The Holy Bible, the Scriptures, is one of the three basic sources of the faith of the Episcopal Church, the other two being tradition and reason.
In the first reading today it was through the reading of scripture that Ezra was able to bring the people back to God.
When Jesus stood up and read scripture he brought the will of God right into the midst of the people.
A little background information may be helpful to set the stage for the first reading—a story from the book of Nehemiah. Ezra calls the people to remember the Words of God. You see, centuries earlier God had claimed the Israelites as his chosen people and he had given them wonderful gifts—land, security, abundance, and property. The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has said that the memory of these generous gifts and that relationship with God was the glue that held the people together. It kept them close to God and responsive to God.
But then as many years passed, they drifted away from that relationship with God becoming more self reliant rather than God reliant. They began to forget. They forgot the true source of that abundance and prosperity. Other nations surrounding them grew in size and power, and they were conquered by the Babylonians and carried off to a strange land, spending nearly half a century in exile. By the time they could finally go home again they had forgotten much of their faith and traditions.
The Israelites expected to find their homeland as they had left it but that was not what they found. Imagine their disappointment when they saw their beloved temple in Jerusalem. The walls were a pile of rubble; the great temple was looted, dismantled, and burned.
The temple was eventually restored--at least the Israelites were safe again and they had a place to worship. Yet the situation was still quite bleak, as internal divisions and injustices caused neighbor to set against neighbor. Guidance and encouragement was needed.
So that’s the back story for this first reading as Ezra gathers the people.
What happens when families gather? Doesn’t someone begin to tell stories? I remember as a child begging my mother, “Tell me what your family was like? Tell me what games you played when you were a little girl. Tell me a story.”
We have a new member in our family, so knowing there is fresh ground to cover, with a new set of ears among us the old stories are taken out, dusted off and often embellished upon. It sometimes leads to who can embarrass whom, occasionally the kids “fess up” to antics that the parents had not been aware of, but it’s all in good fun. It’s a time to laugh and remember. Telling the stories brings us closer together.
(Now back to Nehemiah) The people gathered together in the square before the Water Gate and Ezra began to read from the book of the law of Moses.
The people listened again to the stories of creation, of Noah and the Ark, of Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and the beautiful coat, the escape from Egyptian slavery, of Miriam and Moses, the 10 Commandments and other instructions for being in relationship with God. Ezra translated the stories into the people’s everyday language so that they understood the meaning. And the people wept. It doesn’t say why they wept. Did they realize how far they had drifted from God’s word and will? Were they ashamed or did they realize how much they had lost by going astray? Or, did they weep in the joy of hearing those beloved stories of God blessing them once again?
No judgments were rendered against the people; instead they were told to celebrate, don’t grieve, eat the fat and drink the wine--this day is holy, for the Lord is your strength. And the people renewed their commitment to their great and merciful God. Now we will see how neatly the Hebrew Scriptures stands beside the Gospel. Jesus has returned to Galilee filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Previously, he had endured the 40 day period of being tested in the desert. Now, he’s back to his childhood home of Nazareth in southern Galilee.
Scripture, the word of God, is the common element in these two stories. In the first reading scripture inspires the people to recommit to God’s law and God’s way. In the Gospel it is a scripture passage that changed everything, as Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah, the one in whom scripture is fulfilled.
Jesus literally is the link between the Old Testament and the New, between the old way of being and the new way of being in God’s will. In his hometown he attends synagogue and stands up to read from the book of Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he sat down and as all eyes were upon him he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” Scripture had come true before their very eyes. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, and this is his mission statement—this is Jesus’ inaugural address. Jesus reaches back to the ancient scriptures of Isaiah and tells the folks, now this is what comes next, this is the new action plan. Jesus brings a new way of fulfilling God’s plan for all creation.
How do we hear these stories? How can they become our own stories? How can we take delight in reading the scripture stories again? How can we then come into a more intimate relation with God? How can we bring good news to the poor?
We can begin by reading and studying the Bible stories. We can read the Day by Day devotional booklet with reflections on daily scripture passages. We can try to imagine being in those stories, in the desert, in the temple in Jerusalem, in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.
Years ago, I found three things to be of great help. A Bible with footnotes--those little explanatory notes help clarify scriptures, a Bible dictionary, and Bible Study companions. Knowing the stories is foundational, participating in our Lord’s ministry is our call.
How can we be partners in Jesus’ mission? How can we bring good news to the poor, the ill, the lonely? How can we tell the stories?
Yesterday, at Wynooche Cemetery, I offered our graveside service for the family and friends of Lila LaBreck Scott. People lingered and visited for some time at the cemetery and then at the reception. Some of them had attended school with Lila from kindergarten through high school. Sharing stories helped ease the pain of grief, helped bind people together again, helped bring wholeness and made life meaningful.
Jesus revealed God’s grace through scripture and story. We are called to carry on His ministry and be storytellers today. AMEN.