The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 27 January 2018

January 27, 2019 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 Psalm 19 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a Luke 4:14-21

With the third Sunday of this Ordinary Time, we move out of the themes of the original Alexandrian Epiphany feast and turn to broader considerations of how Jesus acts to manifest the presence of God in his ministry.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
This story of Ezra reading “the book of the law of Moses” before the people, “with interpretation,” helps to set the stage for the story of Jesus reading in the synagogue in Nazareth below. Set in the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Second Temple after the Exile, this narrative of the public reading of scripture is significant for a couple of reasons.

First, it may indicate the first time “the book of the law of Moses” was made publicly available in Jerusalem. Modern scholarship suggests that the Pentateuch as we now have it was largely assembled in Babylon during the Exile, when priests who no longer had a Temple to serve took the various scrolls they had rescued from the ruin of Jerusalem and edited them together into a single account. If that is so, then it may be that Ezra the priest is introducing for the first time to the people of Jerusalem the newly compiled Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. Or even if we do not take this story quite so literally, even if we regard this story as an embellished bit of historical fiction, it may still be meant to convey the central fact that the Exiles brought home with them from Babylon a new set of scriptures.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this story underlines a new sense of the importance of scripture in the life of the people. In 2 Kings 22-23 the story is told of the discovery of the “Book of the Law,” possibly a version of Deuteronomy, in a genizah of the Temple. When the book is read to King Josiah, he orders it to be read out to all the people, who are gathered before the Temple for that purpose. The people hear the book, but the most immediate effect of that hearing is a series of Temple reforms, and the reclamation of the Passover as a household rite. In contrast, this story in Nehemiah stresses that when “the book of the law of Moses” is read, the people listen attentively, they “stood up” to listen in a posture of respect, Levites supplemented the reading “with interpretation” and “giving the sense,” and the immediate effect of this public reading is that the people both “lifted up their hands” and “bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord.” The total effect of the passage is that the public reading is an act of worship; not a warning or legal covenant, as in the earlier 2 Kings book-reading, but a time of feasting and a “day holy to our Lord.” This public reading of scripture with prayer and worship may reflect the growing importance of the synagogue movement side-by-side with Temple worship, as reading and study of scripture became recognized along with sacrifice as elements in the life of faith. This scripture, then, represents not only a new start for worship in Jerusalem after the Exile, but a new way to worship in the reading and study of scripture.

Paired with the Luke reading for today, this passage gives occasion for reflection on the role of scripture in worship. When a congregation gathers to hear this public reading, it is not only an exercise in remembering the past, nor is it simply story-telling about the faithful who have gone before, and still less is it a recitation of rules and proof-texts for judging others. Instead, the reading of scripture in worship is meant to be an encounter with the living presence of God, an opportunity to embody in present experience aims and ideals that come from God, a holy time when strength is found in “the joy of the Lord” because scripture can be “fulfilled in our hearing.”

