Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, Luke 4:14-21
Today we hear of two occasions when the word of God was read, two occasions separated by some four or five hundred years. In the first reading, the people of Israel are those who have returned from Babylon and from other places to which their parents had fled, to rebuild Jerusalem and to start to live once again in Judah. They have gathered together to hear the Torah. It’s the first time they have come together in this way since they all returned and it’s a very emotional time.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is in his home town of Nazareth. He has been preaching in other places in Galilee and has gained a great reputation. Now he opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads to the people some of the promises given through Third Isaiah. This is not the first time these people have heard this reading. They know what it says. They have heard rabbis discuss it for years and years. They know what it means. Now the synagogue is packed with people come to hear this new young preacher who is said to be quite outstanding. They wait expectantly as he sits down to teach.
They aren’t expecting him to say, ‘this reading is about me’. That’s blasphemy. That’s saying that somehow he believes he is the anointed one, the messiah. No-one could claim such a thing, and as we’ll hear next week, the people were so enraged they threw him out.
As you know, there are those who want to throw the Episcopal Church out of the international Anglican Communion for a similar reason. Not because we think we’re the Messiah, but because sometimes we understand Scripture in a different way. Jesus brought a totally new interpretation of the passage from Isaiah. He didn’t just repeat what the rabbis had said but in a different way; he said something completely new.
The methods we use to interpret Scripture are not entirely new. The historical-critical method of looking at a passage in its own historical and cultural life setting has been around for over a century. For even longer, Christians have interpreted Biblical passages using their imaginations and their intellect. What is new and has only really developed in the last 85 years, is the idea that there is only one correct way to understand a Bible reading.
The people of Israel back in Jerusalem some four or five centuries before Jesus, listening to the Torah, needed an interpretation. We heard ‘they gave the sense so that the people understood the reading’. Perhaps many of them no longer spoke Hebrew and so needed an interpretation into their language, but I’m prepared to bet that it was also an interpretation which made sense of the ancient sacred text in the context of the rebuilding of Israel.
Whenever you hear something or read something you have to interpret it. It does not go straight from the page into your understanding without any interpretation. If it did, we would all agree on everything. There would be very few attorneys because every point of law would be totally clear. There would be few disagreements because we would understand everything in the same way.
Our minds are set up to interpret everything on the basis of past learning. One day I was driving along Los Osos Valley Road, and I came to the top of the hill just past the church here. As I looked down towards Los Osos I saw an orca. An orca? I looked again. I saw a man wearing a tuxedo standing in a very strange position. Finally I got close enough to see a pair of black and white goats. My perceptual system had not been able to interpret the unexpected goats on first glance and had given me its best guess, twice.
Even if we agree that objective Truth exists we are not all going to perceive it in the same way, because we have different perceptual screens. We interpret what we hear, see and read on the basis of past learning. If I ever see an orca on Los Osos Valley Rd I’ll probably think it’s two goats!
So we are going to read the same thing and understand it differently, unless we have already learned what it is supposed to mean. One of the most difficult things in reading the Bible can be letting go of your preconceptions. Even if you didn’t grow up going to church and Sunday School, chances are that you have a sense of what the Bible says, so when you hear Bible readings, you put them in that context. The people of Nazareth had a pretty good idea of what Isaiah said and it certainly wasn’t what Jesus was suggesting.
If we expect the Bible to always say the same thing then we are in danger of slighting the Holy Spirit. It is in the interaction between the Bible and our hearts and minds, mediated by the Holy Spirit, that we meet the divine and hear God’s word to us. It is in this relationship, us, the Word and the Spirit that we receive inspiration.
We serve a living God and so what we hear will change depending on what God wants us to hear. Those of us who get to preach regularly have the privilege of asking what God wants us to emphasize, how God wants us to interpret these readings this Sunday. We hear the Holy Spirit’s reply more clearly some weeks than others! If there wasn’t this vital interaction with the living God, I could just pull out the sermon I preached last time we had the same readings.
But God does have different things to say to us, and our understandings change as we grow and change in our experience of God. There are those who want to see the Episcopal Church disciplined because they say we no longer preach the true gospel of Christ, and that our reading of Scripture is wrong. I am less concerned that we might read it incorrectly than that we might listen with closed ears because we think we’ve heard it all before.
How can God speak to us if we think we already know it all? The folk in the synagogue in Nazareth thought they knew all there was to know about Jesus, Joseph and Mary’s son, so they could not hear the new teachings he brought. If we ask the Holy Spirit to interpret the Scriptures to us, we can trust that such errors as we may make will be corrected.
One of the most important things that a faith community must do is to engage with the Scriptures. Engaging with the Scriptures means bringing our minds, our hearts, our creativity and offering it to the Holy Spirit in this amazing process that can happen when we read the Scriptures and God reveals Godself to us. Every day becomes an epiphany. If we are to grow as a church, this is the most fundamental thing we must do.
I hope that many of you will take advantage of the workshop on February 3rd to experience the psalms in a new way as the basis for your own sacred writing. I hope that others of you will come to Vespers on a Tuesday evening when we get to informally discuss a passage of Scripture and its meaning for us. I also encourage you to come to Bible Study on a Sunday morning where we grapple with the big questions of our faith as we read our way through the Prophets.
The people of Israel had to come together to listen to Ezra reading from the Torah, as did the people of Nazareth have to gather to hear Isaiah. We have the remarkable privilege of having sacred Scripture on our homes. We can read the Bible every day, something that has only been a possibility for a mere 550 years.
However you do it, I urge you to engage with Scripture with open ears and an open heart. Dare to play with it, to consider new possibilities; allow the Holy Spirit to grab your attention and shock you with new insights. Let us allow God’s word to move us to tears, to celebration, to outrage!