Our theme this morning is less a theme than it is an assertion, a challenge: when the Word of God is preached, there are only and always two reactions: faith and unbelief. There is no middle ground. There can be no cold, analytical, detached reception of the Word. You either hear the Word and rejoice in God’s mercy to sinners or you reject God’s grace and want to silence it. Whenever the Word of God is preached, it gets results, it always gets a reaction because it is living and active. It is the sharp doubled edged sword of Law and Gospel that never lays there dead, like a cadaver on an exam table. Try to cut into the Word of God and it will cut into you, dividing your soul and spirit, joints and marrow, the thoughts and attitudes of your heart. (Hebrews 4:12) Whenever the Word of God is proclaimed there are always two reactions, both in Israel and in us.
Now, you might be thinking: I’ve heard many sermons and opened up my Bible and read it many times – and quite often, I’ve had no reaction; nothing has happened. That is symptomatic of one of the biggest issues in the church today: the church has grown weary of the Word. Complacent. Bored even. Both preachers and hearers take the Word for granted and look for new and greater things. As hearers, our ears have been dulled by the noise of the world. Movies and music and media are engineered to make us sit down, turn our brains off and be passively entertained and amused. But hearing the Word of God demands active listening. It’s not like listening to your spouse recount their day while the TV is on, it’s like listening to the doctor tell you if the test results mean that you will live or die. Then there is “itching ear syndrome.” (2 Timothy 4:3) We want the church to have amazing programs and powerful, moving music and messages that are relevant, that give meaning to our lives, that solve all our problems and answer all our questions, to tell us what we can do to make our lives better – and the Word of God doesn’t scratch the itch. Finally, never-ending breaking news and weather alerts and viral videos have changed our brains; shortened our attention spans, weakened our ability to focus and concentrate and meditate. And so, if something can’t be expressed in a 30 second video or 144 characters, we turn it off and tune it out. The result is that many Christians are more likely to have a shallow faith based on bumper stickers and clever slogans and Facebook memes than a firm understanding of the deep and unchanging Word of God.
And then you have preachers who have lost faith in the power of the Word; who trust their own wit and wisdom, their own personality and likeability to do what only the Word can do. They use the Word as a means to an end rather than the means of grace. An instrument – or weapon – to manipulate and mobilize and organize and patronize. Want to start a community social program? There’s a Bible verse for that. Want to raise money? Beat people over the head with Scripture. Want to trumpet your righteous cause and vilify the opposition? Scripture is cited on both sides of almost any social issue. And this misuse and abuse of the Word can infect even our hearts, the hearts of those who stand on the Reformation motto of Scripture alone. Preachers preach and hearers hear the Word expecting it to change the world and the people out there rather than do what God promises it will do: change us. It’s stupid really. It’s stupid to sit here for an hour and expect it to change the world out there – instead of changing us. As stupid as taking a Tylenol and expecting someone else’s headache to go away. And as a result, we become judges and critics of the Word rather than servants and students, measuring it in terms of visible results rather than invisible repentance.
Martin Luther warned his generation that the Word of God is like a passing downpour. It falls for a while in one place and the soil soaks it up. But then the soil becomes saturated and the water runs off and the clouds move on.  Luther predicted the day when the Gospel would move on from Europe to other nations and continents – which has in large part happened. And some would say that the Gospel downpour is leaving our country as we speak. But for now, God has blessed us with the downpour of his blessings in the Word – and let us never take that for granted or grow bored with it. Because the Word remains the living and active wisdom and power of God. And whenever it goes out from human lips into human ears and minds and hearts, it does things. It kills and makes alive. It knocks us off our thrones and picks us up off of our knees. It fills the starving and sends the rich away empty. (Luke 2:53) There is no neutrality when it comes to the Word of God. There is either faith or unbelief.
That was true in Jerusalem at the Water Gate at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 445 BC). The people were assembled as one man (Nehemiah 8:1), packed tightly together, demanding to hear the Word of God. They listened as Ezra read from the books of Moses and the Levites [gave] the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:8) Men, women, and children stood – stood! – and listened for six hours, from early morning till noon, to hear words that hadn’t been heard in Jerusalem in over 70 years. No comfortably padded chairs. No heating or air conditioning. No roof over their heads. They wept when they heard the Word. It cut them right to the heart. They repented. They believed. They recognized how utterly sinful they were and how incredibly gracious God was. When Ezra praised the LORD…all the people responded, “Amen! Amen!” They wanted to hear more. The Word was working. It was a holy day.
It was also a holy day in Nazareth, when Jesus, the hometown boy turned rock-star, miracle-working rabbi, returned to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath. The place was packed. They all wanted to hear from Jesus. The attendant handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to Jesus and he found Isaiah 61. He read it out loud: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And then he stopped and sat down. The place went silent. You could have heard a pin drop. What was he going to say? Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. People had wondered for centuries who Isaiah was talking about. Was he talking about himself? (Acts 8:34) Was it John? Was it someone else? Who was this Anointed One? And Jesus tells them: it’s me. This prophecy is about me. And they get to hear the good news from his own lips with their own ears. And, at first, they all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.
But then the devil elbowed his way into their minds and made reason their master rather than faith. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. They remembered that Jesus had played in their streets with their kids, traveled with them to Jerusalem – that for 30 years Jesus walked and talked and lived like anyone else. Wait a minute…who does this guy think he is? He leaves home, runs around with that rebel cousin named John, and now he comes back and thinks he’s the Messiah? Well, we’ll see about that. Prove it, Jesus! You’ve performed miracles for other people, perform one for us. Prove yourself here and we’ll believe you, but until you prove it we are going to reject your message.
Jesus knew what they were thinking. I tell you the truth…no prophet is accepted in his own hometown. He reminded them that there were lots of widows in Israel but God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath and there were lots of lepers in Israel but Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian. He was sending them both a fact and a warning: if you reject the Word, don’t expect miracles. Faith doesn’t come from seeing miracles but from hearing the Word. (Romans 10:17) If you continue in your unbelief, God will take his Word away from you and give it to people who want to hear it. And with that, Jesus’ hometown congregation had heard enough. They were filled – not with faith, but with rage. Let’s get rid of this guy! We don’t need to sit here and listen to this Jesus call us unbelievers and tell us that we need him to save us from ourselves. They drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. If you actually listen to what the Word says to and about you, you can’t remain neutral. You either hear it with joy or you try to push Jesus out of your life.
Of course, Jesus slips away because it wasn’t the time or place for him to die, but this was a bitter foretaste of the rejection to come. He was Anointed by God to save God’s people, but God’s people rejected him. Three years later they would finally succeed in getting rid of Jesus for good – they would arrest and convict, beat and crucify and kill him as a criminal. But only because he allowed them to. Because only by dying could he pay for the world’s sin, death and unbelief. He told them God had sent him to die to save them from their sins – and so they wanted him dead. Do you see how irrational unbelief is?
But today isn’t about Ezra and Nehemiah or Jesus’ childhood friends. Today is about you…and me. Are we more like those people in Jerusalem or the people in Nazareth? We are both! We have split personalities when it comes to the Word of God; we are both glad hearers and angry despisers. Our old Adam rises up in rebellion against the Word, rejects its demand to rule our hearts and minds, resents the Law that exposes our sin and the Gospel that says God sent a Savior because we couldn’t save ourselves. It’s our old Adam that just wants to stay in bed on a frigid Sunday morning, that searches for excuses to avoid hearing the Word, that counts the seconds until the “Amen.” The old Adam hates church. He can’t wait to get as far away from the Word as possible because he knows that the Word means his death. He must be coerced, compelled, threatened, forced to hear it. He’s why you and I do not gladly hear the Word of God and obey it.
But the New Man in you is different. The New Man is a faithful listener. The New Man would gladly stand in a crowd outside the Water Gate in Jerusalem and listen to the Word of God for six hours – and thinks nothing of driving through a little snow and cold to sit in a padded chair in a climate-controlled sanctuary for an hour. That’s the real you. The you who was born in Baptism. The you that died and rose with Christ. The you who rejoices at every opportunity to hear and study and read God’s Word, who is amazed that God would send his Son to live and die and rise for you, so that he might call you his child.
And so, that means that your life is a never-ending struggle between the old man and the new. It is a weekly struggle to get to church. A minute by minute struggle to pay attention. A daily struggle to open up the Bible at home and read it. An ongoing struggle against the devil’s temptations to become bored and complacent with the good news of God’s grace for sinners. It means that we need to repent for allowing the Old Adam to gain the upper hand, for treating God’s grace as old news or fake news, for refusing to receive the gifts Jesus wants to give us, for treating the Word as something optional or secondary in our lives, even for wanting to shut Jesus up and get rid of him. We need to drag the old Adam here kicking and screaming and repent because that is how God puts him to death.
But then we rejoice. We rejoice that Jesus is the Anointed One of God who continues to send messengers to preach the good news that he lived and died and rose again – for you! Your sins are forgiven. You stand justified before God. You are his child through baptism. You have a place in his heavenly mansion. That’s the Word of God. It might make you mad or glad, sad or joyful, you may want to hear more or you might just want me to shut up – because the Word always gets both reactions. In the end, our reaction isn’t as important as the fact this Word is God’s truth and God’s people are made holy by that truth. (John 17:17) Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.
 LW 45:352