Sunday, January 23, 2022

Sermon: “The Word’s Effect”, Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10/Luke 4:14-21 (January 23, 2022)


I want everyone to take a minute and look at your bulletin. Take a look at where the scripture readings and sermon are in the order of worship. Also, take a look at the time (this may be the only time I will EVER encourage you to do so). We are LITERALLY right smack dab in the middle of worship. This isn’t a coincidence or accident. It’s built into our polity. The Book of Order says, “Where the Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the living Word is present by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, reading, hearing, preaching, and affirming the Word are central to Christian worship and essential to the Service for the Lord’s Day.” (W-3.0301)

Think about what that means. When we read and proclaim the Word of God through holy scripture, we are assured that the living Word, Jesus Christ, is somehow truly present with us. Although the words contained in the Bible aren’t magical incantations of any kind, although they were originally recorded in two ancient languages (and we usually hear them translated into a third), although they don’t even always agree with each other completely, encountering them means encountering Christ. And unlike the sacraments, which are experiences of God in the immediate context of our community, proclaiming God’s Word is what invites new people into God’s presence with us—it’s the purest form of evangelism.

And so, while we share in the sacrament of Communion about once a month and the sacrament of Baptism even less frequently, every single service of worship is structured around scripture. Everything before it is preparation, and everything after it is response. It’s what defines us as followers of Christ. The Word is at the core of Christian worship, in every possible sense.

You might think that this sounds great; that it’s the least controversial thing that you can imagine. And a lot of times, it is. A lot of times, we flock to church on Sunday (or to the church’s website, as the case may be these days), just as hungry to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed as the people are in Nehemiah 8. No one is forcing them to be there; THEY are the ones who implore Ezra to “read the Instruction scroll from Moses”. THEY are the ones who cannot contain themselves, crying, “Amen! Amen!” and raising their hands to the sky before Ezra even begins to read. THEY are the ones—men, women, and children—who sit attentively as Ezra’s assistants make their way through the crowd, painstakingly helping them to understand what they’re hearing for more than six hours. After generations of exile, and then years more waiting for Jerusalem to be restored, the people long to feel God’s presence with them again. They long to hear God’s voice speaking through Ezra’s lips, to be reminded of God’s desires for them, and to be reassured that God has not, in fact, abandoned them. So, they eagerly soak up every word spoken that morning.

Sometimes, we approach God’s Word like that.

Other times, however, the Word is TERRIBLY inconvenient for us, and we just don’t want to hear it. In fact, we’d prefer to avoid it entirely. (That’s usually a good sign that it’s EXACTLY what we need to hear.) This is essentially how the people react to Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue. Luke 4 STARTS promisingly enough: the people gather to hear the Word of God, perhaps more out of habit at this point than out of desire as they had in Nehemiah, but still—they gather. When Jesus stands to read, they prick up their ears: they’ve heard of this Jesus, and they’re curious to hear him speak. As he preaches these familiar words from Isaiah 61 and assures them that this scripture has been fulfilled this very day, their excitement grows. Verse 22 continues the story: “Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?’”

Jesus, however, can tell the direction their thoughts are headed. They hear these words of good news, and assume that, because Jesus is “one of them”, that they’re first in line to benefit from his ministry. Jesus quickly assures them that this isn’t the case. He reminds them of the times that prophets had overlooked the insiders in favor of Israel’s “enemies”: when Elijah fed a widow from Sidon instead of the Jewish widows, and Elisha cleansed a Syrian instead of the Israelite lepers. This particular Good News that Jesus is preaching is not, in fact, for them, but for the very people that they feel least deserve it.

Their attitude towards Jesus then turns on a dime: “When they heard this,” scripture says, “everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.” They didn’t like what God’s Word had to say, so they rejected it—and violently.

Sometimes, we approach God’s Word like that.

Psalm 19 tells us that the Word of God revives the soul, makes the simple wise, brings the heart joy, and enlightens the eyes…but it doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s ever an easy process. Sometimes, before our soul can be revived, it needs to be brought low. Sometimes, before we’re granted wisdom, we need to realize how ignorant we really are. Sometimes, before our heart can experience joy, it needs to do some hard work. Sometimes, before our eyes can be enlightened, we need to open them to the harsh light of day.

The Word of God, whether in spoken, written, or incarnate form, isn’t neutral. It isn’t meant to make us all happy all the time. It’s meant to make us FEEL, whatever those feelings may be, and then DO, hopefully according to God’s will. In today’s readings, the people experienced excited anticipation and intense joy *as well as* profound grief and overwhelming anger. In the Word, they heard reassurance and promise, as well as condemnation and judgement. In the case of the Israelites, they took the Word’s message to heart, and were inspired to greater faith: they recommitted to forgotten traditions and shared food with one another in celebration. In contrast, the people in the synagogue with Jesus listened to the Word, but they did not *hear* it: they rejected it and drove it out of their lives, both in figuratively denying its message and in literally chasing Jesus out of town.

God’s Word WILL evoke intense feelings (as long as you’re paying attention); the question is what you choose to do with these feelings. Will you allow them to deepen your faith, or will you reject their challenge? I think we need to be careful interpreting Nehemiah and Ezra’s instructions to the people not to mourn or weep—I don’t think they were trying to ignore or bury the pain that the people felt as God’s Word highlighted their own guilt and faithlessness. Rather, I think they were trying to point BEYOND the grief that the people were justifiably experiencing in that moment and towards the enduring joy that comes with honestly and deeply engaging the Word. Grief and joy can and do coexist within God’s Word—but when we face the complicated feelings that it evokes and humbly bear its righteous judgement, the joy is what will ultimately remain in the end.

Perhaps if the people in the synagogue had realized this, they would have been able to see that, while the message Jesus preached wasn’t directly for their benefit, there was indeed Good News for them in its proclamation of God’s unfathomable justice and mercy. Maybe they could have moved past their anger into the deep joy that it is to know God more fully: not as a cosmic vending machine, but as the One who redeems all of creation according to God’s infinite and uncompromising love.

When we hear the Word read and proclaimed, we are not called to be passive receptacles of the Good News. Frankly, that’s not even really possible—human nature means that we can’t help but be moved by Christ’s revolutionary message, in ways both expected and unanticipated, both welcome and uncomfortable. We WILL react. Our job is to stay the course, to engage with the Word even when it affects us in ways that we don’t like. We must trust that the Word is always worth hearing.

This isn’t always easy…which is why the Book of Order spells it out for us: “The role of the congregation is to listen prayerfully, actively, and attentively to the Word that is read and proclaimed. Such listening requires expectation, concentration, and imagination.” (W-3.0303) More like the crowd outside of Jerusalem than the one in the Galilean synagogue. We must listen with the expectation that God has something that we need to hear, regardless of how it might make us feel. We must listen with concentration, so that we might not be led astray by our own biases and assumptions. And we must listen with enough imagination to see where God might be trying to lead us.

Expectation, concentration, and imagination. It doesn’t seem like that much to ask, and yet it requires us to bring our whole selves every time we encounter the Word. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to set your whole being before God and allow yourself to be moved in whatever way the Spirit wills, whether towards delight or discomfort? Are you willing to let the Word affect you without pulling away? Are you willing to trust that no matter how it makes you feel, God’s Word IS Good News, and it promises boundless joy if only you’re willing to follow wherever it leads?

I hope so. I hope that you’re willing to hear the Word, not just listen to it. Because when you let the Word affect you, that’s when you know Christ is there. And when Christ is there, the world is transformed—beginning with your own heart. No matter how it makes you feel, may the Word’s effect touch you and change you for the better. May we all be so blessed. Amen.

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