ďAs Was His CustomĒ

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-7, 8-10

Luke 4:14-21

January 25, 2004


Ever so silently we have moved from the season of Christmas into the season of Epiphany, now three Sundays into it.There has been no fanfare, no preparation, no building up for Epiphany like there was with Christmas.In many ways, our silent and overlooking movement to this season is characteristic of the Gospels themselves.Birth stories have given way to ministry stories.Stories of the infant Jesus have given way to stories of the adult Jesus.Very little is mentioned about the in between years.No fanfare, no preparation, no building up stories moving us to the beginning of Jesusí ministry thirty some odd years after he was born.Only a silent movement from birth to ministry.Only a silent movement from Christmas to Epiphany.

††††††††† And yet, it is in this season when we make some of the most radical and amazing claims about who we believe is the one who was born Christmas morning.Epiphany means manifestation or appearance of the divine.In Jesus Christ, we have seen the manifestation and appearance of the divine, of Godís self-giving grace and love.In Jesus Christ, we have seen Godís very self, the very Word of God in the flesh.

††††††††† And yet, this season of Epiphany is about something else as well.Itís about more than our Christology of the true nature and identity of Jesus of Nazareth.The season of Epiphany is also about all those times even now in our own lives in which we see the manifestation and appearance of the divine in our midst.Iím not talking about seeing visions of angels or bright lights, or seeing mountains being moved and valleys being made high, or even seeing strange things that have no explanation.Iím talking about knowing within our heart, mind, and soul, that we have seen God, encountered God, and been in the presence of Godís divine glory.

††††††††† In February of 1987 at a farmhouse in Conyers, GA, a middle-aged housewife and mother named Nancy Fowler saw a vision of Jesus that changed her life.Then from October 13, 1990 through May 13, 1994, on the 13th of every month, Nancy Fowler saw visions of the Virgin Mary, who gave Ms. Fowler messages to tell the people.Thousands of people flocked to the Fowler farm to witness these visions themselves and to hear the messages.On November 13, 1993, the estimated number of people at the farm was well over 100,000.

Did Nancy Fowler and the thousands of other people truly see an epiphany of the divine?Many people claim they did, however others say that it is just a case of desperate people longing for a hopeful sign.Whatever happened in Conyers, GA is still up for debate, but in any case I never felt compelled to go even though I only lived about 20 minutes from there, because I didnít need to go.I already had, and continue to have, a place where I can go to encounter God and be in the presence of Godís divine glory, and that place is the church through the reading and the hearing Godís word in worship.I come here because I belong here.I come here to hear Godís word for Godís people, to be encountered by the living God who continues to speak to us through Scripture, and to be in the presence of the One who continues to transform, renew, and nurture us in our lives of faith and obedience, service and witness.

††††††††† Our texts for this morning gives us an important witness for the power of Godís presence through the reading and the hearing of Scripture.Our Old Testament text from Nehemiah reminds us that as Godís people the reading and hearing of Godís Word is central to worship and to being a faithful people.

For the Israelites, the Torah, or Law of God, was more than just words on a scroll; it was the tie that bound them together to the events in which God had directly intervened in their lives.The Torah reminded them how God had freed them from the bonds of slavery and delivered them from the oppression at the hands of the Egyptians.The Torah reminded them of Godís gift of the bread from heaven that fed them and nourished them during their long journey in the wilderness.And most importantly it reminded them of Godís manifestation and appearance to them at Mt. Sinai and the giving of Godís commandments for a life of faithfulness and obedience.

The reading and hearing of the Torah for the Israelites was a momentous and significant occasion; one that brought people together from all over the place; one that made them weep and rejoice.It was an occasion of celebration and feasting for the life that God gives, for the freedom and deliverance by Godís almighty hand, for the presence of God in their lives, and for the commandments of God, which lead to righteousness and salvation.

This Torah Ė this way of life Ė this Word of God is worth more than gold and is sweeter than holy.This is the lesson taught by the ancient rabbis to their young students.Before the children could read, they were invited to lick the Torah scroll on which the Rabbis had placed a drop of honey, so that the children will know from earliest memory the sweetness of Godís word to Godís people.

Every Sunday we gather together as Godís people in worship to read and hear Godís word for us.In doing so, we enter into a conversation, not just with the Biblical texts, but also with God.Through the Holy Spirit, God continues to speak to us and reveal to us who God is and what God is doing, even in these ancient writings from long ago.In the reading and the hearing of Godís word in scripture is the reminder of our shared story with the Israelites and our own story of Godís direct intervention through Jesus Christ in our own life together.

In Jesus Christ, we too have been freed, freed from the bonds of slavery of sin and death.In Jesus Christ, we too have been given the true bread from heaven that feeds and nourishes us during our journey of faith.In Jesus Christ, we too are in the presence of the living God in our lives.In Jesus Christ, we too have been given the commandments of faith and obedience, which lead to righteousness and salvation and eternal life.The hearing and the reading of the word in worship should be our moment to celebrate.And yet, for many people, worship is the least celebratory event for them in the week.

††††††††† Michael Lindvall, in his book The Christian Life, gives a quote from a book entitled, Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard, who writes,

ďOn the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible to conditions.Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?It is madness to wear ladiesí hats in church, we should all be wearing crash helmets.Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.Ē

In many ways, the quote from Annie Dillard is indicative of just how we have lost the sense of what it means to worship.Worship is not for entertainment purposes only, and is not to be done passively.In worship, through the reading and hearing of the Word, we are encountered in a powerful way and then called to be different than we were when we first walked in the doors.

How we come to church and listen to Godís word is as every bit as important, and more, as just coming.Every Sunday morning, we should always approach worship as active participants with the same questions: What is Godís word for us today?What is Godís word for me today?How will we apply Godís word to our daily living?How do I make myself relevant to Godís word?What will I give of myself during this time of worship that will allow me to be more faithful and obedient when I walk out of the church doors?

††††††††† In worship, through the living word of the living God, we become acutely aware of our need for Godís continual presence and gift of grace in our lives, and we are lead to God through the Spirit into the very presence of the one, who is the source of our life, Jesus Christ.

††††††††† It was the custom of the people of God to come together from far away to hear Godís word for them.†† And it was Jesusí custom to go to the synagogue to hear Godís word read and proclaimed.In doing so, they encountered the living and active God, an encounter that caused them to weep in joy and in sorrow, an encounter that moved them to respond in faith and obedience.

If it was their custom, then it should be our custom as well.Rejoice my friends, for the word of God has been fulfilled in your hearing today.Amen.