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

religious establishment.

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

were you.”

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

the Lord.”

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.