Scripture Readings: Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 12:12–31 | Luke 4:14–21
“Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:21).
When God’s word is spoken, get ready for New Creation.
That’s what happens in both our Old Testament reading today from the book of Nehemiah, and our reading from the Gospel of Luke: the people are gathered together to listen to the Holy Scriptures, and what they hear challenges and shakes up the whole story of their lives.
In our reading from Nehemiah, we’re witnesses of the rebirth of a nation. Many years after the kingdom of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, and its people were carried away into Exile, some of them had returned, and had been trying to put back the shattered pieces that had once been their homeland. Nehemiah was a Jewish Exile in the service of the King of Persia (which had by that time taken over Babylon). Nehemiah had heard a report from his homeland that all was not well: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3).
Wrecked by this news, Nehemiah prays to the LORD and seeks forgiveness for the failures of his people… pleading with the Living God to show them His mercy and holy love. Eventually, and surprisingly, Nehemiah ends up returning to Jerusalem with a commission from the King of Persia to rebuild the city, and much of the book of Nehemiah tells of this ongoing drama.
But what happens after the walls are rebuilt is where we pick up the story today: now it is the people of God’s turn to be rebuilt. After decades of living far from home, surrounded by strangers and foreign ways of life, they were gathered to hear again the sacred story of their people: the Torah, the Law of Moses was read aloud, and the people wept… broken down by the realization that they and their ancestors had failed. They had not stayed true to the Covenant that the LORD God had made with them, and so they had lost their Temple, their country, their world, and had gone off into Exile.
The scholar Timothy Saleska puts it like this: “The story of the life and death of Israel is not just a history lesson to these people. It is their story —their life and their death. The story of God’s infinite love and their own pitiful rebellion brings them to their knees.” But now, it was time for a new beginning.
Nehemiah, and Ezra the priest, and the Levites urge all the people: ‘do not weep, rejoice!’ This day was a holy day to the LORD, a day for celebration and song. Yes, the Law had exposed the people’s collective darkness, but not to condemn them… it was so that they may now start to walk in the light! God had given His people a new beginning, brought about by His mercy and faithful love bringing them through the pain of Exile and back into the Promised Land.
We follow this pattern ourselves each week in our services, when we confess together, acknowledging our failures to follow in God’s holy ways… and together in Christ we are invited to return to the LORD with all our hearts, and rejoice in His forgiveness and grace… not so we can keep on walking in darkness, but so that we can walk with Him in the light… so that we can grow in His grace, and respond to His faithful love by making real changes.
Rededicated… rebuilt as God’s people once again.
What followed after the public gathering to hear their sacred story in Nehemiah was a renewed sense of their purpose, and identity… pursuing a new way forward as God’s forgiven, and now faithful people. It wasn’t easy, and it was far from perfect, but they were beginning again. Their sorrow had been transformed by the hope of finding their place in God’s story.
Turning now to the New Testament, St. Luke offers us a different picture of a new beginning. Today we heard how Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, begins His mission: He reads from the Holy Scriptures in His hometown synagogue. This is His moment to reveal to us all what He is all about… and what His Heavenly Father has sent Him to accomplish.
He reads from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, -
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19).
Words of hope for the hopeless… a new beginning for all.
This message was more than welcome that day among those gathered in Nazareth… among those eager to be set free from the oppression of Rome, from the rule of foreign nations they had been living under for centuries, eagerly awaiting the arrival of God’s Kingdom. And this message still hits home with many of us today as well: especially those of us who are struggling to find healing and help and hope. We too are longing to be set free… to find freedom and peace. We too are hungry for new beginnings… for Good News to come to us too.
And reading aloud the promises the Living God made to His people long ago, Jesus points to Himself as their embodiment: “Then he began to say to them,” (and to us, I would add) “‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:21).
If we end the story here, as our lectionary would have us do, it all sounds wonderful. But unlike the story of Nehemiah, where God’s people are told to rejoice instead of weep at the word of the LORD, Jesus words continue, and turn the excitement and welcome of His hometown synagogue, into outcries of rage. Luke 4:22-30.
“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
After His opening claim to be the bringer of God’s Good News, Jesus highlights the people’s lack of faith in Him… turning the focus now from the message, to how they receive the Messenger. Just like God’s people in Isaiah’s day had rejected and turned their back on their God, leading them into Exile, Jesus was predicting that His own people would also reject Him as well.
But as off-putting as this accusation was (however accurate it would turn out to be), this was not what really set the people of Nazareth off that day. Jesus goes on to completely challenge their understanding, not just of who He is and what He’s about, but who the Living God is, and what God is up to. Luke 4:24-30,
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
Sidon and Syria were two of Israel’s neighbours, and in days gone by, were often their enemies… warring against God’s people. They represented “those other people” that Israel thought God wanted nothing to do with… those who worshipped idols, oppressed God’s people, and had no future in God’s Kingdom.
But Jesus points back to key moments in the story of Israel where the LORD was at work offering mercy to “those other people” too…. rescuing them, and drawing them into the story of His holy love… while at the same time, God’s own people kept on rejecting His ways and turning their backs, again and again, on their covenant promises.
N. T. Wright helpfully highlights why the tension and anger was building: “Jesus points out what happened in the days of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and in doing so identifies himself with the prophets. Elijah was sent to help a widow —but not a Jewish one. Elisha healed one solitary leper —and the leper was the commander of the enemy army. That’s what did it. That’s what drove them to fury. Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people.”
That day in the synagogue, Jesus makes clear that God’s own people had missed the point of their own story: that God was not only concerned with rescuing the children of Israel… He was calling them to be faithful to Him with all of their heart, and walk with Him in the light… so that God’s mercy, forgiveness, and holy love would extend to every nation… to all the world.
“The servant-Messiah” Wright goes on to say, “has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them. And that will be the fulfilment of a central theme in Israel’s own scriptures.
This message was, and remains, shocking. Jesus’ claim to be reaching out with healing to all people, though itself a vital Jewish idea, was not what most first-century Jews wanted or expected.” 
From the beginning, St. Luke tells us that Jesus proclaimed the Good News that God wants all peoples to come and share in God’s good Kingdom.
And from the beginning, He knew that His own people would reject Him and this message, just as God’s people had all too often rejected their LORD. But even so, that would not change the Good News He was sent to bring: God’s new beginning, not just for the children of Israel… but for all.
As we gather to hear God’s word, do we expect to find new creation at work? To have our foundations rocked in order to be rebuilt again? To find our darkness exposed, and then to be called into the light?
Do we listen with joy only when the message lines up with our own expectations, and stop our ears and close our hearts when we find ourselves and our views challenged?
Through the Holy Scriptures, God’s Spirit is still at work re-creating His people, preparing us to take part in the work of Christ’s Kingdom here and now. To share in the new beginning of God’s rescuing love in Jesus, for all.
May the Lord open our hearts to hear and receive His word to us today. And may the Holy Spirit continue to re-create us in Christ always. Amen.
 Timothy E. Saleska, “Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 255.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 47–48.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 48–49.