Preacher Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
There are many ways in which God may be revealed to us. This continuing Epiphanytide has been focusing on three particular ways of revelation in the unfolding story of Jesus of Nazareth as told in the gospels. First, at the beginning of Epiphanytide, we heard the well-known story of Matthew’s gospel account of the journey of the wise men from the East who followed a star and found Jesus, the Word “made flesh” as a different gospel of John describes, at Bethlehem. That well-known and colourful story revealed that Jesus was not just born for the chosen few – for the people of God – but for all – Jew and Gentile alike – for us all, no matter what our origins or background. The Christian story at its heart is utterly inclusive – no-one is beyond the scope of its appeal.
Secondly, we went on to hear of the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. What was revealed here, through the story of the sacramental (as we would now call it) action of baptism was that Jesus was the beloved Son of God – both fully human and fully divine.
Thirdly, last Sunday we heard the story of the wedding at Cana at which, when the wine ran out, Jesus turned water – lots and lots of water – into wine. This third Epiphanytide story revealed Jesus as the miracle-worker, the lover of fun and joy, who delights in turning things around so that situations where there seems to be no hope are transformed into situations of opportunity and grace.
Today, on this third Sunday of Epiphany, we focus on a fourth well tried and tested method of God being revealed to us – through the Bible – whether it is the Old Testament scriptures that Jesus himself knew so well, or whether through the New Testament, whose writings so eloquently testify to Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, Jesus both God and a human being, in his short earthly life.
Our Old Testament reading from the book of Nehemiah gives a vivid and fascinating account of how the public reading of the scriptures can have a powerful effect upon a group. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah seem to have their origin in two separate memoirs from the two historical figures that bear their name and who lived in the fifth century BC. The main issue of these two books is the restoration of the Judean Community on their return to Jerusalem after exile. There is a contrast between the somewhat official methods and attitudes of the governor Nehemiah and the more theologically based authority of the priest/scribe Ezra. Nehemiah focuses on the rebuilding of the city wall around Jerusalem. Whereas Ezra is intent on the restoration of Moses’ Law as the spiritual foundation of the Jewish Community after exile.
The passage we have heard today shows Ezra out of doors – in the city square – reading the law aloud to the gathered people. He carries on for several hours, from early morning until mid-day, reading the law while others assist in interpreting the meaning. We might have expected the people to have been exhausted or at least bored by mid-day. Far from it. It is true that they wept. But why did they weep? It could have been tears of joy for a re-awakened sense of their belonging to a community of faith. Or if could have been tears of penitence as the words of the law revealed to the people the ways in which they had failed to love God and their neighbour. Or perhaps a bit of both? Either way, it was not a reaction of either boredom or indifference. The people were so moved by what they heard that they had a physical, bodily reaction. They wept.
And then Ezra told them not to weep – for it was a holy day to the Lord. And he claimed they should not grieve because, “The joy of the Lord is your strength”.
I think that is a particularly beautiful verse, and one which can often bring much comfort. However difficult and challenging our circumstances may be, however sorrowful we may feel at for example the death of a loved one, nevertheless the strength of God’s joy deep within us will give us the grace and ability to carry on.
Our gospel reading today from Luke offers a similar message of hope and consolation. It is Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, after his temptations in the wilderness. All goes well to begin with, and many speak well of him. In the synagogue at Nazareth his home town he stands up to read on the Sabbath day and he reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah – some well-known verses from the beginning of Isaiah Chapter 61 –
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed…..”.
Then astonishingly no doubt to his original hearers, Jesus sits down and claims,
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.
In other words, Jesus was identifying himself with the Messiah-like figure, the anointed one, of the passage as prophesied in Isaiah. At first Jesus is well received, acclaimed even. But, as we know too well from the story as it unfolds, later many cruelly derided him. But before the derision, we have here once again in the public reading of scripture an example of its significant impact upon the hearers.
So this Epiphanytide let us not forget the influence the scriptures can have on us in revealing the ways of God to us. And of course this is also the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week was begun by a group of High Churchmen in 1908. Throughout that week they daily celebrated the eucharist for the visible re-union of the Church. Their prayers culminated with a celebration on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul on 25 January – tomorrow. From that beginning in 1908 the observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has grown as an ecumenical movement, with Christians of all denominations coming together to pray that we might all be one, as Jesus himself had prayed.
Throughout Christian history there have of course been many set-backs to unity. At the recent meeting of Anglican Primates in Canterbury the decision to exclude the Episcopal Church of the United States of America from discussions for several years because of their stance on the gay issue will have inevitable ramifications. Unity is an ideal to be upheld. So are truth and justice. Sometimes the tussle between them issues in painful consequences.
Today, 24th January, is the feast day of both St Cadoc and St Frances de Sales. So perhaps they should be allowed to have the last word. Cadoc was a Welsh sixth century abbot of whom his biographer wrote, “he always welcomed eagerly all, who steadily toiled in the services of God and paid heed to the divine scriptures”. By contrast St Frances de Sales was Bishop of Geneva in the very late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He wrote a well –loved book, “Introduction to the Devout Life” and concentrated on putting prayer within the grasp and understanding of all Christians. He quoted that Aristotle had observed that “the bee sucks honey from flowers without damaging them”. Frances de Sales claimed that true devotion did even better – that not only does devotion “not spoil any sort of life-situation or occupation, but on the contrary enriches it and makes it attractive”.
For what remains of Epiphanytide let us endeavour to heed St Frances de Sales’ advice and attend to what God may be revealing to us in so many and various ways, not least through our prayer life and the reading of the scriptures. Amen.