24 Jan

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

The amazing good news of Jesus Christ is for everyone, from those are fortunate to live privileged lives to those caught on the other end of this system of oppression and injustice that humankind has created and we all participate in...

References:
Color(s):

Green

Planning

Raising of the Torah Scroll.

The raising of the Torah Scroll for reading (chanting) in the synagogue. Used by permission under a GNU Free Documentation License

Reading Notes

Revised Common Lectionary Readings

See full texts, artwork, and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário em português, Lecionário comum revisado

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 Ezra, Nehemiah, and a group of Levites read aloud from Torah, interpret the reading, and call the gathered people to a day of celebration. The celebration includes sharing with those who have no one to prepare a celebratory meal. 

Psalm response — Psalm 19 (UMH 750) A hymn in praise of Torah, joined by all creation. If you sing the Psalm, consider these options: Response 1 with Tone 5 in D minor or Response 2 with Tone 1 in D major.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a Paul reminds a divided community that the differences in the ways the Spirit's gifts operate in each one are intended to sustain the community's functioning as one body. 

Luke 4:14-21 Jesus reads and interprets from the scroll of Isaiah, announcing that the words he has read are now fulfilled: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…"

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Worship Planning Notes

Calendar

Today is the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

You should have chosen the track for your After Epiphany series—either OT/Gospel (see Getting Ready to Get Ready) or Epistle (the life of the church in the Holy Spirit)—and now be into the midpoint of your series.

The OT/Gospel track focuses on firsts in the early ministry of Jesus and his calling of disciples as guides for “first things” we need to pay attention to as we call folks to discipleship and get ready to prepare them for living the baptismal covenant through Lent. Today in particular we hear the first part of the first sermon of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth.

The Epistle track focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians and the life of the church, the body of Christ. Last week called us to celebrate the deep and varied giftedness of each of the baptized. This week the focus shifts to how these gifts are used to build up the common life and mission of the church as a local, regional, and worldwide community, the body of Christ.

Stay with your series from now through Transfiguration Sunday to maintain momentum from week to week leading into Lent.

Today is also Ecumenical Sunday, the Sunday in the worldwide and ecumenical Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25). Consider how collaboration with other churches in your area may strengthen worship today, and particularly the series you’ve chosen to pursue for this season. 

Ash Wednesday in 2016 is February 10. The color for that day and the Season of Lent is purple. For a light-hearted (and accurate!) take on the colors of the liturgical year, see and share “Chuck Knows Church,” Episode 1.

Scouting Ministries Sunday is February 14, which is also the First Sunday in Lent on the Christian calendar. United Methodist denominational scouting leaders prefer that both Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as other scouting groups, be recognized on a day that does not interfere with Lent. Girl Scout Sunday is an alternate scouting Sunday on March 13, the fifth Sunday in Lent. Since both fall in Lent this year, you may wish to observe a Scouting Sunday at a different time, either during Ordinary Time (before Transfiguration) or during Easter Season (after Easter Day, before Pentecost).  A Litany on the Scout/Guide Promise is also available.
 

Resources for Planning Upcoming Seasons

The Season after Epiphany (introductory article from the Book of Worship)
Getting Ready to Get Ready: Planning for the Season after Epiphany 2016
Resources for the Season after Epiphany
Planning Lent and Easter as Seasons for Discipling 2016 (Webinar with links to handouts)
Resources for Lent
Resources for Holy Week
Resources for Easter Season


Upcoming Sundays and Special Days

January
January 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 24    Ecumenical Sunday

February
All Month       Black History Month
February 7     Transfiguration of the Lord
February 10   Ash Wednesday, and Lent Begins
February 14   Scouting Ministries Sunday (or observe after Lent)
February 15   Presidents Day (USA)

March
All Month       Women’s History Month
March 4         World Day of Prayer / (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
March 6         One Great Hour of Sharing (with Offering)
March 13       Daylight Saving Time Begins (Time Change Song)
March 20       Passion/Palm Sunday
March 20-26  Holy Week
March 24       Maundy Thursday
March 25       Good Friday
March 26       Holy Saturday (morning) Great Vigil (after sunset); Brief Version
March 27       Easter Sunday

 

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Commentary

“Getting Ready to Get Ready:” Old Testament and Gospel Track

First Words at Home, Part 1: Great News!

There are two elements of this week’s OT/Gospel texts to call to your attention.

