Transformative Worship

Third Sunday after Epiphany
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Nehemiah 8:1-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

Today’s scriptures tell the story of two worship gatherings. Nehemiah describes a reboot of worship in Jerusalem by recently returned refugees from Babylon. We don’t know if this account describes a typical worship experience, but let’s hope so.

The gathering took place at the city gates. Ezra, surrounded by fellow priests and Levites, processed through the throng, carrying the sacred text. After years of exile, God’s Word would be heard in Jerusalem. Ezra climbed onto the wooden platform and the congregation went silent. He opened the Book and a thrill ran through the crowd. People shouted, “Hallelujah! Bless the Lord!”

Ezra prayed, perhaps remembering the ways that Israel had failed to keep the covenant, and a collective moan escaped the people’s lips. They fell to their knees, faces to the ground. Grown men wept, and called for the Lord’s mercy.

Ezra read from the text, his voice strong and clear. From early morning until noon God’s covenant with Israel was recounted. Every ear was tuned to the reading. Priests spread through the crowd to help folks understand what they heard. People were cut to the quick when they understood how they had failed to live into God’s covenant. Tears were shed as they put Babylon behind them and looked forward to a new life in Jerusalem.

Ezra called out:

This day you have been set apart for the Lord. Do not cry. Don’t put on long faces. This isn’t a day for weeping; it is a day for rejoicing. Go on home, and make a feast. Call your neighbors, break out the good wine, roast a leg of lamb, send a take-out plate to your poor neighbor and do not grieve…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of another church service very different in circumstance and outcome. On the Sabbath, Jesus showed up in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, as was his custom. Like Ezra, Jesus stood to read these words from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He 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.

At first folks were pleased. Small town folk tend to cut a homeboy some slack. But when Jesus probed the meaning of the text, implying that God had his eye on the poor, on foreigners, on helpless widows to the exclusion of the chosen few, the room got really quiet. Nobody said “Amen.” Nobody cried out, “Preach it brother!” Parishioners went from singing Jesus’s praises to forming a lynch mob. Curses and dust and shoes flew through the air. Jesus was shoved out the back door and they would have tossed him off a cliff had he not gathered himself up, stared down the mob and walked through their midst straight out of town.

Two worship services, two very different endings. Why such markedly different reactions? What made the difference? In Nehemiah’s day, the people showed deep awe and respect for the Word of God. People gathered to hear the Word: men, women, and all who could hear with understanding. When Ezra opened the book of the Word of God, so expectant were the people that they were about to hear the very Word of God that they all stood to attention. They believed that God was in their midst and had something of great importance to share with them. There was no fooling around, no checking messages, no sleeping, no one making paper airplanes with bulletins.

I wonder if the people in Jesus’s hometown church had that same reverence for the Word? Do we?

At our church, it’s not so much the interpreted Word (the sermon) that brings the heat. The heat comes as the Word is read over us week after week, uninterpreted, raw in its power. We listen reverently to catch a sense of the presence and wisdom of God. Our worship leaders make it a point to find good readers. We remind ourselves after we read: “This is the Word of the Lord!” We read big chunks of the Word, week by week. We believe, as the writer of Hebrews says, that the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two edged sword…that it pierces right down to the division of our soul and spirit.

Sometimes it’s a shocking Word that cuts through our pretension and ugliness and sin. Sometimes it is a healing Word, soothing our souls and knitting our wounds together. But this Word is not a message we control, or spin, or modify. It is a Word that modifies, changes, addresses and forms us.

The reverence the people of Nehemiah’s day had for the Word of God also translated into action. The people wept when they listened to the Word. In contrast, the people of Jesus’s day heard Words of God that pointed to the Christ and made the choice to stand over that Word in judgment.

When was the last time the power and beauty of God’s word broke through your cool reserve? When was the last time you cried upon hearing the Word? When was the last time you heard the Word read and were convicted of your own sinfulness and need to change? Does listening week after week to the Word of God change you? Does it cause you to re-evaluate your life? Does it bring you to a place where God can get to you?

There was one more beautiful byproduct of the reverent, repentant worship of Nehemiah’s day – joy. “The Joy of the Lord is your strength,” said Ezra. And it was joy that Jesus promised in his hometown synagogue: freedom, release, favor. Jesus brings us joyful news of a God who loves us too much to leave us alone. Come joyfully. Come to celebrate. Come to worship. Proclaim release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. Freedom for the oppressed. Proclaim the Lord’s Jubilee!

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