In the Name...
This morning's Old Testament lesson comes from a book with which most of us probably aren't overly familiar, the Book of Nehemiah. I'll admit it's not full of memorable quotations, but, did you know that Nehemiah was the shortest man in the Bible. Knee-high-miah? No, oh, o.k. Actually, Nehemiah was a Persian Jew who, in 455 B.C., was appointed as governor of Judea by the Persian king.
When he arrived in Judea, he found the situation disorganized, to say the least, so with the help of the priest Ezra, he decreed a series of political and social reforms all aimed at refocusing the people and reminding them of the covenant relationship they had with Yahweh, the God of their fathers. In fact, it was really under Nehemiah and Ezra that what we would recognize as Judaism begins and what we heard this morning was the story of the first Rosh Hashanah, or New Year festival, of this new order.
Now, these are the people who had, for over 70 years, lived in Exile in Babylon. Even though the Persian king had let them return to their country and they had rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem; even though agriculture had resumed and the towns were being repopulated; they were still struggling spiritually and morally. Living in Babylon they had picked up pagan ideas and values. So, Ezra and Nehemiah used this particular New Year celebration to not only mark a point on the calendar, but, to also spiritually and morally restore and renew an entire community. And to this end they had the Torah, the books of Moses, publicly read from scroll to scroll in the presence of everybody - men, women, and children.
Living as we do in the age of printing and downloads, it's difficult to imagine not having a Bible or two around the house, but, in those days, when scrolls were rare and most people illiterate, the only way to learn was by hearing things read by those who could.
And so Ezra and the Levites read, from dawn to midday. Can you imagine that? I find it remarkable. Most of us can hardly keep our attention on anything for more than a few minutes let alone six hours! And what did they hear that day? They heard the story of Creation, of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah. They heard of God's calling and promise to Abraham and Sarah, the story of bondage in Egypt and of deliverance led by Moses; of wandering in the desert, of God's provision of manna and water and quail, of the covenant renewal at Mt. Sinai - You will be my people and I will be your God - and of the Ten Commandments which accompanied it; and they heard how to live in that covenant so as to bring blessings to their lives instead of curses.
Ezra and Nehemiah's audience would have heard this story and recognized it as their story. The God who was with their ancestors was also with them. They too had experienced captivity and exodus and realized that God's words could help show them how to live in freedom.
The drama of the situation is really revealed when we hear that the people were so moved that they wept. Can you imagine that? People wept at hearing a story we almost take for granted.
But, the people were told to dry their tears. They were told to rejoice and be glad. It was a day of rebirth, a day for everyone to celebrate. The Scriptures had come back to life. The dusty written record, the carefully guarded parchment and ink, had now become enfleshed in the life of the people. A new dawn has broken. "The joy of the Lord", Ezra announces, "is your strength."
Let's fast forward, now, a few hundred years to a synagogue in Nazareth where a man named Jesus showed up on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. In the synagogue service, a portion of Scripture was read and the person who read would then comment on the text. Ever since the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, every Jewish male had been taught to read and write. Every man was expected to not only know the words of Scripture, but, to have studied enough and thought enough about them to be able to speak about them in public worship. Imagine that!
I mean, would anybody like to read the Gospel and give the sermon next week? Well, that was how a 1st Century synagogue operated. Everyone took their turn.
Well, on this particular Sabbath, Jesus is asked to read and comment on the appointed passage from the prophets. Yes. He didn't just pick whatever he liked. The synagogue had a lectionary just as we do. Certain readings for certain days. And on that day, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He unrolled it, read the first two verses of chapter 61, and stopped. These were the words of a prophet who lived during the disordered period between the end of the Exile and the arrival of Nehemiah. These were words which called for the inauguration of a new era, a new beginning, a time called the year of the Lord's favour.
"The spirit of the Lord God is upon me", the prophet says. To the Jews, the spirit of God was the power of creation, the breath of life. It was God's vital and dynamic power and the person who received God's spirit was said to be, in Hebrew, "mashach", anointed, and become God's "mashiach" or messiah.
And Jesus says, "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
What did Jesus mean by these words? Certainly, he meant that he was THE Messiah that God had promised to send; that he was the fulfilment of prophecy, the anointed one filled with the spirit and power of God, and that he had come to begin the year of the Lord's favour. And, I think we can all accept that. But, the thing about a beginning is that it starts something, it gets something going. How long, for example, is the year of the Lord's favour? 365 days? That doesn't seem right.
No, that must mean something more than just a calendar year. And if it began with Jesus that day, then when did it end - or has it?
The Greek word for "anointed" is "chrism" and one who is anointed is a "christos", a christ, and we, you and I, are called Christians. Guess what that means. This prophecy is about more than just Jesus. It's about us. And when Jesus says that the year of good news, release, recovery, freedom and proclamation has come he also means that we're the ones who will see it through to its completion for when he comes again.
St. Paul speaks often of what it means for Christians to be what he calls "the body of Christ". He talks about what it means for us to be "temples of the Holy Spirit" and filled with spiritual gifts, power from beyond ourselves, power to heal and restore, power to release and recover, power to bring new life to an old world.
The Jews were called to be a covenant people. We have been called to be something much more. We are called to be the fulfilment of Scripture. And when I think about that, I feel very small indeed. Knee-high, in fact. But, I also know that with the grace of God, I can grow into the full stature of the christ I am called to be. And so can we all.
The year of the Lord's favour is here and now, and we make it happen.
In the Name...