Saturday, December 26, 2015

From his fullness we have all received

The prologue to John's gospel, the gospel text appointed for the First Sunday of Christmas in the Year of Luke, is one of the most memorable texts in all of scripture.  The opening words bring immediately to mind the words of Genesis, as we encounter a second creation story:  the Word made flesh, come amongst us.  Other births are announced as well as all things come into being, the light enlightens all people, and the people of God are born.  What a celebration of new births we have in these majestic words!

(The following questions are taken from the appendix to my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from Wipf & Stock or amazon.com.  These questions unearth some of the key questions for Law and Gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  If we begin at verse 10, where the selected text begins, we encounter immediately a word of law:  "The world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."  This word immediately exposes our willful disobedience.  We will encounter this word of law repeatedly in John's gospel for as we hear from the lips of Jesus, "The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil." (3:19)  But the Word is not done yet as we hear repeated words of gospel in this text as well:   "[God] gave power to become children of God... the Word became flesh and lived among us... from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."  Over and over, the word of Christ come amongst us, is heard.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those to whom this text is addressed.  The Word calls us to repentance because we have not known Christ or accepted him.  The Word also gives us reason for great rejoicing as the announcement of the Word made flesh reaches us and we realize that we have indeed received grace upon grace.  Because of the overflowing words of gospel that flood from this text we are those who stand in awe of God's abundance, recipients of God's mercy, called children of God.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the word which functions to say, "Follow Jesus." This is the word that comes to us after we have received the gift of the Gospel in faith.  This word instructs us in the life of discipleship.  I do not hear that word here.  The word that calls attention to the ones who believed in Christ's name is not a call to obedience but a reporting on what God has done for those who have believed.  This word is also a word of Gospel:  God gave power to become children of God to all who believed!  Good news!

4.  What Law/Gospel couplets are suggested by the text?  A number of couplets can be taken right from the text itself:  not accepting of Christ/receiving Christ; not knowing Christ/knowing Christ; children of the flesh/children of God.

5.  Exegetical work:  Translation work for this passage is not difficult.  The vocabulary is simple.  That, however, is where the simplicity ends.  Metaphors abound.  The word "logos" is, of course, key.  An enlightening exercise is to read Kittel's extensive article on logos in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  Here are some highlights for me:  "Logos, as opposed to mythos, refers to something material." (69)  In wisdom literature and the LXX, logos is "the word of creation and revelation." (80)  "In the Prologue to John...[logos] always contains the living concept of a spoken word, in this case the word spoken by God in the world." (102)  "At the head of the train of thought sketched by the term logos, there stands, not a concept, but the event which has taken place, and in which God declares himself, causing his Word to be enacted." (125)  "The new thing [in John's prologue] is that the logos is the pre-existent Christ, and that the transition from pre-existence to history is the true theme." (129)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Boy Wonder

Luke 2:41-52, the gospel text appointed for the First Sunday of Christmas in the year of Luke, is the only story of Jesus' youth we have extant in canonical scripture.  There are non-canonical sources such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that record stories of a boy wonder, but only this story from Luke has been retained in the Church's accepted Scriptures.  One wonders why Luke, the consummate author of this "orderly account", decided to include this, when others did not.  To devote 11 verses to a story revealing the activity and words of a 12-year-old is remarkable.  Clearly for Luke this is more than the story about a boy.  Perhaps Jesus' words are a clue:  "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

(The following questions are some key questions which Law/Gospel preachers must ask.  A guide to this genre of preaching is in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from Wipf & Stock, or at amazon.com)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this text, is Jesus.  His words of gentle rebuke to his parents are the words which come to us:  "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"  These words bring to light our lack of understanding as to the true identity of the Christ.  This word, then, is a word of Law which shows our need for the enlightening Spirit of God, lest we, like the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus' day, fail to see the Christ for who he is.

2.   How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no clear word of Gospel here, no clear word which says, "Here is Jesus."  Having said that, the fact that Jesus reveals himself as a son of the Father, is in itself a statement of Gospel.  It is Luke's way of pointing to Christ, and saying, "Here is the Son of God.  Here is Wisdom.  Here is the One through whom are all things."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  In this story, two sets of characters are addressed by Jesus.  The first group is the teachers, sitting around Jesus in the temple.  The second group is Mary and Joseph.  Because we have words of dialogue between Jesus and his parents, it seems more helpful to identify with Mary and Joseph, although one could take the place of the learned ones who are "amazed at his understanding and his answers."  In any case, it is always important to identify with those addressed by the Word.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in the text?  The call to obedience is hard to find in this text, although the young Jesus' example could be considered such.  Luke tells us that Jesus was obedient to his parents, and he "increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor."
The call to us, then, might be to live peaceably, submitting to those in authority over us, and trusting God for God's wisdom and favor.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Since the word of Law centers around Mary and Joseph's lack of understanding, several couplets suggest themselves: walking in confusion/walking in understanding; ignorance/enlightenment; darkness/light, foolishness/wisdom.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under the First Sunday after Christmas for 2010 Year C Gospel, Norb Kabelitz does a nice job of lifting up Mary and Joseph's lostness.  He asks the question, "Who is lost in this story - Jesus or his parents?"  Also, in the prognosis part of the analysis he asks the question of us, "Do we find Jesus, or does Jesus find us?"  This also begs the question, "Who is doing the seeking?  God or us?"  This is a very helpful way of getting how the Word functions to lift up Mary and Joseph's need for God's Son, not their own son.  This example and many others can be found at crossing.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Two women rejoicing


Luke 1:39-45, the gospel reading for the 4th Sunday in Advent in the Year of Luke, continues the extended story of John the Baptist which we have in this gospel, albeit now with another character added - Mary.  It is striking that the long opening chapter of Luke's gospel (80 verses) is almost entirely devoted to the pre-birth, birth, and introduction of John the Baptist.  It is easy to overlook the fact that of these 80 verses, nearly 60 of them have to do with John, and most of the rest of them have to do with Mary, and only a few have to do with Jesus.  This year of Luke, then, gives us a rare chance to explore this story in depth, and ponder why John's story was deemed so important by this gospel writer.

(The following questions are designed to unearth some of the key issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  For a further look at this type of preaching you are invited to purchase my guide to Law/Gospel preaching by clicking the image of the book on this page.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word here functions as pure gospel.  It is a scene of great joy.  This visitation, and the announcement that God's divine favor has been visited upon God's people is a scene of hilarious joy.  The people of God are no longer forgotten, no longer in exile (as it were), no longer sitting in anticipation of the Lord's coming, but the Word of the Lord has been fulfilled.

2. How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law here at all.  There is no word that lifts up the need of humanity for the saving action of God.  All of the indications of joy in the text hint at the oppression under which these women have been living, but nothing in the text points directly at their own need of a saving Christ.  Mary's song of praise in the verses that follow this text (46-55) point out the context of these women and their fellow citizens - "lowly", "hungry", living under "the powerful" and "the proud."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Elizabeth, the one who says, "And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?" is the one to whom the Word comes.  She is the one with whom we can most easily identify, not Mary.  We too stand agape as the Christ is sent to us to proclaim freedom, to forgive, and to bless.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word that says, "Follow Jesus" is not present here.  That word, which gives us guidance on how to live in light of the announcement that Christ has come for us, will have to come from different texts.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  We need to take our cue from Mary's song to answer this:  lowly/raised up, hungry/filled with good things, oppressed/delivered, forgotten/remembered.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is especially important in this text to read the verses that precede this account.  In earlier verses we see that John was said to be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth.  And so when Mary calls out her greeting to Elizabeth, the unborn John gives witness to the Christ's presence even before his mother does. And then, as if John had passed on the Spirit to his mother, Elizabeth cries out in a loud voice, "Blessed are you among women!"  It is telling to note that the redundancy present in the Greek text gives voice to the excitement of Elizabeth, when it says, literally, "She cried out loudly with a great shout."  The joy present was deafening!  It is also worth noting that Gabriel's appearance to Mary was only days before this visitation.  Luther surmises that the Christ was only 4 days in the womb when Mary reached Elizabeth's home!  Clearly it was not Mary's outward appearance that signaled the presence of the Christ, and even less her identity as "the mother of my Lord."  The presence of the Christ could only be signaled by the Holy Spirit.  It is perhaps worth pondering the question, "What signals for us the presence of the Christ amongst us?"

