The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 22, 2012
Nehemiah 8:4-10; '1 Corinthians 12:12-21
398, 410, 400, 293
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was gracious enough to reveal Himself as Lord and Savior, even to sinners like us. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
There is a big difference between what we want and what we need. We actually need very little. The overwhelming majority of what we struggle so desperately to acquire falls under the “want” category.
Now, having said only this much, let me ask you what came to mind when you heard of “wants and needs”? It is more than just unfortunate that we almost always think in terms of material things even when we are asked such questions in a sermon. Why is it that we seldom think first about spiritual things? Even in our own self-criticism our thoughts turn most naturally to material things, and yet material things will all but take care of themselves when we tend to our spiritual needs. So our Lord taught us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). You and I have learned from experience how hard this can be.
Today we are going to tend to the spiritual needs. We are going to talk about spiritual needs and wants and about doing the hard things in life. What we will find from our study of God’s Word is that, once again, what we want is usually fairly easy and usually not what we need; and what we need is usually neither easy nor desirable, at least not as far as our flesh is concerned. Our text is found in the fourth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel account:
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’” Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.
So far the very words of God. May God the Holy Spirit give each of us a wise and receptive heart so that we might accept these as the words of God alone and to utilize and treasure them accordingly. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Has there ever been a child of God who has not felt inadequate in one way or another, or perhaps in nearly every way? Who ever feels that he knows enough, reads enough, studies enough of God’s Word? Who believes that he prays enough, is wise enough, is strong enough in the faith? Who imagines that he can grow no more, witness no more, encourage no more? Who among us can claim perfection—or even near perfection—in anything?
The good news, thanks be to God, is that such perfection is not the basis for our eternal hope and confidence. We have no perfection of any kind apart from Jesus Christ. God the Father did not send His Son to save the good and righteous. Jesus came for sinners—wretched, helpless sinners. The Lord did not look down from Heaven and see strength and wisdom and compassion. He saw weakness, foolishness, and brutality. In other words, He saw each one of us as we really were—stubborn, rebellious, unlovable ingrates. What was God the Father’s reaction? He gave His most treasured possession to redeem and rescue us. Rejoice, fellow Christians, you have been washed clean, and you stand now before a just and holy God without spot or blemish. You are perfect in His sight. All has been paid by our dear Lord Jesus Christ.
How can it be then that we continually find faults and imperfections in ourselves? How are we to understand the apparent contradiction that a perfect God sees us as holy though we sin every day and are still mired in imperfection and lovelessness? The explanation is not that God overlooks our sin, or that He turns a blind eye to it, pretending that it doesn’t exist. The explanation is that the punishment for the sins of the world has been visited upon Jesus Christ. Our sin debt can never exceed the payment made by our Lord Jesus. Again, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
What is troubling now, to those of us who recognize what Jesus has done for us, is the fact that we continue to see so much that is wrong in our lives, so much that needs correction or improvement. There are times, in fact, when we see little in our lives (if anything) that is as it should be. All of this should serve not to discourage us, but to magnify our Savior and our need for our Savior.
Once again we come back to our theme: Doing the Hard Thing. The text clearly demonstrates that while we continually seek the easy way out in so many critical areas of life, Jesus did not. Jesus was a realist. For example, when you heard the part of our text that read, “…as His custom was, [Jesus] went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day…” [v.16] how did you react to those words, if at all? It is, after all, what we would expect, isn’t it? We simply assume that Jesus, being a spiritual person, would go to church whenever He could. But was Jesus’ attendance in the synagogue easy? Not according to the text.
Another question: Did Jesus go to the synagogue because He needed to go to church or because He wanted to go to church? The answer is, probably, both. Jesus certainly loved to be in his Father’s earthly house and, therefore, His attendance was a want. Did He also have a need to be there?
We tend to think of Jesus as always giving and never Himself needing anything. That simply wasn’t true. Jesus went to church in large part because He needed to go to church. He needed the strengthening that came also to Him through the Word of God. Remember that Jesus is described as being a man just like you and me, only He was without sin. He was indeed also true God while on earth, but He set aside the full use of His divine power when He placed Himself under the mandates of the Law.
Think back on how often we read that Jesus went away for a time to pray or even “continued all night in prayer” (Luke 6:12). Jesus, as true man, needed spiritual strengthening. He sought and found that strengthening by hearing the Word of God at church—through study and meditation upon that Word of God and through prayer.
