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As Was The Custom

Luke 4:14-21

The Rev. Jon Roberts

24 January


Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; 17 and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” 20 And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


Jesus teaching in the synagogue, Greg Olson, 21st C.

Custom is the great guide to human life.[1]
What is customary, is to make Jesus the author of our salvation. [2]

During one service in a wealthy synagogue, the rabbi got carried away. Falling on hands and knees, forehead to floor, he said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.” The Cantor, not to be outdone, also got down, forehead to wood and said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing." Seeing this, Levi, a tailor in the fourth row, left his seat, fell to his knees, forehead to floor and he too, said "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.” With this, the Cantor elbowed the rabbi and sniffed: "Look who thinks he's nothing!"

In the reading from Nehemiah we see this custom where men fall on hands and knees, forehead to the floor, saying, “Oh God, before thee I am nothing”[3] For three hours in the morning, facing the square before the Water Gate, the prophet Ezra opens the book (not the scroll) and repeatedly reads the text that summarizes, “Oh God, before thee I am nothing.” Those who listened fell on hands and knees. It says, “They gave this sense, so that the people understood the reading.” The Water Gate was a place where people passed by on a frequent basis, to go to market, to visit loved ones, to a restaurant perhaps. Seeing this display was customary in the synagogue but now it’s out in the open, on the street. How many spectators, we must wonder, who knew what was happening, also felt compelled to fall down as was the custom? We wonder if the rabbi or the cantor turned to see who else was prostrate and sniff, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.” Maybe a tax collector, a politician, a shrewd businessman, or another rabbi.
The custom of falling to one’s knees may have been the guide but who was the author of what had become customary? When people “size up” one other and judge them with condescending partiality, the author is always the prideful “self.” Making fun of those who came to Church, the synagogue was in a warped sense as way to elevate one’s self. This should never be our custom. Lord have mercy.
Those who sat in the seats of honor and looked down upon the others, implying guilt and accepting sin offerings from one’s shame was a dishonorable service to God. To make one’s self look pitiful and contrite, submissive to God and to man by such outward displays but not fully adhering to them from within one’s very soul betrays the relationship we have with God, ourselves and with man. The custom of being authentic and honest to God should be our guide but our self gets in the way and the customary of serving the Lord is never truly fulfilled.

We find a similar scene nearly five hundred years later. In a synagogue, there is the rabbi, the elders, the cantors and all those others who think they are nothing. One instance, in particular, was this young rabbi named Jesus who many had just heard about his baptism by John the Baptist and something that went on at the wedding feast in Cana. Something about the best wedding celebration, ever, because of the abundance of good wine. He was not following the custom for those who advanced in the ranks of being a rabbi. He then, did something most audacious. Most young, aspiring rabbis, would go and pick up a traditional scroll, usually from the Pentateuch to see how well they grasped the history of their custom and how they presented by reading or in some cases, cantering.

Jesus did neither. He went up, thumbed over the scrolls and went right to Isaiah…prophetic teaching.[4] That was typically reserved for the more senior rabbis. In it, he read, “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.”[5] You could hear a pin drop as he rolled the scroll back and took his seat. “Look who thinks he’s something,” they thought. How dare he assume this up-righteousness. He thinks he’s the Messiah for Pete’s sake. They should know. There were none more up-righteous than they.

Do you now see the custom of the Lord who is the author of our salvation? In the Church his life is revealed by God’s Word. When we come to church we follow our custom of worship. It is found in this miniaturized scroll we call a “customary.” There are times, like Lent, when we feel a strong sense of penitence and fall to our knees saying, “O God without thee I am nothing.” What about our confession we make together as we say, “We humbly repent and are truly sorry for the things we have done and the things we have left undone;” Do we really mean it?

Is Jesus in the midst of that confession or do we do it for show? The Church is at the square of the Water Gate today, where people pass by and see us. Many who pass by our Church may be on vacation; they may be a neighbor walking their dog by our front door. When they see our custom to do one thing but find us to do something quite the opposite, by not being warm and friendly, by not sharing our resources, by not inviting them in, then we are no different than those we find in the bible.

We need our custom to come to Church to worship and pray, to read and to obey just as Jesus made that his custom; but always make it customary, your guide to life, to make Him the author of your salvation.

[1] David Hume, 1711-1776; Scottish philosopher, naturalist
[2] The Rev. Jon Roberts
[3] Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10.
[4] Luke 4:14-21
[5] Isaiah 61:1

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