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Good news and wrath

The gospel text for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, Luke 3:7-18, begins with a torrent of terrifying words as John lays into the crowd with this challenge:  "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance."  These same words, in Matthew, are addressed only to the Pharisees and Sadducees, but here they are spoken to the whole multitude.  This is an indication of the difference between the two gospels, where (as Mark Allan Powell points out) in Matthew the leaders are consistently viewed as evil and aligned with Satan, but in Luke the leaders are viewed sympathetically.  The real puzzle in the text is its last verse:  "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."  Good news?  Where?

(The following questions are a sample from the appendix in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, which may be purchased by clicking on the image on this page.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  At first glance, the text seems to function almost completely as law.  Especially the opening volley suggests this.  But then John clues us in that his words are not about condemnation, but obedience.  He says, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance."  This is, in a nutshell, the call to obedience.  This word functions to say to the hearers, "Follow Jesus," not "You need Jesus," thus it is a call to obedience, not a word of Law.  This call to obedience is fleshed out even more when John specifically points out the fruits that different members of the crowd can bear.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is hard to discern a clear word of Gospel in this text, although clearly the Christ is presented in verses 16-17.  "One who is more powerful than I is coming... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."  The final verse, however, gives us pause, for the writer clearly views John's announcement as good news.  Is it a Gospel word that announces that Jesus will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire?  Perhaps, if that spirit and fire are a cleansing and freeing agent.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are members of the multitude. We are people in the crowd.  We are the people who are "filled with expectation" and "questioning."  We are also those to whom John preaches good news.  Our reaction to John's words is likely the same reaction as the people of John's day:  repentance, questions of what to do, and questions about who Jesus is.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  The different scenes in the text suggest different couplets:  bearing no fruit/bearing fruit worthy of repentance, living unholy lives/living holy lives of service, questioning/believing.  Because this is a call-to-obedience text, the couplets are necessarily showing the contrast between a life that bears fruit and one that does not.

5. How does the Crossing Community model work with this text?  Marcus Felde does a nice job of exploring the Law/Gospel implications for this text.  In his analysis, archived under 2013 Year C Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, he shows how the text leads from a love problem to a faith problem to a hope problem, and how Christ rescues us from that.  Check out crossings.org/text study to see the whole analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Word of God came to John

In Luke 3:1-6, the gospel text appointed for the Second Sunday of Advent in the Year of Luke, we hear these words:  "The word of God came to John son of Zechariah n the wilderness."  This portrait of the young John by the Renaissance painter, Giuseppe Vermiglio, captures for me what that must have been like.  The light of Christ shines on the young prophet and he looks upward dumbfounded. Is he astonished that the word of God has come to him, or that the word of God has come to him?

(The following questions try to get at some key issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this mode of preaching you may purchase my recent book, pictured on this page, available through amazon.com).

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a tricky question with this text because of verse 6:  "and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."  That all flesh shall see the salvation of God is certainly good news to many, but undoubtedly to some, this is not good news.  As the verses following these clearly show, these words caused alarm in many, as they said, "Teacher what should we do?"  So this word can definitely function as Law. Yet, ultimately, because all are promised that they shall see salvation, this is a Gospel word.  If we look back at John's father's glorious song of praise in Luke 1 we see that indeed this is good news, as John's words are meant to "give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  As I said above, I do not think this word functions primarily as Law, i.e.  "You need Jesus!"  It does exhort all to "prepare the way of the Lord" but I do not hear this as Law as much as invitation to be open to the Word of God coming amongst us.  Certainly there is a dying to our own ego and a letting go of control when we are open to the coming of the Word amongst us, but again, this seems somewhat different than how a word of Law functions in its hearers.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   It might be an interesting perspective to identify with John as the word of God comes to him in the wilderness.  This might be a very fruitful way for a preacher to proceed.  Having said that, it will not go well if the preacher continues to identify with John as the preacher.  We need always to identify with those to whom the Word is spoken, and so our other choice is necessarily to identify with those who hear the words, "Prepare the way of the Lord."  If we succumb to the temptation to identify with the bearer of the word in the text, we are prone as preachers to forget that we too are addressed by this word.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the word that says, "Follow Jesus."  I do not hear that word in this text. If we wish to preach that word, we will need to look elsewhere for that.  The second lesson appointed for this Sunday, Philippians 1:3-11, speaks of the "harvest of righteousness." This might be an excellent place to start.

5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets can be found in the text itself: crooked/straight, rough places/smooth.  Another way to go might be to think in terms of couplets like silence of God/word of God comes, or unprepared/prepared.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of excellent commentaries on the book of Luke which offer insights.  Fred Craddock, in his excellent commentary (Interpretation series) notes that this introduction of the word coming to John is patterned after introductions of other prophets, notably Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea.  This would seem to lift up John's fulfillment of his father's announcement that he would be called "the prophet of the Most High." (Lk.1:76).  Gregory the Great, in his ancient commentary notes that "since John the Baptist preached one who was at once both king and priest, the evangelist Luke indicated the time of his preaching by referring to both the kingship and the high priesthood."  (ACCS, III, 56)  Ambrose, another of the early church fathers, notes that Luke "says that the Word of the Lord came to John... so that the church would not begin from a man but from the word."  (ACCS, III, 56)  Finally, Luther defined John's message with these words:  "To prepare the way of the Lord means to prepare ourselves for the Lord's activity in us, so that God may help us and our life may be the life of Christ." (LW, vol 17, 9)  I like that.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Your redemption is drawing near

Luke 21:25-36, the gospel text appointed for the First Sunday in Advent in the Year of Luke certainly bears a striking resemblance to Mark 13, a text from which we have just read for the Third Sunday of End Time in the Year of Mark.  Several noteworthy differences, however, between Luke's apocalypse and Mark's, lift up the different emphases of these two writers.  Luke adds a word of hope in verse 28:  "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  Also, Luke's ending is very specific: "Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

(The following series of questions is a sample found in the appendix to my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.com.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The words of Jesus in this text function in all the ways that the Word can function:  law, gospel, and a call to obedience.  We hear the word of Law (You need Jesus!) in the opening verses as Jesus describes how "People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world."  Countering that, we hear a clear word of Gospel (Here is Jesus!) as Jesus describes the fig tree and how its green leaves signal the coming of summer.  Finally, we have also a call to obedience (Follow Jesus!) as Jesus warns his followers to "be on guard" so that "that day does not catch you unexpectedly."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question because we are all both sinners and saints.  We are both those who have reason to "faint from fear" at the coming of the Son of man, and those who can rejoice because our "redemption is drawing near."  It is important to note that disciples of Christ are not here exempted from suffering.  There is no talk of a rapture when God's people are carried off unscathed while the world groans in agony.  For this reason, because followers of Jesus suffer along with the nations, it will be important for the preacher to recognize both the listeners' need for redemption as well as the promise of redemption.

3.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Because of the presence of both Law and Gospel in this text, several examples readily come to mind:  cowering in fear/raising our heads; winter/summer; heaven and earth passing away/a new heaven and earth formed.

