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Going By The Book

Text: Luke 4:16-30
What's the most important book in your house: the Bible or the TV Guide? One of them is probably well worn and used a lot. Not the Bible, the TV Guide. One of them is used each day to help the people in your house make important decisions. No, not the Bible, the TV Guide. And one of them contains a listing of the stories that are near and dear to our hearts, the stories that are a big part of who we are. Again, not the Bible, the TV Guide.
The unfortunate reality is that many Christians today are much more familiar with what's in the TV Guide than they are with what's in the Bible. And that's a real problem. Because as we come together to be the church, it's the Bible that's supposed to tell us what it means to be the church. And if we don't know what the Bible has to say, we're left without any real direction as to what we're supposed to be all about.
The first Bible reading today, the one from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, told about the time when the Hebrew people were finally allowed to return to their homeland. You see, around 587 BC the Babylonians invaded Israel and had carried off most of the Hebrews to Babylon as prisoners. But then, about 50 years later, the king of Babylon decided to let the Hebrews go back to their own land. And in the book of Nehemiah we're told that one of the very first things that the people did when they returned was that they all gathered together, from the youngest of them to the oldest, and they stood from early in the morning until the middle of the day, and listened as the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—were read and explained to them. And the people did that, because they realized that the Bible reminded them of who they were and what they were supposed to do. And that without the Bible, they knew they wouldn't have any direction for their lives.
That should make us wonder if we take the Bible as seriously as the people did back in Nehemiah's day. Or do we take our Scriptures as seriously as the people of other religions take theirs? For instance, students in Cairo, Egypt, are expected to memorize the entire Quran, which is Islam's equivalent to the Bible. And the Quran is about equal in length to our New Testament. But those students are expected to do that, to memorize the Quran, because the Muslims believe that it's important, that the Quran sets forth what it means to be a Muslim.
But I wonder how many Christians have never even bothered to read the entire New Testament. And why is that? Because if we're serious about wanting to be Christians, then the stories and the teachings of the New Testament are what we need to be familiar with. Otherwise, we're just left to come up with our own ideas about what it means to be a Christian.
Jesus realized how important the Bible is. In our reading today from the Gospel of Luke, we're told about the time when Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth and was invited to preach at the synagogue where he had grown up. And during the service, he turned to a passage in the prophet Isaiah and read: "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 favor." And then Jesus finished by saying: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
When Jesus was done reading from the Bible, all of the people there smiled and said: "Good old Jesus. What a nice young man he's become." But then they turned to him and said: "Now that you've gotten the Bible reading out of the way, do some miracles for us. That's what we all came for. We've heard about all the things that you've done in other places. Now do some amazing things for us to see."
The problem was that in Jesus' opinion, he already had done something amazing for them. He had read to them from the Bible. He told them about what God was at work to do: to help the poor, to free the oppressed. But it just seemed that the people weren't interested in listening to the Bible or to a sermon. No, they wanted to be entertained, to see Jesus do something spectacular—maybe to see him walk on some water.
The problem was that the people thought of the Bible as just a bunch of words. But Jesus was trying to get them to see that those words were telling them what God is up to in the world. For instance, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, many people probably looked at that as just a bunch of words. After all, what the Emancipation Proclamation said was that the slaves in the Southern states were to be set free. But of course, the Southern states didn't honor that Proclamation. So at the time, the Emancipation Proclamation did appear to be just a bunch of meaningless words. But what the Emancipation Proclamation did was lay out the way that things were going to be in time. And then in the following years, Abraham Lincoln proceeded to put those words into action, so that finally the day came when the slaves were indeed set free.
And that's what Jesus did when he read from Isaiah. When Jesus said that he had come to bring good news to the poor and to bring freedom to the oppressed, he knew full well that there were still poor people around and that there were still people who were oppressed. But he also knew that God was at work in the world to do something about those problems. And what he was trying to get the people to realize was that if we are God's people, then God's mission is our mission. Because the Bible shows us that our God is a God who cares for the hungry, the sick, the lonely. And so when we feed the hungry, or when we pray with the sick, or when we spend time with the lonely, we're taking part in God's mission.
It will be interesting to see what impact a proposed state law might have on churches. You see, in recent years there has been considerable debate over whether local governments should be allowed to collect property taxes from charitable organizations like churches and hospitals. And so under a proposed law, in order to be considered a tax-exempt organization, groups will have to prove that through their work, they benefit a substantial and indefinite class of people who are the legitimate subjects of charity. In other words, if all a church does is come together for worship and take care of its own members, then according to the law, it's going to lose its tax-exempt status. Rather, in order to be considered a tax-exempt organization, churches will have to show that one of their primary purposes is reaching out to people beyond their walls and providing some significant assistance to people in need. Actually that proposed law might just be the kind of wake-up call that some churches need. After all, that law is simply asking churches to live up to the standard of what God expects from them in the first place—to take part in God's mission in the world, to bring good news to the poor, to bring freedom to the oppressed.
But it's important to note that the purpose of the church isn't just for us to do things for other people. Instead, our purpose is to help other people see what God is doing in the world and to invite them to take part in that mission. Because taking part in that mission isn't just something for us to do. No, taking part in God's mission is something that God wants all people to do. But the fact is that many people just don't know where to start. They don't know what direction to go. And so the purpose of the church is to show them the way.
William Booth, who later founded the Salvation Army, originally was a member of the Church of England. But he said the problem was that it was as though the church of his day was out in the street beating the drum for people to come and be a part of the church. But when people came out of their houses, the person beating the drum didn't have anywhere to take them. And so that's why William Booth founded the Salvation Army. He figured that the job of the church is not just to get members, but to lead them somewhere. To lead them to do God's work in the world.
I recently heard about a retiree who went to his minister and asked if there was some way that he could help his church now that he had some more free time. The minister thought for a moment and then told the man that they needed someone to come into church each Thursday and fold the Sunday bulletins for them. So the retired man told the minister that he would think about it. A few weeks later, the minister ran into that retiree and said, "I never heard back from you about whether you wanted to fold the church bulletins." But the retired man said: "I'm sorry about that. But I've just been so busy. You see, there's a charitable foundation in town and when they found out that I was available, they asked me to help write some grant proposals for them. And if everything turns out, I'll be helping them get an additional $5 million for their programs. So I'm sorry I couldn't help you with the bulletins."
There's nothing wrong with folding bulletins. But I wonder if often in the church we sell people short. We just think too small. God is at work in the world right now. God is at work to bring good news to the poor and to free the oppressed and to do so much more. But for some reason we hesitate to invite people to jump in and take part in that mission.
As we gather as a church, we basically have two choices. We have the choice to just do what we feel like doing. Or we have the choice of listening to the Bible. For there we discover how much God loves us, and how much God loves all people. We learn about how God is at work in the world even today to show that love. And what's more, the Bible tells us that we're all invited to take part in that work, to take part in that mission.
C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh, PA
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