One is the emphasis on hearing the Word of God proclaimed in public worship. The narratives of both Nehemiah and Luke slow down to make particular effort to call attention to the details about how Scripture was read and heard, including the reverence shown for it by its hearers. Both the reading and the hearing of Scripture matter, a lot. See more on the implications of this for worship today in the notes for your planning team below.

The second is the core message of the gospel, that the glorious things prophesied long ago were, as Jesus said, being fulfilled that very day in the hearing of the people.

Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2a. This is the oracle from “Third Isaiah” just before the passage we read last week. Luke cuts verse 2 short. The next line of the verse in Isaiah speaks of God’s coming vengeance against enemies. Jesus here focuses solely on the first signs, without the element of vengeance: the poor (“oppressed” in Hebrew, “poor” in LXX) get good news, captives get word of their release, blinded folks have their eyes opened, “beaten down” folks are set free, and Jubilee (the end of debts and slavery) happens for all.

After Jesus finished reading, he said “These things have been fulfilled (perfect tense) in your hearing.” They’re here, now, faits accomplis.

On this Ecumenical Sunday, it is good to remember and call attention to the fact that Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be a Year of Jubilee with a focus on God’s mercy and the church as a community of mercy. His call is grounded in the very gospel we read today.  

These prophetic words and Jesus’ declaration they were being fulfilled here and now were charged with hope for folks in his hometown who believed themselves to be among the most likely recipients of all the good things proclaimed here. Jesus has their rapt attention. They’re expecting to hear him say this good news is primarily or even exclusively for them. This is his hometown, after all!

Added to their hope for themselves was the reputation that preceded Jesus. It was already known how he had brought good news, healed the sick, cured the blind, cast out demons and raised the dead.

What greater wonders would he speak and do here, now?

In Your Planning Team

This week’s gospel reading ends on bated breath. While next week’s reading brings us to a nearly literal cliffhanger (the mob seeks to throw Jesus off a cliff!), this week we get a figurative one.

We know who Jesus is. We hear words of deep hope and blessing from him. We’re told this is all happening, now.

And?

So?

What greater announcement will come now?

This is a week to live into this bated breath moment. This is a week for wonder, for marveling. This is a week for remembering and giving thanks all the ways we can already see this particular good news happening “in our hearing” because God’s kingdom has broken in and is already at work.

So this is also a week for making sure the Scripture is read as Nehemiah and Luke describe—in a way that enables the Spirit to move others to powerful response. If you do not already have an active lector/reader training process, determine how you will start one—and get one in place (or at least have a few readers trained and ready!) for this service.  Some suggestions for reader training are listed below.

But don’t lose the forest for these trees. Great reading matters. But it matters to help the written word become the living Word, to enable the heart of what God speaks through Scripture speak deeply into our own hearts.

So in your planning team, start naming the wonders in each category Jesus lists from Isaiah—the poor getting good news, the captives getting word of their release, the blinded being able to see, the oppressed set free, Jubilee happening—in your hearing, where you are. Start a thread on social media to collect more from your congregation and wider social networks. Compile these into a list you can draw on for preaching, for intercession and for thanksgiving in song and word and ritual throughout this Sunday’s service. And give the congregation on Sunday the opportunity to add more—and to leave the service on bated breath themselves, ready to wonder and give thanks at what will happen next.

This is also a week in which the Great Thanksgiving from Word and Table I is especially apropos. And you may find “From the Table into the World” a helpful resource for youth and adult formation classes to consider today, or later this week, or in the lead up to this Sunday’s celebration at the Lord’s Table. 

Life in the Spirit: Epistle Track

Last week’s reading from I Corinthians focused on three ways the Holy Spirit acts sovereignly in and through the body of Christ and each of its members: spiritual gifts, forms of service, and empowered actions.

This week’s reading, picking up where we stopped last week, focuses on the nature of the body, and what it means to understand and behave as those who are part of the body rather than merely as individuals.

Paul underscores this body, the body of Christ, is not like other religious or political bodies in the world. Nearly all of these identify themselves only by their ethnicity, tribal allegiances, or socio-economic status. But the Spirit has baptized Christians into a body of people who are, individually, Jewish or gentile, slave or free (verse 13). In short, whatever status one has in other systems, in the body of Christ, by the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, we are made into nothing less than the living, enfleshed manifestation of the Son of God, in whom the fullness of Deity dwells (Colossians 1:15-23).

So this little parenthetical phrase is not a throw-away line. It would have stood out dramatically to Paul’s first readers and hearers.

And it should do so for us as well.

Especially in an age where we have a leading candidate for President of the United States who is calling for this nation to segregate and discriminate against people of other nations, ethnicities, or religions. And where we have governors, several of whom actively portray themselves as Christians, who have called for their states not to receive refugees from Syria.

We are the church. We are the body of Christ. Our mission to welcome the stranger is a global mission that cannot discriminate against anyone of any nationality, just as we, as a body, worldwide, comprise people from every nation. To say or act as if we could so discriminate or refuse welcome on such grounds as are proposed by candidates and governors in this nation is to deny what the Spirit has made and called us to be. It is to break allegiance to Jesus Christ. It is to deny the baptism by which we have been baptized by the one Spirit. I am grateful for the witness of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis who has openly defied the governor’s ban on resettling Syrian refugees in the state. Our Social Principles, as well as our baptismal vows, as United Methodists call us to a similar commitment.
 
Every part matters—every person of every ethnic and socio-economic background matters—individually because every part is linked to the whole. The body works optimally only as all parts do their own functions well while in constant and organic connection to the whole, or, as Paul puts it, “as all members exercise the same care for one another” (verse 25).

If we were to take this metaphor and apply it to how neuroscience talks about the functioning of the brain, we might say that each of us is a neuron, and the synaptic connections that form our sense of “us” are our mutual interactions with and care for one another. Elsewhere, Paul, and perhaps in our tradition, more famously John Wesley, speak of this as “watching over one another in love.”

If worship around the epistle track last week focused on claiming and celebrating the manifestations of the Spirit in your midst, perhaps the focus this week might be on “celebrating the synapses,” or “celebrating the body,” those places where you can already discern that these manifestations of the Spirit are indeed acting in synergy in your midst and generating a more genuine sense of “connectedness” or “body-feeling” or “one-bodyness.”

And a one-bodyness that embraces “people of all ages, nations, and races”—and denominations!

What an appropriate theme for this Ecumenical Sunday!

In Your Planning Team

Questions for Discussion

Where and how do people in your team and your congregation sense your “one-bodyness” as a congregation most concretely? How does that “one-body-feeling” relate to the mission of the church—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—and the mission of this season—to evangelize and call people to discipleship to Jesus Christ and prepare the church to prepare those who respond to the call for baptism during the upcoming season of Lent?

Now, take it one step further—how is this one-bodyness expressed not just within your congregation, but across Christian congregations and denominations where you are? Focus on the positive here—and use that positive focus to help you identify places where you can work together on places where you all need to improve.

Now go even further—beyond your local area—to the worldwide United Methodist Church and the worldwide body of Christ within and beyond the United Methodist Church. The question is the same. How can we live more fully into the one-bodyness the Spirit both intends and empowers with Christians around the world?

And for the point of this season, how will you be making sure the process you use to prepare candidates for baptism or professing membership will cultivate them as “longing listeners” and “ready participants” in the Spirit’s anointed work in the world?

 

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Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) with links and other suggestions

ENTRANCE
Call to Worship: BOW 456 (1 Corinthians),
BOW 199, "Come! Come! Everybody Worship!" (1 Corinthians)
Greeting: BOW 303 (Nehemiah)
Opening Prayer: BOW 463 (Ecumenical Sunday)

WORD AND RESPONSE
Prayer: UMH 594, "Come, Divine Interpreter" (Nehemiah, Psalm). This could be used in place of a prayer for illumination on this day.
Prayer: UMH 602, "Concerning the Scriptures" (Nehemiah, Psalm)
Poem: UMH 595 "Whether the Word Be Preached or Read"" (Nehemiah, Psalm)
Prayer: BOW 315 (1 Corinthians, Ecumenical Sunday; O God, you made of one blood”)
Prayers for the Church: BOW 502, 505, 506 (Ecumenical Sunday)
Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia

THANKSGIVING AND COMMUNION
Great Thanksgiving (Communion): BOW 36-39
Hymn: BOW 223 "O Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians)

SENDING FORTH
Blessing: BOW 566 (Sarum Blessing)

Suggestions for Training Lectors/Readers and Reading Today

  1. Train and rehearse readers in your worship space. (They may read well in other places, but how well can they be heard in the particular acoustics of your worship space and whatever voice amplification systems you have in place there?).
  2. Great readers speak slowly enough, with excellent enunciation, and the right pitch and volume for all who can hear to hear them. Great readers also bring the text alive with the melody and rhythm of their voices.
  3.  If you don't have such trained readers yet, train some, or borrow one or two from another congregation that does until you do! You may especially wish to consider seeking readers from our closest ecumenical partners outside the Methodist family, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church, both of which have long and strong traditions of training readers for worship.
  4. Encourage the congregation to listen, and NOT to look at screens, Bibles, bulletins or other text-based visual aids during the reading of Scripture, but to focus on the person reading and what that person is saying (or signing, if you offer that service for the deaf, deaf-blind or hearing-impaired).