4.  How does the Crossing Community model work with this text?  Archived under 2013 Year C Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, you will find an excellent example of the crossing model working with this text.  Timothy Hoyer lays out clearly the external, internal, and eternal problems and solutions lifted up by this text.    I particularly like his emphasis on God's action by which "the powers of the heavens will be shaken."  He presents this as the eternal problem, and then, just as effectively, shows us how the redemption we have in Christ provides the eternal solution.  All this can be found at crossings.org/text study.

5.  Exegetical Work:  Fred Craddock's insightful commentary on Luke (Interpretation series) provides some wonderful counsel summarizing this text:  "Whether we go or he comes, personal theological preferences do not alter eschatology, and contemplation of that fact should have some sanctifying influence.  Such thinking should keep our souls athletically trim, free of the weight  of the excessive and useless.  Such thinking should aid us in keeping gains and losses in proper perspective.  Such thinking should chase away the demons of dulling dissipation and cheer us with the news not only that today is a gift of God but also that tomorrow we stand in the presence of the Son of man."

Blessings on your proclamation!


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Beginning of the Birth Pangs

Mark 13 is widely viewed as a description of the destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.  The first 8 verses of this chapter, which constitute the gospel reading appointed for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost - also called the Third Sunday of End Time, Saints Triumphant - end with a surprising and hopeful twist.  Could it be the promise of resurrection?

(The following questions help get at several core issues for Law/Gospel preachers who understand their task to "do" what the text "does" in their preaching.  For more information on this method, see my book Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  When we see the word "beware" or we note that the entire text is an exhortation to remain vigilant, we know we are encountering a word of Law, the word that says, in short, "You need Jesus!"  In this case, after the disciples indicate how impressed they are with the Great Temple, Jesus brings them up short by predicting its destruction.  As later verses in this chapter make clear, soon there will be a time when endurance will be sorely needed.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Gospel (Here is Jesus!) is absent here.  Indeed, Jesus talks about many who will say "I am he" and will lead people astray, because they are not the Christ.  The only hint of hope is at the end of this introductory paragraph to the Little Apocalypse, where Jesus speaks of "birth pangs."  This hints at God's ability to bring life from death, hope from despair, a new community from the rubble.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the ones whom are being addressed by the Word, and in this case those are the disciples.  We too are so often impressed by "large stones and large buildings" when all this is passing away.  We too are likely to be led astray by false messiahs, and found frozen in fear at the prospect of suffering.  We too need the hope of God's ability to bring life from death.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in the text?  The call to obedience, which is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus," is not present in this opening paragraph.  It comes soon enough as the next section talks about the need for endurance.  In this text the call is to repentance and faith, which precede any call to obedience.  Once the call to faith has been answered, then the call to the acts of obedience such as testimony, charity, and endurance can be heeded.

5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Returning to the function of the text, which is to warn us of the time to come, several couplets come to mind:  faulty vision/full vision, trust in temples/trust in God, suffering/new birth.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  If you go to crossings.org/ text study you will find archived there many fine examples of the work of the Crossings Community. In the case of this text, a very clear example can be found under 2012 Year B Gospel for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost.  Here Mark Marius starts out in the diagnostic phase, by revealing the "building blocks" and "shaky structures" we build, which then, "God throws down."  In the prognosis, he nicely reveals Christ as the stone which the builders rejected, which is our hope, and then goes on to show how the sacraments can be a "sign" for us as we continue on, and we "rise, build and birth."  This is an excellent example of the clarity this model can bring to a text.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic.  Eugene Lowry often insisted that what every sermon needs is a plot line that introduces tension, leading to release.  This text is filled with tension, and revealing Christ as "the stone the builders rejected" might be an excellent way to target the release.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Priceless or Worthless

The story of the widow's mite from Mark 12:38-44 has long been a vehicle for stewardship sermons.  It hasn't worked very well probably because the story can be viewed, on one hand, as an excuse for people who give little and say, "See, in this story the amount doesn't matter," and on the other hand by others (mostly those of us who depend upon the offering plate for our wages!) who say, "See, she gave everything she had!"  Perhaps a closer look at this story will reveal that this story is about larger things like hypocrisy and faith, pretense and love, and the distinction between priceless and worthless.

(The following questions are important to Law and Gospel preachers as we attempt to "do" in our preaching what the text "does" in our hearing.  A complete explanation of this method can be found in my book Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The primary function of this text is hinted at in Jesus' first word: "Beware."  Later he talks about the "greater condemnation."  This is clearly the Law at work.  The text is lifting up our human tendency toward showy piety, our view of the world in which market value is assumed to be God's value, and our failure to recognize faith when we see it.  This word shows us clearly our bondage to sin and our need for God's grace.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Gospel is hard to find in this story, although I think there is a hint of it in Jesus' commendation of the woman's actions.  When he says that the widow "out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on," Jesus is pointing out the amazing freedom of this woman.  He is pointing out her confidence in God's provision. He is lifting her up as an example of one who is filled with faith, so although Christ's work is not shown in this story, it can perhaps be assumed.

3. With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question.  Our first choice is always those who are being addressed by the Word, whom in this case, are the hypocritical scribes.  Another choice, however, could be the disciples who are being instructed.  They, undoubtedly, would have assumed that the greater offerings were being given by the wealthy.  But finally, how about identifying with the woman?  Is it possible to identify with the person Jesus is commending?  This is always tricky, but it might be a vehicle for lifting up an anonymous individual of modest means who is an example of freedom in giving.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In a sense, this entire text is a call to obedience.  The call to obedience in the text is always the Word functioning to say, "Follow me." It is the call to discipleship which follows our experience of grace.  The call to live in the freedom of the Gospel is really what this text is about.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets readily come to mind:  hypocrisy/repentance, bondage to fear/freedom to give, worthless gifts/priceless gifts.  The final couplet could lead quite nicely into the Gospel word about Christ's priceless gift of his very life.

6.  Exegetical work?  A word study of the Greek terms in this brief story unearths a few nuggets that can become sermons in themselves:  The widow is described as one of the "ptoxos" - a destitute person, most likely subsisting by begging.  This word seems purposely chosen to contrast with the "plousioi" - the wealthy, who put large sums into the offering boxes.  Another term which is rich in meaning comes at the end of the passage where Jesus says she puts in "all she had to live on." The term is well known to us:  "bios." It means one's whole life.  This woman has put her "whole life" into the offering plate.

Another source of rich commentary that doesn't pertain only to this story, but to any that have to do with liberality is Ernst Kasemann's book Jesus Means Freedom.  In this book the author points out that "for [Jesus], the attitude that man has to express is primarily that of need, which is not surpassed even by worship." (p. 32). Kasemann also reminds us how "Luther spoke of  the man outside grace as the homo in se incurvatus, the man inescapably imprisoned and entangled in himself." (p. 39)  This work is a rich source of thought on freedom for any text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Lazarus model

All Saints Day is a unique festival in the Church's life.  It is the singular time each year that we name the dead.  We actually name, remember, and claim a place under God's reign for those who have died.  Who else does that?  Sure, it is common to hear people, who may not be active in any particular faith community to say of the dead, "They've gone to a better place," but we can do better than that.  We can and do claim that Jesus' victory over the grave is complete and those who have died live.  In the gospel text appointed for All Saints Day, John 11:32-44, we hear Jesus cry out, "Lazurus, come out!"  Jesus bids us come out of our tombs as well.

