There is a common thread in Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-21 and it is freedom from slavery. In the case of the reading from Nehemiah, the story takes place after the Israelites have returned from captivity in Babylon. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus mentions that he has come to free us from the captivity of sin.
Jesus came to give us our jubilee-our freedom. We are all captives to our sinful, human nature. The readings from Nehemiah and Luke show us that we as Christians have to come together to hear God’s Word and be taught what it means and how it applies to us. The only way the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read can be fulfilled is if we all come together and work together. We are all part of the one body of Christ that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30. We are stronger when we are united and work together. Locally, we are stronger when we work with other churches in such ventures as the recent Shepherd’s Walk and the annual Good Friday Walk of the Cross.
The story from Nehemiah is part of a story about rebuilding. The temple has just been rebuilt following the Israelites’ return from captivity in Babylon. There were roughly 50,000 people in the congregation that day. They were hungry for God’s Word. They were not anxious for the service to conclude-unlike many churchgoers today. God gave the Israelites some wonderful gifts: land, security, abundance and prosperity. The memory of those gifts bound the people together; but over time they grew cynical and careless about their faith. The people called on the prophet Ezra to read from the Law of Moses, and they responded to God’s Word. They were eager to hear the Word of God. When they heard the Word of God, they cried because when they looked at their history and compared it to God’s Word, they realized that they screwed up big time!!!!!!!
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the congregation Jesus preached to in the reading from Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 4:22-30, the crowd was ready to kill him after he said that he was the long-promised Messiah. They could not accept that he was the Messiah. To them, he was just a gifted preacher who was the son of a carpenter. They were ready to hear God’s Word, but in contrast to the congregation who heard Ezra’s preaching, they were not moved by the Holy Spirit. They were out for profit and the status quo, even though both Jesus and the passage from Isaiah told them that the status quo wrong! Jesus dared to tell them that God’s love was for everyone. He illustrated that his message was for everyone by referring to Elijah being sent to the widow of Zarapeth, who was a Gentile. Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian-not a Jew, but a Gentile. If God can be so gracious and quick to attend to the needs of a poor widow in Sidon and an undeserving Gentile in Syria, what gave the Jewish elders the right to say who belongs in the kingdom and who doesn’t? They wanted to hear how the Jews were God’s chosen people and how salvation belonged only to them.
We can understand a little of how they felt. They were God’s chosen people. They had been persecuted all of their lives because they maintained God’s word and kept up the Jewish customs. They built the temples and synagogues and tried to live as God wanted them to live because they were God’s chosen people. It is true that when you are persecuted people you have to develop a sense of pride in order to survive. When pride becomes exclusive, it becomes dangerous. It’s hard for persecuted people to hear that others will be included in the same grace that they will know and feel they have deserved.
It’s hard for us also. It’s okay as long as food is delivered to our door, but what about when grace is extended to our neighbour. It’s hard for us to accept that Christianity is growing in all areas of the world except for North America and Europe. It’s hard for us to hear that other people are prospering in the Word of God.
The people of Nazareth rejected the Gospel because its vision included both Jews and Gentiles. Paul even argued in 1 Corinthians 12:14 that “For the body is not one member, but many”. We are all members of the one body of Christ. Jesus came to restore sight to the blind, but the people of Nazareth wanted to keep their narrow vision.
The people in Galilee had an expectation of what the Messiah could be. They expected him to be a military ruler who would drive out the Romans and restore Israel to the glory days of the reign of King David. They did not expect a Messiah who would urge them to care for those whom they considered to be unclean-the poor, the sick, prostitutes, etc. Unlike the congregation Ezra preached to, the congregation in the synagogue did not accept the concept of grace.
The Scriptures were long neglected by the Israelites, and they were neglected by the people in the synagogue. The people were nearly illiterate when it came to the Scriptures, and many of us are also scripturally illiterate. It is like the story of the pastor who visited a Sunday School class one day. He asked the students, “Who broke down the walls of Jericho?” One child answered, “Not me, I didn’t do it, Pastor”. The pastor asked the teacher if that answer was typical of her students, and the teacher replied, “I know that student. If he said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it!”