The next question is obvious: If Jesus needed to make regular church attendance “His custom,” don’t we? If Jesus recognized His own need to pray regularly, what does that say to you and me? Everyone single human being has an on-going need to be fed by the Word of God. Unfortunately, that desire of our New Man is often choked out by the weeds we allow to grow in our lives.
Jesus did the hard thing whenever it was the right thing. There is another example in our text. In this case it is an example of Jesus knowing that what the people wanted to hear and what they needed to hear were two different things.
Our text describes a time in Jesus’ life when He was very popular. “He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (Luke 4:15). At this point in His life Jesus could easily have maintained that popularity. All that He had to do was to adopt the politically correct speech of His day. He could, for example, condemn the worship of idols. He could condemn prostitutes, thieves, murderers, extortionists, rapists, and all Gentiles—especially the Romans. Jesus could have preached some fine sermons and continued to enjoy the favor and support of all the people, yet He lost their support and in a big way.
We read that the very same crowd that gives Jesus its rapt attention in the synagogue, suddenly turns on him viciously. Why did they turn on Him? It was not because He spoke what was not true, but because they did not like what they heard. You heard their reaction: “So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff.” [vv.28-29]
How could this be? One moment they adored Jesus and the next they were trying to toss Him off a cliff. What happened? The exact thing that is not happening today: Jesus did the hard thing by giving the people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. He gave sinful mankind the Law.
Jesus used the realist’s approach to sin problems. This was the approach He knew he had to use with the Jews. Remember that these were Jews in the synagogue—pillars of the church. They had a nice coat of paint that hid all of their obvious flaws—hid from the world at least, but not from God. As He approached them, Jesus had two options: He could treat the problems as if they didn’t exist, in which case He would continue to enjoy popularity; or He could expose the problems and offer solutions, knowing that He would pay the price. Why did he choose the latter?
The answer lies in the very text that Jesus read to the Jews. Notice that Jesus did not just happen upon these words from Isaiah. We read that “He found the place where it was written…” [v.17] Jesus was looking for this text and He read it at this time and to this crowd for a special reason. Remember this was Jesus’ hometown. He knew these people well. He knew that they had been lulled to sleep in their false, work-righteous religion. Most had undoubtedly heard this text dozens of times but like all other texts in God’s Word they had long since tuned their ears to hear only what they wanted to hear in these lessons. To them “freedom for the captives” meant release from Roman rule. “The poor…the captives…and the blind” [v.18] to them were all references about how mistreated they were. In their ears these words spoke to them as innocent victims, not as guilty sinners in need of a spiritual savior.
Jesus turned the passage completely around to its correct understanding and it shook the Jews to their very core. Having been thus “disturbed” in their religious lethargy, Jesus’ message had its inevitable effect. It enraged them. Jesus told them that they were indeed the “poor… captives… blind… and oppressed,” but they were all of these things spiritually, not physically, not materially, and not politically.
Jesus had come to save the poor, blind, and oppressed prisoners. Yet He could do nothing if they refused to be helped. The Jews refused to acknowledge that they needed spiritual help of any kind. They were perfectly content with the hollow praises they had been used to hearing. They had Abraham as their ancestor along with the Law of Moses. This, in a nutshell, was their hope for salvation. In other words, they didn’t want Jesus to look any closer than the paint job. That was just how their game was played.
That same damning delusional sleep has crept into our society and our churches today, and will seduce every single one of us if we allow it to do so. Certain things in life will always be hard, yet we live in a world that has come to expect that everything will only get easier, faster, less painful. The inevitable result is that we come to imagine that if something is hard, we shouldn’t have to do it—like getting up for church, reading and memorizing Bible passages, studying God’s Word, disciplining our children, disciplining ourselves, witnessing to others, giving our hard-earned money to church, denying ourselves some of what we desire so that we can give to church, exercising self-control, practicing patience, giving of our time, sharing with those in need, practicing humility. The list is endless. None of these things will ever be easy, since we will always have that loathsome, selfish, lazy, self-centered Old Adam dragging us down. That is why day by day, moment by moment, we struggle to cast off that Old Man and to put on the New Man—that good and holy part that has been renewed in us by God the Holy Spirit.
By our own might these things are hard to the point of impossible. But not so with God. With God all of these things are more than just possible. Jesus has already done the hardest thing when, in our place, He paid our sin debt. The result is that we stand holy and righteous in the sight of our God—washed clean and forgiven. May that same God give us the love and strength to patiently and humbly share with our neighbor what he needs, rather than what he wants. Amen.
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