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“The Joy of the Lord is Our Strength,” Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24th, 2010

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Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24th 2010

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 – Psalm 19 – 1 Cor. 12:12-31a – Luke 4:14-21

The Joy of the Lord is our Strength

This sermon is about reading the scriptures,[1] but also reading the Book of Nature, because if God created this universe, then God also speaks to us through nature. But God’s Word issues into a new reality in which we experience the Gospel, which is that he joy of the Lord is our strength!

In Nehemiah, Ezra reads the book of the law to those gathered around the Water Gate of Jerusalem, a place where the impure were also allowed to gather, and the people wept because they had been unable to keep the law in exile. And Nehemiah and Ezra proclaimed sweet forgiveness:

Go your way, eat the fat – [a delicacy that even the children yearned for], and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to the Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

I want to capture that last phrase: the joy of the Lord is your strength! That is the joy of the Gospel, because the people had returned from exile, slaves had been redeemed, and release had been proclaimed from the exile of sin.

That is the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed when he read from Isaiah in the synagogue. (Jesus read scriptures just like Marshall read them for you this morning.) Jesus was anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Oh Yes, the joy of the Lord is our strength!

I’ll return to Jesus’ reading of Isaiah, but look at the Psalm! The whole of nature can be considered a testament of scripture. Usually it is called the Book of Nature. The heavens declare the Glory of God; the vault of the sky is God’s handiwork. They declare the Word of God, because the Word of God brought the heavens and earth into existence: God spoke, and behold, they were created! So one day proclaims it to the next! What do the days proclaim? The Gospel: the joy of the Lord is our strength! One night whispers it to the next: the joy of the Lord is our strength! No speech, no word, no voice is heard, but the Good News goes out through all the earth! That is the Gospel proclaimed by God’s creation.

In the book of nature we have now, however, entered a disturbing chapter. What do we make of this message when earthquakes send shock waves through our souls? The concept of God’s continuous creation has helped me through this test of faith. The creation is not finished yet; it awaits Christ’s redemption. The Word of God will renew the face of the earth, make it people and child-proof, so none of God’s children get hurt. Then again the carnage that earthquake in Haiti perpetrated fills us with horror and foreboding. But the outpouring of heart-felt compassion reminds us of the Good News of Jesus Christ, for the joy of the Lord is our strength and Haiti’s redemption. The rescue teams enhanced by the help of those dogs are signs of the coming redemption, are expressions of the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed.

People were singing songs even while they were buried alive. But through the holes broken through to them, they found release, as they were pulled back out of their graves in the rubble they were buried under. They found the release Jesus proclaimed. (Have you experienced the release of the forgiveness of your sins that we pronounce for you every Sunday?) Christ is the anointed who proclaims good news to the poor, release to those trapped under the earth, recovery of their sight, and healing for their injuries.

The good news is that Jesus reigns and the sinful earth will be redeemed and someday even earthquakes will have to obey the Word of the Lord. When Jesus read from that scroll, he launched the year of the Lord’s favor, the time of God’s love and compassion for those captured by sin and released by forgiveness, because of all those who are sent on God’s mission as the anointed of God. It might be 2,000 years since Jesus launched the year of God’s favor, but his redemption has hardly begun. In his reign, we will experience the sunshine of God’s favor. God’s radiant face will shine on all those who have been released by forgiveness, set free for new life, and sent with the freedom to proclaim the wonderful works of the one who has called us out of the darkness and into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9), the Gospel realities of our new day.

The horror of seeing all those dead bodies loaded onto trucks to be buried unnamed in mass graves, thinking about all those souls who died under the rubble, and those who died before medical help could get to them, makes us ask, “How long, Oh Lord, How long until we are redeemed?” The planet earth itself is sinful and has not yet been released from its murderous destructive realities for the new heavens and the new earth, the new realities redeemed by Christ, who will make this planet a safe and loving home for all God’s children.

But human sin played a large role in Haiti’s incredible loss of life. Its government seems not to exist for the people and building codes could not have been enforced. Haiti has, however, also been sinned against. It is not only the sin of Haiti, but also our own sin in the evil of slavery and the racism of France and the United States. When the slave rebellion succeeded in Haiti from 1791 to 1803 and they had defeated three French and other armies, (even the Polish fought with the French against the slaves,) they became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to be ruled by people of African descent. They immediately abolished slavery from their shores. The United States shook in its boots, because they feared slave rebellions in the South. France charged Haiti 150 million francs as reparation for the slave-holders, from the former slaves, who had lost 100,000 lives in the struggle for their freedom and they had been worked to death in one of the most cruel systems of slavery in the West (and adding insult to injury), they had to pay reparations to the slaveholders and that reduced them to poverty.

It was Abraham Lincoln who finally recognized Haiti in 1863. That means it took 60 years for the United States to recognize a country ruled by Blacks. France and the United States continued to punish Haiti and they punished themselves with cruel dictators, propped up by countries that wanted to exploit them.

Had Haiti enjoyed a government of the people, by the people, and for the people it would not have experienced such a loss of life. The Loma Prieta earthquake that struck us here was also 7.0 on the Richter scale and only 63 people lost their lives, while in Haiti it is untold thousands. So it was the guilt of our sin and not only that of the earthquake.

But Christ reigns and will set the oppressed free. Look at the rescue teams, the nations coming to the rescue. They are a sign of the love and compassion of Christ, who brings release to the captives, literally from the holes in the rubble for those who were buried alive.

It came way too slowly, like New Orleans once again. But our President stood us proud. How the doctors and nurses are responding! How the armed forces are bringing food and water and medical supplies. Our soldiers are bringing life, not death, participating in an invasion of redemption. That is Gospel, the Good News that Jesus proclaimed so that the love and compassion that Jesus poured out in this world makes us proclaim: the joy of the Lord is our strength!

When Jesus finished reading the scroll, he sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We can see how it is being fulfilled today in Haiti. But is it being fulfilled today for us? Here today in Bethlehem? Have you been released from your captivity of sin? Have you been released from self-absorption? Have you been released from an addiction, if you suffer from one? Christ the anointed One of the Holy Spirit, who is to-us-from-Heaven-sent, can release you from captivity, set you free, and send you to proclaim the good news that you experienced in your personal life so that others can enter the time of God’s favor, too. That the Good News be fulfilled in our hearing is a matter of life and death. (Next week you will hear about the response of the people of Nazareth. They tried to throw Jesus down a cliff. They felt that he had way too high an opinion of himself. We are always up against resistance.)

What about us here in Bethlehem? Have we recovered the sight of our eyes? Is the old world bearing down on us and making us blind? Will the forces of death overcome this congregation, the forces that are trying to close its doors? The old world is always yearning to pull a congregation out of the reign of God into divisions and factions. It’s the old story, divide and overcome God’s reign.)

Christ is really present here in Bethlehem, not only when we worship here on Sunday morning, but the scripture has to be fulfilled in our hearing in Wednesday’s bible study, in the meetings of the Hagar circle, in our receptions after worship, in the office with Necosha, in the council trying to do God’s business. Shouldn’t the council be trying to do God’s ministry? I’m not sure business and God go together very well, because business runs on profit and following God costs us our lives.

Here in this place we also need to be set free by the Anointed, the Christ, who anoints us to be released from our sin, to bring Good News to the poor, the release of forgiveness for one another. When this congregation recovers its sight, it will see its mission and understand to whom it is sent. Has Bethlehem somehow become buried alive? Does Jesus have to pull us out of the rubble we have been buried in?

Well, today scripture is fulfilled in your hearing: in your opening up your ears, recovering your sight. I won’t attack the rentals Bethlehem hopes for and the fund-raisers that are so prominent in the congregation, but when will Bethlehem ever have a stewardship campaign? Let me quote Luther of old, “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the wallet.” It may not mean that those on fixed income give more, but that the mission of this congregation bring untold contributions from people who want to participate in the Good News that Bethlehem is bringing into these streets and the lives that its mission targets. Ah, are our targets the big Whigs? The big Wigs no longer come to this church. Maybe, it’s a good thing or we would have to help Mayor Ron Dellums pay his taxes. But what are we, little Whigs? What are we, chopped liver? God sends us to the little people, those who are invisible to the world, but so precious in the sight of the Lord.

When is the last time that Bethlehem rolled up its sleeves and did evangelism? That is not only the new pastor’s job. Evangelism needs to be membership driven. Studies show that most new members come invited by other members and not by the pastor. Thank God, a young woman was here yesterday with Jennifer, testing the soil behind the Herzfeld Center, to see if it was good for a community garden. Christine was the only regular member from this neighborhood and now she has gone away to college. The community garden is a way to do evangelism and integrate people from this neighborhood with all of you who commute to this church. Or another model of mission, if you like: you have to hoist a flag, raise the cross here, so this whole city knows what Bethlehem is doing, and people come from far and wide to participate in Bethlehem’s mission.

Today scripture has to be fulfilled in your hearing. Christ is really present. You are the anointed. You are sent to proclaim the Good News in this place. Let the Gospel ring through our hearts, our pews, and our streets. The joy of the Lord is our strength! People here need rescue, need release, forgiveness; they need to hear about Christ and the year of God’s favor. +++++++Amen.

Communion Blessing: “Do not grieve, the joy of the Lord is your Strength!”


[1] See the Prayer of the Day: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Written by peterkrey

January 25, 2010 at 1:09 am

Posted in Selected Sermons

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