3 Epiphany, Year C
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
Our first reading this morning is from the book of Nehemiah. But before we get to it, we need to step back for a moment, and look at what happens before this snippet of the story. Israel’s kingdom had started several hundred earlier when the people made Saul king. Saul did an impressive job of building up the kingdom, but he had some problems, so God replaced him with David, who was even greater. David wasn’t without problems of course, and he sinned gravely in one particularly memorable way, but that doesn’t seem to have taken away from his greatness, and he died after a long life. And then came Solomon, who ruled with wisdom and built the temple. The time of these three kings was the golden age in the history of the kingdom. Things started declining after that, though. And eventually the kingdom was taken over by the Babylonians, who scattered the people, and destroyed the temple. The people lived in exile for generations. This was a very dark period in the life of the Israelites, a period of much sadness. Eventually, the Persians took over, however, and Cyrus the Great allowed the people to return to Jerusalem, and allowed them to rebuild the temple, and rebuild the wall protecting the city.
And that catches us up to today’s reading:
The people have been restored.
The temple has been rebuilt.
The wall is up, ready to protect them again.
The only thing left to do is to renew their covenant with God.
And so, they gathered in the square at the Gate called Water. Before they can renew the covenant, they asked Ezra to read them the book of the law of Moses.
The expression the book of the law of Moses has a particular meaning. This book is not just a book of law and regulations, like the IRS tax code, this book is the story of the people of Israel going back to creation. It is interspersed with various laws and regualtions, but the bulk of it is story. Before they can renew their covenant with God, they need to hear their story, the story of God working in this world, the story of God’s relationship with them over time.
They gathered together that day to hear the foundational stories of their faith: the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and the Exodus; forty years in the wilderness and the entrance into the Promised Land. They needed to hear about God’s faithfulness to them. They needed to hear about the life that God wanted them to live in response.
This was the story of their ancestors, but it was also their story. The people gathered before the Water Gate were the realization of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that they would have more descendants than stars in the sky. They are the realization of God’s promise to Moses that the people would be freed from the bondage in slavery and would dwell in the land of milk and honey. They are the realization of God’s promise to love them unconditionally, more than they could possibly ask for or imagine. And so they gathered together to hear that story. To hear their story – the story of God’s love for them. And they gathered together to hear what God expected out of them – love of God, love of neighbor, care for the poor, release for the captive, healing for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. This was their story. And through this covenant renewal, they were adding a new chapter to the story.
And this was also the story of Jesus. His birth, his life, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection all have to be understood in light of this story. We can only understand Jesus if we understand the creation and the exodus and the covenant as told in that story that the people heard that morning before the Water Gate. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus opened the scripture, read from the Isaiah, and told the people that he was the embodiment of that passage. His life was found in this story.
And this is our story: this is my story and this is your story. By virtue of our baptism, we were grafted into this story: this story of God’s immeasurable love. God loves us more than we can possibly ask for or imagine. Just as God was faithful to them, God is faithful to us, even in those moments when we have not been particularly faithful to God. And God has expectations of us, that we will find our lives in this story, and that we will share that love and mercy and grace that we find therein with others. Yes, this is our story; not just the story of our ancestors, but ours – yours and mine. Our lives are a part of this story. Gathered here today to hear the story, as we do every week, we can renew ourselves and our relationship with God.
The trick is that it is not always easy to understand the story, and to understand what it means to live into this story. For instance, how do we deal with the clear commandment of God to not marry Moabites, on the one hand, and the story of Ruth the Moabite who married an Israelite, and became the ancestor of King David, and Jesus, and was explicitly named as such in the Gospels, on the other? Understanding and interpreting Scripture is not easy. There is no plain meaning of Scripture.
Notice that in the Nehemiah reading, they don’t just read the story; it says that they read it “with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Those two verses that were left out of the reading - you may noticed that the reading skipped verses four and seven – name thirteen people who go around interpreting the Scripture for people as it is read.
Reading and interpretation are done simultaneously, as if you cannot have one without the other. Understanding Scripture is a struggle, a life-long struggle of interpretation and reflection, which means that our understanding will not be static. Our understanding will change with time as we struggle with Scripture, as we struggle with these stories, these stories of our ancestors, and these stories of ourselves, we who have been grafted into this story by our baptism. But if we do engage these stories faithfully, we will grow in our faith as we learn about God’s love for us through them.
For the love of God shines through this story, bubbling up in creation, reflected through promises and covenants and relationships. The love of God is found in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and the Exodus; forty years in the wilderness and the entrance into the Promised Land; the stories of Ruth and David; the stories of covenant renewal by the people before the Water Gate; the stories of Jesus who lived and died and rose again out of love for us, who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. God’s love is found in our story, the Body of Christ today. We find our story within this greater story of God’s immense love for us and for all, which is greater than we could ask for or imagine. Amen.