(The following questions will be of interest to Law and Gospel preachers.  For a brief, yet complete guide to law/gospel preaching you may purchase my book, Afficting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, by clicking the image on this page.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions quite clearly to set up both our need for Christ (law), and Christ's power to fulfill our need (gospel).  In verses 32-38, all the action is around the power of death:  Mary weeps, the Jews weep, even Jesus weeps, and we are told, "is greatly disturbed" by Lazurus' death.  This scene reminds us that death has a fierce grip on us, and apart from Christ our death will be our annihilation.  But then in verse 39 the action changes.  Even though Jesus is yet disturbed he says those around him, "Take away the stone."  Martha protests, but he challenges her to remember his power.  Shortly thereafter he calls forth Lazurus.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  If we can agree that the text is functiong as law when it makes clear our need for Christ, and the text is functioning as gospel when Christ is presented to us, then we have here an example of both Law and Gospel being present.  In the first half of the scene we are shown the power of death, and in the second half, Christ's power over death. This, then, is an unusual text in that both Law and Gospel are present.

3. With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have several options here.  We could identify with Lazurus, the dead man, or with the sisters who grieve their brother's death.  If we choose to identify with Lazurus, then our task as preachers will be to bring our listeners into the place of the dead man, and have them experience resurrection.  If we choose to identify with the grieving sisters, then our task will be to show the miracle of resurrection to the disbelieving loved ones of the deceased.  Either way, this will be challenging.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  I don't see a call to obedience in this text.  The call to obedience is the part of the text that exhorts us in how to follow Christ once we have received resurrection.  This portion of the sermon will have to find its inspiration in other texts.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets often come from the characters with whom we are identifying in the text.  This passage is no different.  If we identify with Lazurus, our couplets will likely be pairs like dead/alive, defeated/victorious, bound/free.  If we identify with the sisters, our couplets will be more like grieving/praising, doubting/believing, separated/united.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under 2012 Year B Gospel, All Saints Day, is Steve Albertin's fine work on this text.  He follows the drama of the text perfectly as his first move (D1) is entitled "Disappointed."  Then he takes up the question of doubt in the second move (D2):  "Disbelief."  In D3 we are are confronted with the result of our despair:  "Doomed."  The fulcrum of the story, vs. 39, is highlighted perfectly in Albertin's P4: "Defiant".  Jesus refuses to let the dead remain dead!  The result of this in P5 is "Believing," and finally in P6 we are urged to go out witnessing and "Unbinding."  This is a fine example of how this model can lift up the major moves in a text.  Go to crossings.org/textstudy to learn more.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic.  Henry Mitchell often exhorted his students to be "the first ones to experience ecstasy."  What better story than this to experience ecstasy? This story demands celebration as it unfolds. Go for it!

Blessings on your proclamation!




Saturday, October 17, 2015

Insulted by Christ?

Someone once quoted the words of Jesus in John 8:32 but added a line something like this: "the truth will make you free, but before it does it will make you wince."  We see this in the snippet from a controversary narrative between Jesus and some of his followers in the gospel text appointed for Reformation Sunday:  John 8:31-36.  Indeed if we look at much of what follows in John 8 we see that Jesus' audience is getting taken to the woodshed in no uncertain terms and they are not the least bit happy about it.  How about you, are you insulted by Christ's words?

(The following questions are a sample of the outline I use in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, which can be purchased by clicking on the image on this page.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus himself is the voice of the Word in this text and there is little doubt that the Word is functioning to insult the listeners.  When Jesus says, "the truth will make you free," his listeners reply, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.  What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free?'"  Clearly they are insulted.  And as the chapter goes on their umbrage turns to murderous fury.  This is a tricky text, because the main task of a Law and Gospel preacher is to "do" what the text "does" in preaching, so this means that, at some level, in our preaching will need to be willing to insult our listeners.  Needless to say this takes some skill.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Once we see clearly how the Word is functioning we can more easily discern how the Word is not functioning in the text.  Often a text functions either to accuse (law) or to bring faith and hope (gospel), but not usually both.  In this text, however, we have an example of the Word doing both things as Jesus announces that "everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin" (law), but also "if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (gospel).

3,  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those who are being addressed by the Word.  In this text it is tempting to want to identify with Jesus, thinking perhaps that we would never find Jesus' words to us insulting.  We should know better!  We are just as likely as Jesus' listeners to chafe at the notion that we are not free.

4. What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow me."  It is the call to discipleship.  In this text there does not seem to be any word that calls us to follow the Master in a certain way.  It will be our task to find other texts which support this important word.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  This passage is clear in that the couplet is explictly provided for us:  bondage/freedom.  We might think of other parallels:  guilty/forgiven, condemned/saved, lost/found.

6.  Exegetical work:  Translation work is often a source of insight into a text and this one is no exception.  We have in verse 31 a conditional phrase:  "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples."  From Greek study we know that there are three types of conditional phrases:  condition of fact, condition of contrary-to-fact, and condition of uncertainty.  The English translation does not always give us a clear idea of what we are dealing with, but the Greek does.  In this passage we have a condition of uncertainty.  This means that Jesus is saying, "If you continue in my word (and you might be or might not be), you are truly my disciples."  Or we might translate the condition another way: "Whenever you continue in my word you are truly my disciples."  Commentaries on this text are abundant. One of my favorites is the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures where we read Augustine's words:  "Our freedom comes when we subject ourselves to the truth."  And "In whatever measure we serve God, we are free.  In whatever measure we serve the law of sin, we are still in bondage."

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Servants of God

Mark 10:35-45, the gospel text appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, gives us one last look at the disciples prior to the triumphant entry into Jerusalem in Chapter 11.  Have they come to understand the nature of Jesus' reign, the call to take up the cross, or Jesus' concern for "the little ones"?  Sadly, they have not.  Undoubtedly, we as disciples of Jesus often find ourselves following their lamentable example.

(The following questions are taken from the method outlined in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  It is available through amazon or wipf and stock publishers.)

1.   How does the Word function in the text?  The Word is embodied in Jesus again, as in most gospel texts.  Jesus' first words to the disciples today are words of law in that they show clearly the disciples' need of repentance.  "You do not know what you are asking," says Jesus.  He might as well have said, "You are lost in your own futile pursuit of greateness."  Later in the passage he details what he means, saying, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant."  A word of gospel appears right at the end of the passage as Jesus says, "The Son of Man came... to give his life a ransom for many."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There is no doubt that we must identify with the disciples here.  We too, often are caught up in the hope that Jesus is simply the genie in the lamp, or our personal Santa Claus, and our only function is to demand, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."  Seeing the disciples behave this way in the text we are aghast, but this text gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves, "When have I behaved this way?"

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience - the word that says, "Follow me" - is clearly in this text and indeed, it forms the crux of this passage.  Jesus calls his followers to refrain from following the world's example of "lording it over" others, and instead asks us who would be great to be servants, and us who would be first to be slaves of all.  This call is not the call to faith, but the call to obedience.  We are first called to trust this One who has given his life as a ransom for many, and then, trusting that One we are freed to be servants of all.

4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Perhaps the state of the disciples can stir our imagination here:  false glory/real greatness; being lords/being servants; demanding power/ransomed to life.

5.  Exegetical work:  This text follows immediately after the third passion prediction, where Jesus says once again that he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, suffer and die, and after three days rise.  Amazingly, the request of James and John to have a place at the right hand and at the left in glory, follows this.  But if we look at the second prediction, lo and behold, we find the same pattern.  In Mark 9:30-32 Jesus predicts his death and immediately after that the disciples argue about who is the greatest.  What about the first passion prediction?  You guessed it!  In Mark 8:31-32 Jesus first predicts his passion and immediately following we have Peter's rebuke which Jesus terms, "setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  The gospel writer, Mark, seems to be setting up a pattern here:  whenever Jesus speaks about his suffering and death, the disciples follow it by ignoring his words and demanding greatness on the world's terms.  Is this a hint at how difficult Jesus' words are for us all?  No doubt.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

To fear, love, and trust God above all things

The story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-31, the gospel text appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, is paired with verses from Amos 5, which also reprove those of means.  For many of us who will preach these texts, and many others who will hear them, we long for a loophole - some way to convince ourselves that our wealth and our possessions are not a problem in our relationship with God.  Martin Luther would remind us of the meaning of the First Commandment:  We are to fear, love and trust God above all things.  How do we do in that regard?

