When God Abandons

Third Sunday after the Epiphany                             January 27, 2019

 

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “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.”

 

In the Name of Jesus.

 

Has God abandoned his Church? Christian families rounded up for prison by the communists in China—where is this God who loves his people and reigns over all. Christian brothers and sisters persecuted by the Muslims in Libya—where is the God who in Baptism promised, “Behold, I am with you always.” [Matthew 28] In Vietnam, Hmong Christians jailed. At the trial a statue of Buddha is set in front of them and they’re ordered to bow down to the government approved idol. When they don’t, it’s jail. In Sweden, pastor Ake Green sentenced to one month in prison for what he said from the pulpit, when what he said did not agree with the government teaching on homosexual marriage. Where is God in this? Has he abandoned his Church?

 

In our own society, Christians made with their taxes to support the prevailing ideologies from the abortion chamber, to the government office saying that even unnatural marriages must be treated as if they were natural, to Christian children being taught doctrines their parents would never allow, if given a choice. Where is our God in this?

 

It predictably slithers into the Church. Preachers on T.V. selling books of how to have a successful Christian life, as if the Christian life is how you gain your own success or acceptance before man, and they pull this off while claiming the name of Christ. Selling prayer rugs, selling plastic buckets of food, as if the Christian is supposed to devise a way to defeat some worldwide apocalypse.

 

Inside churches, it can often look like any other venue of public entertainment, with pounding sound systems, video screens streaming images, and fresh entertainment to keep everyone waiting for the excitement next week. But it is all advanced under the banner of Christianity. Bill-boards advertise church as if it’s just a better way to live, or an effective way to change your life, as if the Church is nothing more than an ongoing motivational seminar.

 

Has God—the God who justifies the sinner, who cleanses the conscience, who speaks peace to those in fear and comfort to those in pain—has God abandoned his Church?

 

 

Israel had reason to feel abandoned by God.

 

It all happened because of their sin, of course, their rebellion. But, nevertheless, they had reason to feel abandoned.

 

They had been taken away from their own homes, taken from Jerusalem and Judah to subjection in Babylon. Then, as the Babylonian empire folded, they became subjects to the Persians.

 

Hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, they were under coercion to bow down to the gods of Babylon, then to the gods of Persia, and for those Israelites who did not, penalties must be paid. The penalty of not having the job you want, of not being able to live as you want, and, sometimes, even the penalty of your life.

 

But where was their God? The true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The God who promised to be with them always. Who promised to keep his covenant, to come to them at the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple in Jerusalem? And not just come to them, but come to them to forgive their sins and cleanse their consciences and be with them in all things?

 

Where was he? Sure, they had lost the Ark of the Covenant through their own arrogance. Sure, they had been chased from the Temple and from Jerusalem because of their own pride and sin. But, still, where was God and his promises? Didn’t his grace depend upon his promise, and not upon their works? Didn’t their status as God’s people depend upon the holy Name he had put on them, and not upon how good they were at being worthy of the Name? If it depended upon them, upon their decisions, their faithfulness, their obedience, then he’s not the God of grace. He’s nothing more than a manmade god demanding obedience.

 

 

Now, in this text we have this morning from Nehemiah chapter 8, the Israelites are back in Jerusalem, returned from Babylon and Persia, back to their own homes.

 

They will have the Temple again, restored. The walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, according to the Lord’s instruction, to keep them safe.

 

God will dwell with them at the Temple: in the gift of the sacrificed blood for the forgiveness of their sin, and in the preaching of the Gospel each week by the priest, in the reading of the Scriptures at the Temple, in the word of the prophet—the Lord will be with them. Nehemiah 8:5:

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “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.”

 

Their God will be with them, at the Temple, in the reading of Scripture, in the blood of the sacrifice, but where was he when his people where captive to the Babylonians and then the Persians? In those generations, had he abandoned them?

 

God does not abandon his people. He was with them. With them in the reading of the Torah, even as they were on the banks of the Euphrates in Persia. With them as a father gathered his family each evening for reading Scripture and praying to the Lord. With them, always, in his Word.

 

In the words of the creation of Adam and Eve and then the Lord’s gift of redeeming them from their sin. The words of Noah and the promise of a Savior for his lineage. In the words of promise spoken to Abraham, the words of salvation given the Israelites through the prophet Moses. In these words written in Scripture, the Lord is there, coming to his people, dwelling with them, cleansing them, forgiving sin, making them his own.

 

 

Has the Lord abandoned his Church now? Are we in our own Babylonian captivity of the Church?

 

Imprisoned families in China, families murdered by Muslims in Libya, jailed pastors in Sweden, has the Lord abandoned his church?

 

False preachers using the pulpit to teach unnatural marriage, to teach that babies aren’t to be protected; churches taken away with flashy images and competing with public entertainment, has the Lord abandoned?

 

Or even the crying wife looking for honor in her marriage, or the child living in pain, or the father living in fear, wondering where he will find work, in all the sickness and despair, has the Lord abandoned?

 

We are, indeed, in a Babylonian captivity. Until our Lord comes again to judge the living and the dead, the church will suffer, Christians will be persecuted. To expect anything else is to expect the world and our own flesh to not be sinful.

 

But in the pain, the sickness, the affliction, the persecution, the Lord does not abandon.

 

He dwells with his Church in the Word. It is always the Word. Everything depends upon the Word.

 

In the Word bound to water for the Baptism of the newborn, the Lord is there, just as surely as he was there on the cross.

 

In the Word he brings each week to his people in the Body and Blood of the Sacrament, the Lord is there, forgiving and cleansing, just as surely as he was there in the arms of Mary.

 

In the Word spoken in the family as parents gather family for evening prayer, the Word spoken among Christians at the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, the Word read by a college student in the morning as he’s having his breakfast, the Scriptures taught in Catechism class, the Word of the Lord’s Prayer prayed by a mother with her child, wherever the Lord is having his Word read, having it proclaimed, having it given in a Sacrament, having it remembered by one of his people in prison, the Lord is there, coming to his people to forgive, to cleanse, the build-up in the faith, to knit them together as members of a body, his Church.

 

1 Corinthians 12:12:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

 

The Lord does not abandon. He is with us in his Word. He keeps his people. He binds us together as one body, his Church.

 

In the Name of Jesus.

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