had experienced the ruin of their great nation and it was clear that neither the rebuilt temple nor the reassembled community would rise to the level of Israelite greatness known under the kings of David’s royal line. At first blush, it appears that the best the exiles can hope for is a diminished future as a subject province in the Persian Empire.
Lament is that space between what is and what ought to be-so says Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, former pastor of this congregation and prominent leader in our church. I agree, but must add that sometimes our laments run amok because we don’t always know so well “what ought to be.” As you know, I see a lot of parallels between the post-exilic Jews trying to rebuild their community and the mainline protestant churches (ELCA being one of these) trying to adjust to a post-Christian era. We spend a lot of time mourning all that we have lost. That is not necessarily inappropriate because we have lost a lot that was precious. I am old enough to remember a time when nearly all my friends went to church somewhere. I remember when even small churches like the ones in which I grew up had a youth group numbering between twenty and thirty kids. I have distinct memories of our Sunday School Christmas pageant that involved intense rehearsals of the nativity play conducted each year with near military precision. Growing up in a Christian community with a strong sense of the importance of church, discipleship and witness formed me into the person I am today.
My own children did not come of age in quite the same intense cultural atmosphere of commitment to and involvement in church life. My daughter once remarked to me after a semester of college how “weird” it seemed to everyone she knew that our family went to church every Sunday. Worship is no longer deemed an essential component of the week. It is now an optional activity that some folks practice occasionally and only “weird” people do consistently. My grandchildren will likely grow up in a culture where worship on Sunday is altogether odd. That saddens me.
But lament does not lead to healing if its focus remains solely what has been lost. Nehemiah recognizes that Israel’s past, though glorious in retrospect, was not always characterized by faithfulness to God. Wealth and prosperity bred corruption, idolatry and oppression of the poor. Forgetting that she was once an enslaved people oppressed by the Empire of Egypt, Israel became something of an empire in her own right dominating surrounding nations and even enslaving and impoverishing her own people. The extensive network of statutes in the laws of Moses protecting the poor, the widow and the orphan were largely forgotten. The lure of wealth drew Israel’s ruling class to commercial treaties and military alliances with foreign nations whose false gods and false values soon displaced God’s passion for justice. Perhaps the good old days were not quite so good in God’s eyes.
I think we need to bring Nehemiah’s spirit of searching inquiry to our own laments over the state of our churches. The days of protestant denominational growth surely look like good times to us. Churches were full; financial support was seldom lacking and the Sunday School rooms were packed like subway cars during rush hour. What was not to like? But I am not so sure that these good years were quite so good in God’s eyes. The church in which I was baptized sat on a street with at least a dozen other churches within a half mile of each other (one of which was another Lutheran congregation). I never set foot in any of them and I doubt their members often passed our threshold either. We didn’t need them. Neither did we see any need to express unity in the Body of Christ. We were cocky and confident that our Lutheran brand of Christian faith (actually, our particular flavor of the Lutheran brand) was the best if not the only doctrinally correct form of church. We didn’t want to dilute our doctrinal purity by getting too close to our theologically confused neighbors. We gladly supported missionaries to Africa, but no one would ever have dreamed of extending a worship invitation to the African Americans in the neighborhood just north of us. “They have their own churches,” I remember people saying. It didn’t bother us that our church was just as segregated as the rest of the country in those days. In fact, segregation in general didn’t bother us much. I think God had at least as many reasons for cutting us down to size as for sending Israel into exile.
So maybe we need to expand our understanding of lament to include “that place between where we wish we were and where God needs for us to be.” Through the pain of conquest and exile, Israel learned that faithfulness, not greatness is what God desires. Is God trying to teach the church a similar lesson? Have we learned yet to lament properly? If our sorrow is only yearning for the past, then we have not learned anything. If our quest for change and renewal is nothing more than gimmicky strategies to increase sufficient membership and revenues to keep the ELCA machinery and its institutions running, then our lament has not yet matured into genuine repentance and openness to God’s future. As much “change, transformation and renewal” language as I hear coming down from denominational leadership, a lot of it seems to focus on saving the institution rather than transforming our vision. Much of what passes for “mission strategies” looks to me like the same failed marketing strategies that consultants have been peddling to the business community for decades. (It has been said many times that a consultant is the last straw grasped by a company with one foot in bankruptcy court and the other on a banana peel.)
I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that God is not looking for a powerful church exercising political muscle in the halls of Congress, capturing the attention of the media with its liturgical pomp & circumstance and running dozens of agencies doing every conceivable sort of good. As wonderful as our denominational agencies are and as much good as they do, maybe God does not need them. Rather than an expression of faithful obedience to God’s call, perhaps our desperate efforts to preserve our structures speak more to our own need to prove to ourselves that we are, after all, important. Maybe God needs a church so poor that it has nothing but the Word to depend on. Perhaps a small, broken and scattered church made up of the weak, the foolish, the low and the despised is a more faithful witness to Jesus than the larger, stronger and influential church we are trying so hard to preserve. But that’s just me and St. Paul. What do we know?
