The Old Made New

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21)

“Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people … and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God; and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’ . . . And they read from the book . . . and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” If all of this sounds quite familiar to the average Episcopalian, there is good reason.

This Sunday’s lesson from Nehemiah describes the institution of the synagogue liturgy, an act of worship in which God’s Word is honored, proclaimed and interpreted. Elements have been added, changes have been made, but this assembly at the Water Gate stands at the head of a long tradition that we continue every Sunday in celebrating the Liturgy of the Word.

Ezra was not primarily interested in liturgical experimentation, though. He was the spiritual leader of the returned exiles, who stand at a crucial point in Israel’s ongoing relationship with God. They have seen his redemptive power. Now they must recommit themselves to the covenant and the Law of Moses, half forgotten and misunderstood during the captivity. The Law must be treated with respect, as God’s own voice. It must be explained; its old Hebrew locutions translated by the Levites and applied to the situations they now face.

The scene is remarkably similar in our gospel lesson: the company is assembled, the speaker stands before them, the book is opened, perhaps even the same prayers are said. But there is one crucial difference: the Word himself is doing the talking. The words are ancient, but now they take on a fresh meaning. Giovanni Papini explained it this way: “Suddenly, the old text was transfigured, became transparent, belonged to their own time.  .. the words, withered by antiquity, dried up by repetition, took on life and color, a new sun gilded them one by one, syllable by syllable, fresh words coined at that moment, shining before their eyes.”

The text is familiar, Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming deliverer, the one who brings the great and final renewal of the covenant. He would open the eyes of the blind, set the captives free. Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” The text is alive. The promise is right in front of you.

For all his wisdom and fidelity, Ezra can only point people back to the written word. Jesus speaks with a new kind of authority. God knows we need more than words. Jesus’ life puts the message of salvation into action.

Look it Up

How is the scene from Nehemiah like 2 Kings 22-23?

Think About It

What do the two scenes suggest about the different ways in which Christians and Jews encounter God in Scripture?

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