Third Sunday after the Epiphany (January 21, 2007)
“Gladly Hearing God's Word” (Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:16-30)
There are three solemn occasions before us today. The first took place some 450 years before the birth of Jesus. The second took place in the first century AD. The third occasion takes place right now, today, the morning of January 21, 2007. All three occasions involve a group of people gathered to hear the Word of God read and explained.
Let's look at that first gathering. It's described in today's Old Testament lesson. It is a gathering of Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon. They had just finished rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, destroyed around 140 years earlier. In thanksgiving for this milestone event, the people requested that the Law of God be read to them. Standing in a public square before the eastern gate called the Water Gate, Ezra the priest stood to read the Book of the Law of Moses ... probably the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
In that reading, they heard their whole history as a people...the creation and fall into sin, God’s promise to send a Savior, the flood of Noah, the covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They heard how God had saved the Israelites through Joseph, even though his brothers had sold him to a caravan heading for Egypt. They heard how their people had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. They heard about Moses, the plagues, the Passover, the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, and their 40 years of wilderness wanderings. They heard about God’s instructions to build the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant where he would dwell in their midst. They heard about the 10 Commandments and all the other laws God gave to them as his own people and by which they would be a holy nation, dedicated to God. They heard about all the sacrifices they were to offer to the Lord, in particular the annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement to cover over the sins of the people committed during the past year.
The text says that Ezra read from “early morning until midday,” probably around six hours. At certain intervals the reading must have stopped for a time so that some of the Levites could speak to the people and interpret what was just read to them. When the people recognized that they had not carefully kept the Word of the Lord, they wept tears of repentance. They also may have wept because they remembered how beautiful Jerusalem and its temple were before the Babylonians came and destroyed them. The new rebuilt temple and the new city walls were a far cry from Solomon’s glorious building projects. But Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest told them not to mourn or weep. Instead, they were to celebrate and to remember that ... in spite of your current situation ... “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
That was the first occasion. Now let’s look at the second one. This one is described in today’s Gospel reading. It takes place in a synagogue in Nazareth. Synagogues were places of worship built for those Jews who lived far away from the temple. Psalms were sung there, prayers were offered there, but above all, God’s Word was read and explained there. This service in our Gospel lesson was no different from all others, except for one important detail. The Lord Jesus was the preacher. He had returned to his hometown synagogue as the visiting rabbi. It’s as if the vicar has come home to preach in his home congregation, and everyone is so proud.
Jesus stood to read from the prophet Isaiah. Specifically, he read from chapter 61 which has the promised Messiah saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Everything was going well until Jesus began his sermon. He sat down ... since that’s what you did back then as the preacher ... and his opening statement was: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Do you realize what Jesus was saying? He was flat out saying, “I am the Messiah ... I am the Savior promised from of old.” The people responded superficially. St. Luke records that “all spoke well of him.” You can just imagine them saying, “Oh, isn’t this nice. This is Joseph’s son. Don’t you remember when he was growing up here? He was such a nice little boy ... perfect, in fact. Never gave his parents or anyone any trouble. And now here he is, all grown up, and preaching in the synagogue. What a nice day this is!”
How quickly things changed. Jesus knew that they did not believe what he was saying, and so he chastised them. This so incensed the hometown crowd that not only did they drive him out of town ... they tried to kill him by throwing him off a cliff. I’m glad to report that no one has ever responded to one of my sermons that way.
Now, of course, our third occasion is this gathering here today. You have gathered in this place to hear God’s Word. A preacher stands before you reading and explaining God’s Word. And I assume that the reason you are here is that you have listened to Dr. Luther’s explanation to the Third Commandment, which says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” But I can’t be sure. I can’t look into your heart and know the real reason why you are here. Only God knows if you are like the ones in the crowd before the Water Gate in Jerusalem listening to Ezra, or whether you are like the ones in the synagogue in Nazareth listening to Jesus.
It may be more common than you think for people to hear God’s Word superficially. They like the nice stories that the pastor tells in his sermons. It makes them feel good. Church, in their view, is simply for teaching their children good morals and values. They make surface judgments about the pastor and the people gathered together. They choose a church on the basis of how many people go there. Is it a small congregation? “That’s great ... I like the family feeling and the sense of intimacy.” Is it a large congregation? “That’s great ... I like having more programs and a variety of services to choose from.” Or there are those who choose a church because the stained glass windows are so beautiful, or because the pastor is so handsome and debonair ... sorry folks, you won’t get either of those here. People choose churches because they like the pastor or they like the people. In and of themselves, those aren’t necessarily bad reasons, but you have to ask yourself ... am I here above all else because God’s Word is proclaimed here in all its truth and purity ... because Law and Gospel are rightly divided ... because yes, I am confronted with my sin and my need to repent, while at the same time I am always assured here of the grace of God and of his forgiveness in Christ?
And let me ask you this: Would you be willing to sit and listen to six hours of Scripture reading with sermons interspersed during that six hours, like the people in Ezra’s day? Not likely. We have a hard time focusing if the sermon goes 15 minutes or more. Our culture is so bombarded with fast moving visual images that we have lost the ability to listen well and assimilate what we hear. Some churches have tried to adapt to our culture and have brought video screens into the sanctuary and use movie and video clips as part of the message. Why don’t we? Well, first off, I think it’s kind of nice to be here and escape the frenzied, hectic world outside and to get more than a worship service full of thirty-second sound bites. And it will always be important for God’s Word to be preached from someone’s mouth, since God has arranged that to be the means by which faith comes, as St. Paul says in Romans 10, “How are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14-15, 17)
If we despise God’s Word like the people in Nazareth, we will be judged by God's Word. Jesus reminded the people in the synagogue of other prophets who were not accepted by their own people and so they “bestowed their favors on foreigners.” (Barnes) Elijah didn’t go to any widows in Israel but brought the Word of the Lord to the widow of Zarephath in the pagan territory of Sidon. Elisha didn’t heal any lepers in Israel but sent the Word of the Lord to the leper Naaman in the enemy territory of Syria! When the Word of God is rejected, God takes it away and sends it to others. Remember how Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust off their feet if a town rejects their message and go on to the next one. (Matthew 10:14)
But when we gladly hear the Word of God and are attentive to it like the people who celebrated the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem, then the joy of the Lord is truly our strength. No wall or city gate can protect you from evil. No wall or city gate can save you from your own sinful nature. The joy of the Lord first and foremost is the joy he takes in loving, serving, and forgiving you. Recall last week’s Old Testament lesson, where Isaiah declared, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5) And remember how the author of Hebrews told us to look to “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) The joy of the Lord Jesus that was set before him was you and your salvation, for which he was willing to go to the cross as the sacrifice for your sins and mine. The joy of the Lord is his gracious work of forgiving sin. That is why we can truly say that, in spite of whatever situation we find ourselves in, “the joy of the Lord is [our] strength.”
The joy of the Lord gives us strength to hold his Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. The joy of the Lord gives us strength to be attentive to his Word, for we know that through his Word God works repentance and faith in our hearts. The joy of the Lord restores us to fellowship with God as we are united to the death and resurrection of God’s Son in Holy Baptism. The joy of the Lord motivated him to institute the meal in which he gives us his body and blood.
The joy of the Lord is our strength. It brings joy to our hearts. And it strengthens us for service to one another.
Let us praise the Word Incarnate, Christ, who suffered in our place.
Jesus died and rose victorious That we may know God by grace.
Let us sing for joy and gladness, Seeing what our God has done;
Let us praise the true Redeemer, Praise the One who makes us one. (LSB 849)