scrolls

Dunbar Presbyterian Churchscrolls - 1.24
Dunbar, Nebraska
Sunday, January 24, 2016

Scripture Lessons:
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Luke 4:14-21

A recording is available here.

 


Well-known mystery/law-based author John Grisham switched genres many years ago with his novel Skipping Christmas, the story of Luther and Nora Krank who decide to forget all of the normal trappings of the commercialized holiday season by takin a Caribbean for a Christmas cruise – just the two of them. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue if the Krank’s weren’t famous in town for over-the-top house decorations and a much-anticipated Christmas party, but given their legacy, the decision to skip Christmas was not well received. Things become even more troublesome for the couple when their daughter phones at the last minute to announce a surprise trip home. Needless to say, their plans to buck tradition didn’t go as they’d desired, but the Christmas they had became one of their best.

I resonate with this book as both a John Grisham fan, and because I struggle with tradition changes. As much as I enjoy adult freedoms and making my “new” family traditions, I appreciate the familiarity, comfort, and joy of older traditions. Much like Luther and Nora, though, we tend to grow used to things being the way that they’ve always been because we struggle to deviate from what’s known or the norm. Traditions are a tricky beast to navigate, and for those of us who enjoy them, sometimes it’s hard (and even painful) to recognize the grace and beauty in the freedom of creating new traditions as life evolves.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up,
he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”

Both of our scriptures today speak to the importance of religious customs for the hearing and understanding of God’s Word, and for worship. We begin with Ezra bringing for the book of the Law and reading from it to his congregation. We then move to Christ’s first teaching in the synagogue where he essentially stands up, reads, and “drops the mic”, so to speak, before sitting back down. Each of these scenarios is punctuated by the hearing and receiving of Scripture, as was the custom. Rev. Jill Duffield adds “I would argue for some key words that represent God’s movement toward us since creation: Spirit, Synagogues, Sabbath, Scroll/Scripture.”[1]

The Jewish Festival of Booths ends on the last day with the celebration of Simchat Torah, or Rejoicing in the Torah. “That day ends the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah in the synagogue, and the people read the opening of the book of Genesis to begin the process again.”[2] The Simchat Torah reflects the joy of the Israelites that God has revealed the law to Israel; a celebration that the law is a gift from God. Ezra proudly reestablishes the Torah to its prominence in Israel following exile, therefore reestablishing instructions for the people living as God’s covenant community. One pertinent thing that we’ll notice is the amount of time the congregation assembled for the revelation of the law: “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.” The people gathered in celebration of the scriptures for hours, and at the conclusion of the ceremony, “all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen.”

The law of the Torah, while not as relevant to us Christians as it should be, is as much a Spirit-filled, living and breathing testimony of God as our Gospel messages. We tend to believe that the Gospel supersedes the law, but such thinking then ignores the deep ritualistic importance and strong religious identity God bestowed through the reading and hearing of the law. The Law of Moses, and here the law being reestablished by Ezra, guides the Israelites in their identity as worshippers of God. Much like in the gospel message for us, the Spirit is present in the reading of the Law, and it requires interpretation, updating, and understanding in light of new situations for the readers. Torah reading, while adhering to orthodoxy of the past, also encourages readers to meet God anew in their present and ever-changing times.[3]

In the gospel of Luke, we encounter Jesus teaching in the synagogue for the first time. While we can assume to know this story from the other gospels since it appears in Matthew and Mark, Luke does a fantastic job of stopping the reader from assuming too much. Luke omits the “back story” of this event, jumping straight to the heart of the matter before sharing the aftermath (like the others Gospels). Referring to this text, Fred Craddock notes, “Luke places the Nazareth visit first because it is first, not chronologically, but programmatically. This is to say that this even announces who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists, what his church will be and do, and what will be the response to both Jesus and the church.”[4]

A mere forty or so days after his Baptism, including the time of his temptation, Jesus returns to Galilee and news of his teaching spreads quickly. Jesus is labeled didaskalos, teacher, as he visits various synagogues around Galilee. Luke is clear to label Jesus as both spirit-filled and a teacher in order to emphasize the primary purpose of his ministry. As Jesus moves onto Nazareth, a customary day worshipping in the synagogue becomes extraordinary. The congregation gathered with certain expectations of the worship service – according to custom and tradition – and Christ didn’t deliver. In fact, Christ kept the custom of worship, but ignored tradition altogether. Traditionally, the service contained all or most of the following: “(1) recitation of the shema; (2) praying while facing Jerusalem; (3) the “amen” response from the gathered congregation; (4) reading from sections of the scrolls of the Torah and of the Prophets; (5) a sermon; and (6) benediction.”[5] That’s not what they got from Jesus, however…

He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
20And 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. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

The message Scripture itself is what Jesus wants us to hear and remember. Too often we bring our biases to each encounter with Gospel texts. Jesus, being the radical teacher that he is, realizes this about his congregation and ours, so he disturbs us by not delivering a sermon to interpret the Prophet. ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ he offers to a stunned congregation. Jesus has kept with the tradition of attending worship, especially in his hometown, and he’s kept with the tradition of reading from the scrolls when asked. But rather than sermonizing, Jesus maintains the important thing is that we relish in the hearing of the scriptures. A Spirit-filled preacher meets the congregation and preaches using only the words of the ancient texts.

Lectio Divina is a Latin term meaning “divine reading” that describes a way of reading the Scriptures whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us. Lectio Divina is what Christ offered to his congregation in Nazareth when he read the scriptures and sat down. Lectio Divina is similar to the Jewish tradition of reading through the Law of Moses in a year and repeating the process upon completion – in aeternum. In the twelth century a Carthusian monk named Guigo developed a list of steps that he considered important for the internalizing of Scripture through lectio divina. While the process is a fluid one, and a process that is ideally led by the Holy Spirit, the steps Guigo offers are a good guide for those new to the practice.

The steps are as follows:

  1. lectio – reading the Word of God
  2. meditatio – ruminating on the text to ascertain what God is offering us
  3. oratio – response, laying aside our thoughts to let our hearts speak to God
  4. contemplatio – resting, letting go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations, but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God.

In lectio divina, we listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within. Hopefully, this transformation will have a profound effect on the way we actually live and the way we live is the test of the authenticity of our prayer as we take what we read in the Word of God into our daily lives. Lectio divina’s natural movement is towards greater simplicity, with less and less talking and more listening. Gradually the words of Scripture begin to dissolve and the Word is revealed before the eyes of our heart.[6]

To honor today’s texts, where hearing the scrolls read aloud in worship lead to celebration, rejoicing, and the Spirit fulfilling the scripture in our hearing, I offer these next few minutes to us for lectio divina. Everyone is invited to take a scroll (and a crayon, if you’d like) from the basket. As I read the words aloud repeatedly for the next few moments, unroll your scroll and meditate on the words you hear. When you have your scroll in hand, begin reading the words aloud with me. When I stop reading, we will all enter into a time of silent reflection to allow the message of the text to speak to us today.

Christ deemed these words more important for us to hear than a sermon, so I encourage each of us to listen to them, ruminate on them, respond to them, and allow the Spirit to transform our hearts to a resting place with God over these words.

18‘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,
19 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.’

How will you respond?
Amen.


[1] http://pres-outlook.org/2016/01/3rd-sunday-in-ordinary-time-january-24-2016/
[2] Rick Nutt, “Theological Perspective on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 266.
[3] Portions from Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 271.
[4] Fred Craddock, Luke (Lousiville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), 61.
[5] E. Yamauchi, “Synagogue” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 782.
[6] http://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/what-lectio-divina

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