Texts: Nehemiah 8: 1-18 excerpts (Ezra reads Scripture), Psalm 19, (the heavens declare God's glory), 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a (one Body, many parts), Luke 4: 14-21 (Jesus reads from Isaiah)
Well, we have just read a lot of Holy Scripture. Because both the first and last readings this morning focused on the public reading of Scripture, I decided we should hear all four of this week's suggested Lectionary Readings.
But even having done so, it has taken less than 10 minutes to go through all four readings. Contrast this with Ezra reading from the Book of the Law of Moses to the assembled people in Jerusalem in the year 460 B.C.E. He read from dawn until mid-day, and then continued this way for seven days straight. And the people wept with joy! Try to imagine such a scene today!
This story of Ezra reading Scripture marks a turning point in Judaism. It is a change from a religion of ritual and sacrifice in the Temple to a religion of the Book -- a religion focused on reading and interpreting Holy Scripture. And this focus on the reading and interpretation of Scripture continues to characterize Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- the three "religions of the Book" -- to this day. In fact, one can trace its influence right to this moment, right here, right now, in this sermon for instance!
Indeed, the sermon this morning is a little self-conscious, focusing as it does on the reading Scripture and interpreting it in sermons. Perhaps one can say that it is a sermon that eats itself! Well, we will see.
In many ways, Judaism was born in the 50 years of exile of the Hebrew leaders in Babylon, which is modern-day Iraq. In 586 BC, Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. It then deported the Hebrew leaders of Jerusalem to Babylon, where they remained for 50 years. When Babylon in turn was defeated by the Persian Empire in 538 B.C., the Persians allowed the Hebrew elite to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. It was in Babylon during those two generations of exile that the Hebrew leaders turned the scrolls of sacred Hebrew stories they had brought with them into their current form.
Ezra is a priest who does not return with the first exiles to rebuild the city and the Temple. He thinks that Temple rites are inferior to reading, hearing, and obeying the Law of Moses as preserved in the work of scribes of the exile period. When Ezra does return to Jerusalem he revives the religion by putting the focus on Holy Scripture. And so Judaism becomes a religion that focuses on sacred writings and it thrives in synagogues wherever Jews live and not just n Jerusalem around the Temple. With this focus on Scripture, Judaism survived in synagogues scattered throughout the Ancient World. And so in later years both Judaism and Christianity were able to survive the second destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70 AD.
Moving forward now 500 years, we come to Jesus at the start of his ministry on a Saturday morning in the Synagogue of his hometown Nazareth in 30 AD. Here Jesus reads from the ancient Book of Isaiah. Luke writes in Greek when he tells this story 60 years later. And we read it more than 1900 years later in a translation into English. But what language does Jesus use when he reads from the Scroll or when he talks to the assembled Jews in the synagogue? Even at the time of Ezra 500 years earlier, Hebrew was no longer the everyday language of the Jews. They spoke Aramaic, which was also the language spoken by Jesus, his family, and his disciples.
One reason that Scripture requires interpretation is that it is written in ancient and long-dead languages. And this was true even 2500 years ago. It was 460 BC when Ezra read from the Book of Moses to the assembled crowd in Jerusalem. But he would be reading from scrolls that preserved stories and commandments first written down in Hebrew 500 or more years earlier. Many people would no longer understand the Hebrew he read -- hence the need for the Levite priests to interpret the readings and to help people understand their meaning.
500 years later in the year 30 AD when Jesus reads from the Book of Isaiah, he is also reading something ancient. Scholars think that two or three writers wrote Isaiah, one before the Babylonian Exile, and one or two afterward. Jesus in our story this morning reads the first two verses of Isaiah 61, which might have been about 400 or 500 years old at that time. But was Jesus reading from a scroll that copied and preserved the original Hebrew? Or was he reading from a Greek translation that was popular among First Century Jews? Luke doesn't say. First Century Jews in Palestine spoke Aramaic. Those outside Palestine often spoke Greek. Other than Aramaic, it is not clear which languages, if any, Jesus spoke and read. It is all a bit of a jumble. In any case, listening to Hebrew in the year 30 in Nazareth would be sort of like hearing Shakespeare's English read to us today, or perhaps, even more daunting, like hearing Latin read.
Scripture can be hard to understand at the best of times. But when it is read in an dead language, it becomes a lot harder.
