Neh. 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Ps. 19; 1 Cor. 12:12-31a; Lk. 4:14-21
The first reading today describes one of the most significant events in the Bible that most people have never heard of. You know, of course, that in 587 B.C. the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple that Solomon built. Most of the survivors were deported to Babylon, where many of them had a profound crisis of faith. How could God have abandoned his chosen people? How could God have allowed this to happen? Does it make any sense to continue to be the people of a God who could not, or would not, prevent this catastrophe? Who is this God, anyway, who freed our ancestors from slavery and called us to be a special people, but who doesn’t seem to have much of anything good for us right now?
Two generations later, the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians, and in the aftermath the Persians told the Jews that they were free to go back home if they wanted to. Many of them did. But they found there no king descended from David. The Temple was rubble, and the ark of the covenant, and the other sacred things that had been in the Temple, no one could find. But under the leadership of a scribe named Ezra and a governor named Nehemiah, an effort was made to try to rebuild some kind of temple and, more importantly, to try to reconstitute the people of Israel as something like what they once were.
Of course, by this time there was no one who actually remembered the way things were when Israel had a temple and a king and felt secure in God’s protection in the promised land. Maybe some of the exiles had grandparents who had told them some stories about the good old days, but nobody really knew. And the leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah were painfully aware that the old ways didn’t work out anyway. In exile, they had come to believe that God had once freed Israel from slavery and brought them to the promised land so that they could be a special people who actually lived together as God wants all humans to live, with love of God and love of neighbor. But they knew old Israel had not always been that. Despite the law, despite the prophets, Israel hadn’t lived up to the covenant, and so God allowed it to be broken. This time would have to be different.
And so Ezra and his team of scribes compiled the ancient writings and stories of Israel into what we now call the Torah, the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books told the story of the creation of the world, of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, of Moses and the liberation from Israel, and they contained the law that had been given by God through Moses. And as our first reading today opens, all of the people of Israel are called together into an assembly to hear these books being read aloud for the first time in their lives. They might have heard some of the stories, here and there, in different pieces and versions, but never presented before as a coherent narrative or vision of who the people of God is supposed to be.
And what is the reaction of the people to the reading of this story, to this great project that Ezra and Nehemiah unveiled to them in their meeting? It is, we read this morning, to weep. Why? Maybe they thought, this is too hard! Can’t do anything on the Sabbath, can’t eat this, can’t touch that, no, no, you can’t really expect people to keep all these rules? No, this is too much! Or maybe they felt, you say God worked all these wonders for us? No, we are just regular people who have been through a lot, we’ve got a lot of work to do moving back here to this land of our ancestors, don’t go making it complicated with these nonsense stories! Give us a break!
And Ezra and Nehemiah quickly respond: No, you misunderstand! This story is not bad news, it’s good news. This story is your identity. This story is your community. This story is your freedom to live as the images of God you were created to be, to live in justice and at peace with God and your neighbor. Today is the day for a feast, a party, a celebration, and remember to share some of the food to everyone who is not here today – because this is good news for everybody. The assembly of Ezra and Nehemiah begins a new chapter of what living Biblical faith is like: It’s a community that meets to hear an ancient text, to reflect on how that text is good news to the community today, and then to deepen and extend the community to all, perhaps through the celebration of a meal. Does this sound familiar? It should – it’s basically what we still do every Sunday.
The faith that the generation of Ezra and Nehemiah gave to Israel, after the return from the Babylonian Exile, creates the world in which Jesus grew up. Jesus was shaped by the weekly meeting of the community, which by then were often referred to by the Greek word for a community meeting, a syn-agogos, synagogue. Jesus was formed by hearing the ancient texts, read Sabbath after Sabbath in the synagogue of Nazareth in Galilee, learning how they speak liberation and freedom and good news to a people living under a new form of oppression, no longer of Pharoah but of Roman soldiers and the sons of Herod.
Until one day Jesus left Nazareth to hear his cousin John, preaching and baptizing at the Jordan River. Jesus is baptized, and then he heads into the wilderness – his own personal Exile, his own struggle with demons, to clarify what it was that God wanted him to do and who God was calling him to be. And then Jesus returned to Galilee, in the power of the Spirit – that is, being led by God’s love and enacting in word and deed what God wants God’s people to be.
Each gospel tells us in its own way about the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee. Mark gives us the one-sentence, bumper-sticker version of the message: The kingdom of God is here, right now; change your lives and believe this good news! John, as we read last week, gives us an example of what Jesus did in one little village of Galilee called Cana, at an otherwise ordinary wedding, where Jesus told a kind of living parable that the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast with fine wine that never ends – and it has now arrived, and his disciples believed. Luke, today, tells us what happened when Jesus made the rounds back to Nazareth. And on Sabbath morning in the synagogue where he grew up, he is invited to read one of the texts for the day.
Jesus is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unravels the scroll to the last section, which there are a series of very rich and well-known poems, mostly written in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, actually. He finds a poem about how the story of God is a story of good news for the poor, captives freed, the blind seeing, debts forgiven, slaves redeemed, the evicted and foreclosed returning to their homes. And when he finishes, he sits down, and everyone looks at him, wondering whether he will say anything about this centuries-old poem.
We’re going to continue reading this story next week, and there’s a lot in it we can unpack then. For today, I just want to point out the first words Jesus speaks: Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
Note that Jesus does not say: This Scripture is fulfilled in my speaking or in my doing. Yes, Jesus did give sight to some who were blind. Yes, Jesus is the anointed Messiah sent to bring freedom and life for everyone. But Jesus doesn’t say that the point of the story is uniquely about himself and the particular ministry he was just beginning. He says this Scripture is fulfilled, comes to its completion, achieves its purpose, when you hear it.
Martin Luther used to say that you can believe all the true doctrines you want to about Jesus, but they won’t lead you to faith, they won’t lead you to life-changing, soul-renewing faith, until you come to see that Jesus did these things for you. Until you hear that this ancient poem speaking ancient words to people who have been dead for thousands of years is good news today, for you, they’re just ink on a scroll. The purpose of this Scripture is for you to hear the good news.
You who are looking for sight. You who feel you have no place. You who have lost your way and don’t know how to get back home. You who wonders sometimes what the point of any of this is. When this text becomes good news for you, then its purpose is fulfilled. When you know that God wants freedom and life for you, today, then this text has life and meaning. And if the text is not an occasion for hearing good news here and now, the text fails to be fulfilled. If it is proclaimed or lived in a way that is not good news, then we are doing something wrong.
“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.” These words were written for you and me to hear. And these words were written for you and me to speak to everyone who is waiting to hear them. May these words now be fulfilled, in your hearing, and in mine.