Monday, December 10, 2018

The Song of the Redeemed

We don't spend a whole lot of time with the short book of Zephaniah, but on the 3rd Sunday of Advent we encounter the song of joy at the end of the book.  In Zephaniah 3:14-20 there is only rejoicing.  It is as though all the exhortations in weeks prior during the season of Advent have met with good success, and now God's people are ready to celebrate.  This text gives us reason only to celebrate; how will we do that?

(The following questions have been developed to ponder some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, specifically around the function of the Word.  To learn more about this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is purely about what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is about to do.  It is a gospel word from beginning to end.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Any Law that is present in Zephaniah is left behind; it is not present here.  The first two chapters are filled with Law, but here there is none.  If the preacher wishes to begin with the Law, perhaps the earlier part of the book can be brought into play.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the daughters of Zion, the people of God who are exhorted to shout aloud because of the redemption of our God.  We are those who receive the word, "Do not fear."  We are those who are promised that we will be brought home.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There are only a few imperatives in this text and they are essentially two ideas:  rejoice and do not fear.  That's it.  The Lord is the subject of every other verb.  In so far as rejoicing (i.e. worshipping) is part of our life with God we are called to that, but there is little in this text that calls us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in our life.

5.  Exegetical work:  In a classic commentary George Adam Smith calls these verses "a hopeful, peaceful epilogue."  (The Book of the Twelve Prophets, p. 72)  He sees it as quite apart from the rest of the book, but does not wish to go along with those who think it was not original with the rest of the book.  Much earlier, Theodoret of Cyrene wrote: "I am aware that some commentators understood this [text to apply to] the return from Babylon and the renovation of Jerusalem, and I do not contradict their words:  the prophecy applies also to what happened at that time.  But you can find a more exact outcome after the incarnation of our Savior:  then it was that he healed the oppressed in heart in the washing of regeneration, then it was that he renewed human nature, loving us so much as to give his life for us." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures, OT, Vol. XIV, p. 218).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  No text is better suited than this one to do what Henry Mitchell advised - to make sure celebration is in the design of the sermon.  How to do this skillfully is the challenge.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Monday, December 3, 2018

A Smelter's Fire

The "messenger of the covenant" in Malachi 3:1-4 is no one to be messed with.  He is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap.  In other words, if there is any impurity at all in you, it will not survive this refining process.  Is this good news?  Is it good news that the descendants of Levi will be purified?  If we believe that sin leads to death it is.  We need desperately to be purified.  How will we hear this word for the 2nd Sunday of Advent?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to be used in conjunction with other exegetical methods which draw on different questions. These questions are meant to unearth some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com and amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This word is primarily Law. The question is asked, "Who can endure the day of his coming?" and the understood answer is, "Nobody can."  We are those who need the refiner's fire and the fullers' soap to be purified of the dross in our lives.  We are the ones who desire that our offerings will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Gospel is hard to find here.  Perhaps one might hear a word of Gospel in the promise that "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into his temple."  That would be good news only, however, after one is purified.  Likewise we might hear a good word in the promise that our offerings will once again be pleasing to God, but that again  is good news only after one is purified.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are those who will be purified.  We are those who will not endure the day of the coming of this messenger apart from the mercy of God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in  response to God's work in Christ.  We might see the call to offerings as a call to obedience, but it is only implied.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  If we use the words found in this text there are a few directions we may go:  unable to endure/enduring; unclean/purified; unpleasing to God/pleasing to God.

6.  Exegetical work: The first two chapters of this book give the context for the announcement of God's messenger in chapter 3.  In reading these first two chapters we learn that the people of Israel have returned from exile, rebuilt the temple, and have once again begun to make offerings to God.  The trouble is, God is deaf to their prayers and will not accept their sacrifices.  In the debate in chapters 1 and 2 we learn why:  First, God is displeased because the people are  offering only diseased, injured, or lame animals as sacrifices. (i.e, their garbage).  God says, "Offer those to your governor and see if he will be pleased!"  Second, the covenant made by the Levites has been abandoned.  The Levitical covenant wherein the descendants of Levi were anointed as priests of Israel dictated that the priests be men of integrity and uprightness, turning away from evil. This was far from the case, and so God was displeased.  In short, God was not present in the temple, nor answering prayers because both the people of God and the priests of God were unfaithful.  Thus the messenger whose arrival is announced in chapter 3 is coming to "purify the sons of Levi" so that the offerings of Israel might be "pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and in former years."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bruce Martin does a nice job of picking up on the sacrifice theme in analyzing this text.  In his diagnosis he goes back to chapters 1 and 2 and shows how our sacrifices are similarly unacceptable.  In his diagnosis he speaks of Christ's sacrifice which is acceptable for all time.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Who's the Prince? Who's the Pauper?

