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Sermon for Sunday 27 January 2019

First Reading                     Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1All 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. 2So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3And 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. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6And 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. 8They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10Then he said to them, “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.”

Psalm                                                            Psalm 19

1The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. 2One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. 3Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, 4Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. 5In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course. 6It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again; nothing is hidden from its burning heat. 7The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. 8The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. 9The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. 11By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward. 12Who can tell how often he offends? cleanse me from my secret faults. 13Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. 14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Second Reading               1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

12Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

Gospel                                                          Luke 4:16-30

16{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. 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 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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22And 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?” 23And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29And 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. 30But passing through their midst, he went away.


Writer Dan Miller in his book Wisdom Meets Passion tells of growing up in a conservative, rural family in Ohio.  With no radio or TV allowed in the house, Dan found his information in books.  Consequently, he became an avid reader.  However, when he was about twelve years old, something happened that would change his life dramatically.  He was introduced to a phonograph recording by noted motivational speaker Earl Nightingale.  The record was titled The Strangest Secret.  On the recording Dan Miller heard this gravelly-voiced man say that he could be everything he wanted to be.  All he would have to do is change his thinking.

In his recorded talk, Nightingale introduced Miller to six words that he said could dramatically change a person’s life.  These words were, “We become what we think about.”  Reflect on those words for a moment: “We become what we think about.”  I for one, by the way, do not agree with this assertion.  As a typical teen-aged boy growing up in the southwest, if I had become what I thought most about as a teenager, I would have either become Ty Murray, the 7-time all-around rodeo champion or a girl.

Dan Miller recognized that–if that were true–that we become what we think about–the possibilities of what he could do with his life were limitless.  Mr. Nightingale’s secret, of course, was based on a familiar biblical principle, “For as [a person] thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7).  Miller was also influenced by a famous preacher of that day, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking.  This approach to life was radically different than the more rigid way of thinking in which Dan Miller had been raised.  “We become what we think about.”  That meant he could become more than he had ever dreamed, if he just thought the right things.

He knew such ideas would not be welcome in his house . . . so Miller hid Earl Nightingale’s record under his mattress, bringing it out night after night to hear again the promises of a better life.  He says that while his friends were hiding adult magazines under their beds, he was hiding Earl Nightingale’s message of hope and opportunity.  It had captured his imagination as it has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of others over the years. 

It’s Einstein who is credited with saying, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  By definition, imagination is a mental picture of something, usually something desirable, that could become a reality if we do our part.  Sometimes it comes to us as a dream or a vision.  Often this dream or vision is the first step toward a great accomplishment.  In our Old Testament reading for today, we find a person who was driven by a great dream, a great vision.  But this wasn’t just any dream, more importantly, he was driven by God’s desire, and because he was driven by God’s desire, God enabled him to accomplish amazing things.

Some 3,000 years ago the two nations of Israel were destroyed by the Assyrians and Babylonians.  The citizens of the Northern Kingdom were first to be taken captive and dispersed around the Assyrian empire.  150 years later when Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was in power, the Southern Kingdom was conquered and most of its citizens were sent into exile.  Jerusalem lay in ruins.  The people had for centuries refused to honor the covenant they had made with God and as punishment, God allowed these foreign powers to conquer the Hebrew nation.  It was a dark and desolate time for God’s people.  It was at the end of this time of punishment that God planted a dream in the heart of a righteous Jewish man named Nehemiah.

Nehemiah lived in the capital city of Susa in Persia.  Today we call this area of the world Iran.  Nehemiah was a trusted and important member of the royal household; he was the cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, King of Persia.  Now for us, the title of cup-bearer may not sound impressive, but a cup-bearer was an officer of high rank in the royal courts.  His duty was to serve the drinks at the royal table.  Rulers in that day were in constant fear of plots against the monarch, so a person who served as cup-bearer to the king was chosen because he was regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold that position.  He was charged to guard against poison in the king’s cup and was sometimes required to swallow some of the wine before serving it.  The fact that the king trusted this person so thoroughly, often gave him a position of great influence.

