THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Nehemiah 8:2-6, 10
Psalms 19:8-10, 15
1 Corinthians 12:12-30
Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21
While no one is interested in a strict history lesson in the context of the Eucharist, there are moments when a grasp of history helps us to understand what is being proclaimed from the ambo in Church. This is especially true with regards to the readings from the Old Testament whose strangeness might cause us to refuse to make the effort to understand the importance of what is being proclaimed. Our first reading, from the seldom referenced Book of Nehemiah, could provoke some reasonable head scratching about its importance. When put into its historical context, however, we realize that the passage is describing the very birth of preaching when “Ezra the priest,” some five hundred years before Christ, preaches the very first homily at an assembly of God’s chosen people.
After defeating Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia decreed that the exiled Jews, who had spent seven decades of exile in Babylon, could return home to Jerusalem. The Jews who returned rebuilt their ruined Temple (Ezra 6:15-17), and finished rebuilding the city walls. The Lord is viewed as giving an important mission to both the priest and the governor of the land, Ezra and Nehemiah, and they were to teach the Hebrew Scriptures and inspire the people to the high ideals of their ancestral religion. In today’s first reading, Ezra is leading the people in a “Covenant renewal” ceremony. In this ceremony Ezra reads and interprets the Law for the Jews gathered before the Water Gate, from “daybreak till midday” (and people complain about eight-minute homilies!). The Jewish Scriptures, the Torah, thus, becomes a living Word of power, grace and forgiveness for these former exiles, and it evokes from them a dramatic response: “they bowed down and prostrated themselves before the Lord, their faces to the ground.” The people came to realize, through the preaching of Ezra, the many ways in which they have failed to keep God’s Commandments, and although they were moved to tears, they were encouraged not to be sad and to go and celebrate.
We should be able to recognize in our first reading from Nehemiah the customary format of every worship service. Like the Israelites in Nehemiah, our faith is nourished by the living Word of God present in the Scriptures that are proclaimed every time we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. Our understanding of inspiration should cause us to recognize the very voice of God in the ordinary proclamations of Scripture which punctuate our sacraments and prayer services. The regular and ordinary synagogue service described by Luke in the second half of today’s gospel reading recounts for us a moment when the Scriptures are proclaimed and reflected on by the very God who inspires all Scripture. For Luke, the synagogue story can be viewed as the start of Jesus’ public ministry, and for the first time in Luke’s gospel Jesus is seen teaching His fellow Jews with the simple words that followed His proclamation from the prophet Isaiah: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” For roughly three years, Jesus would teach His fellow Israelites with words that should have caused them to see in Him the long awaited Messiah. Further, He would demonstrate with miraculous actions that He was not just teaching them about God, but that He was, in fact, the very Son of God.
All of those who call themselves Christian do not become professional preachers like Ezra, Jesus, or the ordained preachers who staff our churches. As Paul tells us in today’s second reading, there are various gifts that are given to the members of Christ’s body, and not all are called to be professional preachers. But all Christians are called to open wide our hearts and minds that the voice of God might dwell there and cause us to live our lives in such a way that the good news is proclaimed in our deeds.
To this very day, the Holy Spirit is available to all believers who sincerely ask Him to dwell in their hearts. If we fail to receive, and then to use, His power and His gifts, we are left with nothing but our natural abilities, and we will be unable to be used as instruments in God’s work. Miracles occur every day through weak human instruments, although they may be less spectacular than the ones Jesus performed. People whose minds are ravaged by fear and hatred can be miraculously filled with peace and kindness. Those whose hearts are crippled with bitterness and anger can be made gentle and peaceful. Perhaps others, whose relationships with their spouses are strained, can be miraculously healed by love and faithfulness. These are true miracles, performed by the power of God, through the Holy Spirit, often making use of human instruments. Let us be ready to become the Spirit-filled instruments of Christ’s salvific plan, and let us proclaim the Scriptures that we have come to love, if not with our lips, then with our lives lived in union with Christ.
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