Knowing Who We Are and What We Are Called to Do

Pastor Sherry’s message for 1/23/2022

Scriptures: Neh 8:1-10; Ps 19; 1Cor 12:12-31a; Lk 4:14-21

The story is told of a man who found a young eagle that had fallen from its nest ….

“He took it home and put it in his barnyard where it soon learned to eat and behave like the chickens. One day a naturalist passed by the farm and asked why it was that the king of all birds should be confined to live in the barnyard with the chickens. The farmer replied that since he had given it chicken feed and trained it to be a chicken, it had never learned to fly. Since it now behaved as the chickens, it was no longer an eagle.

Still it has the heart of an eagle,’ replied the naturalist, ‘and can surely be taught to fly.’ He lifted the eagle toward the sky and said, ‘You belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth your wings and fly.’ The eagle, however, was confused. He did not know who he was, and seeing the chickens eating their food, he jumped down to be with them again.

‘The naturalist took the bird to the roof of the house and urged him again, saying, ‘You are an eagle. Stretch forth your wings and fly.’ But the eagle was afraid of this unknown self and world and jumped down once more for the chicken food. Finally the naturalist took the eagle out of the barnyard to a high mountain. There he held the king of the birds high above him and encouraged him again, saying, ‘You are an eagle. You belong to the sky. Stretch forth your wings and fly.’ The eagle looked around, back towards the barnyard and up to the sky. Then the naturalist lifted him straight towards the sun and it happened that the eagle began to tremble. Slowly he stretched his wings, and with a triumphant cry, soared away into the heavens.

‘It may be that the eagle still remembers the chickens with nostalgia. It may even be that he occasionally revisits the barnyard. But as far as anyone knows, he has never returned to lead the life of a chicken.” (Theology News and Notes, October, 1976, quoted in Multnomah Message, Spring, 1993, p. 1).

The eagle had a case of confused identity. He didn’t know who he was—a chicken or an eagle. He didn’t know his purpose—to peck for food on the ground, like a strange domestic; or to soar the heavens as a magnificent raptor. We can often be like that, can’t we? We can limit who we are, and we can miss out on our purpose.

Let’s see what our Scripture passages today have to about our identity and our purpose.

A. Our Old Testament lesson comes from Nehemiah 8:1-10, and takes place in Jerusalem in 445BC, roughly 2500 years ago. Jewish POW’s of first the Babylonian, then the Persian Empires, had been set free by the Persian king, Artaxerxes, to return to their homeland. Under the oversight and direction of their governor, Nehemiah, they had completed the massive rebuilding of the city walls in just 52 days. Ezra, their priest had begun the sad reconstruction of the Temple, which would take many more years. We find them today assembled–on the equivalent of their New Year’s Day—inside the Water Gate (1 of the 12 refurbished gates of the city). You may recall that business, legal, and political matters were debated and decided, in those days, at the city gates. So this wasn’t just some narrow passageway, but a gate opening into a sizeable square or assembly area.

Again, they had to meet there because reconstruction of the Temple was not accomplished.

Ezra and Nehemiah had convened a “solemn assembly” of all the returning citizens. Scholars estimate some 49,000 men, women, and children of an age to understand [perhaps ages 8-10 and above], had gathered there—with someone providing child care for the younger ones. After 70 years of exile in a foreign nation, they may have held Bible studies there, but chances are good that they had not really been formally taught the Torah (the Law). The word has gotten around, however, that someone had found a copy of the Law of Moses during the Temple rebuilding project. The People wanted to know what it said. They realized they had been punished by God for their idolatry and for not obeying His Law. They wanted to be sure they didn’t err in the same way their grandparents had.

Notice what happens. Ezra proclaims God’s word, in a loud voice, from a raised platform (perhaps the first pulpit). The people remain standing, and quiet, and as they listen for some 4-6 hours! This is where the synagogue tradition of standing for the reading of Scripture began. In Eastern Orthodox congregations—and in the middle ages in Europe–people stood for the entire service. That’s why we find there large cathedrals with no pews. Today, we stand for the reading of the Gospel, the Creed, and communion. Standing is a sign of respect, a sign of reverence. These folks are hearing God’s word read to them—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—perhaps for the first time.

