“The ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Law…”
Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Epiphany. That’s the season we’re in right now, in the Church. Epiphany — a word that means revelation, manifestation, a shining forth. To me it often has a sense of suddenness about it, as if a light was turned on in a dark room. The way we use the word Epiphanyin our everyday speech is somewhat like that: we talk about having an epiphany, a moment where something is revealed, in a flash, in an instant, in an almost visionary experience. We realize something all at once.
Some of the stories that we have gathered around in Church over the past few weeks lend themselves to this understanding. The Magi saw a new star shining, and went to find the Christ child. Jesus, at his baptism, saw the heavens opened and heard the voice of the Father say, “You are my beloved Son.” Mary and the 12 apostles, at the wedding in Cana, saw Jesus change ordinary water into marvellous wine. These were epiphanies, when God showed his glory visibly.
The readings we are considering today from Nehemiah and Luke, however, feel quite different. Superficially, there are no miracles spoken of. Instead, things that seem quite ordinary happen. In Nehemiah, the law of God is read in the midst of the gathered people of Judah, and it is carefully repeated and interpreted to all those who can hear. In Luke, Jesus gets up from his seat in the synagogue, takes up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and reads.
These are activities we do each week in this Church and have just done today. We gather around the reading of the Holy Scriptures and hear them interpreted. How normal, ordinary, quotidian, or even, for some of us, how boring.
Another reading, we might think. Another sermon, Another Sunday like very other Sunday, only this time we’re listening to readings about reading, and a sermon about listening to sermons. Can it get any worse?
I exaggerate. But we do sense an apparent contrast between these two things – between intense, undeniable religious experiences, revelations or epiphanies, on the one hand, and then the day to day grind of daily life, with what prayer, reading, or church going we manage to fit in. And we often desire the former, while sighing about the latter.
But are these two things so different? Do we experience no epiphanies in everyday experience? And is reading, study, and interpretation, or disciplined daily prayer so valueless?
We have reason to suspect the difference is overwrought.
Within Judaism and Christianity, as well as many other religious traditions, regular spiritual practices – returned to each day, week, and season – take pride of place, and trouble begins when we spiral away from these regular practices.
Taking reading and interpretation, for instance. From the time that Moses received the law of God on Mt Sinai in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the people were enjoined constantly to meditate on it. Reciting, reading, and discussing God’s commands was framed as a daily practice. We might remember the words of Deuteronomy 11. God says,
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them…
Throughout the recorded history of Israel, however, God’s people did not manage to maintain such constant, sustained focus on the law or on the stories of salvation. They fell away from them. It is no accident, then, that many of the moments of spiritual renewal in biblical history involve returns to the sacred text and to traditions of daily prayer and sacrifice, along with weekly and seasonal rituals.
During the reign of King Josiah, those physically restoring the dilapidated temple in Jerusalem rediscovered the written law of God, and it was through reading the law once more, understanding it and following it, and reinstituting their traditions that they found personal and communal renewal.
In our reading from Nehemiah today there is a similar scene. There are a number of parallels or echoes. The story takes place after the Jews had been led off into exile. Some of them had returned and rebuilt a portion of the city of Jerusalem. They began to reconstitute their community, including its patterns of worship and prayer. And the first thing they did to begin this process, was to read once again the law given by God, the holy text.
This repeated pattern in biblical history presents to us a paradigm for renewing our own lives. Return once more to the ancient ways, they say, and to the paths of wisdom and knowledge where God can be found. There has never been a revival of spiritual life in the Church apart from a dedicated return to the Word of God.
Now I can imagine some objections, particularly around the Bible itself. I mean this text is so old and confusing, and it says things we don’t like, and some of it feels kind of offensive, and haven’t we moved past that, and aren’t there better ways to spend our time? Those are important objections, and one kind of sermon might address them one-by-one, but let me try to something a little different.
I want to acknowledge that there are a number of people in this church who are just beginning to explore the faith and have many questions; there are others who have serious concerns with the Bible, even though they’ve gone to church their whole life; and then there are many others who are devotees of Holy Scripture. The next part of the sermon begins with a few suggestions for “the skeptics” and seekers, but I will try to ascend to something more theological by the end. Bible devotees, just bear with me a minute.
First, let me suggest something simple. Human beings tend to find discussing a text or a piece of art, like a painting or a film, engaging and meaningful. It’s nice to go a museum; it’s nicer to go with friends, so you can talk about your experience together afterwards in the cafe.
Various humanist groups recognize this. I was listening recently to the Theos podcast which mentioned a similar phenomenon: young people, not churchgoers, who gathered to discuss a text important to them each week: Harry Potter. They found it meaningful to discuss its symbols and the morals one can draw from it.
So whatever your objections about the Bible might be, let me suggest that, as a human being, you can assume that reading it, especially with others, will prove to be an enriching experience. Grappling with it, contending with it, will build you up.
Second, this text, the Bible, lies at the heart of our culture and many others. So to know its contents, even superficially, will open up whole worlds of experience to you that you would otherwise have never known; why leave those treasures just lying around? Knowing the Bible can transform your approach to people, to art, to literature, to the nature of government and law, to how we ought to live our lives together as a community.
So even on a merely cultural level, I’ll put it this way: your life would be better if you followed the pattern presented in our readings. Read this text with others.
But there is a third truth, in my mind the most important one, one that founds the previous two: the Church confesses that God and the kingdom of heaven are revealed in Scripture, primarily as they were and are embodied in Jesus Christ. Here is where God chooses, most often and normally, to reveal himself. Here is a place for daily epiphanies, daily encounters with God, not so startling and obvious as a star shining in the sky, or a voice from heaven, or water changed into wine, but no less magnificent for that.
To borrow the words of Psalm 19: The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament declares his handiwork. One day pours out its song to another, and one night unfolds knowledge to another.” God is revealed, manifested, gives epiphanies, in the heavens above and the earth beneath.
Yet the Lord also shows himself in sacred Scripture. Psalm 19 again:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart, the commandment of the Lord is pure and gives light to the eyes.
Just as the sun, moon, and stars traverse the heavens, giving light and showing forth God’s power, eternity, and good will towards us, so also Holy Scripture sheds light each day – not in the awesome, whirling dance of the spheres, but in the gentle turning of the sacred page.
Yes, this is a sermon about reading your Bible. Consider making a fresh start on such a task. Lent is coming, and we will have some groups meeting each week to discuss Scripture together, and that might be an opportunity for you to go deeper. Or consider coming here to St Bene’t’s, not just on Sundays (which is good; don’t stop doing that), but also come another day of the week, for the Mass at 8am or for Evening Prayer at 6pm, where we gather around Scripture read sequentially book-by-book. There are some of us here everyday. Or find another way to “take up the scroll” and read; there are many “schemes” or Bible reading plans out there. If you struggle with this, come talk to me about it, and I’d be glad to help you find something.