Sermon delivered on Septuagesima, the 24th January 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10     1 Cor 12:12-31a     S. Luke 4: 14-21

Nehemiah 8: 6 Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Although it is not specifically told to us, in the Old Testament lesson this morning from the book of Nehemiah, what occasion it was that brought out all the people to gather, as the account says, “as one man” into the square before the Water Gate, my commentary says that the “first day of the seventh month”, the day of its happening, was a day of solemn rest, like a Sabbath, in the month in which the Day of Atonement should be kept and the Feast of Booths celebrated. However, the Jewish liturgical calendar was in abeyance over the period of the captivity and for a period after that, and in this account there is no mention of the Day of Atonement. We are told that on the second day they started preparations for celebrating the Feast of Booths, so it appears that the whole occasion could have been intended as a re-institution of the Jewish system of observances. It was clearly not a Sabbath weekly observance. Whatever precisely the event was, the people were gathered there in order to study what is called the Book of the Law. As Ezra the priest stood on a high platform and opened the book, all the people stood. Ezra then blessed “the Lord, the great God”, ‘and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.’ Thinking of such a scene today, we might find it very eastern, indeed reminding us of the images of Muslim worship that are conveyed to us by the television and the newspapers. We may reflect therefore that what we see today as a form of Muslim worship, has a root that is older than Islam and its prophet. Christians and the Jewish people before them have worshipped like that for centuries as well, and in some places, some still do. I suppose that some Muslims will disagree that anything about their characteristic form of worship is inherited from others, but on all such matters we ought to uphold the truth.

There is something in the account though which strikes closer to home, at least as I experience it. Perhaps it reminds you of something we do ourselves, when the Book is opened, and the presbyter says some words, the people respond with words of honour to God, and some respond with a bodily action. It should remind us, I think, of the sort of thing we do when the Book of the Gospel is opened to us in the Eucharistic liturgy. As the early Christians described it, the Gospel is the book of the New Law, not the Law of Moses but the Law of Christ. We though do not regularly bow ourselves down with faces to the ground, and it might only be a show even if we did, because that sort of expressiveness is no longer part of our culture, as perhaps it once was for our own far ancestors, and still is for others in the world. We should be reminded, all the same, of something that we have largely lost, a deep full-blooded response to great things, a wholehearted worship that leads us to come out of ourselves and wholly concentrate on that wonderful and great reality which is being opened to us, the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. If the Jews of Nehemiah’s day could respond with such veneration to the presence of the Book of the Law of Moses, and could study it with such passion and steadfastness, what, we must ask, might our appropriate response be when the Word of the Lord is declared and expounded and the Body and the Blood of Christ Himself are presented and ministered to us? We too might prostrate ourselves to the ground, and be inclined to weep and mourn as these Jews did and be utterly humbled in His Presence. Even so, that would not be enough. It is not just what we do when we are together in church that is a sufficient response: we are also called to take that responsiveness to God that is our life’s liturgy out of the gathering of the church and into our families and workplaces. We are called not only to do the work of God when we are together, but we are called to take that worship of God through Jesus Christ, that ascribing of worth to Him in the power of the Holy Spirit into the world of Monday to Saturday as well: to exercise it wherever we are called in our families at home, in our workplaces, schools, and meetings with others of all sorts. These places are where our worship, our response to God, can make an impact upon the lives of people in the world. It is an indelible part of our mission as worshipping Christians. And this is reflected in the account of this remarkable occasion of worship in the book of Nehemiah. In verse 10, the people are instructed to “send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord.” “Sending portions” to those who had nothing ready was a direct response of obedience to what they had heard in the Book of the Law. They too took their worship and rejoicing outside the place of gathering.

Now the Gospel passage today is part of an account of Jesus’ early ministry, in which He visited Nazareth, the place of His own upbringing as S. Luke points out, and exercised His ministry as a teacher in the synagogue there. We read that He was given the book or scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and according to what S. Luke tells us He read from Isaiah chapter 61 verse 1 and the first part of verse 2. But then He goes on to expound the prophetic words as being fulfilled in the assembly’s own hearing, in other words fulfilled in His own presence. Now we are told that Jesus had returned from the desert temptations in the power of the Spirit to Galilee and his ministry there. So when he read from the scroll of Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” we can be sure that in Him the Isaianic prophecy was actualised or fulfilled. Amazingly, if we continue to read the scripture we find that this was a sermon that did not sit with them well at all; in fact it went down like a lead ball. They even drove him out of the synagogue and out of town and tried to throw the Lord Himself down a cliff, after His preaching at Nazareth. But we know that this is the Lord of all Scripture, with the Spirit of the Lord upon and within Him, that they attempted to so abuse. What’s the lesson for us? Perhaps one lesson is that there will be times when what we are supposed to be saying and promoting as worshippers of Christ in the world, as I have just advocated we all should be, will seem to people to be too off the wall and difficult to take in. I would like to suggest that in today’s world of the beginning of the third millennium, those difficult things that we as Christians are called to engage the world with, will be issues of that objective and revealed truth that no longer animates the minds of many western scholars. They will be those issues of truth that have fallen through the cracks of the post-modernist mindset, that is used to assuming that through personality and rhetoric, I create my own truth and you create yours. And so making an impact in the world as true worshippers of God through Jesus Christ is not by any means going to be a picnic. If we meet with rebuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean we got it wrong. It may mean we have to go at the same thing again at different angles, as I think our Lord Himself did in His various parables and different versions of them. But if we abandon the truth for immediate appreciation, for the easy approval, that is when we, as we so customarily do today, get things really wrong.

The Epistle this morning reminds us again, as we were reminded last week, of the diverse gifts and ministries in the Body of Christ, working out God’s purpose in a complementary fashion, and we should take heart from that too. In a church congregation we have a ready-made resource for the presentation of the great riches of God in the face of Jesus Christ from different angles. None of us by himself can think of all the necessary parables, so God has so arranged things that the lives of each of us may be like a separate parable, expounding to our fellow-inhabitants of the world, from a particular angle that differs from any other Christian’s angle, the wonderful and great reality of the New Law of Christ. There is a catch, of course. That is, that for an efficient working out of the loving purpose of God for our fellows outside the Church, we should all, every one, be involved. If any one of us doesn’t set about doing his part in conveying the Gospel to our fellows from the angle or angles that he or she is gifted with, it might take a long time to find someone else that will. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body, says S. Paul. Let us therefore each one take out our worship, our joy and our perception of the objective and revealed truth to the particular portion of the universe that each one of us inhabits, trusting God, and trusting as well in the work of our fellows in the Body of Christ, for ultimate success.