In any event, there is a good word for us here whenever we are ready to hear it. God is not done with us. God has a future for the church of Jesus. It might not be the future we envision or the one we would choose if we could choose. But because God is good, we can be sure that it is the best future for us-and the world to which we have been called to bear witness.
This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthy Psalm 119, praises God’s law. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard, W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 145-148. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. So also J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 86.
We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to a collection of practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Mechanical obedience is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14. The scriptures are not an end in themselves. They were given so that through them we might be drawn into a closer relationship with our God.
Paul is continuing a discussion he started at the beginning of this chapter last week. (See post for Sunday, January 17, 2016). To this congregation filled with persons insisting that their own gifts or offices in the church confer upon them a superior status, Paul points out how ludicrous their bickering really is. As I pointed out last week, Paul’s reference to the church as the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. The church really is Christ’s resurrected Body of which we are all members. That being the case, it will not do for the various members of the Body to seek either control or autonomy. Disembodied eyes, ears or hands would be useless for any purpose even if they could survive apart from the rest of the body. The health of the body, and therefore the health of each of its members, requires that all bodily parts function harmoniously in the service of the whole body.
Now you might argue that no church you have ever seen actually functions like a body. You would probably be correct. Certainly the church in Corinth was a long way from anything like a body. Nevertheless, Paul says in verse 27, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” That is because God did not merely take on flesh, but “sinful flesh.” It is God’s intent to indwell less than perfect communities like the congregation in Corinth and like the church at 167 Palisade Avenue where I serve. We are the workshop of the Holy Spirit. God is in our midst shaping us into the kind of people who one day will live as members of a single body. God does that by placing us into communities of people who hurt our feelings, break their promises and disappoint us. How else will we ever learn to forgive as we have been forgiven? How else will we ever learn to preach and to practice reconciliation? The church is not the place you go to get away from it all. If you want to be coddled and pampered, go to the spa. If you want to be sanctified and made holy, go to church.
According to commentator I. Howard Marshall, this passage is the oldest known account of a synagogue service. Based on ancient documentation preserved from other sources, we have a basic idea of how such worship services were conducted. See Commentary on Luke, I. Howard Marshall (Paternoster Press, Ltd., c. 1978), p. 181. Typically, such services began with public confession of the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Thereafter came a series of prayers followed by the readings of scripture. A passage from the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was read by several members of the congregation in turn. There was a lesson from the prophets followed by yet another prayer. Next came the sermon if there was someone in the synagogue competent to give one. The service then closed with prayer. It is not known exactly how universal this format was in Jesus day, much less whether it was used at the particular service described in our lesson. But it could explain why the scroll of the book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus. Moreover, given that Jesus had already gained a reputation as a teacher in other parts, it would not be unusual for some to accept him as a teacher in the synagogue at Nazareth. Equally as well, it would not be unusual for others to question his credentials in view of his evident lack of formal rabbinic training.
The scripture Jesus read in the synagogue is from “Third Isaiah.” See post from Epiphany of our Lord, January 3, 2013. This prophet addressed the exiles returning from Babylon to their homeland in Palestine as they struggled to rebuild their community. This community was indeed poor, captive and blind to any hope for its future. The prophet announces that God has anointed him/her to bring the good news of liberation to these people. Bear in mind that this is a community that has already experienced the failure of a previous prophet’s vision of a glorious return from exile on a garden like pathway through the desert. If they were skeptical of yet another prophet proclaiming yet another such liberation, you can imagine how the congregation at Nazareth some five centuries later must have reacted when Jesus told them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Some folks must have groaned, “Oh pleeease! Not again!” Others evidently were sufficiently impressed with Jesus to give him a hearing. But everything seems to go south when Jesus makes the point that it was also to gentiles, not just good Jewish folk, that the prophets Elijah and Elisha touched with healing hands. The hostile reaction of the crowd to this message prefigures both Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and the rejection of the church’s preaching in many (but not all) synagogues throughout the Roman Empire seen in Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts.
The remarkable thing about this passage is Jesus’ reading of the scripture from Isaiah. He tells his audience not that the scripture will soon be fulfilled, as did the prophet who uttered it, but that it has been fulfilled. The reign of God has begun with the anointing of Jesus for his mission. The opposition to this message, however, is a clear indicator that this new reign of God takes the shape of the cross in a world bound and determined to reject it.