Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father,
and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
From the book of the governor Nehemiah, the 8th
read from [the Book of the Law]… from early morning until midday, in the
presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears
of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.”
The people of God were gathered together, listening to
their priest and teacher read to them the Word of the Lord. Ezra and those
with him provided their hearers a clear explanation of its meaning. It wasn’t
just a regular Sabbath worship. It was a unique situation.
You see, Ezra was giving what might be considered both
the first sermon and the first Bible study in the partially-rebuilt Jerusalem. The people to whom he was speaking had had their nation and their families
shattered many years before. Their unfaithfulness to God as a people had led
to defeat, destruction, suffering, and oppression at the hands of enemies. Some
of these ancestors had been forcibly removed from their land and required to
live in Babylon. Others were left behind in the Promised Land, but the ravages
of war and their subjugation to a series of foreign rulers made it anything but
a land of promise.
Regardless of from which of the two groups they came,
though, all those who gathered in the square in front of the Water Gate in
Jerusalem that morning more than 400 years before the birth of Christ heard
about the great power and promises of their God.
As they listened to Ezra and others proclaim the words
of the Torah, they began to understand just how they had ended up in their
prior predicament of despair and their current situation of hope.
Nehemiah tells us that Ezra was reading from the Law
of Moses, but as we should know quite well, the writings of Moses are not all
law, are they? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy also
contain a great deal of Gospel—the promises of a loving and patient God who,
for a time, had lost patience with a rebellious and adulterous nation. Like a
loving parent, He withdrew His shield of protection from His petulant,
know-it-all children, and allowed them to face the consequences of their many
and various sins.
Many had died; many more had suffered. Yet through
the three score and ten years of a lifetime, Yahweh God had preserved His
people, too. Working through Daniel, and Esther, and Mordecai, and countless
unknown others—working even through pagan foreign kings like Nebuchadnezzar and
Cyrus and Artaxerxes—the Lord had blessed them and kept them. For the sake of a
faithful few, He did not allow them to be eradicated.
He could not allow their complete destruction, for in
keeping with His own promises, through the seed of this people would come a
light for all peoples.
And so the Lord had brought them to Jerusalem. Leading
them through Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor, God protected them from
the enemies who tried to interfere with their return and their efforts. He
inspired them as they labored intently to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls from rubble.
Soon they would re-hang its mighty gates that had been burned with fire.
Eventually, a new temple was raised. It once again
became the centerpiece of their nation and the focal point of their faith.
Though this reconstructed temple was not of its former glory as in the days of
Solomon, that was OK. On the horizon loomed a temple still newer and still
greater—a temple that would not keep man separated from God by a thick veil; a
temple that would be destroyed and raised up again in three days’ time.
Those in the city square that day heard the Word and
bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. They
wept as they reflected upon the great disparity between the holiness and love
of God on the one hand, and their own sinfulness, selfishness, and the
suffering it had brought upon them on the other. Yet, God had been gracious
and merciful. He had loosened the grip of their oppressors, given them a fresh
start, and provided all that they needed to begin this new life under the
guidance of His appointed shepherds.
And so, in thankfulness and praise, Ezra and Nehemiah
and the Levites instructed the people to celebrate a great feast of flesh and
wine—a meal to be eaten in joy, and not in grief. They were further instructed
to share what they had received from the Lord with those who were lacking, that
all might be blessed and filled with the good things of God’s giving.
With attentive ears, the Lord’s own people heard the
word of the Lord in the Lord’s own city. With repentant hearts they mixed
tears of sorrow and tears of joy. In the verses which follow our Old Testament
text for today, we’re told that the people went away to celebrate, because they
now understood the words that had been made known to them.
Quite a contrast with the results in Nazareth in our
Gospel lesson, isn’t it? In fact, it’s almost the complete opposite. In Jerusalem, the people hear the word of God through Ezra, and are initially filled with
sorrow. But, once they understand that word, they finally go on their way, rejoicing.
The people in Nazareth, however, move in the opposite
direction: From an initial positive response to one of rejection, even anger.
After Jesus had spoken the words first given through the prophet Isaiah, the
people “all spoke well of Him and marveled at the gracious words that
were coming from His mouth.”
Jesus had spoken Gospel to them. He had revealed
Himself to them in yet another of His many epiphanies we have seen in this
season of many revelations of the Savior. And yet, they weren’t ready for that
Gospel, because they weren’t ready for the revelation of who Jesus really was.
Their response wasn’t the response those with more open hearts had to Jesus.
No one in Nazareth that day pointed to Jesus and
shouted, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
No one cowered in His presence with fear of their evil nature, saying, “What
have you to do with me, Jesus? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.”
