Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Mark Twain once said the difference between a good word and the right word was the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. I believe he was talking about writing, and anyone who has written anything they cared about knows what he means. A lightning bug is a beautiful thing, and in a group they’re a wonder on a summer evening as they blink in a meadow. Lightning bugs are wondrous and beautiful. But lightning can kill you. And what Twain said about writing or speaking the right word applies also to hearing one. Have you ever needed to hear a word from someone—I forgive you, I’m sorry, I love you, —and instead got I’m over it, no hard feelings, I like you? The difference between I like you and I love is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. One is really nice—the other could kill you. I suppose it depends on the situation whether liking or loving is the more deadly, but here’s what I’m driving at: the difference between our words and God’s Word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. Our words, at their best, can be breathtaking and moving, wondrous. But God’s Word is life itself. And just as our name for lightning bug hearkens to lightning, or evokes the greater thing in its name, so do our word point at the real Word, the Word of God. God’s Word is beautiful, and life-giving, and quite dangerous. I don’t know if anyone has ever thought lightning beautiful—perhaps they have from a safe distance, so perhaps that’s as far as you can push the analogy. But nevertheless, the Word of God is something like lightning, something powerful, striking, and altogether out of our control—something that can kill you, but can also bring you life.
God’s Word. It is a two-edged sword, Scripture tells us. But nevertheless, Nehemiah tells the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” What a long, strange trip it must have been—the caravan, the settlement, the pleading for the law, the tears. And then simply, the leader of the people moving among them, encouraging them, and telling them that the joy of the LORD is their strength. The sword of the Word separating from their past, from the customs and nations surrounding them, but still the Word that comforts and guides them. It is God’s joy that will fill them, and their strength will be to rejoice with God. The Psalmist says weeping spends the night but joy comes in the morning. Perhaps that is the experience of the Israelites here—the night of their tears is their repentance, their desire to be free of all the false paths to God, their regret at all the time they wasted astray from God. But the joy of the Lord has come with the feast—morning has come. The things Nehemiah told them was also God’s Word, a promise that they can grasp.
Now, I have a feeling some of you might be getting a little nervous when you hear the phrase, “God’s Word.” God’s Word, for you, might have been something that a preacher said to justify his own words, which were going to hurt you or confuse you or belittle you. Gay people are going to hell—it’s God’s Word. Women are subject to men—it’s God’s Word. There is no evolution, and climate change is a hoax—because God’s Word says so. And God’s Word is infallible—there’s that circular argument someone may have inflicted on you in which you were told, with the quotation from Second Timothy which goes, “All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God because it says it is. So, when you hear somebody say, “God’s Word,” you might get a creeping crawling feeling inside, like caged animal waking up and trying free itself from a cage.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that the Word of God stands outside of us, to convict and challenge us. In classic Lutheran theology we speak of Law and Gospel, the law that convicts our consciences, that drives us to despair, that in a sense, kills us like a flash of lightning. I think every authentic encounter with Scripture has the potential to devastate us. But the Word of God does not come to kill in order to end, but to resurrect us. Some of us have suffered unjustly because of the preaching we have heard; some of us have been unjustly comforted.
I think it’s important for us to know that our Gospel passage is a contrast to an earlier story, which shows us just how vulnerable we can be to the manipulation of Scripture. Jesus gets baptized, and the Gospels tell us that he was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He tempts Jesus to use his power to serve himself by turning stone into bread to satisfy his hunger; he tempts Jesus by offering him the world and all its power in exchange for Jesus’ submission and worship; and finally, and perhaps most perniciously, he tempts Jesus to doubt the Father’s love, to test God’s love, by jumping off a high place so the angels would fly to rescue him. And he does all this by quoting Scripture, quoting it accurately. Even the devil, it seems, can use God’s Word.
But—but. When we speak of God’s Word, we speak of more than Scripture. Notice today how Jesus unrolls the scroll, reads the words, and sits down, then saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Scripture is a way God communicates to us and is God’s Word because God speaks to us through Scripture. But Scripture is not identical to God’s Word—why does Jesus say, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing?” It’s because he is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. He is their promise and their power. He is, as the Gospel of John says, the Word of God. The Scriptures mean something not because they are the perfect books—they’re not. As Nietzche famously said, God writes really bad Greek. But they’re powerful because they point to the Triune God, working in and out of time, creating, reconciling, and sanctifying the world. Scripture is a medium for the true Word, the Light that enlightens everyone, Jesus Christ.
But the Word of God comes to us through many means. It comes to us in the Holy Supper, in the means of bread and wine, which are the body and blood of Jesus for us. But not just that, the Word of comfort and forgiveness and the strength of the joy of the Lord. The Word of God comes to us in baptism, through the means of water, when God simultaneously kills us from sin and raises us into holy life with Christ. The Word of God comes when you speak in faith of the presence of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s own presence wherever two or three are gathered and forgive one another and promise to work together for the life of the world.
The Word of God is living and active, and it is Christ himself at work and alive, flashing like lightning. We do not control him, and even the comfort he brings can be frightening. I keep thinking of that rich young man, who weeps because Christ told him to sell all he had. But through his tears is the way to freedom. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack