January 27, 2013 — WE MUST REALIZE WE ARE A “SAVED” PEOPLE

In the first reading we are confronted with a rather strange situation.  The high priest Ezra is reading the Book of the Law to the people and interpreting it as he does so, and the people are so happy that they are weeping out of joy.  Some commentators think that they are weeping because they have been so convicted by the words of the law that their hearts are moved that much. This drama went on, we are told, from daybreak until midday—approximately a six hour long reading and homily.  Imagine that happening today, huh?  In any case, it is an event of extreme importance and high emotion.  When they are finished the high priest commands them to go home and celebrate.  What gives here?  What exactly is going on?

 

In order for it to make sense, you have to have a little history.  Ezra the priest lived from about 480 B.C. to about 440 B.C.  What you have to understand is that in 586, approximately a century before this, King Nebuchanezzar destroys Jerusalem, burns down the temple, and the Jewish people go into exile in Babylon.  To make a long story short, Kings Cyrus, Xerxes and Artaraxes of Persia allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild, and Ezra was a key leader of this group sent to rebuild.  If you want some modern day comparisons, basically Babylon was Iraq and Persia was Iran.  This is, of course, historically inaccurate, but you might say that the Iraquis captured the Jews and the Iranians let them go.  So yes, there has been full scale war between these peoples since at least 600 B.C. and even further back.  To this day, the Iranians consider themselves ethnically a European people fundamentally different than the middle-eastern people that settled nearby them.  Many of the Iranians still insist on being called Persians.  But that’s a trivial point.  What is important is that the Jews have finally been allowed to live according to their old laws and customs, on their own land, and with their own leaders.  Ezra is actually attributed with founding many Jewish traditions, particularly the public reading of the law.  He basically started the Sanhedrin and the practice of reading in synagogues.  To Ezra, it was much more important to concentrate on the study of the law than on rebuilding the temple – this was quite a controversy between the Jews at the time which one was more important.   They have been humbled.  They have virtually nothing, and have realized what is truly important—keeping their families together and serving their God.  That’s it.  I wonder what it will take us to recognize the same thing.  Will it take war, exile and persecution as well?

 

The history of the Jewish people, particularly in the Old Testament, is one of growing close to God and then growing stubborn again, ignoring him, chasing after other gods, and then God essentially leaving them to the consequences of their actions.  It’s not that God punishes them exactly.  It’s more like God says, “O.k., by your actions you have told me that you no longer want to live close to me or under my protection.  Fine.  I will give you what you want.”  They wandered for forty years in the desert because they were stubborn; they went into exile because their behavior became an abomination before God; they were given awful rulers and were subjected to many wars for the same reasons.  Is their history not our history as well?  Do we not do the same thing, certainly as individual people, and now as a nation that was once “one nation under God.”  I’m not sure what it is anymore, and it scares me a great deal.

 

I mention this history for two reasons.  First, because spiritually speaking, the history of the Jewish people is our history as well.  Our messiah came from the Jewish religion and fulfilled about 300 or so Jewish prophecies, so we should be aware of some of the connections between Jesus and the history of the Jewish people.  We are always going astray.  MY KEY POINT IS THAT WE ARE A PEOPLE THAT NEED TO BE SAVED.  Otherwise, why would we need a Savior?

 

With some of this background history in mind, I want you to hear again what Jesus says in what many scholars call his inaugural address.  It is his first public speech, so we might imagine that its meaning is extremely important.  That is what Jesus says:

 

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

To bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free

And proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

 

then he rolls up the scroll and tells them that they have just heard a prophecy fulfilled right in front of their eyes.  The first thing that should impress us is that Jesus is absolutely declaring himself as the anointed one of God–the one that comes to fulfill the prophecies.  But why does he come?  What prophecies does he come to fulfill?  He could come to fulfill the prophecies about destroying God’s enemies, or becoming the new king.  But those aren’t the prophecies he focuses on.  The prophecies that the Lord focuses on are the ones that specifically talk about saving the poor, the captives, the oppressed and the blind.  Here’s the problem:  if you don’t think that you are poor, imprisoned, oppressed and blind, then Jesus doesn’t really have much for you, does he?

