Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lectionary: 1/27/2013- 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (C)

Prayer of the Day
Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The theme this week is the Word of God as Scripture, particularly when read in worship services.  There's also an underlying theme of God's laws for us and Jesus' fulfillment of the law.  The New Testament reading this week continues from last week, and talks about spiritual gifts and Christian communities and relationships.  Last week, we saw Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana, this week we see him return home for the first time since the beginning of his ministry (and we also return from John to the gospel of Luke).

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
...all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.  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.  So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

In case you're worried about verses four and seven, they're gigantic lists of names that don't add much to the story, so for lectionary purposes, they've been skipped to make the readers' lives easier.  If you're really worried about them, just know Ezra was standing on a wooden platform at the start and the people in the lists helped the other folks understand the law. Or you could look it up.

There were a couple periods of time where the Jewish people did not have access to their scriptures, during the time covered by the Bible.  In this case, they have just returned from what we call the Babylonian Exile.  Generations before, armies from the nation of Babylon came and destroyed Israel, and took thousands of captives back to Babylon, where they lived as slaves and could not worship as they had before.  Now they've been released (which is another long story) and many returned to Israel, and they're rebuilding.  And since these folks have never had access to their Scriptures before (though tradition was passed down as well as they could manage without it) they go and hear Ezra, the priest, read "the law" (probably the first five books at least of the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Torah or the Pentateuch) in the square.

It's shown elsewhere that the people are stunned by how much they've forgotten while they were in exile, and that's why they began to weep.  And so the leaders reminded them that this was the Sabbath, God's day, and they could rejoice at what they had found again, and worship God, and give thanks (by eating and drinking good things and giving to the poor).

So here we see why we read the Bible during a worship service- to remind ourselves of what it says, so we don't forget.  To worship, to rejoice and give thanks.  And let's not forget that last bit about giving to those who have not- that is also a way to give thanks and rejoice and even to worship, and Jesus repeats that constantly as well.

Psalm 19 
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
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 fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

The word "firmament" isn't one we use a lot anymore, sadly- it just means "sky".  It comes from a Latin word that meant "to prop up" which is why the "firm-" part is in there.  The idea of the ancient world was that the sky propped up the heavens, which kept the earth and the heavens separate.  Here we read that the heavens and the sky speak without words of the glory of God, so we do not "hear" their "speech", but we understand the point anyway.  God has planned out even the way the sun moves across the sky, and if that's the case then the laws God has given must be equally carefully planned and wise.  Can't the laws give us even more understanding of God than the heavens and sky and sun, which can't use words?  So we try to follow them.

The last verse, on another note, is often used as a prayer all on it's own.  Very common among pastors before a worship service, for example, or as a morning prayer.  It's also easily rewritten if you want something in more ordinary language.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Ever notice that the Gospel and Old Testament readings seem to match up okay, in terms of a theme, but sometimes the New Testament reading comes out of left field a bit?  The lectionary we use is called the Revised Common Lectionary- common because it's shared among several denominations (including Roman Catholics, with a few minor changes here and there), and revised because this is the second one.  The first one, the CL rather than the RCL, didn't have a New Testament reading, and when they were added in, the decision was made to organize them so that week after week we get continuous readings from a book, rather than by theme (except on some special Sundays where a theme is stuck to).  So sometimes they match the week's theme, but sometimes they're a separate thing.

This week we have a passage that comes right after the passage from last week, which also talked about spiritual gifts.  Last week the big point was that there are many kinds of spiritual gifts, and none of us have them all, but we can figure out which gifts we have and use them to worship God and to help others.  This week, the focus is much more on how we treat each other than how we feel about ourselves.

When we are in worship, and when we are being truly Christian with one another, we treat each other as perfect equals in the eyes of God.  The eyes of society- what we're wearing, how much money we have, what we did last week- don't matter.  In the eyes of God we are God's beloved baptized children, blessed by the same Holy Spirit, sprinkled with (or immersed in!) the same water for the same purpose.  And we continue to work with our gifts and seek out new ones, for the good of the church and the glory of God.

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 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. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

And here, Jesus goes home for the first time since the start of his ministry, and is invited to read the Scripture for the day and interpret it, and makes quite a splash.  (If you want to know what happens afterwards, look it up and keep reading!  Sometimes I think the people who set up the lectionary left cliffhangers for just that reason.)

So, go ahead and read that bit quoted from Isaiah again, I'll wait.  Release of the captives, freedom to the oppressed, does that sound familiar?  Ring any bells from the Nehemiah reading a minute ago?  The Babylonian Exile and the return from it were such huge events in the history of the Jewish people that there are references to them all over the Bible, and this is another one- Isaiah talks about it quite a bit, actually.  Even the sight to the blind part reminds me a little of the reading of the Scriptures to the people who'd never heard it read out before.

And all of these things are things which Jesus will continue to do during his ministry- certainly healing and proclaiming the Lord, but, while we don't have any stories of him getting people released in prison (though he certainly reminded us to care for prisoners and visit them) he did proclaim our freedom from the law.

To explain that a little more- you've probably heard preachers on TV or the radio talk about God's laws and that you have to follow them in order for God to love you.  Well, Lutherans are different from a lot of Christians in a variety of ways, and this is one of them.  We believe that Jesus' death and resurrection freed us from that need to earn God's love by following laws.  God has declared that God loves us anyways, despite the fact that we are not perfect.  We try to follow the laws that God has laid out, yes, but because of our gratitude and thankfulness to God, rather than fear, and because those laws are good for our communities and our lives and relationships.  I have a whole list of "Lutheran Look" post ideas for Fridays, and a few of them talk about this sort of thing, so you'll be reading more about that eventually.  (I hope!)

Go in peace, serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

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