The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.
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Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-10; Luke 4:14-21
Speaker: Joel Miller
“What season are we in now?” It was an earnest question from the administrative side of the church office, directed at me.
The intent was to discern whether we need a new icon for worship slides, a new word or phrase declaring a theme. Something to give order to these disordered days.
“Depends who you ask,” I reply. “Some liturgical calendars call the whole season between Christmas and Lent Epiphany. Others just call it Ordinary Time, same as the long stretch in the summer.”
After further discussion during which we voiced our personal preferences whether to think of this as Epiphany or Ordinary Time, I mentioned that it kind of doesn’t matter since we’ll be going with the lectionary readings week to week without an overall theme.
It’s one of the perks of being Mennonite. We get to pick and choose when to emphasize the liturgical season, when to just stick with the assigned readings, and when to do our own thing entirely like a multi-week series on racism, creation care, or learning our new hymnal.
But it is the kind of question that lingers in the mind: “What season are we in now?”
Well, it’s certainly winter. This past week’s snowfall coincided with extra days off school between quarters for Columbus City Schools. The first snow fort of the year was constructed in our backyard and survived the midweek warmish spell.
The month of January always invites a season of looking back on the past year and looking ahead. While I was with the youth up at Camp Friedenswald enjoying an even more wintry version of winter I told our group about the Roman god Janus who has a face pointing backyard and one pointing forward. Janus is the god of beginnings, doorways, and also endings. We went around the room that morning and evening in honor of Janus’s month, naming one way we grew personally in the last year and one thing we hope to learn in the coming year.
Because of all the questions and discoveries of the teenage years, might as well throw a two headed god into the mix and see where that takes them.
Whether we think of this wintry season as Epiphany, or simply Ordinary Time, our lectionary readings do have us looking with Janus-like eyes, especially at beginnings. Two weeks ago Gretchen helped us think about Jesus’ baptism and our own, an act of new beginning. Last Sunday we witnessed John’s telling of Jesus’ first sign – as he calls it – turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana.
This week includes more beginning stories, this time from Nehemiah and Luke. Both involve scrolls which anchor the present in the past.
In Nehemiah we’re brought in on a great gathering. It’s the first day of the seventh month and the entire people of Jerusalem are gathered together. Ezra brings out the scroll of the Teaching of Moses, steps up onto a wood platform and reads it for all to hear. The people weep as they hear the words, but Ezra tells them this is a day of rejoicing, of feasting, and sharing food with those who don’t have enough.
To understand what’s going on here, it helps to review the biblical timeline.
When the Hebrews escaped slavery in Egypt they settled in the land Canaan, eventually forming a nation. But after having only three kings – Saul, David, and Solomon, the kingdom split in two with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. A mere 200 years later the Assyrian empire came and wiped out Israel, leaving only Jerusalem and its surrounding regions. Less than 150 years after that the Babylonians not only conquer Jerusalem, but destroy its temple and carry off the inhabitants and wealth to Babylon, leaving only the poorest behind to work the land.
This is when we get the prophets of Jeremiah mourning the fall of the city, and Ezekiel prophesying from exile. It’s when some of the most memorable lines of the prophet Isaiah are written: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” He writes of making a highway in the wilderness to return to Judah. Assuring the exiles that if they are willing to wait on the Lord their youth will be renewed and they will mount up with wings like eagles. It’s the time we get the words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion – Jerusalem.”
But the Babylonians were soon conquered by the Persians, and the Persians had a policy of tolerance. King Cyrus issues a decree that peoples can return to their homelands to rebuild.
That’s what Ezra and Nehemiah and the people gathered in the Jerusalem have done. They’re rebuilding. They’re rebuilding their temple, their homes, the protective wall around Jerusalem. And they’re rebuilding their identity. Earlier in the book the people had come to Nehemiah distraught over the king’s tax and debt burdens. Persia may have been relatively tolerant but they still wanted their taxes. Nehemiah had proclaimed a Jubilee, rebalancing the wealth of the community and stabilizing the crisis.
Now they’re gathered all in one place, and Ezra brings out the scroll of Moses - likely the first time many of them have ever heard it read aloud. Ezra and the leaders with him are giving commentary as they go, explaining the meaning of what they’re reading. The people weep, then rejoice and feast. The scroll has given them something no king ever could. A sense of peoplehood in communion with their God.
That first day of the seventh month when all this happened later came to be known as Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, kind of like January popping up in the middle of things, declaring, OK, look back, now look forward. This is where we mark the beginning.
The gospel reading follows a similar theme as Luke establishes the meaning of Jesus’ ministry through his first public teaching. Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth. It’s the Sabbath day, and people are gathered at the synagogue. Jesus is scheduled to be scripture reader and preacher. He stands up and is handed the Isaiah scroll. Scholars note this would have been something like an ancient lectionary, a reading from the prophets paired with the day’s Torah reading. Jesus unrolls the scroll, find his place, and reads:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolls up the scroll, hands it back the attendant and sits down. We might picture this as going back to one’s seat in the sanctuary, but sitting down where he was meant he was about to begin teaching. And Luke writes: “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” What’s he going to say? Then he pulls off what every preacher fantasizes about at some point: He gives a one sentence sermon. And here it is: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s it.
That Scripture. Today. Fulfilled. Reflective silence followed by a hymn.
Liberation theologians point to this passage as Jesus’ manifesto. An inaugural address, laying out his vision of liberation for poor, captives, and oppressed. Proclaiming release and The year of the Lord’s favor are references to the year of Jubilee from Leviticus 25, when debts were forgiven and ancestral land was returned. Like what Nehemiah had done to hit the restart button for the returnees from exile.
Jesus channels the prophet Isaiah, channels the leader Nehemiah, channels the Jubilee from the book of Moses, channels the very Spirit of God in proclaiming release and good news to the poor. Says that right now, today, in your hearing, this is being fulfilled. Jesus hands the scroll back to the attendant, and dares his listeners to join him in fulfilling the words of the scroll.
Scrolls have, for the most part, gone the way of stone tablets. The movement Jesus began bound all the texts from those scrolls, including new ones like Luke’s gospel and Paul’s writings, into a codex, the precursor of the book. Our Bibles sit on our shelves as a single book rather than a collection of separate scrolls. We turn pages rather than find our place in the scroll.
But the scroll has made a remarkable comeback in the last 15 years. So much so that it’s how many people spend lots and lots of their discretionary time, and even lots of time that isn’t supposed to be discretionary. We don’t carry around collections of ancient scrolls in our bags, but we do carry in our pocket a device designed around the scroll. What season is it? It’s scroll season.
Now scroll is a verb, and it’s what we do to read the news, to check in on friends, to see where people who used to be our friends are taking vacations and what they’re eating for dinner. And, there’s always doom scrolling when we keep pulling up headline after headline that confirm our fears or dark wish that civilization is teetering on the edge of collapse.
At our best, our relationship with our scrolls could be one of learning more about what season it is. What are the signs telling us, and how might we align ourselves more with the message of those ancient scrolls? And you never know. There’s always the chance that somebody somewhere has proclaimed Jubilee. That possibility itself makes it worthwhile to check your news feed every so often to see if it’s so. Put that phone down. Sorry, I’m just checking to see if Jubilee has been proclaimed since I last checked.
Well, according to Jesus, it has. Despite appearances to the contrary, Jubilee season has arrived. It’s the great dare that still stands: to live as if the prophet’s words are being fulfilled this very day.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because God has anointed us to preach good news alongside the poor. God has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.