If you are familiar with Mark Twain's novel, The Prince and the Pauper, you know that for a time the main characters in that story exchange identities.  Unforeseen by them, this results in each of them encountering scenarios they hadn't envisioned.  In John 18:33-37, the gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday in the Year of Mark, we also have a drama in which the main characters exchange identities.  In this case, however, the exchange is done through the skillful writing of John who shows Pilate to be much less than the 'prince' he claims to be, while Jesus is much more than the 'pauper' he appears to be.  Appearances can be deceiving. We too, must be on guard, lest we heed the voice of a counterfeit sovereign.

(The following questions have been developed to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, i.e. how does the Word function in the text?  These questions work well when used in conjunction with other fine sets of exegetical questions.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word in the words of Jesus functions very much as Law here. The difference in this text is that it is all done using irony.  Pilate asks Jesus, "What have you done?" and later, "So you are a king?"  In each case, Jesus turns the table on Pilate and you can almost hear the questions returning to Pilate:  "You have done what, Pilate?  You, Pilate, are a king?"  Pilate thinks he is interrogating Jesus, but it turns out to be the opposite; Jesus is the one asking the questions. This is how the Law works.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is difficult to hear a word of Gospel here.  Again, if we listen closely with an ironic ear, we might catch some good news. At the end of the dialogue Jesus says, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  While truth seems to be a threat to Pilate and for any of us when we are claiming an authority not our own, it is good news to hear that we can belong to the Truth - that Truth claims us.  As St. Paul said, "While we were yet sinners - while we yet were in the clutches of our own self-deception - Christ died for us."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the people whom the Word addresses, and in this case that can mean only one thing: we must identify with Pilate.  While we may wish to avoid this, this identification will help us understand our own unwillingness to live under the authority of the Word and of the Christ.  We naturally wish to be the ones who do the questioning, not the ones in the dock!

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Perhaps like few other texts the classic couplet of guilt/justification fits here.  Other similar couplets could be imprisoned/free; sinner/forgiven.

5.  Exegetical work:  Kittel's extended discussion of the term 'kosmos' is of great help in understanding John's use of the term we translate "the world."  According to Kittel, "the kosmos is the setting of the drama of redemption which is recounted in the Gospel.  All the meanings of kosmos come together in the usage of the Fourth Gospel."  "When Jn. says of the kosmos that it does not know the Son of God, that it does not know God, that it does not believe, that it hates, the kosmos is in some sense personified as the great opponent of the Redeemer of salvation history." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III, p. 894)  This is shown clearly in this text in the utter inability of Pilate to understand who Jesus is.  One other term which Kittel discusses extensively is "alethiea," often translated "truth": "In John alethiea denotes 'divine reality' with reference to the fact 1.) that this is different from the reality in which man first finds himself, and by which he is controlled, and 2.) that it discloses itself and is thus revelation."  (TDNT, I, 244).  A translation of this brief text is also helpful, especially as we note emphatic word order.  In the opening verse the word translated 'summoned' suggests Pilate was speaking very loudly, saying, "YOU are the king of the Jews?!"  You can almost hear the sneer and see the curl of his lip as he looks down on this ''pauper."

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  If you go to crossings.org/text-study you will see my diagnosis and prognosis around our "belonging." We so badly want to belong.  This longing to belong gets us in trouble.  It is only because of God's overpowering desire that we belong to God that we are saved.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Inexhaustible gifts

The First Reading appointed for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark is the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, I Kings 17:8-16.  This is a marvelous story to be matched with the gospel story of the widow's mite from Mark 12:38-44.  Both stories share examples of women of faith, risking all, believing the promises of God.  Give us such boldness, Lord!

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  To learn more about this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This story lifts up an example of faith, the unnamed widow of Zarephath.  More than that the story announces the provision of God, the utter reliability of God, even in the face of scarcity.  The story makes clear that God preserves and provides for God's servants.  This is a gospel function.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no "hammer breaking in pieces" the human heart in this story (i.e. the Law).  No one is condemned here,  and yet deliverance is needed - deliverance from starvation.  The woman says that she will prepare food for herself and her son, and then die.  In this way, though the text is not functioning to show guilt, it is showing us our utter impoverishment, aside from God's provision.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are undoubtedly the woman and her son, starving apart from God's provision.  We are the ones to whom Elijah says, "Do not be afraid."  We are the ones who receive the call to trust God and give out of our poverty, trusting God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to faith is not the call to obedience, therefore the first imperative in this story - "Do not be afraid" - is not a call to obedience.  The call to obedience is always the invitation to live in response to God's work.  The untold rest of this story is how this woman and her son responded to God's provision for their life.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  As I alluded to above, the Law could be understood here as the starvation which was imminent.  If that is the case, then some likely couplets could be despair/hope, lack/provision, and death/new life.