    If some people are too far away to see the reader, and if you have video screens, then use cameras to project the image of the reader (not the text) on the screen for those persons. Otherwise, encourage those who do not need the screen to see the reader not to use it.

    Why? Brain research over the past decade has confirmed that we actually do not hear as well when our focus is on printed texts as when our focus is on the person reading and what the person is saying.
  5. In keeping with this emphasis on the reading of the Scriptures, this might be a Sunday to affirm and install those who will function as readers in your worshiping community.

Preaching

Notes for Nehemiah 8:1-3, 4-6, 8-10
Old Testament Track: Our Saving God

Like last week, this week’s Old Testament reading comes the time period after the Jewish people had returned from exile in Babylon. Both Ezra and Nehemiah are believed to have been written by a Palestinian man who lived in post-exilic Jerusalem around 300 BCE. The writer focused both of his books on recreating a strong and distinctive Jewish identity among a people who have lost their way.

As noted last week, post-exilic Jerusalem was inhabited by a mixture of elite Jewish people who had survived exile in Babylon and returned home, and the poorer Jewish people who had been left behind when Jerusalem fell to the Persians in 539. Among both the people who stayed behind and the people who had returned from exile, some had married outside of the Jewish faith. The practice of Judaism in Jerusalem had become watered-down or totally abandoned, rebuilding of the Temple had been delayed, and life in the city was generally tense.

Around 458 BCE the priest Ezra announced the establishment of the law of Moses as the law of the land in Judah. Ezra also sought to restore a worship schedule in the Temple. It is in this context, then, that in September of that same year the priest Ezra read from the Torah to the people gathered in the square before the Water Gate in Jerusalem. He read a text from the book of the law about the Festival of Booths (Leviticus 23:33-44). He and the other priests standing on the platform above the people offered interpretation to help the people understand. In essence, Ezra and his colleagues gave sermons and teachings on the text. As they spoke the people began to weep because they knew they had not kept the law of the Lord for many years. Ezra told them not to cry, but instead to celebrate with food and drink and to share their food with those who didn’t have anything to eat.

We can understand this situation very well, for we live in a time not unlike the time when Ezra and his fellow priests stood before the people and tried to remind them who they were. Many of us serve in churches without many worshipers. Those who continue to be faithful in their attendance and practice of the faith are overwhelmingly older adults in a lot of places. These faithful people show up week after week. They don’t necessarily need to be reminded of their core identity in Christ.

In many of our churches younger families are scarce on Sunday mornings. Why? Because they are busy with other things. Some, perhaps those considered affluent, are busy taking their children to soccer or football or baseball. They are going to brunch or playing golf. They are getting a mani-pedi or enjoying a weekend ski trip with the family. These are among the ones who need to be reminded of who they once were, or invited to participate in something more than what their current lifestyles have to offer.

Others are absent for different reasons. They don’t know anything about Christianity other than what they hear on the news, and from what they’ve learned there they don’t feel like they have a place in the Christian family. Maybe they have been deeply wounded by someone who ascribed to the Christian faith. Maybe they are married to people who do not share the same faith or their relationship is judged to be not compatible with Christian teaching. Or maybe they are working at a second job because their full-time job doesn’t pay enough to sustain their family. Maybe they don’t feel welcome because when the offering plate is passed they don’t have much to give. Maybe Saturday and Sunday are the only days they have to clean the house, do the shopping and laundry for the week, and be with their children. These people also need to be welcomed into our communities and nurtured in the faith.

And so, with all these millions of people not participating in any religious education or ritual, we have raised a generation of people that look a whole lot like the people of Jerusalem during the time of Ezra. Maybe they haven’t lost complete touch with matters of faith or lost a yearning for a relationship with the divine so much as they have lost the regular practice of a faith.

What did Ezra do in this situation? He read the scriptures concerning a high holy day in a public space in an effort to reacquaint the people of his day with one of their festivals. When they lamented over their perceived unrighteousness he offered forgiveness and urged them not to cry, but to celebrate and to share their food with others. One gets the feeling here that what Ezra may have wanted was for the wealthier people to share their food and drink with their poor neighbors. It’s a great idea, isn’t it? Not too far from what the Missional church movement is trying to do in our time and place.

