Readings: Nehemiah 8: 1-2, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4:14-21, Secrets of Heaven 4735:2 (see below)
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I have a real soft spot for this story from Nehemiah. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra tell the story of the Jews returning from exile to Jerusalem. A quick history recap: after the people of Judah were conquered by the Babylonians, many of them were taken into exile in Babylon. This exile from their homeland lasted for about sixty years, and we hear the stories of the Judeans in exile in the books of Esther and Daniel. Eventually, though, the Babylonians were conquered by Persia, and the Persian ruler, Cyrus, allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem. Now, this didn’t mean they were entirely free and independent; Judea remained under the rule of Persia, but still, it was what the Jews had been hoping and dreaming for; they would get to return home. But, of course, they were, after all, still a conquered people. The reality is that they were returning to ruins.
The book of Nehemiah, then, begins with an intimate first-person account of a Jewish cup-bearer to the Persian king who finds himself called to return to Jerusalem to rebuild. He receives permission to do so, he returns to Jerusalem as governor, and gathers some supporters. They start repairing the city gates and rebuilding the city wall. Some of Judah’s neighboring enemies try to intimidate them but Nehemiah stands firm, never wavering from his mission. His confidence is contagious, and he rallies the people to complete their task. Chapter 4 verse 6 tells us that “the people worked with all their heart.” Eventually Nehemiah oversees the resettlement of the city.
It must have felt so bittersweet for the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Those who remembered their land would have been elderly by that time, many others would have been born in Babylon, only knowing Jerusalem through stories. What a shock to have seen the state of things; broken down city walls and buildings, burned out city gates. “*This* is what we had been yearning for?” they might have wondered. “It’s a mess.” But the beginning chapters of Nehemiah are a story of hope and trust. Even from this state of ruin and disrepair, the people come together to protect and encourage each other, and the work gets done.
Finally, as we reach our scripture reading for today, the people gather at one of the restored city gates, and ask Ezra, a learned scribe, to read from scripture. For us to appreciate the import of this moment for these people, we need to actively pause and remember how that most of them would have been illiterate. They would not have had access to their sacred texts in their every-day life, and the transmission of their faith up until that point would have been primarily oral. In addition, they had often been persecuted for practicing their faith while in exile. So, to hear the words of their God, to hear the story of their people from beginning to end was unusual; they were so thirsty for it. They listened intently for about six hours, from early morning until noon. They lifted up their arms, they bowed their heads and prostrated their bodies; God’s word moved them. And so they wept.
Why were they weeping? Probably for many different reasons. Recognition of what they had lost. Recognition of how much work they still had to do. Recognition of themselves in these stories, of their shortcomings and failures. But also recognition of God’s promises; how there was hope, how God had not abandoned them, and would not abandon them.
This is the message that Ezra leans into. He tells them not to mourn, for their future is bright, and for that they should celebrate. “…the joy of the Lord is your strength,” he tells them. In the Hebrew, the grammar of this phrase is quite ambiguous. It could mean both that God’s joy in God’s people is their strength, or also that the people’s joy in God is their strength. I think never has ambiguity been so very true. Joy is a reciprocal experience, and a connective one. God’s joy in us is the wellspring of our own joy in ourselves, others and God. The people were celebrating a renewed relationship between themselves and their God, celebrating a renewed hope for how that relationship would support their future.
Another important and interesting thing about this story is its inclusivity. One of the verses that was skipped in the lectionary reading lists the thirteen laypeople that joined Ezra up on a special high wooden platform that was fashioned for the occasion. Ezra was the learned one, the clergy, yet he was not up on high by himself, he was surrounded by those he was reading for and to. Note also that it was the people who requested the reading in the first place. This was not an edict from above but a desire bubbling up from below, that Ezra, as a servant-leader, chose to honor. Many of the temple practices from before exile centered around sacrifices that only the priests could perform; this was a new kind of worship, a new kind of holiness, one that involved the people themselves, in which their participation and understanding was integral.
Further, a specific note is made about who was listening; both men and women and (presumably) children old enough to understand. This was not a communication like on top of Mount Sinai to one special person, nor was it something just for the learned, or the elite (both of which in those days would have been men). It was the word of God for everyone. Verse 3 tells us “All the people listened attentively…” This is part of what makes this such a poignant episode. Can we not imagine how distant God must have seemed during exile, how alone and afraid the Jewish people must have felt? How wonderful yet overwhelming it would have been to face the rebuilding of their homeland? Yet, in this moment, in this vulnerable yet triumphant moment, each one of them hears the word of their God and they know that it is a word for them(1). All of them. Not just the king, not just the prophets, not just the scribes but for them; the ordinary, hard-scrabble, flawed, hopeful everyday people who would rebuild their land. A word that promised them something. Promised them history and destiny, promised them clarity and courage to face their wrong-doing, promised them energy to rebuild and grow, promised them steadfast and continuing love, promised them joy. After all they had been through, of course they wept. How could they not?
