Saturday, 23 January 2010

These people, today

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

Luke 4 v 14-21

The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding… He read from it … 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.

Nehemiah 8 v 1-3

As I read over today’s Old Testament reading, it took me back to my youth fellowship days when, as a fairly young teenager I was involved in a couple of “Bible Reading Marathons”

We’d meet at church early on a Saturday morning and read the Bible, all taking it in turns, for 24 hours, culminating in the reading at the Sunday service.

There was regular food and rest through the day but always a handful of folk in the sanctuary keeping the readings and readers going.

During the day, adults from the church would pop in and out to lend their support and encouragement.

It actually seems a bit bizarre now but that was our efforts at fundraising for mission – a Bible Reading marathon.

Our reading from the book of Nehemiah this morning tells just a little of the story of the Jews rebuilding their lives on return from exile.

For many years they have been banished from their homeland, often separated from loved ones.

When they are finally able to return, their city is in ruins as is their whole way of life.

Living in exile, their younger members in particular have picked up on customs and practices that are unfamiliar and there has not been the opportunity to teach and live according to their heritage.

It is only once the city is rebuilt and the temple is restored that efforts can turn to re establishing religious custom and culture.

That is why the people stand in amazement listening to the word of the Lord.

For the older folk there, although it may have been some time since they have heard it, there is joy in listening to words that were once familiar.

There is at once pleasure and nostalgia.

For the younger folk, previously unthirled to the word, there is mystery and beauty in the language of their forebears and, it would seem, a challenge, calling from them a response.

What a wonderful picture of the power of the word of God.

A challenge for us today might be to ask ourselves:

When is the last time we felt such a response to the word?

When was the last time we recognized its beauty or felt called out by its challenge?

“and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

A people starved of that word on which their whole culture was built, that word that shaped their heritage, riveted by the reading of the age-old text.

Hungry to hear more.

the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

When we hear the word, what does it stir up in us?

As we hear it read Sunday by Sunday, perhaps even more often, what does it mean to us?

I’ve long been a fan of words – aren’t most ministers?

Never say in one word what you can say in five!

Anyone who has been in my study will know how much I love books.

But I like to know how words came to be, how phrases came into common usage.

I used to trawl through books to find out the origins of sayings:

Phrases like “giving someone the cold shoulder” or “turning a blind eye” or “pulling out all the stops”.

Now it’s really easy to find meanings or common usage.

A quick search on the internet.

And it’s amazing the way meanings change over time.

For instance – cool – a term not used so much by young folks now but one that we might have used replaced the term bird.

That’ s how we get birdie in golf – one under par – a good shot – cool.

Meanings evolve and even change:

That Easter hymn – There is a green hill far away, without a city wall – referred to a green hill outside the city wall, not missing the wall.

Or the old prayer: prevent us O Lord in all our doings.

Why would God want to prevent us – surely we do some good?

But Prevent meant – go before.

Go before us Lord makes so much more sense.

I love the bit in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll when Humpty Dumpty describes his philosophy on definitions:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’(Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll)

Perhaps, we’re a bit like that when it comes to Scripture.

It means whatever we want it to mean, whatever suits us.

We’re so used to hearing it that, far from being riveted to it like the exiles returning home of whom we read in Nehemiah, we treat it lightly and, at best, barely hear it or, at worst, make it mean whatever we like.

Jesus returned to his home town and read from Scripture. He read a text with which his elders would be so familiar.

But Jesus put a whole new spin on it.

“Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” said Jesus.

“Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”

And what was that scripture?

“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 favour.”

Good news.

Release.

Recovery.

Freedom.

Favour.

The people heard very familiar words.

But in a wholly different context.

Because Jesus said to them: Today this Scripture is fulfilled.

It wasn’t about history.

The present was what mattered.

Just as it matters today.

No matter our heritage.

No matter our history.

What matters is how we live out our Christian life today.

We are called to preach and to live

Good news.

Release.

Recovery.

Freedom.

And favour.

And to do that today.

Whether we know the familiar scriptures inside out or whether we feel out of our depth.

Whether we’re bored listening to them.

Or whether we hunger for more and are rapt with attention.

It’s what we do with Scripture today that counts.

It’s the world around us today that we are called to serve.

And that means that our past, however wonderful pales against the demands of being church in the world today.

Because still Jesus calls us to serve the poor.

This sanctuary and this people can tell a wonderful story.

A story of growth and fun and love.

The story of Christian witness in this community is one worth celebrating.

But it is a story that belongs to the past.

And the challenge in today’s gospel is to resurrect that witness for this day and for these people.

To see this Scripture fulfilled today by our love and actions in the community we serve now.

To capture the Spirit of God that was the driving force in days gone by and to harness that Spirit to drive us forward now.

That was a spirit that was prepared to take risks, that was prepared to welcome all, even those who were different.

It was a spirit that persuaded folk to pitch in and achieve wonderful things together because everyone was committed, everyone responded and there was work to be done.

Still there is work to be done.

And the urgency is just as great.

So what holds us back today?

Are we tired?

Are we afraid to take risks?

Are we content or too comfortable?

Jesus said to them: Today this Scripture is fulfilled.

That word of the Lord is just as powerful today as it was in Jesus day.

The word of God should be as riveting for us as it was for the exiles returning home.

The mission that Jesus sets before us is every bit as urgent.

As urgent as it was when this community here was growing up.

And the Spirit that achieved wonderful things in the past is every bit as powerful to achieve great things for God today.

Our tiredness, our jadedness, our less than enthusiastic response hold back the mission of God here in this place.

What will it take to know once again that Today, Scripture is being fulfilled in this place.

“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 favour.”

Today, let us here fulfil this Scripture. For the glory of God.

Amen.

2 comments:

Mompriest said...

I like where you take this, good sermon! thanks for sharing it.

Nik said...

Like it Liz. Good stuff as ever. Go well tomorrow.

Oooh my wordverf is 'lastr' - so may your sermon be a 'laster' - one that lasts/ stays in the minds and hearts and lives of your congregation