Nehemiah 8:1-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
The first quandary to address this week is what to do about the parameters for the assigned Gospel text. To stop at verse 21 or invade next week’s verses and tell the whole story of Jesus’ preaching debut, that is the question.
The particular problem of our era is the reality that those in the pews this week are not necessarily those seated there next week. What is considered “regular” worship attendance these days? Twice a month? Once a month? This isn’t about chiding; this is about understanding the reality in which we operate. And this reality puts a different twist on today’s text in the radically different story one hears in the first half compared with the second.
The first half portrays a celebratory, home-town-kid-makes-good narrative. The verses that start the text assigned for next week start out with that tone, too, but quickly the story turns ugly… as ugly as it gets. It has that Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday dichotomy, cheering parade turned murderous mob, but in this incidence the transition is even swifter. So, back to the dilemma at hand: stop with a happy ending or press on to the dark one? (Or go with Nehemiah or 1 Corinthians and skip the Gospel lesson this week and next?)
It may be easier to take the story as a whole, but I advocate keeping with the verses as assigned. They are rich and I fear that if we preach the entire story we will miss some of the gems there are to mine in both readings. It is fine to let our hearers know that there is “more to the story.” Maybe even tell them to be sure and be back next week, or listen to the recording of the service because, like “Serial” or “The Making of the Murder,” each part of the tale reveals details with critical ramifications. (Imagine that your worship services were so compelling that folks said upon leaving, “I can’t wait to find out what happens next week!” Surely, God’s salvation history is that riveting, so why not imagine that such a response is possible? Doing so would certainly energize both our preparation and our presentation.)
If you choose to go this route, hanging tightly to verses 14-21, what puzzle pieces are there to help reveal the whole scope of the God’s grand, saving story? I would argue for some key words that represent God’s movement toward us since creation:
How’s that for some fun alliteration? Have a “four S” sermon and see if you can get people to hang with you all the way through the list.
The Spirit is a major player in Luke/Acts. Already in Luke, the Spirit has been actively present in Jesus’ baptism and in leading him into the desert. Jesus is said to be “full of the Holy Spirit” and “filled with the power of the Spirit” (in contrast to all those in the synagogue who are “filled with rage” later in the story). Jesus is not a lone ranger; he is commissioned, led and empowered by the Spirit. The same Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation continues to be actively working out God’s plan for God’s good and beloved world.
At this pivotal point in the meta-narrative there is continuity, and all that Jesus does, he does as part of what God has already done. Even though there is a turning upside down of expectations and fortunes with the ministry of Jesus, there is not a wholesale discarding or degradation of the Triune God’s actions in the past. This might be an important reminder to us as we recognize both the reality and need of change. God seems to be about the work of recycling, upcycling, repurposing and reusing rather than loading up the landfill. Remember, not even the leftovers are left to rot on the grass, they are gathered up. What would happen in our communities if we viewed them through that kind of lens?
This continuity – this nothing wasted, nothing lost notion – is also present in the rest of the S’s. Synagogues, Sabbath, Scroll/Scripture, all old school, if you will. God in Christ is doing a new thing, so counter to our sense of fairness and rightness that it will incite a murderous mob in a few verses – but the new thing is very much grounded in the old, the ancient, the unchanging nature of our God. This holds true for the Nehemiah text and the 1 Corinthians one, too. The law being read is the same law that has always been read. The context is different, the people are different, the teachers are there to help bridge the gap between existing law and current situation, but nothing has been simply jettisoned. It is the same Spirit at creation, in Luke and dispensing gifts in Corinth. It is that one body that can’t just tell parts of itself that they are no longer needed so be gone. All three of these pericopes demand that we not give in to the values so pervasive in our consumer, disposable culture. God in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, is doing a new thing that is unexpected from our perspective but absolutely in keeping with what God has always and will forever do and be. God don’t make no junk and God doesn’t give up on that good creation. God is faithful to the covenant, even when we are not.
It is God’s faithfulness, continuity and loving kindness that has brought Jesus back home to the place where he learned of the very scrolls of which he will read and fulfill. God hasn’t changed God’s mind about the world. Instead, God has sent Jesus Christ to change our attitude towards that beloved world and its myriad of inhabitants, the poor and captive included. Will that preach?
The Luke text for this Sunday is a cliffhanger: All the eyes of the people Jesus knows, and yes loves, are fixed upon him. He ends by saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We know, however, that they have not yet had the ears to truly hear. Perhaps that’s how we can close our sermons, too. This Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Next week we will ask each other: What did you hear? We can promise those gathered that next Sunday will be a real cliffhanger, too. One they won’t want to miss.
- Do some digging on Nehemiah and Ezra. Who are these people? What is the context for chapter 8? Any significance to the listing of all those hard to pronounce names? (Lectionary leaves them out, I say go for it. Read with confidence and no one will question if you got it right.)
- What do you make of the people’s response to the reading of the law in Nehemiah and Ezra’s instruction not to weep but to rejoice? How is “the joy of the Lord” our strength?
- What existing elements and customs of your congregations need to be changed? How might those things be used/reused, built upon and transformed rather than simply tossed aside? Are there things that really just need to go? How do you discern the difference?
- How is “being praised by everyone” a dangerous thing? Should such praise ever be a cause for self-examination? Caution?
- Spend some time with the verses Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 and 58. What does Luke include from these chapters? What gets left out? What is the significance of this redaction?
- Here is a prayer for “Right Hearing of God’s Word” from “A Book of Reformed Prayers” edited by Howard Rice and Lamar Williamson Jr.: O God, inexhaustible source of all good things, we bless thee for the gifts of thy love. Grant that we may hear thy word with a real desire to receive what it promises and to practice what it commands. Engrave it not only on our minds but in our hearts, and transform us by thy Spirit into the image of thy Son, making us contemplate thy glory in the clear mirror of the gospel.
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