This week's texts are pretty much about what happens what Bible is read out loud to people! Nehemiah 8:1-10. When I was discovering the life of faith in vibrant community during my college days, we sang “The Joy of the Lord is your Strength” (yes, this one) – clapping along to its chipper melody. The songbook had Nehemiah 8:10 in parentheses, which made it feel really biblical! I never looked it up though.
Context, context. Ezra, who seems like a deadly serious priest, somehow gets word out to the masses that there will be a public reading of Scripture. The Law, the Torah – and in the “seventh month,” Tishri, latter September for us, the ultimate high feast month, including the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. Not in the temple, but at the Water Gate (still being excavated, but massive!), facing across the Kidron Valley toward the Mt. of Olives. The hill must have formed a bit of an amphitheater, the stone wall of the gate a sounding board backdrop.
Preachers more clever than I might figure out what to do with the inevitable echo of "Watergate" from modern times, the Nixon break-in fiasco, and Monica Lewinsky's home in DC! Reading God's Word is the end to secrecy, infidelity, the truth coming out?
Had they not heard this text for some time? They didn’t own Bibles; most were illiterate. Ezra reads – for hours, sunup until noon. Clearly not the entire Torah, which would require more time. What portions did he select? Laws about holiness? Probably. Stories of Adam and Eve, or Abraham offering up Isaac just up that hill, or the parting of the sea, the manna? The drama: they stand, they raise their hands, they bow, they weep.
We learn that “interpretation” was provided as he read. Were the Levites translating into Aramaic for those who didn’t know its ancient kin, Hebrew, any longer? Were some expository remarks prepared? I wonder about a sermon where I simply read portions of the Torah to my people. Can I trust the Scriptures, even or maybe especially the Law, to elicit that “joy of the Lord” which is genuine “strength”? The Psalter is about joy in reading, and our Gospel reading similarly depicts Jesus simply reading from such a scroll.
Psalm 19 certainly finds immense joy in this Law! Psalm 19 is pretty inviting for a sermon. I preached on it during our Psalm series in the Spring (watch here). We begin with Creation, big creation, like from 15 billion years ago, inviting us to be in awe, not because it’s photogenic, but because it reveals God’s mind and heart. There’s music in the air… Ancient people believed the stars left music in their wake as they streamed across the sky. Science says No, but then we miss the awe, the joy. Paired quite naturally with this is the Psalm’s pleasure, sheer delight in the Law. Not a burden, not to make us chafe, but the marvelous gift of the God who created so we then can be created, re-created as beautiful people in sync with God’s lovely, sweet ways in the world.
This law is “perfect,” reminding me of a lovely reflection from Kathleen Norris. She was asked by a priest if she'd pray for him. She fretted about whether she could do this well or not: "I realized that was my pride speaking, the old perfectionism that’s dogged me since I was a child. Well, or badly was beside the point. Of course I could pray, and I did. Perfectionism is one of the scariest words I know. It is a marked characteristic of American culture, a serious psychological affliction that makes people too timid to take risks and causes them to suffer when, although they’ve done the best they can, their efforts fall short of some imaginary standard. ‘Perfect’ isn’t about striving for impossible goals. It is taken from a Latin word meaning ‘complete, entire, full-grown.’ To those who originally heard it, the word conveyed ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’"
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a. One of my main points in The Beauty of the Word is the reminder to us to preach not merely to individuals but to the Body, not focusing on the solo listener out there, but speaking to the Church as church. To me, that’s even more interesting that poking around the various gifts enumerated here by Paul. After all, his list isn’t exhaustive, but representative.
This Body, this coalescing and organizing of the gifted, is a supernatural entity, as Ben Witherington reminds us. “Diversity” can be one of those code words that divides us (as clarified beautifully in my podcast with Amanda Ripley on her great book, High Conflict). Whether we use the word or not, we recognize that diversity simply is. God made us with more diversity than we realize.
The Corinthians were confused about their bodies. Paul counters by declaring You are a Body! Pagans used this image to reinforce upper-class ideology; you’re part of the body, so stay in your place. Paul does his theological origami on this image, lifting up the weakest members as the key to the functioning of the whole!
Luke 4:14-21. Jesus taught in the synagogues around Galilee. You can see all the way across, with glimpses of little towns, some of them now excavated – like Magdala, where we can now visit the ruins of that synagogue where Jesus taught, and one Mary Magdalene heard him and traipsed off after him. We forget Jesus wasn’t some new thing. “Today Scripture is fulfilled.” God’s old thing continues, or climaxes, or is enfleshed in Jesus. But he’s a Bible guy, as in the ultimate expression of the whole book, and also as someone who knew the book and taught it himself. No wonder artists over the centuries have depicted him holding a Bible!
Imagine the drama in Nazareth: “He unrolled the scroll.” This would have taken some time – so is suspense building? It also would have been heavy, a physical challenge to unroll the thing to just the right location he’d chosen. The greatest of the Dead Sea scrolls is the complete scroll of Isaiah from roughly the time of Jesus! This artifact is 24 feet long!
The lectionary lops off the important second half of the story – that the crowd nearly assassinated him for connecting the ancient text to the present day, and to himself! We’re never sure the Good News is all that real, so tangible – and that it really is for the poor.