Additionally, there are Levites available to walk among the crowd and explain what God’s Word means. Scholars believe the people may not have understood the Hebrew, as they had probably been speaking Aramaic or even Persian/Farsi. So the teachers of the Law were there to answer questions and to explain. This is probably the most important job we pastors now do—explain the meaning of Scripture, as best as we can. The pre-Reformation Catholic Church had moved away from this important duty. The Protestant Reformers were thus insistent that we preach and explain God’s Word. This is why I park on the Scripture passages appointed for the day in all of my sermons. Like the people of Nehemiah’s day, we cannot obey God’s Word if we don’t know or understand it.

The people respond with AMEN, AMEN! May it be so, hands lifted, praising God. We say, Thanks be to God! following our reading of Scripture and hopefully we mean it. They then became convicted of their sinfulness. They now knew the standard. They also realized how far short of God’s standard they had lived, and how the sins of their forebears had led to the destruction of their country, and to their 70 year exile as a subjugated people. So, they prostrate themselves and cry tears of repentance. But Ezra, Nehemiah, the 13 on the platform, and the Levites among them, tell them not to grieve or mourn. For a time they had lost their identity and their purpose! But God brought them out of captivity. He once again delivered them and restored them. He hadn’t turned His back on them. And now they had a new chance to get it right. This, then, is an occasion to celebrate, to rejoice about the goodness and mercy of the Lord.

Nehemiah tells them, (v.10)—Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Just what does that mean? It doesn’t say, I bring God joy when I praise Him (though we probably do). It doesn’t say, My joy about God makes me strong (though it may). Both of the above statements begin in the wrong place: with ME. The true starting place, always, is with GOD. God’s joy is the foundation for our strength. So, what brings Him joy? When we remember our identity begins with our belief in Him, as His beloved children, and our purpose is to be obedient to Him.

B. Our Gospel lesson today comes from Luke 4:14-21. Jesus has returned home to Nazareth (following His baptism, 40 days in the wilderness, and probably the wedding at Cana. He goes to the Synagogue on the Sabbath, as was His custom. The synagogue at Nazareth would have been His “home church.” When I visited my home church in Tallahassee from seminary in Pittsburgh, it was always such a blessing and a celebration to greet old friends. This must have been true for Jesus too as they invited Him to read the Scripture appointed for the day and to preach.

Now Jesus knows Who He is—the beloved Son of God. He also knows His mission–to redeem the world—which He no doubt came to grips with during His time of prayer, meditation, and temptation in the wilderness.

And He would have realized the Scripture, Isaiah 61:1-2a, was His mission-statement. He reads aloud for the congregation what Isaiah had predicted about Him 700-750 years before His birth: Anointed by the HS, He would…

[1] Preach good news to the poor (God loves you and has sent Me to save you);

[2] I will proclaim freedom to prisoners (people whose own sin has captured them);

[3] I will recover sight for the blind;

[4] I will release those who have been captured and injured by the sins of others;

[5] And I will proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor: This is it! God has sent you the Messiah!

Then He sat down (the traditional posture of a teacher) and told them that what the prophet had predicted has now come true in Him. In other words, Jesus knows His identity and His purpose. Do we each know who we are and what we are called to do?

This week, let’s try to remember our true identity comes from our relationship with Jesus Christ.

1. Not from our profession;

2. Not from our marital status;

3. Not from our family name or our friendship circle;

4. Not from where we live;

5. Not from what sports team or political candidate we support;

6. Not even from our gender orientation.

7. No, we are children of God and inheritors of His Kingdom through Christ Jesus. That is our prime and most important identity.

And our purpose derives from that: We are here on earth, at this time and place, to know, love, and serve God. Christians means little Christs. We are to imitate Jesus in the way we behave.

Allow me to close with a story regarding the 19th century French artist Paul Gustave Dore, taken from Our Daily Bread, 01/06/1993. (Dore was famous as an illustrator of books, including the Bible, fairy tales, and other poems and novels of the day:

The renowned artist Paul Gustave Dore (1821-1883) lost his passport while traveling in Europe. When he came to a border crossing, he explained his predicament to one of the guards. Giving his name to the official, Dore hoped he would be recognized and allowed to pass. The guard, however, said that many people attempted to cross the border by claiming to be persons they were not. Dore insisted that he was the man he claimed to be. “All right,” said the official, “we’ll give you a test, and if you pass it we’ll allow you to go through.” Handing him a pencil and a sheet of paper, he told the artist to sketch several peasants standing nearby. Dore did it so quickly and skillfully that the guard was convinced he was indeed who he claimed to be. His work confirmed his word!

This week, let us remember, we are eagles called to be eagles, not chickens. May what we say and do reflect who we are. AMEN! (May it be so!)

©2022 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams

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