Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord.
Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.
all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
Nehemiah 8:1–6, 9–10
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 One day pours out its song to another
and one night unfolds knowledge to another.
3 They have neither speech nor language
and their voices are not heard,
4 Yet their sound has gone out into all lands
and their words to the ends of the world.
5 In them has he set a tabernacle for the sun,
that comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber and rejoices as a champion to run his course.
6 It goes forth from the end of the heavens and runs to the very end again,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple.
8 The statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure and gives light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever;
the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold,
sweeter also than honey, dripping from the honeycomb.
11 By them also is your servant taught
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can tell how often they offend?
O cleanse me from my secret faults!
13 Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins lest they get dominion over me;
so shall I be undefiled, and innocent of great offence.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
I Corinthians 12:12–31a
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Sermon on Epiphany 3
Imagine the scene, everyone in Slimbridge is down by the roundabout. They are agitated and there is murmuring – they want the clerk in orders to read out the Ten Commandments, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the historic Creeds.
Well, if you can’t imagine that, let’s think about our reading from the prophet this morning.
all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, …
We don’t have gates into the village, but the roundabout is the main entrance, isn’t it? Everyone, it seems, comes in to, and goes out of Slimbridge on St John’s Road and at the roundabout go straight on to Dursley, left to Gloucester and right to Bristol. In Jerusalem, the Water Gate is one of many gates into the city, gates which go to particular places. Everyone in Jerusalem knows this particular gateway to the city, as they must have used it to get water.
Do either of these scenes seem to be a real story to you? Do you really think anyone would clamour to listen to a recital of the Law? Or would you want to listen to that newly discovered book of the Law here and now? Would your friends and neighbours wish to listen to the historic formularies of the Anglican Church?
Or if you were transported back to Jerusalem two and a half thousand years, would you want Ezra to bring out the book of the Law and read it to you? – How many of us really want to be reminded about how badly we behave by such a recital?
This public reading is nothing we have experienced, is it? No longer does the town cryer walk the streets ringing his bell, and announce the news at major points in the town. Happenings of importance are disseminated by facebook or twitter nowadays, even the news programmes of radio and television have been forsaken for an app on the mobile.
So what do we consider of such great moment that we would gather together in a public place to hear what is really happening? I don’t know. Life has become so isolated, for we don’t even talk over the garden fence any more, do we? – When was the last time you just nattered with your neighbour for no particular reason?
Not just a “nice weather we are having” – not a five minute chat about whether the clouds mean rain or fog or whether the sky will clear and it will turn out to be wonderful weather. That’s the way socialising tends to be seen, isn’t it? So much so that the television channel Dave has a catchy quote, “One freezing day gives two weeks of conversation in the UK.”
I would say that there is a thirst for something more than superficial chats in Jerusalem so long ago and everywhere today. We should be able to see this all around us. Even those mundane words about the weather can reveal a yearning for something greater than whether we should expect rain or shine.
But what do we do day by day? We fall into the habit of only talking about the weather – and nothing else. We have forgotten that everyone we meet has the same yearning which each one of us has. You have that longing – so do I. So why do we only speak about the weather when we are really interested in something else? Partly it is easier to have a passing comment about the weather than settle into a more drawn out conversation about how we are coping with life. How many of us want to listen to a detailed recalling of another person’s day or all their troubles? Don’t we say, that their stories have nothing to do with me?
Is that loving our neighbour as ourselves? – But that is a question for another time.
Let’s look at the public reading at the Water Gate in another way. Last week we heard about the gifts of the Spirit – this week Paul writes to us about the singleness of life in diversity. The gifts are all derived from the Spirit – one Spirit, the same one, expresses itself in each individual differently. The metaphor Paul uses this week is the body. Hands, eyes, legs – these all compose the body, they are different to one another, but they become a unity when one considers the interaction of one part to the other.
The reading gathers together the diverse members of the population, just as the body is composed of many parts. All of us have gathered together in this place to unite ourselves through listening to the old, old story being recounted here in prayer and reflection, and in the liturgy’s language. Like the people of Jerusalem we here have gathered to hear the recital of something which has nothing to do with the weather, but everything do to with the good life.
Just like the people of Jerusalem, we too want to hear that recital of something greater than how cold the day is turning out to be. We want to know the direction of life in our ultimate concern. Isn’t that why the people wept when they finally heard the words Ezra read and interpreted for them at the Water Gate? The great weight of moral responsibility finally landed on them. Hadn’t the direction of their ordinary lives become clear to them?
Why did they weep? Perhaps the people realised just what the everyday concerns had done. When they finally heard the Law being read to them, when it was discussed thoroughly amongst “all who could hear with understanding”, how could anyone be content with the life they had been leading?
all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then [Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites] said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’
Instead of bullying the people about their bad behaviour, what does the leadership of Israel say, “Eat and drink with joy, and now share your feast with others who have nothing.”
The Prophets, the Scribes and the Levites all concur in this message of the Law, don’t they? Because there is such agreement amongst all the leaders of Israel, is it any wonder that the people weep?
Will that crowd all disperse with joy after their great meeting at the Water Gate? They were all “who could hear with understanding” – just like us. So will we “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” today after we have met at this Water Gate, where we have partaken of the water which will never leave us thirsty ever again?