No one questioned with trepidation, “Who is this, that even the wind and
the waves obey Him?” And no one stepped up to confess, “You are
the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
No, their response to Jesus was one of superficial
admiration. They liked the way He spoke. They enjoyed the way He had read
Isaiah’s prophecy. They found Jesus’ words “gracious” not because they
understood that in speaking them He was offering God’s grace—His love, mercy,
forgiveness, and salvation. To them, His words were only gracious in their
style and eloquence.
Their reaction to God’s word is far more reserved than
that of the rescued exiles to Ezra’s reading, also, and it is far less wondrous
than the response of anyone who truly understands, recognizes, and appreciates
who Jesus is. All they can say is, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”
They were not ready for Jesus’ words of Gospel, and so
He gave them Law. He reminded them that, just because they were Jews and He
was a hometown boy, they had no special claim on Him or on God’s love or God’s
miracles. He reminded them of episodes in the past where the Lord had shown
His power and mercy to those who showed repentance and fear of the Lord, rather
than pride in their connections as children of Israel.
It’s interesting that Jesus should choose the widow of
Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian as His examples of those who had received God’s
grace in times when Israel was suffering under His wrath for its unfaithfulness.
You may recall that in both cases, these Gentiles had initially resisted the
declarations of Elijah and Elisha, but later turned and not only followed the prophet's
instructions, but in the end gave great praise and glory to the God of Israel.
The people of Nazareth didn’t care much for the
examples Jesus gave. They felt that they were being accused of acting like
unfaithful Israelites, and indeed they were. Unlike the repentant fear and joy
of those hearing Ezra in Nehemiah’s account, the people in the synagogue in Nazareth took umbrage at Jesus’ words, hardened their hearts, and became angry to the
point of homicidal rage. But Jesus passed through their midst, and went away.
So, what is your reaction to the word of God, deep
down? Are you like the returning exiles and ragged remnant of Jerusalem
listening to Ezra’s reading of the word—both fearful and tearful at realizing
your sin and the suffering it has caused, and then joyfully coming to
understand the wonder of God’s grace to you? Or are you like the comfortable,
dormant worshippers in Nazareth hearing Jesus but not really listening—who
initially liked the way He said things, but not what He had to say?
Go ahead—think about it for a few seconds.
Well, what did you conclude? It’s a trick question,
isn’t it? If you say you’re like the folks in Nazareth, you admit your guilt
of sometimes rejecting the Lord’s word, and place yourself under condemnation.
If you claim to be like those sorrowful sinners in Nehemiah’s account, there’s
the creeping in of false humility—a sin of pride, which also condemns.
If we can confront and accept this reality—that we
stand condemned, regardless of what we would attempt to choose, think, say, or
do—then, and only then, do we have any hope of rescue. When we empty ourselves
of ourselves, and put away any demands or expectations of God, we are then
surrendered to the Holy Spirit and therefore to the will of God whom that
Spirit carries out in us.
In being led to do this by God’s grace, we hear His
word with hearts that don’t channel Him into a mold or mode or method of our
design. Instead, we are the ones molded and shaped by the Spirit to accept the
words of Jesus and His prophets—not because of their eloquence or beauty, but
because of their truth and the deep, deep need we have to hear them.
You and I need to know and believe and trust that
Jesus is indeed the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. We need the
comfort that we gain when we who are poor in spirit have His good news is
proclaimed to us. For He is the only one who has earned for us the liberty
from sin that once oppressed us. He has brought us back from exile and
restored us to God’s good and gracious kingdom. The Lord’s favor is upon you,
because the Lord’s favor is upon Jesus, and Jesus offers and conveys that favor
to you, fulfilling it each and every day in your hearing of His word.
The people of Jerusalem were soberly attentive to
Ezra’s reading of word, and in coming to understand it, they were brought to
repentance, faith, and joy. The people of Nazareth were giddy with delight in
hearing how Jesus spoke that same word, but they wanted the glory of miracles
and not the message of the suffering servant.
It is for that reason, and not for fear of His life,
that He passed through their midst and went on His way. They now mourn and
weep, while those who heard and learned and accepted His word with humble
hearts now enjoy the eternal feast of good things.
You have been brought into the body of Christ by the word
of Christ about the work of Christ, and so you gather here on the
day that is holy to the Lord your God. In doing so, you are attentive to that
word, and you continue to seek its wisdom; its power; its cleansing; its
comfort; and its assurance. You receive them in the Word proclaimed, in the
Word of washing, and in the Word of His heavenly feast. In humility and
thankfulness we receive these gifts, for in them the strength of the Lord
becomes ours. Trusting in His promises, we bless the Lord our great God, lifting
our hearts and hands and voices with His people of every time and place, and
saying joyfully, “Amen, Amen!”