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!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Christ the Disciple

Isaiah 50:4-9a, the First Reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is often referred to as the Third Servant Song.  This is understandable since it bears resemblance to the first two songs in 42:1-4 and 49:1-6, yet in this passage the writer does not refer to self as servant, but rather as one who is taught.  Another way to think of this term is 'disciple'.  This song, in other words, is the song of one who is being taught, one who is listening and following and learning.  I wonder how many times we have thought about Christ as one who is himself a disciple, one being taught.  I wonder how important that might be for the church, if we identified ourselves as ones who are perpetually listening, being taught, and learning.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  They are part of a method to help Law and Gospel preachers discern some of the ways the Word functions in the text.  For more on 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 Word functions as testimony and witness to God's faithfulness.  As such it is a Gospel word.  This can be seen clearly in the latter verses where the disciple declares "I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near."  This resembles very much the psalms of trust with which we are familiar.  (e.g. Psa. 27:1-6)

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of rebuke here, or any word which exposes our need for Christ.  There is allusion to the temptations we face, such as refusing to have open ears to God's leading, being rebellious, or turning back from following Christ, but a rebuke is not present.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There is only one voice in this text, and it is one with whom it is difficult to identify.  Can I be confident that I will be open to God's call, never rebellious, never allowing myself to abandon the task set before me?  I can aspire to this and hope for God's help, but I dare not presume that I shall be the one who sets"my face like flint."

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.  One way of looking at this text could be to regard it wholly as a call to obedience.  In other words, the speaker here is an example for us to follow.  We are to be those who have a call to speak a word to the weary and we must not veer from that,  no matter the hardship.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in the text is helpful in constructing couplets here:  deaf to God's leading/open to God's leading; rebellious/obedient; turning back/following faithfully.  These, of course, are not so much Law/Gospel couplets as disobedience/obedience couplets.

6.  Exegetical work:  Long before George F. Handel wrote his magnificent Messiah oratorio, the words of this text were assumed to be the words of Christ.  "I gave my back to the smiters" was assumed to be spoken by Christ by writers from Athanasius to St. Jerome to Cyril of Alexandria.  Theodoret, Bishop of Cyr, brings to mind the Passion of Christ most directly:  "This whole recital is taught by the holy Gospels.  For the servant of the high priest gave [Christ] a blow on the cheek; some struck his face, saying, 'Prophecy to us, Christ!  Who is the one who struck you?' Others spat in his face; as for Pilate, he had him scourged and delivered him to be crucified.  so, all this he predicts in the prophecy to teach of his own patience." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. XI, p. 132)  It goes without saying that in the modern era scholars have recognized more and more the identity of the servants as speaking corporately of the nation of Israel.  Yet, as the Lutheran Study Bible points out, "in the traditional four servant songs, the servant is given a particular commission or task that sometimes sounds quite individual... Certainly the servant is Israel, but it may also be true that sometimes a particular member of Israel represents the whole people."

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was well-known as a preacher who celebrated God's grace in a big way in every preaching event.  Since this text is a witness to God's faithfulness, what better way to preach it than to celebrate God's faithfulness throughout.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Good News in Abundance

There are few passages of scripture that are as full of good news as the First Lesson appointed for the 16th Sunday of Pentecost in the Year of Mark, Isaiah 35:4-7a.  Throughout this passage we hear how circumstances that were hopeless have become hopeful, how places of despair have become places of rejoicing, and how what was thought to be dead has now come alive.  Paired with the gospel reading for this Sunday, Mark 7:24-37, a reader can see where the Syrophoenician woman received her faith: she believed these promises!  It will be our  task as preachers to proclaim these promises to our hearers who need to hear this good news.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but work well when paired with other sets of questions which unearth the treasures of a text.  These questions get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, who are particularly interested in how the Word functions.  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?  There is no doubt that this is a Gospel text.  Over and over God is promising to bring life from death.  Nothing could be clearer.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is also no doubt that there is no word of Law here; there is no word which exposes our need for Christ.  We could identify our need for Christ by understanding ourselves as blind, deaf, lame, thirsty, deserted, but the Word does not function to lift this up.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who need to hear this good news.  We are "those who are of fearful heart."  We are those who have wondered if God has forgotten us in our exile.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the call to live in response to God's work on our behalf.  This call is not present here, but the call to rejoice in God's goodness comes later in this passage.

