01/23/22 – Reading Readiness

READING READINESS

January 23, 2022
3rd Sunday in Epiphany
Neh. 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps.19; 1 Cor. 12:12-31; Lk. 4:14-21
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

From the time a child is born, parents watch their children’s development and most discover that the developmental milestones they expected didn’t occur when they expected. Though one child may have walked at 9 months another may walk at 18 months. Those that are “late bloomers” tend to create parental anxiety. To give an example, my parents had expectations about my readiness to read. My mother worked outside the home my entire childhood with the exception of one year when I was four years old. My parents had planned for her to start college when I started kindergarten. After two bad experiences with daycare, it was decided that my mother would stay home with me the school year I was four. Her plan was she would teach me to read. However, I was less interested in my reading lessons than I was in playing. But she did continue to read to me and subscribed to the Dr. Suess Book of the Month Club. My excitement was high on the days I received a package with a new book. I would ask my mother to read it to me over and over while I looked at the words and the pictures. Today, this is called a reading readiness curriculum.

On the first day of first grade, I discovered I could read the sight words the teacher had displayed around the room. Sally, Dick and Jane books were a snap and quite boring as they were severely lacking in plot and character development. While the other children in the bluebird group read painfully slowly and in monotone, I was presented as a model reader: Once my teacher had me read aloud and said to the other students: “You should read with expression like Denise.” If I heard a recording of myself reading Sally, Dick and Jane books with “expression,” it would be comical, I’m sure. I was the drama queen of the bluebirds.

What my mother expected to happen when I was four, didn’t happen until I was six. When the time was right, I was ready to use the skills I had been taught and ones that I had picked up with neither my parents nor me realizing. Ezra the priest, was trying to accomplish “reading readiness” when he read the Torah to the Jerusalemites in the passage from Nehemiah today.

After the Persians defeated the Babylonians, King Cyrus not only allowed the Jewish exiles to return, but he also sent supplies to help them rebuild the temple and the city. Nehemiah was the governor that completed the wall around Jerusalem. Ezra was the priest who was entrusted with being their spiritual guide and teacher of the Law. Ezra knew he needed to educate the people, both the ones who had been allowed to remain in a land without a temple in which to worship, and the returning exiles who were forced to adapt to the culture of their captors. Ezra understood he needed to start with the basics to ensure the mistakes of the past were not repeated.  The most fundamental teaching tool was the reading of Scripture. For his people to be made ready to rebuild a society faithful to God, they had to first be grounded in the Torah.

Ezra’s reading of the scriptures had a dramatic effect on the people. The text tells us Ezra read from the Torah at “the square before the Water Gate.” The significance of Watergate was it was a place that all of the people could meet – men, women, and children, the spiritually clean and unclean, the weak and the strong. In this passage, Ezra repeatedly uses the word, “all,” to indicate no one was left out of the assembly. We read that “and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” After years of defeat, hardship, and exile, they were ready to hear God’s Word, to reach for understanding, and to begin to rebuild their lives with its guidance.

In breaks between the readings, thirteen priests circulated among the people to “give instruction in what was read.” In other words, they had scripture reading and a sermon, which was followed by praising and worshiping God. These are the elements of our Sabbath worship also. For Jews today, the celebration of God’s gift of the Torah is observed on the last day of Sukkot, or the Feast of the Booths. Ezra announced he was establishing a hold day, which became known as Simchat Torah. This is the day when the last reading of the Torah for the year is read and a new cycle of readings begins, just as we end our lectionary cycle on Christ the King Sunday and a new cycle of readings begins on the first Sunday of Advent. On Simchat Torah, during the worship service, the scrolls of scripture are taken out of the ark and carried around the synagogue seven times in a joyful procession of the congregation. Children may wave flags. After the service, there is singing and dancing and treats for the children.

The scripture passage from Nehemiah tells us the people “wept when they heard the words of the law.” We aren’t told why they wept, but it appears they were ashamed that they had not followed God’s laws in the past. The scripture reading readied them to repent and rebuild their lives in accordance with God’s laws.

In the Torah reading the people heard the stories of their ancestral faith – Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus from Egypt, Moses and the Ten Commandments. These stories served to bind the people together in their common faith and their hope for the future. These people that God had joined together as a community was renewed in their faith by coming together to worship God, remembering their traditions, and hearing God’s Word in Scripture. These practices reminded them they had a place in the story God was still writing. So too, does our reading and study of scripture. Even though it may seem to us that we are going through dark times now, we have a role in the story God continues to write, as Paul affirms in his letter to the Corinthian Church.

Ezra, the priest, and prophet, gave his charge and benediction: “Do not grieve or mourn.  ‘This is a new day. It is a day of remembering who we are and who God is.  Go home and prepare a feast — share it with those who don’t have enough. Be glad because “this day is holy to God, and the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  In short, they were instructed to love God and neighbors, especially the ones who had less. Their exile from their land and their estrangement from their family of faith were over. Their sacred memories were reignited. Now they were re-energized to take on the difficult task of rebuilding their city and their lives. Now they were ready to take on the challenging and transformative lifework of being a faithful people.

After hearing scripture and its interpretation, they ate a meal and drank wine, which was shared by all, and then they were sent out to share with those who lacked food so that all could rejoice. Does this event sound familiar? Our traditional worship follows an ancient model we received from our Jewish roots.

We will now time travel four hundred years to the day Luke describes Jesus’ first scripture reading and sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  Like Ezra, Jesus began his part in the service by reading scripture from the scroll of Isaiah. While Ezra read “from early morning to midday,” Jesus only read one scriptural passage:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let
the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
 (Luke 4: 18-19)

 

This is Jesus’ ministry in a nutshell. Jesus’ mission is to give people what was missing in the lives that prevented them from living in the fulness of life. Sometimes he did it with miraculous healing, like giving sight to the blind Bartimaeus, and at other times it was challenging those that were spiritually blind, like the religious leaders who rejected his teaching. Sometimes Jesus fed the hungry literally, like when he fed a crowd of 5,000 or his disciples on the lakeshore after his resurrection. Other times he fed the people with the vision of the kingdom of God. He freed people from the oppression of marginalization by bringing them into the community. In the final event of his mission in the world, he freed humanity from the shackles of sin.

Notice the passage begins with “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus’ inaugural appearance comes on the heels of Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism and his 40 days in the wilderness in which he was tempted by Satan with power and wealth. After each of three temptations to be given wealth, power, and glory, Jesus said “no” and backed it up with a passage from scripture. Jesus was ready to fulfill his mission and he had the power of the Holy Spirit to enable him to do the work.

Paul addresses the gifts of the Holy Spirit in his letter to the congregation in Corinth. The congregation was divided over many issues, but they appeared to be particularly concerned with judging the spiritual gifts of one another. A hierarchy of gifts had formed. Some members claimed particular importance because of their “superior” gifts and marginalized others whose gifts they deemed inferior. At the time when the early church was forming new communities of faith, divisions threatened their unity of purpose. Paul celebrated the diversity of spiritual gifts and the members’ interdependence on all gifts of the Spirit for the building up of the body of Christ. As Jesus was enabled by the Holy Spirit to accomplish his mission, Paul reminded the congregation that the individual gifts they had all came from the same source, the Holy Spirit of God. It was the Holy Spirit that empowered them to use their gifts for their common purpose of following the ways of Christ.

Our spiritual gifts may change over time. At different stages of life, we may be able to offer different gifts. But God provides opportunities for us to work for the Kingdom until we utter our last breath. The Holy Spirit spurs us to action – it may be giving of our material resources. Our per capita giving is an example of sharing our financial resources to fund the work of the body of Christ in our own churches and the larger body of churches in the Presbyterian Church USA and supports our witness to Christ’s mission in places far from us. Our gifts may be giving our time for the benefit of the church and our neighbors; they may be sharing a particular talent; or, the gift we have to give may be praying for others. But it is the Holy Spirit that takes our gifts and multiplies their benefits.

Since ancient days, God’s Word and our communal worship have readied God’s beloved children to use the gifts they have been given to be of service to one another. God’s Holy Spirit nudges us to pay attention and empowers us to take action.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501