6.  Exegetical work:  The first thing to notice is that this unnamed widow is a foreigner, from Zarephath, "which belongs to Sidon." Sidon is where wicked queen Jezebel is from.  Sidonians worshipped Baal and Ashforeth.  If God was going to use someone to provide for the needs of one of God's prophets, this would seem to be a most unlikely candidate.  Jesus will later allude to this faithful widow in his first sermon in Nazareth. (Luke 4:25-26).  Augustine, in commenting on this passage, suggests that "Elijah came to the widow because Christ was to come to the Church." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures, OT, Vol. V, p. 103)  The Church, Augustine suggests, is also an unlikely recipient of God's grace, but similarly is dying apart from God's provision.  Again, Augustine says, "Why was it that no Jewish widow merited to offer food to blessed Elijah...? That widow...typifies the Church." (Ibid.)  Matthew Henry, in his commentary, notes God's sneaky provision by noting that "Jezebel was Elijah's greatest enemy; yet, to show her the impotency of her malice, God will find a hiding place for him even in her own country." (textweek.com)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock was always insistent that the preacher must bring the experience of the text to the listener.  Perhaps our task here will be to help our listeners experience their own desperate hunger and then rejoice in God's abundant provision.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bon Appetit!

Isaiah 25:6-9, the First Reading appointed for the Festival of All Saints in the Year of Mark, is a marvelous text of comfort.  Not only does it promise us that death will be swallowed up forever, but it also gives us a picture of a compassionate God who wipes tears from all faces.  This is the picture we have:  a God who is able to defeat death, and yet also able to stoop down and wipe the tears from our eyes.  What a marvelous God we have!

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only to open up some of the questions which are important for Law and Gospel preachers; specifically we ask, "How is the Word at work?"  To learn more about this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word of the prophet is pure gospel.  God will provide a feast, destroy death, and wipe the tears from our eyes.  The only thing we can do in the face of this amazing God is rejoice.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is really no word of Law here, except, of course, the mention of "the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations", (i.e. death).  If the Law always functions to show us our need for Christ, then the mere mention of death shows us our need for Christ, and thus is a word of Law.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the people of Israel, God's people, to whom this good word is addressed. We are the ones who experience the shroud and the sheet which is spread over the nations.  We are the ones who rejoice in the salvation of our God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The last phrase is our call:  "Let us rejoice and be glad in [God's] deliverance."  We are called to point to the deliverance of our God and give God all praise and thanks.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Some of the most classic couplets are appropriate for this text:  defeat/victory; death/life; mourning/rejoicing.  They are all here.

6.  Exegetical workThe Lutheran Study Bible does a nice job of pointing out how Isaiah 24:1-27:13 contain a combination of prophecy and apocalyptic literature.  While Biblical prophecy is "generally linked with historical times and places," apocalyptic literature "moves to cosmic themes and often refers to things seemingly impossible in history as we know it."  Such are the verses we encounter in this text.  Clearly announcing the annihilation of death is beyond history as we know it.  So what we have is an apocalyptic text revealing an end to the world as it stands.  A translation of this brief text reveals an ongoing use of the Piel and Pual forms of verbs. These forms are intensifiers.  So a word which could be translated "swallow" could more aptly be translated "devour". And a word which is translated "waiting" could more accurately be translated "looked eagerly."  These verbs reveal the intensity of this passage.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster uses the language of this text well in offering his analysis.  He works off of the "swallowing" of death by the death of Christ.  He follows that with more swallowing as he witnesses to the great feast "of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines" which is to come.  Bon Appetit!  See crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, October 22, 2018

New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the Old Testament text appointed for Reformation Sunday every year.  It is a gospel text if there ever was one!  God is announcing all sorts of wonderful things on our behalf.  Perhaps our greatest challenge as preachers will be to discover how to adequately celebrate the amazing grace that this text announces.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but work well when combined with other sets of questions that come from a different perspective.  In order to learn more about the genre of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The opening verse says it all:  "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel."  This promise is then fleshed out in the subsequent verses. In all cases God is the actor, putting the Torah in our hearts, forgiving sins, and remembering our sin no more.  This word  is pure Gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is hardly a suggestion of Law in this text, i.e. any word which shows us our need for Christ.  There is a reference to the former covenant, which God's people broke, but there is no accusation here.  If we are going to preach Law from this text, we shall need to use other resources to accomplish this.  One might readily turn to the Second Reading from Romans 3:19-28 where we hear that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We will want to identify with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, those with whom God is making a new covenant.  We too have broken covenant with God through our sin and long to be restored to God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A call to obedience is not present here.  We are not called here, albeit in plenty of other places in the writings of the prophet, to live faithfully in response to God's amazing grace.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in this text gives us plenty of ideas for couplets:  old covenant/new covenant; no knowledge of God/sure knowledge of God; guilty/sin remembered no more; forgiven.

6.  Exegetical work:  Scholars have named Jeremiah 30:1-31:40 The Book of Comfort or, in some cases, the The Book of Consolation.  Scholars differ as to whether someone other than Jeremiah wrote this section using Jeremiah's name, perhaps to balance the prophet's many sermons of doom.  In the 31st chapter there is much talk of a homecoming, God assembling the exiles back in their homeland:  "There is  hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country." (31:17)  Finally in 31:31 Yahweh speaks of establishing a new covenant (b'reeth).  This term refers to a "binding settlement". (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. Booterweck and Ringgren, vol. II, p. 255)  There are different kinds of covenants:  "In contradiction to the Mosaic covenants, which are of an obligatory type, the covenants with Abraham and David belong to the promissory type." (Ibid, p. 270)  Jeremiah's covenant seems to fall into the promissory type. "The covenant idea is first given greater importance in Jeremiah.  He rebukes the people who have broken the old covenant, but tells of a new covenant which Yahweh will make." (Ibid, p. 277).  Such covenants were apparently a special feature of Israelite religion, which was the only religion "to demand exclusive loyalty" akin to husband and wife.  No double or multiple loyalties were possible as in other religions. (Ibid., p. 278)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  There is no better time than when dealing with this text to follow Henry Mitchell's advice and pursue a celebration in this sermon.  Mitchell said that the preacher should be the first one to experience the ecstasy of the gospel, and then should pass that on to the listeners. 

Blessings on our proclamation!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Irony Personified

Mark 9:30-37, the gospel lesson appointed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, contains the second foretelling by Jesus of his betrayal, death and resurrection.  The account ends with these words regarding the disciples:  "But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him."  So it could be said of us.  We, like the disciples, continue to argue about who is the greatest, but have a hard time understanding the death we are called to die in Christ.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of unearthing some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method and this whole unique genre of preaching see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word is functioning in both law and gospel ways in this text.  The word of gospel is clear as we hear of the betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus.  This will happen to the Son of Man.  This must happen for the sake of the world.  The word of law is present as well, as the disciples reveal their utter inability to understand either Christ's sacrifice or their own call to sacrifice. Their ambition and selfishness is clear for all to see.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the disciples.  We are those who do not understand and are afraid to ask.  We are the ones who incessantly argue about who is the greatest, if not aloud, surely in the quiet of our own minds.  We are the ones who are silent when confronted with our secret sins.  We are the ones who need to be taught again about true greatness.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The final scene is a classic call to obedience.  In essence Jesus says, "As my followers, welcome the little ones.  When you do that you welcome me."

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking the evident split between the example of Christ and the behavior of the disciples we can imagine a number of couplets:  living for gain/dying for love; claiming to be first/embracing being last.

5.  Exegetical work:  As pointed out by the Lutheran Study Bible Luther's theology of the cross and theology of glory are on full display in this text.  To quote the Heidelberg Disputation, where we find Luther's most succinct statement regarding these theologies:  "19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. [Rom.1:20].  20.  He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.  21.  A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil.  A  theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." (Luther's Works, Vol. 31, pg. 40)  In the text before us the disciples fail to see the "visible and manifest things of God" in the cross.  They instead  call "evil good and good evil" by pursuing their futile argument about who is the greatest among them.  As Eugene Boring points out in his commentary, "The supreme irony is that their argument about hierarchical order within the group of Jesus' followers had taken place 'on the way' - Mark repeats for emphasis - the self-denying way of the cross which Jesus has chosen and to which he calls his disciples. (8:34)" (The NT Library, Mark, A Commentary, p. 280)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Peter Keyel, in the most recent analysis of this text by the Crossings Community, picks up on the silence of the disciples as a clue to their own brokenness.  He points out how we so often claim not to understand something, when the truth is we are trying to ignore it. Keyel goes on to point out a similar silence when Jesus asks about their conversation on the way. This analysis can be seen in its entirety by going to crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!