Nehemiah 8: 1-3,5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
Good morning and grace and peace through this chilly Midwinter, the 34th day of Christmas, and continuing in this season of Epiphany to celebrate the Advent and Incarnation and Revelation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The weeks have passed along quickly, but I think still in the background we can catch the echo of our Head Chorister Maighread Southard-Wray as her lovely voiced filled this place so wonderfully last month at Lessons and Carols:
Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed . . . . He came down from earth to heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall.
Echoing the first chapter of St. Matthew: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).
Over and over again through these weeks, this is our song, our message, we might even say the framework and foundation of our strategic plan and our mission statement as Christian people over twenty centuries, including each one of us, and as a congregation and community: God with us.
God with us in Jesus, born in the Stable and dying on the Cross. God with us and for us. A fact of history that is real and true, and at the same time something with a meaning so vast, so deep, that no history book could ever begin to describe it.
And in the midst of this great festival of the Incarnation, Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, the Light shining in the darkness, revealing and embodying the Good News written in the deepest heart of the first hour of creation and standing fresh and new in the last hour of this age. The perfect expression of the Father, the Word made flesh. God with us.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
God from God, light from light, very God from very God.
And his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall.
It’s interesting to me as I think about my own life and a reflection on the readings appointed for this Third Epiphany Sunday how I actually spend a great deal of time these days reading the Bible. I don't know if that's a surprise to you or not. Maybe people think that's what clergy do . . . .
Devotionally, as I follow along the pattern of the daily office, the psalms and lessons each day, and then of course also in the pattern of the Sunday lectionary, in the context of sermon preparation and working these days with the Wednesday Bible Study. Some friends of mine in Florida have been working on an online project to read the Bible together in a year, and I've been following along with that also, which has really been fun. I think in earlier years I often spent more time reading books and articles “about the Bible” than I did reading the Bible itself. Histories, critical interpretations, theological studies. Which I think was and is and can be good and helpful in many ways. But less so now for me, I find. Still some of that, of course, but less. More, turning back to the scriptures themselves. My experience. Don’t know how that is for you.
In any event: to hear this reading from Nehemiah. How it must have felt for those returning exiles, after all the long years of life in refugee camps and at hard labor in far off lands, cut off from every root of connection and identity, sustained only by distant memories and the deepest longings of their hearts. Now my feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Talk about a great reading for Epiphany. And the great priest Ezra from above on the Water Gate not far from the ruins of the Temple, and as the ancient walls have only begun to be reconstructed, opens the sacred scriptures and begins to read. And the Word of God sounds across the Holy City now for the first time in 70 years, and there is a sweet, sweet spirit that fills them up with each syllable, and in the presence of the holiness of the Word they prostrate themselves in streets and alleyways and across the Temple Square, weeping--weeping in the sorrow of all they have lost, weeping in the joy of renewed life and hope, weeping in repentance, weeping in the experience of God’s gracious goodness and mercy. After all these decades in exile it seems many no longer even understand Biblical Hebrew, and so translators are stationed in the crowd. But I’m not sure that even makes any difference. It’s not so much the words, perhaps, as it is the sense of the presence in their midst of the Author himself.
A foreshadowing of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, as the Word of the Father comes alive. God with us. The Holy Scriptures laid carefully in the manger of the hearts of his faithful people.
It always seemed interesting to me and perhaps a little odd when I first thought about it that in the ordering of the new English Book of Common Prayer back in 1549 Thomas Cranmer set that wonderful prayer about the Bible for the Second Sunday in Advent: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them; read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
But really not odd, as I've thought about it more over the years. A perfect insight, to see and understand the expression of the Author. The 1979 Book continues to use the collect but has it now at Proper 28, towards the end of the season after Pentecost, where I think it loses just a little bit of its impact as a prayer and reflection about Advent and Incarnation. How is Christ born into our world and into our lives? He has spoken through the prophets. Taste and see. Read it for yourself.
Jesus in his first great sermon in Luke, as we have heard this morning. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Not simply to say that the Word has come true, but to say that it is now alive, enfleshed, embodied. Let the heights of heaven adore him; angel hosts, his praises sing; powers, dominions fall before him, and extol our God and King.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
All kinds of wonderful things going on around St. Andrew’s these days, but I have to say that I am so especially encouraged by the three small Bible Studies, Wednesday and Friday and Sunday mornings, and it would be so good to see each of them grow and for there to be even more. I've been wondering about doing something online maybe through one of the Facebook Applications or in our website, for folks who can’t attend one of the groups. And as always looking forward to the shared reflections we have as we follow the lectionary and share the Lenten Mediation Booklet again this year.
On Ash Wednesday in the Invitation on p 265 of the Prayer Book, as I’ll read to you at the beginning of that service in just a few weeks, I invite you therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
But of course we don’t have to wait until Lent to turn our attention to his Word and to open our eyes and ears and minds and hearts to his presence. It’s always Christmas Eve. The child always ready to be born for us. The old story of St. Augustine, who so loved the great life he was leading as a famous academic and scholar and man-about town, and who it seemed for so much of his younger life was in flight from the presence of God despite all the prayers of his mother. Until he experienced this miraculous vision, seeing the Scriptures and hearing the voice, tolle, lege. Latin for pick it up, read it. And it changed everything for him. And that wonderful line and prayer in Augustine’s Confessions, with your word you pierced my heart, and I loved you.
A Sunday in the weeks of Epiphany season to teach our hearts to sing a love song. Using a vocabulary more common to old-fashioned English Evangelicals our good friend Phil Wainwright says that he’s a “Bible Man.” And that’s a pretty great thing to be, whether or not you’re an old-fashioned English Evangelical. We speak and know his Real Presence in the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. And we would speak and know his real presence in every word and story, and commandment and prophecy, every poem and proverb and psalm of praise. His Word, for us. Giving himself for us.
To say, in the words of the Psalm: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.