FIRST READING Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 All the people [of Israel] gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3 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. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9 And 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 when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, 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
1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims its maker’s handiwork. 2 One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. 3 Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, 4 their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world, where God has pitched a tent for the sun. 5 It comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course. 6 It 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.
7 The teaching of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure and gives wisdom to the simple. 8 The statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear and gives light to the eyes. 9 The fear of the LORD is clean and endures forever; the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. 11 By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward. 12 Who can detect one’s own offenses? Cleanse me from my secret faults. 13 Above 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. 14 Let 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
12 For just 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. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would 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. 16 And if the ear would 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. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The 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.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31a But strive for the greater gifts.
GOSPEL Luke 4:16-30
16 When 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, 17 and 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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
THE GOOD NEWS AND THE BAD
One of the ways I like to deliver news, usually good news, is to tell the person I’ve got good news and bad news, then ask them what they want to hear first. Interestingly enough, folks want to hear the bad news first, that way they get it over with and can move on to something more pleasant. I normally don’t use this method of delivering news of a serious nature but I know some who have.
Here are some examples I’ve heard over the years: the bad news is that terrorists attacked our country on September 11. The good news is that it has led to a resurgence of patriotism and a healthy sense of civil religion. The bad news is that you have cancer. The good news is that this is an early diagnosis and there’s a good prospect for cure. The bad news is that you spent your last dollar on a lottery ticket. The good news is that you bought a winning ticket. The bad news is that a snowstorm is coming. The good news is that school has been cancelled. The bad news is that the picnic was rained out. The good news is, the rain has ended the drought which is good for our gardens.
The truth is, no one ever wants to hear bad news. Nor does anyone want to be the bearer of bad news. But when you know good news is coming, when you know that your last word won’t be bad news but good, then it seems that bad news is so much easier to take. Our first lesson this morning could easily be seen as good example of just this kind of bad news/good news phenomenon. There’s both bad news and good news here.
However, because the good news is such good news, the bad news isn’t just easier to take, the good news transforms the bad into a surprising blessing. It’s somewhere around 520 B.C. and the Israelites are returning from exile in Babylon. They’ve begun the massive job of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Ezra, an Israelite priest, has been sent by the Persian King Cyrus, to inspire the Israelites in this undertaking. Ezra intends to encourage the people by teaching them the Torah, the books of Moses including the Sinai Covenant. You and I know these books as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the first five books of the Old Testament. You could say that the reading was a kind of pep talk, intended to encourage and motivate the discouraged Israelites. Ezra reads from the Torah and reminds the people of all the great things God has done for them in the past. But the reading seems to be having the opposite effect. Instead of lifting the returning exiles spirits, the people began to weep. Why such sorrow? Why was this such bad news?
The reading reminded them that this horrible fate they had suffered in Babylon was self-inflicted. It was a reminder that their own selfishness, their desire for chasing after the things of this world, their worship of the idols of this life rather than being faithful to God was the cause of all their suffering. They, despite God’s many calls and warnings, brought all this on themselves because they had failed to keep the Torah. That’s why God had sent them into exile. They were the ones who had turned away from God and His ways. And the consequences of their disobedience were the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, the loss of the monarchy, and some 70 years in exile. It was seen as bad news, because it reminded them once again that they had paid dearly for their unfaithfulness. It’s no wonder that they wept. But Ezra tells them that the Torah also has good news for them.
In fact, Ezra encourages them not to mourn and weep but instead to rejoice, feast, party, and celebrate. Why? Because it was a holy day, a special day, a day like no other. And what makes this day so special is that the Torah Ezra read, not only exposed their failures, but also recounted God’s mighty acts of deliverance and salvation. The Torah also includes the account of God’s providential care of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It recounted the sojourn of God’s people in Egypt. And most of all, it recounted their miraculous deliverance from bondage in Egypt in the Exodus. This was good news, because it reminded these troubled Israelites, that God truly is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6) and, most of all, that God keeps His promises. And as sure as they heard Ezra read the Torah, they could be sure God will keep His promises again. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) And that good news makes all the difference in the world. The bad news has been trumped. The good news has the last word. God will save His people. It’s something they, and we, can count on.
