A sermon by the Rev. Linda Harrison
Epiphany 3; Jan 27, 2019 Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
There was weeping and gnashing of teeth in the public square as the people listened to the words of the Law read by Ezra. They heard the Law and its interpretation and realized how they had disobeyed God’s commandments. They were sure those long years in exile were a direct result of disobedience and they wept and mourned for their guilt was great.
Those who had been sent into exile, or their children born in exile, had returned to Jerusalem. The city was being rebuilt and the Temple in process of being restored. In the midst of these reparations, the people were in need of guidance and requested Ezra read from the book of the law of Moses. They heard the words of Torah. They heard their history: where they had come from, who they were, to whom they belonged, how God had been with them, how they were to behave and conduct themselves in community. They heard about God’s justice as the foundation of the covenantal life to which they were called, the justice they were charged to embody and live and share, especially as it concerned the most vulnerable in society.
Ezra read the words and the Levites provided the interpretation. The people came to understand how they had failed to live up to the covenantal promises. And so, they heard the words of the law and they mourned, deeply grieved and gripped with guilt because they were sure that what had happened to them was a result of disobedience to the covenant.
But the people are told, “No! Do not weep! Do not mourn! This day is holy to our God; this is a day of celebration.” Not only Ezra, the priest, but and Nehemiah, the governor, and the Levites who provided the interpretation of the reading – together they told the people to move from mourning to joy. The people are told, “Go, eat and drink and share what you have with people in need. Eat, drink, share, because today is holy. Eat, drink, share, and celebrate because the joy of God is your strength.”
Their strength is found in the joy of God. The joy of God is found in God’s law. God’s law is found in love.
The returning exiles are told: Yes, the Law has convicted you and God’s love has rescued you. Yes, there is a need for repentance, but we never remain mired in dissolute grief and guilt. There is a time for guilt and repentance. There is a time for celebration. There is a time to get up and go about God’s work of reparation.
Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites tell the people who have returned that now is that time to celebrate and embrace joy for there is still much work to do in building up the city and lifting out of poverty the ones who had been left behind. Only in the joy of God and God’s Word will they have the strength for the tasks ahead. Only in the joy of God and God’s Word will they have the wherewithal to address the systemic poverty left behind when the educated and ruling classes were sent into exile leaving the peasantry behind.
Only in the joy of God’s Word will they find the wisdom, the courage, and the strength to rebuild what oppressive forces and corrupt rulers have rent asunder. Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites invite the people into joy so they can participate in fulfilling the reconciling and salvific work of God. Yes, they have work to do. And it can only be faithfully accomplished and fulfilled in the joy of God.
Jesus declared, after reading from the prophet Isaiah, that “the Scripture has been fulfilled”. We think we hear Jesus say that what Ezra and company proclaimed back in the day is completed. Accomplished. Done. Everything is set right, and all is well with the world.
Although, it isn’t, is it?
And truly, that is not what Jesus is saying. English falls short when translating Greek verbs. It’s a bit more complicated than what we have English … Jesus proclaims that the prophet’s words of justice were fulfilled, are being fulfilled, and will continue to be fulfilled. It is an ongoing and repetitive activity of fulfillment. So, to steal David Lose’s paraphrase, Jesus might just be proclaiming, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled and will keep being fulfilled and therefore will keep needing to be fulfilled in your presence.”
Jesus, along with Ezra and company invite us into that ongoing work of realizing God’s reign here and now, of realizing God’s justice rooted in love. Jesus’ words are primarily a (1) declaration, and also a (2) promise and an (3) invitation.
- Jesus (1) declares – affirms – that God does indeed act on behalf of those in need, those who struggle, those who are oppressed. For us Christians, this is affirmed in the very person of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed of God.
- That affirmation also holds the (2) promise that God will continue to be with, to act on behalf of, to take the side of the vulnerable of our society. The promise of continued presence is sure and steadfast in Jesus, as the Christ of God, the One who was, Who is, and Who is to come – the Eternal Word of God made flesh. This is the promise rooted in God’s Eternal Word, the Torah; the guidance and promise that fills us with the joy that is our strength – the joy that motivates us to act with God, on behalf of God’s justice and righteousness.
- And so, we are (3) invited – called – to participate in the work of revealing, manifesting, and realizing God’s declaration and promises as our faithful and joy-filled response to the joy of God and the strength engendered by that joy in God’s Word. We are called to act in this life, in the here and the now.
It does indeed seem like a of lot work. It feels overwhelming – especially when we separate it from the joy we find in God’s Law and promises.
So, we come here, to worship and to pray, to hear the Word of God – not to be mired in guilt, but to be directed in our call, to lift one another up in the company of saints, to feed our souls, and find our strength in the joy of our God. We hear the Word and are reminded from where we have come, who we are, to whom we belong, how God has been with us and continues to be with us as we live into who God has called us to be in this world that God so very much loves.
Be strengthened in the joy of God. Hear the Word of God; be assured that this prophecy has been and will continue to be fulfilled in your hearing. Be strengthened to participate in the work to which our loving God has called each of us: to bring release to those who are captive to hate and prejudice, to bring mercy and justice to those who are imprisoned by institutionalized racism, to bring healing and understanding to those hurt and abused by toxic patriarchal structures, to lift up those kept in poverty by unjust economic policies.
So come, eat the bread and drink the wine at this table, and then go share with those whom nothing is prepared, for today and all days are holy to God; do not be grieved or overwhelmed, for the joy of God is indeed your strength.
The Eternal Word of God – made manifest in Christ – is with you always.
Blessed be God forever.