So what are you going to do in order to restore faith in our saving God in your community? How can you relieve the guilt of people who have not been keeping any faith? How can you bring a word of hope to the street corner? How can you encourage those who are better off to share what they have with those who have less? Instead of judging, can you find a way to offer respite and assistance to working families who need a little help on the weekend? Can you find a way to offer Christ without judgment to families born of interfaith marriages or marriages that are not considered holy by the church? How can you help people find a core identity in Christ?
 

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Notes for 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Epistle Track: Reconciliation in Christ

Last week I wrote about how, in chapter twelve of First Corinthians, Paul had been admonishing those in the church who thought they had received higher gifts from the Holy Spirit than everybody else. Specifically, those who could speak in tongues let the other members know that God considered them to be the holiest of all because they had, after all, received the very same manifestation of power that the original disciples had received in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. 

Well, the other members of the church were not about to stand for their own holiness being put down, and so they began to band into opposing groups: the ones who thought they were prophets and wiser than everybody else, the ones who gave the most to the budget and therefore figured they had made the greatest amount of self-sacrifice, those who had a way with words and felt they were the most important because everybody listened when they spoke, those who had shown the least doubt about Jesus being the Messiah, and so on. Paul's entire letter to the church at Corinth was written to challenge and destroy the bases of these divisions and to bring the members back into unity by having them not focus on the things that they thought were most important gifts in the church, but on Jesus Christ. 

Paul's arguments culminate in today’s passage in this famous figure of speech where he likens each of the members, with each of his or her particular gifts, to the various organs of the human body, and points out how ridiculous it would be for any organ to either claim to not be part of the body or to get claim that they were the body complete in and of themselves. 

Paul says, "If all were a single member, where would the body be?” That’s not how it works. Not at all. On the contrary, all the members of the church, with all their various gifts and talents, are needed to carry out the various functions that the entire ministry of Jesus Christ requires. Nobody in and of him or herself can take the place of Jesus. No-one has all of Jesus's gifts, or powers, or understanding. 

Who is the most important?
Jesus is the most important.
Who is the head of the church?
Jesus is the head of the church. 

As baptized believers the rest of us are the body of Christ. Our baptism has afforded us a new, shared identity even as we retain our own individuality. It is by God’s design and purpose that we are to use our individual gifts for the good of the community as followers of Jesus Christ.

The problem for us, as it was for the church in Corinth, is that we (especially us preachers!) have a hard time not thinking of ourselves as the head of the church, or thinking of some of our more generous or especially talented members as being more important than some others. As much as we may like the theory of valuing everyone in the community equally, in reality most of us don’t really practice it.

In every church I’ve ever served there has been a member who has, to put it as delicately as possible, not been the easiest person to get along with. Usually if I couldn’t get along with this person then other people in the congregation also had difficulty. You know what I’m talking about. Every church has people who stir up trouble or hurt people’s feelings or cause dissension in the ranks. Indeed, so common is this problem that there is an entire book written about these folks, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identity and Deal with Destructive Conflict (author is Kenneth C. Haugk, founder of Stephen Ministries).

What are we as pastors to do about these folks? Are we to gently encourage them to move along to another church? Are we to do continuous battle with them in order to keep them from doing injury to other members? Are we to allow them to terrorize and injure us or members of our families?

Whenever I read this passage I am reminded of a conversation I had with my dad many years ago, when I was a young pastor trying to deal with an antagonistic church member. I know that this notion is not original because I have since heard it from other seasoned pastors, but for those of you who are newer, maybe you will benefit from their collective insight into this passage from Paul. 

My dad said to me, “You know how Paul says there are all these parts of the body, and they are all necessary for the function of the body? Well, I’ve always thought that one of those necessary parts that Paul does not put on his list is the (I will use the technical term here rather than my father’s more colorful term) anus. Every body must have an anus. It is necessary to the function of the whole. What would the body do if it did not have a way of ridding itself of all the poop that has built up inside of it? The anus is a critical part of the body. It is as critical as the arm or the leg or the eyes or ears.”

I hope and pray I have not offended anyone at this point.

I don’t mean to say that we should not deal appropriately with antagonists, or that we should allow them to beat up on other people. I only want to suggest that as members of the body, their particular gifts are as needed and necessary as those of the other parts of the body. After all, “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God has arranged the members in the body, each one of them as he chose” (1 Corinthians 12:15-18, NRSV).