One day one of Nehemiah’s relatives, a man named Hanani, was visiting Nehemiah.  Hanani was familiar with the plight of the Jews in Jerusalem.  As he shared with Nehemiah the poverty and the oppression of the people who remained in Jerusalem, and the disrepair and destruction of the sacred city; at this Nehemiah broke down and wept.  He went into a time of mourning, fasting and praying over the plight of his people.  God put it into Nehemiah’s heart that he was the one who must set about making a wrong situation right.  This is the first lesson we need to remember.  We really do need to be careful what we pray for.  God may call on us to answer our own prayers.  Not that this possibility should detour us.  It’s just something we need to be ready for when we pray.

Because of this burden for the people, a dream was born in Nehemiah’s heart–to go to Jerusalem to help the Jewish people.  Oftentimes, this is how a great work begins.  God puts a strong desire in a person’s heart and that person responds to God’s call.  A more modern example of this, is a man called Dr. David Livingstone.

A little more than 150 years ago, Dr. David Livingstone read the words of Robert Moffatt concerning Africa: “From where I stand, I can see the smoke of 10,000 villages that have never heard of Christ.”  And from those words, a dream was born in Dr. Livingstone’s heart.  He began his journey by tracing the Zambesi River on that great continent to its source.  In search of that source Livingstone traveled 11,000 miles on foot through uncharted jungles.  He experienced unbelievable dangers and hardships along the way.  He was attacked by dangerous animals and nearly killed.  But his dedication won the heart of many of the native villagers he encountered. 

Another thing that endeared him to the African people, was that Livingstone was enraged by the cruelty of the slave trade being perpetuated in Africa at that time and became determined to crush what he called, “the open sore of the world.”  Livingstone was a battling for justice years before that became a popular calling.  In his later years, Livingstone was racked by disease, attacked by wild animals, and often menaced by hostile tribes.  Repeatedly he was robbed and abandoned by his own carriers, yet he marched on with his Bible.  Henry Stanley reported that “not one man in a million would have pushed forward as he did.”  You may remember Stanley’s immortal words on meeting Livingstone: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” 

David Livingstone pressed on until his body could go no further.  On May 1, 1893, he was found dead on his knees in a position of prayer, in a crude hut in the village of Ilala.  He had been true to his dream.  Today, millions of Africans are Christians because of men and women who, like Dr. Livingstone, gave and continue to give, their all to fulfill a dream God planted in their heart.  The same was true for Nehemiah; he too was committed to the dream God had given him.  

Nehemiah applied for and received permission from the king to travel to Jerusalem as its new governor.  There he made a secret inspection of the city’s walls that now lay in ruins, and he resolved that the walls would be rebuilt.  The critics of the day said it could never be done.  Israel’s enemies were threatened by a change in the status quo.  They taunted Nehemiah and tried to trap him and destroy his work.  But Nehemiah would not be defeated.

“I am doing a great work,” he responded to his critics, “and cannot come down” (6:3).  This is the second important thing we need to take note of, doing a great work, especially God’s work, is always the best answer we can give to our critics.  “I am doing a great work and can’t come down.”  English preacher and theologian John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church was considered rather quick witted as well as a spiffy dresser.  One Sunday morning he wore a bow tie that had long ribbons that hung downward.  After the sermon ended a lady walked up to him and said, “Brother Wesley, are you open to some criticism?”  Wesley said, “I guess so. What would you like to criticize?”

She said, “The ribbons on your tie are entirely too long and inappropriate for a man of God.”  She then took out a pair of scissors and cut off those ribbons.  A hush fell over the people standing there as Wesley calmly asked, “Now may I borrow your scissors for a moment?”  As she handed them to him, he said, “Ma’am, are you open to some criticism?”  She answered, “Well, I suppose I am.”  He said, “All right then, please stick out your tongue.”  Of course, Wesley had no intension of cutting out the woman’s tongue; his point was that idle criticism can damage great causes.  “I’m doing a great work,” said Nehemiah, “and can’t come down.”

Nehemiah challenged the devoted Jews of the area to give, to labor, to build, to sacrifice . . . that the walls of the city might be rebuilt.  And they responded as people often do, when they’re challenged with a dream greater than themselves.  They stepped up to meet the challenge.  They responded because of their faith in God but also because of the faith Nehemiah had in God.  They knew that Nehemiah was a man of character.  They knew that he was making even greater sacrifices than he was asking them to make.  It was customary back then for governors to live well, off of the labors of their subjects.  But not Nehemiah.  He ate the same bread that they ate.  And he worked alongside them until the dream was realized.  Maybe this is a story that our elected leaders need to read carefully and take to heart.  But there were additional problems as well; there was a controversy among the people.