 

I wonder how much we have been able to realize this?  I wonder how much each one of us without exception has realized that this is actually the Truth:  that we are poor, imprisoned, oppressed and blind and without a Savior we will remain that way for all eternity?

 

Why did Jesus come to this earth?  Why did he become a man at all?  I took the time to compile the statements where Jesus himself tells us the answer to that question.  Please listen to these meditatively:

 

**************

Matthew 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 9:13 “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 10:7 “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

Matthew 20:28 “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom* for many.”

Mark 1:38 “Let us go to the nearby villages so I can preach there also. That is what I have come to do.

Luke 12:49-51 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

John 6:38-40 “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

John 18:37 Pilate said to Jesus, “You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.

Matthew 18:11 “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”

 

What you have just heard is not my interpretation of why Jesus came to this world, it is Jesus’s interpretation of why he came to this world.

 

After hearing this list, we should be impressed with a few facts.  Jesus comes to save sinners.  He comes to save the lost.  He has no use at all for the self-righteous or the perfect.  In order to do that, he will preach without ceasing, exorcise demons, heal sickness, and die on a cross, for he came to give his life as a ransom for the many.  He came to live a life for the sake of others rather than for himself.  He did not come to build himself a temple, but instead he came to wallow in the deepest dungeon so that prisoners might be freed.

 

There are two things that we should think about here.  First, how much do we identify with those people who need to be saved?  And second, how much do we feel compelled to save others once we have the knowledge that we ourselves have been freed?  You know that after going to confession, it is customary for the priest to give a penance.  Doing a penance should indicate some sorrow for our sins.  But St. Ignatius of Loyola is right when he says that real penance is the desire to live a life of charity and self-sacrifice out of the sheer gratitude of being saved.  I’ll repeat that:  real penance is the desire to live a life of charity and self-sacrifice out of the sheer gratitude of being saved.

 

I’m sure that we’ve heard stories of someone saving another person’s life, and out of gratitude the victim serves the hero or else some other noble cause for the rest of his life.  This seems logical to us. It makes sense.  Well, can’t we see that this is precisely what Jesus has done for us?  Maybe one day we will have an epiphany that all of our worldly dreams don’t mean diddly squat in comparison with the one truth that we were once lost and now we are found?

 

But what happens when we live in the world too long and are bombarded with its lies of pleasure, materialism, selfishness and false freedom?  We continue to sin.  As we continue to sin, our hearts begin to harden and we rebel against the truth, refusing to do what is right.  As the habit of sin builds, it becomes easier and easier.  Our conscience becomes darkened and we start to rationalize that the evil we are doing is actually good.  We begin to make excuses for our behavior, and when we are corrected we rage against God and say, “How dare he interfere with my life!”  As our hearts grow hardened, it because harder to repent.  And finally, when God sends messengers and prophets to turn us from our evil way, we are so set in our ways that not only do we ignore the prophet, we might even hate and persecute that prophet.  First, God sends kindly prophets.  But when kind prophets are not obeyed, he begins to send prophets that are increasingly more harsh.  And then finally fed up with this state of affairs, God allows exile, war, famine and devastation to humble us and bring us back to what is real — THE TRUTH THAT WE ARE NOT GOD AND THAT WE ARE IN DESPERATE NEED AT ALL TIMES OF A SAVIOR.  This is the history of Israel.  This is our history as well.  This is not bad news.  It is good news for those who are on their way to eternal life.  If this news bothers you, it is already evidence that your heart has begun to harden and that you are in danger.  If it is a truth that you will accept, consider me one of those kinder prophets sent by God to ask you to turn from ugodly ways.  Hopefully we will heed kinder warnings that we need not suffer through prophets that are less kind.

 

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

To bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free

And proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

 

But do we think that we are a people who NEED TO BE SAVED?

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