By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Nehemiah ch. 8 and Luke 4:16-30
When Britt and I were dating in seminary, I would grab him in my arms and say, “Kiss me, you fool.” I know; it’s really sappy. Now at that time, Britt was a big fan of Garfield the cat. He had a Garfield mug and some other paraphernalia. The first Christmas after we’d been dating, Britt spent Christmas Eve with his family in Cincinnati and drove up to Dayton early Christmas day so we could drive together back to Pennsylvania to see my family. We’d been dating for a while and we’d discussed the possibility of marriage. Just before Christmas, Britt called and told me he’d bought me a special gift. My heart leapt within me. Could it be an engagement ring? I called my mom and my sister and relayed the conversation to each of them. Britt arrived on Christmas morning and I opened my special gift before we began our drive to Pennsylvania. It was a small figurine of Garfield with the words, “Kiss me, you fool,” written across his chest. Now, had I not been expecting an engagement ring, this would have been a very cute and romantic gift. But, it was no ring and it was a long, difficult drive back to Johnstown where – upon entering my parents’ home – my mother and sister both grabbed hold of my hand to check for a ring. That evening Britt and I had a nice, long talk and the next day we visited a couple of jewelry stores. On New Years’ we went out to dinner. Between the main course and dessert, I went to the ladies’ room. When I returned to the table, there – in front of my plate – was the Garfield. A ring dangled from his paw. On his chest, the word “Kiss” had been X’ed out. In its place was written the word “Marry.” “Marry me, you fool.” Only one word was different. One word was changed and it changed my life.
Words are powerful. And – as I’ve noted in recent weeks – no word is more powerful than the Word of God.
This morning’s scriptures are stories about the Word of God being read in the context of worship, just as we did this morning, just as we every week. In Nehemiah, the people, having returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, have gathered to hear the Torah, the teaching God gave to the Israelites through Moses. In this morning’s gospel story, Jesus also reads scripture, reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth on the Sabbath.
So this morning as we journey through this sermon series The Power of Words we’re going to explore how the sacred word – God’s Word in Scripture – exercises power in our lives and in our world. We’re going to consider how God’s Word can make our lives different and change our world.
Now, there are some significant points of commonality in both of these stories. First, as I’ve already noted, these are stories of God’s Word being proclaimed to God’s people in the context of worship. When Britt and I go to Cincinnati, I often worship at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. When it comes time for the reading of the gospel, as is the custom in the Episcopal Church, the cross and the bible are brought down from their place at the front of the sanctuary and brought into the aisle and read from that space. The worshiping congregation surrounds the Bible. I love that symbolism. In worship, God’s Word enters into our midst as a living Word. God reveals God’s self to us through the sacred Word; it is a way in which we enter into relationship with God. As we read in the prophet Jeremiah, the Word of God is meant to be written on our hearts. Although the events recorded in the Bible are ancient history, they continue to come to life in our lives today. “The events themselves remain unique and unrepeatable,”[i] but – as we proclaim them – they become our memories and our story; they become God’s Word to us.
But notice the experience doesn’t end with reading the Word; the Word is interpreted. Sometimes it’s hard to understand scripture. There might be unfamiliar words, customs or concepts. These words were penned, originally, in a different language and ancient Eastern culture is very different from contemporary Western culture. So God’s Word needs to be interpreted. Friends: thoughtless literalism can lead to a great deal of confusion and, even worse, to legalism and prejudice. So, when we come into this space, we not only hear God’s Word, it is interpreted.
And, as it is interpreted, one would hope that it begins to make sense to us; that it has meaning for us; even that it impacts us emotionally. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to start crying like the Israelites did when Ezra read them the Torah and I hope it won’t mean you’ll become so angry you’ll threaten my life like those ancient Nazarenes threatened Jesus. But I also hope and pray that hearing the Word of God does stir you deep within. That it touches your heart. That evening I sat down and read the words “Marry me” on that Garfield figurine, I felt incredible joy because I understood what those words meant. I had a strong emotional response. After all, I understood what those words meant and I knew they were going to change my life.
But you know I’ve been in worship services where God’s Word was read with no more enthusiasm or inflection than reciting ingredients from the label of a soup can. Methodist preacher and writer Leonard Sweet notes that there is no greater sin than making the Bible boring. I hope, when you hear scripture that you feel drawn into the story; that you enter into it; that you recognize the power of these Words to change your life. Every week when I prepare my sermon, it’s my prayer that – through my preaching – this will make more sense to you; that it will have meaning and application for your life. After all, this isn’t someone else’s story. This is our story; this is the story of God’s love for us; this is the story of our salvation.