The pastor then went to the Sunday School superintendent and told him what happened. The superintendent replied that it was the best class, and that he was sure that no one in the class was guilty. A few days later the pastor told the story to the church’s board, and the treasurer spoke up, “Pastor, I move that we pay for the damage and charge it to upkeep!”
We, like the people who heard the prophet Ezra speak, need to be always ready to hear God’s Word. The only way we can discover God’s true nature is to study and hear Scripture and apply it in our lives and our world. By worshipping on our knees or with our faces to the ground, we remind ourselves that he is our sovereign and we are his subjects. While we need to study God’s Word on our own, we also need to gather with fellow believers on a regular basis to hear God’s Word explained-just like Jesus and Ezra explained God’s Word to the people. God’s Word and God’s joy give us strength because when we feel weak (as we often will on our Christian walk of life) he loves us enough to step in and help us. He loves to save us and forgive us. He loves to show his love to all believers.
The reading of Scripture has great influence on each generation that hears it, but how each generation hears Scripture and interprets its relevance is always a source of debate and conflict. Scriptures are often complex and rooted in a particular time, and therefore they require interpretation-interpretation provided by people like me and our ordained clergy. We need to know not only how the Scriptures applied in the time they were written, but also how they apply to our lives today, especially since we live in a different time and place.
The crowd in the synagogue knew that the text Jesus read from Isaiah was a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. Jesus announced to the crowd that he was the Messiah Isaiah referred to. Jesus ushered in a new age with his words, just like Ezra’s words ushered in a new age. When the people heard the Word of God from Ezra, it became a source for reform and a means of new life for the community. The people in the rebuilt temple were prepared to throw a party to celebrate their return to a godly way of life, and they were prepared to share their goods with the poor. The passage Jesus read from Isaiah said the same thing-show concern for the poor. The Israelites longed for the world to be a better place, and we also long for the world to be a better place. The only way it will be a better place is if we hear and obey the Word of God, especially the part about showing care and compassion to the poor.
When Ezra and Jesus read from the Old Testament texts, they preached in God’s power. God’s power was unleashed, but the people had to stop and listen. We also have to stop and listen to God’s Word carefully. Paul said in the reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 that we have to listen carefully to God’s Word without distraction. The freedom promised in God’s Word is only available when we are not absorbed in ourselves or self-centered or isolated. The freedom comes when we come together as part of one body of Christ. The people who heard Jesus speak in the temple did not know how to listen to the Word of God because they were isolated. They believed that they were God’s chosen people, and they also believed that they were better than other people, especially the Samaritans and the Gentiles and other people that Jesus cared for. The people who heard Ezra speak were hungry for the Word of God. God’s Word has the power to change the lives of those who hear it.
The light of Christ that resides in us should attract others to us. We need to be the most positive people on earth, and we need to see opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges. That is what Jesus tried to tell the congregation in the synagogue. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 that we are all part of the one body of Christ. We are all united. We have to work together to do his work in the world.
Jesus and the Word of God will fix everything that sin has ruined. They will make everything new, including the reversal of Satan’s curse. This is done through the church, the body of believers. The anointing of the Holy Spirit will give us the tools we need to turn to God and do his work in our world. The readings from Nehemiah and Luke show us that it is one thing to quote the Scriptures, but it is another thing to believe in what the Scriptures teach us. The good news is not just for the poor, the blind and the oppressed. They will receive it more gladly than others because they have much to gain and little to lose. The rich, the powerful and the elite will not be nearly as receptive.
The Scriptures should fill us with the Holy Spirit so we can spread joy in the world, just like Jesus came to spread joy in the world. By referring to the Holy Spirit, we express the active presence of God in the world. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus for his task in the world, and it empowers us to continue to do his work in our world.
Both readings also symbolize the renewal of covenants between God and his people. Nehemiah led the Israelites in the rebuilding of the temple, and in the process there was a spiritual renewal. Jesus came to restore our relationship with God by projecting a vision of hope. God’s Word restores our relationship with him when we take part in the Eucharist. We become different people when the Holy Spirit comes upon us. We celebrate and share with humanity’s children. We have been set free and we enjoy the special favour of God. God’s Word shines a light into our darkness and continues to set us free. Since we have experienced the freedom God offers to us, we must encourage others to seek and accept the freedom God offers to everyone.
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