The Exile is over. Or at least it is for some of the Israelites, Nehemiah has been given permission to return with some of his people to rebuild the city and to rebuild their community as the people of God. Although it sounds like a time for celebration,
The people of Israel are suffering from poverty, bewilderment and low morale. The confidence and wealth of the days of David and Solomon are gone, never to return…Idolatry and immorality have weakened the people’s spiritual health and corrupted their society. They have been conquered and displaced for two generations. They have no king, no army and no empire.
The people are home, and yet they are still, spirituality, in a state of exile. Ezra, a priest, knows that even before all the building work needs to be done, the foundations of faith need to be planted. And so he calls together God’s people, men and women together, and gives them a pep rally. Only he doesn’t. What he does is read through the book of the law of Moses. These are the first five books of what we call the Bible, and what Jews refer to as the Pentateuch. Ezra starts at the very beginning, he reads allowed the creation stories and he reads the first falls from grace, the first murders and thefts and rapes and other atrocities. He reads the stories of Joseph and how the Israelites came to be located in Egypt and how and why Egypt took them as slaves.
He reads God’s rescue story and the forty years of wondering through the wilderness until they finally get to settle in the promised land. He introduces them to their first priest Aaron, and to all the laws of Leviticus.The ones that create a society in which every seven years debts are forgiven and slaves are freed, as well the laws which restrict them from wearing mixed linen, and eating certain foods. They are given afresh the Ten Commandments. Read it here.
All these forgotten holy words are now remembered, as together with Nehemiah and the Levites who had not forgotten, God’s desires are interpreted and explained so that everyone can understand; and because it is now fresh to those returning from exile, who had not heard these stories in their lifetime, they are new and exciting, even the rules about mildew.
The new people of Jerusalem stand and listen for hours as these words are read, and then they weep. They weep because their parents and grandparents had allowed these laws to be forgotten, they weep because they had been breaking God’s own law for so many years because they just didn’t know, they weep tears of confession.
But this is not a day of mourning. This is a day of celebration. This is a day when God and God’s people are reunited, it is a fresh beginning, a re-birthing of a nation. This is a day for celebration.
Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepare, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and the new exile is also coming to an end. The people may think and hope that it is the occupation by Roman forces that the Messiah will bring, but Jesus has something else in mind.
Jesus has returned from the wilderness experience which followed his baptism, and is full of the Holy Spirit. He begins his teaching ministry, travelling through Galilee attending synagogue on the sabbath, and eventually makes it home. There he takes the opportunity to read from the Holy writings, which by now have extended beyond the first five books that the people of Nehemiah’s time had, and he reads from the prophet Isaiah:
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 favour.
Isaiah 61 as quoted in Luke 4
The people of Nehemiah’s time are told that the joy of the Lord is their strength, the people of Jesus’ time are told that it is the year of the Lord’s favour, I wonder what God is telling our nation today?
For Luke there is something very important about the timing. It is today, it is always today. God’s words do not belong to yesterday and his actions are not for some vague ‘some-time’,they belong to now. This is the day that the Lord has made, this day the joy of the Lord is our strength, this day belongs to the year of the Lord’s favour. This day is the day that we have been given. Read it here.
It may feel a broken day, a day in which we are suffering from spiritual poverty, bewilderment and low morale, but this is also the day in which Jesus announces release for the captives.
It is also important to consider where Jesus makes this announcement: in the synagogue, through the scriptures on the sabbath. Jesus is ushering in a new thing, but he is launching the new from the old.
Synagogue worship in itself was a gift of exile: the faithful few continued to meet together in lay led (without the aid of priests) discussion of the scriptures. From this came the Pharisees, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was a gift of God for that time, and one which remained an important focus for the faithful. So much so that Jesus sought out the synagogues to declare his true identity as the Messiah.
So what about now? Even more hundreds of years have gone by. Many Christians feel in a place of exile even within their own homes.The word of God has been lost for several generations now as the word of God is no longer heard in empty pews, and no longer shared with our children. Just as with the people of Nehemiah’s time, the old stories have been abandoned to the extent that whoever now discovers them does so afresh, and they are new and exciting. Each day that these stories are shared anew is a day of celebration.
But there is more for our generation. The third reading we are given this Sunday is from St Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth where they, and through it we, are reminded to be a united body in Christ.
In Nehemiah’s day, orders were given that the celebrations were to be shared and that ‘portions’ were to be sent out for those without, so that everyone could be included. Jesus chose to speak this declaration about himself from Isaiah at the weekly gathering where all the faithful would be together, and St Paul reminds us that without each other we are not complete. Read it here.
Even in these spiritually difficult times, times as difficult as they were for the Israelites of Nehemiah’s day, the Jews of Jesus’ day, and even the first, persecuted, Christians at Corinth, it is important for us to love and honour each other, to keep meeting together, and to keep being reminded that the joy of the Lord is our strength.