Sunday, February 7, 2016

Learning By Heart

This is the second in a brief series on the early life of Jesus.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21
January 31, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our Old Testament reading today comes from the book of Nehemiah. You may remember that this is a book of history, and Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to the king of Persia. Because he is in a position of trust, the king sends him to Jerusalem to lead the Israelites in rebuilding their city. After the long years of exile, they are finding themselves again, and re-establishing their identity as God’s covenant people. The lessons they had learned and forgotten have been re-learned in the rebuilding of the walls of the city. Now they gather around their beloved Torah, the word of God, and Ezra reads the scripture and interprets it to them. The people are overcome with emotion as they hear the word. Let’s listen with that same attentive delight for God’s word to us in

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.

3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

In our New Testament reading, we continue in Luke’s gospel sometime after we left off when we saw the boy Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. In Luke’s story, Jesus had suffered temptation in the wilderness and returned to his hometown.

It is the Sabbath day, so he goes to the little synagogue in Nazareth. That’s not the big fancy temple, but more like a little country church, with simple stone benches, and a rough wooden table for rolling out the scrolls. Jesus would have been a familiar face in the synagogue, because it was his custom to attend and to participate in worship. Let’s listen for God’s word in

Luke 4:14-21

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

In the Christian churches of Africa, and in many churches here in the United States, the reading of the gospel is preceded by a joyful procession. In parts of Africa, the gospel book, specially bound in a bright cover, is carried into the sanctuary in a clay jar, accompanied by singing and dancing! This is the gospel! Alleluia!

In the synagogue, when the Torah scrolls are removed for the Sabbath service, the congregation sings joyfully in thanksgiving for God’s word, and people reach out to touch the scroll with a prayer book or with the corner of a prayer shawl.

In some congregations, it is the custom to stand for the gospel reading.And in many, many churches, the reading is accompanied by words of praise. Like the people in these stories from scripture, the people of today welcome the reading of God’s word, and respond to it with thanksgiving.The words speak to their hearts, to the very core of their being.

Let’s journey in our imagination to the times of Nehemiah,and join the people there as the scroll is unrolled before them. Their time of exile was long and painful. For years they had lived far from their homeland, in a place that was foreign to them – none of the familiar foods, or customs, or people were there. They were surrounded by a dominant culture that did not follow their God, and they had gradually slipped into despair or resignation. They had not left their homes gladly or willingly –
they left because war and violence pushed them away, and there was nowhere to go but to Persia.

But now! Now they were home!
And beneath the rubble of the devastated wall of the city,they saw the remnants of their heart’s true home, Jerusalem. In Jerusalem was the temple, the holy dwelling place for God, the symbol of God’s covenant promises to make them a great nation.

So they rebuilt the wall, and they put their backs into it,and they put their hearts into it. Oh, to be home, to see the scroll unrolled, to hear God’s word read to them once again, to have the priest Ezra interpret the word to them – they wept for pure joy.

Imagine what that would be like for us.
Imagine being torn away from our homes, no longer able to come and worship here, prevented from sitting in these pews, looking around at those familiar windows, seeing those faces that once sat here with us so long ago, whose memories live with us here.

Imagine that we then came home! 
Would we stand as the word was opened to us?
Would we listen with misty eyes?
Would we lift up our hands and shout, “AMEN! AMEN!”?

Now, let’s leap forward in time to the first century, away from Jerusalem to the little town of Nazareth. It’s no big deal, just a little farm town, with just one synagogue, the one everybody goes to – the rich and poor, men and women, the proud and the lowly, Mary and Joseph, and their boy, Jesus.

We don’t know much for certain about the boyhood of Jesus.We know that he was raised in Nazareth, and that his parents made sure he could read the scrolls, He must have been a thoughtful and inquisitive child – the story of him being left behind in Jerusalem, talking and questioning the temple leaders when he was only twelve years old tells us that.

Some of the stories about him as he grew up, more legend the gospel, tell of him helping his mother by bringing water,even though the jug had broken, and helping his father in the carpentry shop, by stretching out a piece of wood that was cut too short. The legend is that when Jesus saved Joseph’s day with that miracle, Joseph said, “Blessed am I for God gave me this boy.”

We can easily imagine the quiet conversations held by adults in Nazareth as they watched this unusual boy grow to manhood. Maybe they saw that he was destined for greatness.Maybe they shook their heads and said, “What a peculiar child.” Maybe they discounted the stories about him as just talk. In any case, now he is a man, and he is filled with the power of the Spirit. He is a man, and the word is spreading about him, even to Nazareth. We can assume that the reports that spread through the surrounding country are of the things that he is doing, and what he is saying. He was being praised by everyone.

And now, here he is in Nazareth, where they know him.
Now, here is this young man,
the boy they had seen running to the well,
the boy who had skinned his knees and cried,
who had struggled to learn the Hebrew alphabet,
then proudly recited the letters he had learned,
the boy who had studied Torah and learned it by heart.

They know his family,
they know his history,
and maybe they think they know who he is.

Like Ezra, he unrolls the scroll.
Like Ezra, he begins to read.
Here are the words he read to them:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME,
because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent ME to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

You could hear a pin drop.
This was the prophecy, the promise of redemption, of good news, of liberation, of the year of Jubilee when debts were forgiven and slaves set free. They did not jump up and lift up their hands and shout “AMEN! AMEN!"

They watched as he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant.
They watched as he went back to his usual place.
They watched as he sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he said "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Could it be? Could it really be true?
After all the years in exile, they had come back to Israel.
They had rebuilt their homes and cultivated the land.
They had wept as yet another conquering army marched into their country.
They had suffered with bent backs and bowed spirits as the Roman occupiers wielded their power over them. Now he spoke into the rubble of their lives:

It’s me. God has anointed me, sent me. I am the fulfillment. It’s ME.
All the promises they had held close in their hearts, all the waiting…
Here he comes, the Spirit of the Lord upon him,
here he comes to open the scripture to us,
to give back to us the words we know by heart,
the promises we did not dare to believe.

Are you far from home, and lost?
Are you looking for a shepherd to guide you?
It’s me, he says.

Does your life look like rubble, torn apart by conflict?
Are you looking for some peace?
It’s me, he says.

Have you been blinded by the culture around you,
by the advertising and the sales pitches,
been blinded to what is worthwhile,
blinded to what is worth jumping up on your feet and shouting AMEN about?
Do you need someone to help you see what really matters?
It’s me, he says.

Are you burdened by guilt or shame or regret?
Do you need forgiveness, a friend to help you see a better way?
It’s me, he says.

Are you sick and looking for a healer?
Are you rich in things and poor in your soul?
Do you need someone to put your heart right?
It’s me, he says.

When the people came to the temple and opened the scroll,
what they heard was the word of God,
the word they had learned by heart, then forgotten,
as they turned toward other words,
or had their hearts broken by other loves,
or had their hearts hardened by hard times.
But the word was there, all along.
When the people came to the temple and Jesus opened the scroll,
what they saw was the word of God,
the word long promised, the word made flesh,
the one who shouts freedom to the captives,
who mends what is broken,
who proclaims jubilee to the weary world.

If you want to hear the word, and see the word,
and stand up and shout hallelujah, amen!
now would be the time, because he is here, he is here with us right now,
and if you want to know what grace looks like,
and sounds like, and feels like, “It’s me,” he says.


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