In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let’s start with a little pop quiz. Don’t worry; it will be easy, at least to start. Let’s try a little math. First, an addition problem. Two plus two equal … that’s right, four. Now, a multiplication problem. Two times two equal … four. Wait a minute, that’s the same answer we had as with the addition problem. Let’s try another, this time using exponents. Two squared, or two raised to the power of two is … four! Three different math problems, each involving two two’s, and the answer to each one is the same, four. How is that possible? That’s just the way it is with the number two. Other numbers have their own patterns that can leave you amazed, puzzled, scratching your head. Now I am no math major; still, math is all around us in the “real world.” Without mathematics, science and engineering would be impossible. Business, economics, and social studies all depend on math. Music is mathematical; time signatures, note lengths, and tempos are expressed with numbers. Mathematics has been called “the universal language.”
And yet it’s hardly the only language, or even the first language any of us learned. Hope Lutheran School has English and Spanish classes. Other schools offer many other languages, such as German, Russian, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. No matter which language you’re learning, you have to learn the same basics: spelling, grammar, syntax, pronunciation, the conjugation of verbs, and the declension of nouns. If you understand all of that, have you learned the artistry and beauty of language? We could ask similar questions about music, science, physical education, history, social studies, art, and other school subjects as well.
We are all learning, all the time. Some of the lessons are easy, and we catch on quickly. Other lessons are hard; we need more time to learn them. Still other lessons are so difficult that we never really understand them quite fully. All we can do is get a puzzled look on our faces, scratch our heads, and say, “Huh? I don’t get it.” Some lessons we learn in school; many more are learned outside the classroom. The simple truth is that we all are learners, lifelong learners. It’s a vocation our Creator and Father gave us from the beginning as His creatures and children. He demonstrated this with the trees He placed in the midst of the Garden of Eden. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, could eat freely from the tree of life; but, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or the tree of all knowledge, they were not given to eat. It belonged to God alone, for all knowledge belongs to Him alone. He created man and woman with some knowledge; but, He expected them to learn, to grow in knowledge of Him, His ways, and His works. God alone is the all-knowing God, we are not—and since the Fall into sin, we don’t like that much! There is no shortcut to the wisdom and knowledge of God. Even Jesus, God in human flesh, did not scorn instruction, but learned in obedience to His earthly parents and teachers.
In our Old Testament Reading, Nehemiah tells us how Ezra the priest and scribe taught the people, reading from “the Book of the Law of Moses” (Neh 8:1). This Book is the scroll of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. (I have held such a scroll, and it is big!) Even though the reading took six hours, Ezra would likely not have read the whole text, but rather highlighted the most important points. And Ezra was not alone in reading and helping the people to understand. The verses which are omitted from the Reading, vv. 4 and 7, each name thirteen men, thirteen priests and thirteen Levites. “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (v. 8). The learners were “all the people” of Judea and Jerusalem.
“The Law” in Hebrew is Torah, which means teaching, instruction. Torah certainly includes God’s Commandments, yet it also teaches the Gospel, the Good News of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. It is the whole Teaching of God. The Law tells us, in summary, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As the people heard the Teaching of God, they realized their sin, that they, like generations before them, had not loved God wholly nor their neighbors as themselves. This is still the Law’s basic purpose for us as long as we are in this mortal flesh, in this life. It convicts us, preparing us to hear and receive God’s forgiveness in the Gospel. The people of Judea wanted to mourn their sin; but, the Lord wanted them to rejoice! Why? Because they had His Word! Also, the occasion when Ezra read and taught the Teaching of God to all the people was the Festival of Trumpets, a joyous feast. So Nehemiah also teaches, proclaiming the Gospel: “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (v. 10).
In today’s Epistle, we hear part of the Apostle Paul’s lesson to the Corinthian Christians, and it is instruction for us as well, as we strive to live together as God’s people in Christ. Paul is addressing a divided church, troubled by sexual sins, abuses of the Lord’s Supper, personality cults, boasting about “gifts” from God the Holy Spirit, boasting about who was baptized by whom, Jew vs. Greek, rich vs. poor, and so on. Paul gives them a spiritual “anatomy” lesson on the body of Christ, that is, the Church, the body of believers joined to Christ Jesus and each other. How many Christs are there? Paul asks. One. So how many bodies of Christ are there? One. So why are you looking for reasons to be divided? How many members belong to this one body of Christ? Many. Are all members a hand, an eye, or an ear? Then where would the other senses and abilities be? No, the many members of Christ’s body are of various sorts, as is necessary for any body to be able to function. Don’t boast of the gifts which God the Holy Spirit gives in His wisdom and according to His will. Don’t fret over not having this or that gift. Rather, rejoice that you have the Highest Gift of God in Christ Jesus your Savior.
In today’s Gospel, the teacher is Jesus, The Teacher. As was His custom, He went on the Sabbath day into the synagogue. He was back in His hometown of Nazareth. In the synagogue service, Jesus stood up to read, and the book, the scroll, of the Prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. He opened the scroll to the place of the appointed reading from the Prophets for that particular Sabbath day, from Isaiah chapter 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
because he has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He then rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the synagogue attendant, and sat down. “And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him.” They were expecting a sermon, an explanation of the meaning of this passage. Jesus preaches a very short sermon. “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your ears.” Their eyes see Jesus, whom they all know as Joseph’s son, someone who grew up among them. Their ears hear “gracious words” from His lips. Their marvel at this is confusion and bewilderment. How can this be? they wonder. Yet the people of Nazareth know that Jesus’ fame has spread, for they have also heard about His miracles done in Capernaum, and by golly, they want to see some, too! Instead, Jesus tells them that the Lord shows His wonders and bestows His healing on whom He wills, on whom He chooses. What right, what claim, do sinful creatures have to demand that God do this or that at our beck and call? Absolutely none. Rather, every human being by nature deserves and has a “right” to suffer God’s righteous judgment against sin. God stands before their eyes, and His voice has entered their ears. Do they accept Him as He has come? No, the people of Nazareth put sinful mankind’s self-righteousness against God on full display. They refuse to learn the lesson that is all at once easy, hard, and ‘huh?’ God is God, we are not—and we don’t like that very much! In their rage, they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. What they did not know—even though the Word of God through the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms foretold it—is that Jesus would indeed die, at the appointed time and place, not only for the people of Nazareth, but for the whole world. On the crucified Jesus the fullness of God’s wrath against sin would be poured out.
In recent days, a ‘reporter’ for the New York Times has started a “hashtag,” ‘Expose Christian Schools.’ He supposedly is doing this in response to two recent stories: Second Lady Karen Pence getting a part-time position at a Christian school in northern Virginia teaching art; and a greatly overblown, widely misunderstood incident involving a group of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky attending the March for Life in the nation’s capital. Secular critics of the Christian Faith have been angling for decades to force Christianity out of the public square, to force Christians to keep displays of their faith within the walls of church buildings; but, that’s no longer good enough. Some are getting bolder now, aiming to bring down Christianity altogether. So they want to #ExposeChristianSchools? Let them! We do not want to hide from them the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! We want them to be exposed to Him! That’s the ultimate reason for being of Hope Lutheran School and every Lutheran school, and every true Christian school. Will they understand? Most of them, probably not; but, some will, by the grace of God. The great Mysteries of the Faith—the Holy Trinity; the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Union of God and Man in the one Lord Jesus Christ; the Unity of the Body of Christ, the Church; the power of God in the Means of Grace, His Word and Sacraments; and His boundless love for unlovable, rebellious sinners, shown in His death on the Cross and His resurrection from the dead—these are beyond full human understanding, yet He reveals them in His Word, and we believe and confess them as true by His grace. We always want to teach our children well in all their studies, all their subjects; but above all, let us ever teach them, and ever be learning ourselves, the “strange math” of the one God in three Persons, who in love has given us His Son to be the one Sacrifice for the sin of the whole world.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.