Into the Wilderness

Rev. Deacon Allen J. Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
February 17, 2013 – Lent I

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

From the book of Deuteronomy:
And you shall make response before the Lord God; a wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.

From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

And from the Gospel of St. Luke:
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil.

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.

Every day of every year, we are presented with choices and temptations; we have to make decisions. Some decisions are easy, some might be hard. Some decisions may not involve sin, while others may. Some decisions might fall into that gray area of right or wrong.

Should I get out of bed in the morning; should I get something to eat? Should I go to church? These are fairly easy decisions to make and would usually be the right thing to do. Should I call in sick to work because I want to go to the beach? Should I shout obscenities at someone who cuts me off in traffic? Should I miss church because I want to go shopping instead? These decisions would probably be the wrong thing to do. How about you see a dollar bill on the ground of the supermarket parking lot: Do you pick it up and put it in your pocket or bring it inside and turn it in? If your wife asks you your opinion on how the new dress looks on her: Do you answer her truthfully or tell her what she wants to hear? These decisions might fall under the gray area.
After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and by the Holy Spirit, he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by Satan. Just as Jesus used those 40 days to prepare Himself for His ministry, we too use these 40 days of Lent: a time of prayer, fasting and abstinence in order to prepare us for the victory that we share in Christ; Christ’s victory over death.

Why was Jesus tempted? For one thing, it was proof that the Father’s approval was deserved. Jesus is indeed the “beloved Son” who always does whatever pleases the Father. Also, in His temptation, Jesus exposed the tactics of the enemy and revealed to us how we can overcome when we are tempted. This experience helped prepare our Lord for His present ministry as our sympathetic High Priest, and we may come to Him for the help we need to overcome the tempter (Heb. 2:16-18; 4:14-16). The first Adam was tempted in a beautiful Garden and failed. The Last Adam, Jesus, was tempted and succeeded.

You may think that of course Jesus was able to resist temptation. He was the Son of God, the Messiah. Perhaps you think that you are just a simple human being; your strength, faith and will power is not that strong. You feel you are no match for Satan’s devious ways.

We have at our disposal the same spiritual resources that Jesus used when He faced and defeated Satan: prayer (Luke 3:22), the Father’s love (Luke 3:23), the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:1), and the Word of God (“It is written”). Plus, we have in heaven the interceding Saviour who has defeated the enemy completely. Satan tempts us to bring out the worst in us, but God can use these difficult experiences to put the best into us. Temptation is Satan’s weapon to defeat us, but it can become God’s tool to build us.

During those 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus did not eat, so at the end, He was hungry. In the first temptation, Satan suggested that there must be something wrong with the Father’s love since His “beloved Son” was hungry. In years past Israel hungered in the wilderness and God sent them bread from heaven; so surely Jesus could use His divine power to feed Himself and save His life. Satan subtly used this same approach on Eve: “God is holding out on you! Why can’t you eat of every tree in the Garden? If He really loved you, He would share everything with you!”

But the test was even more subtle than that, for Satan was asking Jesus to separate the physical from the spiritual. In the Christian life, eating is a spiritual activity, and we can use even our daily food to glorify God (Rom. 14:20-21; Corr. 10:31). Whenever we label different spheres of our lives “physical,” “material,” “financial,” or “spiritual,” we are bound to leave God out of areas where He rightfully belongs. Christ must be first in everything, or He is first in nothing (Matt. 6:33). It is better to be hungry in the will of God than satisfied out of the will of God.

When our Lord quoted from Deuteronomy: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” He put the emphasis on the word man. As the eternal Son of God, He had power to do anything; but as the humble Son of man, He had authority to do only that which the Father willed.
As the Servant, Jesus did not use His divine attributes for selfish purposes (Phil. 2:5-8). Because He was man, He hungered; but He trusted the Father to meet His needs in His own time and His own way.

You and I need bread for the body, but we must not live by physical bread alone. We also need food for the inner person to satisfy our spiritual needs. This food is the Word of God. What digestion is to the body, meditation is to the soul. As we read the Word and meditate on it, we receive spiritual health and strength for the inner person, and this enables us to obey the will of God.

The next temptation was when Satan took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and told Jesus that they would all be His, if only He would worship him. And Jesus answered, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”

The Father had already promised to give the Son all the kingdoms of the world (Ps. 2:7-8), but first the Son had to suffer and die (John 12:23-33). The suffering must come first, then the glory. The adversary offered Jesus these same kingdoms if He would once worship him, and this would eliminate the necessity of His going to the cross. Satan has always wanted to take God’s place and receive worship (Isa. 14:13-14).

