Sermon: Captivity? What Captivity?

01.24.2016     Preaching Text: “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18b)

In Bible Study we generally read a paragraph at a time, discuss it, and then move to the next. Sometimes, however, someone will reference a comment from a part of the book we haven’t as yet read. My standard mock response is: “So you’ve been reading ahead?!”

As it turns out, today’s lectionary readings dovetail perfectly with what I said in last week’s sermon. But I want you to know…I did read ahead! I promise.

In last week’s sermon I talked about how the “universal values” championed by the Enlightenment are not in fact universal at all. To make this point over the years I’ve pointed out that the Declaration of Independence’s grand statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” is in fact an inaccurate statement.

The reason is that equality is not at all “self-evident,” though I firmly believe it to be true. There are and have been, both in the past and in the present, countless societies where this “self-evident” truth is considered completely false!

The reason I personally believe it’s true is because the Bible tells me so (as does Western civilization), and not because all people share this conviction simply by being human. It’s not, in other words, standard issue bequeathed at birth.

Some might rightly argue, “Okay, but doesn’t the Bible tell us that each of us is a child of God, and thus equal in God’s eyes? Weren’t Adam and Eve created inherently good, i.e. moral and true? And don’t we see this same goodness a child’s innocence and indiscriminate love?”

Here’s where the biblical notion of the fall and Original Sin comes into play. Though Adam and Eve are indeed born pure, their subsequent willful disobedience, their decision to become gods unto themselves (rather than depend on their loving Creator), compromises their innocence and diminishes their ability to live and love in righteousness.

After their consequent expulsion from the Garden and its perfections, flaming swords prevent their return, symbolizing the fact that life now shall be lived “East of Eden.” The pure state of human innocence and moral clarity is now lost (or severely compromised). Our connection to God and God’s truth is now weakened. We no longer know, by definition, what’s right and what’s wrong.

After surveying the wreckage humanity wrought in the ensuing years after the fall, God enacts a plan to return all of life back to its Creator, beginning with Abraham. Through Abraham and his progeny, Israel, followed by Jesus Christ and his church, those drawn back to God will regain what was lost in the metaphorical Garden.

Celebration and thanksgiving flow from this “rebirth,” this recovery of sight, for those living in darkness have seen a great light. What once was lost has now been found. Then again, this reconciling movement is not always a smooth and steady process. It has its ups-and-downs.

The passage we read this morning from Nehemiah chronicles one of the “up” moments in Israel’s history. Here Ezra reads the long, lost Law of Moses, the cornerstone of Jewish faith, as part of his ongoing efforts to reform Israel.

Some 50 years earlier, Nehemiah had been sent by the Persian king (c. 446 B.C.) to begin rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and the temple after their destruction by the Babylonians 150 years before. Along with rebuilding these walls, Nehemiah also seeks to reform the city spiritually.

For it had been Israel’s feckless apostasy from Jahweh and Mosaic Law that was thought to have precipitated its ruin, its fall from grace. Religious practices had grown lax. Even pagan worship had been brought into the temple.

The once strong values and norms of Jahwistic religion had thus been watered down to the point of near extinction. The blending in with surrounding pagan cultures had produced a religion abhorrent to Jahweh. More than anything else it was this that had caused Jerusalem’s demise.

Fast-forward to Ezra. Born into the priestly family of Aaron, Ezra arrives in Jerusalem roughly 50 years after Nehemiah and immediately sets about to complete Nehemiah’s partially successful reforms. The climax of Ezra’s efforts is what we heard this morning.

Here, facing the square before the Water Gate, Ezra reads the Law of Moses as the culmination of his work. In this reading the Jewish faith would be restored to its preeminent place within Jewish society. Hearing now the requirements of the Law and not unaware of the laxities that had become commonplace, the people respond with weeping and lamentation.

But Ezra, filled with a knowing, unsullied joy, announces not mourning but a feast. For a priceless treasure, long lost, had been found, promising abundance and new hope to a city long-bereft of both.

One is reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Born into a loving family, and given all that is necessary to flourish, the wayward son takes his inheritance and squanders it. After falling into an abominable state, lost and hopeless, cut off from the source of abundance and goodness, he returns to his heartbroken father, expecting the worst.

But rather than demand repentance, his father meets him halfway, entirely unexpectedly. With forgiveness and mercy, the father immediately calls for a joyous feast, for the son who had been lost to him has now been found.

The point is that individuals and whole peoples, though each is born a beloved child of God, can and do lose their way. Yet the story of the fall is played out again and again, as humanity wanders away from the source of all goodness, East of Eden, alienated from its forgotten Creator.

Again, though born as children of God, pure and innocent, our minds and hearts can grow captive to influences alien to God’s truth.

Yet, as with Ezra’s hearers and the Prodigal Son, freedom from the bleak constraints of captivity is ever freely offered by a beneficent God, eager to forgive, reform, and restore.

The first required step, of course, is an awareness and subsequent admission of one’s captivity to thoughts, words, and deeds alien to God’s purposes, and a hope-filled confidence, born of faith, that God’s ongoing promise of restoration is not only real but joyous. Amen.