Sermons That Work

Listen with Understanding, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2007

January 21, 2007


On this the third Sunday after Epiphany we are presented with images of two public readings from the law and the prophets. These images are highly dramatic, and in visualizing them, we need to also feel some of the emotion of the context in which they were read and some of the excitement of the persons listening to the reading.

In the book of Nehemiah, which appears only twice in our lectionary, Ezra, the scribe, is reading aloud from the Mosaic law to the returned exiles who are gathering at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. He read from early morning to midday, the book tells us, and the listeners included both men and women. The writer emphasizes repeatedly that the people heard with understanding, and that the readings were interpreted for them, from the ancient written language to the spoken contemporary language they could understand.

At a time when the Bible has become an idol for so many of our compatriots, this note is important—listening with understanding. Referring to the Bible as the ultimate truth without knowing what is in it, how it was written, who wrote the various books, under what circumstances, without being aware of the context of each story, does no honor to our beloved Scriptures. We cannot allow words to enslave us; we must pray that their truth will liberate us. To cling to a verse in order to defend a position that justifies our personal bias and prejudice is tantamount to idolatry.

In Nehemiah’s time, the people hear the law and they weep. They are so deeply moved to hear again what they consider their legacy from Moses that they fall on their faces to worship the Lord and they continue weeping. But the scribes and priests and their governor, Nehemiah, remind them that this is a holy day and a cause for joy and celebration and for sharing with those who have nothing. It is too bad that the 12th verse is not included in this first lesson because it is significant: “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

This is the first image from today’s readings. The second comes several centuries later. The people are no longer exiles but they are under the yoke of the Romans. Their longing for Messiah has not abated. They do the customary thing and go to the synagogue to hear the prophets and the law read to them. The location this time is Nazareth. Jesus has been baptized by John, has called his disciples to his ministry, and has wrestled mightily with the tempter in the desert. Triumphant after defeating the temptations of earthly power, of easy miracles and magic, he returns home to Nazareth. He knows who he is and what his mission from God is. He also knows that the people hearing him remember him as the son of their own Mary, of Joseph the carpenter, the brother of several men and women who live in their midst. With the assurance of a prophet, he chooses to read from Isaiah, those powerful, familiar passages of the Servant Song. He proclaims his mission, here in the town where he grew up: he has come for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. The categories fit the poor people of Nazareth as they fit the poor people of captive Palestine under the Romans and their collaborators among of the higher clergy. It is an electrifying moment when he says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Twenty centuries later these words cause cold chills to run up and down the spines of those of us who understand their import. What must it have felt like to hear them from the mouth of the one who was convinced of his mission to the poor and the oppressed?

At first the listeners are complimentary: How well he speaks! And he is one of our own!

But Jesus, as will be made clear throughout his ministry, does not flatter, does not give the people only what they want to hear, but challenges their closest-held beliefs. He finds that he cannot do miracles in his hometown. The people’s doubts, suspicions, and lack of faith form a wall that even he cannot break through. He tells them that they are not the only ones who are chosen by God—that certain ancient prophets ignored the chosen in order to heal specific individuals, foreigners, who, though not of the house of Judah, were people of faith nonetheless. Jesus’ listeners don’t like this turn in the lesson. They revel in their choseness by God. How dare he doubt their righteousness? A moment ago they were praising him; now they are ready to do him harm. Having foreigners, non-Jews, included under God’s mercy is not welcome to their ears. It somehow insults their own righteousness.

Jesus, the supreme master at laying bare the subtle sins of the human heart, continues to challenge us today as he did his own people on that first day in Nazareth. What are our own assumptions about the scriptures?

The passage from Isaiah that Jesus makes his own is not only the ministry of our Lord on this earth but also the mission of the church. Our presiding bishop keeps emphasizing the mission we are called to do in the world. How liberating it would be in this season of Epiphany to focus on the mission to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed instead of arguing about interpretation of certain biblical passages.

Both Nehemiah and Jesus call us powerfully today to listen with understanding. And St. Paul urges us, together with the Corinthians, not to break up the Body of Christ. “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Amen.

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