January 27, 2019
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One of my hobbies is learning foreign languages. Although, it may be more accurate to say I’m interested in people in general; language happens to be the tool that helps me better understand those people. I’m a jack of a few trades yet a master of none. I’ve spent time picking up various languages: Spanish, American Sign Language, Japanese, etc. My wife continues to try to teach me French and I pretend to understand like, “Mmm oui, oui; le petit croissant est non-chalant”. I find joy in learning other people’s culture and picking up a new skill. In college I was a German minor, one year I lived in the German house, and coincidentally, my roommate’s name was also Marcus. Despite our obvious differences, our friends referred to us as German Marcus and American Marcus, which was fine. Our German friends helped improve our German and we Americans helped improve their English. Unfortunately, they decided to also teach us several slang terms and curse words which I’m pretty certain weren’t in the curriculum. Our German professor’s eyes probably would have bugged out if he knew what they taught us. Like a toddler imitating an adult in a moment of anger, we were equipped with words we knew but didn’t fully understand. In any language, an interpreter gives meaning and context to the words that we know. The Word of God is no different. In various ways, we experience the Word of God yet often we need an interpreter to understand it, to live into it, and to appreciate it more fully.
I find it interesting how the Word was made available for all people to hear for the benefit of their daily lives. “All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands.” Scholars note that the Water Gate was a public place where all people could gather, including those who were socially outcast. Just like learning a foreign language, you start with hearing the words or immersing yourself in what you hope to understand. The people of Israel had recently returned from exile by the tens of thousands, they rebuilt their home and places of worship, and now they were rededicating themselves to God. For some, they felt like their great misfortunes came about because they hadn’t followed the law of Moses strictly enough. I imagine there are some New Orleans Saints fans pouring ashes on their heads and tearing their sackcloth screaming, “If only the referees had followed the letter of the law more closely, then we would be returning to the promised land!” For the people of Israel, the Word was an indictment on their history and past actions, “for all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.” But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the leaders interpreted it differently. “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” The Word of God is meant to be received with proper interpretation. There are far too many people whose understanding of Christianity is based on headlines and vocal individuals with misguided understanding. We acknowledge our sinful history without going silent on the holiness of God. It is only right that those with understanding speak up against abuses of the Word. We stand at the water gate; the Word of God is for the benefit of all creation and it is with interpretation that it is better understood.
I think it’s remarkable how Jesus lives into his calling. “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” We often overlook the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, as if it were some silent third wheel of the Trinity. But Jesus has done some incredible things when filled with the Spirit. He cast out demons, he was led into the desert to fast and overcome his darkest temptations, and after he resurrected, he gave instructions to his followers to baptize and spread the good news, effectively giving blueprints to building the church. In this passage, Jesus acts as both deliverer of the Word and interpreter of it too. Isaiah wrote these words in the scroll in the first person but Jesus reads it literally. The book of John notes that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God gave us Jesus–the living Word–who acts as interpreter for himself, he explains himself to us so that we may live and speak as he does. Many times, he has to clarify what God meant when scripture was misinterpreted. “You have heard it so but truly I tell you it’s actually this way…” “Moses didn’t provide you bread, God did; I am the living bread come down from heaven.” When learning a new language, early on you can understand more words than you can express. Having someone to help you grow in your development—be it a friend, a teacher, or someone who is a native speaker—goes a long way in internalizing the language and speaking it naturally. Jesus is all three—friend, teacher, and native speaker in the Word of God. He is there full-time to interpret what we receive. Scholars remind us that the scripture Jesus read was fulfilled in their hearing but their hearing did not guarantee their receiving. We hear the Word, let us also accept it in the Spirit of God with joy and wonder.
I think it’s helpful to remember the amazing gifts we have among us and the ways those gifts enrich others. For those who speak in tongues, Paul says no one understands them yet they converse with God, uttering mysteries by the Spirit. He tells the Corinthians to have someone interpret those who speak in tongues, so that the church may be built up. I was baptized in a Presbyterian church in the suburbs of Chicago, I was raised in a Presbyterian church in Dayton OH, but as a teenager, I occasionally went to the church of two of my friends from school. It was a charismatic non-denominational church where the songs were spiritual, the sermons were marathons, and speaking in tongues was commonplace. Among many things I realized a few things in my late teens: 1. I wanted to someday own an electric car 2. I would never be a professional athlete and 3. Speaking in tongues was not my spiritual gift. Several people at that church spoke in tongues with great passion. Although, to the best of my knowledge, no one interpreted what was being said, which was disappointing. I’d like to know what’s being said between them and God! Many of us have gifts whether spiritual (like teaching, prophecy, or the working of miracles) or gifts that are more akin to abilities (like keeping in contact with people who may need prayer, planning and executing events, keeping financials, or feeding people). I wish to interpret the Word I’ve heard and say: your gifts are valued. You are valued. I wish to encourage you to share those gifts so that the Church may be built up.
We’re one month into the New Year and quickly approaching the lunar New Year with a lot of potential of what’s yet to come. We experience the Word of God not only through our apps, devotionals, or in bible study but also in the world. Before Scripture was in print, it lived and moved among us and continues to do so. The Word moves through the news, in prayer with and for others, and when we act for love, justice, reconciliation, and compassion. We’re reminded that the Word was at the beginning and will continue forever. He transcends time, space, and language. He speaks to our hearts. For the rest of this year, may we come to accept him and share the Word. Thanks be to God. Amen.