Sunday, January 27, 2019
Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4:14-21
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Who am I? It’s a question that has started almost every interview I’ve ever had as a pastor. Tell us about yourself, they say. So I proceed down the usual path – birthplace, Baptist upbringing, two brothers, loving parents, went to Calvin, studied English, met Jess, got married, spent my 20s in school, had kids, and so on. Who am I? Well, I’m lots of things. I am a human, a Jesus follower, a student, a father, a runner, a musician, a Presbyterian pastor, a Midwesterner, and so on. And that doesn’t even begin to paint the full picture. I am so much more than all of those things.

Who are you? Let’s turn the tables. If I were interviewing you to be my pastor, what would you tell me about yourself? I’m sure I’d get lots of interesting stories from those conversations, but I have no doubt that what you’d share with me wouldn’t come close to capturing fully who you are.

There’s a church movement in Australia that writes some pretty good worship music. We actually sing some of their songs at our Gathering Service. One of their songs has really caught my attention over the past few months. It’s called “I Am Who You Say I Am.” It’s a song based upon Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery found in John 8. In that story people bring her before Jesus to test his faithfulness to the Scriptures. They said, “The Law of Moses tells us that we should stone this woman as punishment for her sin. What do you say, Jesus?” And Jesus pauses for a long time before they press him for an answer. Finally he says, “Let the one who has never sinned be the first to cast a stone.” Of course, all gathered know they cannot claim never to have sinned, so one by one they walk away. Jesus saves this woman’s life, and calls her to a new life. It is from that encounter, that this song was written. Here are some of the lyrics.

 Who am I that the highest King
Would welcome me?
I was lost but He brought me in
Oh His love for me
Oh His love for me

 Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God
Yes I am

 I am chosen
Not forsaken
I am who You say I am
You are for me
Not against me
I am who You say I am
I am who You say I am

 In my Father’s house
There’s a place for me
I’m a child of God
Yes I am

I just love the claim that song is making. The world has said so many things about this woman – that she’s broken, that her life isn’t worth living, that she is outside of God’s love – and Jesus restores her and gives her a new identity.

Reflecting on why they wrote the song, Ben Fielding has this to say, “We wrote “Who You Say I Am” because we realized that it is so important to understand how God sees us, and what He says about us. It’s so important to go to the Scriptures and read who God says we are.”[1] Who are you? You are who God says you are.

On Tuesday this week I attended the January Series lecture given by Rachael Denhollander. Rachael was the former gymnast who first brought charges against Dr. Larry Nassar. While many other gymnasts later lined up to give their testimonies of his sexual abuse, Rachael was the first. She was also the last to speak to him prior to his sentencing. She is courageous. She is strong. Watching her talk about justice and forgiveness, I was blown away by her. After the talk I was reflecting on what she had to say, and it struck me that her strength comes from a deep place. Rachael is a Christian. She knows her identity is found in Jesus, and from the deep well of faith, she was able to risk and stand up for justice. She knows who God says she is. She knows about justice because she knows about God. That’s what allowed her to stand in the face of the horrific evil of pedophilia and say, “Enough!” That’s what allowed her to demand that Nassar face justice. But it’s also what has given her the grace to forgive him. It all stems from a deep sense of her identity as a child of God. She could do this because she knows who God says she is.

The past couple of weeks we have been walking through Luke’s account of Jesus’ early ministry. In baptism, we hear God’s clear declaration of Jesus’ identity, “This is my Son, the beloved” (3:22). Last week, we followed Jesus in the wilderness, where the devil tempted him to take shortcuts and to be less than who he was (Luke 4:1-13). He was able to stand firm in the face of these temptations because he knew who he was. Now Jesus begins his ministry in earnest in the region around where he grew up, Galilee. He starts teaching in synagogues throughout the region, and people are receiving him well. They love what he has to say.

