“For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord.” Nehemiah 8:9b-10a
It was a time of deep political upheaval, when enemies were [all around] and questions raged within the country about who really belonged and what it meant to be patriotic…Ideas about what faithful adherence to traditional religion looked like [seemed to be constantly changing]. Charismatic leaders stepped forward, some arguing one way and some arguing another, but all claiming God was on their side, until many people were confused.[i]
That’s how Professor Cory Driver sets up his reflection on this week’s readings. His description, as we will see, provides an accurate backdrop for today’s First Reading and for today’s Gospel. But isn’t it interesting how much it sounds like our own time? Political upheaval. Changing religious practices. Leaders arguing. Widespread confusion.
The book of Nehemiah comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we usually call the Old Testament, but Nehemiah not a book from which we read very often on Sunday mornings. Today’s passage is set in a time when the Jewish people have returned from exile. Decades earlier they had been conquered by the Babylonians, who separated them and sent them away from their homeland. The Babylonian king and his armies had also destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Having been scattered far and wide, having lost the center of their communal worship life, the Jewish people endured a difficult period of dislocation.
By the time of today’s reading, some things have changed. The Persian Empire has defeated the Babylonians, and the Persian king has allowed the Jewish exiles to return home and to rebuild the temple. Imagine how it would feel to return to a homeland you had been forced to leave, reunited with neighbors and friends and loved ones. What would you want to do first? Probably gather for some meals together. Share stories of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Talk about what you’d been through. Remember those who died while you were in captivity.
One of the things that the people want to do is hear from the Torah, the law of Moses, the holy scriptures that have shaped who they are as a people from the very beginning. Ezra, a priest and prophet, brings the law before the people gathered in the town square. Everyone is there at the Water Gate – men and women included – as Ezra dives in. He reads for hours – from early morning until midday. Think about how hard it is on some Sunday mornings to focus on listening to all of the readings, which takes only a few minutes. Could you pay attention to the reading of scripture for hours and hours? It would be a challenge.
But notice how the people respond to that public reading of God’s holy word. They stand up. They cry “Amen! Amen!” They bow their heads with faces to the ground. They weep. They weep. And not just a couple of softies in the crowd. It says: “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
Who knows what prompted the tears? Maybe it was the joy of being together again for worship after so long. Maybe it was the memories that surfaced while hearing these sacred stories read aloud again. Maybe it was the realization of how far they had fallen short of how God wants us to live. I suspect it was a combination of all of those and much more.
But notice what happens next. The people are told to let their grief and struggle turn to joy. To go out from that time of hearing God’s word to eat good food and drink sweet wine. And then what? To share that food and wine with those for whom nothing is prepared. In other words, be fed with the scriptures and be fed with an actual meal and then make sure you share what you have with others who don’t have as much.
If we were to read a couple of verses beyond today’s passage, we would hear this: “All the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” They celebrated together, and they shared their abundance with those who needed it the most.
Scripture does something to the people who gather to hear it. It transforms them from a traumatized community struggling to make sense of the political upheaval they have experienced to a rejoicing community that takes care of those in need.
Centuries later Jesus stands up in the synagogue of his hometown and unscrolls a different part of the scriptures, this time from the book of Isaiah. The Persian Empire was now a distant memory, but living in the time of the Roman Empire wasn’t all that different. There were still power struggles all around – and obstacles to being able to worship together in peace.
Jesus could have picked any part of Isaiah to read as he looked into the faces of the people who have known him since he was a little boy. But he chooses this passage: “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, to proclaim year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus tells them that he is the fulfillment of that long-ago promise. The regular synagogue-goers have heard those words from Isaiah countless times, but on this morning Jesus tells them that he’s there to make sure it actually happens – release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.
Jesus is essentially saying: “The word of God is a living Word, and it is standing right in front of you.”
We’ll hear in the coming months how Jesus’ embodiment of those words from Isaiah will unfold in his earthly ministry. As we know, he’s not making empty promises here. And we’ll hear more next week about how the people reacted to what Jesus says. For now let me just say that there are many different responses, all of them passionate.
What is true in Nazareth in the time of Jesus is also true in Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. God’s word provokes a response. People may feel confused and overwhelmed, they may find themselves in difficult political and economic circumstances, but they do not remain neutral. The words of scripture summon them to act on behalf of those who are in need, especially those who are crushed beneath power structures they cannot control.
I have a little homework for you. I encourage you to read the first four chapters of the gospel of Luke between now and next Sunday. You can do it a little bit at a time – a chapter a day, perhaps – or you can do it all in one sitting. Parts of these chapters will be very familiar; they include the Christmas story, for example. Other parts will be less familiar. Don’t worry about understanding every detail. But ask yourself these questions as you read:
- What do you notice as you read? What stands out?
- What questions do you have? What are you curious about?
- What might God be saying to us today through these scriptures? How might God be asking us to respond?
What do you notice? What questions do you have? What might God be saying to us? I’ll put those questions on our Facebook page and in the Weekly Word, and they’ll be in the sermon when it’s posted on our website so you’ll have access to them throughout the week.
We have this gift of God’s word. God uses it to teach us, to shape us, to move us to act in the world.
And so: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I have adapted this opening from Cory Driver’s lectionary blog entry for this Sunday as posted here: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/01/lectionary-blog-what-scripture-does-to-and-for-us/ I have also drawn on his reflections throughout the sermon. I am also grateful to Bishop Mike Rinehart (https://bishopmike.com/2019/01/20/epiphany-3c-january-27-2019/) and Debie Thomas (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2060) for their reflections.
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Luke 3:16b
Biblical imagery is weird. I’m guessing most of us haven’t wielded a winnowing fork or cleared a threshing floor or separated wheat from chaff.[i] I know I haven’t. If you have, I’d like to know more about it.
