... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Epiphany 3 Year C
Message January 27, 2013

Newness Offered: Levels of Acceptance

Text: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Cor 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Last week we looked at how Epiphany is not just about God’s manifestation to the chosen people and indeed the world but also how that self-disclosure brings about a newness within those who come to see God’s will. However this newness is often not a clean slate as there are often bits of baggage from the previous time which tends to colour and modify human response. Thus it was with the people of Israel on their return from Babylon and with the early Christian church and even with Jesus’ hometown. Scripture attests to those human frailties and emotions and relates how God’s workings overcome despite all obstacles.Newness Offered: Levels of Acceptance

As the people have returned from Babylon, the community is faced with conflict and opposition from the neighbouring nations as well as dissent and fragmentation from within. Nehemiah Ezra and several others had been appointed to take charge of the political and spiritual welfare of the returnees and to see that the Temple the physical centre of the nation was rebuilt. Unfortunately all the people were not on board, some arguing who should lead and who should be allowed to stay. There were arguments concerning how the Temple was to be built and how Jerusalem should be governed. Despite a new life orchestrated by God and shown in the prophecies by Isaiah, the people carried their individual and collective foibles and prejudices into their new life and so affected God’s plans. To overcome the chaos Ezra gathers the people in the square before the Water Gate and reads to them the book of the Law of Moses. Not only do the people hear the words of the Pentateuch but they also hear the scholars interpret those words in a manner that could be understood. Like an ideal sermon those who could translate the ancient Hebrew into Aramaic and convey the meaning allowed God’s plans and desires to become known to those assembled. And those assembled understood and felt the burden of guilt their former ways had betrayed them. Experiencing and realizing that guilt caused much anguish in all the people but Nehemiah and Ezra were able to turn their shame into joy by a retelling of the narrative.

Often as not a retelling of a narrative enables one to not only see one side of the picture but opens up many other facets which permits a deeper understanding and a change in one’s opinion. In counselling it is frequently employed to show someone suffering from depression and a sense of worthlessness, a different picture to their situation and in the retelling give a new take on the events in that person’s life.

Perhaps no better scriptural illustration exists than Psalm 19 which was probably based on an older sun worship song. The author takes this old but probably well-known song and uses it to show the glories of God who has created the sun. In two parallel parts the psalmist compares the witness to God’s greatness from creation to the excellences of the law pointing out God’s concern for humanity.

The narrative around the laws of God, while seen by the nation and its people as restrictive and separating them from the rest of the world, are retold by the psalm in order to portray a three-fold comprehension of God’s desire. Firstly from a purely straight-forward approach the law was a set of rules and regulations meant to deter people from wrong-doing. In a way such an approach is a dictatorial autocratic control: the “thou shalt not.” Such a rendering would and does cause revolt and the ever present testing of the law. We see this in family dynamics all the time – don’t do that or you’ll be punished. Needless to say the child (usually) will test the waters with the subsequent consequences.

However the psalmist points out a deeper second level of the law which by intimation highlight the evil that really does exist both within and without self. On this plane the law convicts the sin in all of us bringing about a sense of guilt shame and self-understanding. The child who is told to value the home setting decides against the parents’ express wishes to hold a party in their absence and witnesses the destruction the gang brings to the house and then realizes the guilt shame and devastation his or her discretion have caused.

But there is a third level of understanding of the law that the psalmist tries to bring about showing that the law is also a measure and witness to God’s love and desire for humanity. Just as the relations of the sun and creation make for the possibility of life on earth so too do the laws make for societies to exist and interpersonal relations to thrive. The law becomes transformational inviting us to go beyond the “police-state” of justice and judgement to experience the divine mercy and love of the covenantal desire and the unity of all people.

It is this unity of which Paul sought to enlighten the Christians at Corinth using the analogy of the human body. It was a newness of being and a newness which required a re-telling of peoples’ stories concerning a hierarchy of human relationships. Perhaps we today need to listen more closely to Paul’s picture as we see around us the greed the materialism the consumerism and the constant state of “we-them” that has taken hold of all our dealings one with another!

In fact we have become more like the inhabitants of Nazareth than we care to admit. A newness had come to them, a newness which promised social reform, a newness of relationships and a freedom from the anxieties which had plagued the nation in general. Yet we are told that the people discounted their good news. We know that Jesus’ ministry and deeds had preceded him and surely the people had expected great things. Despite this hope, despite their anticipations and despite their circumstances, once Jesus had read the passage from Isaiah and in that laid out the foundation of his life’s mission, the people recoiled. Here was a newness of being, a newness of life, and a newness in relationships. What Jesus was declaring as his mission frightened the people. No doubt the town along with the entire nation had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah but deep down they never expected it in the person of a well-known resident. And his message – a prophecy from Isaiah had many implications – it could be taken as a freeing of Israel from Rome – meaning a bloody and costly war; or it could mean the end of days. It could also have been taken to be a re-institution of the system of jubilee wherein every 50 years all debts are erased and new beginnings imposed; or it could be the New Israel buried in the psyches of the nation. Either way the very ideas would be frightening and in next week’s reading from Luke we will hear what they did in response.

God does offer newness, be it the Ten Commandments, the liberation from Exile, the gift of Jesus. In each and every newness there are many levels of acceptance or rejection. We can see them as intrusive or dictatorial; we can view them as a cause of self-reflection and penitence or we can see them as God’s love trying to direct and coax us along proper paths. The way we view the levels and their implications for us here and now might mean drastic changes. The challenge is whether we accept or reject the path and the new way offered.