The Rt Rev’d Andrew St John
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2019
In 1997 I had the privilege of attending the Bar mitzvah of my great nephew, Boaz, in a conservative, Shephardic synagogue in Beersheba in Israel. As a man I was given a prayer shawl and yamulka and sat in the front row along with my nephew Richard and his son. His mother, my sisters, the other grandmother, aunts, and other women were in the balcony screened by a lattice which was closed during prayers below. But what I shall never forget was the procession of the Torah scroll from the ark to the bema or lectern from which my great nephew would chant the required verses in Hebrew. His non-Jewish father, my nephew, was given the privilege of carrying the scroll with its elaborate silver cover. As it was processed down the synagogue the women ululated above and showered down candies to celebrate the sweetness of God’s Word. It was quite a moment and reminded me in part of the solemnity with which we process the Gospel at High Mass.
Today we hear of two liturgical readings of God’s Word, one from the prophet Nehemiah and the other from St Luke’s Gospel. Ezra’s reading of the book of the law, the Torah, was done with the greatest solemnity: “The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered Amen, Amen, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” In the Gospel reading Luke notes carefully the ritual surrounding the reading that Jesus gave from Isaiah: “And Jesus stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written.” And when he had finished, “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. There is an interesting precision here which highlights the importance of the reading of God’s holy word. Both readings remind us of the centrality of God’s written word in Judaism, in Christianity and also in Islam. They are the three religions of the book whose holy words contain the revelation of God to humankind. As Christians the Holy Bible is normative to our apprehension and understanding of God; of God’s work of Creation, Redemption and Sanctification. We are a people of the Word. One of my Bible teachers used to remind us that it is through the words of scripture that we encounter the Word. In Christian history it took a Martin Luther to remind the church of the importance of “Sola Scriptura”. That is not to discount the other two parts of Hooker’s famous three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. But without Holy Scripture there is no foundation for God’s Revelation to humankind in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Today’s psalm celebrates the place of scripture: “The law of the Lord is perfect reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear enlightening the eyes.”
The reason Ezra’s reading was so important was because it was part of the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in the fifth century before the common era. It was a recognition of the place of the written word in the religious life of the nation. So in like fashion, Jesus, the Jewish teacher, at the commencement of his ministry in Luke “began to teach in their synagogues”. And “when he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.”
Jesus the observant Jew, did what good Jews do on the Sabbath: he attended synagogue and took his turn in reading from the Scriptures.
As we have done this morning and do every time we meet for Eucharist or office. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Episcopal Church is not a biblical church. We are as much a people of the Bible as any other Christian tradition. But that is not to say we cannot do better. I have just finished several months working part-time at St Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan. As part of my duties I conducted a weekly Bible study for an adult group. What a privilege it was to share God’s Word with these people. But it reminded me that I have not always been regular in leading Bible Study. It really ought to be high on our priorities in our Christian practice. I observe that some of you subscribe to Forward Day by Day Bible Study notes and maybe participate in Bible Study. But I encourage us all to take God’s Word to heart in our reading, study and meditation and preparation.
But the second thing to note in the Nehemiah and Luke readings is that the readings were not stand alone events. In Nehemiah we are told: “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” In other words there was some commentary or if you like some preaching going on to elucidate what was being read. Jesus when he sat down after the reading then went on to say: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If that is all he said it was a pretty short sermon. But he had more to say which will form the gospel for next Sunday. But the point I wish to make is that this matter of interpretation (and the Tradition of which we speak is largely to do with the interpretative tradition) is the vital work of preaching and Bible study. Whatever the preacher does or does not do; and no matter how good or otherwise their rhetorical skills; the important work of interpretation, the engagement of the Word with its context and setting, must go on. For the Word is God’s Word; but that Word is also the Living Word.
But that is not the end of the story by any means. We are told the people of Israel who witnessed Ezra’s reading of the Torah long ago, “wept when they heard the words of the law.” Their response to it was not all that obvious. Perhaps they were remembering all the years they had strayed from God’s law; or they wept at the restoration of religious practice in Jerusalem after many barren years. But the reading of the Torah was a powerful event which affected its hearers. As Hebrews (4:12) reminds us: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” In fact Nehemiah and Ezra told the people not to weep and mourn but rather to celebrate for it was a holy day; a day for eating and drinking and sharing their celebration with those who had little or nothing.
Next Sunday we will hear of the reaction of the attendees at the synagogue of Nazareth to Jesus’ commentary on the famous Isaiah reading and his subsequent remarks. At first we are told that “all spoke well of him” but that soon turned to hostility as the hearers realized that Jesus’ words applied to them so much so that Jesus’ life was in danger. There is power in the Word of God: power to inspire, to uplift, to comfort, to challenge, to unsettle, to judge, and power to demand our response to work for unity, justice, peace, truth and love. May God’s holy word be central to our lives and worship, and may it bear much fruit in us. Amen