Have you ever had the experience of going back to a place where you grew up, or where you had once lived, but hadn’t visited in a long time? What was that like? Childhood places often seem much smaller when we see them as adults. One of my elementary schools was on a hill, and you got to the front door from the sidewalk by climbing a very long flight of stairs. When I visited it recently the stairs were as imposing as ever, but the hill from school down to Main Street was much shorter and less steep than I remembered from when I walked it as a nine-year old.
Or maybe your experience of return was one of a changed landscape – houses torn down, new buildings built, fancier or more run-down, much busier or lacking vitality. Going home can be full of surprises, and even disappointments. But going home or going back can also help us to get perspective on ourselves, on where we have been, on how we’ve changed, on what life has been like for us and what we have learned.
In the Scripture readings this morning we’ve heard two going-home stories: one from the book of Nehemiah in the much longer account of the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem; and the other from Luke’s telling of Jesus’ visit as an adult to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his public ministry.
Jews of Nehemiah’s day (5th century BCE) began returning to Jerusalem from their exile and were faced with the ruins of the Temple and the destruction of the city walls. Under Nehemiah’s leadership the walls were rebuilt, and the work of restoring the Temple continued. But what really restored the Jewish community – after all the work of physical building – was to hear the Torah, God’s Law, the Holy Scriptures such as they had them – read aloud at the gathering of the community. God was present with his people through these words which many of them had not heard read aloud in decades, and they were filled with life and joy and the power of God’s holiness. God was being revealed to them in a deep and life-giving way, and they learned that without God’s presence in their midst, their community was not complete.
In the Gospel we hear Jesus returning to his home congregation, the place he was raised, where he studied the Torah with the other men, the place where he prayed and learned and gathered with the rest of his community. I’m sure they felt they knew him well. They must have been excited and proud to have Jesus home, this young rabbi who was gathering followers and making a name for himself. He might even put Nazareth on the map! They might have said to themselves. So, the synagogue attendant handed Jesus the scroll to read the day’s Torah portion – a passage from Isaiah. Jesus read the passage and then sat down – the traditional posture of a teacher. Everyone was watching him. Everyone was eagerly waiting. What words of wisdom, what fresh insight into the Scriptures would he offer?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me …” Jesus had read. And then he began his teaching with: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." He was claiming those words of Isaiah for himself. And in claiming God’s mission outlined here, by identifying himself as the fulfillment of these words, by identifying himself with God’s holiness, Jesus revealed a glimpse of his true nature and purpose: to 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; to proclaim the year of jubilee (the year of the Lord’s favor) in which ancestral lands were returned to their original owners, debts were forgiven, and the burden of indenture on servants were lifted. All of this coming together, here and now in Jesus – much more than just an ordinary rabbi, local boy made good. Clearly, those in the synagogue were being asked to see Jesus in a new light. And they were going to have to decide whether their picture of Jesus and of the Scriptures was large enough to see them both in new and surprising ways. We’ll find out what their reaction was next week (or you can always read ahead)!
Both Nehemiah and Luke touch on what it is like to return to a familiar place or group and have a fresh revelation of ourselves and the Holy One. It’s not easy; we can have our settled assumptions challenged. The way we always thought God would be present with us may be quite different, when we have our eyes and ears and hearts open. Sometimes God wants to tell us that God’s truth is counter to what we want to hear. When that happens, we can turn away and stick our heads in the sand; *or* we can be brave and curious and listen to what God is trying to tell us. What makes it especially tricky is that God rarely gives us a big, flashing neon sign with an exact message spelled out for us. Far more often God is whispering to us in the “still, small voice”, in the hints and glimpses that come to us in so many ways.
The Season after Epiphany is the time in the Church year when we pay particular attention to all the ways that Christ is revealed, is made manifest in human life, and to the world at large – first to the Magi; then at his baptism; in the wedding feast at Cana turning water into wine; in healings and other wondrous works; in opening up the words of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Another way that God can and does speak to us is though our connection and relationship with our fellow Christians, other members of the Body of Christ. In the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians St. Paul delves into his metaphor for the Church as the Body of Christ. And here he means each believer, each follower of Jesus connected to one another in the same way the human body is connected, with Christ as the head. 'The foot cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you’…and if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it
Paul sees us all connected intimately; and the health of our community, our faith, and our witness to the world depends on our connection with one another. Christian life is lived as much on the horizontal, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our fellow body-parts, as much as it is lived in a vertical dimension – our own particular relationship with God. Christian life is lived on the horizontal as much as it is lived on the vertical.
When we gather, when we pray together, when we study Scripture or do ministry together, when we have fellowship and fun together, we show one another an aspect of God that comes through us uniquely. In fact, I would go so far as to say that when we gather for worship and you are not here, someone else is being deprived of your encouragement, your light, your wisdom, your care, your particular expression of God’s holiness; your questions, your joy – any of which another person may need desperately on any given Sunday. The presence of Christ in you flows out to those around you, here in this church we call our spiritual home.
The presence of God and the nature and holiness of Christ keep being revealed to us – in the Scriptures read and proclaimed, in the gathering of the community and the ways we share our lives, and in the life and presence of Jesus in our midst coming to us through liturgy and prayer and an open heart. How is Jesus appearing in your life, making himself manifest to you and through you this Season after Epiphany?
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, we come to you in faith, asking for a fresh revelation and sense of your presence with us. May we each be a light to one another and to your world. And may we never fear coming to know you more truly and deeply, so that we may become your People. We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2019