Given these difficulties, we might better appreciate Paul's teaching this morning. Paul writes that the church, while one, is made up of many different kinds of people: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, administrators, and those speaking different languages. There is one Gospel, but there are many languages.
We might then feel relieved by this morning's Psalm. Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God, and without speech or language; the voices of the vault of the sky are not heard, and yet their sound goes out to all the lands, and their words to the ends of the earth.
This Psalm reminds us that we don't need Scripture or interpretation to know God. We simply have to listen to the vaults of the sky. Wordlessly, they reveal the Glory of God.
However, that idea doesn't stop bookish people like me from diving into Scripture and wrestling with its obscurities endlessly and happily.
And yet this Tuesday, we are told, may be another historic turning point; a turn away from the book. For months it has been rumored that Tuesday, January 26th will be the day when Apple Computer will unveil its next revolutionary gadget -- the iTablet or iSlate. If the rumours are true, this will be either a shrunken laptop or an expanded iPhone where all the computing will be done on a screen. As with electronic book readers like Amazon.com's Kindle, Apple's Tablet will be a low-power device with which people will read newspapers, websites, and electronic books. It could thereby move us a big step closer to electronic publishing instead of publishing on paper.
Well, we will see. Perhaps Apple's Tablet will be a smash success the way its iPod and iPhone have been, or perhaps it will fizzle in the marketplace. In any case, the days of the printed book are said to numbered. Not that reading is going to disappear. Children today probably read and write more than those of my generation, what with texting, email, website surfing, and building Facebook sites. Nowadays, there is a whole lot of reading and writing going on, which seems like a good thing to me.
However, all of these thoughts so far about languages, reading, listening, and books have been a long prologue to a short message about the story of Jesus reading from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his ministry. He reads Isaiah's words that "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." When Jesus adds to this the statement that, "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" what does he mean?
Isaiah presumably was referring to himself as God's anointed who had been sent to bring the good news to the poor. Jesus here takes this role for himself; and that is our understanding of Jesus today as well.
But has the good news been fulfilled with the coming of Jesus? That is, does this passage from Luke mean that salvation has already occurred? Or instead does it give the church our mission -- to work for freedom for prisoners and relief for the poor and oppressed? Or perhaps it is saying that salvation is our sure hope for the future?
I would argue that the passage can mean all three. One need only look to Haiti this week -- to the ongoing pain, death, and suffering there after the earthquake 12 days ago -- to see that the poor are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of the Year of the Lord's Favour. And yet the huge response of ordinary people and governments all around the world to the suffering in Haiti shows us what the mission of Jesus might look like in action. And the bravery and good spirits of many of the survivors in Haiti shows that in an important way salvation is available to us all right now, even in the midst of devastation. And finally in the face of massive death we look again in hope to lives fulfilled into God's future, even when they are lives cut cruelly short by both natural and social disasters.
Well perhaps the above is not the most profound interpretation of a passage from Holy Scripture that has even been heard! But I hope that the Scripture readings this morning and the discussion of the role of sacred texts in our religions and in our lives have been true to our tradition and meet some of our current needs.
As a church, we have good news to convey and a mission to live out. Whether this good news is conveyed on manuscripts and scrolls painstakingly hand-copied in ancient Hebrew; in English translations sold in mass-produced books; in electronic tablets that provide access to all of humanity's knowledge at any moment; in sermons spoken in a sanctuary; or in stories told around a campfire, the good news lives; and we are moved to tell it again.
As with Ezra and his congregation, today we give thanks for ancient sacred stories and commandments. Like Ezra's people, we need translators and interpreters to bring out the meaning of those ancient stories. As with the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, we give thanks for the presence of God-With-Us in the person of Jesus the Christ, who has been anointed by God's Spirit to bring good news to the poor. With Jesus, we proclaim that this year, right now, is the Year of the Lord's Favor, where we receive the support of God's Grace and Love with every breath. With Jesus, we also work to make the Year of the Lord's Favor a reality by struggling against injustice, and for a world where all have access to basic sustenance and human rights. And with Jesus, we also proclaim that no matter how our lives proceed -- no matter how long or short they are; no matter how materially blessed or difficult they may be -- we live in the sure hope of personal and social fulfillment in the arms of God.
The Year of the Lord's Favour is here. We also strive to make real the Year of the Lord's Favour by working for God's Justice here on earth. And finally, we rest in the sure hope that the Lord's Favour awaits us all as the fulfillment of the life and love that we experience today.
Thanks be to God, Amen.