Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 21 January 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.
Why are we here this morning? That is a good question for a cold and snowy day when it might be better to have stayed inside where we were safe and warm? But why do we come to church on Sunday?
It is important thing to realize is that we are able to gather and worship God. One of the primary reasons that people from Europe came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries was so that they would be free to worship God in their own manner and without the interference of the government. Not much thought was given when the Constitution was written about religious freedom but the freedom to worship was considered such a basic right of the individual that it was included in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
So we gather this morning, to hear the Word of God, to celebrate God’s presence in our lives.
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But not everyone has the luxury of a nice church or building in which to worship God. The passage from the Old Testament is about the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon. Many of those who stood in the square that day had probably been born in Babylon and, thus, had never seen the homeland. And what they found when they returned to Palestine was nothing like the stories told to them by their elders. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the rebuilding of the community. Nehemiah tells of how he wept when he surveyed the scene and ruins that were once Jerusalem. After an appropriate period of mourning, he realized that his tears would not rebuild the walls of the temple but that the people working together would do so.
It was in the seventh month of that year, probably 430 B. C., the people gathered together and asked the Chief Priest to read the book of the Law to them. So starved to hear the Word, the people of Israel stood for six hours listening to their preacher read the Bible to them. And it wasn’t just the good stuff, the stories of Creation, Noah, and Abraham that they listened to. They also listened to the rules and the laws, the details about how the temple was to be built, and the dietary laws. I wonder what would happen if preachers were to read the book of Numbers and Leviticus all the way through to their congregations these days and have them stand up for the whole reading.
As they heard the Word of God spoken to them, the people began to get a sense that God did love them and that he did care for them, even in the most mundane and ordinary corners of their lives. The reading of the Word that day gave them a sense of their place in God’s world. It gave them a sense of why the temple was to be rebuilt. In reading the Law to the people, Ezra and Nehemiah were establishing the reasons for why the temple was to be rebuilt.
In rebuilding the temple, Israel’s identity could again be centered on the Law and the Temple. Through the providence of God’s redemptive acts, the identity of the people of God could be established in ways that did not exist before the exile.
When Jesus came to Nazareth, he came with great expectations. It had been reported that he was "filled with the power of the Spirit." People expected miracles. What he said that day in the synagogue was going to be evaluated in terms of peoples’ prior expectations. The difficulties Jesus had with the people of his hometown came not from what he said but from what people expected. The people of Nazareth had confused the messenger with the message. They saw Jesus in terms of Nazareth, in terms of the everyday world. They expected Jesus to perform the miracles; they did not expect Him to be the Son of God.
The failure of the people of Nazareth to hear what Jesus said that morning was that they had confused their own private interests with a commitment to the common good. The people were not willing to trust in each other to make the common good a reality.
The key to all of this, I believe, is that the people all worked towards the common goal. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, continued the point that he made in the previous chapter, the reading we heard last week. Though the gifts of the spirit are many, there is only one spirit. And though we may be different, we are all part of the same community. And by the same token, since are we different parts, we must work together in order to achieve the goals of the community.
It must have been important to Paul to stress the diversity of gifts and talents in the Corinthian community. Every Christian has been given some sort of gift and talent. With the Body of Christy, the church, we cannot distinguish as to the importance of any single gift over another. All are important; all have been tested and approved. And while it is possible to function when some of us are not hear, the results are best when all of us are together functioning as one unit.
That is part of the reason that we will throughout this year stress that we reach out to those who are not here. We, as a community, work best when we work together. Paul spoke of striving for the greater gifts. That greater gift is the unity of the body.
We all have different beliefs, we all have different ways of expressing our beliefs and worshipping God. Christianity is not one person or one idea over another. It is life inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the Lord.
Jesus spoke of the compassion that God has for all people, for "the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed." The challenge for us this morning is to give others the opportunity to hear these words, to bring the celebration of Jesus’ presence in our lives. The Israelites celebrated the rebuilding of the Temple as a renewal of God’s presence in their lives. So too do we celebrate Jesus as our Savior, renewing God’s presence in our own lives.
And with this celebration comes the challenge to make sure that others can know His presence as well.