(Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/0K3cRHhmgfg)
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Pastor Ralph Neighbour recalls an incident he and one of his deacons once had as reported by Larry Richards and Paul Johnson in their book, Death and the Caring Community. The incident involved a man named Jack. Jack had been the president of a large corporation, and when he got cancer, they ruthlessly and mercilessly dumped him. Jack went through his insurance, used his life savings, and had practically nothing left. Pastor Ralph describes his encounter with Jack:
I visited Jack with one of my deacons, who said, “Jack, you speak so openly about the brief life you have left. I wonder if you’ve prepared for your life after death.” Jack stood up, livid with rage. “You *** Christians! All you ever think about is what’s going to happen to me after I die. If your God is so great, why doesn’t He do something about the real problems of life?” Jack went on to tell us he was leaving his wife penniless and his daughter without money for college. Then he ordered us out.
Later, my deacon insisted we go back. We did. “Jack, I know I offended you,” my deacon said. “I humbly apologize. But I want you to know I’ve been working since then. Your first problem is where your family will live after you die. A realtor in our church has agreed to sell your house and give your wife his commission. I guarantee you that, if you’ll permit us, some other men and I will make the house payments until it’s sold. Then, I’ve contacted the owner of an apartment house down the street. He’s offered your wife a three-bedroom apartment plus free utilities and an $850-a-month salary in return for her collecting rents and supervising plumbing and electrical repairs. The income from your house should pay for your daughter’s college. I just want you to know your family will be cared for.”
Jack cried like a baby. He died shortly thereafter, so wrapped in pain he never accepted Christ. But he experienced God’s love even while rejecting Him.
Pastor Ralph saw God’s love at work in Jack’s life. His deacon had no reason to ensure the well-being of Jack’s wife and daughter. Jack was an angry, bitter man. But that didn’t stop God from sending Pastor Ralph and his deacon to Jack…that didn’t stop God from protecting Jack’s loved ones and giving him peace of mind in his remaining time. No, God found a way to come to Jack in spite of his anger and bitterness…in spite of his overall disbelief.
While Pastor Ralph’s narrative does a great job of illustrating the awesome love of God for even the undeserving among us, it also illustrates the transformative power of witness. Pastor Ralph and his deacon had the privilege of witnessing the glory of God in Jack’s life and how it brought an angry, bitter man to tears. Jack was also privileged to witness God’s abundant love for himself and his family. Though he didn’t have time accept Christ as his Lord and Savior, Jack was blessed with experiencing God’s love in very practical ways. Pastor Ralph and his deacon were probably accustomed to witnessing God’s love so it likely didn’t affect them quite as strongly as it did for Jack. But Jack was a changed man. God’s love didn’t go unnoticed by Jack. One can’t help but imagine Jack would have eventually come to accept Christ as Lord and Savior if only given more time.
This morning, we continue our journey through Epiphany, the time in the Christian year when Christ and God’s love through Christ is revealed to us. We began when Christ was revealed to the Magi through a star in the dark sky. Last week, we heard how Christ was revealed to us through his first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. This week, God’s glory is revealed to us through the law and scripture. You might ask, “But where is Christ in such a revelation?” We lift up the law and scripture because Christ comes to fully fulfill the law and scripture. To understand Christ is to understand who he is up and against the law and scripture. Without the law and scripture, we can’t fully understand Christ and the good news of who he is and what he brings to us. God gives us the law and scripture just as He gives us Christ and they are all great blessings.
In our first reading, we heard the priest and scribe, Ezra, read to the Israelites out of the book of the Law of Moses. When they heard the words of the law, they wept. God’s ordering words of truth elicit the same response as the words of compassion that Pastor Ralph’s deacon spoke to Jack. This is because God’s law is compassionate too. God’s law creates order amidst chaos. Without God’s law, fear and anxiety would overwhelm us. God’s law is merciful. God’s law is just. God’s law is life-giving. God’s law is a blessing. To witness God’s law is to witness God’s love…the same love found in Christ. It’s no wonder the Israelites wept as they heard the law being read to them. God’s love is a glorious, transformative thing to behold!
Likewise, we heard a similar show of emotion from David in today’s psalm. He sang,
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances 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.
David understood the joy to be found in the law of the Lord. David experienced the joy first-hand, as we hear in his psalm. The law of the Lord DOES revive the soul and DOES make us wiser! It IS more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey. God’s law IS God’s love and to witness it naturally elicits song and praise.
So when Jesus gets up at his home church, picks up the scroll, and reads from the book of Isaiah, and reads how he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free, we come to realize that scripture and law and Christ are perfectly intertwined. They ALL reveal the same love and glory of our God! The people in Jesus’ church witness the revelation of God’s glory…just like the magi…just like the wedding guests! We, too, witness God’s glory being shown to other church folk. And what was their reaction? Luke writes, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Okay, not necessary weeping but certainly conveying a sense of awe and wonderment…conveying a sense of transformation.
Witnessing God’s glory in either God’s law or the Son is awesome and transformative. The thing about witnessing God’s glory is that such witness needs to be shared with others. Too many of us have witnessed God’s glory in our lives and not bothered to share it with anyone. Do you think this pleases God? NO! God wants us to witness His love and SHARE IT with others! They say that 98% of Christians have never shared their witness with someone. That leaves only 2% of us who are bold enough to share God’s love with others…2%!! Why so few people? Because we are afraid of what others might think of us. Surely we can share our witness of God’s love in our lives. That’s all it takes…simply share how God has blessed us and continues to bless us. This is Christian witness.
So, as we reflect on our shared ministry in our congregation’s annual meeting after service today, let us be mindful of our witness. Is our ministry reflecting our witness to a loving, gracious God? If not, how do we change our ministry? What is our witness? Has God been good to us? Will God continue to be good to us? How do we share our witness with the larger community? These are all questions we should be pondering as we reflect on our shared ministry. Just like Ezra was heard and just like Jesus was heard, our witness, whatever it is, will be heard. Let us not be afraid to let our ministry reflect our witness. Implicitly, God says to Ezra and David and Jesus and US…”Speak and you will be heard.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.