3rd Sunday after Epiphany (C)
January 24, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Old Testament, which was read a few minutes ago.
In the 1700’s and the 1800’s our nation saw numerous religious awakenings fueled by hundreds of revival meetings occurring around the nation. Thousands of people were on the edge of their seats as men like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards stirred their emotions with long fiery sermons. It’s been said that through their preaching entire families and large segments of communities came to faith or had a revival of their faith. These revivals led to movements such as temperance, women’s rights, and the push to abolish slavery. The revivals also gave us things that weren’t as good, things such as the altar call, the mourners’ bench, and Decision Day. Despite the negatives of a revival, maybe it is time that we have one. Not one with altar calls or anything like that, but one that is a more Biblical and more fitting for the times. I suggest we have a new kind of revival, a Lutheran one, one that would be pleasing to God and that would change our lives.
Our Old Testament reading for today comes from Nehemiah, a book of the Bible that we don’t hear from all that often, but it’s a book that’s full of good stuff, and our text is no exception. Starting in 538 BC, the Persian kings Cyrus, followed by Darius and Artaxerxes decreed that the Israelites who had been taken into captivity in Babylon could return home. With this joyous news thousands of people returned to the land promised by God to Abraham, the land that generations had called home, a land they had lost because of their sin. One of the first things they did was to rebuild the Temple. The problem was that since her walls had been torn down, Jerusalem was unprotected, and so Nehemiah is put in charge of building the walls around Jerusalem, which were completed in fifty-two days.
It’s at the conclusion of construction of the walls in the year 445 BC that we get to see a revival of an entire nation. Nehemiah writes, “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.” Did you hear that? The people wanted to hear God’s Word and so they asked Ezra to read it to them, and he did. From early in the morning until midday, for six hours, Ezra read the Scriptures and explained them. Can you imagine a six hour sermon where you stood the entire time? But that’s what happened and Nehemiah says, “The ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.”
When Ezra finally finished his sermon, we’re told that the people “wept as they heard the words of the Law.” As they heard God’s Word, as they listened to the history and heard the promises, as they contemplated their failures and the time in exile, they cried. They were crushed by their betrayal of God and so the Law had done its job – it led to sorrow. Later on in Nehemiah, the people would confess all their sins, including the sins of the ancestors all the way back to Moses, 1000 years before. What’s fascinating though is that they were told not to weep and mourn because God had forgiven them. They were to rejoice and to celebrate God’s goodness. With joy Ezra told them, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” The Lord was their strength just as He is our strength today.
It’s true! He is our strength and our joy and it’s for this reason that we need a revival in Lutheranism and our own families. We need to rediscover the joy of hearing God speak to us in His Word. Now I agree we don’t need a six-hour sermon; you don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to write it. But it I would say that a majority of us are not spending time hearing God’s Word the way that we should. There are so many resources available that can help us from Portals of Prayer to The Lutheran Study Bible that there is really no excuse for not spending the time that we should in God’s Word.
Yes, I know, we are busy people and we’re constantly on the go. There are so many demands on our time that it’s hard to find time for ourselves, but what I’m suggesting is not a thirty or forty-minute family Church service. Time in God’s Word can simply be the seven or eight minutes it takes to do the devotion out of the Portals of Prayer. There are numerous resources from Concordia Publishing House that can guide you in your devotions. There are Arch Books for the children and devotionals for everybody. Certainly if you have the time, a longer in-depth time with God in His Word is good, but not everyone has that time. We need to revive the zeal in our hearts for God’s Word. We need to hear what He has to say to us and we need to share with our children and grandchildren what He wants them to hear as well.
When Ezra gathered the people together to hear God’s Word, we’re told that all the people gathered together as one man; they gathered as a community of believers to hear what God had to say to them. In the same way, we gather on Sunday mornings as one body of believers where we are fed with God’s Word. As Christians we should hunger for this time on Sunday mornings, we should anxiously look forward to this day when we hear our Lord speak to us in the readings and the sermon. It’s here, in Christ’s Church, that the embers of our desire for God’s Word are stoked into a flaming fire.
There is so much that God wants you to know and a revival in His Word will stir your heart from its lethargy and apathy to a love for God’s Word. Think about the effect of God’s Word on you. Do you weep (at least inside) when you hear God condemn your sin? Are you crushed by your sorrow over your sin? Or do you respond as the people did in our Gospel for today with righteous indignation toward God’s Word? Do you get angry with God for pointing out your sin or do you repent? A revival of God’s Word in our lives, giving the Holy Spirit entrance into our hearts and minds through devotions and prayer time will change us. We’ll no longer be judgmental and angry, but contrite and repentant. And it’s when we’re contrite and repentant we find the greatest joy that God wants us to know, the joy that the people heard from Ezra, the joy of God’s forgiveness.
It’s not easy, but the truth is that we have to be beaten down by the Law before we get to the healing touch of Gospel. We have to know and lament our sin before we can find forgiveness. Jesus says in our Gospel, “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 recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” This is you, you are the poor and you are the captive, you are the blind and the oppressed. This is what you are because of your Sin. It is your Sin that saps your excitement over God’s Word, it’s your Sin that convinces you that you are too busy to read God’s Word, and it’s your Sin which keeps you from the church on Sunday mornings.
But this Sin is forgiven! Jesus was sent to proclaim that you are released from your sin. No longer are you in bondage to your sinful self or to the devil, but you’re free. Your ears have been opened to the Good News of Christ’s death for you. You’re free from Satan’s control and you can see God in His Word. The Bible isn’t just a collection of books; it’s one big book proclaiming the Law of God and His wonderful Gospel. It’s not always going to be easy, sometimes we need the Law of God to prod us back to living faithful lives, but when we do that the Gospel comes to us in all its glory. This is what God wants you to believe, this is what I want you to know, that the zeal for Christ isn’t some secret, it’s easy to find – we find it in God and His Word.
During the Great Revivals of the 18th and 19th Centuries, during Billy Graham’s revivals in the 20th Century, and even is some churches today a common thing was the altar call. The altar call involved telling those who were rededicating their lives back to Christ to come down to the front of the church. We’re not going to do that, because you’re already dedicated to Christ – you’re His people. But I am going to encourage you to ask God for help in finding your zeal for His Word. His Word is for you and your families. And it doesn’t matter how old or young you are, God’s Word has something to say to you. So hear His Word and seek His help in a revival of your heart and mind, and when you do, rejoice. Rejoice, for God’s joy is your eternal strength and through Him you will be revived.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen