SCRIPTURE: NEHEMIAH 8:1-3, 5-6. 8-10, Luke 4:14-21
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen
A minister standing at a bus stop in a down pour of rain turned to the man
standing next to him and in an effort to make conversation said, “If it doesn’t raining
pretty soon we’ll have to build and ark.” The man asked, “What’s an ark?”
The minister said, “Are you telling me you haven’t heard about the Great Flood,
and all those animals getting the ark with Noah?” The man said, “To tell you the truth, I
just moved to town two weeks ago and started a new job and I haven’t had time to
read the newspaper.”
Given some of the trends in our society today this story is not too surprising. A
recent Gallup poll found that readership of the Bible has declined in recent years, from
73% to 59% today. Most of the 59% who say they read the Bible at least on occasion
are women, nonwhite, older people, Republicans, and political conservatives. Only 37%
said they read the Bible once a week and that, too, is down from 40%.
At least the folks in the story of Ezra and Nehemiah had a legitimate reason for
not knowing much about the Scripture. They had not had access to their sacred writings
in 70 years as they were in exile. The story picks up when they received their freedom
and were back in the City of Jerusalem, which had been pretty much laid to waste while
they were in exile.
Their task…to rebuild the city. Nehemiah was charged with the responsibility of
rebuilding the city and he worked together with with Ezra, who was part of their
As they were preparing to rebuild the wall, they discovered the Torah. What a
find! All construction stops. Ezra cracks open the sacred writings and the crowd closes in
to listen. They were so hungry to hear those words. They had not heard the scripture
for so long. They were standing on tiptoe in expectation, hanging onto every word that
Ezra reads, from early morning until midday.
They listen with rapped attention to the majesty and glory of the Word. They
remembered and reclaimed those words given to Israel through Moses. They lift up their
hands and cry, “Amen, Amen” and they bowed their heads with their faces to the
ground. Far different from the way we hear and receive the word today.
Following the reading would be a time of interpretation, so that the people could
understand what they had just heard. They began to weep at the hearing of God’s law.
Perhaps they wept because it had been so long since they had heard the words from the
Torah. Perhaps they wept for joy because they had been released from exile and
allowed to return to their promised land.
Maybe a part of their weeping was the joy of realizing that after it had all been
said and done God had not abandoned them while they were in exile. Maybe they wept
because they realized how far they strayed from the word. Maybe they wept because
they could not survive without God’s word. Whatever the reason, both Ezra and
Nehemiah tell the people not to grieve but to celebrate and feast, “for this is holy to our
Lord.” What a wonderful response to God’s word.
When we turn to the Christian Scriptures, we hear a story that has some similar
components to it. Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and attends worship in his
home synagogue. As a rabbi, which means teacher, he is asked by the head of the
synagogue to come and read scriptures. Jesus came up out of the congregation and
stood to read from the prophet Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because
he has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He sent me to proclaim
release of the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at
liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the
Lord.” (Luke 4:19)
He returned the scroll and then, as was his custom, he sat down at the place
where he was standing for the purpose of interpreting the passage he had just read. I
suspect that most of the people in the congregation were thinking, “OK, now Jesus is
going to tell us how he is going to interpret this passage.” I think they may have been a
little surprised what happened.
Jesus announces, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Today! Not some distant future. In a man from Nazareth, not from some spokesperson
for God. The good news for the poor, the release of captives, the recovery of vision, the
liberation of the oppressed, are all proclaimed now. It was one of the most moving
emancipation proclamation speeches any one had ever heard, and it was now.
One gathers from hearing these two stories that there is something very
powerful about the Word of God. An elderly woman had just returned to her home
from an evening church service when she was startled by an intruder. She caught the man in
the act of robbing her home of its valuables, she yelled, “Stop! Acts 2:38” (Repent and
be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ so that you and our sins may be forgiven.)