5.   What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplets within the text are our best vehicles.  They are:  fearful/fearless; enslaved/rescued; blind/seeing; deaf/hearing; lame/leaping; speechless/singing.  These couplets will serve well to help us construct a coherent Law/Gospel sermon.

6.  Exegetical work:  The Lutheran Study Bible does a nice job of setting the context of this passage, noting that these chapters are from exilic or post-exilic periods. "They are placed here to begin a transition to the second part of the book of Isaiah.  God's transformation will involve both total judgment of the wicked (Chapter 34) and final redemption for the redeemed (Chapter 35)."  David Payne, in his commentary, notes similar themes and says that "this passage links with later chapters, and its earliest, partial fulfillment will have been the return from Babylonian exile which is the major theme of chapters 40-55). (The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 795).  It is interesting to think of this passage as part of the transition from the themes of judgement in First Isaiah to the themes of redemption in Second Isaiah.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In Chris Repp's insightful analysis we see the couplets in this text brought to life in a Law/Gospel way.  In his diagnosis of our condition he identifies our blindness, deafness, etc.  In his prognosis he celebrates the rescue of the fearful, by our fearless God.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the entire analysis.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry thought it important to always move listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium.  We shall have to call on the couplets in this passage to do this well here.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Classic Call to Obedience

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 is the First Lesson appointed for Pentecost 15 in the Year of Mark.  It matches with the gospel lesson from Mark 7 where Jesus is instructing the Pharisees and elders regarding God's commandments. The context of the Deuteronomy text is that the Israelites are at long last about to enter Canaan.  The wilderness wanderings are finally ended and Moses, who will not be allowed to enter with them, preaches his final sermon to the people.  This sermon will encompass nearly 30 chapters of this book; what we have here is merely the introduction.  Even in this small sample we have the main thrust of this sermon.  All preachers would do well to take note of the clarity with which Moses speaks.

(The following questions have been developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions are meant to help unearth some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  My book is available through wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is no better example of the classic Call to Obedience than this text.  The Call to Obedience is the Word functioning to call us to live in a certain way in response to God's gracious work in our life.  This can be seen clearly here as Moses begins his words with the transitional phrase, "So then, Israel..."  This transitional phrase hearkens back to God's wonders and powers spoken of earlier.  In the NT, the Call to Obedience is usually some version of "So then, followers of the Christ, because of what God has done in Christ, I call you to..."  Here the call begins as the people recall God's faithfulness to the children of Israel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little hint of either Law or Gospel in this text.  The Law functions to show us our need for Christ.  One could argue that verse 9 hints at this when Moses  exhorts the people to "take care and watch yourselves closely," but that would be an indirect use of the Law.  A Gospel function, whereby we hear of God's saving work, is also only hinted at when, in verse 1, we hear that observing God's Law brings life to the faithful.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Moses is speaking to us.  We identify with the listeners.  We are the recipients of God's signs and wonders.  We are the ones called to discipleship.  We are those who gain life through Christ, who is the living Word, the true Torah, if you will.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since neither Law nor Gospel are obvious in this text, we need to expand on what is suggested here.  Some possible couplets:  death/life; forgetting/remembering; foolish/wise.

5.  Exegetical work:  At least one commentator has written that Deuteronomy 4 is equivalent to Romans 12 in the NT. (Cousins, The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 289).  Paul writes in Romans 12:1:  "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."  It is the "therefore" of this opening sentence that equates with the "So, now" of Deuteronomy 4.  We are called to obedience in response to what God has done prior to this call.  Another point to ponder is the place that witnessing plays in this passage.  Moses instructs the people to be diligent in obeying  God's law for the result will be that other nations will regard them as wise and discerning, and as a people who worship an extraordinary God.  In this way, our obedience brings glory to God.  What this obedience also will give witness to is the nearness of God, as other nations say, "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?" (vs. 7)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessmann does a nice job of ferreting out the possibilities for Law and Gospel in her analysis of this text.  She contrasts God's gift of the Law with God's gift of the Giver.  She weaves in the Mark 7 text, also assigned for the day, in pointing out how we often confuse gift and giver.  See her entire analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Real Food

John 6:51-58, the gospel lesson appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is a text which has seen no little debate over the centuries.  Is a sacramental interpretation appropriate?  Is the fact that the writer uses a rather coarse word, "munching," for eating the flesh of Christ significant?  Are similar words in other texts regarding eternal life which speak of belief and unbelief helpful?  These questions continue to be debated.  One thing is clear:  Jesus is real food.  Jesus nourishes us.  How will we proclaim that?   That is the preacher's question.

