Sermon from 23rd Jan 2022 (Epiphany 3)

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 (EHV)

1 When the seventh month came and the Israelites were in their cities, all the people gathered together at the public square that is in front of the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women and all who were able to understand what they heard. From dawn until midday in front of the public square in front of the Water Gate, he read from the scroll, while facing the men, the women, and those who could understand. All the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. 

All the people could see Ezra as he opened the scroll, because he was elevated above all the people. As he opened the scroll, all the people stood. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while they lifted up their hands and then knelt and bowed down with their faces to the ground.

So the Levites read from the Book of the Law of God clearly and interpreted it, and the people understood what was read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites, who helped the people understand, said to all the people, “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or cry!” because all the people were crying as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said to them, “Go, eat rich food and drink sweet drinks and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, because today is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may hear, understand, and faithfully respond to your Word, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

This might be a bit presumptuous, but I’m guessing most of you don’t know much about Ezra and Nehemiah and why they, and what they did, are important for us today.

They once lived in exile in Babylon, along with most of the Israelites. God had punished the Israelites for not keeping their covenant with him and they lived in exile for many years as rebellious and defeated people. In the meantime, since they had no access to God through the sacrificial worship system at the temple in Jerusalem, tradition suggests that during their exile in Babylon they established worshipping groups, which was the beginning of what we call synagogues today.

Meanwhile, a few poor Israelites had been left behind in Jerusalem. The temple, once chosen to bear the holy name of God, had fallen into disrepair. The Lord stirred the heart of the Babylonian King, Cyrus, to rebuild the temple, and he sent one of the exiled Israelites, Zerubbabel, to do this. He was largely successful, but not without problems being stirred up among the residents of Jerusalem. The temple also was nowhere near as impressive as it had been formerly.

Sixty years later, another Babylonian King, Artaxerxes, sent Ezra, who, as a scribe, was a man well-versed in God’s Law, to teach the people of Jerusalem. He also sent Nehemiah to organise the rebuilding of the walls surrounding Jerusalem.

The scribe and the layman worked to re-establish the people of Jerusalem into a worshipping community, and an important part of this included the reading of the Word of God as we hear today. But something new occurred in today’s reading which is important for us as Christians.

After the Law was read to the people, verse 8 says: ‘they gave the sense (or interpreted it), so that the people understood the reading’. So, they didn’t just read God’s Word, but they also interpreted it so the people could understand what God was saying to them.

We also do this in our own Christian worship today. We still hear the Word of God read from various parts of the Bible, including the Old Testament, the Psalms, one of the gospel accounts, and from one of the New Testament letters of the early church. But we don’t always clearly understand what God’s saying to us. This is why we have the sermon soon after the readings to help us understand and apply God’s Word to our own lives.

The sermon helps us understand what God’s saying to us, and how the age-old human problem of sinful disobedience should grieve us and make us long to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The sermon will also proclaim how God answers our human problems with the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. As we hear the Word of God explained and interpreted using the tools of Law and Gospel, we learn to take what God says to heart and apply it to our own lives.

This is even more important today because there are so many other words we read and watch and listen to which don’t give us so much hope and peace and joy. There are many other words and visions which terrify us and lead us astray from truth and compassion and forgiveness and unity. There are so many other words which deceive us by encouraging us to place our hope and trust in people and things which don’t last. There are so many words which are encouraging us to divide and judge and belittle and put down and condemn.

Led by the deceptions of the devil who wants us to doubt God’s Word, the critical words of the world which wants us to place our hopes in politics or science or medicine or power or glory or influence, and the self-centred and doubtful words on our hearts which want us to trust only our own selfish opinions, we become distrusting, judgmental, and afraid of each other.

So, God offers us his Word which is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, true, and trustworthy. God’s Word revives our souls with peace and hope because it’s reliable and gives us lasting hope. God’s Word makes simple people into wise people who can discern and know what’s good and right and true. God’s Word causes us to rejoice in what God’s doing for us. God’s Word gives light for our eyes to see how God blesses us, which is hidden from most people. God’s Word warns us when we stray from God’s ways and comforts us with his forgiveness and compassion. The sermon helps us understand so we trust God’s Word.

Therefore, what was introduced by Ezra and Nehemiah when they not only read God’s Word but also helped the people understand what it meant for them, is still important for us, even today.

The scribes continued to read from the Scriptures and interpret what it says for the people of God who gathered in their synagogues. This happened for many generations and is the context of the gospel reading today where Jesus, who regularly met with people in their synagogues, was asked to read from Scripture and interpret what it meant.

