January 27, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as was His custom, He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and He stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him.”
The Gospel Writer tells us that Jesus had a custom. Maybe it wasn’t the only one that He had, but we are told: “As was His custom, [Jesus] went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.” Jesus performs an action that was done by countless others. Gathering to hear what the Lord had said through Moses and the Prophets was the custom of Israel. It was not just something they thought might be good to do, it is what the Lord had commanded them.
There is a reason for that command: the gathering to hear what the Lord had said is how the people of Israel learned about their identity. For it is in the Scriptures that the Lord reveals His identity, as the One who had made Abraham into a great nation and delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, the One who made a Covenant full of promises. Israel was to gladly hear and learn this testimony about the Lord and themselves. These Scriptures taught them the way of life that the Lord had bestowed to them, a way of life that led not only to temporal benefits, but eternal ones as well.
Hearing the Lord’s words and receiving what they convey is what led the Psalmist to testify about them: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the just decrees of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is Your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” This is what drove the custom of Jesus, the same custom that was held by His ancestors, even those in Nazareth, where He had been brought up.
But there is an underlying truth concerning the Lord’s words that leads them to do what the Psalmist says. Why do they revive the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever, stand righteous altogether? Because these words testify to what the Lord does for His people. They make known the salvation that He had brought them, was bringing them, and would bring them. Hearing and receiving that witness is what brings joy to the hearts of those who are troubled by sin, guilt, the burdens of life, all the negative events they endure. The Lord says concerning Himself: “I am the One who removes this from you. I am the One who brings you deliverance. I am the One who answers your troubles.”
This is what the people in Jerusalem heard as they gathered and listened to Ezra read the Lord’s words to them: “All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel…. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” Having returned from their exile in Babylon and Persia, these Israelites were back in their homeland. These returned exiles got to hear again—and for some, the first time—what the Lord had said concerning Himself and them: how He had delivered them and promised salvation for them.
So how did the people react to hearing this? “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” We also hear the description of their touched hearts: “All the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” Nehemiah’s statement points the people to what the Lord had done for them: “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink the 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.” The people find joy because the Lord had graciously answered them. He had exalted them from their low estate. He had put their shame and disgrace to flight.
But what happens in Nazareth, when Jesus reads the Lord’s words and gives the sense of them to the people in the synagogue? What happens when He reveals the Lord’s identity and the Lord’s actions for the people? That is what the Gospel Writer also records for us. Jesus reads from Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus tells the people what those words of the Lord mean: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is telling them that the Scriptures testified about Him, that He is the One who has come to bring joy to the hearts of those who are troubled by sin, guilt, the burdens of life, all the negative events they endure.
After Jesus gives the sense of the Scripture to the people, there is utter rejection of Him. You heard that read this way: “And all spoke well of Him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from His mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” But they weren’t really speaking well of Jesus. No, the Gospel Writer’s words are better put: “And they all were testifying [bearing witness] about Him and wondered at the gracious words coming from His mouth.” There is no positive witness given about Jesus, only a negative one. And there is no amazement at what Jesus says, only shock. The people start saying: “How can this guy tell us that He’s been anointed by anyone, let alone the Spirit of the Lord? Who made Him the preacher of liberty? How is Joseph’s son going to give sight to the blind? And what’s this talk about freeing anybody? What is Jesus going to free us from? What are we blind to? Do we need to be freed from anything? Isaiah was talking about the Messiah, and you aren’t it!”
Then when Jesus answers them, giving a statement about being rejected and how the people of Nazareth are no different than the Israelites who rejected Elijah and Elisha, they blow up completely. They reject Jesus as a false prophet, a teacher of blasphemy: “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove Him out of the town and brought Him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw Him down the cliff.” They will not have Jesus as the supplier of life to them. They will not have Him as the Messiah. But this means that they will not receive what the Scriptures actually led up to, what the entirety of Moses and the Prophets had actually foretold.
And this is the problem not just for Nazareth but for Mechanicsburg, Carlisle, Dillsburg, Camp Hill, Harrisburg, Hershey, and Lebanon also. All those positive things spoken of the Scriptures is true: they revive the soul, make wise the simple, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, endure forever, and stand righteous altogether. Not only that, there is a promise concerning an outcome: “Moreover, by them is Your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” They spell out a way of living that you are to follow. But we see how that way of living is being rejected over and over again. The morality spelled out in the Scriptures is dismissed. The righteousness described is tossed over the cliff, just like the Nazareth people wanted to do with Jesus. And there is the popular custom of not hearing one bit of the Lord’s words at all.
But there is one more thing to note—not just an add-on; it’s the real heart of the matter. The Psalmist alludes to it: “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.” That matter is the salvation that comes from the forgiveness of sins, the proclaiming of liberty to those who are ensnared by their faults, the removal of blindness from those who know nothing of the Lord’s ways. And the Psalmist declares where that salvation comes from: “Let the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The deliverance does not come by setting yourself free, but from having the Lord as your redeemer.
That needed thing—having the Lord as your redeemer—is what the Scriptures testify to. But their testimony is clear: Jesus is the Lord incarnate who has come to be that redeemer. This is what Moses and the Prophets foretold. What Jesus says in the synagogue of Nazareth is true. All those things that Isaiah said would take place by the One anointed with the Spirit of the Lord, they are done by Jesus because He is the Christ, the Messiah. His testimony is also true: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is fulfilled for you, as the same Jesus who died to atone for your sins and rose again to open Paradise to you has also spoken His words of forgiveness in your ears. He has spoken the words that proclaim liberty to you, setting you free from the slavery of sin and the dungeon of death. He takes you from blindness to seeing Him and the way of life that He has laid out for you. That is the heart of the Scriptures: Moses, the Prophets, even the Psalms all testify about Him.
For you who receive this, you have the joy that the Scriptures bring. You are like the people who gathered to hear Ezra read the Torah and were commanded to be festive and celebrate because of the Lord’s actions described by His words. But all who will not receive this—all those who will not recognize that they are actually in need of divine aid and those who will not have Jesus be their redeemer—then they are like the people of Nazareth. They have the salvation right in front of them, but they go home empty-handed, having it pass through their midst as Jesus and His testimony go away.
That is what these two instances in the Old and New Testaments bring to light on this day. Hearing them read, an exhortation is made. You are again called to gladly hear and learn what the Lord speaks concerning Himself and you in the Scriptures. You are called to have your soul revived, to be made wise, to have rejoicing hearts, to be given enlightenment, to endure forever and stand righteous in the Lord’s sight. That is what will take place for you, but only as you receive what is said concerning Jesus: that He is the only-begotten Son of God, the One conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, the One who has come for us men and for our salvation, the redeemer who proclaims the Lord’s favor. Toss that over the cliff, and all is lost. Receive it and its fulfillment in your midst, and you shall not be grieved, but will have the joy of the Lord as your strength.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.