The only way forward as a community of faith is to honor each member. Sometimes that means speaking the truth in love, as another book by the same author mentioned above has put it. But the key to that action is not speaking the truth, but loving. Jesus may be the head of our body, but love is at our heart. It is the greater gift for which Paul says we are to strive.

So next week, as we wrap up this three week mini-series on finding Reconciliation in Christ, we will give attention to what Paul calls “the more excellent way.”


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Notes for Luke 4:14-21
Gospel Track: Jesus the Miraculous Healer

Over the years I have wrestled with these words that Jesus spoke as he began his ministry. Why did he quote these particular words from Isaiah? What made him choose this passage? Was it the prescribed reading for the day? Had he thought it all through in advance? Or did he just pick up the scroll, unroll it, and land on this passage by chance?

I don’t know the answers to all of those questions, but, I can tell you that the promise Jesus was making that day was not a new thing. It was a very, very old promise, one that dates back at least to the time of Isaiah, and probably even before. In all likelihood, Isaiah took his words from some other source and applied them to the people of Israel when they were being held captive by the Babylonians. It was only because Isaiah applied the old promise in a new way that it was new, or that it was written down and kept forevermore by the Jewish people as sacred scripture. It was kept because people knew that the Spirt of the Lord, the Holy Spirit of God, was indeed upon Isaiah and speaking through him, the spirit of mercy, the spirit of grace, the spirit of God’s redeeming love, because Isaiah gave the old promise of liberty to the captives and the setting free of the oppressed a new meaning by saying that it was God’s promise.

And, as a matter of fact, Isaiah was not the only prophet of his generation to pull out this old promise. Ezekiel, his contemporary, also mentioned this promise, but Ezekiel just repeated the promise in much the same old way, declaring that, at last, it was really going to come true, but that it was going to apply only to the people who had been forced by the present economic crisis to sell off their land in and around Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s promise was this: “If the prince makes a gift to any of his sons out of his inheritance, it shall belong to his sons, it is their holding by inheritance. But if he makes a gift out of his inheritance to one of his servants, it shall be his to the year of liberty; then it shall revert back to the prince; only his sons may keep a gift from his inheritance” (Ezekiel 46:16-17, NRSV).

The original promise, the one to which both Ezekiel and Isaiah are referring, goes all the way back to the time of Moses, and a commandment said to have been given by God. This commandment, recorded in the 25th chapter of Leviticus, and referred to as the Year of Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor, goes like this:

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the Day of Atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family (Leviticus 25: 8-10, NRSV).

But the fact is, even though this promise was made as a commandment from God, it was never actually carried out. I mean, how could it be? That on every fiftieth year, on the Day of Atonement, a person would be sent out to blow a trumpet and on that day, throughout the entire land, all inhabitants would be given liberty, all the slaves set free, all the debts written off, all the prisoners released, all the blind healed, and every person restored to their original property and family? Nobody’s going to do that! And so, throughout all the history of Israel, even though Ezekiel repeated that old promise very solemnly, it was never carried out.

The reason it was never carried out is perfectly obvious. People who had bought lands and slaves didn’t want to give them up without any compensation, and no governing official who wanted to keep his or her job was going to try to force this on people. Now I would submit to you that when Isaiah made this same promise, it was a little different from the way Ezekiel meant it. Isaiah proclaimed not the letter of the law, but rather, he caught the Spirit of the Law, and applied that promise not to Israel and the freeing of local slaves and the restoring of local land to its original owners, but instead, Isaiah applied the promise to Babylonia. He said that God was going to set free the people of Israel, the ones who were being held captive by the Babylonians.

So where does Jesus fit into all of this? Why did he bring up this promise?

Well, in order to answer those questions, first of all, I think it’s important to note who Jesus quoted. For whatever reason, Jesus quoted not from Ezekiel, that is, not from the letter of the law as applied by people. Jesus quoted Isaiah, and the Spirit of the Law applied by God. And furthermore, Jesus didn’t simply repeat the old promise the way Ezekiel had done. Jesus updated the promise, the way Isaiah had done. He said that it wasn’t just a promise about a particular group of people being set free from the circumstances of their lives. It was a promise from God for all people. And then Jesus said that the promise was not just something to be remembered as God’s promise. It was a course of action that God was taking, right then and there. What he said, exactly, was, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In that way, I think, Jesus deepened the meaning of that old promise by suggesting that his very life was going to be the everlasting Day of Atonement.

Let’s try and unpack that a little bit.

