Sermon by Rev. Michael Perry for Epiphany 3 23 January 2022

Sermon for Epiphany 2.  Nehemiah 8. 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4. 14-30

Revd Michael Perry 

How far do we allow scripture to challenge us?  How far do we allow our faith and in particular the Spirit of God,  to question our actions and our views?  Faith, humanly speaking, for centuries has had two basic functions which can feel contradictory  To comfort and to challenge  The people of Nehemiah’s time and the people of Jesus’ time surely needed comfort  The people of Nehemiah, who gathered around to hear the Bible scrolls being read were a defeated and subjugated nation.  The book of Nehemiah is a book about restoring a nation.  Rebuilding the walls and also rebuilding the hearts and minds   of the people. The priest Ezra takes the scrolls and reads them.  But he does not just incant an ancient  incomprehensible mystery.  Repeatedly our passage empathises that the Law of Moses was read in a way so that the people properly understood it.  And in verse 8 it empathizes that Ezra explained it too.  And it says that the people were attentive.  And this people, who needed so much to be comforted.  wept when they heard the law.  Well some comfort you might think.  Driving them to tears.  This was a nation on its knees, did they need one more thing to bring them down?  

With every marriage, whether using the Book of Common Prayer, 1928 prayer book or the words from Common Worship  With every marriage comes the declarations  And every bride and groom   who have stood in this church   have declared   that they will comfort the other  It is one of the words in the service   I explore with a couple  Because comfort yes means   the arm around the shoulder  But look again at the word and you can see it has that fort within it  To comfort it to fortify someone to strengthen them  Sometimes that means to be the one who pushes someone out to do better  In a marriage perhaps to strengthen the other to get that promotion or to start that business  To be the person they can truly can be  In the book of Nehemiah   Ezra is comforting the people  Calling them clearly to be the people   they are called to be  This brings with it the dawning realisation   of what they haven’t been,   hence the wheeping   But Nehemiah, their leaders response,   is to call them beyond regret to celebration  They are called to be the rebuilt people of God in the rebuilt city of God  Called to walk in his path   and obey the law of God.  To look with honesty into Gods Word to draw from it and be strengthened by it. 

Let’s contrast this then with how Jesus’ words went down with his hearers, and how they go down with us today.  Jesus, filled with the Spirit of God, has been baptised by John, and spent 40 days of testing in the desert  He then starts teaching in the synagogues  And verse 15 says he was praised by everyone  Well that’s nice isn’t it  He was praised  Our main story is in his hometown of Nazareth  And he chooses a really challenging text 
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 favour.’    

And then he says something really radical, he says Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing  And what do his hearers do?  No they don’t drive him out of town and they don’t try to kill him that come later.  No it says ‘they all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth'.  Jesus has been anointed for his mission.  And like Ezra and Nehemiah he wants to see the people of God strengthened by being called back to a truer following of God’s Word.  His calling is to comfort the people to give them the inner spiritual strength, fortitude and backbone that will allow them truly to be God’s people.  In this passage he is calling them to fully understand that the Gospel only is the Gospel if it is good news for the poor  And the Gospel is only the Gospel   if it is a liberation on the oppressed/  And what do his hearers do?  Paradoxically they do not hear him.  They simply been  liking the entertainment he provides.  A nice sermon for a nice day and then back to their nice home to a nice lunch. 

And this is why Jesus looses his temper  This is why he tells them that   It is not without reason that prophets like Elijah and Elisha gave up on the people of Israel and went to the other nations to perform the signs of God  After the disappointment of much praise but no hearing  in all the other towns, perhaps he hoped that finally in his own people would actually listen and take in his message.  But they do not  It is not his teaching that drives them to drive him out: It is because he dared to suggest that God might look elsewhere if his people do not listen.    

What then of us? (and I very much include myself in this too).  How do we gain comfort by coming to church?  What these passages are telling us is that whilst that arm around the shoulder type of comfort is important (of course that is a fundamental part of what a Christian fellowship is about) To be truly comforted by faith we need to grow in faith, and to grow in faith, we must listen to God’s Word:  And once we have listened we need to allow it to challenge us deep within…  So that we become more truly  who we are truly meant to be  as the people of God.  And with this Gospel passage to hear that the Gospel is not the Gospel if it is not good news to the poor. And the Gospel is not the gospel if it does not bring liberation to those in bondage. These are as radical statements now as they were in Jesus’ time.  And they should make us feel uncomfortable.  Because it is through this discomfort that the true comfort / the comfort of God / can come. 

© Michael Perry 22/01/2022


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