Epiphany 3C: Nehemiah 8:1-10, Luke 4:16-30
There are but two hearings of the Word of God – faith and unbelief. There is no middle ground. No cool, detached critical view high up in the bleachers. It is either faith or unbelief. You either hear the Word of the Lord and rejoice in the goodness of God who has mercy on the sinner, or you deny the Word and despise the goodness of God and want to silence it.
This is why reading the Bible as literature ultimately fails. Yes, the Bible is literature. A wide variety of different kinds of literature, in fact. And the Bible certainly can be read for its literature and its history. But the Word of God is living and active. It kills and makes alive. It does not return empty but accomplishes the purposes for which it is spoken. The Word is a sharp two-edged sword of Law and Gospel that doesn’t sit idly. When you deal with the Word, you are dealing with some live wires, the power of God for salvation.
One of our problems in the church today is that the church has grown Word-weary. Complacent. Bored even. Our ears are dulled by all the noise of this world. We want to be entertained, amused, inspired. We seek relevance and meaning for our lives. We look for answers to all our questions. The competing voices are loud and strong. Media and movies and internet. We are bombarded by information and communication, but there is very little wisdom and communion. Dots are left unconnected. We think in little sound bytes. Our theology is reduced to bumper stickers and slogans and social media postings.
Luther warned his generation that the Word is like a local rain shower. It falls for a while in one place and the soil soaks it up. And then the soil becomes saturated and the water runs off and the rain moves on. Luther foresaw the day when the Gospel would move on from the land of the Reformation to other places, which in fact happened. And some would say it’s happening here. For all the religious fervor and the religious broadcasting and media, there is precious little in the way of the Word of God.
We look for what the Word can do for us rather than what the Word is doing to us. And as a result, we’ve become in large measure critics of the Word rather than hearers of it, measuring the Word in terms of results rather than repentance.
But the Word remains the Word of the Lord. Living and active. Powerful. Breathing the very breath of God. And when it goes out from mouths into ears and into minds and hearts, it does things. It kills and makes alive. It kills the sinner; it raises the saint. It convicts old Adam and raises up Christ. It knocks us off our thrones and picks us up from our knees. It fills the hungry and sends away the satisfied. There is no neutrality when it comes to the Word. It’s either faith or it’s unbelief.
In Jerusalem at the Water Gate at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, it was faith. The people were gathered as “one man,” packed tightly together, demanding the hear the Torah. After nearly 50 years without God’s Word, they stood and listened for hours, from early morning to midday, to hear those words they hadn’t heard together in more than a generation. And Ezra blessed the Lord, and the people answered with their “Amen, Amen” with faces to the ground, worshipping and praising God for the goodness of His Word. It was a holy day, a day filled with the Word, a day of feasting on fat and drinking the sweet wines and sharing with the neighbor. It was a day of rejoicing, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” It was a holy day, for it was full of the Word.
The returning exiles were glad and eager to hear the Word that had been silent for so long. It was like a rain after a long drought, and the people drank it up and wanted more.
That’s the hearing of faith. Faith doesn’t look at the clock and say, “Is it time to go yet? We went 10 minutes over today.” Faith says, “Couldn’t we hear some more? Keep giving us the Word, we can’t get enough of it.” From early morning to midday. They stood – men, women, children – they stood at the Water Gate of Jerusalem and listened as Ezra read from the Torah and preached, “gave the sense,” explained it so that the people understood the reading. And the people wept when they heard the words of the Torah. It cut to their hearts. They repented. They recognized how sinful they were and how gracious the Lord is. And they wanted to hear more. It was a holy day.
It was a holy day in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, the place where He grew up. They remembered local boy made good, Jesus. Working miracles, preaching the kingdom, gathering a following, making headlines. Now He was in the synagogue, 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 particular passage. Isaiah 61. And He read it out loud to the people:
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.
And then He stopped reading. If they had been able to read along with Jesus, like we do, or if they had this passage memorized, which is quite likely, they would have realized that Jesus had stopped before Isaiah got to “and the day of vengeance of our God…” Jesus hadn’t come to proclaim God’s vengeance but His mercy. He came to do the goodness and mercy of God. Jesus had come to put Himself in the path of that vengeance against our Sin. But He came to preach good news, the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and then sat down to preach. The place went silent. You could hear a pin drop. All eyes were fixed on Him. What was He going to say? What He said was this, “Today, this Scripture, this very passage of Isaiah, has been fulfilled in your hearing.” When those words went from the scroll through my mouth into your ears, the Scripture had found its target. You.
What Jesus was saying was that He was the “anointed One,” the Messiah, the One whom God has sent full of the Spirit to bring freedom and life to the captives. People had wondered for centuries who Isaiah was talking about. Was it himself? Was it another to come? Who was this anointed One? And Jesus says to His hometown congregation, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s Him! He’s the One. And they’re hearing Him with their own ears.
And then they started thinking about it, and they remembered Jesus from when He was young. He played in their streets. He hung out with their kids. Mary’s boy. Who does He think He is, anyway? He leaves home, runs around with that rebel cousin John, and now He comes back and thinks He’s the messiah. Well, we’ll see about that. Prove it, Jesus! We’ve heard the reports, all those miracles. Do a few here for the hometown crowd. Then we’ll believe you, but until then….
“Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” Jesus reminded them that there were lots of widows in Israel when Elijah spared the widow at Zarephath. There were lots of lepers in Israel when Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian. If you reject the Word, don’t expect miracles. Faith is faith in the Word, not faith in miracles. Miracles are for unbelievers, not rewards for faith.
They were filled not with faith, but with wrath. Get rid of Him! We don’t need to hear this! And they rose up and drove Jesus out of town and tried to push Him off a cliff. You can’t be neutral about the Word. You either hear it with joy or you try to push Jesus off a cliff.
Jesus is the rejected Messiah, the one who came to His own but His own did not receive Him. He is the rejected Messiah who will not force His gifts on you. Three years later, they would succeed in laying hands on Jesus because He would allow it. And He would be crucified. And in His death He would conquer the world’s Sin, Death, and Unbelief. They wanted to kill Him because He said He had been sent by God to preach good news. How perverse our unbelief is!
We are both Jerusalem and Nazareth, believer and unbeliever, glad hearer and angry despiser of God’s Word. Our old Adam hates the Word, demands proof, wants to throw Jesus off a cliff. It’s our old Adam that is slow to arise and looks for any excuse to stay away from the Word, eager to get on with the day. He can’t wait to dash from church. He can’t wait to get as far away from the Word as he can, because he knows that the Word means his death. He hates it. And he must be coerced to hear it. He’s why you do not gladly hear the Word of God and keep it. He’s why you are not glad when they say, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
But the new you in Christ is a different kind of hearer. A faithful hearer. A Water Gate at Jerusalem hearer. One who is willing, even eager, to stand at the Water Gate for hours upon hours to hear the Word of God and delight in it. The you that is in Christ. The you that God is delighted to call you His child. The you that delights in the Word of God.
Yes, that means a struggle between the old and new. A struggle to get to church. A struggle to pay attention. A struggle to open that Bible and read at home. A struggle against boredom and complacency. It means repentance from all the ways our old sinful nature despises preaching and God’s Word, refuses the gifts of Christ, treats Jesus as something optional or secondary, even wants to toss Him over a cliff and be done with Him.
Repent of that. And hear the Word of the Lord. Today the Scriptures are fulfilled in your hearing. Your sins are forgiven. You stand justified before God. You are His baptismal child. You have a place at His table. You have freedom to live, forgiveness of your sins, strength and joy to live this life to the praise and honor of God. Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Fulfilled in Jesus who is here for you. Amen.