Old Testament Lesson: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
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. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “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.”
Gospel Lesson: Luke 4:14-21
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. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. 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. 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.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I love a good cliff-hanger. Remember “Who shot JR?” All the nation was left hanging for a whole summer—plus eight weeks of a Writer’s Guild strike—wondering who finally killed that SOB JR Ewing and put Bobby and Pam and Sue Ellen and his whole family out of their misery. Well, everyone but the lovely, gracious, long-suffering Miss Ellie. JR’s mama, Miss Ellie Ewing, was probably the only one who was not secretly happy that he’d been shot.
Do you remember the buzz that last episode set off? All summer long we talked and speculated and argued about who had the best motive for killing JR Ewing. Poor Sue Ellen, of course: everyone knew that it was JR who drove her to drink in the first place. No, it had to be Bobby: JR was the only thing standing between him and sole inheritance of the Ewing fortune, which Bobby deserved way more than JR. Some even speculated that Miss Ellie herself did it out of compassion for the suffering JR inflicted on everyone else in the family.
I think the folks who put together the lectionary must love a good cliff hanger too, because they sure gave us one in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has been on a hugely successful preaching and healing tour throughout Judea and is back home in Galilee. “A report about him spread through all the surrounding country.” And when he went into the synagogues to teach “everyone praised him.”
But then he goes to his hometown, and here the story, and its timing slow to a pace that’s worthy even of Alfred Hitchcock’s best suspense: Jesus stood up to read. The crowd in the synagogue goes silent. The attendant handed him the scroll. The tension builds. He unrolled the scroll. The basses in the soundtrack grumble low and ominously. He found the place where it was written. The music stops. The crowd stands on tiptoe to see. Leans forward to hear. What will he read? The anticipation heightens. He opens his mouth and reads:
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.
Then slowly . . . oh so slowly . . . he rolls up the scroll. Sweat beads start to form on the brows of the men and women in the synagogue. He hands the scroll back to the attendant. The crowd grows even stiller as folks hold their breath so as not to miss a word. Will he do it? Will the carpenter’s son actually have the audacity to preach and teach here in this synagogue where he once was taught? He sits down. The crowd gasps! This is the posture for preaching and teaching in the ancient world. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. What is he doing? Someone whispers. What will he say? Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The screen goes black.
Cut to the temple nearly 500 years earlier in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra was priest and Nehemiah governor when Israel was restored to Jerusalem after 70 years’ exile in Babylon. For nearly three generations the story had been told over and over again of how the people had been torn from their homeland and their God because of their unfaithfulness. As one king after another tread upon the heads of the poor, enslaved and oppressed the people, and abandoned worship of the one true God, God employed first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to remove Israel from the land God had given them. Over nearly three generations they came to understand that it was their unfaithfulness and disregard for the law of God that drove them into exile. God was done with God’s chosen people and wanted them out of God’s sight, far across the wilderness and into a foreign land.
“All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
Why did they weep? I wonder. Could it have been out of grief over their memories of exile? Maybe.
- Maybe hearing the words of Moses—“Keep [God’s] decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”—reminds them of how terribly they failed to keep the law.
- Maybe hearing the words of Moses—“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” Maybe on hearing these words, they weep in despair over how hard it proved for them to obey the law.
- Or maybe hearing the words of Moses—“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.”—they wept tears of shame that given the choice between life and prosperity or death and destruction, they chose death and destruction.
Whatever the reason for their tears, Ezra encourages them to be joyful instead. “This day is holy to the LORD your God,” Ezra says. “Do not mourn or weep. . . . 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.”
Do we sometimes forget that the word of God is good news? Do we sometimes grieve over our past mistakes rather than rejoice over forgiveness? Do we sometimes despair over the impossibility of earning salvation rather than rejoice over grace? Do we sometimes feel ashamed of our failures rather than grateful for Christ’s victory?
I think we sometimes do. I know I sometimes do. Too often I hold myself captive to a past that God no longer cares about. Sometimes I’m so busy looking back over my shoulder at mistakes and regrets that I’m blind to the grace and promise that God sets before me. And too often I’m so busy despising myself that I can’t hear God whispering to me, “You’re a mess, but you’re my child.”
Years ago, when I was taking my first preaching class with Dr. Bill Turner, he used to be in the habit of asking folks after they had preached in his class, “Are you saved?” The first time I heard him ask that question, it scared me to death! What if he asked me? I used to worry. What would I say? Am I saved? How can I be sure? It was while I was worrying over that question that it dawned on me one day: “Susan, that’s not a question about you! That question has absolutely nothing to do with anything you have done, are doing, or ever will do. That’s a question about what God in Christ has done and did do, once and for all. “Today,” Jesus said. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. Nothing in our past, present, or future can change that. So “do not mourn or weep,” Ezra says, “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.”
So to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.