In our text, Jesus makes his way to Nazareth, the small town in which he was raised. He goes back to the synagogue of his youth, and he’s given the honor of reading the scripture for that sabbath. Surrounded by those who must be swelling with pride with how impressive Joseph and Mary’s son has become, he opens the scroll to Isaiah. As he reads the Spirit of God must be piercing their hearts. Is the Spirit of God really upon this Jesus? Will he declare God’s favor? Will the poor get good news? Will the blind see? Will those under the Roman occupation finally be free? Could this be? Their hearts must have quickened within them. Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns to his seat, and – out of nowhere, it seems – makes this staggering statement, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). Jesus knows who he is. He is precisely the one that Isaiah wrote about hundreds of years earlier. He is who God says he is. But at this point I think it’s worth focusing on some of the clues we find in our text about how our identities get shaped.

Notice first the importance of community in the shaping of identity. Jesus is the Son of God, so it would be easy to assume that he could do all he set out to do all by himself. But he doesn’t. Sabbath after sabbath he is with others in the synagogue. As his public ministry builds steam, he surrounds himself with others. Jesus understands the habit-forming necessity of being gathered together around God’s Word.

Our text from Nehemiah occurs around 500 years before our text in Luke, yet we see how God’s people are shaped in community gathered around the Word of God. The story of Nehemiah occurs as God’s people are returning from exile in Babylon. They experienced displacement for a century. Generations came and went, and they grieved all that they had lost. Yet, here they were back where they belonged, rebuilding their lives. Together they hear who God says they are – that they are loved and not forsaken. As they hear God’s promises to them, they grieve all that their exile in Babylon has cost them. Yet, Nehemiah stops them in their grief and calls them to a new day. “Don’t stay stuck in your sorrow. God is faithful and has more in store for you. God loves you and claims you, so don’t look back. Look ahead.” He tells them all to go home and have a party.

Half a millennium later, Jesus is still faithfully gathered with God’s people around God’s Word, proclaiming that God is still at work making things right. It may be quiet, but it is happening in their midst. They need to keep telling each other the stories of who God says they are. And 2000 years later, we’re still doing the same thing here in Grand Haven, Michigan. Worship matters because God gives us each other to worship with. Together we have a divine appointment to meet with God and each other as a church, and it matters that each of us make worship a priority because we owe it to each other. We are diminished when we treat worship only as a private matter or when we don’t believe it matters if we show up. Community is vital in worship, and it is essential to identity formation. Together we can remind each other about who God says we are, but that’s so hard to do if we treat worship as an activity that is only worth it every once in a while. We owe it to each to be together.

The second thing to notice about this text is that worship provides a counter-liturgy to what we experience outside of worship. We are told that we are so many things outside of worship – some good and some not so good – but in worship the rhythms of our liturgy tell us every week that God loves us unconditionally, that God forgives us radically, and that God sends us back out of worship to be the people of God in a de-formed world. Worship isn’t merely the place where we hear glorious music, or where we hear what the pastor feels called to say. “Christian worship is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the Triune God,”[2] writes James K.A. Smith. Worship begins with the Triune God, flows through us, and returns to God. John Calvin used to liken worship to going to the gym. It’s exercise. Smith continues, “Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.”[3]

In worship we do basically the same things week in and week out. We gather. We sing. We confess. We listen. We pray. We give. We are sent. In our world obsessed with novelty, it’s important for us to remember that habit and repetition aren’t boring. They’re training devices. Think about your time in the gym. If you want to get stronger muscles, you do the same exercises over and over again. Over time you get stronger, but frankly, you’re still doing the same bench presses or leg lifts. Worship is like going to the gym. We do the same thing over and over again because the repetition trains our hearts, reminding us that we are who God says we are.

It is in worship that God keeps telling us who we are, telling us we are far more than what all others think of us. It is here that we support each other, holding each other accountable – like that friend who reminds you that you really should get to the gym today – so that in our spiritual training we might be equipped to be strong enough to stand for justice and goodness in the world. So let us make worship together a priority in our lives, for worship is where God reminds us that we are who God says we are. Nothing more. And nothing less.

[1] https://www.newreleasetoday.com/article.php?article_id=2487

[2] Smith, James K.A.. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, loc. 1129.

[3] ibid., loc. 1234.