The thief froze in his tracks. The woman then calmly dialed 911, and explained
what she had done. When the police arrived and cuffed the burglar they asked him,
“Why did you just stand there? All the woman did was call out Scripture to you.”
“Scripture?” replied the burglar. “I thought she said she had an axe and two 38s!”
In the story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue, the congregation discovered
the power of the Word of God being fulfilled that very day. That brings us to our
congregation – this very day. Does the Word of God have that kind of power and
influence for us? Have too many of us neglected the reading of the Word? Are there too
many people who have never had an opportunity to read or hear the Word, and yet
would like to have God’s Word help direct their lives? Who wants to experience that
powerful word today?
Tuesday night President Obama gave his last State of the Union speech. The
President urged all Americans to help make our country great. Today we hear another
State of the Union speech, this one by Jesus, where he too, set the tone for his ministry.
Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” Translated that means that the
Word has been made flesh and now dwelling among us.
I want to suggest that one of the reasons why you come to church on a cold
January Sunday morning is that you need the Word of God. Your faith needs
refurbishing and encouraging. The Word of God is unlike any other word. The Word of
God is sacramental in that, when it is spoken, read, and/or heard, God becomes
present. What I can promise you this morning is that God’s Word is for you…for
Today We Hear the Word of Good News.
Seems like good news is in short supply these days. We could all use a good
word every now and then. A person went into a restaurant and ordered eggs, bacon,
toast and a good word. When the server returned she put the eggs, bacon and toast on
the table and then turned to leave. The customer said, “Wait, I also asked for a good
word.” The server stopped, turned around, and dryly said, “I wouldn’t eat those eggs if I
Too often that is the extent of the good news we hear. The good news for us is
that today the Word of God has become flesh. The good news is that today we can be
free. The good news is that God is here in our midst today. The good news is that we
can experience God’s unconditional love and acceptance today. We do not have to wait.
Today We Hear the Word of Virtual Spirituality.
The Word Jesus proclaimed is no longer theoretical, but actual. The Word of God
is now in flesh, dwelling among us.
Jesus came to make words like beliefs, faith and religion verbs. Jesus said, “The
Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach Good News to the
blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of
Jesus was in the business of setting people free. He brought people out of prison
– prisons of poor health, alienation, destructive life patterns, and other prisons of their
own making. He gave back vision to the physically blind, and asked the spiritually blind
to open their eyes to the truth and love he demonstrated so vividly. He brought healing
and wholeness to a broken society.
Today we Hear the Word Here and now!
Jesus said, “Today, the scripture had been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not in some
distant future time, but today. It is here and now that we can expect changes. It is here
and now that the status quo will be challenged. It is in the here and now that old ways
and traditions will be challenged.
The Word of God caused the early Israelites to fall on their knees to weep, and
that same Word enabled them to stand up and clap for joy. Does God’s Word today
have that kind of impact on you?
During WWII, Prague Czechoslovakia was one of the areas where the German
Nazis were trying to decimate the Jews. They were systematically torching the
synagogues. When they were in Prague, they came upon a synagogue where an old
rabbi was sitting in the corner preparing his sermon for the next Sabbath. To humiliate
him, they forced him to remove all of his clothing, and had him stand in his pulpit
wearing only his rabbi’s hat. “Say something in Hebrew for us,” the Nazis taunted. “Yes,
preach to us, preach what you are going to say next service. Preach!”
The old rabbi stood there and began to speak in Hebrew which, of course his
tormentors could not understand. He spoke the words that had time and time again
been given to the Jews as words of hope. “In the beginning God created the world. And
God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And it was all good.”
In that moment the power shifted from the cruel Nazis to the old rabbi. In
speaking the word, the rabbi was assaulting, dismantling all the evil power of the Nazis.
A new world was being claimed and reclaimed for God. Nothing those Nazis could do,
not even their reign of death, could defeat the ultimate and triumphant Word of God.
That is the way it is with God. God will always have the last Word.