Sermon on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. Year C. January 23, 2022
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Wilmette, IL
Texts: Nehemiah 8: 1‑10 & Luke 4: 14‑21
We’re still early in the new year and people are making resolutions to undertake some project, like toning up or reading the Bible from cover to cover. With the uncertainty of gyms being open due to the omicron variant of COVID-19, sitting in a chair to read the Bible on a cold winter night seems like a more certain exercise. But exercising without a trainer can result in body hurts, and unguided Bible reading can result in spiritual damage.
On Tik Tok and YouTube, you see an increasing number of videos made by former Christians who tell their stories of how reading the Bible turned them into agnostics or atheists. The problem is that in church services and Sunday School they were only exposed to the nice Bible stories. Once they get into reading the whole text, they find the parts that were left out of their education.
Maybe they had a picture of Noah and his ark with all those sweet animals two by two in a painting above their bed. They didn’t read about Noah getting drunk and passing out in his tent when he got off the ark and one of his sons taking advantage of his nakedness. They don’t want to wrap their heads around all humanity, men, women, and children, wiped out by the flood.
They had a picture book with heroic young David felling an ugly giant with his sling shot. They didn’t read about all eight of his wives and innumerable concubines and the sinful deeds he committed to get what he wanted. Was this the Lord’s anointed from whom Jesus was descended?
We hear gospel stories about Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons. But driving merchants out of the Temple with a whip and uttering visions of apocalyptic disasters presents another side of our Lord.
And forget about St. Paul, who tells women not to speak in church and proclaims that God in his wrath allowed unbridled human passions to turn men and women over to their worst sexual depravities. Yet we miss that Paul also said not to be judgmental, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And so we must be justified by faith in Christ.
Oh, did I mention the Holy Wars in which Yahweh as Israel’s commander-in-chief wanted all of his enemies slaughtered? No, we think it’s best not to read those stories. They cause people to lose their faith.
Yet we have those stories in the Bible. Muslims include Christians, along with Jews and themselves, as “people of the book.” People of the book find their source of authority in sacred scripture, in holy writings. We have bundled these writings into one collection variously called Tanakh, Bible, and Koran and we read them aloud in our assemblies.
In our First Lesson today, from the book of Nehemiah, an enormous public gathering was held that centers around the reading of Holy Scripture; in this case, the Torah, the five books of Moses, what we know in our English Bible as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In fact, it tells us in verse three that Ezra the Priest read the scriptures to the people from early morning until midday “with interpretation.” Anyone want to try a half day scripture reading with homilies along the way in the worship service?!
But the real point here is not how long they listened, but why. These books of the Law had been brought together in Babylon during the exile. The people of Israel under their governor Nehemiah and their priest and scribe Ezra were seeking to renew their covenant with the God of Israel after their Babylonian exile, to reestablish their identity as God’s chosen people, and they recognized that listening to the words of this book was central to their identity and to the living out of their covenant with God.
This book told the stories of their people, the stories that give them their understanding of who they are and how they are related to God and to the world around them. It told the stories that had been told and read to their ancestors for generations before them, the stories that bound them together across the years, from Moses until the present day. And these stories had been preserved and continually read precisely because the continual reading of them prove to be the glue that bound them together in a covenant relationship with God. The reading of scripture continued to be an epiphany, a revelation, an encounter with the living Spirit of God. And so, when they had gotten off track and needed to renew their relationship with God, they knew that they needed to return to scripture and to the practice of gathering together to hear and open themselves to the Word of God that comes from what we hear.
The synagogue emerged from this time after the exile as a place to study the Torah. In the reading of Scripture in the synagogue, there would be commentary on what was read. Guidance would be given to what was heard. We see this in the Gospel reading today. Jesus himself is invited to stand up and read from the scroll in the midst of the gathered assembly. This time it is not a big national assembly after a time of catastrophe, but the small regular weekly gathering of the local synagogue congregation in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Jesus reads from the scroll presented to him by the attendant, a section from Isaiah, and he is expected to comment on what he read.
I want to break in here with some guidance for your reading of the Bible so that you don’t hurt yourself too seriously if you undertake a spiritual workout with it (although dealing with some of these passages is real spiritual strength training).
First, the Bible is not a book. Biblia means library. The collection is a library of books written over a span of 1500 years. Like any library, it contains all kinds of literature: myths, history, law codes, poetry, a novel or two, oracles, gospels (a unique genre), diaries, letters, apocalyptic visions, etc. So for starts, you need to know what kind of book you’re reading and interpret it accordingly. You don’t read poetry the same way as you read court chronicles.
Second, never pull a single Bible verse out of its context. People who do that end up using the Bible for their own purposes, not to hear what Scripture says to the people of God. This is called “proof texting,” because it uses scripture to prove a point. By proof texting we can make the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean.
Third, the whole of Scripture points to what God was doing in the Christ. We can’t understand the Jesus of the Gospels apart from the words of the prophets in the Old Testament. Many times the gospel writers say about something that Jesus did or something that happened to him, “This was to fulfill what was written in the prophets.” This approach to Bible read is called prophecy/fulfillment. We see it in today’s Gospel. Jesus reads from the Scriptures and says, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s the sermon. Whatever you hear in Scripture is fulfilled in Christ.
Jesus here speaks of himself, of his own identity. But he also points us again to this ancient book, the primary witness to God’s self‑revelation in Jesus. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “If you want to be my people, my disciples, then keep gathering around the reading of this book, because it is in the reading of this book that you will hear what I am doing among you. It is in the reading and hearing of this book that you will learn what I am bringing to fulfilment right here, right now, in your midst.”
So we gather in an assembly to hear the prophetic and apostolic word because the communal reading and hearing of scripture is an event, an event in which God has promised to be present as a living Holy Spirit to speak and to guide and to form those who hear as a holy people. We do not cease to be that holy people when we gather in a study group or sit at home in our reading chair. Whether together or alone, God is forming a holy people, not just a loose coalition of interested individuals.
We are formed by the Word of God that comes to us in the Scriptures, in the homily of the preacher, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, in the water of Holy Baptism. Word and Sacrament proclaim Christ, who abides with us and dwells with us, our Lord Immanuel. By reading Scripture in this context, faith may be challenged. But that’s an exercise that strengthens our faith, it does not weaken it. You grow strong in faith and understanding by wrestling with the biblical texts. Amen. – Pastor Frank C. Senn