January 24, 2016 Sermon: “A Good Word”

posted Jul 6, 2016, 4:00 PM by David Hawkins
Old Testament Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 

Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

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. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

New Testament Reading: Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Sermon: "A Good Word"             Rev. David Hawkins

You may remember last week’s Old Testament scripture, from Isaiah, encouraging the exiles to return to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity. You may also remember that it was a hard sell for some of the exiles. They had settled down in Babylon, they had found a place there, working as artisans, as craftsman; they had put down roots, started families. They had formed relationships with the people around them, some of them had even started to go to churches with different gods, flirting with different religious traditions. 

But the prophet Isaiah is gently insistent. Come home, he says. Come back to where you belong. 

And so, they do -- slowly, over a period of several years, they return to Jerusalem. They return to the city of their faith, they come back to their home, city of the temple, the house of God. 

But it’s not a happy homecoming. They come home to find that others, from other places, from other traditions have moved in during their absence. They find the temple and the walls of the city in ruins. They find that their old life is gone, everything they remembered about Jerusalem is changed. They are disillusioned, angry, and disheartened, and many wondered why they had left Babylon at all. They wondered if it was all for nothing, this dangerous journey from their established home in exile back to a city in ruins, occupied by strangers. 

The book of Nehemiah tells the story of how a Jewish advisor to the King Artaxerxes, was released from his service to return to Jerusalem to re-build the city walls and gates. It was a mammoth project, and there are many times that it seemed that it would never be completed, there were too many obstacles, to many unsolvable problems, too many nay-sayers to ever get the job done. 

But, the city walls were re-built. Despite the active sabotage of some of Nehemiah’s fellow Hebrew leaders, the great walls and gates of Jerusalem were rebuilt. 

But there was still discontent in the city. The people of God were restless and squabbling. They were balkanized, separated into their own little circles, separated by their status as natives or returning exiles or immigrants from other lands. During the time of exile, different religious traditions had begun to replace temple worship, and these different traditions sparked arguments about whose faith was better. 

Obviously, us folks here in the 21st century can’t possible resonate with any of these kinds of problems.

There was deep suspicion between the peoples, and Nehemiah knew that something had to be done, or all the work that had been done over the course of several years would go to waste. The city might be protected from outside dangers, but it would destroy itself from within.

He directs Ezra, the chief priest and scribe, to bring the word of the God to the people, as recorded in what they called the Law, the Torah. Sometimes this is shorthand for the first five books of the Bible, sometimes it simply refers to the 10 commandments, sometimes it means the Law of Moses, recorded in Leviticus and Numbers. 

We’re not sure exactly what part of the first 5 books of the Bible Ezra read, but we know that he read for several hours, stopping from time to time to explain what he was reading, so that everyone could understand. Everyone in Jerusalem gathered to hear him speak, standing at the newly re-built Water Gate, and as the people heard the word of God, they wept. 

They were not weeping at the burden of the law. They were not weeping at the demands, the shame, the guilt, the conviction of the Law. They were weeping, because they remembered, in the reading of the Torah, the promises made to them by God. They remembered the covenant that God had made with them, that he would be their God, and that they would be his people. And especially, they remembered that they had forgotten those promises.

And it had been so long since they had heard that Good Word. It had been so long since they had heard that God would never leave them, that God had promised himself to them, that God loved them, it had been so long since they had heard that, they could do nothing but weep. 

This was not a punishing sermon from on high, judging, condemning, naming their sin and their guilt. This was a renewal of their wedding vows, made so long ago at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the desert. This was the reminder of God’s everlasting love for them, a love they thought had been forsaken, a love they thought they had lost forever. 

This word of love spoken that day brought them to their knees. The promise between them and their God brought them back together as a people, it reminded them of their common faith, their common, hope, their common Lord. And they wept.

But Nehemiah didn’t let them weep for long. He bid them rise, and like any good wedding planner, he made sure that they had plenty of food to eat and wine to drink, and they had a party for the ages, a party that lasted for a full seven days. 

This was the good word from God. A word of encouragement, a word of hope. A word of feasting and rejoicing. A word that brought them together.

And we hear Jesus offering the same kind of good word in our New Testament reading. 

Jesus is in his home church, where he grew up. Everybody there knows him and his family. Everybody there has also heard about his teaching around the area. It’s a kind of homecoming for him, and there are lots of expectations. 

It was the custom in the synagogue for anyone who wanted to read portions of scripture, and so Jesus had the opportunity to read from the Prophets. And it’s curious, the words that he chose. 

They are from the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, verses 1-2. You can look it up in the pew Bible if you like, it’s on page 691. It’s curious both because of the words Jesus read, and the words that he did not read. 

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

If you were looking at the Isaiah passage, you might have noticed that Jesus read most of Isaiah 61:1-2, but not all of it. He read the part about proclaiming release, about the recovery of sight, about the year of the Lord’s favor, but not the part about the day of God’s vengeance. He left that part out.

It’s a curious omission. And an important one. 

Because this is the moment that Jesus declares who he is, and what he is all about. This is his mission statement. This is his what he has come for, and why God has sent him. These are the first words Jesus speaks after his time of temptation in the desert, this is the very beginning of his ministry. 

And so it’s important to really look at the words Jesus speaks at this moment, as well as the words he does not speak. Because they tell us exactly who and what this Jesus is all about. And it’s pretty clear: He’s about proclaiming good news, not vengeance. He’s about telling people that God loves them, not that God hates them.

In recent years, it has been a fashionable thing to speculate, “What Would Jesus Do?” How would Jesus react to a specific situation? How would Jesus deal with this or that problem? What would Jesus say to this or that question? And this is an interesting exercise. But sometimes, I think it might be more helpful to ask the question, “What DID Jesus do? What DID Jesus say?” 

And this is one of those times. 

Because when we think about how we should live our lives, our model is not a hypothetical Jesus, but an actual Jesus, who actually lived, and said, and did things. Our model for life and ministry is not speculative, it is real. 

And when we think about the purpose of our lives, we need to first think about the purpose of the life of Jesus. And here in this short scripture, we find it. Jesus announces his ministry in really pretty clear terms: I’ve come to offer a good word to those in need, to heal, to bring justice, to proclaim freedom. And (curiously), not to proclaim the day of God’s vengeance. 

Jesus has come to save the world, not to condemn it. He came to share God’s love, not his judgment. This is his good word for us, and it is an echo of the word spoken by Ezra to the Israelites as they wept and rejoiced at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. God is for us, not against us. God remembers us, and loves us. The Good word of Jesus Christ is the reminder that we are God’s people, and that he will forgive us, he will free us.

This is the word that binds us together. This is the word that offers us hope. This is the word that lifts up and heals. And if that word is not on our lips, then we have forgotten what the Good News is all about. It’s not about judgment, or condemnation. It’s not about vengeance, or exile. It’s not about separation, or division, it’s not about shame, or guilt or threats of eternal suffering and damnation. 

The Good Word of God, the Word that Jesus came to bring, that Ezra preached at the Water Gate, is a word of bringing people home, of bringing people together, about bringing hope to those who have lost hope, about bringing freedom to those who are enslaved, about reminding the world that we are God’s creation, and he loves us. 

And that is a Word worth repeating over, and over, and over again.

And in the house of the Lord, 
the people said, “Amen”