In Jesus’ day, just today, people were deeply troubled by their own personal sins, as well as the sin of their ongoing participation in a system of injustice. Just like I am troubled by the way that I live when I know that most of the world lives in much more oppressive conditions, and I see my own sinfulness in my failure to change either the way that I live or the system itself. And so, the way people in Jesus’ day dealt with their sins was once a year, on a day called the Day of Atonement, when the people gathered at the Temple to fast and pray and have their sins taken away.

This was an important ritual that was done in three parts. First, the high priest laid his hands on the head of a young bull and confessed his own sins, acknowledging that the entire priesthood was sinful. Then he slaughtered the bull and took the blood and a container of incense and entered the holy of holies. With live coals on a censer in his right hand and a container of incense in his left hand, he approached the Ark of the Covenant. He set the censer on the poles of the Ark, let it, and retired from the Holy of Holies to pray, but only for a very brief time, lest the people become terrified. Then, he re-entered the holy of holies and took the blood of sacrifice and sprinkled it seven times on the ark to cover the sins of the priests, and he came out (See Leviticus 16).

The next part was, standing before a pair of identical rams, the priest thrust his hands into a special urn and brought out, in each hand, a slip of paper. One slip was marked, “For God”, and the other marked, “For Satan.” Actually, to be more accurate, the second would read “For Azazel”, which means, “A scapegoat.”  The priests took out these slips and brought his hands down on the heads of the rams as he stood before them and uttered a dedication: “To the Lord!” A scarlet thread was tied on Satan’s ram. Then the priest slaughtered the other ram and with its blood he entered the holy of holies for a third time to sprinkle the Ark of the Covenant seven times with the sacrifice of the people. Then he returned to the front, exchanged the vessel with the ram’s blood for the one with the blood of the bull, stood before the curtain of the holy of holies, and sprinkled the curtain seven times with the priest’s sacrifice. Then, once more, taking up the ram’s blood, he sprinkled the curtain seven times with the people’s sacrifice.

Finally, the priest laid his hands on Satan’s ram while he confessed the sins of the people. He turned the ram over to a man appointed to lead the ram away. According to the tradition, the route led over the valley of Kidron into the wilderness of Judea. At the end of the route, at the edge of a cliff, the attendant tied one end of the scarlet thread around the ram’s neck to a rock, and then pushed the animal over the cliff to its death. The announcement of the completion of this rite was relayed to the Temple by the crowds of people stationed all along the route. According to the legend, a scarlet thread tied to the threshold of the holy of holies turned white at the very moment that the ram was pushed over the cliff, as a sign that the people were cleansed of their sins.

As you can see, in Jesus’ time, people took their sins very seriously. On the Day of Atonement, they went to great lengths to go before God and be cleansed from them. Indeed, Jewish people in our day continue to take this day and this ritual seriously, in the most high-holy day of their calendar year: Yom Kippur.

The really remarkable thing about Jesus is that he understood himself to be God’s gift to replace the entire ceremony of the Day of Atonement. Jesus understood his own life to be a sign to the people that God was not only taking away the sins of the people of Israel, but that someday, somehow, God was going to set everything on earth right, giving relief to the poor, ending oppression, setting free those who were held captive by systems of injustice, and saving all people from the consequences of their sins.

How this can be, we surely cannot understand. But is it for everyone? Absolutely.

Maybe we can’t change the world, but we can throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ, confessing that he was not like all the rest of us, that is, not just another person with occasional flashes of spiritual insight, but that the Spirit of the Lord was truly upon him, moving him continuously to do the right thing, always and everywhere, even unto death, and even beyond death.

The amazing good news of Jesus Christ is for everyone, from those are fortunate to live privileged lives to those caught on the other end of this system of oppression and injustice that humankind has created and we all participate in. Those who live with privilege need to hear it as much as those who live with less, so that they especially will be compelled to take their sins seriously, and fall on their knees confessing before God and one other both their need and their faith, looking to Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the present world and cleanses all people, something we all desperately need, for our sins are very widespread and very grave.

Nevertheless, the time again has come when God will save us. So let us indeed be God’s people, repenting of our sins, and accepting the year of our Lord’s favor.

