Waiting for Today

+ A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)/Lectionary +3C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 23, 2022 +

Text: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21


I feel like all I have been doing for nearly two years now is waiting.
Waiting for this pandemic to finally end.
Waiting to leave my mask at home.
Waiting for us to be able to worship like we used to.
Waiting for life to get back to normal.

Now, waiting in and of itself is not a bad thing, it’s part of being human.
It’s part of being a Christian.
But I wonder if I’ve been waiting for so long at this point, I’m not even sure what exactly I’m waiting for anymore.
What the world will look like as we adapt to COVID.
How long we will have this virus among us that we once naïvely thought would only last a few weeks.
Wondering what it will feel like when we finally enter the new normal and if I will even recognize that day when it comes.
Only knowing that whatever that day looks like when it comes, it won’t look like this.

In our readings today, we encounter two peoples who have been waiting for a very long time.
First, we hear from the Book of Nehemiah.
Now, this is the only day Nehemiah appears in our three-year lectionary, so let me give some context here.
While the many of the Jewish people were living in exile, Nehemiah was a minor figure in the administration of the Persian king.
There, Nehemiah learned that the walls of Jerusalem were falling apart, and the city would soon be left in complete ruin.
So, Nehemiah begs the king that he be allowed to return to his homeland and rebuild the city of his ancestors.
When the king agrees, Nehemiah faces all sorts of challenges when he returns home but eventually succeeds in reconstructing the walls and the gates of the city and then, when the city is safe and protected again, he invites his people to return from exile and join him in the land God had given them so many centuries before.
After generations of captivity, the people return to Jerusalem—but what they found was surely not what they had expected during their years of waiting.
They had been waiting so long for God to act but didn’t think it would look like this.
They found their homeland in ruins, a construction zone that seemed to promise a better tomorrow—but one that remained as yet unrealized.
They found a nation struggling to find their identity, the core of who they were.
The collective trauma and uncertainty of exile was real and the future was anything but certain.

So, as we hear in today’s lesson, Nehemiah gathered all the people together and the priest Ezra opened the book of the law of Moses—the Torah—and he read.
From early morning to midday, he read.
To men, women, and all who could understand, he read.
For something like five hours, he read.
And the people wept.

Nehemiah doesn’t tell us why the people wept.
Perhaps they heard the law and realized how far they were from God’s intentions for them and their society.
Perhaps they wept because Ezra was talking for so long.
But I wonder if it wasn’t something more.
I wonder if, for the first time, in decades, the people heard the wondrous story of God’s love for them; a story that had been lost or forgotten during their exile.
They heard about God’s beautiful creation and how humanity was formed in God’s own image.
They heard about the promises made to Sarah and Abraham and how God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
They heard about God’s guidance for living together in community and of God’s mercy regardless of how many times they had failed to live up to those standards.
They heard about a God who gives strength to the people when hope seems lost and whose love is everlasting.
And as they listened, those learned in the text were there to interpret and explain the scriptures to them and how they fit into the long arc of God’s story of love and salvation.

But the Torah does not just tell the people a history of what God has done in the past, it is a lens that helps reveal what God is still doing right there among them.
How God’s word was speaking to them, even as they stood in the ruins of their holy city.
How they can look and see how God is breaking into their time and place to bring healing and wholeness and life.
And there, together, the people discovered God anew and restored the relationship with their Creator who had never abandoned them during their years of exile, but had fulfilled the promise to bring them home.
Who would be with them as they restored their city and their religion.
But even with the final restoration still in the future, Ezra proclaims, “this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
And, even with the tears still on their cheeks—tears of sorrow, tears of jubilation, tears of hope—the people celebrated the steadfastness of their God.
They feasted for God’s goodness and went out to include those who hadn’t yet heard the news.

Centuries after this scene in Jerusalem, our gospel reading brings us to the backwater Galilean town of Nazareth.
We see another people who had been waiting for generations.
Waiting for a messiah to come and liberate them from their oppressors.
Waiting for the restoration of their glorious days of old.
Waiting for God to come and save them.
And into that waiting, we hear as Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath and stands up to read from the Prophet Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he reads, “because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord 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 favor.”
Now, Jesus’ friends and neighbors would surely have heard these beloved words many times before.
It’s a message of good news for a people living in poverty, under the oppression of a foreign empire.
The people were surely waiting for those ancient words of promise to be realized—waiting for a far-off day they could barely imagine.
But when Jesus preaches his first sermon in Luke’s gospel, with all the eyes of the synagogue upon him, he proclaims, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

As the Romans brutally control their homeland?
As the people desperately try to scratch out a living amid harsh taxes and frequent wars?
How could this be the realization of Isaiah’s prophecy?
How could this be the fulfillment of the liberation they had been waiting for?

