The season of Epiphany seems to have an agenda, and on its "to-do" list, it seems determined to show us worship at its most powerful.
The gospel of John last week used strong symbols to contrast the empty rituals of the church with the abundant joy and new life God desires in relationship with humanity and all creation (empty water jugs vs. water turned to rich wine). This week we are presented with less symbolic, though no less powerful, images of worship.
After decades of exile, the nation of Israel assembles for worship that sounds remarkably like our own – they gather as an assembly, they listen to words of ancient scripture and some kind of sermon ("they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so the people understood the reading" – Nehemiah 8:8), they share a meal and are sent to carry portions of the feast to those in need.
Nehemiah shares a story of worship in which the people are moved to tears by the words of scripture. They are crying because they have been separated from their traditions for so long… but also because they hear a word in scripture that challenges the way they have been living, and that calls them to return to the Lord their God.
Something similar is happening when Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue. Although there is no doubting that Jesus is announcing radical change ("[The Lord] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." – Luke 4:18), it is change that takes us back to our roots. Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophets in order to remind us that the new thing God is doing today in our hearing is the same thing God is always doing wherever we hear God’s word: re-membering us as the one body of God in the world (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).
At Christmas, God reveals God’s self in something as fragile as flesh. During this season of Epiphany God dictates God’s agenda in something as ephemeral as a word. A script. A story. A worship service. Something as ordinary as a weekly gathering around word and wine, that is how God chooses to be known.