When I was first exploring my call to ministry, it was suggested that I play a little "Bible Roulette." I opened me Bible, without looking at it, and put my finger down on the page - and it was this passage from Nehemiah. "Ezra the Priest brought the law before the assembly... and read from it... from early morning until midday... One of the verses that is omitted from this reading says, “he stood on at a wooden podium... and opened the book in the sight of all the people... and when he opened it all the people stood. " And further down, "And they read from the book clearly and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." And my first response was, "Oh Lord, does this mean what I think it means?"
Does this all sound familiar? When I opened the Gospel book, you all stood to hear the reading. Now I am standing at a wooden podium giving an interpretation of the readings so that all can understand.
This first lesson takes place approximately 500 years before the life of Jesus. In our Gospel lesson (500 years later) – once again the people have gathered to hear the Word of God being read.
Today, 2000 years later, the people of God are still gathering in churches around the world to hear the Word of God being read. The tradition continues and the story is still told – over and over – with interpretation for the time. There are thousands of churches reading these lessons today. And an interpretation (the sermon) being given - chances are very good that no two sermons will be the same.
Now we have a history lesson, this is God’s doing because I have an aversion to history. But in the case I think its important to connect the pieces. Ezra and Nehemiah are both characters out of the post-exilic period; the Babylonian exile. After Cyrus the Persian king overthrew the Babylonians in 539 BC, he allowed the Jews to begin going back to their homeland.
The first wave went back, taking with them the holy vessels that had been stolen from the temple. Their job was to rebuild the temple which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king. They accomplished that task, but they had problems in carrying over their worship practices into the living of their everyday lives.
So Ezra the priest felt called by God to go to Jerusalem and restore the law. His task was to restore the temple worship and help the people to see how this affected their everyday lives. This was the second wave to return from exile.
The third wave consisted of Nehemiah, the governor, whose task it was to rebuild the city wall around Jerusalem. Each returning group met resistance from the people already there.
In our lesson today, we find Ezra reading the law from early morning until midday. And those that are assembled are men, and women, and those who could understand - probably older children. Now understand that the law had not been read in that land in over 70 years. Chances are that very few people there had ever heard it read. They most likely had heard tales and stories passed down word of mouth.
But on this day, most people were hearing the law read for the first time. And it says that the people wept when they heard the law. Why did they weep? Because the Word of God touched their hearts? Because they knew that they had not been following the law? Probably. But are they condemned by their leaders? No, as a matter of fact they are told, "Do not mourn or weep, for this day is holy to the Lord." They are told, "Eat, drink, give to those who have none, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
In our gospel lesson, Jesus also is reading from Holy Scripture. Jesus has gone to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, as was his custom. This is not something new, it is something he always did. The people knew him, they watched him grow up, and they’ve heard him read before... But this time it's different, this time he's been gone, and they've heard reports, strange reports, about him. He opens up the scroll and he reads. It is a nice familiar text - one they've heard many times before - and they wait for his teaching, his understanding of this text.
And his first words are, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And they're not sure what to make of this. You see, following his baptism and his temptations, Jesus now understands that he has a purpose. And that purpose can be found is the prophetic scriptures of the Hebrew people. He understands that he has been anointed by God, he has received God's Holy Spirit. He understands that the anointing of God is always given for a purpose. It is never given just as a feel-good sensation or for one's own personal enjoyment - it is given for the fulfilling of a task. Now Jesus knows exactly who he is and what he is to do, and this scripture spells it out in full.
- He is to preach good news to the poor, be they monetarily or spiritually poor.
- He is to proclaim release to those who are held captive, be it physical or emotional imprisonment.
- He is to be the instrument of healing, to the blind, the crippled, the deaf.
- He is to set free those who are oppressed in every land or state.
- He is to proclaim the fulfillment of the Lord's purpose here on earth, during our time - not in some far distant idealistic future.
Jesus is proclaiming his purpose in life. He is also telling the people what it takes for the Kingdom of God to be present in our lifetime. Jesus was uniquely suited for this purpose. He knew who he was and he understood what that meant. He also understood that this was just the beginning of a new paradigm on earth. He knew that even though this was nothing new, since it had seldom been practiced on earth, that he was to be the example - he was the one to demonstrate - exactly what God meant. Jesus' purpose was to demonstrate that the far distant idealistic future was here, - now, - in our lifetime.
Jesus proclaimed it then, two thousand years ago, and he proclaims it now, here in our presence. You see, when the church gathers for worship and for fellowship, the aim should not be to make its members feel good, but to equip them for putting into visible form the Kingdom of God in their daily lives.
Obviously we're not all called to go out and preach the gospel or heal the sick in the way Jesus did. Paul reminds us of that. We are all part of the body of Christ. But if each one of us does our part - worship regularly, fellowship with those who love Christ, reach out to those within our sphere of influence - God's kingdom will be manifest here on earth.
One way we can do this as Christians is to stay attuned to the needs of the people around us. If someone mentions a personal concern to you, they are quite often reaching out for help - for comfort - for understanding. If someone mentions a particular need, offer to stop and pray, right then – or offer other kinds of help that can be beneficial in the given situation.
So often we say something like, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” And we forget how much more powerful it is to stop right then, take their hand and pray for them - right then, not in some distant future. I used to do that - all the time. And somehow I've gotten out of the habit - often saying, "I'll add you to my prayer list…" And I realize that in doing that, I'm perpetuating this idea of the Kingdom of God as being somewhere in the distant future. But when I stop and pray with the person right then, then the Kingdom of God is present - right then - in that very moment.
I like what James says in his letter to the 12 tribes, "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…"
As members of Christ's body here on earth, we are called to do these things. It doesn't take fancy words or special knowledge. What it does take is a belief that God can do all things, and through him all things are possible. We simply open up our hearts to let the love of Christ come in, and allow Him to work through us - sometimes in spite of us…
God calls each and every one of us to be a part of His Kingdom here on earth. And God will use you for his purpose. When people see you, will they say, "I want to be like that", or will they say, "Don't let me be like that…" - it's your choice -- how will God use you?