the fat & the sweet wine… Epiphany 4
Nehemiah 8:1-3 ,5-6 ,8-10 Luke 4: 14-21
If you’ve ever wondered about the tradition of a slap-up roast dinner after church on Sunday I think you could do worse than turn to Nehemiah chapter 8! I’m sure some social historian could give us proper reasons as to why our rather British tradition developed, but it certainly has some scriptural basis!!
In the passage from Nehemiah we see Ezra the priest reading the book of the law to all the assembled community – from early morning to midday –men, woman, all who could understand.
At this gathering, they read from the book of the law” with interpretation”, they “gave the sense”
The scripture was explained to them,
And they worshipped God,
But that was not all - the people were also commanded not to weep or mourn, but to go home & feast, “eat the fat and drink sweet wine”
Go & celebrate – because of what God had done – this day is holy.
And in the midst of these celebrations, those who have nothing are to be looked after “send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared”
It’s a picture of community, a learning worshiping rejoicing and caring community, one thing leading to another, physical and spiritual working hand in hand.
This community had been through tough times. Nehemiah has returned to Jerusalem, to those who were left behind during the exile with the task of rebuilding the walls of of the city, -which they do, despite great opposition.
As well as rebuilding the walls, Nehemiah challenges the community in its treatment of the poor and the marginalised around them. He enforces the cancellation of debts –the Year of Jubilee and the fresh start that was so needed –and then, here we are with the people assembled and listening to Gods word.
What happens next in the story is the community’s rededication to the Lord, and the commitment to obey God’s law and to do his will. A commitment to action,
For Ezra and Nehemiah it wasn’t enough that the people heard God’s law, it was vital that they understood it – it was vital too that having understood they acted upon it.
It was vital that listening to God’s word didn’t just give them a warm fuzzy feeling on a holy day, it wasn’t just part of their identity as Jewish people but it absolutely had to affect their behaviour and the way they treated those around them.
Fast forward 500 years give or take a few, and we arrive at the scene of our Gospel reading.
Jesus has begun preaching and speaking around Galilee and already good reports are spreading about him.
He comes to Nazareth, the town where he grew up.
Now I don’t know about you but doing anything of significance on your “home turf” or in front of friends & family who have known you a long while is probably the hardest thing.
Friends and family while being your most ardent supporters are also your harshest critics –they don’t tend to hold back, and the fact they remember you as a school kid doesn’t often help your confidence.
Jesus stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and began to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Now we have no idea if he chose this passage or whether it was, as is most likely, the set reading for that day, but whichever it was, to stand and read this in front of his own community was certainly a statement.
“ the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me…”
It is a public declaration – he says to his hearers, “ today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”
He announces himself, at the very start of his ministry, he explains the scripture, -we’re only told that he “began to say to them” we don’t know what came next, but he’s certainly set out his position here.
But there’s more to it than just Jesus declaring himself..
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”
Not just in the person of Jesus, but also in his hearers.
This was the beginning - the Kingdom of God proclaimed
The building of this Kingdom is and was not just Jesus’ job but ours too, theirs too.
The Kingdom of God is about Good news to the poor,
It is about oppression broken, and captives freed.
This passage was part of Isaiah’s rallying call to a beleaguered and exiled Israel.
There will be hope
This was Jesus’s rallying call to his community and to us
There IS hope,
This is the manifesto of the Kingdom of God.
Political parties have manifestos; they set out their stall and try & sell themselves –
We know to our cost that these promises are so often broken and the good news they seem to contain is often anything but,
That certainly seems to be the case at the moment, there’s no Good news for the poor and the oppressed in our current political and economic climate –
Often we shy away from the reality of what the Kingdom of God is about –we spiritualise passages like this to the exclusion of their outworking in practical terms in our communities.
Of course the Kingdom is about Good news for the poor in spirit and releasing those oppressed by sin and spiritual blindness. But it’s not JUST that, not by a long way.
This passage Jesus reads talks about proclaiming the Year of the Lords favour.
This is the year of Jubilee, the year when debts were cancelled, slates wiped clean, and new starts were made,
We’re taken back to Nehemiah getting the Jewish rulers to cancel debts, to start again,
This is the Kingdom. A series of upturned values,
Debts wiped, spiritual AND Physical AND economic freedom.
This is Grace –the over abundance of God’s love, poured out to us when we least deserve it, and in such huge quantities that we cannot comprehend.
This is the feasting and rejoicing, the fat and the sweet wine that is to be shared with those who have nothing.
Jesus calls himself and us to radical action, living a life where the spiritual and the economic are bound together.
We are to campaign & work for good news for the actual poor, and freedom for the actual oppressed, just as much as we are to proclaim spiritual salvation and freedom.
We can’t do one and not the other.
We can’t listen to God’s word and not go and act on it.
We can’t feast on the fat & the sweet wine of Gods grace to us and not share it with those who do not have.
Jesus doesn’t separate the metaphorical and the reality here –both are intertwined, and if we want to live the Kingdom way and walk with him, we must do the same.