After 70 years of exile in Babylon, the people of Israel have come home, but the diminished people have returned to a devastated region. They must reconstitute their community and recommit to their faith in circumstances drastically changed.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-10
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. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 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.”
Last Sunday we considered the story of the wedding at Cana, the first act of Jesus’ ministry according to the gospel of John. This week we turn to Luke’s analogous account. Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit at baptism, he was sent by the Spirit into the wilderness, and now we will see where the Spirit leads. The lectionary has assigned us only half of the story this morning. But before the story ends, Jesus neighbors will be so angry that they will try to kill him.
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.”
Where the Spirit Leads
One of my aunts died in November—the wife of my mother’s brother. My uncle is now alone on their small farm in north Florida. His church means a lot to him, so my mother was puzzled to learn a couple of weeks ago that he hadn’t been back since his wife died. When she asked him why, he said, “I don’t want to cry in church.” But today’s reading from Nehemiah attests that tears have lubricated the worship of God’s people for more than 2500 years.
We don’t know exactly what elicited the sorrow of the people gathered at the water gate—we know only that they hungered to hear the law of Moses and wept when Ezra read. The wounds they carried, the longings too deep to voice, ancestral memories—some floodgate broke when they heard the ancient words.
The Bible does not give us many descriptions of actual worship services, but we have two this morning. They take place more than 500 years apart, but in each case the reading and interpretation of scripture
evokes a strong reaction from the assembly: tears when Ezra reads, anger when Jesus takes a turn. It may be easier for us to understand the grief than the anger, so let’s take a closer look at Luke’s account.
We don’t know what expectations the people of Nazareth brought to the synagogue when word spread that Jesus had returned home. Maybe rumors made them curious; maybe familiarity gave them pause. At any rate, they came.
Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah. The congregation would have known the words well—they might even have been favorites. If the New Testament is any measure, Isaiah was the prophet most often quoted in Jesus’ day.
Norms in worship allowed for some amendment of prophetic texts and Jesus’ quotation is not exact, but it’s likely the people were angered not by what he added, as he combined two texts, but by what he left out.
Jesus announced: “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.”
The people knew they were hearing a promise of Jubilee, a vision of debts cancelled, slaves freed, inheritances restored. To a people under the thumb of foreign occupation this should be good news. But Jesus stops his quotation in the middle of a thought. He leaves out Isaiah’s reference to God’s vengeance.
The crowd waited to hear more, because Isaiah goes on, saying
“Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers…
you shall eat the wealth of the nations and in their riches you shall glory.”
Where was that part? And what did Jesus mean saying that the text was fulfilled today—this is what they had been waiting for? No, they’d been taught that the promise would not be fulfilled until their way was vindicated and opponents put in their place! Jesus’ framing of Isaiah’s words turned their promise of victory into a commendation of mercy.
My hunch is that if Jesus were preaching this morning, we might be offended by such a sermon, too. If something we had longed for, counted on, suffered for, was suddenly made available to everyone, without cost, my hunch is we, too, might take offense. Grab a newspaper or scroll through your news feed. It won’t take long to see these same dynamics playing out all over our country in conversations about race, education, gender equity, immigration—the list goes on. If we are playing a zero sum game, then our neighbor’s gain can only mean our loss. But Jesus isn’t playing a zero sum game.
The author and Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz Weber, puts it this way:
“That’s the problem with the whole concept of grace…It can both sting and comfort….My own fundamentalist wiring will always lead me to want two sets of labeled containers…Bad…and Good….I might always put people and things in those containers, but the problem comes when I start believing that God uses the same sorting system. “
“[My husband] once said to me, after one of my more finely worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions,
‘Nadia, the thing…is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.’”
The grace Jesus offers, the release from oppression, the blessing and healing—it’s not a promise that’s intended just for the benefit of insiders—it’s a promise that insiders are intended to claim and then carry into the world. The irony is: that doesn’t mean less for us, it means more. It means we get to participate in God’s own joy.
Last week we put a notice in the bulletin about household items needed for a family who had just moved to our area, with few possessions beyond their clothes. That’s a messy request to make. Folks who are living close to the edge don’t necessarily have predictable schedules and reliable transportation. It takes a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails. And questions get raised: Where do we draw the lines, and what sorts of precedents are we setting? Those are real questions. But this week, as I have marveled at your generosity and your willingness to go the extra mile, I have noticed how many doors to relationship opened because of one announcement in the bulletin. In the end I think that’s how grace works; I think that’s how joy comes.
I learned a bit about grace and joy some years ago, from that aunt who died in November. I didn’t grow up knowing Annelle. She was my uncle’s second wife. His first wife died of an aneurysm at the age of 40. I might not ever have known Annelle if, fifteen years ago, I hadn’t been looking for a spring break activity for our kids.
Nate and Hanna were born on the coast of California, and spent their early years in Princeton, New Jersey. Their only vision of farm life was seeing cows from the interstate. So I called and asked if we could come.
I knew the kids would love my mischievous uncle but I couldn’t tell them a lot about Annelle. The only things I knew were that she’d survived breast cancer, that she had raised her two daughters alone,
and that one of those girls had been killed in an accident on her way home for Christmas break. Like the people in Nehemiah’s time, Annelle had known a lot of loss.
So I decided to call and see if we could make a quick trip.
My uncle urged us to come. When school let out, we packed the car and headed south.
From the moment we walked in the door, it was obvious that a lot of care had gone into preparations for our visit. Cousins I hadn’t seen in 20 years came the first night for a huge picnic, the climax of which was the unveiling of an elaborate cake hidden beneath layers of crumpled aluminum foil. The cake had been sculpted, by my new aunt, to look like a ladies’ hat, complete with flowers and ribbons—the whole nine yards. My uncle, for his part, had engaged in literal horse trading, rounding up mounts that were gentle enough for city kids to ride. They packed the hours full: we collected eggs and held puppies; we went fishing; we put our hands in the dirt. And at night, under each of our pillows, there were gifts to remind us of our visit to the farm.
All of that made us feel cared for, extraordinarily, but, in the end, it was something that my aunt didn’t do that made me feel most welcome. In the morning she said, I hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to use paper plates while you’re here. She said, I know it’s wasteful, but you won’t be here long and I can’t stand the thought that we would be distracted from any chance to sit and talk and know each other better.
She wasn’t hosting us out of some sense of obligation, she wasn’t trying to impress; what mattered most to her was that we know each other as deeply as we could in the hours that we had. I can’t remember ever feeling more welcomed into someone’s home, or into someone’s heart, than I did that morning, eating breakfast from paper plates.
No one would have blamed Annelle if grief had insulated her heart, if our visit had seemed an intrusion, if she had gone through the motions and sent us on our way. But Annelle didn’t see first the things that made us strangers to each other; she saw first the chance to offer grace, and make new family.
I want to see newcomers in my life the way that Annelle saw me, the way I trust God sees each of us. I want to go where the Spirit leads.
 The interpretation that follows draw heavily on the detailed exegetical work of Kenneth E Bailey in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008), p. 147-169.
 see Isaiah 61:2 “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…”
 see Isaiah 61:5-7
 Nadia Bolz Weber, Pastrix, New York, Hachette Book Group, 2013, p. 57