It’s What We Do
Nehemiah 8:1-10/Luke 4:14-21 - 24 January 2016
It is ironic that on the Sunday that we are given these two passages for our reflection that the delivery of 30+ inches of snow in our region makes it impossible for us to gather to hear them read and to find an interpretive edge that we may embody them in our own time. I say ironic since both the passage from Nehemiah and the one from Luke portray the community of God’s people gathered, listening to the reading and interpretation of earlier texts that had inspired and sustained them throughout centuries, and now millennia, of life’s challenges.
Nehemiah was a court administrator for the King of Persia in Susa. A Jew himself by ancestry, he had heard of the difficulties the people were having in re-establishing Jerusalem after returning from the Babylonian Exile. He received permission to go to Jerusalem where he led the reconstruction of the Second Temple and the walls of the city for protection from neighboring threats.
When the construction was complete the people gathered outside the gates of the city, and at the instruction of Ezra, a scribe and priest who led the return to Jerusalem, listened to Nehemiah read the Torah, the law of Moses. Nehemiah was instructed to interpret the readings. This would sound very much like the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, which depicts Moses sitting the people down and going over in some detail the lessons learned in their 40 year wilderness sojourn before entering the land of promise. That is, God’s people gather periodically to hear the texts of the tradition and find ways to apply them to the current circumstances. It’s what we do.
The largesse and generosity of the Persian Empire ought not to be overlooked: Cyrus, a Persian gentile, released the captives to return to their homeland, and his successor allowed Nehemiah to go and help his people, Israel, as they sought to renew their commitment to being God’s people and demonstration community in an increasingly hostile world.
Fast forward 500 years or so. Jerusalem is now an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. A corrupt aristocracy in Jerusalem is aiding and abetting the Roman enemies. A young man from Nazareth returns to his hometown synagogue having already earned a reputation as a teacher, healer and possible modern day prophet. He is handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, a prophet of the Exile some 600 years earlier. Isaiah was one of a few prophets in that day that helped the people to understand the circumstances of their captivity and maintain the hope for an eventual return by the hand of their God. Little had they thought that God would use a gentile like Cyrus to orchestrate their exodus and return!
Jesus takes the scroll and opens it to what we now recognize as chapter 61 in Isaiah. He stands to read, very much like Nehemiah, very much as Moses had done, and the people hear the Word: God has anointed me to bring good news to his occupied people. Those who are blind shall receive sight, captives will be freed, the oppressed shall go free, and it is time for the year of the Lord’s favor. This last pronouncement was quite extraordinary. The year of the Lord’s favor, or the Jubilee year was to be a time to cancel all debts and allow the bonded debt slaves and servants to return home to begin again.
Then, like Nehemiah, he offers an interpretation of what was just read: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Yes, this is the crucial distinction. For those of us listening to such a recitation of the essence of who we are it is incumbent that we hear and embody the Word. That is, the role of the hearer of the Word is to both “hear” and “fulfill” the Word. This is our task. It’s what we do.
As Paul outlines in his First Letter to the Church in Corinth, chapter 12, verses 12-31, we are all given special gifts. According to the gifts given to us, we are to hear and fulfill the Word. We are not asked to do anything more than what God has equipped us, gifted us, to do. Accordingly, we are expected to do no less than what God has equipped us to do.
Read Ezra-Nehemiah. Read Paul’s letters. Read the Gospels. It ought to become evident that the work we are called to do is very hard work. It is also very necessary work as well. The world needs us to do this work. It can be discouraging. It has always been thus. It is no different in our time than it was in the days of the texts we come to hear week in and week out. This is reason enough to come together week after week: to hear the Word we have been given to fulfill and to support one another in the fulfilling of this Word. As we hear these stories, we can only be impressed with the persistence and doggedness with which the Jews of these historical periods – the days of Moses, the days of Nehemiah, the days of Jesus – confronted the challenges before them. We listen to their stories as a model for our own generation. It’s what we do.
As one rabbi, Rabbi Tarfon once said, “It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” (Mishnah, Avot, chapter 2)
To be among those called to hear and fulfill the Word we must always remember: it is not our duty, it is our privilege. We may not enter the promised land, but we are those who can see it, can imagine it, and can do our own small part to make it one day a reality for all people. It’s what we do. Amen.