(The questions below get at some of the concerns for Law/Gospel preachers.  For a detailed guide to Law/Gospel preaching, check out my book available from Amazon).

1.  How does the Word function in the text?   This is a rare text in that here we have Jesus, the Word, functioning in all three ways that the Word can function - a word of Law (You need Jesus!), a word of Gospel (Here is Jesus!), a call to obedience (Follow Jesus!).  The word of the Law comes most clearly when Jesus is speaking to the disciples, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" The word of the Gospel comes in this conversation as well: "For mortals it is impossible [to be saved], but not for God; for God all things are possible."  The call to obedience actually comes right at the beginning as Jesus addresses the young man:  "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is very important to identify with all who struggle with Jesus' words here.  If there was ever an opportunity for a preacher to come clean with his or her own struggles regarding money this is it.  We are all astounded by Jesus' words, just as the disciples were.

3.  What, if any call to obedience is there in the text?  As I said earlier the call to follow Jesus is explicit in Jesus' words to the rich, young man.  Because the young man asks a question regarding inheriting eternal life we might be tempted to think that Jesus' reply to him is the call to faith, not the call to obedience.  I think not.  For one thing his question is one about worthiness to be an heir.  He knows that eternal life is inherited, not earned, so he wants to make sure he's worthy of the inheritance.  Mark's comment, that "Jesus, looking at him, loved him," lets us know that this man is already beloved in God's eyes.  Jesus' command to him is the one that comes to us all in the wake of God's love.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several occur to me:  sorrowful/joyful, possessed by possessions/possessed by Christ, lost/saved, bound/free.

5.  Exegetical work?  M. Eugene Boring in his excellent commentary on the Gospel of Mark (The New Testament Library) notes how much evidence there is that readers have tried to water down Jesus' words in this text.  Note Boring's list:  1)  Scribal efforts to change the word 'camel' to 'rope', and other changes; 2) 'Needle's eye' refers to a Jerusalem gate (there is no such gate); 3) Restricting this text to a particular historical situation where a few people were called to this; 4) Restricting this text to certain individuals, not a general requirement; 5) This text was not meant literally - "the problem is not money, but the love of it"; 6) This is a second use of the law, i.e. Jesus intensified the demand here to bring the man awareness of his impotence for salvation; 7)  There are two levels of discipleship - the ordinary and the perfect, i.e. monastic. (pp. 292-293)   All of these attempts to water down Jesus' words to the rich, young man make it abundantly clear how much we resist Jesus' claim on us.

6  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steven Albertin, under the 19th Sunday after Pentecost for 2009 Year B Gospel gives us an excellent model for looking at this text.  He begins with the exposure of our desire to always have more stuff, and ends with the announcement of God's abundance.  Nice.  I would recommend the website, crossings.org/text study for a look at how this model works.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jesus on divorce: Law or Grace?

Mark 10:2-16 is a text that has bedeviled people of faith for generations.  It seems to portray Jesus as a law giver.  Is he?  Perhaps a few observations regarding the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees can give us a hint as to what is really going on here. 1) The Pharisees approach Jesus "to test him"(vs. 2).  This reveals that the question they ask Jesus they already know the answer to, and they expect Jesus to say something contrary to the law as they know it, (i.e.  they expect Jesus to say that divorce is not lawful when they believe it is); 2)  Jesus' question, "What did Moses command you?" is not the question they answered:  "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce."  (see Deut. 24:1) Jesus asked what was commanded; the Pharisees told Jesus, in effect, what they could get away with - a big difference; 3)  "Being joined" to a wife (vs. 7) means "to be faithfully devoted" to a wife, certainly a status implying care of wife as neighbor, (in faithfulness to the Great Commandment) not simply a legal arrangement.

(The following questions get at some of the issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For a complete look at my thinking in this regard, purchase my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.com.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, is certainly functioning, at first glance, as lawgiver.  He is telling us what we may and may not do.  He is calling us to repentance for our "hardness of heart."  He is calling into question any practice that allows a person in authority to simply dismiss or discard another because they find them "objectionable." (Deut. 24:1)  But this same word, as overheard by the wives of the Pharisees, would have been pure gospel, for it would have revealed to them, "You are beloved of God.  You may not be cast aside.  You are as treasured in God's eyes as your husbands are."  So the audience will determine the function of the Word here.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, it is the audience who will determine the function here.  If the audience is the Pharisees and those who identify with them, then there is no word of Gospel here, but only the call to repentance.  If the audience is understood to be the women who overheard this, then this is not a call to repentance but a word of pure Gospel.  There is no word of Law here for the vulnerable women who heard this exchange, only good news.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This text is unusual in that we could choose to identify with those who overhear the dialogue, or those involved in it.  As usual, we do well to steer clear of identifying with Jesus, so our choices are simply 1) the men (Pharisees and disciples), or 2) the women, who also could be identified as "the little ones" with whom Jesus interacts after this exchange.  It is telling that the disciples are consistent:  they understand neither Jesus' concern for vulnerable women, nor his concern for children.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The command to care for the "little ones" - any who are vulnerable - is clear here.

5.  Exegetical Work:  Several brief articles from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible are helpful in understanding this text.  First, the article on divorce (IDB, I, 859) reveals that "something objectionable" (NRSV) in Deut. 24:1 was very loosely defined.  Indeed there were two schools of thought as to what this meant:  "The Hillel school viewed this as a general term, and the Shammai school took it to mean adultery only."  A woman's inability to bear children was a common reason for divorce.  The article on marriage is also instructive (IDB, III, 278f).  Note the following:  "The husband has the power over his wife...She has rights and freedoms only within the context of this authority...  The husband may even revoke a vow that his wife made to God, if he sees fit. (Num 30:10-13)..." Finally, the article on woman is also revealing:  "The father received a bride price for his daughter and thus engaged in a contract with the prospective husband to make her sexuality available to him.  This transaction, however, was not a transfer of chattel property.  Rather it was the surrender of authority over a woman by one man to another." (IDB, IV, 864f)   All of this reveals why Jesus viewed wives as "the little ones" (i.e. vulnerable ones needing protection).  In his law-giving, Jesus was championing the cause of women who would be living in abject poverty, without support, if dismissed by their powerful husbands.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stumbling towards Jesus

In Mark 9:38-50 Jesus gives us three related prohibitions:  Do nothing to hinder
1) Your own faith; 2) The faith of others, or 3) Those who give faith to others.  Instead we are to do everything we can to move forward in faith, encourage others in their faith, and support those who move others forward in their faith (even if it is not the faith we embrace.)

(Following are questions which try to get at the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a complete understanding of my method, check out my new book available on this website.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  It is clear that Jesus, the Word, is bringing a word of Law here.  He is showing his listeners that the stumbling blocks they create in the lives of others or allow to exist in their own lives are capable of leading them into lostness.  This is serious business.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Gospel here, no word which presents Christ or his mercy.  There is a hint of God's generosity in mention of the reward for those who give a cup of water to the little ones, but otherwise the Gospel word is absent.  The preacher might do well to remind listeners that God's grace comes to all, for all stumble.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text? We have a number of choices:  Perhaps we are one of the little ones who has stumbled in faith, because of something another person has done or said.  If so, we are called to faith, knowing Christ does not wish us to be lost. Or maybe we are one who has caused the stumbling of others, and we are called to repentance.  Or perhaps we are one who is struggling with a hand, foot, or eye that needs to be cut off, so that we might enter life. Or we may even be a person who is struggling to believe that another kind of believer is being used by God to bring faith to others.  Many choices today.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience - the call to live in response to God's mercy - is explicit in the call to give a cup of water to drink to those who bear the name of Christ.  Because God has ministered to us, so we must minister to others.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  All of the choices of persons mentioned in the text give us couplets to consider:  stumbling in faith/finding faith; hindering faith/encouraging faith; lost/found.