Here we see in this simple report from Nehemiah a wonderful truth about the word of God. The word of God is always both good news and bad news. As Lutherans, we call it both Gospel and Law. Like those sixth-century Israelites who gathered that day in Jerusalem, so also we gather in this place every Sabbath to hear the word of God. And that word, just as it was for those ancient Israelites, is both good news and bad news. Like a two-edged sword it cuts and heals. It kills and makes alive. It accuses and forgives.
The big temptation, for us, is to skip hearing the bad news. We always want to run to the good news, ignore the bad news, and think that sparing ourselves such pain has got to be an improvement. But such a shortcut is dangerous. We run the risk of missing the true healing power of the good news. It turns the good news into “cheap grace” or a simple “getting off the hook.” It’s like slapping a bandage on a wound that’s never been cleaned. The bacteria have only been covered up and are still free to grow and spread their deadly infection. Such a cover up never faces the truth. It only postpones the dangerous consequences. So also, proclaiming only the good news at the expense of the bad news, pretending it doesn’t even exist, only postpones disaster.
Unlike other communities and organizations, when we gather here for weekly worship, we don’t avoid the bad news. We face it head on. If you’ve ever been to the meeting of a civic organization or club, to the Rotary, the Boy Scouts, or the annual stockholders meeting, you’ll notice that they always begin by trying to paint a rosy picture. It almost seems as if it’s forbidden to acknowledge all the mistakes, failures, and disappointments. The dirty laundry is to be kept out of sight. Bad news is to be avoided at all costs.
Can you imagine starting the monthly Boy Scout Troup meeting by calling attention to all the scouts who failed to earn merit badges, by citing the mistakes of various patrols, and by pointing out all the scouts who received demerits? That’s no way to start a meeting, especially if parents or visitors or prospective members are there. We don’t want to air our dirty laundry. We want to put our best foot forward. We want to impress them. But that’s not how the church functions.
When we began our worship this morning, we started with the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness. We started by confessing our sins, our failures, our mistakes, and our crimes. There is no spin. There is no pretending. There are no qualifications. There are no excuses. We, as sinful beings, acknowledge that we have failed. With contrition we confess that we’re in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against (God and others) in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. That’s the way to start a meeting!
That hardly seems like the way to impress visitors who have come to check us out. It would seem far wiser to put our best foot forward and show them how good we are. But here we strangely start by listing and acknowledging our failures, our sins. Some might see this as bad news! Why would anyone want to come to a place that starts its public gatherings like this? Worse yet, this seems like some crass form of bargaining, like some sort of “let’s make a deal” with God, some sort of “tit for tat.”
Is this wallowing in the bad news the price of admission? Is this something that we “have to do” in order to get God’s forgiveness? If so, it seems depressing. It seems manipulative. It seems to be daringly arrogant to think that we can somehow bribe God into forgiving us by the length or sincerity of our confession. But you and I both know that’s not at all what the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness is about. If anything, it’s just the opposite.
This recalling of our sins and shortcomings is not a “have to” that we “must do” in order to get something. Rather it’s a “get to,” something we willingly and joyfully do because of what is already ours. Yes, dare we say it, confessing our sins, airing our dirty laundry, bringing the skeletons out of our closets, is a privilege. But how can this be? If anything, this seems like bad news. Isn’t it terrible, a travesty, downright bad news, that people like us are such rotten sinners? Who in their right mind would ever want to be a part of a group that seems to be so distant from perfection? Who wants to tell the world their problems? Isn’t it actually embarrassing that we mess up so badly, when the rest of the world is determined to put its good foot forward? Shouldn’t this stuff be covered up? But this isn’t what it appears to be, is it?
