(A sermon based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4:14-21 for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany)
Can you go home again? And if you do will they listen to you?
On May 7 I will be preaching at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia’s Senior Adult Celebration at the First Baptist Church in Forsyth, Georgia, which is about fifteen miles from the house in Barnesville in which I was raised. This will be the first time, except for a couple of funerals, that I have preached that close to home in many years. Many of my remaining family members and friends in the area are chronologically qualified to attend the meeting and I hope they will.
If they do, though, I will be a little intimidated. Some of them will be very curious about me. They’ll be asking themselves questions like, “Is he a know-it-all?” “Is he full of himself?” “Where did his hair go?” “Didn’t he used to be skinny?”
I don’t know what I will say to them but I hope it will be a lot like what I want to say to you today, namely, that fulfillment is found in fulfillment. That is, the church experiences a fulfilled life by helping others to live a fulfilled life, all of which is how we fulfill the purposes of God in our own place and time. Or, to come at it from the other direction, we fulfill God’s purposes when we help others to experience the fulfilled life that we have found and as we do that we become even more fulfilled. The more fulfillment you find the more fulfillment you offer and the more fulfillment you offer the more fulfillment you will find.
In our Gospel text we see Jesus, right after his baptism and his test in the wilderness, and so in the very early days of his ministry, returning to his hometown of Nazareth. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue and there he exercised the prerogative of a Jewish adult male to read and comment on Scripture. He chose a passage from the Isaiah scroll that said,
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 (Luke 4:18-19).
When those words were first spoken sometime during the years of or during the years after the Babylonian Exile of the Sixth Century BCE they referred either to the people of Israel or to person representing the people of Israel whom God would use to bring about a radical transformation in society. Because of the actions of this person or persons, actions that would be brought about through God’s anointing and because of God’s Spirit, the poor would receive good news, the captive would be set free, and the blind would be given sight. Moreover, the “year of the Lord’s favor”—the Jubilee year in which slaves would be set free and debts would be forgiven—would be proclaimed.
It was something to which the people looked forward; it was something that gave them hope.
It is one thing, though, to keep looking forward to such great transformation; it is quite another when someone announces that the time is now. Imagine if I were to go to Forsyth and there, just a few miles from my hometown, say, “Sisters and brothers, some things have to change around here.” All the people would say “Amen.” But then imagine how they would react if I were to then say, “And brothers and sisters, I am the one who will be the instigator of that change.” All the people would say “Yeah right.”
Jesus, after reading the words of the prophet, then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first his words received a good hearing from the hometown crowd, but then he started challenging them. He challenged them to understand the barriers that they had built against the fulfillment of the good news of God, barriers like a lack of faith, a lack of openness, and a lack of self-awareness; he challenged them to understand that he understood how hard it would be for them to get on board.
Their response was to try to throw him off a cliff. The final straw was his observation that God’s salvation was not just for a select few but for all and that the time had come when God would on a broad scale do what God had done on a smaller scale before: throw the gates of the kingdom open to anyone who was willing to come and pour the blessings of the kingdom out on those who were on the outside.
How different things would have been had the people in the synagogue that day realized just how blessed they were to be in the presence of Jesus and to have the opportunity to embrace the fulfillment that was offered to them in Jesus and the further fulfillment they could have found in getting in on the ground floor of what Jesus was doing, namely, sharing the good news with everybody everywhere. But the main barrier they experienced was their inability to embrace the fact that fulfillment came through both receiving and sharing the great gifts of God.
It was the most transitional moment in the history of the world and people cut themselves off from the fulfillment that comes only from accepting the grace of God and then joyfully and sacrificially sharing that fulfillment with others.
At another pivotal moment, one much closer to the time when the Isaiah text read by Jesus was spoken, the people of Judah who had returned from Babylonian Exile gathered to hear the reading of the Torah by Ezra the priest and its translation and interpretation by the Levites. When the people heard the Torah read they wept but Ezra and the other leaders told them not to cry but rather to celebrate. Then he said, “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” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Be very glad for the joy and fulfillment you have in Christ.
Be very, very glad that you can share it with others, whether they have prepared for it or not…