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February 3, 2018

“Word Without End”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Luke 4.14-21

February 3, 2019

Last summer while I was in Ohio, I visited Carillon Park. In downtown Dayton, this historic museum is near where I grew up. Carillon Park houses the Wright Brothers’ bicycle store, as well as historic trains and airplanes – because Daytonians are pretty proud of their airplanes. One store I had not remembered seeing during previous visits was the print shop. In the 1930s this was one of the more popular printing presses because it published for McCall’s. In fact, it was printing around four million magazines each day!

What struck me about this print shop, and really printing presses of the time, was the great care taken to spell out each individual word. As I typed out this sermon it took me just about a half hour to copy my written notes onto a computer program. Imagine the time it took in the 1930s to find each rubber letter and put it in place to spell each word in each sentence on each page of each magazine. Thought went into every single word.

Of course, even before the printing press, thought went into words. Before scripture was deemed “scripture” the stories were told, retold, written, rewritten and edited. The words being used to tell the story of faith were and are important.

Our faith is Word-based. God spoke and created in Genesis. The Gospel of John begins by describing Jesus as the Word. As a denomination we emphasize the importance of the Word – written and read aloud. Scripture is written in some of the most poetic and multi-faceted languages. Hebrew is a language that uses words that have multiple meanings and can be translated in many ways, often playing on words. Our faith has an emphasis on words.

The words Jesus speaks in the Luke passage today are not his own, but from Isaiah. This is a compilation of two different chapters, excluding even parts of the verses. This event is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, though with some variation. This confirms to us that, for whatever reason, the Gospel writers felt it was important to include Jesus reading in the temple. Perhaps they wanted to emphasize his understanding of scripture. Maybe they wanted to show that he was fulfilling the prophecy in some way. Or perhaps they wanted to express Jesus’ mission and purpose.

Jesus does some traveling and then lands back in his hometown once again. He goes before the congregation in the synagogue and reads. Jesus does a bit of his own translating and exegesis as he describes to everyone what a Messiah was, as well as who was the Messiah. The Isaiah passage can be “anointed” or “king.” As I mentioned before, some Hebrew words have different meanings, or can be translated in multiple ways. While Isaiah might have been talking more about a king or an anointed leader, Jesus is taking it one step further and telling the crowd that the One they wait for, the anointed one, is someone who will “bring liberation.” [1] Jesus is not just translating this word as “Messiah,” but also defining the purpose: to relieve the oppressed.

In many ways, Jesus is just retelling the good news of Isaiah. The prophet was known for liberation theology as the book was written during and after the exile of the Israelites. Isaiah was known for giving hope to those who had suffered. Jesus is giving a retelling of the scripture – perhaps like we do in our own time. Jesus does not negate the suffering of the Israelites. The prophet was lifting up those who were suffering and those who were poor. The book of Isaiah looks to the outsiders and marginalized. The people of that time were looking for a political ruler to save them. Perhaps what was revolutionary was that Jesus was bringing in a new context. Now Jesus is reading this in a new era – a new time. He is defining the words differently. When we gather together each week, we read the history of the text, but also wonder how it applies to our lives – what does it say and mean to us? Jesus is doing good preaching.

If the congregation wasn’t surprised to begin with, to top it off, when Jesus sits down, he tells them this has been fulfilled in their hearing. Not only does he define the Messiah, presumably in a different way than the congregation expected, but he also is telling them that he is the Messiah. This is a Jesus mic drop moment – and he does it so nonchalantly. He reads scripture, sits down, and says, “Oh, by the way – I’m that guy.” I wonder if everyone even heard him from his pew. Surely everyone was chatting about it afterward during fellowship hour. “This guy says that the scripture of Isaiah was fulfilled today? This guy who grew up here? Joseph’s son who played with Benjamin’s son and caused trouble with some birds and stones?”

Many commentators believe that this is the passage on which Jesus hangs all other passages – as a sort of “mission statement.”[2] If Jesus were giving an elevator speech, perhaps this would be it: “God 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.” He came to dine with the sinners and bond with the oppressed – and it is scripturally backed up by the prophet himself.

If this is a mission statement of Jesus, we must ask ourselves if we are living out this mission statement. Are we caring for the outcasts? Do we support people who are trying to make ends meet? Do we empower those who do not have the same privileges we have? Do we recognize inequality in our world? Are we using our words to help or hinder?

The people in the Nehemiah text are focused on the Word, as well. They have gathered together in a public place and are listening. Ezra – a priest and a scribe – is reading scripture just before it is about to be canonized.[3] The people have gathered together and Ezra is reading because at this point there are no Bibles. This is the way the Word was transmitted to the masses.

An important aspect of this passage is where they have gathered. The people are at the Water Gate – which is not a code foreshadowing a future presidential downfall – it was a gate around Jerusalem. This gate was important because it was the place where all people – even those who were considered unclean – could assemble.[4] This was a place where people were welcome. This was a place Jesus was talking about, where there was no judgment.

The people stood outside and listened to Ezra read all morning. ALL morning! After reading the scripture passage Ezra interprets. This is similar to how we do in preaching, but most likely he was literally translating, too, because not everyone spoke Hebrew, but instead spoke Aramaic.[5] Afterwards, a commitment is made. The people agree to live by these laws and to follow God. This is a huge deal. The people were committing their lives to following God, and it wasn’t a weekend hobby. To commit to this means that they would live by the boundaries set up for them in scripture – to care for one another, especially the stranger – the people who were not like them. It meant gathering at the Water Gate and being open to God’s Word and following it. It meant celebrating the inclusive nature of God.

We hear words every day. We use words every day. Words in our time are not as thought out as they were in the time of Ezra. Peter Marty, editor of the Christian Century magazine, recently wrote an article on the importance of words.[6] He ends with the words of Jesus from Matthew 12.36: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.” Think of the careless words tossed around these days. Imagine all the careless words that pile up. I think Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 12 says it well: “Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.”

What are the words you hear? What are the words you speak? What is the mission statement you are living by? Does it move us to action in a world of careless words? Let us make space in our lives for words to be spoken and received with care. May we gather together at the gate and welcome everyone, trusting in Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: C (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994), 88.

[2] Ernest Hess, “Luke 4.14-21” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 285.

[3] Victor H. Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 142.

[4] W. Carter Lester, “Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 266.

[5] Matthews, 143.

[6] Peter Marty, “Words are us,” Christian Century. January 16, 2019, Vol. 136, No. 2, p. 3.