A quick question: what do you do as the scripture is being read during Sunday morning worship? I’m guessing some people follow along in the bulletin. I’m guessing some people quickly tune out and let their minds wander. I’m guessing some people try to pay attention but get bored or lost along the way. While still others ask themselves: I wonder what kind of sermon the preacher is going to get out of this scripture text?
As your priest, I am beholden to say - Ideally, of course, the reading of the scripture should be a high point in any service of worship. If you have ever attended worship in a temple or synagogue, you know that for our Jewish brothers and sisters, the reading of scripture is regarded as a holy event. The scrolls containing the scriptures are priceless treasures. They are kept in expensively appointed protective cases, and then are brought out to the lectern as part of the worship service. Some in the congregation might ever step forward and ritually kiss the scrolls during this time.
Why all the fuss? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, is the conviction that the scrolls contain the word of God and are therefore to be cherished, even revered. In addition, the history of the Jewish people, an often violent and tragic history, continues to contribute to the importance of the scriptures.
Think for a moment. Jews were forced to leave their homeland by the Romans, an exile that ended only after nearly 1,900 years had passed, with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947. During that exile, Jews were persecuted for their religion in nearly every country they alighted, culminating in the holocaust unleashed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi SS. Because they had no homeland, because their places of worship were often desecrated or destroyed, the Jewish people clung to the one thing that they could carry with them wherever they went: the holy books. Small wonder that the reading from the scriptures is such an important part of Jewish worship.
By contrast, I humbly suggest that we Christians often assume a “ho hum” attitude when the scriptures are read in worship. Most of us have heard the words so often; we assume they contain nothing more of interest. We are respectful, of course; we don’t talk out loud when they are read; we may even try to pay attention. We know that reading from the Bible is something that must be done in worship (at least we preachers seem to think so), so we tolerate it. But mostly, I think, people are eager for the scripture reading to get out of the way so we can get on with the rest of the service.
Maybe that’s the way it was on that momentous day when Jesus came back to his home town Nazareth and went to the synagogue to worship. It was his first trip home after his baptism by John and after his temptation in the wilderness. The word had started getting out about what he was up to; He had begun teaching in the synagogues of neighboring towns, and people were excited by what they heard; He was making a name for himself. Now he was back in the synagogue he had always attended as a boy and young man.
Synagogue worship in the time of Jesus was a somewhat informal affair. The service consisted of prayers, reading of scripture, comments by one or more adult males of the congregation, and alms for the poor. There were no official “ministers”; an invitation to read and speak could be extended by the elders to anyone they chose. It was customary for the reader to stand when he read the scripture and to sit when he gave his commentary or sermon.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where these words are written:
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.
I don’t know what the people in the synagogue were doing when Jesus read those words. Maybe some of them quickly tuned out. Their eyes glazed over and their minds wandered; they had heard these words from Isaiah many times before. Maybe some of the listeners tried to pay attention, but got bored or lost along the way. Maybe some of them wondered what Jesus was going to say about them during his sermon.
But regardless of how the congregation listened to the scripture, it was what happened next that got everyone’s attention. Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. Then, as the evangelist tells it, “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” It was that hush, that pregnant pause, that silent shiver of excitement, I liken it to the moment when the orchestra conductor raises the baton, when the batter stands waiting for the first pitch of the big game, when the renowned speaker snaps on the light at the lectern. You can almost sense the people leaning forward in expectancy. Each of them knew that things we going to be different now. May we too be so convinced.