Sermon: Luke 4:14-21
Epiphany 3 – January 27, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
If you could go back to a time in your life when you think life was better and you may have been happier, what would that time be? Some of you might want to go back to a time when you were much younger or when life didn’t seem to be so complicated. Some of you might not wish to go back to another time. Perhaps your past years were not that good, or you’re just content with your life right now.
I’m probably over idealizing, but I often have the sense that I want to go back to, or at least have the circumstances of, life and society in about 1960. I was in 3rd grade. I liked going to school, and it was just kind of a good time for my family. Our nation was still enjoying the thrill of victory from World War II, the American economy was booming, and there was a very youthful, optimistic mood. It wasn’t necessarily a good time for everyone, but for most Americans, it was a good time to be alive.
It was a time when children went to school on the weekdays, and parents worked hard for six days. But on Sunday all stores and businesses closed, and a very large percentage of Americans went to church. In the area where I grew up I’m quite sure a significant majority of people went to church. It was a good time to be alive.
In our text today we learn that on the Sabbath day Jesus went to worship at the synagogue “as was his custom.” And I would guess that in Nazareth and the surrounding area of Galilee, most people went to synagogue on the Sabbath.
Going to synagogue and going to church have something really important in common. In both situations people heard the word of God read and taught. In both synagogue and church people heard good things.
Today we’re going to consider
WE HEAR GOOD THINGS IN CHURCH
Jesus’ ministry was just beginning. He had been in the southern area of the old nation of Israel, around the Jordan, where he was baptized by John. He faced a period of forty days when he was especially tempted by the devil. He withstood those temptations and then returned north to the area of Galilee. Jesus was a rabbi who taught in the synagogues in that area. And he was already gaining a very good reputation as a teacher. Everyone was praising him.
He went to the town of Nazareth where he had grown up. It happened to be the Sabbath day so he went to worship and teach at the synagogue in that small town. It’s interesting that Luke adds the detail that he went to the synagogue “as was his custom.” In other words Jesus went to synagogue every week.
We probably should commend Mary and Joseph for raising Jesus this way. Mary and Joseph were very godly people who knew the importance of bringing their children to worship God and hear his word every week. One of the greatest treasures that my parents gave to me, a precious heritage, was going to church and Sunday school every Sunday. And parents who bring their children to worship every Sunday need to be commended and encouraged. It’s not an easy task, especially on cold winter days, to bundle the children up and drive to church. It would be easier to stay home. And sadly most parents today are opting for what’s easier.
Jesus went to synagogue for two reasons. First of all he was fulfilling the Sabbath law, what we call the 3rd commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” In the Old Testament God commanded the people of Israel to set the seventh day aside as a special day. They were to do no work on that day, and it was intended to be a day of “sacred assembly,” that is, public worship.
But Jesus went to synagogue for a more important reason. It was his custom to go to synagogue because he wanted to, because he wanted to worship his heavenly Father, and to hear and teach his word.
So why do you go to church? I hope you come to church every Sunday because you want to worship your Savior and you love and want to hear and learn God’s word. The essence of the Sabbath law is that we love God’s word and, as Martin Luther notes in his explanation to the 3rd commandment, that “we regard [God’s word] as holy and gladly hear and learn it.”
The New Testament Christian church recognized that the ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament Sabbath law changed with Jesus’ coming. Even the Apostle Paul urged the Colossians, “Do not let anyone judge you . . . with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
It’s significantly interesting though, and very important to note, that the New Testament Christian church very closely imitated and copied the practice of the Old Testament Sabbath on Sunday. In our nation’s entire history Sunday was always a day when stores and businesses were not open. As a result most people didn’t work on Sunday. And it was recognized as a day of public worship. Christians went to church on Sunday.
This is one of the reasons I remember the early 1960’s with such fondness. Sunday was a day of rest. Sunday was a day when other activities stopped so people could go to church. And individuals, and our society, reaped the benefits of the Sabbath, what God intended for his Old Testament people. We took one day to rest our bodies and minds. And we set aside a day for public worship for individuals and our nation, to worship and praise God, to hear and learn his word.
I will grant that Christ has come and the commands of the Old Testament Sabbath don’t apply in the same way to us New Testament Christians. But isn’t it rather interesting that the farther we wander today from what God’s Old Testament people did on that one special day of the week, the worse our nation’s spiritual and social condition becomes. It’s unmistakable. Beginning somewhere in the 1970’s church attendance began to drop. Today less than 20% of Americans go to church on Sunday. Here at Immanuel we routinely have less than 100 people in church on Sunday. Businesses and stores are open like any other day. Grocery stores often have more people in them on Sunday than on any other day of the week.
The real tragedy is that we as a people have lost the original and enduring essence of the Sabbath – to love God our Savior, to love his word, to regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it. Way too many people no longer love the good things we hear at church.
Two- thousand years ago Jesus walked into the synagogue at Nazareth, as was his custom. The order of service that day would have been surprisingly similar to our general order of worship today. The people sang hymns and psalms to praise God. They read the scriptures, a reading from the Law of Moses and a reading from the prophets. Then a rabbi would expound in a sermon on one of the readings. They prayed and were very likely dismissed with the very same blessing that dismisses us each Sunday, the same blessing the LORD commanded Aaron to use in blessing the people of Israel.
It seems Jesus was the rabbi appointed that day to read the scriptures and preach the sermon. He was handed the scroll of Isaiah and he read Isaiah 60:1, 2, verses from our Old Testament reading for today. Isaiah was prophesying the words of the Messiah and Savior who would one day come. He would be someone who would preach the word of God. He would literally heal the sick and give sight to the blind on a number of occasions. But these words of Isaiah primarily declared that the Savior would preach the message of the forgiveness of sins to the spiritually poor and helpless. He would preach freedom to those held captive to sin and death. The spiritually blind would come to see and know God and his mercy. And in a reference to the Old Testament Year of Jubilee he would proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, God’s unending love and favor, on his people.
There were a couple of ways in which synagogue services were different than our services today. In the synagogue the rabbi stood up to read but then sat down to preach his sermon. Jesus read the Isaiah scripture and then sat down to preach. Luke adds the interesting detail, “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on [Jesus].” The people’s eyes were fastened on Jesus naturally because he was the one who was about to preach. But they were fastened on Jesus because he was a son of this congregation in Nazareth. Many of the people had seen Jesus grow up among them. They wanted to hear what this hometown boy had to say. And I imagine that some of them were particularly focused on Jesus because he was gaining attention for his good preaching and the rumor was perhaps starting to get around that this hometown boy named Jesus just might be the Messiah.
Another way in which synagogue services were different from our service is that they didn’t print up bulletins with hymns, service order, announcements, and a sermon text and theme. But if they had a printed bulletin that day the sermon theme would have been the words of Jesus: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus told this hometown crowd, “Isaiah was prophesying me. I am the long-promised Messiah. I am your Savior.”
The people in the Nazareth synagogue that day heard something very good. They heard the most important news that any person can hear. They heard that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and the Savior of the world.
How glad we can be today that the exact same message that Jesus preached in Nazareth 2000 years ago is the same message that you and I hear today and every Sunday in church. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. He’s the Savior promised across the pages of the Old Testament scriptures. He’s the One Isaiah wrote about in his 61st chapter. Isaiah also wrote about him in his 53rd chapter: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
We really do hear good things at church. Amen.