These were difficult times.  Some of the poorer residents of Jerusalem were having to sell themselves or their sons and daughters into slavery in order to borrow money to buy food.  The greedy lenders of this money were themselves Jews.  Nehemiah was enraged at this practice.  Here they were undertaking this enormous dream of rebuilding the city’s walls, and the wealthy were busy behind the scenes exploiting and enslaving their poorer brothers.  Nehemiah couldn’t tolerate such an evil practice, and with his power as governor he put a stop to it.  Nehemiah was a man of conscience, compassion and character, and the people responded to his leadership, and the walls were rebuilt, the city was re-established, the great dream was realized.

This brings us to our Scripture lesson for the day.  It’s one of those wonderful passages in the Bible.  When the seventh month had come, the children of Israel, many of whom were still scattered in towns around Jerusalem, gathered together in one great mass in the square before the Water Gate.  They told Ezra, the scribe, to bring the book of the Law of Moses to read it to the people.  Now bear in mind that because of their time in captivity, most of the people had never heard the Law being read.  Recall if you will the first five books of the Bible are called the Pentateuch or the Law of Moses.  Chances are, Ezra didn’t read Genesis or Exodus, these would have been well known stories for the people, rather Ezra most likely focused on Leviticus through Deuteronomy.  These are the laws God gave through Moses and because of the lack of copies, these were the statutes that had been neglected and forgotten.

So Ezra brought the scrolls of the Law before the assembly, and he read from them aloud from morning until midday, and the ears of all were attentive to the reading of the book of the law.  And when he opened the scrolls, all the people stood.  That was the custom even in Jesus’ time.  You stood for the reading of the word.  This is why it’s our custom to stand when we read the gospel. 

Ezra read the sacred writings and blessed the Lord and all the people said, “Amen, Amen.”  They lifted up their hands and they bowed their heads, and they worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.  Ezra not only read to the people from the Law, but he and the other scribes with him interpreted the words so that all the people could understand what he was reading.  And the Bible tells us that the people began to weep as the Law was being read.  It was an emotional time. 

After 7 decades of exile, after all the hard work, all the sacrifice, all their earnest prayers, now God had allowed them to return to their own city and they had their sacred scrolls . . . and tears flowed down their faces.  In response to their grief, Nehemiah stands and tells them not to mourn but to rejoice, for this is the Lord’s day and rebuilding the city was the Lord’s doing, and Nehemiah reminded them that the joy of the Lord is their strength.  It was indeed a great day in the life of the people of Israel!

Finally, Nehemiah’s dream was realized, the walls were rebuilt, the people were home, the time of punishment was over.  I’m certain one of the phrases Nehemiah repeated over and over was, “Thanks be to God.”  It’s not too much to imagine that God, in turn, was saying, thank you to Nehemiah as well, for God works through committed people.  We’re told that when Dwight L. Moody was visiting England, he heard British revivalist Henry Varley say: “The world has yet to see what God can do with a man who is fully and wholly consecrated to the Holy Spirit.”

Moody would later comment with these words: “He said ‘a man.’  He did not say ‘a great man,’ nor ‘a learned man,’ nor a ‘rich man,’ but simply ‘a man.’  I am a man, and it lies within the man himself whether he will or will not make that entire and full consecration.  I will try my utmost to be that man.”  I’m sure Henry Varley wouldn’t mind if we amended his words to read, “a man or a woman who is fully and wholly consecrated.”  Commitment, character, conscience, compassion, a deaf ear to the critics, total and complete consecration–those are the marks of the successful dreamer of every generation.  These are the people God uses to change the world.

What is the dream God has placed on our hearts?  There’s so much to do in this world.  There are so many in need, but we can’t let that overwhelm us.  God isn’t calling any one person to fix everything, just pray for the one or two things God has laid on your heart.  And once you do begin to earnestly pray, be ready because God could very likely call you to be the Nehemiah, to be the answer to your prayer.  If He does, don’t worry, God will equip you for the task and will be right there with you every step of the way.  Commitment, character, conscience, compassion, a deaf ear to the critics, total and complete consecration–these are the tools God will provide for you to complete the task.

Amen an style=’font

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