Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Fear That Leads to Joy

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Luke 4:16-30

How do we react to the Bible?

Most people in the world, even people who identify themselves as Christians, react to it with indifference. They see the Bible as a piece of compliant clay, an ancient document they can twist to suit their own desires or impulses. Or they see it as something they can ignore.

Others see the Bible as God’s Word--whether it's law or Gospel, the stuff they understand and the stuff they can’t, the things they like and the things they wish would go away. All of it is God’s Word for them.

These are the people who allow the God of the Bible to be bigger than themselves. They understand God to their Creator and their Savior and they're striving through repentance and faith to recover from their inborn desire to "be like God."

They agree with best-selling author Timothy Keller, when he says, “Only if God can say things that make you struggle will you know that you have met a real God & not a figment of your imagination.”

But each of these reactions have a common origin: fear.

People who attempt to mold the Bible or ignore the Bible fear that it’s telling the truth, fear that it really is God’s Word, fear that there really is a moral law which judges each of us as deserving of death from the moment we are conceived by parents from whom we inherit human sinfulness. They fear that the Bible is telling the truth that the only way for us to have peace with God, ourselves, or the world is for us to surrender to Jesus. And they don’t want to surrender to anyone.

Some though, see the witness to God’s love and compassion for every human being in the Bible, especially in its witness about Jesus, fear disappointing or hurting the God Who gave His Son so that we can live with Him

When I was a teenager, I borrowed the family car to go out on a date. (I've often wondered what the mother of the girl I took out though when I showed up in a station wagon!) Just before I left the house, as he handed me the keys, my dad told me, "Remember, she's a human being too." I treated my date with respect not because I was afraid of my dad, but because I was afraid of hurting or disappointing this man who loved me so much.

That's the kind of fear that people who believe in God have as they read His Word. Knowing how much He loves them, they fear disappointing God. And when they do thing that they know will hurt God, they turn to Him in repentant faith to seek restoration of the relationship with God that they cherish.

In our first lesson and in the Gospel lesson today, we see two different reactions to God’s Word. Both are rooted in fear. But in one, fear gets the last word, a word that kills. In the other, God’s Word wins, fear is defeated, and God brings life.

The Gospel lesson, Luke 4:16-30, tells the familiar story from early in Jesus’ ministry when He goes back to the town in which He was raised, Nazareth, where He worships in the synagogue. Jesus has already been preaching, teaching, and working miracles. Now, Jesus is asked to read and talk about God’s Word.

He reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,  because he has anointed me  to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These are verses which, hundreds of years before Jesus was born, God inspired the prophet to write of the coming Messiah, the Christ.

During a pause, the eyes of every person in the synagogue locked on Jesus, He says:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Can you imagine the impact of those words? Jesus was boldly claiming that He was the Messiah King prophesied by Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets!

At first, Luke says, “All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.”

Everyone there probably thought, “It’ll be great if he performs some miracles here. We could exploit that.” The people from the Chamber of Commerce thought, "We'll put up signs on the road leading into Nazareth that says, 'Nazareth, Home of the Messiah.'" Someone else may have been dreaming up a Messiah-related souvenir stand.

But then, Jesus does what teachers of God’s Word are called to do: He talks about what the Word means for them.

“I know you want me to do here what I did in other places,” Jesus tells them. “But people in those other places saw Me as coming from God. To you, I’m just a kid from the neighborhood, someone you can use.” (That’s a paraphrase, in case you didn’t notice.)

Then Jesus recalls two incidents from the Old Testament.

In Elijah’s day, He says, there were lots of widows among God’s people.
But the prophet Elijah was sent by God to a foreign widow, who, unlike the people in Israel, welcomed God’s Word.

And, Jesus goes on, back during the prophet Elisha’s time, there were lots of lepers in Israel.
Yet God used Elisha to bring healing to only one leper, a Syrian named Naaman, who dared to believe God’s Word.

Luke says that at this, “All the people in the synagogue were furious...” They tried to kill Jesus. But because it wasn’t yet Jesus’ time to die for the world’s sins--including yours and mine, He walked through the crowd and left.

What accounts for the reaction of Jesus’ neighbors? Fear.

They were afraid that God’s Word was saying that God cared as much about other people, as much as God cared about them.

They were afraid that they couldn’t rely on being members in good standing of the first-century version of Nazareth Lutheran Church to be saved.

They were afraid that they needed to admit their vulnerability and their need of God as much as a foreign widow or a foreign leper had in order to experience God’s favor

These fears were all well founded

But the people of Nazareth were too proud to repent or trust in Jesus to receive God’s grace and new life

Now, let’s look at our first lesson. Time won’t allow us to go into much detail. But, by way of background, Nehemiah and Ezra were two men deputized by the king of Persia, the occupiers of ancient Israel sometime during the 5th or 4th-centuries BC, to rebuild Jerusalem’s temple and city walls.

Though Nehemiah and Ezra were great leaders inspired by God, the going wasn’t always easy.
God will be with us in whatever He calls us to do--whether it’s in our marriages or work or parenting or going to school. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
The believer in God knows that when the going gets tough, that’s the time to lean more heavily on God

As the progress continued on rebuilding Jerusalem, the people commissioned Ezra to bring the scroll of God--probably the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch or Torah--to a gathering place, then read it and explain it to them.

No doubt God’s people wanted to try to understand what God’s Word had to tell them about the adversities they’d experienced, things like exile and poverty and the splitting up of families and the loss of land God had promised to them.
They wanted to know where they’d gone wrong and how they could go right.

For days, Ezra read and explained the Word of God.

It hit the people like a bombshell.

They heard how God had called Israel into being through their ancestor Abraham, an act of pure grace.

How God had freed His people from slavery into Egypt and gave them a land.

How they had repeatedly rebelled against God, hating their neighbor, perpetrating acts of idolatry and injustice.

They realized that many of their troubles had been self-inflicted, because they had not trusted in God
. (So often when I read God’s Word, I realize that the same thing is true of my own life.) 
Nehemiah and Ezra saw that the crowd was afraid, fearful that they had permanently ruined their relationship with God, that they were lost to God forever. The people were weeping, thinking that all was lot.

The moment we allow the Word of God such access to our hearts that we know to regret our sins, not from fear of condemnation, but from fear of hurting God, the One Who loves us more than anyone else ever has or ever can, that is the time for rejoicing.

Fear like this is a holy fear that evidences faith and love for the God Who loved us first

That’s why, at that moment of intense and godly fear and sadness felt and exhibited by the people, that Ezra and Nehemiah ordered that there be a party, a feast, a celebration!

The people had truly heard the Word of God.

They had truly repented.

They truly believed in God.

They were reconciled to God; it was time to celebrate!

Indifference to the Word of God is unwise. “For the word of God is alive and active,” Hebrews 4:12 says. “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

And the apostle Paul tells the young pastor, Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

It turns out that God really wants to speak to us, bring us His grace and His power for living each day through His Word!

The only question for us as we read, listen to, and pray about the Word of God is how we will fear it.

Will we fear it as something to run away from, to avoid, or to put off until a more convenient time?

Or will we fear nothing so much as we fear disappointing or hurting God and turn instead in repentance and faith to the One Who loves us eternally and wants us for all eternity?

This is the choice which, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, God lets us make each day. Choose wisely. Choose to listen to and study God's Word. Choose the fear of the Lord.
That’s the way of life. Amen

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