(The following questions have been developed in conjunction with my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted. These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but they work well with a host of other exegetical questions which seek to unearth the meaning of a text.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is almost pure promise and as so it functions primarily as Gospel.  Look at all the promises:  "whoever eats me will live forever; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;  those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them;  whoever eats me will live because of me; the one who eats this bread will live forever."  There is one word of Law as well:  "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."  We need food to live!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no call to obedience in this text.  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's work in Christ.  There is no such word here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the hearers of this Word.  We are the ones given these promises and assured that we have no life without the nourishing presence of Christ in our life.  We might even try identifying with those who dispute the meaning of Jesus' words.  Warning:  trying to enter into a dispute about meaning might lead to an unhelpful tangent.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are a number of words in this text that naturally fall into couplets:  dead/alive; not eating/eating; no life/life eternal; dying/living forever.

5.  Exegetical work:  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary, brings to mind an interesting patristic interpretation of this text:  "The Church Fathers recognized this contrast between the bread of life and the forbidden fruit in Genesis; for example, Gregory of Nyssa presented the eucharistic bread as an antidote to the forbidden fruit.  And if the bread of life in vss. 35-50 primarily represents the revelation and knowledge that Jesus brings from above, then it is not unlike the knowledge of good and evil that the first man hungered after." (The Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 279)  Gerard Sloyan offers some wisdom regarding how much we buy into a single interpretation of this text, noting that even Augustine "was found on all sides of the question [of interpretation]: urging eating as belief; assuming a sacramental eating; seeing the food and drink as symbolic members of a church predestined to glory - amongst other interpretations."  Sloyan summarizes his thoughts with this statement:  "Consequently, anyone who maintains publicly that any segment of this chapter bears but a single interpretation blunders through a misplaced certitude." (Interpretation Series, John, p.74)  Craig Koester, in the appendix to his helpful book on Johannine symbolism argues convincingly that "to eat is to believe."  (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p. 103) Particularly helpful is his point that "taking eating as a synonym for faith also makes the passage consistent with the rest of John's gospel, and the NT generally..." (Ibid., p. 304-305)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In the most recent post on this text, Bruce Modahl does a very fine analysis showing how our penchant to be "picky eaters" ends in our starvation.  See crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick always cautioned preachers to count the number of 'moves' they made in the sermon.  Our listeners can only absorb so many.  This is always sound advice.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Withered Hands, Withered Hearts

Mark 2:23-3:6, the gospel lesson appointed for the 2nd Sunday in Pentecost, is a study in the relationship between Jesus and his enemies.  We are only just into the third chapter of Mark and already the Pharisees are plotting to destroy Jesus.  How quickly their envious hearts have turned murderous.  Can it be that we too are capable of such a reaction to Christ's life and teachings?  What threat does Jesus pose to us?

(The following questions have been developed to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but only intended to highlight how the Word functions in the text.  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 wipfand stock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case Jesus, is functioning to lift up the bondage these Pharisees are in.  He is showing them their blindness regarding sabbath observance, both by using an example (David's example) and a principle (Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath?)  Showing blindness is a Law function, lifting up their need for repentance.  He is also announcing the freeing principle - the sabbath was made for humankind! - which is a Gospel function.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those whom the Word addresses; in this case, those are the Pharisees.  As uncomfortable as it may be, we are called here to ask ourselves what things we are in bondage to, that we firmly believe we must retain.  It may be cooperate sins identified by the "last seven words of the Church":  We have never done it that way.  Or it may be a personal bondage that we are being called out of.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is not a true call to obedience here. The call to obedience is the call to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel.  What we have here is a call to repentance, which is a response to the Law.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  This text suggests several couplets:  living under the law/living under the gospel; serving the sabbath/freed by the sabbath; hardhearted/full of compassion.

