RING, RING! THE FUTURE IS CALLING!
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Luke 4: 14-21
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
January 27, 2019
Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared…. Sounds like a celebration, doesn’t it! This welcome word of celebration was given to a community that had been squabbling, distrusting one another, until they stopped long enough to listen and really hear the Word of God.
There is a lot of pain in any gathering for worship. There are disappointments and tragedies and brokenness that represent normality for many. We come to church on any given Sunday, not so much because we are looking for easy answers, but because we want to know that we are loved and supported and challenged by a Divine Being greater than our minds can grasp. We want that connectedness with the Creator of the universe.
So it is true that we have something in common with this ancient story found in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah, the man whose memoirs make up the bulk of this book, was not a professional religious leader. He was an appointed governor, a man of deep spiritual insight. When he heard that those who returned to Jerusalem from captivity to rebuild the city were struggling with each other while the city still needed rebuilding, he wrote in his memoir a most revealing first-person account: I sat down and wept, he said, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah was a layman whose great gift was administration. He was, in fact, a Jew who had been appointed to the King’s Court in Babylon as the official Cupbearer to the King. Now that may sound impressive, but the King’s official Cupbearer had the job of drinking some of the King’s wine before it was given to the King. He would not want to give that job to one of his own people. He gave it to a slave like Nehemiah who was expendable.
But Nehemiah was also a gifted administrator, and he managed to get the King to appoint him as Governor of Israel. So he traveled to Jerusalem, and he was successful in getting all those squabbling people on the same page! Get those homes livable! Get the streets cleaned up! Jerusalem may never be what it was back in the old days, but we can make this community what it should be today! That was the approach of Nehemiah, and that is precisely what happened.
When the job was finally completed, the people gathered in the public square as God’s community to celebrate. They were overcome with bittersweet emotions. The people wept. Then Nehemiah said to all the people: 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.
Now I invite us all to ponder those words. For them, Jerusalem was not what it was in years past. But there was a time to move forward however modest the circumstances compared with former times. Nehemiah reminded them that they were capable of doing that with joy: Do not be grieved, he said, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
For many people, joy is equated with happiness, and happiness is often tied to circumstances. We would be happy if all our bills were paid, or if we had all the pews filled on Sunday. The joy of the Lord, on the other hand, is quite different than happiness. The joy of the Lord is a gift in spite of circumstances. You cannot earn it, buy it, or deserve it. It is a divine gift to receive rather than a reward to pursue. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! It is a gift!
The opposite of the joy of the Lord is not sadness, but anxiety. We in this church inherit a tradition of worship that makes it challenging to show joy. We’re not very good at it. We get anxious when someone gets too excited in worship. We have a few in this congregation who come out of other worship traditions, and they yearn to say “Amen” or clap their hands or (God forbid!) even shout “Hallelujah!”
The story about Nehemiah tells us that the people got so excited when they heard the Word of God that they couldn’t stay in their seats! They jumped to their feet! They were so excited that they forgot to eat! Nehemiah had to remind them: Eat! Drink! Share with others! Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Now fast-forward 500 years. We see a young man named Jesus returning to speak at his hometown synagogue. A scroll is brought to him, and he rolls it out until he finds the right place in the book of Isaiah. He begins to read: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He 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. With that, he rolls up the scroll, gives it to the attendant, and sits down. It was the custom for teachers to sit rather than to stand. So when Jesus takes his seat, all the people expect him to expound on the scripture he read. The people are all looking at him; he is looking back at those faces from his early years. There are his childhood friends, the buddies he had hung around with as a teenager; there are the adults he had known who seemed much older now.
When he opens his mouth he lets out a zinger. It is a word so provocative that we still ponder it today. He lets the tiger out of the cage and says, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. This was more than unexpected; it was shocking. It still is. He was saying that his mission, the reason God’s Spirit descended upon him at his baptism, was to empower him to do precisely this: to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free; and to announce that jubilee year when God’s justice will reshape society.
That was his mission, and it was not just a jumble of high-sounding words. Everywhere he went, that is what he did, until finally it led to his crucifixion. Those who opposed him thought that was the end of the matter. But, of course they were wrong. Jesus continues today to do what he talked about in that Nazareth synagogue. He doesn’t do it with his physical presence; he does it through his mystical body, the church. Jesus continues to live out his mission statement through his body, the church.
When the poor are given hope, whether their poverty comes from lack of resources or from lack of soul, Jesus is still at work. When captives are freed, whether they are prisoners in hovels or prisoners in mansions, Jesus is still at work. When the blind receive their sight, whether it is cataract surgery or the scales of prejudice falling off their eyes, Jesus is still at work. When the oppressed are set free, whether oppression is from a political regime or a chemical dependence, Jesus is still at work. Wherever justice and kindness prevail, Jesus is still at work. When Jesus read that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he was announcing not only his mission statement, but the mission statement for his body, the church!
The two stories connect here. Like those returning to Jerusalem, this congregation has rebuilding to do. This church is not what it was fifty years ago. Neither is any other church. It is a different world, but there is still important work to do, good people to do it with, and a mission that is worthy of our best efforts. And in the midst of that work, we can experience the joy of the Lord. Eat; drink; share your joy; rebuild the community, all members offering their special gifts.
And the mission? This church is called to share the mission of Jesus: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to help the blind recover their sight, to free the oppressed, and to live in such a way that would model the great jubilee year of peace and justice. That is the future that claims this church!
What a grand future! 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!