“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.” Nehemiah 8:9b-10a
It was a time of deep political upheaval, when enemies were [all around] and questions raged within the country about who really belonged and what it meant to be patriotic…Ideas about what faithful adherence to traditional religion looked like [seemed to be constantly changing]. Charismatic leaders stepped forward, some arguing one way and some arguing another, but all claiming God was on their side, until many people were confused.[i]
That’s how Professor Cory Driver sets up his reflection on this week’s readings. His description, as we will see, provides an accurate backdrop for today’s First Reading and for today’s Gospel. But isn’t it interesting how much it sounds like our own time? Political upheaval. Changing religious practices. Leaders arguing. Widespread confusion.
The book of Nehemiah comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we usually call the Old Testament, but Nehemiah not a book from which we read very often on Sunday mornings. Today’s passage is set in a time when the Jewish people have returned from exile. Decades earlier they had been conquered by the Babylonians, who separated them and sent them away from their homeland. The Babylonian king and his armies had also destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Having been scattered far and wide, having lost the center of their communal worship life, the Jewish people endured a difficult period of dislocation.
By the time of today’s reading, some things have changed. The Persian Empire has defeated the Babylonians, and the Persian king has allowed the Jewish exiles to return home and to rebuild the temple. Imagine how it would feel to return to a homeland you had been forced to leave, reunited with neighbors and friends and loved ones. What would you want to do first? Probably gather for some meals together. Share stories of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Talk about what you’d been through. Remember those who died while you were in captivity.
One of the things that the people want to do is hear from the Torah, the law of Moses, the holy scriptures that have shaped who they are as a people from the very beginning. Ezra, a priest and prophet, brings the law before the people gathered in the town square. Everyone is there at the Water Gate – men and women included – as Ezra dives in. He reads for hours – from early morning until midday. Think about how hard it is on some Sunday mornings to focus on listening to all of the readings, which takes only a few minutes. Could you pay attention to the reading of scripture for hours and hours? It would be a challenge.
But notice how the people respond to that public reading of God’s holy word. They stand up. They cry “Amen! Amen!” They bow their heads with faces to the ground. They weep. They weep. And not just a couple of softies in the crowd. It says: “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
Who knows what prompted the tears? Maybe it was the joy of being together again for worship after so long. Maybe it was the memories that surfaced while hearing these sacred stories read aloud again. Maybe it was the realization of how far they had fallen short of how God wants us to live. I suspect it was a combination of all of those and much more.
But notice what happens next. The people are told to let their grief and struggle turn to joy. To go out from that time of hearing God’s word to eat good food and drink sweet wine. And then what? To share that food and wine with those for whom nothing is prepared. In other words, be fed with the scriptures and be fed with an actual meal and then make sure you share what you have with others who don’t have as much.
If we were to read a couple of verses beyond today’s passage, we would hear this: “All the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” They celebrated together, and they shared their abundance with those who needed it the most.
Scripture does something to the people who gather to hear it. It transforms them from a traumatized community struggling to make sense of the political upheaval they have experienced to a rejoicing community that takes care of those in need.
Centuries later Jesus stands up in the synagogue of his hometown and unscrolls a different part of the scriptures, this time from the book of Isaiah. The Persian Empire was now a distant memory, but living in the time of the Roman Empire wasn’t all that different. There were still power struggles all around – and obstacles to being able to worship together in peace.
Jesus could have picked any part of Isaiah to read as he looked into the faces of the people who have known him since he was a little boy. But he chooses this passage: “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 year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus tells them that he is the fulfillment of that long-ago promise. The regular synagogue-goers have heard those words from Isaiah countless times, but on this morning Jesus tells them that he’s there to make sure it actually happens – release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed.
Jesus is essentially saying: “The word of God is a living Word, and it is standing right in front of you.”
We’ll hear in the coming months how Jesus’ embodiment of those words from Isaiah will unfold in his earthly ministry. As we know, he’s not making empty promises here. And we’ll hear more next week about how the people reacted to what Jesus says. For now let me just say that there are many different responses, all of them passionate.
What is true in Nazareth in the time of Jesus is also true in Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. God’s word provokes a response. People may feel confused and overwhelmed, they may find themselves in difficult political and economic circumstances, but they do not remain neutral. The words of scripture summon them to act on behalf of those who are in need, especially those who are crushed beneath power structures they cannot control.
I have a little homework for you. I encourage you to read the first four chapters of the gospel of Luke between now and next Sunday. You can do it a little bit at a time – a chapter a day, perhaps – or you can do it all in one sitting. Parts of these chapters will be very familiar; they include the Christmas story, for example. Other parts will be less familiar. Don’t worry about understanding every detail. But ask yourself these questions as you read:
- What do you notice as you read? What stands out?
- What questions do you have? What are you curious about?
- What might God be saying to us today through these scriptures? How might God be asking us to respond?
What do you notice? What questions do you have? What might God be saying to us? I’ll put those questions on our Facebook page and in the Weekly Word, and they’ll be in the sermon when it’s posted on our website so you’ll have access to them throughout the week.
We have this gift of God’s word. God uses it to teach us, to shape us, to move us to act in the world.
And so: “Go your way, eat the fat and drink the 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.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I have adapted this opening from Cory Driver’s lectionary blog entry for this Sunday as posted here: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/01/lectionary-blog-what-scripture-does-to-and-for-us/ I have also drawn on his reflections throughout the sermon. I am also grateful to Bishop Mike Rinehart (https://bishopmike.com/2019/01/20/epiphany-3c-january-27-2019/) and Debie Thomas (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2060) for their reflections.