Nehemiah 8: 1-10; Luke 4: 14-21
Good morning, and grace and peace. Third after the Epiphany and with our early Easter this year also Septuagesima, the first of the three Sundays of the traditional season of Lenten Preparation. Still in our worship centered on the incarnational themes of Advent, Christmas, and the Epiphany, but just this morning a distant view on the horizon ahead of Jerusalem and the Cross.
Given the appointed readings this morning from Nehemiah and St. Luke, which I think are very appropriate and meaningful in this transitional time I’d like to begin with what is for Episcopalians and all in the Anglican family a familiar prayer. It was composed in the middle of the 16th century and in the midst of the great creative heart of the English Reformation by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. For most of the history of our tradition this was the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, though in the 1979 Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer it was moved to the Sunday before Advent. Let us pray.
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. Amen.
The Bible was heart of the English Reformation back in the 16th and 17th centuries. The whole series of new, fresh, exciting English language translations culminating in 1611 with what we call the King James Version. Certainly the most important gift of Anglicanism to the wider Christian world. The English Reformation powered by a deep and passionate eagerness, that each man and woman and child would have the opportunity to encounter directly and personally God’s life-giving Word. Anglicans from that time and through most of our history and family tree, Bible people. Even when we have had our internal differences and disagreement, both sides of the theological debate at their lecterns with the Scriptures open to be the foundation of their argument. And every deep traditional characteristic of what we might call “Anglican Spirituality” rested deeply on extensive and ongoing personal and devotional Bible reading in the structured context that the Book of Common Prayer provided from 1549 in the order for daily Morning and Evening Prayer.
That was Cranmer’s vision at the Reformation, and it certainly would be the case here in the 21st century, where any truly Anglican Spiritual Director would begin if someone came to him or her and asked for guidance about deepening personal spiritual foundations. Get a Prayer Book and a Bible, and make space for that every day, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. There may be many other resources to add to that in the course of our growth in faith and discipleship, but for Episcopalians anyway that’s step one. Read the Scriptures daily, and pray the prayers. And we would speak with full confidence that as we encounter the Bible in that kind of daily devotional practice, God’s Word for us, not with agendas, not to dive in to find proof texts to reinforce our pre-existing values and perspectives and opinions, but with an open mind and an open heart, he will make himself known to us. “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 savior Jesus Christ.”
In any event to begin by noticing as we hear he reading from Nehemiah 8 and Luke 4—two matching images reflecting back and forth in such a compelling way. Ezra and the Elders of the Families of Jerusalem, at the city’s Water Gate, beginning to read the Scriptures to God’s people. And Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, the inauguration of his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing, the Word made flesh, and the scroll opened before him, the congregation leaning forward to hear. These two massive, critical turning point and watershed moments in the Biblical story, two moments of renewal, new beginning, God acting.
Beginning first with Nehemiah. -- As we might read in Second Chronicles, how after the devastating conquest and destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon in 587 BC, and then after 70 years scattered in the refugee camps of Iraq and Syria and Persia and Egypt, the defeated and exiled Jewish people have been included in the edict and decree of the Persian Shah Cyrus, who is the new major power in the region, allowing many peoples across his empire who had displaced by a century of brutal wars to begin to return to their homelands. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, as the Prophet sings in Isaiah 40. Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem, that her war is concluded. It doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but gradually, year by year, the word is spread, and year by year they return, not all, but many-- individually, in small family groups, including even 70 years later a few elderly whose memories of childhood still held scenes of Jerusalem before—before the war, the siege, the final attack, the plundering and the fires and the destruction.
And years pass, and rebuilding begins. A leadership collaboration between Nehemiah, the official of the civil government, and Ezra, the high priest, and the heads of the families and clans who have returned—as we have heard those names in the reading. And the rebuilding of the walls begins, to define and establish once more David’s ancient city. Jerusalem the Golden. Where there were ruins, where it had all been death: now, new life. And the Temple. A modest structure at first, but a place where after an interval of 70* years the appointed prayers and sacrifices could once again be offered. It is said that those few elderly among the crowds who could remember the glorious Temple from the memories of their childhood had tears in their eyes as they looked at the first humble efforts of now the beginnings this Second Temple, on Zion’s holy mountain. Both joy and sorrow.
But of course the renewal that was to happen here, Holy Zion, and Holy Temple—this renewal was not to be really about bricks and mortar and timber and stone, and the revival of ancient ceremonies, but most importantly about the Spiritual City and the Spiritual Temple at the heart of God’s presence with his Chosen People.
After all these years of wilderness and exile and a kind of living death, to gather again, to hear God’s Holy Word, his Torah, his self-expression, God with us. The people gathered, quietly and so eagerly leaning forward to hear. On tiptoe. Excitement, anticipation, tears of joy. Taking in the Word as Ezra began to read, blessing God for his faithfulness. All the people coming to life as one--raising their arms to call out “Amen, amen!” Let this be so. This day is holy to the Lord. And though the days behind us have been full of pain and sorrow, and though the days ahead shall certainly be full of new trials, this day is holy to our Lord, to put aside grief and loss, to wipe every tear, consecrated by the proclamation of his Word, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
And Jesus in his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, as he reads from the Scriptures—our great High Priest--and then returns the scroll to the attendant and sits in the rabbi’s seat. And it’s just like Nehemiah 8, isn’t it. The congregation leading forward, hungry for the word. And Jesus simply says—“It’s true, and it’s happening right here in front of your own eyes.” Emmanuel. God with us. The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, his Manifestation. The New Year invitation to life in him.
Certainly one sermon that is preached in these two readings, and I think it is true with deep clarity and authority, and in our own Anglican DNA, that no genuine renewal of Christian life—whether in the life of individual men and women, boys and girls, or in the life of local congregations—or as we would think back to Archbishop Cranmer and those years of the renewal of the Church of England—it is that when genuine renewal takes place among God’s people, it is born in the deep soil of Holy Scripture. Ezra at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth.
Two years ago in his Convention address that’s what Bishop McConnell had to say for us Episcopalians as our little Diocese of Pittsburgh works through this decade, slowly to rebuild from a season of conflict and division. For each of us, each of our congregations , as we each might take it to heart. I think that address is still on the diocesan website, and I hope it continues to be on the front page of our agenda as a diocese and for all of us. Not first to be about programs and plans and big events, about public relations campaigns or efforts to build or replenish financial reserves or to rebuild and restore architecture and infrastructure. Not that any of those things aren’t meaningful or important.
But with a word to each and every one of us, with this distinctively Anglican moment at the Water Gate in Jerusalem and in the Nazareth synagogue, deep in our hearts and imaginations. It was really quite wonderful to hear him say that in every congregation, and in every family, and in each of our lives, to make of first priority, Bible Study, Prayer, and Fellowship. To find some time every day. Not just the religious professionals—this was Cranmer’s point, and all the great Reformers of that era. To open the Word. To hear the Word. To read, mark, learn, inwardly digest. As someone has said, not to see what we can do with it, how we can “use” the Bible, but to see what it will do with us. “Open my eyes and my ears and my mind and my heart to your Word, O Lord--speak the word to me that you want me to hear, and then in your mercy give me the strength and the courage to be the person who is shaped according to your Word, through Christ our Lord.”
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.