6.  Exegetical work:  On occasion Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is very helpful in unpacking the meaning of a text because of its attention to certain terms in the NT.  This week is a prime example.  In his extended discussion of the word "skandalizo" Kittel shows why Jesus is so vehement in his prohibition of stumbling blocks.  "In the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, what is at issue in 'skandalizo' is their relation to God... The 'skandalizo' is an obstacle in coming to faith and a cause of going astray in it... It is a cause of both transgression and distraction." (TDNT, VII, 344)  "[Jesus] realizes that a 'skandalon', a cause of unbelief, attaches to His words and deeds, and that this cannot be avoided...  The primary meaning is 'deep religious offence' at the preaching of Jesus, and this both causes and includes denial and rejection of Jesus... "Skandalizo means to cause loss of faith, to rob of eternal salvation." (p. 350-351)

7.  Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?   Lowry's injunction to move our listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium is appropos here since we are called from being causes of stumbling to recognizing our own need of grace to giving the little ones a cup of water.  The whole story is here: law leading to repentance, gospel leading to faith, mercy leading to obedience.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Loving Tempters

Peter's rebuke of Jesus, and Jesus' subsequent rebuke of Peter in Mark 8:27-38, the Gospel appointed for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, is certainly one of the most well-known scenes in the New Testament.  After all, what more memorable encounter is there than one in which Jesus calls one of his closest disciples "Satan"?  What is often overlooked, yet likely true, is that what Peter did, he did out of concern for Jesus.  He did not even imagine that the only begotten Son of God would have to endure the Cross.  We continue to struggle with this today.

(The following sample questions were developed as a way of trying to get at some of the central questions Law and Gospel preachers must consider.  For a more complete look at this method, check out my book, available on this website.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, Jesus, is questioning, rebuking, and exhorting.  All of these are different functions.  The summary rebuke is a strong word of Law: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things."  This shows clearly the sinner's need of repentance.  This Word, as Luther would say, "breaks the rock in pieces."  It exposes are unwillingness to go the way of the Cross, and our desire to have a discipleship that involves little sacrifice and little denial, yet a full measure of Christ's glory.

2. How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no gospel word here.  There is no word of comfort, forgiveness, or promise.  This word is all rebuke and exhortation.  As the preacher works with this text, a clear word of gospel will need to be given, but it will come from outside this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Clearly our place is with Peter, the crowd, and the disciples.  We are those who do not want to believe that the way of the Cross is the way of life.  We continually reject this way, and try to figure out ways to make the way of Glory the way to life.  We are those who want to save our lives now and in the age to come.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The denial of self, taking up of our cross, and following, are all response to God's work.  They are not prerequisite to God's work, but a faithful response to God's work.  We only dare take up our cross once faith in God's power and love has been firmly planted in our heart.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplets are suggested by this text?  The text itself provides us with a number of couplets that work well:  setting one's mind on human things/setting one's mind on divine things; losing life/saving life; refusing the cross/ taking up the cross.

6.  Exegetical work:  If we compare the Synoptic accounts of this scene we note that only Mark includes the comment in vs. 32, "He said all this quite openly."  Of course, this is in stark contrast to Mark's comment following Peter's Messianic confession:  "And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him."  Mark wants to make it clear that, while Jesus was not keen on people hearing about his Messiahship, he was very interested in them understanding that "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."  Eugene Boring, in his commentary (The NT Library series), suggests that Isaiah 55:8-9 may be in the background here:  "God's 'thoughts,' God's 'way of thinking' is different from human thinking." (242)  Lamar Williamson, in his commentary (Interpretation) suggests that this scene is the "theological fulcrum" of Mark's gospel:  "The question of Jesus' identity is here answered by Peter's confession that he is the Christ (v.29), and immediately the theological focus shifts to what it means for Jesus to be Christ (v. 31) and for his followers to be Christians (v. 34), themes which will dominate the remainder of the Gospel." (150)  It is also interesting to note what Kittel brings up in his discussion of the word 'rebuke'.  He notes that according to Midrash on Gen 22:7 Satan rebukes Abraham and argues that he should spare Isaac, his only Son. (TDNT, II, 625)  Interesting.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessmann, in her work on this text, archived under Gospel B 2012 for Pentecost 16, presents an interesting model.  She highlights Peter's mistaken notion of Jesus' role in the world, as a bringer of peace and justice, and notes how this also leads us away from God's peace and justice. She suggests that we could also substitute "a bringer of morality" as a mistaken notion of Jesus' role and be led astray as well.  All this can be found at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Gospel Irrespressible

Mark 7:24-37, the gospel text appointed for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, is a unique text.  In this text there are all sorts of hints that Jesus wants to hide his presence and his miracles, and furthermore, that he is healing only reluctantly.  Of course, we are well acquainted with the so-called Markan secret, whereby Jesus regularly orders his followers to "tell no one" of the extraordinary events which surround him, yet here Mark shows us how irrepressible this gospel word is.  In spite of himself, Jesus agrees to heal the Syrophonecian woman's daughter and the deaf man with the impediment of speech.  Could it be that God's healing grace is so out-of-control that not even Jesus can stop it?  Hm...  Now there's something to ponder.

(The following questions are taken from my book on Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  If you find these questions helpful, I recommend you purchase the book and become fully acquainted with the method.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, is functioning to heal, albeit reluctantly.  In the case of the Greek/Syrophonecian woman (Matthew has her as a Canaanite), Jesus initially refuses her, but later agrees to exorcise the demon from her daugher, although the way Mark tells it, Jesus simply reports to the woman that the healing is accomplished; he doesn't seem to have anything at all to do with it.  Likewise, in the healing of the deaf man Jesus shows signs of exasperation.  In verse 34 we are told that Jesus "sighed"; this might be better translated "groaned".  It is almost as if Jesus was saying, "Ok, let's get this over with."  It is noteworthy that both of these healed ones are from pagan lands.  It's almost as if Jesus is being forced to kneel before the healing will of God, so he heals in spite of himself. Curious, to say the least!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law that points to our need for Jesus, except what could be gathered metaphorically, that we are all filled with "demons," and "dumb and deaf" in some regard.  We are all in need of exorcism and healing - release from our sins.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  In this text we have several options:  we could identify with those who bring others to Jesus, seeking healing for them, or we could identify with those needing healing.  In both scenes we have the infirmed who were brought to Jesus by others.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Perhaps the call to obedience ("Follow me!") is the call to bring others to Jesus.   Perhaps we should take a clue from these compassionate advocates and spend time imploring Jesus that he provide healing and release for others.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In my book (pg. 29) I outline Herman Stuempfle's classic law/gospel couplets.  Despair/hope and alienation/reconciliation are several of his favorite pairings.  They might provide fodder for thought, if we assume the place of the infirmed.