Fast forward to our gospel story, and we see that this tradition of reading scripture aloud had persisted over the years into Jesus’ time. Jesus had first been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, and then had been teaching in the synagogues in Galilee. Now he had returned to Nazareth, where he grew up. He attended synagogue, as would have been his practice as an observant Jew, and he took his place in the order of service, as he must have done many times before. He read scripture to the assembled just as Ezra did. Then he began his interpretation of the scripture and it was very different to what the assembled people might have expected.
He says, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Today, what you have just heard has been realized. What had he been reading? He had been reading Isaiah, the same scripture that we read aloud in our responsive reading today.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus took a scripture spoken by a prophet so many years before and essentially said, “Here, today, in me, this scripture is realized.” A scripture that spoke of God’s promises to God’s people, all people, the lowly, the poor, and the broken-hearted, in both physical and spiritual terms. A scripture that spoke of liberation, relief and solidarity. Because, over the years, the egalitarian promise of the text from Nehemiah had not persisted. The imperial powers had become Roman, and far less benevolent, the political elite had become craven and power-seeking, the religious elite removed and corrupt. Yet this word from Isaiah (via Jesus) spoke into that reality, a reality that did not value the people listening, and said “this is a word to all of you, and it is fulfilled right now.” Not in the past, not in future, but right now. God was still finding joy in God’s people, God was still reaching out to God’s beloved, still working for their liberation, still working for their wholeness and their healing. And in that moment, the promises of God were fulfilled in Jesus, in the Divine Human. God was coming as close to us as possible, God was showing up with skin on.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading that the presence of the Divine Humanity in Jesus communicates to us the nature and substance of Divine Love, “which is a love directed towards the whole human race whom [God] wishes to save, making them blessed and happy for ever.”(2) It communicates God wanting to impart that which is God’s own so that it might become our own. This is such a fundamental truth about God, and about what God strives for, and we all desperately need to hear it sometimes, just as the people in Nehemiah and the people in the gospel needed to hear it.
When one reads through the first several chapters of Nehemiah, one gets the sense that it represents a moment of destiny; that the future of the Jewish people could have gone a bunch of different ways. Their relative freedom at that point was so new and fragile. So it feels appropriate that they found themselves meeting at the gate of the city. Swedenborg writes that a gate represents a gateway of entrance into a new state, into a new way of thinking, just as it is a physical entrance into a place. And not the kind of entrance that we might accidentally fall into, like a hole in a wall, but an entrance that is opened to us by a particular concept of goodness and truth, a particular idea that opens up to us a new way of being (3).
For these newly liberated Jews, they were entering into a new sense of themselves and their identity as a people. And the way in which they were entering into this new kind of faith and trust was the recognition that God was with every one of them, that God valued each one of them, that their restoration was not only possible but it was the joy of the Lord to renew them and love them. This is why Ezra called it holy, why he said “This day is holy to the Lord your God.” There were so many more dramatic days in the history of the Jewish people. But this one was declared holy because it communicated, and because it realized, a connection between the hearts of people and the Lord, because the people came to understand what they meant to God and what God meant to them.
This gate remains present and waiting for us today, and whether it be for us the Torah, or Jesus, or some other epiphany of God’s presence, we have an on-going opportunity to enter into the knowledge of God’s steadfast and fierce love, to enter into the possibilities that this knowledge holds. Do not grieve for the joy of the Lord is your strength. A word for each one of us, fulfilled in our hearing.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 …all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. 2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. 9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Secrets of Heaven #4735:2
The Lord's Human, now that it has been glorified or made Divine, cannot be thought of as something merely human but as Divine Love within a human form…For it was by Divine Love that the Lord made His Human Divine, even, as has been stated, as heavenly love serves to make someone an angel after death…From this it is evident that in the celestial sense [of the bible] the Lord's Divine Human means Divine Love itself, which is a love directed towards the whole human race whom He wishes to save, making them blessed and happy for ever, and to whom He wishes to impart, insofar as its members can accept it, what is His and is Divine, so that it becomes their own.