Kevin & a friend of his were on the peninsula and as they were driving back, they were (no surprise) faced with a long line of traffic going into the I-64 tunnel. They made a bet on whether they would reach the tunnel in under an hour or not. As they started driving over the water, on the bridge portion, Kevin exclaimed he was right and they reached the tunnel in under an hour. He had won the bet! His friend said, no no, the tunnel is another 100 yards away, we’re only on the bridge.
Insert groans and eye rolls. They didn’t make clear in their bet, or promise, what the definitions were. They made assumptions.
I think we’ve all been there - with a friend or sibling or business - where basically the argument is over semantics. What did you really mean by “the tunnel?”
However, it highlights the need for clear expectations and knowing what is promised.
Whether it’s a business transaction or a personal relationship, knowing the expectations in a promise and upholding those expectations is crucial or else trust can be broken. I think we’ve all experienced a situation where trust has been lost.
...perhaps in a dating relationship - where one person thinks the couple is “exclusive” and the other not so much
...perhaps in a business deal - where one person fails to “read the fine print”
...perhaps in a leader - where you thought you were on the same page with them philosophically and their decisions say otherwise
Fulfilling a promise effects a person’s or group’s reputation, their honor, their relationships.
Perhaps we have felt this tension of promises being fulfilled in our theology, in our relationship with and understanding of God.
How many of us have felt betrayed by God or confused by life’s happenings because of our understanding of God’s promises?
Make no mistake: God is not deceitful. It is only when we misinterpret the promises that we feel betrayed.
In both of the Scripture selections we heard today, it describes a situation where a group of people are gathered to hear the promises of God.
They honor, or praise, God for the Divine’s presence in their lives
The people come together to build their relationship with God, putting their trust in the fulfillment of God’s promises.
They spread the good reputation of God, otherwise known as evangelizing (fun fact: “evangel” comes from the Greek word meaning “good news.” So, to evangelize means to be spread the message of good news.)
It’s what we call “church”...People gathered together to hear the promises of God and be encouraged to go forth from the gathering to spread those good promises.
In the selection from Nehemiah, the people gathered are the people who were exiled, pushed out of their homeland, and have now returned. They’ve returned to a land that is in rubble and they need to hear the promises of God. They need to hear hope.
They’re mainly hearing, not reading. The literacy rate of that time was less than 3%. So, they depended on the scribes and leaders to read, and also interpret, the word for them. On this day, they were reminded of the promise that the day is holy - they heard the promise that joy can be found in strength from the Lord - and then they heard that they should carry that promise to others through sharing of food and drink.
The people needed to hear God’s promises so badly that they stand from “early morning until midday!” Can you imagine!? All jokes aside on pastors preaching too long, what situation would you need to be in to stand for approximately 6 hours, listening to God’s promises being preached?
And this word of hope in Nehemiah was for all people. This is where digging into Scripture a little can be so enlightening. The place they gathered, the Water Gate, wasn’t so random. It was a place where everyone could go - people of all ages, men and women, clean or unclean as defined by rituals. All people could hear the promises of God there. All people.
In our Luke passage, we hear words from Jesus for the first time in Luke’s Gospel. Before this selection, Jesus was baptized, was tempted in the desert, and had been performing miracles in a nearby town of Capernaum. So, upon his arrival to Nazareth, the people had expectations of what he would do. They had likely built, in their minds, what the promised experience would be.
And then, Jesus reads portions of Scripture from Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,...he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives...recovery of sight to the blind...let the oppressed go free...proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then proclaims that HE is that fulfillment of Scripture.
That’s not what the people expected. They expected miraculous signs and healings. Yes, Jesus said he was sent to bring sight to the blind...and he did physically heal some people. But more often, he brought mental and emotional and theological sight to those that didn’t get it. As their Savior, the people probably expected a physical warrior - barging through the oppressive government. That’s not what he did.
We see it repeatedly in Christian Scripture - that Jesus’ words and actions as the Messiah are not what the people expected. Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s promise doesn’t meet their understanding.
N.T.Wright sees Jesus drawing on "the larger picture in Isaiah...of Israel being called to be the light of the nations," and presenting a Messiah who "has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God's love and mercy to them." (Luke for Everyone)
And so it shouldn’t surprise us too much that after this selection, the people run Jesus out of town and try killing him. Maybe they didn’t like hearing what he had to say.
Both of these Scriptures describe a group of people gathered to hear the promises of God.
And from them we can reflect on the importance of how we receive God’s promises and how we pass on those promises to the community around us.
It is important that as we seek God’s promises, like the people in Nehemiah, we fervently seek truthful understanding - in an environment where all are welcome.
It is important that as we experience the fulfillment of God’s promises, that we don’t, like the people in Luke, impose our expectations onto God’s actions and get upset when they don’t match.
It is important that as we evangelize and tell others the good news of God’s promises that we work to continue the fulfillment of the words from Isaiah….that we help the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.
Recognizing and understanding God’s promises to us in this world is vital to how we interact with the people and environment around us. For example, if a person feels that God has promised them tangible riches, they may push through and move over anything to attain it. If a person thinks that God has promised a life without trouble and challenges, then they will be sorely surprised when those challenges do arise.
However, when we hear that God promises equal mercy, love, and justice to everybody - regardless of finances, regardless of race, regardless of anything - then we will look to accomplish that.
Your homework this week (because though I’m a former teacher, I still reserve the right to assign it) is to think about what you feel God promises you. Think about where you heard or read that. Ask yourself if the promise is loving, is it inclusive of all people, is it merciful. If it’s not, let’s talk!
If it is, then work to spread God’s good reputation. Work to let all people know of God’s loving promises.
Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21