Epiphany 3, Luke 4:14-21
There are some astonishing moments in the scriptures which reveal the continuity between the present and ancient past, especially in what we do here when we are gathered on the Lord’s Day for worship.
Today’s first reading from Nehemiah is one of those astonishing moments. Here are salient summary points from that reading: The priest Ezra brings the book of the law before the assembly so that all, both men and women, could hear with understanding. They were assembled early in the morning until midday. All ears were attentive to the reading from the book of the law. When the book was opened, everyone stood up. Ezra blessed the Lord. The people responded with their amens and uplifted hands and then their bowed heads in worship. The law was read and interpretation was given, so that the people understood the reading (cf. Nehemiah 8:2-3).
Does this sound familiar? It should, for it’s essentially what we do here on Sunday mornings in great continuity with our cousins in the faith, the people of Israel, dating from ancient times.
Then there’s this other telling and poignant moment in today’s first reading: “For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.” (Nehemiah 8:9b)
The law does that to us humans; it reveals our shortcomings, our times of breaking the law, and our failure to keep the law. The law reveals what God expects of us. When we take a moment for self-examination, we begin to name the particular ways in which we have fallen short. That’s the nature of confession. Thus, the faithful wept when they felt compunction for their sins.
So it is that we hear the law in our own Sunday readings from the scriptures. The law’s demands, for example, are suggested in today’s second reading, that from First Corinthians where Paul reveals the essential unity we have in Christ and our interdependence with each other. This is wonderful teaching full of good news. But, reading between the lines, the reality is that Paul would not have needed to write about our unity in the church if there was not also disunity. Indeed, the thrust of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians indicates that there were in fact dissentions in the church at Corinth. Hence, Paul’s reminder of the call to unity and to honoring all the different people who comprise Christian community. For the people were divided and didn’t honor each other. And so it continues to this day. We hear this as a message to us as well.
Then we turn to today’s gospel reading from Luke where we also are confronted with the realities of human failure in relation to God’s lawful expectations. Jesus, very much in keeping with the practice revealed in today’s passage from Nehemiah, goes to his hometown synagogue to read publicly from the book of the prophet Isaiah and then to give brief commentary on the passage he read.
What Jesus read from Isaiah reveals the brokenness of human community, that there are the poor who languish without good news, that there are those held captive who cry out for release, that the oppressed cry out for freedom, that we all long for and need the forgiving jubilee of the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, what Jesus read from Isaiah reveals our brokenness and that we are in need of a savior, namely, him.
When we are forthrightly confronted with these realities of both breaking the law and failing to keep it, and we are honest with ourselves, of course we weep, and cry out to God for help, for mercy, for release from our captivity to sin.
But then there’s this other remarkable moment in today’s first reading from Nehemiah. The priest Ezra says to the people assembled – listen to this: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep…. 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.” (Nehemiah 8:9b-10)
Lest we think that the Old Testament contains only harsh words of God’s judgment and we need the New Testament to hear words of grace, comfort, and consolation, please think again. What are these words of the priest Ezra but words of merciful grace? Of forgiveness? Of justification for unrighteous sinners?
So it is that Jesus, in keeping with the grace-filled traditions of his forebears, offered words of grace and mercy in the words of the prophet Isaiah as he was reading and interpreting in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.
Reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord 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.” (Luke 4:18-19)
When he finished reading, there was this compelling, dramatic moment in Luke’s telling. Jesus rolled up the scroll and gave it to the attendant. Jesus sat down in apparent silence with the eyes of all in the synagogue fixed on him.
Then Jesus gave a very brief sermon of merely nine words, interpreting the scripture he just read aloud: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Indeed, we see the fulfillment in Luke’s wider telling of the story. Yes, the Spirit of the Lord came to Jesus when he was praying after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
Yes, through that baptism, Jesus was anointed to do God’s work. And yes, the Lord sent Jesus to do that work. More fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise in Jesus.
And his work was indeed to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery of sight, to free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
At this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus is just beginning his public ministry. He announces his vision for that ministry inspired by the words of Isaiah. And from this point on, again in Luke’s orderly recounting, Jesus will fulfill the promise of God’s word in Isaiah by living into the vision in proclamation and in deed, in actions which result in freedom and sight and the Lord’s favor. This was good news back then. It’s good news for us now.
Let’s go back to where we began with our consideration of the continuity with and parallels between now and the ancient Jewish practices of holy assembly recorded in Nehemiah.
Ezra the priest invites the people to eat the fat and drink sweet wine. And on their way also to provide for those for whom nothing has been prepared.
Again, this should sound familiar to us. Because we also turn from hearing both the demands of the law and also the good news of freedom and release to find our way to the banquet table, the Lord’s table, where we, too, eat the fat and drink the wine of the eucharist. And when we leave this table, it is our custom to bring this same communion to those who are homebound, for whom nothing has been prepared.
In all of this, we, too, enjoy and know the realities which Jesus proclaimed in his very brief sermon, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Yes, this fulfillment happens in our hearing, but it also goes beyond this place and this hour when we are sent back into the world to proclaim, in continuity with Jesus’ own ministry, good news and release and recovery of sight and freedom and the time of the Lord’s favor.
Today, after this liturgy, we will have our congregation’s annual meeting when we’ll hear reports of what we’ve done in the past year, but also explore what we intend to do in the coming year, namely as we seek to live into our vision for mission and ministry, encapsulated by the words of another prophet, namely Micah: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” (cf. Micah 6:8).
The words of the prophet Isaiah charted the course for Jesus’ ministry, the words creating a roadmap for the way forward for him. Likewise, for us. Micah 6:8 becomes our missionary roadmap. For in Christ, by the power of his death and his resurrection, we are graciously freed, awakened in faith, led by the Spirit, and in thanksgiving to God, we leave this place to seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God for the sake of the world.
May these sacred words be fulfilled in our hearing and in our doing. Amen.