6.  Exegetical work:  Kurt Aland's seminal work, Synopsis of the Four Gospels, often opens up gates to understanding that would otherwise have remained closed to us.  If we look at these stories side-by-side with their Matthean parallel (Mt. 15:21-31) we see a number of interesting details:  1) Only Matthew and Mark report these stories; 2) Mark, alone includes the detail that "[Jesus] entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice..." (vs. 24) and after the second miracle, "Jesus ordered them to tell no one: but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it." (vs. 36).  Mark seems eager to bear witness to the irrespressible joy that the Word brings. Finally, we note in the parallel stories that Mark provides an abundance of detail in the healing of a single deaf/dumb man, while Matthew only says that great crowds brought many who were in need of healing and Jesus healed them.  Mark clearly wants us to know that this particular man was healed in this particular way.  It would be a frutiful exercise to inquire why this is.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Playing Church

Jesus' words to the Pharisees and scribes in the gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 14 from the seventh chapter of Mark are unsparing in their criticism:  "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'" There can hardly be a more condemnatory word than this aimed at worshipping folk, and we do well to heed the warning, lest we too find ourselves merely "acting" in our discipleship.

(The following questions try to get at some of the fundamental concerns of a preacher planning to preach a Law & Gospel sermon.  For a complete method on this genre, my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, may be purchased from Amazon or Wipf & Stock Co.)

1.  How does the Word function in this text?  Jesus is in full accusatory mode in this text.  His words are words of Law.  They show clearly our need of forgiveness and time for amendment of life. He even lists the sins of which he speaks:  "fornication, theft, murder, adultery, envy, slander, pride, and folly.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no Gospel word in this text - no word that clearly says, "Here is Christ, dying for you."  The preacher will need to look elsewhere for this word of grace.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is supremely important that the preacher identify with the Pharisees and scribes, not Jesus, in this text.  It may be tempting for the preacher to assume that since Jesus is scolding the leaders before him that we preachers now have license to scold those before us.  Not so!  It is our job to hear this difficult word and then, alongside our listeners, share in the humbling experience of having our hypocrisy exposed before God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the word that says, "Follow me," is not present here.  It could perhaps be argued that the call to obedience is implicitly present as Christ exhorts us to be people who not only honor him with our lips, but also have hearts that are near to him.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet  is suggested by this text?  It is easy to imagine quite a number of couplets that get at the heart of this text:  condemned/forgiven, vain worship/true worship, defiled/cleansed.

6.  Exegetical clues:  I often find that Kittel's exhaustive work, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, is a great source for insights around Greek terms.  So with today's reading.  The article discussing the term for hypocrites (hypocrinomai) (Vol. VIII) is excellent. Kittel writes, "[The scribes and Pharisees] claim to be declaring God's will, but in truth they are only trying to assert the 'traditions of humans'...[There is] a jarring contradiction between what they say and what they do, between the outward appearance and the inward lack of righteousness...  Failure to do God's will is concealed behind the pious appearance of outward conduct...  The proportions of what is commanded are also distorted - the least significant commandment of pious action being put to the forefront and the 'weightier matters of the law' being neglected."  In volume III, Kittel also writes a helpful article on the "heart" (kardia).  He says, "Thus 'kardia' comes to stand for the whole of the inner being of man in contrast to his external side, the 'prosopon' (appearance)...  Thus the heart is supremely the one centre in man to which God turns, in which religious life is rooted, which determines moral conduct."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  At crossings.org, archived by lectionary text, you can find any number of examples on this text.  Here is an approach one might use:  Diagnosis 1:  We hold fast to "things handed down" to us.  D2:  We somehow trust our "handed down" traditions more than God's commandment to love God and neighbor.  D3:  We are lost in sin because we hold on to falsehood and abandon God's commandment. Sin holds us.  Prognosis 4: Christ becomes sin for us, to release us from what holds us.  Christ holds us.  P5:  Released from the power of sin, we begin to trust God's way.  P6:  We now hold fast to Christ's commands, loving God and neighbor.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Offended at the Bread of Life

The end of the bread of life texts, John 6:56-69, is the appointed Gospel lesson for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost.  The penultimate line in the text states what John has hinted at all along - the bread of life and the "words of eternal life" are one and the same.  As God said to the Israelites, "[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, ...in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

(The following questions are meant to bring to mind some of the issues at stake for Law and Gospel preachers.  A full description of this method can be found in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available on amazon.com.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The text begins in a very hopeful way.  Jesus gives us himself, promising that "whoever eats me will live because of me," (vs. 57) and "the one who eats this bread will live for ever." (vs. 58)  These are gospel words, meant to assure us that life comes through Jesus.  The second half of the text, however, is less hopeful, as John tells us of the disciples' complaint at these words.  Jesus responds with a word of law: "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless." (vs. 63)  This phrase unmasks all our attempts at self-sufficiency, we who are decidedly fleshly.   We might want to insist that we can have life apart from Christ or his word, but Jesus will have none of it.

2.  How is the word not functioning in the text?  Once again, as we have seen for the entirety of John 6, there is no call to obedience, no word from Christ which says, "Follow me."  Indeed the only command we have in this entire chapter is repeated over and over:  Believe.  This is a call to faith, not a call to follow Jesus.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly meant to identify with the disciples.  Their offense in verse 60 is our offense: "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"  We, like the disciples, resist the notion that our life is dependent on Christ or the Word.  We want to claim that our life has come from and is sustained by ourselves.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Given Jesus' statement regarding the spirit giving life, it might be interesting to the play with flesh/spirit, death/life, or non-faith/faith.  Any of those couplets might lead us to interesting strategies for preaching this text.

5.  Exegetical insights:  The Greek text enrichs our understanding in this passage by providing us hints to the multiple meanings that John might have had in mind as he wrote.  Several examples:  In verse 60 when the disciples say, "This teaching is difficult," we see that the word for teaching is our old friend, LOGOS.  Recalling John 1 we know that Jesus is called the logos, so clearly John is saying that it is more than the mere teaching that is difficult - Jesus himself, the Word made flesh, is difficult.  Another example: In verse 61, Jesus asks, "Does this offend you?"  The word "offend" is SKANDOLIZOMAI, a well-known word, that means to cause to stumble, particularly in matters of faith.  So Jesus is asking, "Does this teaching cause you to stumble in faith? Do I cause you to stumble in faith?"  Stumbling in faith is more than a mere offense to our sensibilities.  Finally, in verse 66 we read that "many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."  The phrase translated "turned back," means literally that they returned to "the things they had left behind." This suggests that what we have here is a test of loyalty, not merely a reaction to a difficult saying. The twelve, however, stay the course, for they realize that Jesus has "the words of eternal life."

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  It would be well worth the time to look at Steven Kuhl's analysis of this text archived under 2012 Year B Gospel, 13th Sunday after Pentecost, at crossings.org/text study.  Kuhl takes up the whole business of our offense at these statements of Jesus and shows how, allowed to fester, it leads to alienation from God.

7.  Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Craddock's insight that we must help the listeners experience the text is a particular challenge for the preacher here, because it entails offending our listeners.  If Jesus' words offended his listeners, then we too, as preachers, must do the same.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Murmurings new and old


The third week of the "bread" texts is John 6:35, 41-51.  This is appointed for the 11th week after Pentecost in the year of Mark.  Jesus is now expanding on his claim to be the bread of life.  Now we are promised that this bread not only satisfies all our hunger,  but it also grants eternal life.  Finally, Jesus announces that "the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."  This text is an excellent chance to preach a Word and Sacrament sermon, since both are alluded to here.

