Reading Ramblings – January 24, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 24, 2016

Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:16-30

Context: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” So John begins his Gospel account, defining Jesus as the very expression of God the Father, the Word through whom all is created. Jesus is thus the embodiment of the Word of God, the Word that comes to us in Scripture. The two are one in the same. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our Fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1) God never stops speaking, and attending to that Word is the difference between good and evil, order and chaos, life and death. The Word that speaks life is not obvious to a creation born dead in sin. It is only by the power of God the Holy Spirit that the Word of God can be heard and received not with terror and dread, but with joy and thanksgiving.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 – I tend to immediately get annoyed when readings are chopped up like this. However I can understand the rationale – the missing verses include lists of names that are challenging to pronounce, to say the least, and don’t (by our modern standards) provide any real importance to the overall flow.

Nehemiah is a contemporary of Ezra. In Hebrew the two books were traditionally fused together into a single book, and remained such until at least the early second century, when the two were separated. Nehemiah deals with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, and what we might consider more secular issues. Ezra deals with the rebuilding of the Temple. So it is that Ezra is the one to read the Book of the Law to the assembled people here in Nehemiah 8.

God’s people have returned from exile in Babylon. They have become aware over the intervening years of the cause of their misery – their failure to adhere to the covenant stipulations their forefathers entered into at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24. So it is fitting that here, as they rebuild their Temple and their city, as God re-establishes them in the land and city of their forefathers, that they should recommit themselves in obedience to God’s Word. The effect of the Word is powerful. People are moved to fear and sorrow over their disobedience, over how they failed in the past and fail still to keep the requirements of the covenant. Yet Nehemiah and the priests don’t use this as an opportunity to whip the people into a religious fervor of new, heightened obedience. Instead, the people are commanded to celebrate. Somehow there is the recognition that the Word of God – their ignorance and rejection of which caused their exile – is still somehow ultimately a source of joy and hope, a reason to celebrate.

Psalm 19 – The first six verses make it clear that the Word of God is not limited to the words of the prophets or the Word of the Bible or even the person and work of the incarnate Son of God. God is constantly speaking, and his Word is constantly being proclaimed even in the works of nature that declare his glory. So it is that Paul can argue in Romans that nobody can say that they didn’t know about God, that they had no knowledge of his Word (Romans 1:18-23). The next five verses extol the benefits of God’s Word. But, as the final verses hint, the Word also makes clearer to us our failures to adhere to it. If only imperfectly, the Word shows us that we are disobedient and sinful both willfully and accidentally. Yet somehow, despite all of this, the Word should make us holy and acceptable to God the Father, and the final words of the psalm make it clearer how this might be. Not through our obedience and self-perfection, but through the redemption of God. We must be saved. Bought back. Redeemed.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a – Having elaborated on the variety of gifts that the Holy Spirit manifests among God’s people, Paul now goes to great lengths to make it plain that such diversity is a blessing. It is only in the diversity of God’s gifts that God’s people as the Church can function well. To presume that everyone should have the same gifts, or that everyone should have one particular gift in addition to other gifts is foolishness, as foolish as wishing that the entire body was comprised only of eyes or ears.

While this seems only logical when considering our physical bodies, we sinfully can’t extend this reasoning to the body of Christ.

We do not all possess the same gifts. We do not all perform the same work within the body. There have always been those who sinfully and erroneously insist to the contrary, and Paul clearly denounces such ideas here. Contextually from Paul’s writings we know that speaking in tongues was apparently a highly desired spiritual gift, and perhaps that is what Paul refers to here. Today we highly value the gift of evangelism, and Christians are repeatedly belabored to exhibit this gift of the Holy Spirit. In both cases though, the belaboring is misplaced. We should celebrate and lift up the gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows, neither desiring to have a gift other than what we have been given, nor treating one gift as superior to the others. There is only one gift to be truly desired above all others, or more accurately, along with all others – the gift of love that Paul will describe in the next chapter.

Luke 4:16-30 – Since this is still the season of Epiphany, the Old Testament and Gospel lessons continue to work together to emphasize the revelation of the divinity of Christ. So we skip over Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – which happens in isolation – and move to his return to his hometown of Nazareth.

Jesus has begun his public ministry (4:14-15). He has begun to get a name for himself in the region of his hometown and now He returns there after spending most of his time in the vicinity of Capernaum. No doubt his hometown is aware of his exploits, and they gather in the synagogue as much from curiosity as devotion. The overseer of the synagogue would have invited Jesus to do the reading, and Jesus adds his own interpretation at the end. Just as Ezra and the priests hundreds of years earlier, Jesus makes the sense of Isaiah’s words clear to the people.

Their response isn’t exactly the same as the people hearing Ezra. Rather than being moved to sorrow and fear that they are in the presence of God’s anointed one, they take offense. How can Jesus be the subject of Isaiah 61? He’s just a local boy. His family is nothing special. Yet now they are to treat him as the Lord’s promised servant? Fat chance of that, buddy! Well, that’s nothing new, Jesus insists. People have always and continue still to have difficulty accepting that somebody they knew in one way is suddenly someone different and greater.

Jesus reveals the Word of God and himself as the fulfillment of it. Their reaction is rejection to the point of violence – to the point of expressly violating the very Word of God they seem so intent on preserving the integrity of! But their misguided responses are unsuccessful. We can never invalidate the Word of God. We can either show ourselves to be in harmony with it or we can rebel against it – unsuccessfully! When we come to God’s Word our reaction to it should be important. Do we accept what it says, regardless of how difficult and counter-intuitive it might be? Or do we reserve the right to reject the Word of God when it suits our preferences, our ideas of holiness or convenience or kindness better? How we receive the Word of God is a clear indicator of whether we are receiving God’s Word as normative for our lives, or continuing to sin as Adam and Eve did by seeking to be like God and rewrite his Word.

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