This isn’t a telling of the bad news in order to receive the good news. This isn’t “let’s make a deal.” We come to this place not to earn our forgiveness, but to be assured of our forgiveness. We come to this place because our sin has put that forgiveness in doubt. Our conscience bothers us. We know that we’ve done wrong. We feel badly about it. So, we come here to be assured of God’s forgiveness. We crave hearing the Good News of the Gospel and hearing once again that our slates are clean. Trusting that it will happen, we willingly tell the truth. We willingly confess our sins. This isn’t a reward to be earned, but a gift to be opened. This is an opportunity to get it off our chest and off our conscience and on to the back of Jesus. The only way that we can do that is to acknowledge it, to confess it with a contrite heart, and give it to Him.
Liturgically, the Brief Order of Confession makes that clear. This is no “let’s make a deal.” This is no divine bribery. This is a joyful expression of our faith and our freedom. We came here to tell the truth and get the pain and burden of our sin off our back and on the back of Jesus. That’s why we make the sign of the cross on our bodies. That’s why we invoke the name of the Triune God. This is the name of the God we have come to know in Jesus. This the name of the God who first claimed us and made us His own in our Baptism. Now, we come here today to hear Him speak to us again. We hear the bad news and the good news. We willingly acknowledge the validity of the Law (that we are sinners!) and joyfully claim the offer of the Gospel (that our sins are forgiven!). That’s exactly what happened in today’s first reading from Nehemiah.
The people willingly came to hear Ezra read them the Torah. They knew that the Torah was surely going to bring bad news. It surely was going to expose and accuse them of all their shortcomings. Nevertheless, they got on their knees. They raised their hands, they heard it, they wept. They mourned. They were sorry and filled with remorse. But there wasn’t just bad news there. There was also good news in the Torah as well.
And after hearing the good news, the good news of God’s grace and mercy for His people, Ezra urges them to rejoice and celebrate. Even though they had deserved that terrible suffering of the Exile, they now are freed and forgiven. That was the good news that day. Such good news inspired them to do what seemed impossible, to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple. But for the people, the joy they experienced that day still seemed incomplete.
The walls of Jerusalem and the Temple were eventually rebuilt. But life was still far from perfect. During the next 500 years Israel still had to struggle. The nation was never quite able to get out from under the domination of one great world power after another. Their joy was never complete. They never quite seemed to arrive. For every step forward they seemed to take two backward. And to continue moving forward, to continue to be sustained as a people, to continue to keep faith in the face of so many setbacks, Israel gathered to hear again and again God’s word, just like that day in Jerusalem when Ezra read it to them.
They knew that they needed to hear both the Law and Gospel again and again. They knew that it had to be God’s word in all its fullness, both the bad and the good. No shortcuts. No abbreviations. No abridged versions. They needed the whole word of God to sustain them. And today’s Gospel lesson recounts another reading of God’s word to His people.
It had been more than 500 years since Ezra read the word to the people in Jerusalem. For 500 years God’s people had been hearing the good news and the bad. This time it was the local synagogue in the small town of Nazareth. The hometown boy, Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter, who had become somewhat of a celebrity, had returned and had been invited to take His turn reading the word and offering a commentary. It was nothing out of the ordinary. All the Jewish men of the synagogue took their turn at this. They were proud of their famous resident and wanted to hear what He had to say. But, in fact, they weren’t prepared to hear what Jesus had to say.
Jesus took the scroll and started reading what was probably the appointed reading for the day, a portion of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61. This passage spoke of the grand and glorious Year of Jubilee, that future time when God was finally going to come and set all things right. In that time God would personally send an anointed, messianic leader to “bring good news to the poor … proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 1-2). It was promises like these that had sustained the Israelites for centuries. And at the time of Jesus the Israelites were still waiting.
Judaism was filled with all sorts of versions of what it would take to bring about the Year of Jubilee and the coming of the Messiah. The Zealots believed that it would happen through the power of the sword and armed rebellion. The Pharisees believed it would happen through the religious reform of the people and the keeping of the Torah. The Essenes had given up on the masses and believed that it would only happen by fleeing to the desert and establishing a pure, monastic community of Torah keepers.
