January 24 2016

3rd Sunday of Epiphany

Nehemiah 8:1-10

Luke 4:14-21


I may have told you this joke before, but I remember an elderly person who told me one day that there are three things that you lose as you get older. The first one is your memory, and he couldn’t remember the other two.

Loss of memory unfortunately is not something that only the elderly or those diagnosed with dementia suffer; all people, to different degrees, suffer from it. Not surprisingly the ancient people of Israel suffered from it as well. Living in exile for a generation, away from their homeland, had taken its toll on them. Many of them had lost touch with their own Jewish religion and tradition. Many had become so assimilated to the culture and lifestyle of the Babylonians and then the Persians that they forgot about their own culture. (We can see similar thing happening here in Australia where the 2nd, 3rd[and so on] generations of migrants have lost touch with the tradition of their parents or grand-parents.)

Therefore when the King of the Persian Empire, who defeated the Babylonians, allowed the people of Israel to return to their homeland, many refused to do so. Many had done well in exile; many had built houses, families, and businesses there. Especially for those who were born and grew up there, the land of exile was the only land that they knew.

And for those who chose to return, the journey back home was not smooth sailing. Once they arrived in Judah, what they found was a place of desolation. Jerusalem and its temple were in ruin and the local inhabitants were not as friendly as they expected them to be.

That was why, in our reading from Nehemiah, the returnees gathered in a town square within the ruin of Jerusalem and asked their leaders to read from their Holy Scriptures. It was likely that they heard from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. But many of the returnees were not familiar with the texts in the Scriptures and many did not understand the Hebrew language in which the texts were written. Indeed, many of the returnees spoke Aramaic, the language of the Persians. That’s why their leaders had to translate and explain the texts to the people.

But even though they were not familiar with the texts and the language in which they were written, the returnees listened attentively. They desperately wanted to hear again, from within the pages of their Holy Scriptures, the stories of how God led their ancestors to a land flowing with milk and honey. They wanted to live in those holy stories again; they wanted to enter into the world within those holy stories; and, in those stories, they wanted to find the commandments and guidance and consolation that had nurtured their ancestors in their own struggles. They wanted to find meaning from within the pages of the Scriptures and take it with them as they dealt with their seemingly meaningless situation.

Friends, stories are important. When we listen to a story, we are taken to a different world. The story doesn’t change our world, but it changes us from within.

In 1950s Paulette Berry was one of the first African-American children who attended a formerly all-white primary school in Kansas. She was only eight years old. As her grandmother took her and her brother to the school on their first day, she told them the story about their great-great-grandfather (a story they had heard many times before).

His name was Dodge and he was a slave in Tennessee. He was one of the leaders of the slaves so, one day, his masters made an example of him. They casually cut his stomach open in front of the others. They last time they saw him alive, he was turning his back on his masters, running up the road, holding his guts in, keeping himself together literally. He kept his dignity until the end.

The story reminded Paulette and her brother that they too had to ‘keep their guts in’, keeping themselves together as they faced a hostile environment. The story was short and a bit terrifying for young children, but it was powerful. It reminded Paulette and her brother that they too had to keep their dignity and be as courageous as their great-great-grandfather as they faced hatred and racism in their new school.[1]

Friends, a story like this can shape our lives. We can’t help but to be a different people after listening to such story.

It is the same with listening to God’s stories. When we listen to the stories about God within the pages of the Bible, we enter into a different world. But we are not to stay there. No, we are to return to the world where we come from. But we must return a different people; a people that have been shaped by what we have found in the Bible.

When Jesus read from the scroll of the Scriptures in that synagogue, he too invited his hearers to enter in to the world of the passage that he read. He was reading from a passage in the book of Isaiah.[2] In the passage, the prophet talked about the year of Jubilee: the 50th year where all people, including the slaves, must be freed and returned to their clans.[3]

The people of Israel, however, never really celebrated Jubilee. It was seen as a great idea, but it was never put into practice.

That was why Jesus read from this passage once again. No, it wasn’t a coincidence that he read from the passage. Jesus would like to mark the beginning of his ministry with this passage in Isaiah because it described who he was and what his life and ministry were all about. In his life and ministry Jesus brought good news to the poor, freed those who were bound by evil, and healed the sick. Jesus’ life and ministry was the embodiment of the year of Jubilee that the prophet in Isaiah envisioned.

But, by reading the passage of Isaiah, Jesus would also like to invite those who heard him to see with the eyes of the prophet in Isaiah. Most people in his time had forgotten about the year of Jubilee, but the vision must not be lost. By reading the text once again Jesus invited his hearers to enter into the reality of the year of Jubilee once again.

No, after the reading, nothing drastic would happen. The slaves would still be slaves; the poor would still be poor; and the oppressed would still be under oppression. But this ‘reality’ had become less absolute because they had heard, through the mouths of the prophet in Isaiah and Jesus, a different reality that God offered. That was why Jesus said that the passage had come true as they heard it being read.

Friends, we all have different reasons to come to the church on Sunday. Some may come to church to meet friends, others may come to find suitable partners, others may come under the pressure of their loved ones, etc. But one reason must never be forgotten: we gather because we want to hear God’s word; we gather so that our life will be shaped once again by the word of God. We gather so that each of us can leave this place as a different person.

The prophet in the book of Isaiah said that God’s word
“is like the snow and the rain
             that come down from the sky to water the earth.
They make the crops grow
             and provide seed for planting and food to eat.”[4]

Indeed when we let God’s words shape our lives, we become like a good soil where good crops will grow and provide food for others. Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Diana R. Garland, Family Ministry, InterVarsity Press (2012), p.325-326.
[2] Isaiah 61:1-2
[3] Leviticus 25:10-12
[4] Isaiah 55:10 (Good News Translation)