5.  Exegetical work:  I like Lamar Williamson's succinct summary of the theme of this text:  "Jesus challenges every form of legalism that reduces religion to the keeping of rules." (Interpretation series, Mark, p. 76)  Other commentators try to describe where this legalism comes from.  Athanasius, writing in the 4th century, had this to say: "In the synagogue of the Jews was a man who had a withered hand.  If he was withered in his hand, the ones who stood by were withered in their minds." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. II, p. 37.)  One could speculate how a person's mind becomes "withered".  Mark Allan Powell, in his thorough analysis of the enemies of Jesus in the gospels, understands Mark's Pharisees to have "only a human understanding of Scripture, and so they are frequently 'in error.'  This lack of understanding, in turn, causes them to be 'accusatory' with regard to Jesus and his disciples, unjustifiably criticizing them when no wrong has been done." (What is Narrative Criticism? p. 62)  M. Eugene Boring sees a more complex situation regarding the "hardness of heart" illustrated here:  "The modern reader should therefore not view this scene superficially as portraying some particularly obtuse, evil, or obstinate individuals who rejected Jesus' liberal attitude toward the Sabbath because they were bound by their own narrow orthodoxy - as though, if we had been there, we would have responded differently - but as exemplifying the miracle of God's initiative and election."  (The NT Library, Mark, p. 95) 

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was big on celebration in preaching. What, in this text, moves us to celebration?  We might consider the fact that the Son of Humanity is the Lord of the Sabbath, or that the Sabbath was made for humankind.  These  could lead to some substantial rejoicing.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Seeing the Complete Package

Isaiah 6:1-8, the First Lesson appointed for Trinity Sunday in the Year of Mark, is a great example of a text that invites us to see something.  We are invited to see the hem of the Lord's robe filling the temple; we are invited to see the seraphs swooping about, crying out "Holy, holy, holy"; we are invited to see the thresholds shaking and the house of God filling with smoke.  It is a very vivid scene.  This will be our task as preachers - to help our listeners see this scene as well.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only offered as a way of getting at some fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more insight into this 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?  This brief text is the whole package, if you will.  First, we hear the Law:  "I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips."  Then we hear the word of Gospel:  "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."  Finally we hear a call to obedience:  "Whom shall I send?...Here I am; send me!"  The complete package.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the prophet who sees this vision - the ones who are lost; the ones whose sins are blotted out; the ones who are called to go out and speak the gospel.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  As I said above, the call to obedience is within this text.  It is instructive to note, however, that the call only comes following the absolution.  God does not call us to obedience, without first calling us to repentance.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because this text is so complete, we can readily see the couplets that are present:  unclean/cleansed; sinner/forgiven; terrified/confident.

5.  Exegetical work:  The ancient commentators have much to say about this call of Isaiah.  Some notes of interest center around the understanding of the live coals which touch the prophet's lips and cause sin to be blotted out.  Cyril of Alexandria thought that these coals were God's word:  "By saying, 'taken from the altar with tongs,' Isaiah means that we receive faith in and knowledge of Christ from the teachings or announcements in the law and the prophets, in which the word of the holy apostles confirms the truth."  John of Damascus, on the other hand, equated the live coals with the sacrament of the altar:  "Isaiah saw a live coal, and this coal was not plain wood but wood joined with fire.  Thus also, the bread of communion is not plain bread but bread joined with the Godhead."  St. Jerome makes much of the order of events in this vision:  "As long as Isaiah's tongue was treacherous and his lips unclean, the Lord does not say to him, Whom shall I send, and who shall go? His lips are cleansed, and immediately he is appointed the Lord's spokesman; hence it is true that the person with unclean lips cannot prophesy, nor can he be sent in obedient service to God."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. X, pp. 47-55).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steven Albertin does a fine job of ferreting out the layers of Law and Gospel that exist in this text.  He notes that the external layer of the Law is right there in the opening line, when we learn that King Uzziah died.  In other words, we are mortal, kings included.  He goes on to say that our recognition of our uncleanness is the second layer of our lostness, and the cry, "Woe is me!" is the third.  The layers of the Gospel are also to be found in this text.  To see the entire analysis, go to crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!