Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-10; Luke 4:14-21
The Bible reading I just read is one of the most moving dramas in the Old Testament. This passage is a kind of sermon preached by Ezra, who was a high priest of Israel. To fully understand the reading we need to look at Jewish history around the time of exile in Babylon. Some of us may think the Old Testament has too much information and the New Testament is enough for us to learn as Christians. But the more we learn about and understand the Old Testament, the easier it is to understand the New Testament and the more we appreciate God’s everlasting love for us through Jesus Christ. Today’s Old Testament passage is a good example showing us how the Old Testament and New Testament are connected within God’s salvation plan for both Jews and Gentiles, like you and me.
This story took place in the sixth century B.C. in Babylon. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and deported large numbers of the most important and influential citizens of Israel and its royal people. This exile lasted 50 years. In addition, the homeland, Israel, was destroyed. Non-Israelites from neighboring countries appropriated the empty homes. Strangers farmed the fields and vineyards. One of the exiled Jews, Nehemiah, who lived in Babylon rose to a high place as a royal cupbearer in the Persian court. In about 445 B.C. Nehemiah received a message from a relative who had just returned from a visit in Jerusalem. The relative, whose name was Hanani, told Nehemiah that all Jewish survivors who left Jerusalem were in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem was broken down, and its gates were destroyed by fire.
The report deeply moved Nehemiah and he remembered God’s promises to Moses that God would redeem the children of Israel. Nehemiah decided to return to Jerusalem and help rebuild the destroyed city. He got permission from the Persian ruler to return to his homeland. He returned to the land of his forefathers and undertook the task of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. He called the Jewish leaders together and proposed the refortification of the holy city. They responded eagerly, “Let us rise up and build.” Each of the business merchants and priests worked hard to rebuild the walls of the Jerusalem temple. In this process the high priest Ezra returned from Babylon to proclaim the Word of God to Israel’s people.
All the people assembled at the plaza in front of the Water Gate on the Day of Atonement (about mid-September) and requested Ezra to read to them the Word of God. So Ezra brought out to them the scroll of the Law of Moses. He faced the square in front of the Water Gate and read from early morning until noon. When he opened the book to read, all the people stood out of reverence. Imagine yourself standing attentively for five hours listening to the reading of the scripture lessons. Ezra read the Scriptures in Hebrew and the Levites translated it into Aramaic, the common language of the time and place, so the people could better understand it. All the people began sobbing when they heard the commands of the law.
As people who lost their nation, they lived with great troubles and shame. Maybe it’s hard for you to understand the shame of a people who have lost their independence as a nation. Korea, my home country, lost its independence to Japan for thirty-six years during the two world wars. Japan abducted countless young Korean women to “service” their soldiers in battle. After World War II was over, Korea regained its independence, but many of these women could not return to their homeland because of the shame related to the Japanese oppression. Many women who returned to their homeland hid their past experience and suffered their whole lives.
This is an example of shame that people suffer when they lose their nation to foreign subjugation. Not only communal shame as a nation can come to us, but also all of us, at some time in our lives, probably have suffered or will suffer with guilt or shame individually. Recently I heard a story about a couple who’s morning routine was for the mother to take their young daughter to daycare. One fateful morning the mother could not take the child, so the father did. He put her in the childseat in the back of the car, where the child then fell quietly asleep. The father forgot something in the house and went back inside to get it and continued with his morning routine. He drove to the school where he was a teacher and finished his day like any other normal day. However, he was actually so wrapped up in his morning routine that he forgot the child was still in the car. Unfortunately, this simple mistake cost the daughter her life. Imagine the guilt the father must have suffered. Sometimes, even as we simply live day-by-day and think we are doing our best, we suffer with guilt. Guilt hurts, and shame eats away at our very souls.
The people of Israel at that time suffered with both communal and individual shame. Their lives were miserable. But they were eager to listen to God’s Word when Ezra brought the Scriptures and proclaimed them. They wept when they heard them. When they heard the Word of God they were moved deeply and realized that they had drifted far from the ways of God. They were grieved and wept for their sins. When they focused on their own misery and shame, they didn’t realize how far they had drifted from God. But when they heard the Word of God they realized their sin and repented and wept.
But Ezra comforted the people and said not to cry. He told them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” Then he said to them, “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.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send some food to the poor. They experienced and shared great joy, because they understood the words declared to them. Whenever and wherever the word of God is proclaimed the day and the place turns into a holy day and the place into a holy ground.
People understood the words–that is the key. They had been humbled by God’s word, separated from God in exile, but now they understood; and having understood, they could rejoice. We, as a church, should encourage each other to read the Bible everyday. Daily reading from the Bible brings unexpected joy to those who do it. Joy comes from biblical knowledge. God’s way may initially cause us sadness because we realize our sins, but joy comes because God wants to give us his eternal love and salvation.
Today’s gospel reading tells a story about Jesus reading the Scriptures in a synagogue. After his forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and began to teach at synagogues in the area of Galilee. One day he came to Nazareth, his hometown, and he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The worship of a Jewish synagogue in Jesus’s time included the Shema, the recitation of the Ten Commandments, the eighteen prayers, the reading of Scripture, the psalms, the interpretation of the Scripture, and the blessing. Various people might have been asked to lead in reading and praying.
That day Jesus stood up and read a passage from Isaiah. It says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This quote, from Isaiah 61:1-2, comes from the period of Ezra we have been talking about. It is a message of hope to the people struggling to rebuild Jerusalem. It is good news for those who were suffering with oppression, guilt, and shame.
After Jesus finished reading the scripture the people waited to hear how Jesus would interpret the passage. But Jesus’s teaching on this passage was very short. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In Jewish tradition many prophets and teachers delivered God’s word to the people, but none of them proclaimed God’s word as being fulfilled by them. However, Jesus proclaimed he fulfilled God’s promise of the freedom from all oppression, disease, guilt, and shame. Jesus taught that not the written scripture but he himself is the living word of God. The gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.”
Jesus comes to the poor, the captives, the blind, the sick, and the oppressed. He speaks preferentially of such people in need. As Christians, we are committed to people in such need, too. Stephen ministers are people who commit themselves to the ministry of taking care of people who are suffering. I encourage all of you and especially the Stephen ministers to believe that God’s promise is already fulfilled in Jesus. Our ministry is not to save people from suffering but to believe in Jesus Christ and to share the faith with people who need care and assurance. Whenever and wherever we reach out to people with God’s word, we turn the day into a holy day and the place into holy ground.