The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r170.htm
s170o98 Somerton Park 25/1/98 Epiphany 3
"Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." 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; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."" Nehemiah 8:9-10.
I always remember one of my first sermons. It was when I was a student at Theological College and I was sent to preach in the Parish of Port Adelaide. The theme of the sermon was how we are, as "Christians", meant to be joyful. After the service I got the distinct impression that the congregation had got the message that they were being ticked off for not being joyful enough. As I drove home, I wondered, sadly, if they had taken my words to suggest that they should have been singing choruses rather than hymns. How had I gone wrong? Perhaps their lack of enthusiasm was a result of their beloved football team losing their game the day before. How could they be joyful when the "Magpies" had lost!
The assembly we read of in the book of Nehemiah is (to my knowledge anyway) the first recorded incident of the making of a pulpit, the reading of the law from a book and interpretation given, in the Old Testament. I find it interesting and curious, that despite the building of the pulpit, the reading from the book, and the interpretation by the Levites, the people still got it wrong! They thought that they were being ticked off, whereas the true message was to have a feast. The people got completely the wrong end of the stick!
This ought to alert those who have the job of reading and expounding scripture, that there are other forces at work. And it has some immediate practical applications.
So the Bible itself tells us: Simply giving someone a Bible to read is inadequate for others to get the message - the good news.
The Bible also tells us that: Simply getting someone to come along to a Bible study is no guarantee either that others will get the message.
In the end it is when we get out of our pulpits (like Ezra indeed did), or out of our self appointed positions where others feel that they have to live up to our expectations (like the Levites indeed did), and stand alongside people and say: "Go ... have a feast ... live it up ..." that people will get the good news. Jesus did precisely this, and superbly. He not only said this, but he went and enjoyed the festivities himself.
How did the Israelite congregation initially get it wrong? Clearly they interpreted the words as bad news, when they were meant to be good. They must have interpreted the words to mean "You shouldn't have done this" or "You should have done that" in the past. Or they took the words to mean " You should do this" or "You mustn't do that" in the future. Another possibility is that they took the words to mean "You should believe this, but don't believe that ..." I mean that's what we expect to hear when we come to Church too. "Do this". "Don't do that". "Believe this". What the words did mean, however, was quite clear; they were "Now be happy, now let's celebrate, for it's good to be alive with a God so gracious as ours."
How often is the Church perceived to be saying things like "You shouldn't have done this" or "You should have done that" in the past or "You should do this" or "You mustn't do that" in the future, or (of course) "You should believe this, but don't believe that ..."
Let's look at Jesus' first public sermon that St Luke records, to see if they bear this out. His words were simply "This text is being fulfilled today, even as you listen". Here endeth, not just the reading but also the address! It must be one of the shortest sermons in history!
I have often thought how "lame" these words of Jesus are. The lovely phrase "non-sequitur' seems to apply. We are left hanging, as it were. A legitimate response might well be: "Well so what ..."
John the Baptist at least said: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand". He was specific about what he expected of people - to repent. But Jesus linked this with the text from Isaiah - the good news being proclaimed to the poor, liberty to captives, new sight to the blind, to free the down-trodden. This fulfilment was not to be feared (which is what I find repentance is usually associated with) but hopefully to be joyfully anticipated. The appropriate response is (for most) joy. Anyone with a modicum of sense would respond: "Crack out the champagne".
And many people did get the message. We are told by Luke: "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." (4:22). Until, that is, he spoke of the Lord sending the prophet Elijah to Zarephath ... The good news is OK as long as it's for me and us who are acceptable. But no farther.
It is not: "you ought to be less serious" or "you ought to believe". It is not: "Become a Christian and you will be eternally happy". It is simply an invitation to celebrate.
I have never been much for seeing the New Year in. One day is as good as another. In the past I've often taken the boys down to see the fireworks at Glenelg, not especially to see the New Year in but to enjoy the spectacle. I suppose the new millennium will get me a little more enthused - that is if they can stop arguing when the new millennium is going to start! I will be quite happy to celebrate both nights - though reasonably quietly.
We are bidden to celebrate, it really doesn't matter what reason we choose to celebrate. In the celebration, the message of the prophet Isaiah might just find some fulfilment. The poor might find some good news, captives release, the blind might see something worth seeing, and the oppressed might find some freedom.
It was something for now - this instant - a joyful proclamation worth celebrating. It is the celebration that is important.
So the word of God is a gracious word intended to build us up, to commend our good intentions and our devotion to God, to encourage us to feast, to live for today, to enjoy being God's children, and to share that joy with others. It is not about the past or the future but it is about now.
It is not just the truth about God or others, but about uplifting people by expressing some good about them. In this sense "the truth" is sometimes less than helpful. For instance how often have we heard others called children "silly" only to find they indeed grow up silly. They might indeed be proved right, but what a difference might there have been if they had overlooked the silliness and searched for something to commend them!
The words of St Paul in the epistle for today speak of what we are: we are one body; we are all equal; we all have a contribution to make; and the body ceases to be a fully functional one if even one of its parts is missing or sick. We are all part of this great celebration. No one is excluded.
I still remember my first Rector saying of the list of things that Jesus did which follow the words of the prophet Isaiah: "bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" - the most miraculous is not the recovery of sight or any of the other healing miracles - even to raising the dead. His estimation was that the greatest miracle was that the poor hear good news. I would say the least expected and the most miraculous. We are all our own worst enemy. We don't expect to be pardoned or commended. We only expect to be given more jobs ... to give more money, believe more ardently ... Religious leaders can be wonderful preachers telling people what they should or shouldn't do.
No, the message of the Bible is a great but simple invitation to join in a celebration - "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; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."
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