Text: Nehemiah 8
Date: Epiphany III + 1/24/16

Synagogue. The word literally means to bring together or an assembly. So it is used to describe especially a Jewish congregation or house of worship. The synagogue is for the sacrifice of prayer and teaching since the old animal sacrifices may only be offered in the Jerusalem Temple.

We heard of Jesus attending the Jerusalem Temple. After 70 ad however the Temple is no more. Therefore, the rabbis emphasize the sacrifice of prayer and teaching in the synagogue. Today we hear the account of our Lord’s attendance at the synagogue of His hometown in Nazareth. There we see certain elements of the usual liturgy, the prayers and hymns, and the reading and expounding of the scripture. As an acknowledged rabbi Himself they invited Jesus to read and preach. It happened that the lesson was from the prophet Isaiah, specifically chapter 61. Jesus sees this as His call document or job description as He came to fulfill the scripture. He is the promised one bringing the release from sin, sickness and death, the forgiveness of sins and salvation to the world. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” He says. At first, St. Luke tells us, “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” even though they really didn’t yet understand how gracious those words were, namely, the very Gospel of the Lord! Their marveling, however, soon turned to wrath as Jesus continued to expound also the Law, saying, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” That they didn’t like so they drove him out of the town and meant to kill Him right there by throwing him down the cliff. How He escaped by “passing through their midst” we cannot say.

Synagogue. It means to bring together as an assembly for the worship of God. But at the word of accusing Law they were no longer “synagogue.”

In an interesting note in our Lutheran Study Bible on verse 8 of our reading from Nehemiah it states, “Some rabbis regarded this as the beginning of synagogues and the Aramaic Targums,” or interpretive books or commentaries on the Hebrew scripture. This method of teaching was necessitated at first as people stopped learning Hebrew and took on the languages especially from the places where they were in captivity for so long. In Nehemiah’s Jerusalem those who returned from Babylon mainly spoke Aramaic or Chaldee, as did Jesus and the people in His time.

Nehemiah was a layman, the cupbearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes I. Though he was not a rabbi or priest the Lord laid it on his heart to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. After building the walls he writes, “All the people gathered as one man” or “synagogued.” They called upon Ezra the scribe and priest to bring the Book of the Law of Moses to read it aloud in the midst of all the people. Nehemiah tells us “they read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This reminds me of Martin Luther who introduced the Bible and the Divine Service in German so that the people may understand it. This also is a good description of what Christian preaching and sermons should be all about.

They hadn’t heard the Word of God for so long in their foreign captivity that “all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law” (8:9). Nehemiah then comforted the people, saying, “This day is holy to the Lord our God. Mourn not, nor weep…. neither be ye sorry, for joy in Yahweh is your refuge.” Because the day was holy to the Lord, they were to desire it with holy joy. It is a “synagogue” joy, a joy founded on the feeling of communion with the Lord, conscious that He is long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth. They heard passages like Exodus 34:6 where Moses brought the Law and proclaimed the creed-like word, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” In other words, they heard both Law and Gospel, conviction of their sin because God loves them and the release of the good news, the Gospel of God’s love.

This is what assembles us, synagogues us, calls us together as one body, the body of Christ. Here we gather not because we’re so holy and righteous in ourselves but precisely because we’re not! Here we freely dare to confess our sin and need of God because we also know that “God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We know that because Jesus our Savior, the only-begotten Son of God came to fulfill God’s condemning Law for us and then to be the one and only acceptable sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world, takes away your sin, all of it. But because only faith receives that forgiveness we need to hear it, to hear it read, preached, spoken clearly giving the sense, so that we may understand the Gospel with the understanding of faith.

Standing with Nehemiah’s synagogue, who responded to the word, saying, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands, bowing their heads and worshipping the Lord with their faces to the ground; standing with Jesus preaching in the synagogue, we become that joyful synagogue today, singing the joyful Epiphany hymn,

What joy to know, when life is past,
The Lord we love is first and last,
The end and the beginning!
He will one day, oh, glorious grace,
Transport us to that happy place
Beyond all tears and sinning!
Amen! Amen!
Come, Lord Jesus!
Crown of gladness!
We are yearning
For the day of Your returning! (LSB 395:6)