Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at All Saints’ Cuddesdon on Sunday 27th January 2019.
Readings: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21.
It’s been a while since we last moved house. Happily memories of that experience, often deemed as one of the most stressful events we go through in life, had gently faded into a dream. This week, however, as we finally booked the removal firm who are going to pack and shift us all east, my mind naturally dredged up some of those memories that I had happily buried deep in the recesses of my mind.
One image came to me as if in sharp relief to all the others. It was the picture of Jonathan sitting in our bedroom in the new rectory surrounded by the dissembled parts of our bed. Wooden slats, screws, washers, legs, headboard and mattress lay scattered across the room like some giant jigsaw of our life. We were tired and feeling like we had been washed up on some tropical island with all our worldly possessions strewn around by the sea, we just wanted to have our bed back so we could sleep. As Jonathan picked up one piece after another, wondering how it all fitted together, I asked the obvious question, ‘where’s the construction manual?’ ‘I don’t know, we don’t need it’, ‘Yes we do…’ I will let you imagine how the conversation proceeded as I am sure you have been there at one time or another. You don’t need me to tell you that we slept on a mattress on the floor that night.
It always strikes me that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who follow the manual, relying on its every finer detail and those who don’t and construct the flat pack by logical deduction with the instructions still neatly folded in the packaging. As you have probably guessed by now I am of the former and Jonathan is of the latter.
Our readings today similarly seem to fall into this juxtaposition of approaches. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah together recount the events of the last century of Old Testament Jewish history roughly 538-433 BC and tells of the ups and downs of the exiled Israelites return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. After overcoming a number of setbacks, at last the walls of Jerusalem, which lay in a sorry state of destruction, have been rebuilt. It is at this point that the people ask the scribe Ezra to read out the book of the law of Moses. For those of us who love following the rules it is the ultimate manual for life, for the texts of Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Numbers and even parts of Exodus that make up the Torah are full of instructions on everything from what to eat, how to behave to the keeping of festivals and rites of purification, and much, much more. In many ways it is a manual for living out the commandments of the Lord that structures and shapes the whole of life thereby ensuring that you live in relation to the will of the Lord, that you follow his ways and live as one of his holy people. As the people of Israel stood in their shattered city after many years of neglecting the law they came to realise just how far short they fell of keeping those rules and wept tears of contrition. How easy it is to deviate from the manual of holiness of the Lord and invent our own ways of living.
In our gospel reading, Jesus stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth and much like Ezra the scribe opens the ancient texts of his people. But unlike Ezra he turns to the book of the prophet Isaiah which tells of a person who will not so much follow the rule book or even reinvent the instructions of the Lord but will embody the law of Moses by being filled with the Spirit of the Lord. Jesus turns to the people and tells them that he is the one who fulfils this sentence of scripture, he is the one who completes and manifests the law in his very person. ‘I have not come to abolish the law but rather to fulfil it’, says Jesus in Matthew 5: 17 ‘for truly I tell you, till heaven and earth pass, neither jot nor tittle (the smallest letter or stroke) will pass from the law until everything is accomplished.’
So what does that mean for us? Well for those of us who love to follow the rules, who like structure and instructions to guide us in life we have been given the living embodiment of the holy life in the person of Jesus. It is through drawing to him, hearing his voice, trusting in our relationship with him that we follow the right way. And when we fall short, there is the law of love which corrects us but also forgives us and sets us once more on the right path. And for those of us who feel and deduce our way through life, who love the freedom to create, explore and innovate we have been given a loving friend and guide in our relationship with Jesus. When we fall and fail Jesus is there to help us pick ourselves up, learn and move on. In each case Jesus breathes life into the law so that in him we find the freedom to fail and also the freedom to follow his law of love.
So the next time you find yourself in the position where you feel lost or confused and wish you could but follow a manual for good living, stop for a moment, breathe deep and remember the Spirit of Christ who lives and breathes within and let him be your guide and construction manual to holiness. Amen.