Nehemiah 8:1-10, “And Nehemiah said . . . ‘Do not mourn or weep . . .’”
Luke 4:14-21, “Jesus stood up and read, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . .’”
It had been a long time since anyone read scripture in the way that Jesus did that day. It had been a long time since anyone dared to say that today was the day . . . that in this very moment that something important was happening.
As we read in the gospel of Luke, Jesus went to the synagogue just like many Jewish men of his day did. This is the place where they would gather to read scripture, to sing psalms, to speak with each other about what the scripture meant, to listen for its meaning for them. It is a lot like what we do in worship. But that day was different.
At some point in the service, Jesus stood up to read from the scriptures. He stood up and unrolled the scroll and traced his finger along the parchment until he found just what he was looking for, until he came to the place where the prophet Isaiah proclaims salvation. And Jesus reads.
And as he reads it is as if the words of Isaiah are his words; these words are no longer the words of the prophet; they are no longer the words of Isaiah from so many years ago. Today, that day, these are the words of Jesus.
It is the same as when any of us reads a story, or a poem, or sings a song that someone else wrote, but it is a song that has in that moment become a part of us . . . it is ours now. And Jesus reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free!” This is good news! This is wonderful news!
Then why don’t we think it is good news? Why don’t we act as if it is good news?
Why is it that sometimes when we hear God’s word for us that instead of saying “amen”, instead of shouting, why is it that sometimes when we hear God’s word for us we react with tears, with grief, and with sorrow?
Our other scripture for this Sunday is from the book of Nehemiah. It tells of another time when scripture was read . . . when something important was happening that day . . . and the reaction of the people was that fear and grief and sorrow. They cried tears as they heard the scripture read. It seemed to be all that they could do.
You see, it had been years and years since they had heard the scripture read . . . period.
The time that we read about this morning, this time of Ezra and Nehemiah, this was a day that followed a great period of rebuilding for the children of Israel. This time followed the time of exile in Babylon, that land which would be modern-day Iraq. This land was where so many of the Israelites had been taken, had been stripped of their possessions, had been enslaved and separated from the land that God had given them. There had been so many years of struggle, so many years of pain and tears and in some ways the people were accustomed to, they were used to living in pain and struggle.
Do you know that you can get used to pain and struggle?
Psychologists call it “learned helplessness”. They first called it that because of an experiment that they conducted with dogs. They would take these dogs and give them small electrical shocks, just enough to be uncomfortable, without there being any way that the dog could avoid the shock. These scientists would have the dogs trapped with nowhere to go.
Then they would place the dog in a situation where they could actually go somewhere when they felt that shock . . . but the dog would not move. Even when the scientists conducting this experiment would shock the dog again and again and again, the dog would just lie there . . . thinking that the discomfort that they are currently experiencing was just how life is . . . the dog had gotten used to pain and to struggle.
I remember when my wife and I adopted our first dog together, Lucy. There was little doubt that Lucy had been abused. She was just so very skittish and afraid of both of us, but especially me. We figured out that she would act more afraid of men than women.
When we first got Lucy we kept her in a kennel, basically a plastic box with a gate on the front; we placed a pillow inside of it so that it would be comfortable. The first few days, we had to reach in and pull Lucy out of the kennel. She would not come out otherwise. She was a very scared dog, very afraid, very distrustful.
And it took time for that to change. Because somewhere inside of her head, with whatever that dog had been through, she did not believe that life would ever be different. She did not believe that there was good news. But there was . . .
And we too believe sometimes that life will just never be different for us. We too believe that things are the way they are and that that is just the way that they will always be. We do not always believe that it is possible to rebuild, to start over . . . and when we see all the work that has to be done, sometimes we give up before we ever get started.
Sometimes even when we hear that good news, we do not believe it is for us. We do not believe that we are “good enough”. We do not believe that we are capable enough. We do not believe that we are worthy of hearing this good news and certainly not good enough to carry that news to others. So we may sit . . . and we may hold our head in our hands and cry.
You see, this is exactly what the people did at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. It was after that exile, that time of oppression, death and destruction. But now, they had returned. And Nehemiah had helped them rebuild the city of Jerusalem . . . and they had even rebuilt the wall around the city . . . which was a magnificent thing to accomplish. Imagine a people that had been slaves, a generation that had grown up in a foreign land, these people had returned home, had reclaimed what was theirs, had rebuilt their city, had refortified its walls . . . they had done it! The evidence for their success and the way that God was with them was all around them. It is as if they can see it, but they do not really see it.
You know how we all do sometimes . . . even if someone gives us a compliment, maybe we’ve been clouded by our own doubt for so long that we just don’t quite believe it.
And these Israelites didn’t quite believe it. And then their priest, Ezra, then Ezra begins to read them the law. Ezra, in much the same way that Jesus would do many years later, Ezra read the words of God to the people. These were words that they had not heard read in so long, for a generation.
These were words of the life that God wanted for them; the goodness of God; that this God is the type of God who brings salvation, who loves you and loves me; this is a God of wonderful grace and glory such that the very heavens are telling God’s glory.
All this is good news!
And the people weep. They cry.
They get down on their hands and knees and just cannot seem to believe it . . . and our scripture does not say exactly why they were so grieved. For some it may have been a realization that they still had so far to go . . . and the journey had been so long just to get to this point; for some it may have been such feelings of unworthiness, that this great and wonderful God could love them, even them, and they just would not, could not feel worthy of such grace and love, for some they may have realized how much they had neglected this God, how much they had not sought God and honored God and done those things that they knew that God wanted them to do. Our scripture does not say exactly why the people cried that day.
But what our scripture does tell us is the comforting words of the priest Ezra and the leader Nehemiah. They tell the people that this is not a day to be sad. They said to the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of this food and this drink 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.”
That day was important. That turn from fear and helplessness to joy and living in the grace that God gives us. That turn is from merely hearing the good news . . . to understanding that good news in your life, in your heart, in your mind, so that it becomes the joy of your life, and that joy becomes your strength.
So hear the good news for you. Yes it is for you! “Jesus has come to set us free!” We are called to believe and follow . . . and to follow in joy, not sorrow.
And just as the people were told to leave that place, to go out and celebrate, to share that joy with others, it is our job to do the same.