(The following questions are from my basic method on Law and Gospel preaching.  The entire method is laid out in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions try to get at some of the foundational questions for Law and Gospel preachers.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, Jesus, both promises and rebukes in this text.  In this way, the Word is functioning as both law and gospel.  By saying to his listeners, "Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died," Jesus is reminding his listeners that "the food that perishes" (vs.27) will never sustain them.  He is reminding them of their need for Himself, the bread come down from heaven.  By announcing that "I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever," Jesus is giving them Himself.  He is proclaiming gospel.  These two functions - to point to the inadequacies of perishable 'bread', and to point to the adequacy of Christ - will be our two main tasks in the sermon.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text? The third function of the Word in a text is the call to obedience - a word that says, "Follow me."  There is no such word here.  Jesus is calling us to faith, but beyond that we have no guidance.  There are many other texts we can use that will help us with this, notably the second lesson appointed for the day - Ephesians 4:25-32 - which speaks about building up one another.  One strategy we can employ might be to announce how Christ feeds us - builds us up - and in turn, we are called to build up others.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is very important to identify with the Jews in the text - those that are offended by Jesus' word.  This text gives us a good chance to ponder how offensive Jesus' words are to us at times, and to consider how we, as preachers, might risk offending our listeners in order to bring them the bread of life.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Some of the same ones we have used earlier in this 'bread' series will do:  hungry/fed, thirsty/satisfied.  We might also think about other couplets such as complaining/ believing, manna/bread of heaven, dying/eternal life.

5.  Exegetical insights:  I find Raymond Brown's classic commentary, The Gospel According to John I-XII, very helpful with this text.  Brown points out that the word translated "complain" in verse 41 is the same word as the Septuagint uses for the murmuring of the Israelites in Exodus 14.  This is a hint that John is drawing on ancient story and memory here in speaking of murmuring, manna, and bread from heaven.  These people, who resist Jesus, are God's people. They are like the Israelites of old, pushing back against God's demands and God's provision.  Any study we do of the stories of the Israelites' murmurings and wanderings in the wilderness will likely bear much fruit in unearthing the meaning of John's artful language in this text.

 6. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bill White has written an excellent example of the model for this text archived at crossings.org/text study under 2012 Year B Gospel for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost.  I recommend taking a look at it.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hunger Free

At the end of the gospel lesson for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, John 6:24-35, Jesus says this:  "I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."  This text follows the story of the feeding of the 5,000, and begs the question, "What does it mean to be hunger-free, or thirst-free?"  We might ponder this as we reflect on the questions this text raises.

(The following questions are a small sample of reflection questions taken from my guide on Law and Gospel preaching.  They are meant to be conversation starters, not an exhaustive list.  I hope that they spur your imagination, and I welcome your comments.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is giving us the whole package today.  First, he is reminding us of our propensity to seek only the food that does not 'endure'.   To the crowd that experienced the feeding of the 5,000 he says, "You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves."  This is a word of Law, showing us how often we seek Jesus - or anyone else, for that matter - merely because they fill our needs temporarily.  There is a word of Gospel here too, however, as Jesus announces that he is the bread of life which gives life to the world, and he announces that is given to all.  Finally, a call to obedience is also present in this text implicitly, as we, who are fed by the bread of life, are invited to tell others where this bread can be found.  These are the three functions of the Word - Law, Gospel, and the call to obedience.

2.  With whom are you identifying in this text? Preachers might be tempted here to identify with Jesus, but we should once again resist this temptation.  We preachers, and our listeners as well, are undoubtedly the crowds - the ones who seek Jesus because we have eaten of the loaves, the ones who demand signs of Jesus, and the ones who resist Jesus' claim to be the One who will satisfy our hunger and thirst for good.

3.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Obviously hungry/filled or thirsty/satisfied are two couplets that come to mind immediately, but we might expand those two by thinking in terms of other sorts of hunger and thirst:  lost/found, lonely/loved, despairing/hopeful.  These couplets and others can broaden our thinking about what this One called Bread of Life gives to us.

4.  Exegetical insights:  In Greek grammar we encounter the construction called "strong future denial."  This is a common form which is often translated, "this will never, by no means happen" or something like that.  In verse 35 we have this construction twice, and it literally means:  "Whoever comes to me will by no means ever be hungry, and whoever believes in me will by no means ever be thirsty."  This is striking and brings to mind the question, "Well then, if I continue to experience hunger and thirst - which I certainly do, in many ways -  does it follow then that I have not ever come to or believed in Jesus?  And furthermore, if hunger and thirst are common to the human condition, is this hunger/thirst-free condition then just as far beyond me as being sin-free?"

An excellent source for insights into John's gospel is Craig Koester's Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  Koester points out that the crowd that lifts up the giving of manna in the wilderness as something they'd like to see again has forgotten one obvious fact:  manna only lasted for a day; then it spoiled.  Was this really the kind of miracle they wanted?  Koester's discussion (p. 99f) has a number of important insights into this text.

5. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  As usual, I would direct your attention to www.crossings.org to learn more about this model, and also read in my book a thorough discussion of how this model can lead you into a full Law and Gospel sermon.  This text is a good one for illustrating this model.  I might suggest:

Diagnosis:  1) We seek to satisfy our hunger and thirst in many unhelpful ways.
                   2)  We trust in that which only appears to satisfy us.
                   3)  We are dying of starvation spiritually.

Prognosis:  4)  God gives us the bread of life to save us from starvation.
                   5)  We trust in Christ who does satisfy our hunger and thirst.
                   6)  We point others to Christ who will satisfy their hunger and thirst.

6.  Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock would remind us that the listener must experience the text, not just understand it.  It is the task of the preacher here to help our listeners nod in recognition, as we preach about hunger and thirst.  And then it is our joyful task to give them the bread of life.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Five barley loaves

John 6:1-21 is the opening piece of the extended "bread" narrative that will be with us for the next 5 weeks.  In typically Johannine fashion, this story has multiple levels of meaning, which will be important to us as we go deeper and deeper into this story as the weeks progress.

(The following sample questions are examples from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching which can be purchased simply by clicking on the image on this page.  These questions are meant to stimulate thought into how the Word performs both the function of Law (You need Jesus) and Gospel (Here is Jesus) in each of the pericopes assigned.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?   Both Law and Gospel are evident in this text.  The Law is evident in the doubts and fears of the disciples, illustrated so clearly in their skepticism regarding the feeding of the crowd, and then again in their terror on the rough seas.  In each of these scenes, we can see clearly persons who need Jesus.  The Gospel is also evident as Jesus, in each case, comes to the aid of these needy persons - providing them with bread for the hungry, and calm to the storm.

2.  How is the Word not functioning?  The third function of the Word is what is sometimes termed "the call to obedience." This is the word which invites us to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel. There is no such word here.  We will need to look at other texts to fill this out in our sermon.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices:  The disciples or the hungry crowd.  Since the church is often identified as the disciples in John's writing, I choose to identify with the disciples.  That means I will assume their position of skepticism and fear.  If I were to choose to identify with the crowd, I would assume the position of hunger.

4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Our imagination is our only limiting factor here.  Couplets that come to mind are Doubtful/Faithful; Scared/Reassured; Hungry/Fed.

5. Exegetical insights:  I often find interesting Sakae Kubo's analysis in A Reader's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT.  Kubo has compiled the number of times each word is used in the Greek NT and assembled them by biblical verse in his book.  Through his work we can see that, even though this story of the feeding of the five thousand is present in every gospel, only in John do we have the detail "barley loaves."  This little detail gives us a hint of John's agenda.  Barley was the grain used in bread-making by the poorest of the poor.  What John seems to emphasize by using this term is that even tiny amounts (mustard seed amounts) of the poorest bread can be blessed by our Lord and used to provide abundant blessing to a hungry world.

6. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  If you go to crossings.org/text study you can see several fine examples of the crossings community's analysis of John 6:1-21.  Archived under 2009 Year B Gospel, 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Marcus Felde offers one example. Then under 2012 Year B Gospel, 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Paul Jaster offers another.  It is interesting to compare two very different takes on this text.