Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, Luke 4:14-21
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
At choir practice for Morning Glory this past week our director Verna Morgan told a wonderful story, which, after practice, she gave me permission to share with you today. When Verna was living in Hawaii, her best friend had a series of serious health problems. At one point she was hospitalized and in a coma. Verna spent a lot of time at the hospital with her friend. The doctors told her it was good for her to talk to her friend, and so she did. She both spoke to her and, as a lover of music, she sang to her. Verna sang her friend’s favorite Hawaiian songs. She also sang hymns from church to her. At one point during her long vigil at her friend’s bedside, Verna opened up her Bible and started reading Bible passages to her friend. As Verna read, it wasn’t long before the medical staff came running into the room. They asked Verna, “What did you do?” Verna said, “I didn’t do anything! I’m just reading the Bible to my friend!” The doctor said, “Well keep doing it!” You see, as Verna read the Bible to her friend, all of her vital signs being monitored on screens by the medical staff in the other room started to improve dramatically!
Later, when her friend came out of her coma, Verna asked her if she remembered hearing any of the songs she had sung to her during that time. Her friend said she remembered hearing the hymns. She didn’t remember any of the Hawaiian songs, even though they were her favorite songs, but somehow, as God’s Word was sung to her, it got through in such a way that she remembered it.
Both spoken and sung, God’s Word had power! It had an impact!
Now I don’t want to suggest that this is the magical prescription for everyone who is sick or comatose – just sing hymns and read the Bible to them and they’ll be healed and snap out of it in no time. That isn’t how it works. Not always, anyway. But I do believe the Holy Spirit was working through Verna in this particular situation to fill her friend with God’s life-giving Word, both sung and spoken. I also believe this story is a beautiful example of the power of God’s Word in our lives. It is a beautiful metaphor for the power it has to make an impact on us, the power it has to revive and renew us, the power it has to raise us to new life.
This is what most of our scripture readings for today are all about!
Our first reading from Nehemiah describes a dramatic scene in Jerusalem. The people of God had returned from exile, they had rebuilt the temple, and now, at long last, their worship life was finally about to resume. The people of God gathered in the square. Ezra the priest brought the book of the law of Moses, the Torah, also known as “the teaching.” Ezra opened the book and read from it. He read from it from early morning until midday – and the people listened! “Amen, amen!” they said, lifting up their hands. They worshipped the Lord, weeping as they did so. The Word convicted them. They grieved for their sins, for their disobedience. They repented for the ways they had failed to keep the covenant.
But Ezra wouldn’t let them wallow in their tears. He told them it was a holy day. It was a day of celebration. It was a day to not only be convicted of sin by the Word, but a day of remembering God’s faithfulness, God’s steadfast love, God’s deliverance, which was also recorded in the Torah. It was a day of joy, he told them, for the Lord was their strength! And as Ezra preached to them, their spiritual vital signs started to improve. Their mourning gave way to rejoicing. That’s the power of the Word!
In our psalm for today, psalm 19, we hear that the law of the Lord is perfect. We hear that it refreshes the soul and brings joy! Warnings are in the Lord’s words, it says, but also his promised reward. This psalm teaches us that God speaks to us in both law and gospel, with commands and promises. It teaches us that God’s Word cuts us down to size, but that in the same breath it raises us to new life. It refreshes the soul and brings joy. That’s the power of the Word!
In our gospel reading for today we heard how Jesus was the guest preacher in his home congregation. He took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, found his place, and then 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.” Then Jesus rolled up the scroll. He sat down – preachers sat to preach in Jesus’ time – and he gave a short, one-sentence sermon. Jesus gave a sermon only he could give. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In the passage Jesus read, God promised through Isaiah that the Messiah would come to bring new life! The Messiah would come with good news for the poor, both the poor in resources and the poor in spirit. The Messiah would restore their dignity and value. God would raise them up! The Messiah would set his people free from their captivity to sin and death. The Messiah would help those who had been blinded to God’s presence recover their ability to see God at work in their lives once again. The Messiah would set free those who were oppressed by the devil and by all those forces beyond their control. The Messiah would proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This was a reference to the Jubilee year in ancient Israel, the year when all debts were forgiven and everyone was given a clean slate. The Messiah was coming to bring life, and he would do it with a Word. He would bring good news. He would proclaim release to the captives. He would proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the power of God’s Word!
God’s Word was in the synagogue in Nazareth – both in the words of Isaiah and in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word-made-flesh was right there in front of them! Jesus was the one Isaiah pointed to. Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus was the Word made flesh. He was the one who had come to bring forgiveness and new life. Everything Isaiah said would happen was being fulfilled in him as the people heard his voice. And so Jesus could say, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Today this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing too.
For those of you here today who don’t have much, whose net worth is little, or nothing, or even negative by the reckoning of the world, the Lord Jesus says you are valuable to him. You are worth a lot to him. You are worth so much to him that he has redeemed you, he has purchased you, not with silver or gold but with his precious blood through his death on the cross. He did this so that you may be his own. No matter what the world or your bank account says, you are worth that much to him!
For those of you who are poor in spirit, who feel beaten down by the circumstances of your life, the Lord Jesus says you are blessed, for you will be comforted.
For those who have been blind to God’s presence in your life, today God reveals himself to you in the person of Jesus Christ, so that you might see his great love for you, so that your eyes might be opened to his saving grace.
For those who are convicted by God’s Word to the point of weeping, who are brought to tears when you think about the ways you have failed – God’s Word will do that, but today is not a day for weeping. This is a holy day. For today we hear that Christ Jesus has come to set us free from our captivity to our past. He has come to break the hold sin, death, and the devil have over us. He has come to cancel the debt we owe to God because of our sin. He has come to wipe the slate clean with his forgiveness.
Today everything Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah is fulfilled in our hearing.
As God’s Word is spoken and sung to us here today, our spiritual vital signs are restored. We are revived and renewed. Our souls are refreshed, and we are raised to new life.
That’s the power of God’s Word.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church