Rev. Deacon Allen J. Batchelder
January 27, 2013- Epiphany III
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
From the Book of Nehemiah:
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.
And from the Gospel of St. Luke:
And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
French author Victor Hugo said over a century ago, “England has two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare but the Bible made England.” Supporting that view, historians tell us that Elizabethan England was indeed a country of one book, and that book was the Bible.
When they arrived in America, the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them that same reverence for the Word of God. “The Bible came with them,” said American statesman Daniel Webster, “and it is not to be doubted that to the free and universal reading of the Bible is to be ascribed in that age that men were indebted for right views of civil liberties.” President Woodrow Wilson said, “America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”
Whether the Bible is “making” any nation today may be debated, but one thing is sure: The Scriptures helped to “make” the nation of Israel. They are a “people of the Book” as no other nation has been, and the church today would do well to follow ancient Israel’s example. When God’s people get away from loving, reading, and obeying the Word of God, they lose the blessing of God. If we want to be like fruitful trees, we must delight in God’s Word.
This explains why Nehemiah called for a “Bible conference” and invited Ezra the scribe to be the teacher. The walls were now finished and the gates were hung. The material needs of the city had been met; now it was time to focus on the spiritual needs of the people in the city.
It is important to note that Ezra and Nehemiah put the Word of God first in the life of the city. What happened in Jerusalem from that point on was a by-product of the people’s response to the Scriptures. “The primary task of the church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God,” said Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. “The decadent periods and eras in the history of the church have always been those periods when preaching had declined.” Could this be what happened to New England; that the Word of God was and is not being preached? Could this be what is happening across the United States? The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to cleanse and revive the hearts of the people of God. If God is to work in and through His people, then they must respond positively to His Word.
The Bible is not a “magic book” that changes people or circumstances because somebody reads it or recites it. God’s Word must be understood before it can enter the heart and release its life-changing power. In Nehemiah’s time, only those people old enough to understand the Scriptures were permitted to be in the assembly. When Jesus told the “Parable of the Sower” (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23), the emphasis is on understanding the Word of God. Jesus compared understanding and receiving the Word to the planting of seed in the soil, where it takes root and bears fruit.
Ezra was the ideal man to conduct this outdoor Bible school. He was a priest and scribe who “had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). He came to Jerusalem about fourteen years before Nehemiah had arrived and had already sought to bring the people back to the ways of the Lord (Ezra 7-10).
It is interesting that the leaders chose the Water Gate for the site of the assembly. In the Bible, water for washing is a picture of the Word of God (John 15:3), while water for drinking is a picture of the Spirit of God (John 7:37-39). When we apply the water of the Word to our lives, then the Spirit can work and bring the help we need. It is refreshing to the soul when you receive the Word and allow the Spirit to teach you.
This so called “Bible conference” was on the first day of the seventh month, which was the Jewish equivalent of our New Year’s Day. The seventh month was a special time in the Jewish calendar because the Jews celebrated the Feast of the Trumpets on the first day, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Tabernacles from the fifteenth day to the twenty-first day (Lev. 23:23-44). It was a perfect time for the nation to get right with the Lord and make a fresh new beginning.
The Book that Ezra brought was “the Book of Law.” This was probably the entire scroll of the Torah, the five books of Moses, the very foundation of the Jewish religion and civil law.
Ezra stood on a wooden platform above the people so they could see and hear him better. He faced the public square where the people stood, and the wall and gate behind may have served as a sounding board to help project his voice to the vast assembly.
When Ezra lifted the scroll and unrolled it to the passage he would read, the people who were seated in the square honored the Word of God by standing up. They knew they would not be hearing a mere man speak his own ideas; they would be hearing the very Word of God. The people remained standing while the Law was read and explained (Neh. 8:7). Ezra started his reading and teaching early in the morning and continued through midday, which means the congregation stood and listened for five or six hours; and this continued for a week. Could any of us, withstand that kind of desire and devotion?
After he opened the Word, “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God.” It was a united congregation that honored the Scriptures and was willing to devote half of their day to hearing it read and taught. They didn’t worship the Book; they worshiped the Lord who spoke to them from the Book.
St. Paul tells us that because of the gift of the Spirit, which is received at conversion, we are all united members of the body of Christ. Race, social status, wealth, or even sex are neither advantages nor handicaps as we fellowship and serve the Lord.
God’s desire is that there be no division in the church. Diversity leads to disunity when the members compete with one another; but diversity leads to unity when the members care for one another.
Our churches today have a desperate need in their public services to show more respect for the Word of God. We are commanded to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13); and yet in many churches, the only Scripture publicly read is the text of the sermon.
As Ezra read and explained the Word, the assembly’s first response was one of conviction and grief. They mourned over their sins, “for the law is the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20). The law can’t save us; it can only convince us that we need to be saved and then point us to Jesus Christ the Savior (Gal. 3:24).
