Nehemiah 8:2-4a,5-6,8-10 1
|January 26-27, 2019, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C|
As a preacher, I have to be in awe of Ezra. As we heard in that first reading, Ezra gathered the inhabitants of Jerusalem out in heat and sun and preached to them from daybreak until mid-day. And after standing and listening to Ezra preach for 7 or 8 hours the people were so moved that they all were crying from hearing his preaching. Actually I am fairly confidant that if I preached to you for 7 or 8 hours, when I finished all of you would be weeping too, but probably for a different reason.
How many of you have read or started reading Matthew Kelly's book The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity that we handed out at Christmas? If you haven't I highly recommend it, and I also highly recommend then joining one of the many discussion groups we have scheduled. I don't think this is much of a spoiler because Matthew Kelly reveals it on page 32 but the lie he is writing about is that Christians don't think that they can be holy. Basically Matthew is saying that the average Christian has an identity problem because he or she believes that he or she cannot be what we are called to be. And as Matthew writes about it in his usual wonderful storytelling way, this is a lie. It is a lie not told to Christians by others but a lie we tell ourselves. Today's readings remind us that identity crises are nothing new.
Our reading from the book of Nehemiah deals with the identity crisis that the Jews living in Jerusalem were facing after many of them had returned from 70 years of exile in Babylon. There were two different groups living in Jerusalem and dealing with two different challenges to their identity as the chosen people of God. Those who had returned from that 70 years of exile had had their identity as the chosen people challenged when they saw the city of Jerusalem get overrun and most of the inhabitants dragged off to Babylon as slaves. How could the place where God had planted his feet in the midst of Israel be overrun? And how could they have been abandoned again to a life of slavery if they were God's chosen? And then when the Persian king Cyrus allowed them to return, they were further dismayed by the destruction they saw. The remnant of Jews who had been left behind also had their identity assaulted because they had witnessed firsthand, not only the initial fall of Jerusalem but over the next 70 years the destruction of the temple, the destruction of the city wall and then the city being overrun by overgrowth and wild animals. So when Nehemiah leads the third wave of exiles back to Jerusalem as governor of Judea he supported Ezra the priest who had been trying to rebuild the inhabitants of Jerusalem back into being the chosen people of God. And he has been doing this as he does this day by rooting their identity in the Torah. And of course this is exactly what the people need to hear because those scriptures are full of stories that witness to the power of God as the source of their chosen status. It is God who took Abraham and Sarah from the land of Ur and grew his descendent's into a strong tribe. It was God's power that freed them from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, and God's power that established peace around them under David and Solomon. They lost all of that because they started depending on their own power.
Our Gospel story comes from Luke's two part story of the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles that is addressing the same identify crisis in his own mostly Gentile early Christian community. We fast forward 500 years from Ezra and Nehemiah to a Jewish people who suffer the same loss of their identity as the chosen people of God, this time because of 200 years of oppression and destruction first by the descendants of Alexander the Great's generals to their current subjection to the Romans. In the midst of this we hear Luke tell the story of Jesus being led by the Spirit to the river Jordan to be baptized, and experiencing the manifestation of the Spirit in the form of a dove. Then Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert where he struggles to understand what it means to be the beloved Son of the father, and what he is called to by God the Father. I think we underestimate the amazing reality of the incarnation if we think that because Jesus is divine that he did not have to struggle with this as we all do. Jesus was fully human and so like every human had to gradually and with great effort become who he was in his human nature. And then Jesus is led by the Spirit to return home to Nazareth and to begin his public ministry. And when he reads that passage from Issiah it reinforces that his identity is fulfilled by the Spirit. But as we will hear next week the townspeople have bought into their own greatest lie that the Messiah cannot be a carpenter from Galilee. He must be someone with military or political power so they try to kill Jesus.
So what about us. Who here thinks that they are a messiah? Hmm. Who here has been baptized in the Catholic Church? When we were baptized, after we were baptized in water we were anointed with sacred Chrism as priest, prophet and king. Messiah is the Hebrew word for anointed. Christ is the Greek word for messiah. Each one of us has been anointed. We are the anointed of God, the messiah, the Christ who has been chosen by God to bring salvation to the world. Our ability to do that, to be holy does not come from our goodness or ability or status. It comes from God through the Spirit and all it requires is that we let our selves be led by that Spirit.
I would invite you to recite that passage from Isaiah that Jesus chose in today's Gospel:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.