January 27, 2019

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-12
Luke 4:14-22
Psalm 19:1-11, 14


When I was still a student, it took a long time for me to save enough money to purchase a plane ticket. At some stage, I had to wait for two years before I could go to see my family in Indonesia.

But once I returned there, everything looked and felt so different; I felt like a stranger in the land. It took me at least two weeks to make myself familiar with everything again; with the surrounding, environment, climate, people, etc. The saddest thing was that my family, especially my mother, looked different from how I remembered her. It was as if she was a different person. It broke my heart. I promised myself then that I would visit my family as often as I could once I had the resources to do so.

But my experience was nothing like what the people of Israel experienced. They were away from their homeland not for two years or five years, but for 70 years. That was enough time for multiple generations to be born and raised in their land of exile in Babylon. As the result, many had only heard about their homeland from their parents or grandparents.

So, returning from Babylon to their homeland of Judah was a daunting experience. Judah was nothing like Babylon. They had to start everything from scratch there. It took me two weeks to re-familiarize myself with everything after being away for two years. Imagine how long it took for the people of Israel to re-familiarize themselves after being away for 70 years!

In such situation, what they needed the most was not money or riches, but words of encouragement. And they received this encouragement from God’s words in their holy Scriptures.

Now, more than 97% of Israel’s population at the time were illiterate. It means that only less then 3%, who were the elites, were able to read and write.[1] That’s why, as we hear it today from Nehemiah, the Scriptures had to be read to the general public. It took 6-7 hours, from early morning to noon, to read the entire Scriptures.

But the people listened to God’s words in Scriptures attentively. The problems they faced were enormous that they hungered for God’s words who could uplift their spirit.

We even hear how their body reacted to the hearing of the words from the Scriptures. They stood up, lifted up their hands, and bowed down with their faces to the ground. They even wept when they heard the words. But their grief and mourning would later turn into joy. God’s words had brought healing to their nation. 

Friends, in the darkest hours, the greatest gifts that people can have are words that encourage them; words that offer them hope. We live in a society where more and more people live with depression and loneliness and isolation. And people living in that kind of bondage cannot be cured by material things. Material things, especially obsession and worship of material things, will only make things worse. What these people need is the liberating power of God’s presence found in God’s words.

See, in our reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus began his ministry not by performing a miracle; he began his ministry by reading the words of a passage from the book of Isaiah in a synagogue.

For Jesus, what the oppressed and afflicted people needed the most was to hear the “good news”. For him, what people, living in bondage, needed the most was to hear the proclamation of God’s deliverance. They needed to hear words that affirmed and restored their identity and dignity as God’s beloved children. They were not the rejected, as other often treated them as. They were people whom God delighted in. Jesus’ words thus proclaimed that the work to bring about liberation and justice had begun in his life.

Our reading from Psalm 19 also proclaims the liberating power of God’s words. For the author of the Psalm, God’s law is written in all around us, especially in nature. Just like the Scriptures reveal who God is, nature also proclaims God’s glory. We cannot hear nature’s words, but their testimony is loud and clear. Just like a picture speaks a thousand word, the beauty of God’s creation utters thousands of words of praise.

In the Psalm, the law that governs the sun from its rising to its setting is the same law that governs human beings. And just like the sun is the source of life, God’s words of law, found in the Scriptures, are also the source of life. 

For the author of the Psalm, the words of Gods’ law are therefore something to be enjoyed. The words of God’s law are not a burden, but the source of gladness. They are more desired than gold. They are sweeter than honey. They energize and illumine. They are as everlasting as the sun.

We can compare this with little children. We know that they need to learn about boundaries not only to keep them safe, but also to make them feel secure. 

Children with good boundaries in their home will grow up healthily. They will know right from wrong. They will go confidently to explore the world, knowing that it’s a safe place.

On the other hand, children with no boundaries in their home will grow up feeling needy and unsecure. They will see the world as a threatening place and will not have the courage to fully live in it.

Likewise, the words of God’s law, God’s instruction and guidance, provide boundaries to those who follow them. We will find security when we choose to follow them. 

Friends, words can have an everlasting impact. They can destroy or build up, undermine or strengthen, divide or unite. And we can see the power of words in the speeches that people like Martin Luther King made. 

If we are now enjoying our Australia Day long weekend, people in the US had their long weekend last week. Every third Monday in January is a national holiday in the US, celebrated as Martin Luther King Day.

Martin Luther King is one of a few towering figures whose life has a lasting influence in the US. He achieved that mainly through his speeches, including the famous I Have a Dream speech. His words have an everlasting effect that shape the soul and character of the US as a nation. In times of great division, his words brought healing and hope and a clear vision for the future. Instead of breaking the nation apart, his words upheld its unity. 

I had my own experience with encouraging words that have an everlasting impact in my life. Years ago, when I was still in high school, I contemplated about entering into full-time ministry. I felt that this was the role that God wanted me to take in my life. But back then, I felt so inadequate, so unsure with myself. 

So, I told my Minister about the call and my reluctance to answer the call. And I still can see that conversation in my mind as if it happened yesterday. He told me that no one was good enough for ministry; no one. He himself was a troubled young man before he entered into ministry, yet God chose and used him anyway. God uses imperfect people like him and like me.

His words that day was the reason why I chose to enter ministry many years ago. His words helped me not only to take the first step, but the many steps after, until today. 

His words remind me of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was a towering moral figure in the fight against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. He once said,

“We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.”

Friends, our words can be the words that diminish people. Or they can be the channel of God’s own words; the words that revitalize, energize, and bring hope.

Yesterday was Australia Day. It was a day to remember and celebrate the good things about of this country. It’s an opportunity to strengthen our bond with one another as members of one community. It’s also an opportunity to remember those who are less fortunate; to uplift them; to remind them that they belong to us and we to them.

And, it begins with our words. May we celebrate with kind words, uplifting words, unifying words. May we channel the liberating power of God’s word to all people this long weekend of celebration and beyond.  

Toby Keva

[1] Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 by Roger Nam on www.workingpreacher.org (January 27, 2019).