We have two different stories. Two very different men. Five hundred years apart. Both with ancient scrolls in their hands, reading words from the prophets before them. Words that would forever impact each of their communities.
In the first story, it is Ezra the scribe reading from the law, the Book of Moses, to the people gathered in the public square in a newly rebuilt Jerusalem—all men, women and children.
“All the people” the passage says eight times emphasizing the inclusivity of this event. All were called into the square to listen to the Law of God from a pulpit built for Ezra. Behind and around him were about 25 Levite priests ready to fulfill their roles. Ezra read from the Torah for half a day, and the people did not fall asleep; in fact, they hung on his every word. They lifted up their eyes and blessed the Lord and said “Amen, Amen” and they bowed their heads in reverence. And when Ezra finished with this reading, the priests went out into the crowd to all the people and helped them with the understanding of what the Mosaic Law meant for them. And the people wept – they wept – and we don’t even know why. Maybe it was because their hearts had been pierced by the words of the Law or that tears are the genuine response when a community comes home to God, returns to its identity as God’s people.
In the second story, we have Jesus, in his home synagogue reading from the ancient Isaiah scroll.
This was Jesus’ first sermon. His inaugural address. He stood in the very same synagogue that he was raised in as the son of Mary and Joseph. Luke says that Jesus had been teaching around the countryside since he returned from his 40 days in the wilderness and the people were amazed by his words. He had gathered quite a reputation, so we imagine that his folks at home were excited to hear him in their own synagogue. He was one of them. He was special and they knew it. They remembered when he was 12 years old in Jerusalem at the Temple – left behind for three days – only to be found among the wisest teachers, challenging them, asking questions, learning about the God of his forefathers and foremothers.
So here’s the same Jesus, 30 years old, choosing the Isaiah scroll, in fact, the chapter 61 that proclaims that God’s long awaited Messiah will be the one to release….to set free…to heal…the downtrodden and the outcast. And there was silence. I imagine that the mouths of Jesus’ friends and family and neighbors fell open. When and how did their Jesus gain such authority? Jesus sat down and broke the silence, He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus didn’t need Levites to give the interpretation – his listeners heard him, and understood.
Each week in my very small, neighborhood Pentecostal church growing up, my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Williams – a plump grandmotherly, loving woman – would gather children around the table with her. She’d take out her large leather King James Bible, unzip the cover, and open it up to the passage she had chosen for that morning. I don’t remember any set curriculum, but just that she would have each one of us take turns reading from our own KJV bibles.
After we completed a portion of the reading, Mrs. Williams would look over her glasses and ask, “Well, what do you think? What’s going on here? What is God saying to us? What does this mean to you?” Reading the text together: Mrs. Williams and a group of eight years olds. She was like a Levite priest.
Some educators would say that her method was the death-knell for Christian education. But I, perhaps an odd child, loved it. I felt that I was taken seriously and that the Bible with all of its stories and jarring oddities was mine. It didn’t just belong to the adults. It wasn’t under lock and key preserved for only a special group. I felt empowered to interpret the text so that the Word would become a living word in my life. Mrs Williams was “re-texting our lives” with stories about God and God’s fallible but nevertheless faithful people.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and Jewish scholar, Elie Wiesel, shared in an interview that when he was a child in his Romanian community they started the children reading the Torah together at four years old! He loved it so much that he recalled coming home one day and coming through the door and shouting to his grandmother, “Grandmother, Sarah’s pregnant!” The story of the bible had become his story.
Of course, I’m not the same reader I was as a child, or young adult. I’m not the same reader I was before seminary, and certainly not 20 years into ministry and in midlife. Our challenge no matter what our age or life stage is to draw out the Scripture’s meaning for us in the midst of our very real and textured lives. The text does not change; but as we grow, our understanding changes.
We come to Scripture with different questions; we hear its tough questions of us in new ways because we bring our life experiences to the process of understanding.
Marcus Borg, in his book “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time,” says, “We want the Bible to be a lamp, not a stumbling block. We want it to be truth for us; we long for a meaningful text that will light our path and help us with an understanding of God in our lives.”
Reading the scripture in order to see and understand God more meaningfully means that we approach the text with great respect – with wonder – for the power it has, and for the possibility of change that might occur in us as we hear and understand its words – just as Ezra’s people did.
The two stories this morning are wonderful because each one gives us a glimpse into communities at worship. And here we are!—a community of listeners – about two and half thousand years later – also hearing and seeking to understand God in our lives.
This verb “to understand” occurs six times in the Nehemiah passage. The people’s understanding is crucial to the writer of Nehemiah. What good is the reading unless the people understand it? Jesus made clear that he understood Isaiah’s words that he himself was the fulfillment, the embodiment, of God’s anointed one: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, bring liberation to the prisoner and healing for the sick.” Jesus’ sense of mission and purpose as God’s anointed was to become the community’s mission and purpose. His words should be the church’s mission statement today.
Faced with the temptations and unpredictable challenges of tthis world, it’s easy to forget who we are, and what we’re called to do. Churches, without a doubt, can lose sight of their identity as beloved children of God. We can get off course, distracted by buildings and budgets, growing in numbers but not growing in maturity. We can lose sight of what is our true purpose and mission. That’s why we come together to worship God each and every week, to read and re-read our texts – the scripture, our traditions, our own stories of faith – and by it all we become re-centered, re-aligned, re-texted with God’s truth.
The Scripture is our plumb line. We keep coming back to this odd collection of stories and commandments and wisdom and gospels and letters and crazy apocalyptic literature. This particular little library of sacred stories shapes our lives just as it has been shaping the lives and communities of God for nearly 3000 years. That’s why it’s essential work to draw forth its meaning for this life, this society, the painful situations given to us for the living of these days. We must trust that in this text we will find hidden markers to guide us.
We have the choice to decide which stories will shape and guide our lives. Stories of joy or stories of despair. Stories of life or stories of death. There are many narratives offered to us that we can choose from. Sometimes though we must let go of old stories and claim new ones for our lives.
So – what text, what story, guides your life? What is the story you’ve been living by? Is it a story that brings joy or despair? Forgiveness or resentment? Faith or doubt? Is it a story that fosters greater freedom in your life or keeps you in bondage? Does the story lay claim on your life as God’s beloved child and the truth that – in you – God is well pleased, or are you still carrying around old feelings of unworthiness?
Can our story be the one that assures us that although the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years they were not abandoned by God – and we won’t be either?
Can our story be the story of Jesus who walked the way to the cross and suffered the depths of human pain, but through his resurrection life was victorious over death—and new life is ours as well?
What text do we choose to shape our life together and to claim our mission as a church?
Jesus read the old words from Isaiah and he claimed them for his own.
We can do the same.
So I invite you to please stand – please stand – and repeat after me, sentence by sentence, as we reclaim our mission as the people of God, as Forest Hill Church:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.
The Spirit of the Lord has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim release to the captives.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to help the blind recover their sight.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to free the oppressed.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing.