The Word Stands (February 3, 2019)
The Word Stands
Heads or tails? It’s a game we’ve all played. It’s something we’ve maybe used to decide trivial matters of who goes first or who has to clean up. It’s also a game in which the value of the heads side or the tails side is completely different depending upon which side you stand. If you are going for heads, that side of the coin is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen in that moment. Yet, if you are going for tails, gazing upon the face of that man when the coin finally comes to rest can bring about misery and despair. And your feelings for each side can change completely from game to game.
The Word of God has sometimes been described as a two-sided coin. Not in the fact that it’s a trivial way to solve problems and make decisions, not at all. But it’s been described as a two-sided coin in the fact that how you perceive it, is often determined by which side you stand upon.
You can see this played out quite vividly among the congregation of Nazareth. Jesus had just read from the prophet 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” (Lk 4:18-19). The eyes of everyone were fastened on him as he began by saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). And then Jesus went on with his sermon to explain what that meant. He explained the good news that God proclaims to the poor. He talked about freedom for the prisoners and the beautiful things that the blind could now see! He poured out the Lord’s favor upon the people. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Lk 4:22). Gracious words, in the sense that they were beautiful and delightful to listen to. Yet, most certainly gracious also in the sense of God’s love being poured out upon his people. How God graciously brought the remnant of Israel back from Babylon and reestablished them in their own land – the Promised Land. And gracious in the sense that now, as Jesus spoke, these words are fulfilled in their hearing…
… wait… is he implying what it sounds like he is implying? Yes, the words of freedom, and sight, and the Lord’s favor are wonderful to hear. But Jesus just said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me” (Lk 4:18). Is he saying that he is the anointed one? The Messiah? They asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Lk 4:22). And just like that, what sounded so good, so gracious, turned into the most infuriating thing a Jewish man could ever say. Blasphemy! He’s claiming to be the Messiah! The words didn’t change! Only which side they stood upon.
That’s the interesting thing about God’s Word. It really has a twofold purpose – that’s why it is sometimes called a double-edged sword. One purpose of the Word is to cut to the heart and point out the sins that are hidden and private. The other purpose of the Word is to drive you to your Savior who has removed all sin and guilt. And really, like the two sides of a coin, it depends upon which side you stand that determines how you are going to take the word.
The people of Nazareth, for instance, had made their minds up already. The Messiah was to be a great political leader who would throw off Roman oppression just as God had done in the days of Babylonian oppression. The Messiah would come with many great signs and wonders so that there would be no mistaking who he is. But this… this is just Joseph’s son. We’ve known him since he was a boy. There’s nothing special about him. He’s no better than any one of us. Their eyes saw what they saw. Their mind was made up. Their hearts choose not to accept his Word, and they take their stand against him.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. He continues by preaching the law to them. And there’s something we need to clear up before we continue. The law is not bad. The purpose of the law is not to drive us away from God. But that’s often our impression, isn’t it? Anything that points out my wrongs is harsh, cruel, and bad. With that impression, Jesus’ next words sound very cruel… like rubbing their faces in the dirt. “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time… when there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath… And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian” (Lk 4:24-27). Ok Jesus, we get it. When God get’s mad he takes things away and drives us away from him.
If that’s what you get out of the law – if you see it as this harsh and cruel condemnation which only seeks to rub our faces in our own sin, then you’ve got it all wrong. Jesus wasn’t rubbing their faces in it. He was cutting to the heart of the matter, pointing out the sinful tendency in Israel’s heart and pleading with them not to repeat it. This happens again and again, Israel. God sends his Word to you in the mouths of his prophets. You know about Elijah. You know about Elisha. Powerful prophets of God whom you hold in high regard and cherish the Word that God gives through them. But look how your people rejected them at the time! That sin is still in your hearts. You are at risk of doing it once again. Stop this! Repent! And God will take you back, and gather you together under his wings. The proclamation of God’s law is an act of love to open your eyes and free you from the sins that oppress you!
They wouldn’t hear it. “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff” (Lk 4:28-29). Oh how our own sinfulness writhes under the knife of God’s law which seeks only to remove the tumor of sin from within us. God, I’m ok when you point out sin out there. I’m ok when you point out this person’s sin, and that person’s sin, and that person’s sin. I’m glad I’m on the same side as you. Look! We even bear the same name! I’m called a Christian! But when the coin is flipped, and the knife of God’s law is turned on us, how we writhe and scream. How we deny and hate the law of God! God, are you implying that I have no power to overcome my sinful oppression? Are you implying that although I read and meditate upon your Word I’m still blind to your love? Are you saying that I, a faithful Christian, am still poor in spirit? Poor in living my life dedicated to you? Well you’ve got the wrong guy! I know who I am. I know the things I do.
And yet, here I am. Only loving my wife when I am well-rested, and when I feel like it. Here I am, with a sinful sense of pride driving the work I do, only doing certain things because a love the recognition I receive for them. Here I am, a set-in-my-ways know-it-all who won’t be bothered with words of criticism or help. In fact, I may even have to just put you back in your place. And now that I’ve said all this, now that I’ve actually let the Word of God sink in and speak to me rather than just letting it ricochet off my stubborn shell, now I see that God’s law is good! Now I see that its intention is to help me. Now, my delight is in the law of the Lord, and I meditate on it day and night (Ps 1)! Because it empties me of myself. Peels back the layers of pride, stubbornness, and excuses. It shows me my need for a Savior before it’s too late! Before he cannot be found. Now I see that by this law, under which I once recoiled, God removes the infection of sin which had me enslaved. I see that God has been holding out his arms for me all along, begging me to stop shaking my fist at him.
Thankfully, Jesus has dealt with opposition. He has dealt with rejection before. The people of Nazareth wanted to throw him off a cliff, but he walked right through the crowd. He would not let opposition prevent him from bringing the good news to many more. Jesus has dealt with opposition in your own heart as well. There was a time when the sinful nature in every one of us tried to push Jesus out of the sacred places of our hearts and throw him out. But he persisted, holding out his hands all day long for you. Maybe that all changed when you were very young when water used with this same unbending Word flooded your heart as it poured over your head, drowning that stubborn sinful nature and filling you with God’s love. Maybe it all changed not too long ago, when God working through the word finally reached and spoke to a heart that was once shrouded in layers of hard, stubborn unbelief.
It doesn’t matter when it happened, but that it happened. Because at that same moment, finally standing on the right side with God, now you can see that every one of his Words stands for your good. As that New Life thrives and is nourished by the Word, you see the law clearly as it is meant – to bring you back to the Savior. And you delight in the Gospel with unfettered joy, because there is no reason for it to be showered upon you so generously – only because of God’s love. Only because he was patient with you, persistent with you, and welcomed you in by his Word – his gracious, unchanging Word which stands in opposition to sin, and creates new life within.