In nomine Jesu!
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be, blest."
...which means we're never satisfied. God isn't either.
We admit that about God and ourselves each time we pray that "the design of God's great love shine upon the waste of our wraths and sorrows." We are not satisfied. God is not satisfied. Yet God is in the renewal business and; if we are going to be faithful, so must we be. That is the import of our first reading from the Book of Nehemiah; that is the import of the Gospel and that is also the import of the words of Isaiah 61 which Jesus reads in his hometown synagogue today. Moreover, God has laid a foundation, solid ground, a secure place for God with us to stand together and from which God and we can do that work of renewal together. Some call that foundation "the Bible" or "the Scriptures;" we Lutherans define what we mean by "Scriptures" as Law and Gospel or better, Judgment and Promise, also known formally as norma normans: The norm that norms. Nehemiah and our Jewish sisters and brothers
call it "Torah."
We don't read very often from the Book of Nehemiah; at best, we read from it once every three years. But if there is any book of the Bible that makes the point that God β and God's people β are in the renewal business, Nehemiah and its companion, the Book of Ezra, would be it.
The story we eavesdrop in on today takes place about 420 years before the birth of Jesus. By then, over 125 years had passed since the Jews had returned from their Babylonian exile and rebuilt their homes β and the Temple, God's home β on the mountain over the rubble that had once been and was slowly coming to be the city of Jerusalem. They had rebuilt their homes, they had rebuilt God's Temple, they had even by then, driven hard by their leader Nehemiah, with much grumbling and complaining and despite serious setbacks, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. They were home. They were safe. They were reasonably successful, albeit under the Persian Empire's protective rule. But they were not satisfied; and neither was God. There was something missing. They wanted something more. And so,
When the seventh month came β the people of Israel being settled in their towns β All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. ... And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people...and read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. ... and all the people wept.
They heard. They understood. They weren't satisfied and, from Ezra's public reading of Torah, they knew God wasn't satisfied. And so they wept because they heard God's design and they knew what they were missing.
They wept. That's one possible response to dis-ease and dis-satisfaction. In the Gospel for today we see another.
It's 450 years later and the situation is much the same. Among the people of Judea, "hope springs eternal." They were home. They were safe. They were reasonably successful, albeit under the Roman Empire's protective rule. But they were not satisfied; and neither was God. There was something missing. They wanted something more. And so,
When Jesus came to Nazareth ... he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him... The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
They heard. They understood. They weren't satisfied. From Jesus' reading of Isaiah's scroll, they knew God wasn't satisfied. The lectionary reading would have us wait until next Sunday to learn they reaction, but I won't keep you in suspense, so here it is:
When they heard this, all were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
Rage. That's another possible reaction.
And then there's us and the Church, the city and the world today. We're not satisfied either. Neither is God. So let me remind you again of what Torah says and what Jesus says is the
design of God's great love: Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight. The oppressed go free. The time of the Lord's favor. For everyone. To everyone. With everyone. What's your reaction?
Weeping? Anger? Dis-ease and dis-satisfaction? Hope?
Among us in the church, the city and the world we see both of these reactions and, if you're listening carefully, even a few more.
We have an advantage over many of our fellows these days. For want of a better term, I'll call that advantage "the Jesus factor." We hear it from Jesus today as he speaks about himself and, by baptismal inference, also about all of us. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon" him and us, Jesus says. The Spirit who enables Jesus and us to bring good news, to proclaim, release, announce recovery, free the oppressed, revel in the favor and not the perceived dis-interest, displeasure or dis-satisfaction, of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us so that we can make a difference! Because God is in the renewal business and, if we would be faithful, so must we be.
So what's your reaction? Rage? Weeping? Here in this place and at this table there is a better way. Ezra said it to a dis-satisfied people millennia ago. Jesus was it in Nazareth and is it here for us today:
"Go your way, eat ... and drink ... and send portions ... 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 we shall be satisfied and our hope shall be fulfilled.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York