Neh 8:1-10, 1 Cor 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21
Let’s take today’s readings and look at them in chronological order. First we have Nehemiah. The people are gathered together and the Law of the Lord, as given to Moses, is read out, and, importantly, explained, by the Levites – the clergy of their day. The people are being brought back to the basics, to the foundation documents of their nation, their faith. And these are also foundations of our faith, and of the legal system of our nation.
The people were greatly moved by all they heard, and began to weep and be sad. Why was that?
Maybe their conscience was being convicted of all their failures to follow God’s law. Maybe they could see that God was so loving that God had a great plan for them, and they had somehow failed to grasp it, and hence were no longer living in the beautiful fullness of life that God had marked out for them.
Reading the word of God can have this effect. How we read the Bible is as important as reading it at all. Some people use a system where they do a large chunk every day, and the goal is to read the Bible in a year. Well that’s fine, but it doesn’t give much time to absorb the details, or to let them speak to you. It’s a bit like doing a road trip – when I lived in Wellington, sometimes I would hear friends say that they were going to hire a campervan and ‘do’ the South Island, and they had a week. Well, technically you could drive through the South Island in a week, but it would be just one big drive, with no time to absorb your surroundings. No time to drink pure mountain water, or appreciate the delicate plants growing in the Alps. No time to turn over bits of fossilised tree at Curio Bay, or watch the sunset over Punakaiki rocks.
Reading the Bible can be like that too. It can be nourishing for our souls to take a little part, to chew over it, and to think about it and what it means for us. To let God speak to us through it.
Nehemiah’s country folk probably had more of a marathon of the word of God – the law of Moses may have meant the Talmud, the first 5 books of the Bible. In my Bible that is 191 pages! We were told that they heard it from early morning till midday, so that’s quite a lot to take in. But it wasn’t just the word – the Levites were explaining it to them. Some parts would be easier to understand than others, and remember that for them it was more immediate, recent history. They would not be coming at it afresh, but even if they hadn’t heard it in that form before, the stories would have been familiar parts of their culture.
When the people heard the word, they were sad, but the Levites urged them not to be, but to rejoice, to be glad, and have a celebratory feast! They reminded the people that the joy of the Lord was their strength!
Is the joy of the Lord your strength? Can you rejoice when when life is getting pretty grim, when bills mount up and health grinds down? When family are awful and friends abandon you? These things can be countered by an understanding of how great God’s love for us is, that huge love that understands us, that walks our journeys with us, and that ultimately will welcome us home with God.
Let’s come now to our Gospel reading, the next one in order, as it happened before Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
Jesus had been preparing for his public ministry in many ways, by studying scripture, by prayer, by reflection in the wilderness. He had begun to heal and his reputation was spreading. In today’s reading Jesus is back at home in Nazareth, and turns up at the synagogue to take part in regular worship. He is asked to do a reading, and handed the scroll. We don’t know if the particular passage he chose was set down for the day, but Jesus turned straight to it. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me” he said. This passage would have been familiar to the hearers. But what was not familiar was his comment that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Can you imagine how the listeners would have felt? It was a familiar reading about prophecy, and from one of their greats. But here was Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter, the guy who was born in somewhat questionable circumstances, and who had spent time out of town. An ordinary man, even if he was starting to stir up a bit of a fuss with reports of healing and preaching around the place. Here he was, equating himself with the Messiah! What a huge claim to make!
Today’s passage that we heard stops there, but we need to have a look at what happened next. People’s ears were pricking up, amazed at the grace that he spoke, wondering if he really could be the one they had waited for, and more particularly if he would be able to led them against the hated Roman occupiers. Jesus went on to remind them that in the days of the prophets, God’s ministry had come not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles – the widow at Zarepath, and the Syrian leper. He was making a point that God was for everyone, and that the Jews couldn’t just expect God to be their avenging army, their world policeman, that God was going to act like people have expected America to act in the last hundred years, sorting out everyone else’s little wars.
This didn’t go down at all well with the people, who were probably disappointed and confused. They drove Jesus out of town.
The sense of universality of God’s good news in continued in our Corinthians reading. This is familiar to many, and has lovely images of ears talking to eyes, and feet to hands, realising that they need each other. The sense of the body of Christ is a strong metaphor, and one the church needs to be reminded of often. So many times the church has split away from itself – little groups have had a disagreement with the others and split off to make their own denomination.
We have so many different denominations today. I used to live in Tawa, and it was renowned for having more churches per capita than any other area in the southern hemisphere!
Unfortunately that doesn’t lead to unity, and many wars and family feuds have been fought over differences in religious ideas.
Our reading from Paul tells us that we all have a place in the body. We may all be different, and that’s a good thing. If you think about your own body, you really wouldn’t want to be all eyes would you? It would be hard to make, let alone drink, a cup of tea if that were the case! The same in the church. Here in Linwood-Aranui we have many different sorts of people, and we all have a role to play. You may say, but I’m no good a reading a lesson, I can’t take part in the worship. But you might be an awesome flower arranger, or a great welcomer, or an expert at hugs! But even if you think of yourself as not very good at anything in particular, you are still a valued and loved part of the body of Christ. Maybe you are there to be ministered to, rather than to minister to others. Sometimes it is hard to let others care for us, but in graciously receiving their ministry, we are blessing them.
So what can we take away from our readings today?
First, that when we hear scripture, even though we may be convicted and feel our lack, that God wants us to find joy in God, and that joy will be our strength.
From Jesus’ preaching – that the Spirit of the Lord is for everyone, not just the chosen few.
And that everyone has a part to play in the body of Christ, as we live in the fullness of joy in the Lord.