Year C — The Third Sunday After the Epiphany

Commentary for January 27, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE to listen to the “Lectionary Lab Live” podcast!

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
I, yes, even I — the preacher — am guilty at times of taking the reading and the hearing of God’s word a bit too lightly. 

Nehemiah gives us the wonderful account — most likely inserted in the ongoing saga of the rest of the book from another source, but marvelous, nonetheless — of the people of Israel, who have been “exiled” from their home city for many years, discovering a Torah scroll and hearing it read for the first time in a very long time. 

For many of those in the crowd that day, the experience was completely new — not only had they never heard Torah read, they no longer recognized the ancient tongue of their own people. They had grown up in the Persian courts — Hebrew was foreign to them!

The “preachers” on this day had the holy responsibility of “reading from the book of the law of God, with interpretation…so the people could understand the meaning.” That is our call, is it not?

As always, the word of God does its work when we remove from it all obstacles, when we faithfully perform the task of interpretation. No fasting here — bring on the juicy fat and that sweet, sweet wine. It’s time to celebrate the goodness of God!

Psalm 19
Now, you want to talk about some interpretation? Psalm 19 says that “the heavens are telling” the glory of God! Look up the next time you need to see and feel the presence of God. Get a glimpse of what’s going on above you, around you, everywhere you can see. God is at work there (or, so we are led to believe….)

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
“Well, I’m no hand; I don’t think there’s really anything I can do here at the church. I’m sure not an eye, so there’s no way I can see my way clear to step up and be a leader!”

Our folks wouldn’t use these words, exactly, but don’t we encounter people all the time who offer one excuse or another why they are not “good enough” to serve a role in the congregation?

I am convinced that, for some folks, it is genuine humility — bordering on low self-esteem — that keeps them from taking part. They don’t want to be seen as “putting on airs.” But, there are other times when folks just don’t really want to get involved — don’t want the hassle or the inconvenience of committing to the cause of Christ.

Hold on there a minute! The church is a body, and it really needs all its parts! You may feel like yours is one of the “weaker” or “less honorable” parts (not to mention the “unmentionable” parts — and we know the body definitely needs all of those!)

Doesn’t matter; God designed you to fit in. So, let’s get to fittin’, shall we?

Luke 4:14-21
Jesus — the local boy who has, we assume, been away for a while — comes back home and does as he no doubt has done dozens of times. He reads from the Torah scroll in church. He is obviously accepted as a rabbi here in Nazareth; nobody disputes his “right” to read publicly.

There is also an air of expectation, even as he sits down after reading. It’s kind of like the old E.F. Hutton commercials — everybody leans forward expectantly, waiting to hear what he is going to say.

And, he says a mouthful. Claiming the fulfillment of prophecy from Isaiah — who does this boy think he is?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Today’s Gospel lesson is about knowing who you are. Specifically, it is about Jesus knowing who he is and what he is called to do. It is also about our knowing who we are and what we are called to do, for the two are intimately related. Our identity as Christian people flows directly out of Jesus’ identity as the Christ of God, and what we are called to do follows directly on what Jesus was called to.

As we look at this story, it is important to place it in its proper context. The flow of Luke’s story goes like this:

  • John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing.
  • Lots of people are coming to get baptized.
  • One of those people is Jesus.
  • After Jesus gets baptized the Spirit descends on him and he is declared the beloved Son of God.
  • The Spirit leads him in to the Wilderness where he is tempted by the Devil.
  • Then our text begins, in which: “filled with the power of the Spirit” Jesus teaches around Galilee.
  • On the Sabbath, he goes to the synagogue, and reads and preaches/teaches about the Spirit anointing him for ministry.

Now right after this, in the part we didn’t read, his friends and neighbors were not too impressed by all this, indeed they got mad enough to run him out of town, in fact, they intended to kill him, but he got away. 

There are two things I want to focus on here, and we’ll take them in turn.

One is the business of Spirit and identity. As I retold the last half of chapter 3 and the first half of chapter 4 in Luke, I purposely emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus was about was rooted in the leading of the Spirit, the power of the Spirit and the comfort of the Spirit.

All too often we in the church act as though what happens in the life of the church were up to us. We take a bow in God’s direction and say a prayer or two for guidance, but then we go about the church’s business relying on our own ideas and interests and abilities. We forget that even Jesus was dependent upon the Spirit. Who are we to think or act as though we can go it alone?

In the Bible, 40 is a number that symbolizes a long time, usually a long time of testing and waiting and getting clear spiritually. Think about the children of Israel being in the wilderness for 40 years, of the Noah flood lasting 40 days and 40 nights, etc. When the Bible says Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, it means he spent a great deal of time in prayer and study and spiritual discipline, seeking to know exactly what it was God was calling him to be and to do.

Bishop N.T. Wright points out that what we often call an “inspired” performance is usually the result of long years of practice and preparation. A great musician, a fine actor, a superb athlete; none of them appears on the world’s stage without the blood, sweat and tears of dedicated work to get ready.

Jesus had spent the time in prayer and study to be prepared for the moment God called upon him to come forth as the Lord’s Anointed. The Spirit, the “inspiration” came on him because he was ready to receive it.

We are called to do no less. We are called to be prepared, to be ready, to be open to the Spirit; and the only way to do that is to take seriously our call to study scripture and to pray and to seek God’s will in the community of the faithful. It was not by accident that it was Jesus’ custom to go to synagogue. He didn’t go there because they were friendly (this bunch certainly was not) he didn’t go there because his family, his Mama and his brothers and cousins went there (though they were); Jesus went to pray, to hear God’s word read and explained, to prepare for the moment when God would call upon him to do something extraordinary, and when that moment came, he was ready. So, the first thing we see here is Jesus preparation for and dependence upon the Spirit.

The second thing we note the nature of what Jesus is called to do. I talked to a pastor friend not too long ago who saw a church sign which said, “WE CARE FOR YOU!” in big letters. 
Underneath, in small print, it said, Sundays, 10 am only.

The things Jesus is called to say and do as the Lord’s anointed shout out in large letters the message: GOD CARES FOR YOU! Good News to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. Love, care, act.

As the followers of Christ, we too are called to care, not just in our hearts, but also in our actions. And we are called to caring actions all the time, not just on Sundays at 10 AM. We are called to find ways as individuals and as a church, a community of faith, of doing those very things Jesus talks about it this Scripture lesson. To do any less would be to back away from our call to take up our cross and follow.

When I was a kid, Yogi Berra was one of my favorite baseball players. When I got older, I got even more fond of him as I began to read some of the Yogisms that were often quoted on the sports pages, things like:

That restaurant’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.
If you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Anybody who is popular is bound to be disliked.

My all-time favorite is this: If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus shows clearly that he knows who he is and where he is going. It is an awareness that has come to him through serious study of the scriptures, deep and impassioned prayer and a commitment to living within the community of God’s faithful people.

We are called today to follow Jesus in this ministry. We are called to study the scriptures, pray hard and long for guidance, to live out a commitment to the gathered people of God by coming together in worship and prayer and service. And we are called to follow the Spirit’s leading in serving the world in Jesus’ name.

Amen and amen.

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