After he read from the scroll of Isaiah, which spoke about the Spirit anointing his chosen servant to proclaim good news to the poor, pardon those who are captive, give sight to the blind, and release those who were oppressed, he sat down, which is how the scribes would normally teach the people.

Everyone was waiting to hear what he had to say so the people could understand what they just heard.

Then Jesus said: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

But this isn’t an interpretation! This is an announcement that what Isaiah had spoken of has suddenly been fulfilled. This is a proclamation that the words they heard from Scripture have just come true. Jesus is the interpretation of Scripture!

In other words, Jesus is declaring this Scripture reading is all about him. He’s the One chosen and anointed by God to preach the good news of God’s kingdom to the poor. He’s the One sent to pardon the captives. He’s the One who will help the blind see. He’s the One who will release the oppressed.

This is the day when Jesus began his ministry of preaching good news to those who have nothing to offer God. He preaches the good news of mercy, forgiveness, and love to all of us who can’t make up for what we’ve done, who can’t justify forgiveness or mercy, or who struggle with obedience. We, the spiritually poor, can’t buy or bargain our way into God’s presence, but we receive it as a divine gift when we believe and respond to God’s Word.

Jesus begins his ministry of proclaiming freedom for the prisoners. While we think we live in a free society, many people are imprisoned with restrictions to their freedom, with high walls of expectations built around them, and are shackled with the threats of abuse and manipulation. Other times we imprison ourselves out of fear, or guilt, or shame. We want to hide and avoid getting into trouble or we want to avoid suffering or death. We endure lockdowns forced on us by others, but sometimes we lock ourselves down with the result that joy and peace and freedom elude us.

But Jesus forgives and frees us so that we’re no longer bound and shackled by our fear or guilt or shame. For all of us who’s conscience is being held captive by the devil, or by others, or by ourselves, we have been freed from our slavery by Christ to love and serve him in his everlasting kingdom. For in Christ, we’re free to be children of God, free to come to him and ask for forgiveness, and free to be bound to Christ in service to him and those he loves.

Similarly, Jesus begins his ministry of giving back sight to the blind. While he restores physical sight, he also gives us spiritual insight to see the truth about our sinful condition and the truth of his grace and love and peace. He heals us through the precious words of forgiveness and cleansing so we may live as people who live in his light and truth.

Jesus begins his ministry of releasing those who are oppressed, burdened, shattered, and weakened by life’s struggles with sin – the sin by which we hurt God, the sin by which we hurt those around us, and also the sin which has been done against us.

Through the power of Christ’s words of forgiveness and cleansing and freedom, we’re released from those who oppress and burden us – whether it be the binding power of Satan, the binding power of troubled consciences, or the manipulative power of others. We’re free to live under our Lord Jesus Christ who shares our yoke and lightens our burdens.

But freed and released by Christ, he places us into a community – his chosen and sanctified community called the Church which continues to read God’s Word and helps us understand what he’s saying to us.

Here in the Church, he’s bound us to each other through our baptism into the one holy body of Christ. He’s made us one with Christ and one with each other.

The Holy Spirit has gifted us with different gifts so that we complement each other and makes us inter-dependent to each other. This means we can never say one, or another, isn’t welcome or needed or valued or loved. After all, if we hurt or exclude or criticize one member of his body, the whole body of Christ suffers. Like it or not, we need each other. Who are we to say whom God doesn’t need within his holy body?

This means that even those we struggle with, or those who embarrass us, or those who trouble us, are to be treated with special honour and respect and mercy. So instead of removing them or saying we don’t need them, we treat them with extra grace and forgiveness. We dare not seek to divide or separate what God has joined together without offending the God who joined us together.

Since God, in his infinite wisdom, chose to include each of us into the body of Christ, we’re all equally important and valuable, no matter what our function or spiritual gifting may be. He’s gathered us into Christ; not so that we may serve ourselves and our own fears and desires, but so that we may participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ as we serve each other.

Since we’re all one in Christ, on whom the Holy Spirit rests to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, we’re all called to proclaim the good news of the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to each other, without favour or compromise.

So, as we journeyed through the readings for today, beginning with Ezra and Nehemiah, we learn that we’re all called to hear God’s Word. We’re called to listen to the interpretation of God’s Word so that we understand what it means for us. We’re called to receive and believe the good news of the forgiveness of sins and our release from oppression through faith in Jesus Christ. We’re called to receive the Holy Spirit as we use God’s gifts for each other’s good. We’re called to share the forgiveness and freedom of Christ among God’s chosen and valued people without division or favouritism.

Which is why the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will continue to guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.