Psalm 19
Psalm 19 looks almost like two separate poems abruptly stuck together: the first a hymn of praise for the glory of God revealed in astronomy, and the second a poem of devotion to God’s Law. While some interesting reflections might be made on the connection between God’s lawlike creativity in the cosmos and God’s gift of guidance to the faithful community in scripture, in this present context, set in relation to Nehemiah and Luke, I think main interest in this psalm falls on verses 7-11. In this section of the poem, the psalmist proclaims how God’s “law… testimony… statutes… commandment… fear… judgment” are active to “revive… give wisdom… rejoice… give light… endure… be true” in the believer. The practice of God’s guidance as given in scripture “enlightens” the servant, and gives “great reward.” The poet praises God that God’s guidance as given in scripture provides human life with divine aims and ideals that, embodied and exemplified in human action, lead to life that is “whole and sound.” All the “servants” of God thus fulfill scripture in wholesome action; when Jesus in the gospel claims that the scripture is fulfilled in him, it is therefore not so much a new or extraordinary claim as a claim any of the faithful could make, taken to a greater degree in a specifically messianic context.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Last week’s passage from 1 Corinthians focused on spiritual gifts or activities, and how their variety is intended for sharing in the community toward the common good. Today’s passage explicates that sense of the common good through the metaphor of the body. Paul suggests that the individuals in the community, with their differing gifts coming together in differing ways but all for the common good, are like organs or limbs, with their differing structures and functions coming together in different ways to make a single unified human body. Because it is the body as a whole that matters, no one part of the body could be imagined as saying to another “I have no need of you”; even if eyes and hands are not directly, physiologically connected, since each depends on the whole body for its continued existence as an organ, each needs what the other contributes to the body as a whole. By extension, therefore, members of the Corinthian community who feel their gifts of receiving visions or their activities of speaking in tongues set them apart as “higher” or “more spiritual” than others, have no basis for saying to those others “I have no need of you.” The body metaphor has some rather severe limitations – principally that human beings come into community as fully rounded persons, with many aspects and attributes, and cannot be reduced to simple roles such as “foot” or “hand” or “nose,” or single gifts such as “tongues” or “wisdom” or “faith.” The way we actually interact in community is subtler and stranger than the ways organs and limbs combine to make bodies. Paul himself seems to feel the limitations of the body metaphor, inasmuch as the very words after the end of the assigned reading are “I will show you a still more excellent way,” namely the way of love, which will be the substance of next week’s Epistle reading.

Still, so long as the metaphor is not taken too literally or pushed to the point where its limitations begin to obtrude, a preacher could use this passage to address divisions within the church and the longing for church unity. This passage could also be taken in the direction of church and society, pointing out that Christians and people of other faiths or no faith cannot say “I have no need of you,” but are called to discover each other’s gifts and work together for the shared well-being of their community.

Luke 4:14-21
Luke begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with a brief note that he taught in synagogues, but the first real example of his teaching comes in his first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. In this Luke differs considerably from Mark and Matthew, who give a brief summary of his teaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” but make the real beginning of his ministry the call of the first disciples. Perhaps Luke wants to emphasize Jesus’ role as a prophet within, but also standing over against, the synagogue community tradition, rather than the almost guru-like character given him by Mark and Matthew.

It is within this community context that Jesus delivers his “programmatic” sermon, naming the origins and the goals of his ministry. Jesus uses the words of Isaiah to announce that he engages this ministry because “the Spirit of the Lord” is upon him, because God “has anointed” him, and because God “has sent” him. This work is not Jesus’ own, but is God’s; Jesus is not only, like a prophet, responding to a vision or prediction given by God, but is God’s own agent to do what God has promised will be done. It is this co-acting between Jesus’ actions and God’s action that characterizes Jesus’ ministry throughout.

What is to be done is “to bring good news to the poor,” through concrete actions that will “release the captives,” bring “recovery of sight to the blind,” free “the oppressed,” and proclaim “the Lord’s favor.” In later episodes of the Gospel Luke will show Jesus doing all these things, especially considering that Luke often characterizes healings as being set free from the oppression of illness; as in, for instance, Luke 13:10-17, where Jesus says that the woman who is bent over has been “bound” by Satan and he has come “to set free from this bondage”; or again in Acts 10:38, where Peter preaches that Jesus’ healings were acts of liberating those “who were oppressed by the devil.” While we today might consider release of captives or liberation of the oppressed in more economic or political terms, in Luke’s thinking those programmatic messianic acts had more to do with personal healing and restoration of immediate community. An astute preacher will want to find ways to connect these dimensions of the mission.

The “programmatic” sermon thus serves a two-fold purpose: it announces what Jesus will do in his public, ministry; and it announces how he will do it, namely, as embodying in human life the aims and ideals proposed to him by God. Jesus is who he is because he chooses to be the person who embodies the aims of bringing good news, proclaiming release, and so on. As followers of Jesus, we can also choose to be persons who embody such aims in our actual occasions. The sermon in Nazareth can represent, therefore, not only the program of Luke’s Gospel, but the shape of our lives in faith.

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow, Ph.D. is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia. His studies have focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He serves as Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, and has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. He enjoys pondering God in Creation from the saddle of his bicycle on the backroads of the Shenandoah Valley.