But now Jesus, their hometown boy made good but still just one of them, still just the son of Joseph, the carpenter, still just that kid they remember playing in the dusty streets of Nazareth, made a most incredible claim: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus claimed that the Year of Jubilee, the messianic age was here now!
Jesus announced that He was the Chosen One for whom they had been waiting. He was the one who would finally bring about the liberation and vindication for which they had been thirsting for so long, for over 500 years, for at least since the days of Ezra, and even long before that. Of course, this was too much for the people of Nazareth. They knew too much about the ordinary kid from their town. This was too much to swallow. This was blasphemy. So they drove Him out of town and would have killed Him had He not miraculously escaped.
As Jesus’ life and ministry unfold in the pages of the New Testament, we see Jesus actually living out these words from the prophet Isaiah. We see Him setting free all kinds of people who had been captive to various oppressors. The blind were given sight. The deaf could hear. The lame walked. The dead were resuscitated. Jesus, the ultimate friend of sinners, embraces those whom the rest of society had shunned and excluded. And most of all, Jesus dares to announce that their sins are forgiven. Jesus claims to be the ultimate Good News from God.
Jesus dares to overrule God’s own “bad news” judgment of sinners by welcoming and forgiving them in the name of God. The defenders of the righteous judgment of God were convinced that Jesus was a blasphemer, undermining the integrity of God’s expectations of His people. So, in the name of God, they had to put Jesus to death. And they did it on that awful Friday on a hill outside of Jerusalem. They thought that they had ended this foolishness once and for all. But we know that this wasn’t the end of the story. “On the third day,” He was raised from the dead. God raised him. God vindicated His claim to be the Messiah and to be able to do the things He did.
Jesus suffered on the cross the ultimate bad news for us. He silenced its criticism. He ended its crushing judgment of sinful humanity in His own body. And because of His resurrection, it at last, became clear to His followers that what He first claimed that day in the synagogue of Nazareth was true. The Year of Jubilee had arrived. Jesus had saved the world in a way no one had anticipated. God had kept His promises. And most of all, the Good News, for which this broken and frustrated world had waited so long, had finally arrived. God’s love is reliable. God can be trusted. No one or nothing can separate us from that love. The bad news of our sin and guilt has been overcome by the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Ezra had declared similar good news 500 years before: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” This good news strengthened the Israelites to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. In the same way the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection sustained the first Christians in their mission to an often incredulous and hostile world. Therefore, Christians could dare to tell the bad news because the Good News was even better.
Trusting the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear. We can dare to tell the truth in ways that the rest of the world is afraid to do. There’s no need to lie, cover-up, pretend, deny, or equivocate. Not one of us has clean hands. As sinful creatures we are far from being perfect. The bottom line is that we are all sinners. And sinners rightly ought to tremble in the presence of a righteous God. This is the bad news.
But the bad news isn’t all there is. There’s also the Good News of God’s love for sinners just like you and me. In fact, it’s the sinners, “those who are in need of a physician,” (Luke 5:31) to whom God is partial. It’s for people just like us, with all of our flaws and embarrassments that Jesus came. It’s “for us and our salvation” that Jesus lives. And because of that, Ezra was right: “the joy of the Lord is (our) strength.”
Empowered by such good news, the sixth-century Israelites were able to do what few thought was possible: confess their sin and then dare to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Empowered by the same good news we can do the same. We can afford to gather here every week and face the bad news head on. There is no need to equivocate, dissemble, or rationalize. We can fess up to our sins without blinking. And we do it because we “want to.” We do it because we also know and trust the Good News of God’s mercy. And trusting the love of God means that there’s no need to do anything else than tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then, buoyed by this truth, we can dare to go out into the world, free to tackle, head on, all the bad news in this world, trusting the Good News that, regardless of our failures or successes, we are forgiven and always the beloved children of God.