Text: Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4:14-21
Third Sunday After the Epiphany
Listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the problems in the church today is that we have grown Word-weary. The written word seems to be a dying breed. Many churches seem to think that glitzy technology and entertainment is what you need if you’re going to reach people. When I was first looking into becoming Lutheran, I sat down to chat with some local Lutheran pastors. One pastor told me that he would not read or preach the word on occasion at all. Instead of traditional proclamation, he would rather sit on a barstool and just casually “chat” and “share” with folks. Why? All the noise of this world has dulled our ears. We’ve become complacent, bored even. We want to be entertained, amused, inspired. We seek relevance and meaning in our lives. The competing voices we find in the media are loud and assertive. Today is sometimes called the Sunday of the Word of God since both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons deal with the reading and preaching of God’s Word. Our readings stress the fundamental importance that God’s Word must have in our lives of faith.
Gathered to Hear God’s Word
In Jerusalem at the Water Gate during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people were gathered as “one man.” They were packed tightly together, demanding the hear the Law of Moses. Men, women, children all stood and listened for six hours. From early morning to noon, they heard words they hadn’t heard together in more than a generation. They stood at the Water Gate of Jerusalem and listened as Ezra read from the Torah. And this was not simply reading. He also preached, he “gave the sense,” explained it so that the people understood the reading. No comfortably padded pews. No climate control. No roof over their heads.
They listened. The assembly of Judah wasn’t glancing at their watches, weren’t nodding off, weren’t wearing bored expressions on their faces. They weren’t mad because they missed brunch! The people of Judah were glad to assemble to hear the reading and preaching of God’s Word on a holy day.
It was also a holy day in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, the place where He grew up. Jesus was in the synagogue. The local boy made good come to the home congregation. The place was packed, as you might expect. Everyone wanted to hear from Jesus. The attendant handed the scroll of Isaiah to Jesus, and He looked for a passage from Isaiah. And He read it out loud to the people. And then He stopped reading. Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and then sat down to preach. The place went silent. You could hear a pin drop as all eyes were fixed on Him. What happened next? Jesus preached, “Today, this Scripture, this very passage of Isaiah, has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus explained that the prophecy he read was just fulfilled right then. The people of Nazareth gathered to hear the reading and preaching of God’s Word on a holy day. Jesus made going to synagogue to hear the reading and preaching of God’s Word a central part of his life.
If this was central to Judah, Nazareth, and even Jesus, this raises some critical questions: What is the centre and core of your life and family? What is the most necessary thing that you do each week? It is hearing and learning God’s Word, the Holy Bible. It’s vital to your very identity. So, listen to what Philip Melanchthon says in our Augsburg Confession: “The church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely, and the sacraments are administered rightly” (AC VII:1, Tappert).
“And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly”, that is, the Church. The Church is the assembly of God’s people. This is what God’s people do: we assemble to hear the reading and preaching of God’s Word. If someone were to look at your life, is that how they would remember you? As someone who gave God’s Word the first place? A Christian doesn’t look at the clock and say, “Is it time to go yet?” A Christian says, “Couldn’t we hear some more? Keep reading! Keep preaching! Keep giving us the Word, we can’t get enough of it.” Often you will hear some Christians talk about “being the church.” How do we “be” the Church? By assembling together to hear God’s Word.
We genuinely need to work on this. Many of you do not assemble regularly. We have nearly 300 souls, of whom only 20 or so come to bible class and listen later. That’s shameful and downright sinful. We have 300 souls, about a third of which will come to Church in six months. What could be more necessary than hearing and learning God’s Word? The Word of God has the power to change lives. Why aren’t you here for Bible class if you believe that? Why aren’t you coming to Church regularly? Why aren’t you reading your Bible every day? You can spend half a dozen hours watching TV or scrolling through Facebook, but you can’t spend 20 minutes twice a day to read God’s Word? Reading, hearing, and learning God’s Word is who we are. It defines us as Christians. It identifies us as the Church. The casual attitude that some of you have just won’t cut it.
Responding to God’s Word
Look with me for a moment at the two different responses to the preaching of God’s Word in our texts. When Ezra opened the book up, all the people stood up. When Ezra went to read the Law, he blessed the Lord, and the people answered with their “Amen, Amen.” They bowed with faces to the ground, worshipping and praising God for the goodness of His Word. (Do you recognize these ceremonies? Don’t we have similar rituals surrounding the reading of the Gospel? ) Far from being a happy experience, the people burst into tears. What is going on?
When they hear the commandments of the Law read, the people weep because they have not been keeping some of them. They recognised how sinful they were and how gracious the Lord was. And they wanted to hear more. Yet Ezra tells them not to be grieved. So, instead of mourning, it was a day of feasting on fat, drinking the sweet wines and sharing with the neighbour. It was a day of rejoicing, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The returning exiles were glad and eager to hear the Word. They were grieved at their sins and rejoiced in God’s forgiveness. That’s the hearing with faith and repentance.
We see the opposite reaction in Nazareth. Jesus’ preaching filled them not with faith but with anger. They wanted to get rid of him! They did not want to hear what he had to say. And they rose and drove Jesus out of town and tried to push him off a cliff.
There are only two responses to God’s Word: repentance or rejection. You can hear the Word of the Lord and rejoice in the mercy of God, who has forgiven your sins. Or, you deny the Word and despise the goodness of God and want to silence it. “The Third Commandment. Remember the Sabbath Day by Keeping it Holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word but hold it sacred, gladly hear and learn it.”
Do you gladly hear and learn God’s Word? Do you hold it sacred? Do you respond like Judah or like Nazareth? When God’s Law smacks you between the eyes, do you repent or get angry? There is sin that clings to us, and it still hates the Word, and wants the preacher to shut up. There are times when we are slow to arise on Sunday morning. We sometimes look for any excuse to stay away from the Word, eager to get on with the day. That is the remnants of sin in you. There is evil in us hates God’s Word. And at times, we must force ourselves to hear it.
Yet part of you is willing, even eager, to stand at the Water Gate for hours upon hours to hear the Word of God and delight in it. That’s the new life given to you in Baptism. So that means there is a struggle between the old and new. An effort to get to Church. A fight to pay attention. A struggle to open that Bible and read. A battle against boredom and complacency. A struggle to go to a bible class that you don’t want to go to. We must fight against the ways we might want to despise preaching and God’s Word and treat Jesus as optional or secondary.
Repent of that.
And hear and learn the Word of the Lord. Brothers, Jesus came to set you free from that old sinful nature. He came to proclaim liberty and freedom. Your old bondage and slavery to your sin is over. Your sins are forgiven, and you stand justified before God because Jesus shed his blood for you. You also have been given new life. You have the freedom to live, and the joy of the Lord is your strength. We live in an imperfect world. We miss the mark. But, the core message of the Bible is that Christ forgives us, embraces us, and loves us with everlasting love. He remains at the centre of our lives even when we behave, act, or think differently.
“Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.