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We all have the common understanding that talking about politics or religion is not a good thing to do in social settings. In church, we expect to discuss things religious. It is the nature of church and faith communities. We understand discussing politics in church is not a good thing and certainly not from the pulpit. Should we have any doubt about that, we most likely have heard or read of the Internal Revenue Service challenging a church’s tax-exempt status if the IRS believes a particular church in some fashion has engaged in politics, especially from the pulpit.
The problem with today’s scriptures, assigned to this the third Sunday in Epiphany in the common lectionary for cycle C, is that they are all about politics.
Not Republican politics. Not Democratic politics but the politics of God in general and the politics of Jesus in particular. The Scriptures speak of how the people of God hear and respond to God’s word in these readings. I suggest when we heard these words read this morning, we most likely found ourselves on a continuum between “Oh my” and “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Israel has returned to Jerusalem after the nation’s prolonged Exile. Ezra led the people in rebuilding the temple. Nehemiah focused on guiding the people in rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. Rebuilding the wall was especially challenging for Israel. The Samaritans, Ammonites and Arabs . . . neighboring peoples . . . adamantly opposed the rebuilding of the wall. The wall would make it much more difficult for them to attack, loot, manipulate, or control Israel. These people taunted the Israelites as Israel built the wall. They threatened to attack. They did everything they could to break the morale of the people. And of all things, even the wealthier Jews sided with the opposition against their own people!
Nonetheless, Nehemiah stood steadfast in his purpose. He encouraged Israel to remain steadfast in building the wall. Nehemiah had half of the workers building while the other half stood by armed with spears, shields, bows and coats of mail. Those engaged in the actual building had swords at their sides. Nehemiah and the people finished the wall in fifty-two days.
We heard in the reading once the wall was completed the people gathered in the square and asked Ezra to read to them from the book of the Law of Moses which God had given to Israel. So Ezra read from early morning to midday and the people listened. Friends, that is equivalent to six hours. Six hours! The people stood and listened. Oh my! They listened because in the words read to them they heard of God’s love for God’s people. Yes, the people had lived in captivity, in exile, and in slavery. But the people also heard of God’s steadfast love for God’s people. They heard of God’s patience with them in spite of the people’s waywardness. Some men were chosen to explain the words to the people as Ezra read so Israel could fully understand the law. Israel gained a new understanding of God’s love and God’s grace. Scripture records: the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Nehemiah proclaimed, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep . . . for this day is holy to our Lord . . . for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And the people rejoiced. The people celebrated. They understood the words that were declared to them.
What an impressive narrative. Aren’t we drawn to say, “Oh my!” But I submit, not too far behind and maybe even supplanting the awe of “oh my,” comes “You’ve got to be kidding!” Standing and listening for six hours to scripture being read? Isn’t it our tendency to get a bit impatient when a scripture reading runs a bit long or when the sermon runs even longer? And what if we disagree with the preacher’s understanding of a particular scripture passage? We squirm. We fidget. We look at our watches (or smartphones). We grumble internally? Why we might even think, “This is political. This is not scriptural!”
Yet in these words found in Nehemiah, we encounter a people who as a nation experienced decades of hardship and isolation and slavery in exile and are now back home in Jerusalem. The temple is rebuilt. A wall surrounds the city. They listen to God’s word not only being read but also explained from early morning to actual midday – from 6:00 am to noon in our culture. Oh my! The people realized God had been with them through it all. God was with them in that very moment. “God is with us. We have never been alone in spite of what we thought. Thanks be to God.” Oh, my!
And now we come to the Gospel reading. Jesus is back home in Nazareth. He is in the synagogue for worship as was his custom. He was given a scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah from which to read. Jesus opened it and read: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The gathering place was absolutely quiet. Everyone stared at him. Then Jesus remarked, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Verse 22 which is where next Sunday’s gospel lesson begin reads, “Is not that Joseph’s son?” I suggest this is Bible speak for “You’ve got to be kidding.” This boy . . . this Jesus? We know him. That’s Joseph the carpenter’s son, . . . his son! We’ve watched him grow up. Good kid overall, I guess. He’s learned from his dad how to be a carpenter. So, what is this, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” nonsense? “You’ve got to be kidding!”
We like to believe the people would have thought, “Oh my.” Isn’t that how we hear these words. But in the words of the late great Paul Harvey ‘the rest of the story’ tells us clearly the people were firmly in the clutch of “You’ve got to be kidding!”
In reading from the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus set before the people God’s politics which became Jesus’ politics: preach the good news, proclaim release to the captives, heal the sick, set free the oppressed. At the heart of Jesus’ politics and ministry is the unspoken yet ever-present question, “Where does it hurt?” Jesus does not put conditions or qualifiers on his work. When we read more deeply into any of the gospels, we learn that much to the chagrin, dismay, and anger of the religious leaders as well as among many of the Romans who governed, Jesus never left out anyone. Jesus preached, Jesus practiced God’s politics of inclusion – help everyone even a tax collector, a Roman Centurion, the woman with a flow of blood, people with leprosy
What do we think? How do we react? Oh my (?) . . . You’ve got to be kidding (!).
This is what is at the center of today’s readings from both Nehemiah and Luke: how do the people hear and respond to God’s word?
To . . . God’s love for all God’s people
To . . . God’s claim upon us
To . . . God’s challenge to us.
We encounter the politics of God in these scriptures as well as Jesus’ commitment to living out God’s call and claim. The question back centuries ago and still today is how the people of God – more specifically how the people of God known as Westminster Presbyterian Church on Market Street in Akron, Ohio, respond to God’s politics found clearly in God’s word? Where do each of us – individually – and all of us collectively land on the continuum between Oh my and You’ve got to be kidding?