3rd Sunday after Epiphany. 23rd January 2022.
Readings: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4: 14-21
We donít often hear from the book of Nehemiah, but it is an inspiring story. Nehemiah is one of the exiles carried away from Judah into Babylon, and is working as a cupbearer for the Persian King Artaxerxes, in the fifth century BC, when he is overcome by a strong sense of shame for the plight of his people, separated from their homeland and from their religion. He knows the people have deserved their punishment, as they have sinned against God and forgotten the law of Moses. Nehemiah includes himself amongst those who have sinned against God. So he gets permission from the King, against the odds, as you might say, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. Despite opposition, ridicule and constant danger, Jerusalem is rebuilt, starting with repairs to the city walls, completed in just 52 days. The next task is to rebuild a community fit to live in Jerusalem and to be Godís chosen people again.
Todayís passage from the book of Nehemiah finds a very mixed bag of people in Jerusalem. Some who returned from the exile were the wealthy and independent; some were the poorest of the population who hadnít been exiled in the first place Ė or their descendants. Some of the returning people now had wives and families of other nations and religions, and their loyalties are severely divided.
As a preliminary to the renewal of Temple worship, the priest Ezra reads publicly from the book of the Law. The people have to learn again about their God, and they must do so by learning to live together as a society that is obedient to God. What comes over in the account of this episode is how attentive the people were to what was being said. They stand in front of the Water Gate from early morning to midday Ė and they wept when they heard the words of the Law.
So why do the crowds weep as they listen? Partly perhaps with a nostalgic longing for the past; partly because of shame that they had forgotten to keep the holy laws of God. And maybe their tears were partly tears of joy, that this moment of restoration had come. We all know how there is sometimes a thin dividing line between tears of joy and tears of sorrow.
Itís perhaps a little difficult to get into the mood of Jerusalem that day. But I recall 5th July 2020. That was the day when churches re-opened for worship after the first lockdown. There had been no services in churches for four months, and although many churches provided zoom worship and livestreamed services, as many are still doing today, the meeting together in holy buildings was missing. As it happened, that day was my first Sunday since moving here, and I decided to go to Worcester Cathedral for the Eucharist. It was an emotional moment to be back worshipping together with others, and Iím sure all around the country there were tears of joy and tears of sorrow shed that morning.
But the thing with such religious ceremonies as we read about in Nehemiah is that they should leave you with a focus or a purpose. Just weeping with a nostalgic longing for the past doesnít get you very far, nor does weeping with loathing for yourself or weeping with guilt and sorrow if it doesnít spur you on to something more positive. And in the case of the people of Jerusalem, Ezra tells them to turn their emotion in two directions: they are to remember to feed the poor, and they are to worship God.
Come forward five hundred years or so, and we are in the synagogue at Nazareth. The synagogue was the regular place of worship for every Jew. The law said that wherever there were ten Jewish families there must be a synagogue. The service was divided in three parts Ė worship, Scripture reading and teaching. What I hadnít appreciated until this week was that in most synagogues and on most Sabbaths there were no professional ministers, and anyone versed in the scriptures could be invited to preach. Thatís quite a challenging thought in the different times we live in now, when all of us licensed ministers have to be thoroughly accredited, vetted and properly ordained by a bishop, and such like. So, looking at the synagogue practice, supposing I had tested positive at 9.00 this morning, which of you would stand-in and give the sermon?
But to return to Nazareth, we have a very dramatic scene portrayed to us in this morningís gospel. Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, ďThe Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.Ē Then comes the dramatic moment. 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, ďToday this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.Ē
One gets the impression of the people being mesmerised by the figure and person of Jesus, whom presumably they knew, as this was his home town. So here was Jesus giving his manifesto, if you like. Notice that he didnít claim greatness for himself, nor did he deliver an admonition to people to pull their spiritual socks up, as happened with Ezra reading the Law in Jerusalem. No, Jesus chose to read a passage about bringing Godís favour, and doing Godís justice and creating Godís community. Itís significant that both Ezra in the old testament today and Jesus in the new testament highlight the need to relieve the poor, which has always been an imperative for Godís people.
Today we find ourselves in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I wonder what we mean by praying for Christian Unity? I suspect there are more different Christian denominations now than there ever have been. I believe Iím right in saying that in London alone there are more than 400 different black church organisations. Of course, if you dipped into all the services going on in Malvern today you would encounter many different styles of worship: some exuberant, some quieter; some with many words; the Quakers with very few words; contemporary music, traditional music; some centered on the sacraments, others centered exclusively on the bible; some with formal prayers; others with very informal prayers spontaneously offered; some with professional ministers Ė like Iím supposed to be; others with no identified ministers. The Church across the world is found with an infinite variety of styles of worship and structure. So my prayer is always that Christians will be united in spirit and purpose; doing together what they can, working together to relieve need, and yet respecting differences in doctrine, church order and styles of worship, which are often deeply held.
In Malvern, we are blessed in having a very active Churches Together community, and Christians seem keener to work together than in many places I know. Thank God for that, and for initiatives in which we work together, such as the Lyttelton Well, the Peace and Justice group, support for the Foodbank; the Christians Against Poverty group; the Maggs day centre, the Amnesty International group, and now the Dementia Meeting Centre at St Matthias.
But letís just return to the readings today. Both place a very great emphasis on the Word of the Lord, written and spoken. The people in Jerusalem stood all morning just to hear the word of the Lord, and wept when it sunk into their hearts. And in Nazareth, people were transfixed on Jesus as he was about to unfold the scriptures to them.
So how strong is our devotion to the word of God? Do we Ďread, mark, learn and inwardly digestí Ė as one of the Prayer Book collects puts it? How would we fare if told on entering the synagogue - ĎYou give the teaching today?í And does our Christian witness and bearing bring good news to the poor, and proclaim release to captives Ė of whatever sort, and provide recovery of sight to the blind, outwardly or inwardly Ė and help the oppressed go free? And are we working with other Christians in spirit and purpose to help all this happen?
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