Reflections on Scripture and community based on the Lectionary readings for last Sunday, the Third Sunday after Epiphany.
The season of Epiphany celebrates two major manifestations of the divinity of Jesus: the visit of the magi when he was young and his baptism by John the Baptist. This Sunday, we are reminded of another manifestation of the Lord: those found in the words of the Scriptures. We learn three different uses for the Scriptures in the Church: to find the revelation of God in its pages, as a basis for true community, and the means by which we learn the mission of God in the world.
David, in his Psalms, often celebrates how present God is with him in his specific circumstances. In Psalm 19, though, he celebrates the general presence of God and how easily seen he is in every aspect of his creator. In fact, God is actively making himself known in both Creation and in the Scriptures. David anthropomorphizes creation, saying that creation “declares”, “proclaims”, “pours out speech”, and more.
If Creation makes God known to the world, the Scriptures make God known to the individual. The Scriptures do a lot in this Psalm: they comfort, they guide, they make wise the simple, and make our thoughts and actions acceptable to the Lord. This gives them extreme worth: if we want to know how to grow in Christlikeness, and know what Christlikeness looks like, we need to read the Scriptures. In doing so, we will have a greater sense of who God is, which will force us to grow into his image.
If David teaches us how to know God and be like him, Nehemiah teaches us how to use the Scriptures as the basis of God’s community. After some of Israel had returned to their land under the guidance of Cyrus, there wasn’t much of a nation to come back to. Nehemiah led the people in rebuilding their city walls so that they could worship Yahweh in peace. Once the walls were erected, he had Ezra the scribe read from the entirety of the Torah over the people. Israel’s disobedience to Torah led to their exile; to prevent a second, and to enact the revival Moses sang about in Deuteronomy 32-34, they would have to come together and learn how to obey Torah.
In Numbers, the first census of Israel featured only the men. The second census, after the death of the wilderness generation, featured both men and women. In the same way, the levitical genealogies of the beginning of the book are supplmented by the inclusion of women and children when Ezra teaches Torah. The leaders of this rebuilt Israel knew the benefits of teaching Torah to people of all ages and genders. If Israel was going to be rebuilt, and last in obedience to Yahweh, it would take the whole community coming together to understand Torah.
This would take a careful teacher. They would have to read Torah clearly, while also rounding out Israel’s understanding of Torah, that people would understand what is being read. Imagine trying to teach both grown men, young women, and small children Leviticus at the same time. There’s so many perspectives, and cognitive abilities there, that most teachers would struggle, and probably fail, to teach them all at the same time. This should challenge us to live in the texts, let them dominate our thoughts, so that we could be able to teach them to anybody who asks at any given time.
Notice who comes to this: people of all ages and genders. If Israel was going to be rebuilt properly, it would take the whole community, together understanding the Word of God in order to succeed. In order to reach people of all ages and genders, it took a careful teacher; this teacher would have to teach carefully and plainly so that everybody in attendance could gain a sense of what God was saying. But when Ezra taught the Word plainly, and people understood, it became a basis for their joy, not sorrows. While the Scriptures do call us to repent and show us our sin, they are designed to testify to Jesus, in whose hands is joy forevermore in the forgiveness of our sins.
A community built on the Scriptures would be a community built on joy. When you understand the clear teaching of Scripture, which at times calls us to repent and shows us our sin, we can be caught in a mire of guilt or condemnation. But a teacher who plainly teaches the Scripture is someone who heralds joy because they are heralds of the Gospel. When the Gospel is preached and the Word is read, the community grows in their joy. This joy will spur obedience to the Lord, the strongest basis for community there ever is.
The Scriptures also bring together a community of unity and honor. Notice how Ezra’s reading included women and children. Generally, in ancient societies, they were treated far less well than men were treated. But Paul gives a different vision for the church: children and women who place their faith in Jesus as just as much part of the Body of Christ as men who have faith in Jesus are. In fact, they become indispensable in the Body. And those who are without honor, less desirable in community? Well, the Body who is shaped by the Scriptures afford them extra honor. The Scriptures not only form our communities, but they constantly inform us how we should treat those in our communities.
David has shown us how the Scriptures help us grow by revealing God; Nehemiah has shown how careful teachers use the Scriptures to build up a community; now Jesus will show us how the Scriptures will give shape to the mission God has called us to. Early in his ministry, Jesus comes to the synagogue, and has the chance to read from the Isaiah scroll to the congregation. This congregation, at the end of Daniel’s 70 weeks of years, is anxiously anticipating the coming Messiah. Jesus comes up and reads a section that plays on these expectations by applying them to himself. In reading this text, he claims the mission of the Servant, the Lord’s anointed. This mission is simple: bring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and freedom for the captive. This radically redefines Israel’s conception of herself, which causes the crowd to rise against him.
Today’s churches can sometimes fall into a funk and forget their purpose statement. Sure, most have purpose statements on their websites, maybe even their fliers. But that doesn’t mean that we always live them out. When Jesus reads from Isaiah, he calls on the hearers to join him in his mission to the poor and the outcast. In fact, the entire Gospel of Luke shows how God is making himself known among the downcast (Psalm 34:18), asking Israel to join in the mission. As the Church publicly and orally reads the Scriptures in their worship gatherings, the Scriptures constantly call the church to action and to reconsider how faithful they are being to what God has called them to.
In all of this, we remember Jesus made manifest to the entire world. Though is absent in body from us now, the Spirit testifies to him, and the Scriptures are one means by which he does that. This calls us to one simple task: read the Scriptures! Through them, we know God and grow in Christlikeness; through them, we have the basis of community; through them, we learn how to live in community; and through them, we are constantly called and re-called into the mission of God.