As the prince of this world, Satan has a certain amount of delegated authority from God (John 12:31). One day he will share this authority with the Antichrist, the man of sin, who will rule the world for a brief time (Rev. 13). Satan’s offer to Christ was valid, but his terms were unacceptable; and the Saviour refused.

Satan had said nothing about service, but Jesus knew that whatever we worship, we will serve. Service to the Lord is true freedom, but service to Satan is terrible bondage. God’s pattern is to start with suffering and end with glory, while Satan’s pattern is to start with glory and end with suffering. Satan wants us to sacrifice the eternal for the temporary and take the “easy way.”

There are no “shortcuts” in the Christian life, and there is no easy way to spiritual victory and maturity. If the perfect Son of God had to hang on a tree before He could sit on the throne, then His disciples should not expect an easier way of life either.

The last temptation was when Satan took Jesus up to the pinnacle and suggested He jump to prove that nothing would happen to Him. The pinnacle was probably a high point at the southeast corner of the temple, far above the Kidron Valley. Satan can tempt us even in the Holy City at the highest part of the holy temple! But Jesus responded, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”

When a child of God is in the will of God, he can claim the Father’s protection and care. But if he willfully gets into trouble and expects God to rescue him, then he is tempting God. We tempt God when we “force” Him or dare Him to act contrary to His Word. It is a dangerous thing to try God’s patience, even though He is indeed long-suffering and gracious.
Satan questioned the Father’s love when he tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. He questioned His hope when he offered Jesus the world’s kingdoms this side of the Cross.
Satan questioned the Father’s faithfulness when he asked Jesus to jump from the temple and prove that the Father would keep His promise. Thus, the enemy attacked the three basic virtues of the Christian life – faith, hope, and love.

St. Paul has told us that God’s way of salvation was not difficult and complicated. We do not have to go to heaven to find Christ, or into the world of the dead. He is near to us. In other words, the Gospel of Christ – the Word of faith – is available and accessible. The sinner need not perform difficult works in order to be saved. All he has to do is trust Christ. The very Word on the lips of the religious Jews was the Word of faith. The very Law that the Jews read and recited pointed to Christ.

Everything about the Jewish religion pointed to the coming Messiah – their sacrifices, priesthood, temple services, religious festivals, and covenants. Their Law told them they were sinners in need of a Saviour. But instead of letting the Law bring them to Christ, they worshiped their Law and rejected their Saviour.

Christ is “the end of the Law” in the sense that through His death and resurrection, He has terminated the ministry of the Law for those who believe. The Law is ended as far as Christians are concerned. The righteousness of the Law is being fulfilled in the life of the believer through the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:4); but the reign of the Law has ended: “For ye are not under the Law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).

Paul made it clear, that salvation is by faith – we believe in the heart, receive God’s righteousness, and then confess Christ openly and without shame.

Paul quoted from the Prophet Joel to prove that God’s salvation is open to everyone: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Instead of the Jew having a special righteousness of his own through the Law, he was declared to be as much a sinner as the Gentile he condemned.

Jesus came out of the wilderness a victor, but Satan did not give up. He watched for other opportunities to tempt the Saviour away from the Father. And Satan does this on a daily basis with us. Let me remind you, that we have at our disposal the same spiritual resources that Jesus used when He faced and defeated Satan: prayer, the Father’s love, the power of the Spirit, and the Word of God. May we use this Lent season to develop these resources, so that we too may defeat Satan and claim the victory in Christ.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A Right Heart

Rev. Deacon Allen J. Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
February 13, 2013 – Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17, II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

From the book of the Prophet Joel:
“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

From St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:
We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

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.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the 40-day period of preparation for Easter Sunday. The distribution of ashes reminds us of our own mortality and calls us to repentance. The ashes that we receive are a reminder of our own sinfulness and are a sign of humility. Lent is a penitential season marked by prayer, fasting, and abstinence. This fasting and abstinence is not simply a form of penance, however, it is also a call for us to take stock of our spiritual lives.

The righteousness of the Pharisees during the time of Jesus has quite often been brought into question as being insincere and dishonest. It was thought that they practiced their religion for the applause of men, not for the reward of God. But true righteousness must come from within. We all need to test ourselves from time to time to see whether we are sincere and honest in our Christian commitment.

The Pharisees were known for their giving alms to the poor, praying, and fasting. These disciplines were important in the religion of the Pharisees. Jesus did not condemn these practices, but He did caution us to make sure that our hearts are right as we practice them.

The Pharisees used almsgiving to gain favor with God and attention from men, both of which were wrong motives. No amount of giving can purchase salvation; for salvation is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9). And to live for the praise of men is a foolish thing because the glory of man does not last (1 Peter 1:24). It is the glory and praise of God that really counts!

Our sinful nature is so subtle that it can defile even a good thing like sharing with the poor. If our motive is to get the praise of men, then like the Pharisees, we will call attention to what we are doing. But if our motive is to serve God in love and please Him, then we will give our gifts without calling attention to them. As a result, we will grow spiritually; God will be glorified; and others will be helped. But if we give with the wrong motive, we rob ourselves of God’s blessing and reward, and rob God of glory, even though the money we share might help a needy person.

Does this mean that it is wrong to give openly? Must all giving be anonymous? Not necessarily, for everyone in the early church knew that Barnabas had given the income from the sale of his land (Acts 4:34-37). When the early church members laid their money at the Apostles’ feet, it was not done in secret. The difference, of course, was in the motive and manner in which it was done.

The second discipline that the Pharisees practiced was to have a meaningful prayer life. Jesus gave us four instructions to guide us in our prayer life. We should pray in secret before we pray in public. This means we should establish a personal prayer life with God, before we pray in public. It is not wrong to pray in public, such as in church, or even when blessing food or seeking God’s help. But it is wrong to pray in public if we are not in the habit of praying in private.

Prayers should be sincere and always in His will. The purpose of prayer is to glorify God’s name, and to ask for help to accomplish His will on earth. “Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in heaven, but for getting God’s will done in earth.” We have no right to ask God for anything that will dishonor His name, delay His kingdom, or disturb His will on earth.

We must pray, having a forgiving spirit toward others. Forgiveness belongs to the matter of fellowship. If I am not in fellowship with God, I cannot pray effectively. But fellowship with my brother helps to determine my fellowship with God; hence, forgiveness is important to prayer.

Since prayer involves glorifying God’s name, hastening the coming of God’s kingdom, and helping to accomplish God’s will on earth, the one praying must not have sin in his heart.

The last discipline that the Pharisees practiced was fasting. The only fast that God required of the Jewish people was on the annual Day of Atonement. The Pharisees fasted each Monday and Thursday and did so in such a way that the people knew they were fasting. Their purpose, of course, was to win the praise of men. As a result, the Pharisees lost God’s blessing. As with giving and praying, true fasting must be done in secret; it is between the believer and God.

One of the most important things in this life, is to be reconciled to God. Because of his rebellion, man was the enemy of God and out of fellowship with Him. Through the work of the Cross, Jesus Christ has brought man and God together again. God has been reconciled and has turned His face in love toward the lost world. The basic meaning of the word reconcile is “to change thoroughly.” It refers to a changed relationship between God and the lost world.

God does not have to be reconciled to man, because that was accomplished by Christ on the cross. It is sinful man who must be reconciled to God. “Religion” is man’s feeble effort to be reconciled to God, efforts that are bound to fail. The Person who reconciles us to God is Jesus Christ, and the place where He reconciles us is His cross.

When Jesus died on the cross, He took our sins on to Himself. If we were to think of this in banking terms, the word is imputation. This simply means “to put to one’s account.” When you deposit money in a bank, that money is credited to your account. When Jesus died on the cross, all of our sins were imputed to Him – put to His account.

What was the result? All of those sins have been paid for and God no longer holds them against us, because we have trusted Christ as our Saviour. But even more: God has put to our account the very righteousness of Christ!

Reconciliation is based on imputation: because the demands of God’s holy Law have been fully met on the cross, God can be reconciled to sinners. Those who believe on Jesus Christ as their Saviour will never have their sins imputed against them again. As far as their records are concerned, they share the righteousness of Jesus Christ!

The Prophet Joel proclaimed over 2000 years ago to “Blow the trumpet!”; a call to the people to repent of their sins and seek the Lord’s help. But whatever we do in our relationship with God, we must be sincere. It’s easy to participate in a religious service, but quite something else to humbly confess your sins and bring to God a repentant heart (Matt. 15:8-9). May we use this period of Lent to do some soul searching and come to a deeper understanding and relationship with God through His Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting of our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.


God’s Grace

Rev. Deacon Allen J. Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
February 3, 2013- Epiphany IV

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

From the Prophet Jeremiah:
And the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

And from the Gospel of St. Luke:
But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na’aman the Syrian.

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.

The Prophet Jeremiah hesitated as he looked at the work before him and the wickedness around him, and when he looked at the weakness within himself, Jeremiah was certain that he wasn’t the man for the job.

When God calls us, however, He isn’t making a mistake, and for us to hesitate or refuse to obey is to act on the basis of unbelief and not faith. Its one thing for us to know our weaknesses, but it’s quite something else for us to say that our weaknesses prevent God from getting anything done.

