Third Sunday after The Epiphany
January 27, 2019
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
“This is the Word of the Lord.” What is your response? “Thanks be to God.” Why do we say these things? I’ve been saying those words for a long time. And you have been responding with those exact words all of your life. Why? When you say, “Thanks be to God” why do you say that? I guess you could say something else (But don’t try it). You could say, “But I didn’t understand that.” Or, if it is a reading that you didn’t especially agree with, you could be like a friend of mine who sent me a type of a sympathy card when one of those hard sayings of the Bible was read. But we don’t usually do that. When I say, “This is the Word of the Lord”, you say, “Thanks be to God.”
Today my sermon is about responses to the Word. What do you know about the book of Nehemiah? Anything? You know he must have been a short guy, right? Knee-High-Miah. (That is a bad one!!)
Book of Nehemiah. Once a combination book of Ezra-Nehemiah. The events are about what the Israelites did after coming back from captivity in Babylon. The last of God’s people were taken from Jerusalem in 586 B.C., 70 years later, in 516 B.C. they were allowed to come back to resettle Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, build the wall around the city and resume life. Our events happened around 450 B.C., just days after the wall around Jerusalem was completed.
The first response to the Word was this: Please Tell Us. “All the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel…He read it aloud from daybreak until noon…Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because as he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up.” (Nehemiah 8:1, 3a, 5)
Six hours of reading the Scriptures – one of the first five books of Moses. And they stood the whole time. (And you thought we did a lot of standing!!) It was the lay people that had a thirst for the Word of God. “Please tell us.” Do you know why we say, “Thanks be to God” after we hear the readings from the Bible? It is because God has given us His words. He isn’t silent. He has spoken and in His goodness has allowed us to read His very words. Thanks be to God!!
Their response? Please Explain It To Us. “The Levites…instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” (Nehemiah 8:7-8)
They had a Bible study. They asked questions. They studied the texts. They had a good round table discussion. And they were eager to learn. Their souls needed to be fed. They had a hunger and a thirst for the things of God.
When I was in Phoenix about a month ago my dad gave me the book, “Between Rocks and Hard Places”. It is a book about Norwegians in the past century. One chapter talked about worship in the Lutheran Church in Norway and the rules that had to be followed. These are the ones that were posted:
- No one is allowed to leave during the opening prayer or the Lord’s Prayer.
- No one ought to, unless necessary, go out of the church before the service is finished.
- Parents with children are reminded that silence should be maintained during the service, as far as possible.
It was more lively in the worship during Nehemiah’s time than in Norway in the 1850’s!! Right in church their questions were answered.
Their response to God’s Word? Please Stop!! “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep. For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the Words of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:9)
The Word of God was hurting them. It was cutting their heart. It made them feel awful. It stung and inflicted pain. Please Stop!! “Thanks be to God?” I don’t think so. You know that the Word of God can do that, right? In Hebrews it talks about that very thing, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrows; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
The Word can get too personal. It is when we understand it is not talking about someone else but about us that it brings grief. We cover our ears and close our eyes and demand, “Please Stop.”
But Nehemiah had a better response because God had a better response. “Please Believe.” Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) If all you can see is your inadequacy, if all you can see are your failures, your sins, your screw-ups, you haven’t looked far enough. Repentance is sorrow over sin but it will lead us to the one who has the final answer – Jesus.
This week Georgia Burba died. Georgia was in Hospice care due to cancer, but it was a stroke on Wednesday that took her life on Friday. I saw Georgia on Thursday afternoon and she was a little agitated when I arrived. But her daughter-in law, Brooke, said that when I left, until she died about 12 hours later, she was quite calm. Do you know my secret? I read God’s greatest promises to her. I told her of God’s love and God’s victory and everlasting life through Jesus. I took my finger and made the sign of the cross on her forehead and said, “Georgia Burba, you have been marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
The psalm says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” (Psalm 126:1-3)
The joy of the Lord is our strength. What brings the Lord joy? Being merciful to us. Restoring His people. Lifting us up from the pit. In the book of Hebrews we read about God’s final word to us, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2a) When we hear the great news of God’s loving actions in Jesus and I say, “This is the Word of the Lord.” With joy and faith you respond “Thanks be to God!!
I believe that God wants His people to gather in worship because He wants to do a great work among us. He desires us to be thirsting for what He could do in our lives. He desires us to become more mature in faith as He instructs us in His truth. I believe that He causes us to see the truth of our struggles, allowing us to see our immense need for Him in our life and He wants the final Word of hope and grace and peace and life – all solely through Jesus – to be ours.
This reading tells us that the people fell to the ground in humility and lifted up their hands in faith and praise. And they shouted, “Amen, Amen.” Yes!! Yes!!
On Wednesday I was eating lunch at Wendy’s and I had my Bible open to this chapter as I was preparing for this message. A lady who attends Grace Chapel came to my table and asked what I was doing. After I mentioned what I was doing and who I was, she asked, “What is the book of Nehemiah saying to you?” I said, “I have a few days to find out.”
What does it say to me? God has a Word for us. As we desire it and we grow in its understanding it can grieve us, but more than that, it brings us His joy. It says to me that our response to whatever God says in His Word is the right response. So, let’s say it again. I get to say: “This is the Word of the Lord.” You get to say: “Thanks be to God.” Amen!!