Sunday: 27 January, 2013 –– 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nehemiah 8:2–4a, 5–6, 8–10 / Luke 1:1–4, 4:14–21
The Wonder of the Word of God
What happens when the Word of God is proclaimed? Do you have any expectations? What does it mean to “proclaim the Word of God”?
One basic way is when Scripture is read. That happens in every Mass (and most other Christian worship services). Do you ever think about why this is such an integral part of Christian worship? What should we expect when Scripture is read?
Another way the Word of God is proclaimed is through preaching. Preaching has such an exclusive role in Catholic Faith that only those who are ordained can “preach” in the technical sense of the word. Why is preaching so important that it has this level of protection? What do we expect to happen when a sermon is preached?
Luke tells us about a time that Jesus read Scripture and gave commentary as he began his public ministry. There are two significant things here. The first is the specific Scripture that Jesus read: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings.... The second is the response of the people: the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him –– he had captured their attention.
Well, after all, this was Jesus! We might expect a bit stirring and excitement in this situation, but should we always expect something exceptional when the Word of God is proclaimed? The Old Testament reading suggests that perhaps we should. The Jews were recently returned from their captivity in Babylon. They had been away from corporate worship for a long time. Ezra the priest assembled the people so he could read to them from the Scriptures: he read out of the book from daybreak till midday.... How about that for the proclamation of the Word?! And look at the response: all the people listened attentively.... There is precedent here for reading Scripture from an exalted place: Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that had been made.... he was standing higher up than any of the people... Ezra also added to the reading, interpreting it so that all could understand....
So, I ask again: What do we expect when the Word of God is proclaimed? This is a great question for lectors. I am happy to say that I often hear lectors mention their preparation, going over their readings in advance and making sure they are comfortable with difficult pronunciations. Yes, they want to do a good job, but I also think they understand that they do not want poor reading to get in the way! You see, when the Word of God is proclaimed, it is not so much the person who is doing the speaking –– the lector becomes the medium for the voice of God! Do we pay attention to the closing words, “The Word of the Lord”? It can be easy for our response to be a mechanistic “Thanks be to God.” How often do we truly think: I have just heard the Word of God!
The Lord gave me a vocational calling to proclaim his Word when I was sixteen years old. Since then I have given myself to what Paul, in writing to Timothy, calls rightly handling the word of truth (2Tim 2:15). Maybe you are familiar with the Lord “giving a verse” to people in a special way that goes beyond the general meaning so that it speaks personally in a particular way. I have a number of Scriptures which are “personal” to me, and one of them is what Jesus read from Isaiah on that day in the synagogue: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.... When I proclaim the Word of God I am often very aware that what happens goes totally beyond who I am and what I do. The proclamation of the Word of God can itself bring the anointing of the Spirit. God gives this promise through Isaiah:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (55:10,11)
It is an awesome thing to proclaim the Word of God. It is an awesome thing to hear the Word of God.
Critics might say the effect is simply the charismatic personality of a speaker or the gift of oratory. Those things certainly can produce an effect, but usually immediate and short-lived. The proclamation of the Word of God changes lives. Again, many people have life-changing experiences through events or circumstances which can be explained psychologically. Why do we as Christians believe the incredible story of God becoming Man in Jesus Christ? Why do we hope in the resurrection of the dead? Why do we proclaim such things as the Word of God?
I began preaching a series of what turned out to be 88 sermons through the Gospel of Luke back in 1986. The first one was on the first four verses of chapter one (which is the first part of today’s Gospel reading), and it was a twenty-five-minute sermon. This is one way to say it’s a bit frustrating to try to “interpret” today’s readings (to use Nehemiah’s description of Ezra’s proclamation) in one short homily. Remember that Ezra took most of the day for his reading and comments!
When I first looked at the Gospel for today I wondered why the first four verses of chapter one were juxtaposed with chapter four about the synagogue. Then I saw a great connect: the wonder of the Word of God is based on the reliability of what we believe about Jesus Christ.
Using today’s jargon, Luke was an educated professional. He was a physician. He also came to faith from what was likely a pagan-Rome background, and he traveled with St Paul. Luke’s Gospel is the product of someone who looked at the sources, looked at the evidence, and came to the conclusion that the apostolic message about Jesus Christ is true.
The disciples were eyewitnesses (Lu 1:2) to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is critical to grasp the implications of this. The New Testament is a record written by men who had first-hand accounts of these events that turned the world upside down. First, though, the eyewitnesses ran away. Then they hid in a locked room for fear of the Jews (Jn 20:19); they did not want to be treated as Jesus was. But two things happened: the risen Jesus appears to them (coming through locked doors, and yet eats with them), and the Spirit that Jesus promised comes upon the disciples at Pentecost. The formerly cowardly Peter boldly proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:22–24).
It was these “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13) along with the well-educated Paul who spread over the Roman Empire and preached Jesus. Their preaching was accompanied with spiritual power, and it changed others’ lives even as theirs had been changed. Yet there was a price to be paid; Jesus is Lord was a message too threatening for the status quo (it usually is). Those who confessed and preached Christ were persecuted, often losing their lives. Numbers of people do not give their lives for a known lie. If Jesus had not been the risen Son of God, those disciples would have folded.
This is the wonder of the Word of God. Jesus, the Living Word, died for our sins and came back from the dead never to die again, but to lead us to eternal life (1Cor 15:3,4). The primary way this wonderful message is propagated is by proclaiming the Scriptures, the Written Word.
When we hear Scripture being read, we are hearing the voice of God. When we hear Scripture being preached, we are hearing an extension of the Apostolic Faith that has gone throughout the world changing lives and giving hope. We are part of that right now, because the Word of God is going forth. Are you open to the wonder of the Word of God?