23rd January 2022
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
All the people of Israel 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 worshiped 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.”
1 The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2 One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4 Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5 In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
6 It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8 The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11 By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a 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.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
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 baptised 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 would 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 would 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.
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.”
Nehemiah, an important official (Cup Bearer to king Artaxerxes I of Persia) had been tasked with re-establishing the city of Jerusalem. He did this physically: rebuilding its walls and thereby asserting its role as a city on the same level as cities of other peoples in the region, such as the Samaritans and the Ammonites. And socially: rebuilding the people there as one community shaped by and bound together by the mosaic law. These residents of Jerusalem were a mixed bunch. There were those who were decedents of those who had not been exiled to Babylon but had remained in Judea. There were those who had over recent years returned from Babylon. And there were others who lived there but had no connection to the God of Moses. There had been tension between the groups and examples of some bullying and prejudice. And there had been examples of people marrying outside the faith and loosing their allegiance to God.
In today’s passage, the priest Ezra is reading the Law of Moses to the assembled people. It is as if they are hearing it for the first time. They weep as if suddenly aware of their failings, their sinfulness, and are now penitent. They understand now that there is one law that defines the one way in which they are to live if they are to be one people. They leave blessed and restored, united as the people of God.
We in the United Kingdom are a divided, mix bunch of people. We know that great inequality exists between the different regions of the country, between different ethnic groups, between rural and urban communities, and between those whose incomes and wealth are growing and those who incomes and wealth are dwindling. We know that divisions exist between those who can afford food, heating, cars, private health care, and those who cannot. We sense that these divisions diminish life for all of us, that they are unsustainable, and will ultimately be destructive of the lives we lead.
In 2020 as the first wave of covid struck, we suddenly realised how important were the people who stacked the supermarket shelves, who drove trains and buses, who emptied the bins and cleaned the streets. We realised how much we relied on child care and teachers, and how very important were the medics in our hospitals and the research scientists in the labs. We clapped and praised them.
We realised how very important our local communities were, how we could help one another, how good it was to know the people in our streets. We discovered what we could achieve when we all became good neighbours. We realised how important it was to have access to green spaces, to have places where we could walk, or run or cycle or just sit. And we rediscovered the pleasure of breathing fresh air, of hearing birds singing, and seeing the landscape clearly without the fog of pollution.
That was two years ago. Do we still remember how it felt? Do we still think that those people, those relationships, those places are important? Or has it all been caught up and lost in the mists of time as more pressing matters have come along?
What might we learn from today’s reading that could be useful? The passage from Nehemiah tells us of the importance of rules held in common, of a shared sense of what is right and wrong, a shared sense that there is such a thing as the common good. In a multi cultural, multi faith society it might be hard to find a set of commonly held religious rules, yet can we not all find agreement in the idea of loving our neighbour as ourself, in the importance of justice and fairness and equality? Can we not do all we can to encourage community groups, community focused neighbourhoods, community gardens, community centres and community shops? Can we not all agree that we should level things up so that everyone is on a level playing field and that everyone has equal opportunities? And can we not agree that laws and economic policies and taxation should be designed for the wellbeing of all and not just a few, and that in working for wellbeing this should include the environment?
The exert from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians gives us an apt image for respecting each other as equals. The CEO cannot say to the shelf stacker, I don’t need you, and the banker cannot say to lorry driver, I don’t need you. If we were all pension fund managers, who would clean the streets? If we were all politicians, who would nurse the sick? In all our difference we are equally important, and need to be valued and respected as such. In a world which often equates value with pay, we need to bring a much greater equality in pay – ie to reduce the Gini coefficient. And overhaul our tax system so that it is both fair and so that it rebalances wealth.
The reading from Luke’s gospel gives us the words of Isaiah as Jesus’s manifesto. Empowered by the Spirit, he declares his ambitions for:-
bringing good news to the poor – good news that must surely include relief from food poverty and fuel poverty;
release for the captives which must surely include release from impossible debts both here and across the world, both for households and for essential organisations such as the NHS and the educational system, for the BBC and the Environment Agency;
sight for the blind which must include vision and clarity for administrators and politicians, business leaders and investors;
freedom for the oppressed which must include freedom from individual and institutional racial prejudice, religious prejudice, sexual and gender-based, and prejudice against those with physical and mental disabilities;
a year of the Lord’s favour which must surely include enshrining kingdom values at the heart of society.
Today’s readings can inspire our vision for a far better world, and being inspired, we should remember that we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit in various forms so that we can achieve this vision.