Text: Nehemiah 8
Date: Epiphany III + 1/27/13
Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord, for until and unless He comes there is no blessing, no joy. But the King has come and we rejoice. Or do we? Today’s readings contrast different reactions to God’s Word. In the Gospel Jesus’ hometown folks were at first speaking well of Him and “marveling at [his] gracious words.” Their initial “joy,” however, quickly turned to anger and wrath when He predicted their rejection of Him. In today’s Old Testament reading, parts of the Book of the Law of Moses were read and explained before a people who had forgotten God’s Word. They first responded with tears of repentance and profound worship. But then they were told not to mourn or weep. “Do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Last Sunday we took notice of how the Lord’s earthly ministry began with a note of joy, saying, “Your God Rejoices Over You.” Today we observe the reality that people react to the claims of God’s Word differently and ask, “Do We Rejoice Over God?”
The first thing we need to say is that God’s Word is powerful. The now First Vice President of Synod and I back in the first years of our ministry would often encourage each other simply saying, “the Word works!” Why else, for instance, would there be so much controversy about whether or not a Bible should be used at the ceremony of a President’s oath of office? To use a Bible is either to make a confession of the truth and significance of God’s Word, the Judeo-Christian scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, or, on the other hand, to refuse to use a Bible still is to confess that it has some negative power or meaning. Either way, if one denies any power or significance of the Bible you’d think its use wouldn’t matter to anyone.
One of the clearest statements of the power of God’s Word, of course, is in the words
of the Book of Hebrews that begins by claiming that the Son of God “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). It then says that, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:12-13). That is to say that the Word of God has power either to deliver and to save or to judge and to condemn. To be delivered and saved is a joyful thing. To be judged and condemned is not.
In His hometown of Nazareth Jesus read in the synagogue the words of the prophet Isaiah that speak of the long-awaited Servant of the Lord, the Messiah anointed to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty and release to those who are bound, that is, the forgiveness of sins. This was the great hope in which Israel waited in faith. It was, however, when He claimed, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” that things began to change. The peoples’ initial faith quickly turned to denial and unbelief.
Together with our Old Testament reading from Nehemiah we notice that what counts is our hearing of the mighty Word of God. The psalm for today, Psalm 19, speaks of God’s Word as “perfect, reviving the soul;” “sure, making wise the simple;” “right, rejoicing the heart;” “pure, enlightening the eyes;” perfect, sure, right and pure, reviving, making wise, rejoicing and enlightening. Verse 14 has even been used as a prayer at the beginning of a pastor’s sermon, saying, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
While God’s people were still in exile (around 500 bc) God began to deliver them that they might return to their home in Jerusalem. The temple had been rebuilt but the city was still not protected against enemies. King Artaxerxes was moved to allow the man named Nehemiah to go rebuild the walls of the city. After he had succeeded in this project Nehemiah, together with Ezra the scribe and priest gathered the people together. Ezra read words that the people apparently hadn’t heard for a long time, the Word of God in the Book of the Law of Moses.
It was interesting that apparently Ezra would read a little and then his assistants would repeat the Word, translate the Hebrew in case some didn’t understand, and otherwise interpreted or gave a short summary of the meaning of what was read. A sermon or a catechism lesson is so that we, like these folks, can understand. “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh 8:8).
God’s Word clearly intends to say that, “Your God Rejoices Over You.” He “rejoices” with a loving, saving sort of joy, again as the Book of Hebrews says it, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). That “endurance” of the cross and despising of the shame of it all was the price that freed the world from the tyranny and wages of sin, it was that perfect love that, as Jesus said today, proclaims the good news of liberty and release from the slavery of sin and death to everyone who believes it. Who would not, or could not rejoice in the God who has shown Himself to be the saving God of love for all?
But we discover this saving God of love not merely by acknowledging Him as Creator, in the marvel of His creation, merely singing songs like “How Great Thou Art.” People find out that this mighty, creator God is also the saving God of love only when His inspired Word is heard. For only through the good news, the Word of the Gospel does the Holy Spirit create saving faith in the heart and suddenly enlighten our understanding. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:5-6).
Those who reject God’s Word, or even just stop hearing it and forget it fall away into the darkness and chaos of unbelief. Unbelief makes for a chaotic life! Faith, on the other hand, puts everything into proper perspective—sin and grace, repentance and faith, fear and love, death and life. So we ask again: “Your God Rejoices Over You.” “Do We [Do You] Rejoice Over God?” “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…sure, making wise the simple…right, rejoicing the heart…pure, enlightening the eyes…clean, enduring forever…true, and righteous altogether….By [God’s Word] is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19). So hear the Word of the Lord. And continue to hear, to “read, learn, mark and inwardly digest” God’s Word. And then, “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”