 

DOWNLOAD Preaching Notes [.docx]

Hymns

Hymns

BOW - The United Methodist Book of Worship
CLUW - Come, Let Us Worship (Korean)
MVPC - Mil Voces Para Celebrar (Spanish)
SOZ - Songs of Zion
TFWS - The Faith We Sing
UMH - The United Methodist Hymnal
URW - Upper Room Worshipbook
WSM  - Worship & Song, Music Edition
WSW  - Worship & Song, Worship Resources Edition
SoG  - Songs of Grace

 

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
All Who Hunger

2126

Blessed Be the Name

63

Come! Come! Everybody Worship

2271

Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire

603

218

God Is Here

660

He Has Made Me Glad

2270

I’m tradin’ my sorrows

3108

O Word of God Incarnate

598

Stand Up and Bless the Lord

662

128

The Trees of the Field

2279

This Is the Day, This Is the Day

657

We stand and lift up our hands

3028

Wonderful Words of Life (¡Oh! Cantádmelas otra vez!)

600

313

You Who Are Thirsty

2132

Psalm 19 (UMH 750) UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
Across the Lands

3032

Alleluia

186

355

As the Deer

116

2025

267

Awesome God

2040

Creating God, Your Fingers Trace

109

Eternal God, in the reading of the Scripture

71

For the Music of Creation

64

From All That Dwell Below the Skies

101

126

God Created Heaven and Earth

151

God of Wonders

3034

God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens

150

64

84

Great Is the Lord

2022

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty

64

4

79

How Great Thou Art

77

2

61

How great you are

3015

I Love You, Lord

2068

I Will Call upon the Lord

2002

Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun

157

Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee

89

5

75

65

Let All Things Now Living

2008

Let Us with a Joyful Mind

2012

Let’s Sing Unto the Lord (Cantemos al Señor)

149

49

67

More Precious than Silver

2065

My Life Flows On

2212

170

Night and Day (Psalm 19)

242

Now, on Land and Sea Descending

685

372

O Crucified Redeemer

425

Praise the Name of Jesus

2066

Praise the Source of Faith and Learning

2004

Psalm 19:1-6

240

Psalm 19:7-14

241

This Is My Father’s World

144

47

62

71

This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made (Twenty-Fourth)

658

Thy Word Is a Lamp unto My Feet

601

109

To Know You More

2161

We Sing of Your Glory

2011

Why the Psalms Today?

243

Wonderful Words of Life (¡Oh! Cantádmelas otra vez!)

600

313

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
All Praise to Our Redeeming Lord

554

As a Fire Is Meant for Burning

2237

Break Thou the Bread of Life

599

Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow

550

250

Come Now, O Prince of Peace (O-so-so)

148

2232

415

Come, Be Baptized

2252

God of Love, We Sing Your Glory 53
In Christ There Is No East or West 548 65
In Unity We Lift Our Song 2221
Jesus, United by Thy Grace 561
Let Us Be Bread 2260
Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song 544
Make Us One 2224
Many Gifts, One Spirit 114 212
Mil Voces Para Celebrar 59
O Church of God, United 547 249
O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing 3001
One Bread, One Body 620 324 237
One God and Father of Us All 2240
Our God, You Called to Moses 5
There Are Many Ways of Sharing 41
They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love (We Are One in the Spirit) 257 2223
Together We Serve 2175
We All Are One in Mission 2243
We Are God’s People 2220
We Are One in Christ Jesus 2229
We Are the Body of Christ 2227
We Enter Your Church 39
We Know That Christ Is Raised 610 231
We Need a Faith 2181
When Hands Reach Out 61
When We Were a Younger Nation 51
Where Charity and Love Prevail 549
Who Is My Mother, Who Is My Brother 2225
Within the Day-to-Day 2245
Luke 4:14-21 UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
Break Thou the Bread of Life

599

Come, All of You

350

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy

340

Gather Us In

2236

54

God, Bless the Poet’s Heart and Hand 63
Holy 2019
Holy Spirit, Come to Us 2118 395
Hosanna! Hosanna! 2109
I’m Goin’a Sing When the Spirit Says Sing 333 223 81
Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun 157
Mil Voces Para Celebrar 59
Morning Glory, Starlit Sky 194
O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing 3001
Open My Eyes, That I May See 454 184
Spirit of Faith, Come Down 332 219
Spirit of God 2117
The King of Glory Comes 2091
The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve 2241
The Summons 2130 60
We Are Called 2172
We come broken 73
When Jesus the Healer Passed Through Galilee 263 171
When We Were a Younger Nation 51

Prayers

January 24, 2016 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Gracious God, in wisdom you provide every gift needed to build up the church. You continually guide the church in every place by your Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Christ. During this week of prayer for Christian unity, help us to recognize each denomination as a genuine witness to the wholeness of Christ’s body. In gratitude, we offer our spiritual and financial gifts to support the ministry and mission of this congregation. Through Christ, we pray. Amen. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)

See all Offertory Prayers for January 2016

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