First Reading Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Gospel Reading Luke 4:14-21
Sermon: “Sent for a Purpose”
When the Israelites returned home to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, it was not the massive, joyful occasion that many had envisioned. It was not the entire nation going home, just small groups. The first group was sent home by Cyrus the Persian with offerings to rebuild the temple. They numbered about 50,000 and were led by a descendant of David named Zerubbabal. Once there, they found only devastation and hostile neighbors. But they persevered and began to rebuild homes and a simple version of the temple. Scripture says that the few who remembered Solomon’s temple wept at the simple, plain replacement. It just wasn’t like it used to be. But of course, mourning for lost glory accomplishes nothing.
It was years later that another group led by Ezra the priest and Nehemiah, who served as the Persian king’s cup bearer, also came back to strengthen the colony and rebuild the walls of the city. When they got there, they found a discouraged group who had just about forgotten who they were and had almost given up. These two men came with there with determination and purpose. It was the task of Nehemiah to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem to provide a measure of security for the beleaguered city. The purpose of Ezra was to remind and teach the people who they were in the eyes of God. Both were able to accomplish what God had sent them to do. It wasn’t easy or painless by any means, but it was done.
Our first reading this morning described Ezra’s beginning efforts. The people wept when they heard how far they had fallen from the ways of God, but Nehemiah insisted that mourning was not the right response saying: Nehemiah 8:10-12 NLT “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!” And the Levites, too, quieted the people, telling them, “Hush! Don’t weep! For this is a sacred day.” So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.” And so the nation was rekindled with a Bible study of all things!
It was nearly 500 years later when another individual filled with purpose by God walked into the synagogue in Nazareth and began to read from scripture. It was Jesus, of course and the scripture he found to read was from Isaiah chapter 61 which speaks of those very days of restoration that Zerubbabal, Ezra and Nehemiah were sent to bring about. Just a few verses on, Isaiah speaks of ancient ruins being rebuilt, cities being restored and prosperity found once again where there was only devastation before. They were to become a nation of priests to the world, where they would find honor and meaning. But it wasn’t the original meaning that Jesus lifted up. Rather he applied those words to his own life and mission right there at that time! Those words he said were fulfilled in that instant in their hearing. The difference was that In Ezra and Nehemiah’s day, the people knew they needed saving. In Jesus’ day – not so much.
So look with me at what Jesus said, for in claiming those words, Jesus is telling them who he is – revealing himself as the messiah – that is what Messiah means – God’s anointed one! Listen: Luke 4:18-19 NIV “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,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is a moment of revelation of identity and declaration of purpose – a true Epiphany for any who thought about it for a second or two. It shows us who Jesus is – Messiah – God’s chosen agent, the anointed one. It also serves as a declaration of what Jesus’ ministry was going to be about – Proclaiming good news to the poor, healing, setting free those who were oppressed – proclaiming the grace and favor of God to his creation. As we pointed out in the Advent season, It sounds very much like his Mother’s song of praise when she went to her relative Elizabeth’s house – the song we know as the Magnificate: here is a bit of that song towards the end –  He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. It deals with unexpected reversals and elevation of the down trodden and excluded.
Jesus doesn’t go into any detail on the passage. Later, he would talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, humble the arrogant scribes and Pharisees, heal lepers. But for now he lets the passage speak for itself, but says that it is fulfilled today in their hearing! – not some nebulous future, but right then! Interestingly, however, It is not a full quote from the original. There is one notable omission to Isaiah’s words. He mentions the acceptable year of the Lord (or year of God’s favour), but He omits the words that follow: “…and the day of vengeance of our God.” This tells us even more about Jesus’ mission. You see, Jesus did not come to punish sinners, but proclaim their Salvation. This point is made clear in John’s gospel John 3:16-17 NIV “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Now please understand, the mission of Jesus Christ did not end with his crucifixion and resurrection. It goes on still. Matter of fact, Paul argues passionately that Jesus Christ should be understood to still be here on this earth in bodily form. As he says, today his body is made up of all of those who claim him as Lord and Savior – that’s us, in part – the church in total. We are the body of Christ here and now – entrusted with carrying on his work of redemption and revelation of the grace of God. So what are we to do? Well – the same thing that Isaiah said the anointed one would do: proclaim good news to the poor, 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.” How are we to do it? Well, obviously with God’s help and by God’s power and grace, but also as Paul reminds us – together! We are called together as community to be the body of Christ, each of us with our own part to fulfill.
We have to recover our sense of purpose as children of God. It’s not some deep dark secret that needs to be discovered either. It glows brightly from the pages of scripture if we will but look. It tells us who we are, why we are here and how we are to live.
In 2002, a preacher named Rick Warren wrote an immensely popular book titled “The Purpose Driven Life.” It has sold over 50 million copies and been translated into 85 languages. Some of you may well have a copy at home somewhere.
Wikipedia describes it this way: The book is intended to be read as a daily inspiration, with each of the 40 short chapters read on consecutive days…Rick Warren described his book as an “anti-self-help book.” The first sentence of the book reads, “It’s not about you,” and the remainder of the chapter goes on to explain how the quest for personal fulfillment, satisfaction, and meaning can only be found in understanding and doing what God placed you on Earth to do.The book is divided into six major sections:
• What on Earth Am I Here For?
• Purpose #1: You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure (Christian Worship)
• Purpose #2: You Were Formed for God’s Family (Christian Church)
• Purpose #3: You Were Created to Become Like Christ (Discipleship)
• Purpose #4: You Were Shaped for Serving God (Christian Ministry)
• Purpose #5: You Were Made for a Mission (Christian Mission)
Clearly, Pastor Warren had been reading Paul: 1 Corinthians 12:27 NLT “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” We do have a purpose and it is entirely centered around our collective adoption as children of God. That is what gives us worth, meaning and direction. But I really encourage you to go one step further that simplifies everything, and it doesn’t take 40 chapters to say it. If we read on down to the end of this chapter where Paul has spent so much time teaching us that we need each other; that we are to care for each other and about each other, using our special gifts in service to each other – he says this: (1 Corinthians 12:31 NLT) “So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts. But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all.”
Now what could that be?…. What is this ultimate gift that is better that all the other gifts that God has given? What lays behind all the laws and practices that Ezra taught from the books of Moses? What caused God to take of human flesh and live among us? What binds us together as the body of Christ? You know of course… it is what Jesus said when asked about the greatest commandment. It is the new/and very old commandment Jesus gave his disciples, it is how he said they were to be known in the world. What is our ultimate purpose here in earth?
We are here to love and be loved by God and to love our neighbors as if they are part of us – because they are!