God doesn’t save us, call us, or use us in His service because we’re deserving, but because in His wisdom and grace He chooses to do so. It’s grace from start to finish. “But by the grace of God I am what I am,” wrote Paul, “and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain, but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

It was Jonathan Swift, the satirical author of Gulliver’s Travels, who said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough religion to make us love one another.” Spiritual gifts, no matter how exciting and wonderful, are useless and even destructive if they are not ministered in love. In all three of the “body” passages in Paul’s letters, there is an emphasis on love. The main evidence of maturity in the Christian life is a growing love for God and for God’s people, as well as a love for lost souls. It has well been said that love is the “circulatory system” of the body o f Christ.

Note that all three of the Christian graces will endure, even though “faith will become sight and hope will be fulfilled.” But the greatest of these graces is love; because when you love someone, you will trust him and will always be anticipating new joys. Faith, hope, and love go together, but it is love that energizes faith and hope.

Last week in our Gospel reading we had Jesus returning to His hometown of Nazareth for a visit. The people knew Jesus since he was a boy. The news had spread widely about the miracle worker from Nazareth; so His family, friends, and neighbors were anxious to see and hear Him.

It was our Lord’s custom to attend public worship, so He made His way on the Sabbath to the place of prayer. 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.

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! Our Lord’s message of grace to all people was a blow to the proud Jewish people who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people, but God’s saving by grace is for everyone!

One of the scriptures that Jesus referred to was when the Prophet Elijah bypassed all the Jewish widows and helped a Gentile widow in Sidon (1 Kings 17:8-16). Elijah had lived in Cherith for probably a year, and then God told him to leave. God’s instructions may have shocked the prophet, for the Lord commanded him to travel northeast about a hundred miles to the Phoenician city of Zarephath.
God was sending Elijah into Gentile territory, and since Zarephath was not too far from Jezebel’s home city of Sidon, he would be living in enemy territory! Even more he was instructed to live with a widow whom God had selected to care for him, and widows were usually among the neediest people in the land. Since Phoenicia depended on Israel for much of its food supply (1 Kings 5:9; Acts 12:20), food wouldn’t be too plentiful there.

It’s probable that Elijah remained with the woman and her son for two years and during that time, the widow and her son surely turned from the worship of idols and put their faith in the true and living God.

The woman’s assets were few: a little oil in a flask, a handful of barley in a large grain jar, and a few sticks to provide fuel for a fire. But Elijah’s assets were great, for God Almighty had promised to take care of him, his hostess, and her son. Elijah gave her God’s promise that neither the jar of grain nor the flask of oil would be used up before the end of the drought and famine. God would one day send the rain, but until then, He would continue to provide bread for them – and He did.

The other scripture that Jesus referred to was when the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s successor, healed a Gentile leper from Syria (2 Kings 5:1-15). Elisha was a miracle-working prophet who ministered to all sorts of people who brought him all kinds of needs. “And many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27).

Naaman was a Gentile and the commander of the army of an enemy nation, so it’s no wonder the congregation in Nazareth became angry with the Lord, interrupted His sermon and carried Him out of the synagogue. After all, why would the God of Israel heal a man who was a Gentile and outside the covenant? He was an enemy who kidnapped little Jewish girls, and a leper who should have been isolated and left to die. These people knew nothing about the sovereign grace of God. Like Naaman, they didn’t humble themselves and trust the Lord. Naaman’s experience with Elisha illustrates to us the gracious work of God in saving lost sinners.

The king of Syria was Ben Hadad II, and as commander of the army, Naaman was the number two man in the nation. But with all his prestige, authority, and wealth, Naaman was a doomed man because under his uniform was the body of a leper.

Although Naaman didn’t realize it, the Lord had already worked on his behalf by giving him victory over the Assyrians. Jehovah is the covenant God of Israel, but He is also Lord of all the nations and can use any person, saved or unsaved, to accomplish His will.

Although there is no direct scriptural statement that leprosy is a picture of sin, you can see parallels. Like leprosy, sin is deeper than the skin, it spreads, it defiles, it isolates, and it is fit only for the fire.

Elisha told Naaman, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean (2 Kings 5:10, 14).

By his obedience he demonstrated his faith in God’s promise, and the Lord cleansed him of his leprosy. Naaman gave a clear public testimony that the Lord God of Israel was the only true and living God and was the God of all the earth.

Our Lord’s message of grace and love is to all people: Jews and Gentiles! The Holy Scripture has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. As we come to your most sacred table Lord; we remember Thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ; that we are partakers of His most blessed Body and Blood; that this Bread and Wine are signs of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that we may evermore dwell in Him and He in us, until His coming again.

Let us pray:
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Scripture Fulfilled

Rev. Deacon Allen J. Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
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.