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All Things New
Luke 4:14-21

On this, the day of our Annual Parish Meeting, the Lectionary sets before us two stories of meetings: first, the great assembly recorded in the historical book of Nehemiah; second, a Shabbat service in Jesus' hometown synagogue in Nazareth. A bit of historical research ties the two together.

As I was studying the Gospel lesson with some other pastors, one asked whether the Jews of Jesus' time followed something like our Lectionary so that the text which Luke describes Jesus reading, a part of the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, would have been an assigned text, not one of Jesus' own choosing. That idea appealed to me and I began to research it; this is what I learned.

Jews read the Torah, the first five books of our "Old Testament" through the year in 54 readings, one reading per week except for two weeks when double readings are done. This has been done since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, who figure prominently in our Hebrew Scripture lesson today.

About 200 years before Christ, the practice of reading from a Prophet after the Torah reading took hold and, by Jesus' time, a schedule of prophetic readings had also been developed. These readings are called the "Haftorahs," which comes from the Hebrew word haphtarah meaning "conclusion." I reviewed the yearly cycle of synagogue readings hoping to find Isaiah 61:1-2, which is what Luke asserts Jesus read, but, alas! that portion of Isaiah is not one of the Haftorahs.

However, Isaiah 42 and 43 are in fact, they comprise the reading for the first Sabbath of the Jewish year, which would fall sometime around the end of September. In Isaiah, verses 6 and 7 of chapter 42 are remarkably similar to verses 1 and 2 of chapter 61: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Isaiah 42:9, also a part of the Haftorah, reads: "See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them." Since I don't hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy (neither does our denomination), I am willing to entertain the notion that maybe Luke was wrong and it was not from Isaiah 61, but from Isaiah 42, quite clearly a very similar passage, that Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue that Shabbat morning.

After all, Luke was a Gentile and he penned his Gospel 30 years or more after the events he reports; he can be forgiven such a small mistake. If that speculation (and, I admit, that's all it is) is right, then the event in our Gospel Lesson would have taken place at New Year's time on Jewish calendar, when the reading would have been the story of Creation. Interestingly, our Old Testament Lesson happens at the same time of year. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (considered by Jews to be one book, by the way) tell the story of the re-establishment of the People of God in the land of Israel following the Babylonian Exile.

King Darius freed the People from their bondage and they returned to the Promised Land around the year 510 BCE, where they rebuilt the Temple. About 50 years later, Ezra, described as a "priest and teacher of the law of the God of heaven" (Ezra 7:12), was sent by Darius's success, King Ataxerxes, to lead another group of returning exiles. When he arrived, he found that those who had stayed during the time of the Exile, and the earlier returnees, had strayed from the Law.

So, with King Ataxerxes' approval, he began a period of reform, which included forcing Jewish men who had married non-Jewish women to divorce their wives and culminated with the re-establishment of Temple worship and a rededication of the People to the Law of Moses. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra assembled all the people at the Water Gate, an area of the city of Jerusalem where all the People, priests, Levites, and lay people, could all gather. There, supported by 13 elders of the tribes (whose names Elaine did not have to read, since the Lectionary leaves out the two verses in which they are listed), Ezra read the Book of the Law, the entire Pentateuch, to the People. (The first day of the seventh month, by the way, is New Year's day in Jewish reckoning.)

The People's first reaction to the reading of the Law was mourning and weeping, a sign of self-knowledge showing that they recognized they had not followed the commandments of their God. But Ezra will not let them continue with that; he tells them, "This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep. ... Go and enjoy...." So we have two stories of assemblies. Ezra reading from Torah on the first day of the new year and Jesus reading from the Prophet Isaiah on what may have been the first Shabbat of a new year. Both are stories of new beginnings.

If Jesus was reading the Haftorah from Isaiah 42, the Jewish Lectionary's connection of the Creation story with Isaiah's prophecy of making all things new contains within it the kernel of the Christian Gospel: in redemption and liberation, there is a new creation. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says to the mystic John of Patmos: "Behold, I make all things new." (Rev. 21:5)

We are gathered here today to celebrate that promise of newness in the context of our Annual Parish Meeting. Some might say that it is coincidence, the juxtaposition of these readings with our annual meeting, but my wife reminds me from time to time that for Christians there are no such things as coincidences; there are only "God incidents." It is a "God incident" that we are reminded in Scripture of the promise of newness on this day when we in this place acknowledge the reality and fulfillment of that promise, for St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church is, very much, a renewed parish.

As philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And we do NOT want to repeat the past! We look back to remember the past, like the Jews assembled with Ezra, not to mourn and weep about what has gone before, but so that we may praise God and enjoy the present and look forward with gladness to the future. As a parish, we began our exile innocently enough.

We set out to grow because we thought that was what we ought to do, and grow we did. During the first six months of 1993, the parish's average Sunday attendance was between 35 and 45 people per Sunday; by early 1996 average Sunday attendance had risen to over 100. That is meteoric numerical growth; unfortunately, it was not accompanied by growth in spiritual maturity; it was not guided by a corporate vision. As a result, 1996 saw us peak in many ways and the next year saw the parish's attendance and income fall precipitously. That was when our exile truly began.

The People assembled with Ezra at the Water Gate and Ezra read from the Book of Law. The people of Nazareth assembled with Jesus in the synagogue and he read from the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: he proclaimed sight to the blind, light to the nations, freedom to the captives. The former things, he read, have passed away and, behold, I am doing new things. "Today, this prophecy," he said, "is being fulfilled in your hearing." We are assembled today to listen once again to Ezra, to listen once again Jesus, to celebrate our return from exile, and to commit ourselves once again to our Vision and our Mission.

We are a community of Christians grounded in the Holy Eucharist. We seek always to know and follow Jesus Christ as he has been known and followed by the Church through the centuries, to live according to his example, and to make him known to others. And, finally, we commit our parish and ourselves to active community service. We are committed to gathering all people around God's Table and, I tell you, today, this Vision is being fulfilled in your hearing and in your doing.

Behold, God is making St. Francis Parish new! "Go [gather all people at God's Table], 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." Amen.

The Gospel is ours now
Luke 4:14-21
by Rev. Dan Christ

why is is that Christians say they have a good news/ gospel and they seem just as sad as the rest of us? Why do they talk about healing but there are just as many sick, blind, or disabled among them? Why proclaim resurrection, when they die and are buried just the same as everyone else?

If there can be an answer to the critics of Christianity and the inner critic of our own doubts which ask such questions, the answer must lie not in Christians but in the Christ. He is the one who said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

We look for fulfillment in demonstrated deeds of power and like the good people in the synagogue at Nazareth, we have too much doubt to believe they can or would be true in any sense than the flat literal reality of blind giving up white canes and dead people marching out of tombs.

In fact the fulfillment is in the hearing and the hearing which leads to believing. Any other option will disappoint us and lead us to demand of Jesus signs and wonders and deeds of power to prove his divinity. "If you are as good as you say you are, why not work a miracle here like you have elsewhere?" then we will believe that is in essence what the people in the synagogue said.

They did not mind as long as he read the bible and said a brief sermon "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing>" Then they all spoke well of him and said like so many do when they come out after worship, 'Nice sermon pastor."

But like polite parishioners of today, the people of Nazareth knew that it takes more than words to make fulfillment. They want to see some action. SO like Missourians, we say, "Show me" or like kids on the play ground, "Prove it"

Jesus reply is to tell two rather pointed stories aimed at their doubts and their criticism. "Doubtless you will quote the proverb, 'Physician, heal thy self'" It was to the unlikeliest of people God Elijah to feed the widow of Zarepath and for Elisha to cure Naaman, and not Israelites.

It would be like telling Americans that democracy did not start with them but with the ancient Greeks and the idea of a bill of rights was not a notion the founding fathers came up with, but one which the English had invented about 125 years earlier. Does that upset or annoy you? Well, you get a dim idea then of how upset and angry the Nazarenes were with Jesus as they tried to throw him off a hill.

No, my friends, if the words of the Savior, Jesus Christ, mean anything, they are just what they say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Perhaps in the kingdom on the last day, it will come literally true that the blind will see, the dead will come from their tombs, and the captives will be released.

In the mean time, the true is that we must take this to mean that as one of our astute theologians in bible study remarked last week, 'Isn't this about the forgiveness of sins?"

As we sing in the hymn Amazing grace, "I once was blind, but now I see, was lost but now am found." We could extrapolate or expand to say, "I was dead in sin and captive to Satan, disabled by my own self-centeredness. But not because of Christ's forgiveness, I am free and alive and strong."

No Christians may not have a different mortality rate than non Christians. Blindness and disability may come our way and we suffer as all men do. But as the bumper sticker says, "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven."

Perfection will have to wait till heaven. Till then the scripture of Christ, who was anointed to preach good news to the poor, is fulfilled in the hearing that indeed we are forgiven and we have a new start. It is fulfilled as we believe it is ours now. Believe it. Amen.