Our Gospel reading this morning has Jesus returning to His hometown of Nazareth for a visit. Keep in mind that these were small villages; you actually knew your neighbors, not like today. The people knew Jesus when he was a boy; watched Him grow up; probably helped His father who was a carpenter and even learned the trade. By now, the news had spread widely about the miracle worker from Nazareth; so His family, friends, and neighbors were anxious to see and hear Him. Could this actually be the same Jesus that we knew and loved; who we watched grow up?
It was our Lord’s custom to attend public worship, a custom His followers should imitate today. He might have argued that the “religious system” was corrupt, or that He didn’t need the instruction; but instead, He made His way on the Sabbath to the place of prayer.
A typical synagogue service opened with an invocation for God’s blessing and then the recitation of the traditional Hebrew confession of faith. This was followed by prayer and the prescribed readings from the Law and from the Prophets, with the reader paraphrasing the Hebrew Scriptures in Aramaic.
This was followed by a brief sermon given by one of the men of the congregation or perhaps by a visiting rabbi. If a priest was present, the service closed with a benediction. Otherwise, one of the laymen prayed and the meeting was dismissed. If you think about it, it was very similar to our worship service today.
Jesus was asked to read the Scripture text and to give the sermon. The passage He read included Isaiah 61:1-2, which read, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” He also selected it for His “text.” The Jewish rabbis interpreted this passage to refer to the Messiah, and the people in the synagogue knew it. You can imagine how shocked they were when Jesus boldly said that it was written about Him and that He had come to usher in the “acceptable year of the Lord.”
The reference here is the “Year of Jubilee” described in Leviticus 25. Every seventh year was a “Sabbatical year” for the nation, when the land was allowed to rest; and every fiftieth year (after seven Sabbaticals) was set apart as this special year was the balancing of the economic system; slaves were set free and returned to their families, property that was sold reverted to the original owners, and all debts were canceled. The land lay fallow as man and beast rested and rejoiced in the Lord.
Jesus applied this to His own ministry, not in a political or economic sense, but in a physical and spiritual sense. He had certainly brought Good News of salvation to bankrupt sinners and healing to brokenhearted and rejected people. He had delivered many from blindness and from bondage to demons and disease. Indeed, it was a spiritual “Year of Jubilee” for the nation of Israel!
The problem was that His listeners would not believe Him. They saw Him only as the son of Mary and Joseph, the boy they had watched grow up in their own city. Furthermore, they wanted Him to perform in Nazareth the same miracles He had done in Capernaum, but He refused. That’s the meaning of the phrase, “Physician, heal thyself.” The people wanted Jesus to prove to them who He was and perform a miracle! Only then would they believe. Chances are the people assembled knew the Scriptures, but they couldn’t allow the boy to grow up into someone they didn’t expect: the Messiah, the Son of God!
At first, they admired the way He taught, but it didn’t take long for their admiration to turn into antagonism. What caused this? Because Jesus began to remind them of God’s goodness to the Gentiles! The Prophet Elijah bypassed all the Jewish widows and helped a Gentile widow in Sidon (1 Kings 17:8-16), and his successor Elisha healed a Gentile leper from Syria (2 Kings 5:1-15). Our Lord’s message of grace was a blow to the proud Jewish people who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people, and they would not repent. Imagine this hometown boy saying that the Jews had to be saved by grace just like the pagan Gentiles!
The congregation was so angry, they took action to kill Jesus! St. Augustine said, “They love truth when it enlightens them, but hate truth when it accuses them.” That applies to many of our congregations today, people who want “gracious words” but who don’t want to face the truth. People who want the preacher to make them feel good, without pointing out God’s expectations and the consequences of our actions if we fail to obey God.
Think for a moment how the Jews felt. They were God’s chosen people. As long as they kept the Law, they thought they were fine in God’s eyes. Now here comes Jesus, who tells them that they are sinners, just like the Gentiles, and are in need of a Saviour. Like the Jews and Gentiles of long ago, we Christians need Jesus Christ’s redeeming grace; for only if we believe in Him are we saved!
The Word of God brings conviction and leads to repentance, but it also brings us joy; for the same Word that wounds, also heals. The secret of Christian joy is to believe what God says in His Word and act upon it. Faith that isn’t based on the Word is not faith at all; it is presumption or superstition. Joy that isn’t the result of faith is not joy at all; it is only a “good feeling” that will soon disappear. Faith based on the Word will produce joy that will weather the storms of life.
In spite of the unbelief of the people in Nazareth, the Scriptures declared that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son, the Messiah sent to fulfill His promises. People who do not want Him and who reject “the acceptable year of the Lord” will one day face “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2). The Scriptures have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ!
Let us pray:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all the people the Good News of his salvation that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.