Fire and water are at least familiar to us. But they have so many different associations that it’s hard to know how to make sense of them when we encounter them in scripture.
Sometimes we associate fire with destruction. I can’t get out of my mind the awful images from the California fires, especially the almost complete leveling of a town ironically named Paradise. Sometimes we associate fire with judgment – “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Our imagined versions of hell usually involve fire.
But remember that not too long ago we gathered on Christmas eve and sang “Silent Night,” each of us holding a little bit of fire as we remembered that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. We give the newly baptized a flaming candle and say, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Ordinary fire can have a divine power.
The same is true of water. We bathe in it and wash our dishes in it. We are soothed by the sounds of a gentle rainfall. But water can also take the form of a tsunami or a rising flood that sweeps away everything in its path.
Fire and water. So ordinary, so powerful.
This morning, in Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus, we hear John say that it’s one thing for a person like him to baptize with water. Jesus, though – Jesus will be different. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That sounds powerful – and a bit ominous.
What is this baptism that Jesus brings? Let’s start with what it is not.
Baptism is not an opportunity to label different baptismal practices as “correct” or “incorrect.” Christian traditions have many ways of understanding baptism. Some baptize infants; others don’t. Some sprinkle; others dunk. Some believe that one baptism is effective for your whole life; others think that two baptisms are necessary – one involving water, another involving the receiving of the Holy Spirit, often made evident by speaking in tongues. If you have questions about some of those differences, please ask me, and I’ll do my best to share what I know. The differences are meaningful, but our methods do not make God love us any more or any less.
Baptism is not an invitation to judge others. Sometimes when we hear this language about how Jesus is going to save the valuable wheat and burn the useless chaff, we’re tempted to sort people into categories of wheat or chaff. Who do we think is so terrible that they will end up burning as chaff? Who will make the cut and survive as wheat? But as a colleague reminded me this week, it would be more valuable to see that each of us contains both wheat and chaff. Our Lutheran understanding is that we are all both sinners and saints. The good of which we are capable and the bad to which we so often turn – they are both part of us, deep down to our marrow. Only Jesus can do the kind of purifying that untangles one from the other.
Baptism is not a magic spell that keeps us from being hurt. I wish it were. After his own baptism Jesus will head into the wilderness for forty days of hunger and temptation. Later his own neighbors will try to throw him off a cliff. Religious leaders will accuse him of breaking God’s law.
There will be countless people who need to be healed and need to be heard, and Jesus will do that work until he is absolutely wrung out with exhaustion. He will try again and again to slip away from the crowds and have a moment of peace and prayer. He will seldom find that peace.
And of course there’s the cross. For Jesus pain and horror and death lie ahead. Baptism does not keep Jesus from all of that, nor does it keep us from running headlong into suffering.
So what is baptism?
Baptism is a promise that we are never forsaken – in this life or the next. It is the voice of God saying to each of us, “You are my Beloved, and nothing – absolutely nothing – will keep me from loving you always.” In the rite of baptism we promise as a community to support each other in making the world look more like what God wants it to be – a place of peace and justice. And though we know we will fail again and again, we trust in another promise of baptism – the promise of God’s forgiveness. That promise helps us keep going in the face of so much that threatens to discourage or defeat us.
Many of our hearts broke this week when we learned that Chatham fourth-grader Tessa Handerhan died Thursday night. Tessa mysteriously collapsed in early December and never recovered. The magnitude of the grief when a child dies is beyond words. I feel it without having known Tessa or her family. I know many of you do too. A tragedy like this one always brings questions. Why did it happen? Why would God allow it to happen? What possible reason could there be for a nine-year-old to die?
There are no clear answers to those questions. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but logic cannot withstand the mysteries of death and suffering.
All I can tell you is that we are not alone. God is with us in every circumstance, in joy and in grief. The best we can do is to sit beside those who are grieving – with our presence and with our prayers. To do so will seem ordinary and insufficient, but it is what we can offer. God is good at using what seems ordinary.
Last week I mentioned that the name for this season – Epiphany – comes from the Greek word that means “appearing” or “revealing.”[ii] It calls us to look for God’s presence in ordinary places and moments.
I was sitting at Starbucks yesterday doing some work, hunkered down at one of those long tables to finish today’s sermon and to study some of the readings we’ll hear in the coming weeks. I was praying too – for you, for our congregation, for Tessa’s family, for a dear friend of mine who is very sick. One by one, my tablemates left. (I was praying silently, so I don’t think I scared them away.) Eventually there were just two of us– I was there, typing away, as was a young woman who looked to be preparing for some kind of big test. One of the baristas came over and said they had made some extra hot chocolate. Would we like some on the house? Well, of course.
That hot chocolate was like a little epiphany. I didn’t have to pay for it. I didn’t earn it in any way. I just got to enjoy drinking it. The hot chocolate tasted a lot like grace.
As I sipped the hot chocolate, I watched a little girl come in with her parents. She was under two – barely walking – but she caught the rhythms of the music playing overhead – the Hamilton soundtrack, I think. And she started dancing. She held a green straw in each of her toddler hands and she boogied like it was her mission in life. She giggled with total delight. I smiled through tears, thinking of another family without their daughter. That little girl dancing looked a lot like grace. Defying the cold around us with the warmth of her joy.
God comes to us in the precious, ordinary things of daily life. In fire. In water. In bread. In wine. In a dancing toddler. In the tears of a neighbor. In a voice that whispers “You are beloved.”
Be alert, people of God. We never know where God will meet us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am indebted to Pastor Joanna Harader for her column in the recent edition of The Christian Century, which can be found here: https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/water-and-fire-psalm-29-isaiah-431-7-luke-315-17-21-22
[ii]Thank you to Debie Thomas for her essay for Journey with Jesus this week: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2047