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Sermon for Epiphany 3 Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3; Luke 4: 14 – 21

December 22, 2015

today‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled” – words from today’s gospel

In the name…..

Does anyone still make New Year’s resolutions? Have they lasted this far into January? Or are they on the back burner? Someday I’ll loose weight. Someday I’ll start exercising. Someday I’ll quit smoking. And we do nothing today to help make that future come true.

Today is an important word for Luke. He uses it 12 times whereas it occurs only 9 times in the other three gospels put together. “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you.”

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Twice in the Zacchaeus story: “Zacchaeus come down immediately. I must stay in your house today.”

And, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

In our text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

For Luke today is a moment of radical change. However, we often avoid change.

Some try to continue to live the past. “Remember the good, old days.” History is important. We need to look back and learn from our mistakes and successes. But we can’t live in the past. We live today.

On the other hand, we can also avoid changes of today by dreaming of the ideal tomorrow. Someday the prisons will be empty. Someday the oppressed will be set free. Someday poverty will be ended. Someday all people will have heard the gospel.

God will do all that someday so we don’t have to do anything today to help the oppressed out of their plight.

It has been suggested that the greatest threats to congregations today are past successes that no longer work well in the present. Down the road at St. Paul’s, a new roof was put right above our heads. It’s much better, and looks great, but it’s what happens under it that counts!

It was the same in our first reading. Nehemiah’s dream was not just to see some walls rebuilt, but to see some lives renewed. It’s the people, not the walls, that make a city!

There’s a lot of talk about evangelism – going to the people outside our churches. But for Nehemiah, it was the insiders who’d grown careless, weary, jaded, and cynical about the faith.

Their stories were written in Hebrew, but by then the Israelites were speaking Aramaic, the language of the Persian Empire.  So Ezra translated the stories into the people’s everyday language.  Meanwhile, thirteen priests circulated among the people to “give instruction in what was read,” Nehemiah says, and to “explain the meaning.”

For the rabbis there is an “oral” torah alongside what is written. “Torah” means the entire written and cherished normative memory of the community, all the lore and narrative and poetry and song and old liturgy that had formed and shaped and authorized the imagination of the commu­nity. The torah is not only read and proclaimed; Nehemiah says that it was interpreted mepoyash v. 8.

There was exposition, commentary, translation, appropria­tion, and application, connections are made between old tradition and present circumstance. This old text of Israel’s memory never exists as authoritative for the community without imaginative interpretation. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism – W. Brueggeman (Abingdon 1993) 73f

Using the Bible as the sole standard for truth is problematic. The wisdom, experience, and reasoning of the community are necessary. Truth is not easily arrived at. It usually requires a choice to prioritize one or more values over others

Which is what Jesus does in our gospel reading. Like Nehemiah, he didn’t just stick to the text. He interpreted it so as to be relevant to his congregation. And he left some bits out. He quoted one their favourite texts, about liberation for captives – and they were in captivity to the Roman Empire – but he left out the bit that says that God would punish the oppressors.

The congregation was angry because Jesus quotes “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” but leaves out the second half of the verse, which reads “and a day of vengeance of our God.” He turned a text of judgment into a text of mercy.

This is outrageous! They think. Doesn’t he know how we feel and how we understand this text?” The messianic age is a golden age for us and a day of God’s vengeance upon them. What is the matter with this boy? How could he grow up here and not know this? Doesn’t he remember why this village was founded?

There is no mention of the village of Nazareth in the Old Testament. Aside from the presence of a few scattered Middle Bronze age Canaanite dwellings, the settlement of the town is known to have taken place in the second century B.C.E. Because Galilee had become “Galilee of the Gentiles” Is 9:1; Mt 4:15. Aristobulus the Maccabean ‘conquered Galilee and Ju­daized it.” The plan of action was to conquer the area and move Jewish settlers from Judea onto the land in Galilee. So Nazareth was a “settler town.”

Colonial enclaves, be they Greek, Roman, British, American or Jewish have a strong tendency, in any age, to be politically, culturally and religiously self-conscious and intensely na­tionalistic.

Nazareth, it appears, was such a town. In such a cultural world, how would Isaiah 61 have been understood? The text stanzas 8 and 10 promises that the Gentiles around them will be their servants, and that the wealth of said aliens and foreigners will flow to them. With cheap foreign labour available they will have the leisure to devote themselves to being “priests of the Lord”.

A targum (or commentary) reads: You shall eat the possessions of the Gentiles, and in their glory you shall be indulged. Instead of your being ashamed and confounded, two for one the benefits I promise you I will bring to you, and the Gentiles will be ashamed who were boasting in their lot. The Isaiah Targum, The Aramaic Bible II, trans. Bruce D. Chilton (Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 1987) pp. 118-9

In later Jewish lectionaries, the text from Isaiah quoted by Jesus in the story was omitted. The sections before and after are both read, but not this one. Probably it was omitted because of its association with Jesus.

Meanwhile, there’s a worship song that goes This is the year/ Of the favor of the Lord/ This is the day/ Of the vengeance of our God

So much for Christians who claim to be true to the Bible. Jesus left out the vengeance. Some evangelicals have put it back in..

Jesus was not a focus of unity. He was not kind and considerate to everybody. He seemed to favour those that the good Saturday-by-Saturday pious didn’t. He wouldn’t have made a good bishop.

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.

The nearest I got to that is when two people walked out when I preached here one Remembrance Sunday about 18 years ago.

In today’ church, which bits of the Bible need emphasizing and which bits are best passed over?

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