In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was a momentous occasion. A son of the congregation had gone off to the seminary and was now getting ready to deliver his first sermon at his home church. Everyone was so proud. All were eager to hear what he would say. The readings were over, the Creed recited, the Hymn of the Day sung. And now it was time for the son of the congregation to open his mouth and speak.
The first part of the sermon was what everyone expected it would be: Wonderful! Mom and dad, brothers and sisters and relatives were all happy and overjoyed at the beautiful words that were coming out of his mouth. Of course, they were mainly happy to see their pride and joy preaching and later they would tell you that they couldn’t remember a word of what he had said.
He preached wonderful words about how the Christ had come to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament. They were amazed and said wonderful things about him. “What a good preaching voice he has!” “What a wonderful delivery!” “He really knows his stuff!” said one older gentleman. For a while their ears were tickled.
And then came something they were not expecting, nor did they like very much. He was speaking of Elijah and Elisha, those great prophets of old, how God had sent Elijah to the widow of Zarephath and Elisha to Naaman the Syrian, who had leprosy. He spoke of how these prophets were rejected by their own people, but accepted by these Gentiles, by those who were unclean and not part of God’s house. “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
That was going too far. “False doctrine!” cried one man. “How dare he say such a thing!” yelled one of the members. The worst part of it all was that he seemed to be implying the same thing about them. “We supported him at the seminary and now he has condemned us!” And then, with one accord, they rose up and drove Jesus out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so they could throw him down the cliff. “And passing through their midst, he went away.”
This is quite a different reaction than Ezra the Scribe encountered when he taught the people of Israel from the Law. We heard in the Old Testament reading how the people responded when Ezra read from the book of the Law, how the ears of all the people were attentive. From early morning until midday he read, and the people listened. Not only did they listen, we are told, but all the people stood when he opened the book and began to read. They all responded by saying, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And then, they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
And what was their reaction? Did they try to take Ezra by force and cast him down a cliff? Did they try to take Nehemiah and do the same? No. They wept. They wept aloud as they listened to the voice and the words of the Lord. They realized that they had strayed far from the ways and words of their Father. Many of these people, you see, had come back from exile with Ezra and Nehemiah after the decree of King Cyrus the Great in Persia.
It was a sad situation in Israel at that time. Intermarriage with non-Israelites was strictly forbidden by the Law of Moses, and yet many of the Jews had intermarried with their Egyptian and Moabite neighbors. As a result, they were tempted to embrace the religion of their foreign spouses, rather than remain faithful to the one true God. Now as they listened to Ezra the Law of the Lord convicted them. They wept tears of contrition and sorrow, for they had not obeyed the word of the Lord.
But, it was not to be a day of weeping only. “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep,” said the Scribe. “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Having been cut to the heart by the Words of the Law, they are now comforted and absolved by Ezra, as if by the Lord in heaven himself.
That, my dear friends, is the proper way to hear and receive the word of the Lord. That is the proper response of those who have lived as if God did not matter and as if they mattered most of all. No excuses, no attempts to cover up sin, no bloodthirsty rage, but sorrow and contrition. That was exactly what was lacking in the people of Nazareth, which was why they reacted the way they did. Rather than listen to the words of the Word Himself, rather than weep and confess their sins, the people stopped their ears as if they were receiving poison of the worst kind.
This was a preview, a foretaste of how the Lord and his words would be received throughout his life to the very end. To be sure there were some who listened with longing, as those people in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. There were many who received his words with gladness and believed on his name. But most of them were not Israelites. Most were those blind, deaf, lame, and broken-hearted folks Jesus read about from the scroll of Isaiah. They had something to gain from Christ. They hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and they were filled and satisfied with the Bread of Heaven.
But the rest despised him, as the Scripture had said: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” As long as he was doing as they pleased, as long as he healed their sick and raised their dead and gave sight to their blind, all was well. This they expected of a Savior. But when he opened his mouth, when he refused to stroke their egos and tell them what their itching ears wanted to hear, they despised him.
Little did they know that by rejecting Him, they rejected the One who sent Him. Had they merely listened, and responded with repentance and faith like those in the days of Ezra, and turned to him they would have found peace. They would have been set free from their bondage. For that is what happens to all who trust in His mercy. “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved,” says the Lord. But they would not. And so they brought the judgment and wrath of the Father upon them, as do all who refuse to acknowledge the Son and believe on His name.
Beware, children, that you do not make the same mistake as those people in Nazareth. Beware that you do not listen only to those things that make you feel good, and close your ears to all else. Otherwise, you are no better than those who drove Jesus out of their town and tried to put him to death and you stand condemned along with them.
It is possible that a time will come, even in this congregation, when people will refuse to the listen to the Word. All is well now, so it would seem, but will it still be well when hard decisions must be made according to the Word of God? Will you still listen when a member must be rebuked for his or her sins? Or will you harden your hearts as the people in Nazareth? Will you still be “all ears” when your sons or your daughters are admonished or, God forbid, ex-communicated because they do not turn from their evil ways? Will you still say “Amen” to the Word of the Lord when it requires your pastor to withhold the sacrament from the one who persistently refuses to come to Church, or has defiled the marriage bed? What will you say then? Will you still be “all ears” as you are now?
Or will you say, “How dare he?” and seek to drive out your pastor because you cannot bear to hear the truth? Do not treat such questions lightly. For the answer to these questions is the difference between faith and unbelief; indeed, between life and death. The faithful respond to all of God’s Word as those people in the days of Ezra. They say “Amen” to the Word of Christ. They weep tears of contrition and sorrow over their sins, and they listen with joy and gladness to the words of forgiveness and mercy. They do not make excuses for their sins or those of another. They do not hide or cover them, but confess them, and they take refuge in the blood of Christ shed for them on the cross of Calvary.
Not so with the unbeliever. The unbeliever acts like a proud and insolent child when he is corrected or rebuked. He puts up such a fight, is sent into such a fit of rage that a mere man would dare accuse him of sin. And so, because he cannot get past the rebuke, neither can he rejoice in the holy Gospel. For who can rejoice in something that he does not think he needs? I say this for your benefit, so that you will know the temptation when it comes, for it will come.
The Law of the Lord convicts and accuses us because of our sins. It exposes our lack of love for God and our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves. But as we saw today, its preaching either crushes unto repentance or produces wrath. In the case of the Israelites who listened to the Law read by Ezra, it stirred up repentance. In the case of those who listened to Jesus, it produced wrath. Either way, it is how the Lord prepares us for the good news that in Christ God has reconciled the world to Himself.
With these words the Lord sets us free from our bondage. He wipes away our tears and our sorrows, and speaks kindly to us. He soothes our afflicted consciences. He removes our guilt. To those who weep in sorrow over their sins, the Lord says: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. For the Christ has come, and by His grace He has opened the eyes of the blind, proclaimed good news to the poor in spirit, proclaimed liberty to the captives. He has done so by blood of His cross, and by His glorious resurrection from the dead. He has taken death captive, and He has reigned over it. He has joined you to that victory in holy baptism, made you part of his one body, and now reigns in you. Amen.