January 27, 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The passage we read from Nehemiah this morning tells a remarkable story. The people of Israel have come back home: they have been released from their captivity in Babylon -- to rebuild their city and their Temple, which is the center of their religious and social life. The first thing they do when they get there is to read the law: to remember the relationship God established with them. The law is more than a set of rules: it is the bonds and the boundaries of this relationship. They are going to be able to restore things to the way they used to be, and they are profoundly grateful. Their feasting – eating fat and drinking sweet wine and making sure that everyone has enough to eat – this is a sign that their grief is over, that their joy has returned.
It would be one thing, of course, if we could tell this story as one of a blameless people, carried off into exile by a conquering enemy. The enemy conquered them, but the prophets who spoke for God told the story this way: Israel had been disobedient. They had not followed the law. The people were selfish, corrupt, thought of themselves and not of others. The prophets condemned Israel for following gods of greed and self-centeredness, gods which turned them away from the communal responsibilities to the poor, the widowed, the downtrodden. According to the prophets, God sent those conquering enemies into Israel for a reason: the people of Israel had disobeyed God. The people would protest: Hey! This is the way we have always done things! But, no, the prophets would say, that “old way” got twisted, distorted. That “old way” strayed from the way God would have them live. When God let them go back, they needed to promise once again to God that they would be people of the law, of justice, of mercy, of compassion -- that they would worship only God and live rightly.
The Gospel of Luke sees John the Baptist – and probably Jesus, in this story of his speaking in his hometown synagogue – as prophets in the line of those who chastised Israel from straying from the covenant. Prophets don’t condemn for all time: they shout out to give you a chance to turn around. It’s not too late – yet! – prophets say. You have still got time to get it right, to live right with God, you still can love God and love your neighbor. Prophets grab people by the collar and yank them around to face the future. That future is where you are going to live the rest of your life: now is your chance to change your life, to live it the way God would have you live it. There is always time to claim a future of abundance, love and mercy. There is always a way to plan the future so that there is enough for everybody, a future not constricted by the way things used to be, by that old-time “business as usual.”
Jesus, like the other prophets, reminded the people of God of this. In this his first sermon he reads a piece of scripture they knew well, a piece from that time when they came back to a shattered home. Jesus reminds them of God’s promise to rebuild, to restore. But Jesus does not let them stay in that comfortable, if glorious, past. TODAY, Jesus says, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. TODAY: not in the past, no matter how good or bad it was. God’s promises are true TODAY, and they have a certain shape. But God’s promises will also be true when TOMORROW is TODAY – God’s promises will be true tomorrow, even if we do not know what the community of the people of God will look like. God’s promises – the good news of abundance will come to the poor, even if today we cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to redistribute wealth and privilege. Captives will be set free, even if now we have no idea what it would take to rehabilitate people who have done terrible things and return them to productive life in our society. Blind people – physically blind – will be able to see, even if today any surgeon would tell you it’s not possible. Blind people – spiritually blind – will see and understand what God is doing for justice and righteousness, even if now their hearts are hardened against all change. People who are oppressed by all sorts of burdens – people like you and me – will be freed from what ails us. We will live the lives that bring us God’s peace and prosperity, God’s serenity and simplicity, even if right now we cannot possibly imagine a way out of our rut of struggle and debt and discontent.
Those people listening to Nehemiah might have wanted Jerusalem to be the same when they got back, but it was changed, for ever and ever. Some things were GONE and could not be resurrected. But what all the prophets told them – and what Jesus was telling the people in Nazareth – was that they could take the most precious thing they had -- the love of God -- and carry it with them into the future. The love of God was the foundation upon which they would build the new Jerusalem, not some old stones that conquering armies have shattered. What was really important they had with them TODAY and they would take it with them into the future.
TODAY, Jesus says, you can believe that God’s promises are TRUE, even if you cannot imagine what that will look like. Your future, Jesus says, does not have to be a nostalgic rehashing of the way things used to be. TODAY something new has happened, a future God has been planning since the beginning of time.