But the fulfillment Jesus proclaims does not imply a static, final realization—as could be plainly seen by everyone, Jesus included, there was still a long way to go before Isaiah’s vision would be a reality.
It’s an ongoing fulfillment that is happening now.
Jesus is announcing that God is acting on behalf of those on the margins—the poor, the oppressed, the blind, and the captive.
Jesus is promising that God will always side with these people and with all the vulnerable.
But Jesus is also inviting the people to be part of the fulfillment.
To join him in the ongoing work of manifestation and fulfillment of God’s promises that is happening here, in this place, today.
That this liberation is not just in the distant future of someday but is available today.
That the joy and salvation of God is available today.
That the time of the Lord’s favor stands before them, in the flesh, full of promise and hope, if they will only see it and live into its fulfillment.

Thousands of years later, these two stories are again offered to a people who are waiting as both a word of comfort and a challenge.
Today as we wait for the end of this pandemic.
Today as we still wait for the realization of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Today as we wait for the future we have longed for.
Today as we wait, maybe not always sure what exactly we are waiting for.
What it will look like when life returns to some semblance of normal.
What the future will even look like when God’s promises take root and flourish in our world.
But whatever future we are waiting for, we are quite confident that the status quo isn’t it.

Yet, even still, Ezra’s words echo through the ages to announce that this day is holy to the Lord.
Jesus stands among us again and announces that today, God’s promises are fulfilled among us.
Lest we regard these stories as something from millennia ago in a far-off land or we disregard God’s promises as mere dreams of some indistinct time ahead.
Jesus is telling us that these words, these promises, these hopes are for today.
Just as, after the people celebrated the reading of the Torah, they got to work in rebuilding their city.
Just as, when Nazareth rejected Jesus’ teachings (as we’ll hear next week), Jesus called disciples who would be sent out to all the corners of the world, proclaiming how the good news of God’s love is being fulfilled in their midst.
Our readings this morning tell us that today is the day we’ve been waiting for.
That every day is a chance for to fulfill God’s promise, because in our baptisms we have been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and we have been anointed to be active and integral parts of the fulfillment.
That we are part of the proclamation, the release, the recovery of sight, the liberation, and the jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor.

We have the audacity to believe that we are heirs of this great heritage—part of the long arc of God’s story—and that when we read and explore God’s holy word revealed to us in scripture, we enter into a new reality where God’s intentions are already fulfilled.
We peer into a world that both already exists and is the ultimate goal of our life’s work.
We put our trust in that promised future where God’s perfect design for our world is already experienced.
And we are bold enough to presume that we can be part of its fulfillment as we commit ourselves and our lives to making that hope a reality today, tomorrow, and every day until it is finally and completely fulfilled in our midst.

And sure, we know that there are some things we cannot change on our own, or in our collective effort as a congregation.
We can’t single-handedly end the pandemic.
We can’t stop the scourge of mass incarceration.
We can’t loose all the bonds that keep us and our siblings in captivity.
But we can make a difference that moves us closer to that promised day.
We can glimpse that long-awaited tomorrow in our work today.
We can grow produce that feeds our hungry neighbors.
We can make quilts to provide comfort and warmth.
We can build 23 units of affordable housing on our land.
We can do what we can to create a community where all people can thrive.
To move us closer to that final fulfillment and help those around us to glimpse the promise God has made to all people through our lives and actions.

We live in a world, especially in this part of the world, where people do not know this divine word which we find in our scripture, which we celebrate on this holy day.
We live in a world where false promises take root and illusory hopes are dashed.
Where we are told false stories that tell us we are not enough, just a cog in a much larger machine.
Where we put our trust in leaders who can never accomplish all that is promised and in systems that are revealed to be irrevocably broken.
Where it’s all too easy for us to feel powerless to even make a difference.

But as a people of faith, we put our trust in the promise of our God that there will be a day when God’s perfect design will finally take root and flourish in this world and that it is already happening among us if we have the eyes to see it.
We are bold enough to see ourselves as part of God’s story, empowered and called by our Creator to take our place in its fulfillment.
And as the heirs and bearers of this divine word it is our duty and our joy to bring this hope, bring this promise, into our community so all may rejoice in the promise of the Word of God which is our strength and our assurance.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, beloved, because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent us 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 favor. 

Today, this promise has been fulfilled in your hearing.

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