Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Journey Back to the Loving Mystery of God” Sermon, Year C, Epiphany 3, January 27, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-11, Luke 4:1-11

The book of Nehemiah is not one that shows up too often, but the whole book of Nehemiah, including Ezra as they go together, tells us the story of the Jewish peoples’ return to Jerusalem after the time of exile. Hopefully those of you that were here last summer when I talked about the prophets and Israelite history remember that Babylon invaded Judah, which is where Jerusalem was, in the early 6th century BCE. They destroyed the temple completely. Tore it down, looted it, took everything out of it, tore down even the walls and did a lot of damage in Jerusalem. And they sent a lot of the Jewish people into exile where they spent a good amount of time. That was, around 590 BCE, that Jerusalem was sacked. And while the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon and some other places, a new emperor, Cyrus, showed up in Persia. He took over Babylon in 539 BCE and he allowed the exiles to go home, to return to Jerusalem. A lot of them did. Not all. Some had found a nice comfortable life where they were and remained. But a lot of people returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple. They finished that by 515 BCE, and that is the temple that Jesus would have known, and the one that the Romans would destroy soon after Jesus’ resurrection.

And Cyrus also gave to the Jewish people, when he said they could go back, he gave them some governorship over their own territory. They wqere still a province, so they weren’t fully their own country. But they had the province of Judea, and that province also stayed through Jesus’ time, though it was under Rome by that point.

And then a new king came, Artexerxes, that also gave the Jewish people more autonomy by declaring to them that since they are the people of the law – the Mosaic law, the law given to Moses on the mountain – that they need to rule their country by their own law. He wanted them to bring back their religion and have it fulfil their way of doing government. And so we read in that Nehemiah passage the beginning of this new period. This new period of the Jews being a country like they used to be, albeit still under Persian authority. And their first act was to read the law. To read the covenant. The covenant that bound them as people, and the covenant that bound them as God’s people. They read it to remind them who they are, especially since they were a number of generations removed from any time when that had been a significant part of their life, from anyone having lived that way.

They read the covenant.

And we can date this, at least according to my Harper’s Study Bible, we know that the reading of the law that we read in Nehemiah was during the Festival of Booths, so that puts it some time during the month of September in the year 458 BCE. They read the covenant when they came back as a people. And it is still part of Jewish tradition to read the covenant. And it is also part of our tradition.

Today is our Annual Meeting. We gather as the church to be about who we are as this fellowship, as this congregation, and we will read our covenant again together during that meeting. And we read it to remind us who we are, and how we live together as Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. It is an important thing to do. To remember who we are.

Our covenant was written by Carol Knight and Bob Goessling, and if some others were involved please forgive me leaving them out. They wrote it when we moved into this new building here on Moholt Drive. If you read through the covenant, it leads us on a journey.

The first line says, “We the members of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ covenant to journey in faith with Jesus back to the loving mystery of God”. That is our first line. Our first point of the covenant here is that our first covenant is with Jesus. We covenant with one another to journey with Jesus. A journey that goes somewhere. And I like how they phrased this, to “go back to the loving mystery of God”. Back to the loving mystery of God. I have not heard that kind of phrase before, about going back to God. But I read it as an implication that we have strayed from God, so part of that journey is to go back, to be back with Jesus. To be who we are supposed to be. But also that we have strayed from the mystery of God. I read it in two ways. Not just that we strayed from God wants us to do, but we have also in a sense strayed from the mystery of God. We have tried to box God in, maybe. We have tried to say that God is this, and only this. Or God is that, and only that. Try too much, especially we as post-enlightenment rational people, we like things to be neat and in order and tidy, and to be understandable. But God is not a puzzle to be solved. When we become attached to our answers or ideas then we have in a sense strayed from the mystery of God, of letting God be God. This God who is creative and is always doing new things, re-creating, regenerating.

And how do we find our way back to the loving mystery of God? Our church covenant spells that out as well. It is spelled out in the next section.

It is:
• Participation in the worship life, where we seek guidance, inspiration, and leadership for discipleship. We come to worship to learn how to be disciples, and that is what the journey is: to be a disciple.
• We live it out by being in relation with the other members.
• By affirming each person’s perspectives and understandings. We learn from one another. That is a long part of our tradition, going back to the Pilgrims and Puritans, that we’re not a top-down church with pastor or priest saying “This is what we believe” but all of us reading the scripture together saying, “This is what I see in it. What do you see in it?” Being in dialogue with one another, helping one another, on our journeys.
• We live out our journey of living back to the loving mystery of God by accepting the responsibilities of membership.
• Encouragement of our family life.
• Care for our elderly.
• By being imaginative and hopeful. Those are also important for the Christian vocation.
• And participation in the mission of the whole church. Not just our congregation, but our denomination, as well as the Church Universal. We are part of Christ’s Church in the world.

And the covenant doesn’t spell out what that mission is. What the mission of the church is. And that mission has found many expressions in this congregation in the 127 years that it has been around. It has found a number of different expressions even since we moved here in 1995 and the covenant was written. The mission of our denomination changes at times, in terms of how things get done, or what gets focused on, as times change and as the people come in and out and their passions, and their spiritual gifts, also have something to say about what a specific congregation does or a denomination does. So the focus and types of ministry will change. But the overall mission stays constant.

And that is what Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel text: what he reads from the prophet Isaiah. It is the first thing he reads in a way of saying, “This is who I am. This is what I am about. This is what to expect from me.” He reads from Isaiah: “To bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives. To bring recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free. And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

There are many ways to live that out, but that is the overarching mission. And as we come into a new year, let us continue to keep that mission ahead of us as we journey back to the loving mystery of God as Plymouth church.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

Webpastor: Pastor David