Awe and wonder – that is the theme that jumped out at me in today’s readings. I can imagine the awe and wonder that went through the minds of those assembled who heard Ezra and who heard Jesus read God's holy word from the scroll. Maybe it's because we live in a modern era where we're so used to computers, scientific knowledge, and special affects that it takes a lot for us to feel awe and wonder in our lives.
I remember when my good friend Suzan Cox, the liturgist from St Richard parish in Jackson, came with me up to St Mary’s for the first time. When we entered the church and saw the sunlight come through the beautiful yellow stained glass windows, she just could not believe the beauty of this church. I had the same reaction when I first walked into our church as well – I really felt God’s presence there.
Like the awe Suzan Cox and I felt at entering our church for the very first time, the people of ancient Israel responded in awe and wonder to the word of God that Jesus and Ezra proclaimed. Almost 6 centuries before Christ's birth, the Temple was destroyed & the people of Israel were deported to Babylon, leaving only a few peasants behind in Jerusalem. After more than 50 years of captivity they were allowed to return, even though by this time most of the survivors had been born in Babylon and had never before seen Jerusalem. The priest Ezra led a caravan across the desert, arriving in a city in ruins. Imagine what we still face trying to continue to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, or the situation Haiti still faces with hundreds of thousands of people still homeless after the earthquake there a few years ago, and we can only imagine what a task they had. They rebuilt the city and the Temple, but the rebuilding effort was not the entire story. From day break until mid-day, Ezra stood on a platform, reading and interpreting God's word from a scroll in front of a great crowd. A new era had begun for the people of Israel: a reconstructed Temple for worship, a rebuilt city to live in, and the rediscovery of the Word of God as their foundation.
To the ancient Jews, especially to those who had come back from exile in Babylon, God's word and God's laws were seen not only as the ultimate authority, but as the center of life. God's word was not a hindrance or a restriction – it was essential to life itself.
We see God's word & God's law playing the same role in the community more than 500 years after Ezra as Jesus proclaims this holy word in the synagogue. Like Ezra returning to his home in Jerusalem after the exile, Jesus returns to his homeland in Galilee after being baptized & spending time in prayer. Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah, written during the time of the Babylonian exile. Jesus declares that the Lord has sent him to bring glad tiding to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a time of favor from the Lord. Both Ezra and Jesus bring new life to their communities, but Jesus' mission is so much more in inaugurating a new era in God's plan of salvation. Jesus proclaims that he has come to restore sight to the blind, which also means understanding to the unenlightened. Yet, much of the story of the Gospels is how so many people rejected this new understanding or insight that Jesus brings.
In reading from the scroll of Isaiah to the people, Jesus brought God's word to the here and now as he was living out and fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. If we really believe Jesus' liberating message in the new sight and new understanding that it brings to our world, what difference should that make to us in lives? Today's readings from Luke and Nehemiah take place in the proclamation of God's word in liturgical settings. How do we approach the presence of God and the presence of his word when we come to mass and other liturgical celebrations? Do we come with a sense of awe and wonder, of respect and reverence, or is it just one of our obligations or mundane activities? Coming to church should be something very special to us: entering this worship space, hearing God's word proclaimed, receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist – all of this should touch our hearts and our souls like nothing else in our lives. It should stir a sense of awe & wonder in our lives. These readings today give us a lot to think about in how we approach God in our lives and in how we see his presence in our midst.