Now, let me take just a moment right now to do some interpreting; to explain for you WHY Jesus’ audience became so angry when he read and interpreted the Word of God to them. When Jesus’ congregation starts to praise Jesus as Joseph’s son – as the hometown boy – Jesus recognizes the implication of that. They are trying to lay claim to him.
So Jesus speaks to them this proverb: "Doctor, cure yourself," which might more accurately be translated, “Doctor, cure yours,” as in your people; your neighbors; your own kin. Jesus anticipates they might ask him to do the kinds of miracles he's done elsewhere right here in his hometown. But Jesus offends them by calling attention to a part of their history they’d just as soon forget… those parts where God shows preferential treatment to people who are, well, not his people; non-Israelites; dirty, nasty, Gentile foreigners. What? How dare Jesus call to memory these embarrassing episodes of Jewish history? Just who does Jesus think he is? He’s just a hometown boy.
The people in Jesus’ culture also believed in something known as "limited good." In other words, there was only so much good stuff to go around. Good was limited – like the slices in a pie. And, if I take two slices that means you might not get a slice. Good was limited and, if I took more than I was entitled to, you were likely to wind up getting cheated out of your fair share.
Those people of Nazareth thought they had first dibs on their hometown boy. Jesus was a healer and a miracle worker and – in the minds of his homies – these were good things with a limited supply. In their minds, whatever “good” Jesus had belonged to them first and foremost. In other words, they should be served first from that metaphorical pie. So, how dare Jesus take his “limited good” of healing and miracles to outsiders? They believed that Jesus belonged to his village, he belonged to this synagogue, and whatever good he had – the ability to heal and to liberate – belonged to them first and foremost. But here’s the thing: the Word of God should not only stir up and impact our lives. God’s Word is meant to be good news to everyone, to bring change to the world.
And that’s what makes the congregation so angry. Their rage even turns deadly. Not only do they drive Jesus out of the synagogue. They run him out of town. They're so angry, they try to kill him. This congregation of God’s chosen people has evolved into something like an angry lynch mob.
Now, that’s never the effect I’m going for when I proclaim God’s Word to you. But I hope, at the very least, that in the proclaiming and explaining of God’s Word, that it does touch something within you, that it stirs you; that you comprehend the power of this Word.
And when we do, then we shouldn’t keep that Word to ourselves. God’s Word is meant to extend beyond us; to be put in motion; to be taken beyond these walls. We ought to be takin’ it to the streets, so to speak. Within each of this morning’s bible stories we see that expressed. After Ezra reads the Word of God to the people and they weep, Ezra urges them to leave worship and to celebrate; to eat and to drink. But Ezra tells them, “Send portions [of their food and drink] to those for whom nothing is prepared.”[ii] And they do. They share their food and drink; they celebrate with others precisely because “they had understood the words that were declared to them.”[iii] Likewise, when we hear and understand God’s Word, it ought to inspire us to care for those beyond our congregation and to be generous with them. In the gospel story, Jesus’ response to the synagogue worshippers was to remind them that the blessings of God weren’t theirs exclusively; that the mercy and goodness of God reaches far beyond us. God’s grace is meant for everyone.
Friends: no word is more powerful than the sacred word, God’s Word. I hope that – even beyond our time in worship – that on your own, you are taking time to read and to study God’s Word so that that Word can enter into the lives of others through you and bring change to our world. I hope you make the commitment to read it and understand it and that it stirs something deep within you. I hope that – as it speaks to you – you will speak to others and not keep the message to yourself.
Right now I want to call your attention to the back of the Connection Card that is in our program every Sunday. The top line on the left provides a place for you to make a commitment to engage with this morning’s scripture throughout the week – to read it, think about it, pray over it. Even if you haven’t done much bible reading and it seems overwhelming to you, this is one easy way to begin. Each week when I preach, it provides the opportunity to learn a little more about the meaning of that bible story. And you can continue that practice at home during the week.
Now I invite you to turn to your program to the section under the sermon titled “Praying with Scripture.” This provides a pattern for you to enter into deeper relationship with God’s Word and to carry out that commitment on the connection card of praying and reflecting over the scripture passage throughout the week. Set aside 15-20 minutes of quiet and follow these four simple steps:
[i] The New Handbook of the Christian Year by Hoyt Hickman, Don Saliers, Laurence Hull Stookey and James White; Abingdon Press; 1992; p. 41.
[ii] Nehemiah 8:10
[iii] Nehemiah 8:12
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