Saturday, June 27, 2015

The wages of sin

The account of the beheading of John the Baptist in Mark 6:14-29 has been captured many times in art, the one pictured here by Caravaggio (1573-1610) as an altar piece for St. John's Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.  This story is strikingly detailed for the book of Mark, which usually moves along very quickly, leaving out many details which other Gospel writers have found important.  Mark is clearly very intentional here, most likely identifying John with Elijah, the OT prophet who also endured the wrath of a queen, and the cowardice of her mate. (I Kings 19, 21).

(The following questions are found in the appendix to my newly-published guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  It may be purchased by clicking the image on this page and ordering either a paper or electronic copy.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The Word in this case is simply the storyteller, Mark. This pericope is unusual in that Jesus is not present, nor is Jesus speaking.  Mark is painting a picture of King Herod as a man in bondage.  We are told of Herod's regrets, fears, good intentions, and finally his failures.  Also, we gain an understanding of the extent to which wickedness can go in its attempt to snuff out truth.  This account is certainly a foreshadowing of the death of another innocent man in the custody of a cowardly Roman official. (see Mark 15:15)  The whole story shows the world's need for Christ, and hints at God's plan for salvation in the death of Christ.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  This text is not proclaiming Gospel.  There is no word here of what God has done in Christ, nor is there a word which invites us to live in response to God's mercy. This text only shows us the world's need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There are three main characters here:  Herod, John, and Herodias.  It is tempting to identify with John, the innocent victim in this story, but that would not be helpful.  Identifying with Herodias might be difficult since she is so thoroughly wicked, so Herod, a troubled and foolish man, would be our best choice.  His bondage to sin is evident.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Since the Gospel is not present, the call to obedience is absent as well.  The call to obedience is something that invites us to live in response to God's mercy.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  If one is relating to Herod, any number of couplets might be imagined:  Arrogant/Humbled, Fearful/Freed, Deeply Grieved/Totally Forgiven.

6.  Exegetical Work:  There are a number of fine commentaries on Mark, and several I have found helpful are The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina series) by Donahue and Harrington, and Mark (The NT Library series ) by Eugene Boring.  Donahue and Harrington open up the idea that Mark's intent in this detailed story was to do two things: link John with the prophet Elijah, and link John's death with Jesus' death.  We know the Jews believed that prior to the coming of the Messiah, Elijah would return, so what Mark is telling his listeners is that Elijah is here, therefore the Messiah is near.  This goes along very well with other hints in Mark's gospel where John is revealed as Elijah, (1:6) Boring also takes up this argument, saying that "in general, the Markan version [of John's death] belongs to the tradition of the rejection and persecution of true prophets who speak against the king."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  This text would be a great opportunity to do as Steven Albertin does in the archived 2012 Gospel B, Pentecost 7 analysis and identify with Herod as a bound sinner for whom Christ died.  Check it out at study.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice and his colleagues were certain that helping listeners recognize themselves in a text was key.  Here, the challenge of the preacher will be to get listeners to recognize Herod's bondage as their own.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Us? Offended?

The title in my NRSV Bible for the opening verses of Mark 6 is "The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth." Nothing could be clearer.  Mark 6:1-6a is an opportunity to ponder our own propensity to be offended by Jesus.  Mark 6:6b-13 is an opportunity to move beyond such a posture to one of service.

(The following sample of questions is from my new book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted:  A Guide to Law and Gospel Preaching.  You may click on the image on this page to purchase this book in either paper or electronic form.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Here the power of Jesus (the Word) is being limited by the unbelief of its listeners.  This is a unique text in that Mark tells us the astounding news that Jesus "could do no deed of power" in Nazareth and he was "amazed by their unbelief."  In the second half of the text, the Word functions to call the disciples to service, gives them authority over the unclean spirits, and calls them to proclaim repentance to all.  This text, then, is not Gospel, but primarily Law:  "You need Jesus!"

2. How is the Word not functioning in the text?  I don't hear a word of Gospel here, a word that says, "Here is Jesus for you!"  Perhaps one could hear a word of Gospel in that the unbelief in Nazareth does not dissuade Jesus from continuing to send his disciples out to proclaim and heal. This is certainly evidence of God's persistent will to save.  Yet, the Gospel word is not explicit here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in this text?  Since there are two scenes in this pericope, it is possible to chose either to identify with those who are offended by Jesus' teachings, or with those who are willingly sent out in Jesus' name.  We might ponder the question, what leads some to be mistrustful of Jesus, and others to be willing to follow him completely?  Are we at times both?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call of the disciples could be taken as a call to follow, of course, but a call to live in a certain way in response to God's mercy is not obvious. We might ponder the disciples' call to "take nothing for their journey except a staff"as a challenge to live life with an open hand.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  I can think of several:  Offended/In awe, Unrepentant/Convicted.  Thinking of couplets often helps me ponder my place as I stand before the Law and then my place after hearing the Gospel - a worthy exercise.

6.  Exegetical Work:  One of the great treasures for any exegete is the scholarly work of Gerhard Kittel, whose monumental work, Dictionary of the New Testament, remains one of the great sources of insight to anyone who translates a Greek text.  A prime example of this is Kittel's discussion of the Greek word, "scandalon" from verse 3 which is translated as "they took offense."  Several points Kittel makes are noteworthy:  "Unbelief becomes moral hatred...  A primary meaning [of this word] is "deep religious offence"...  "Offence at his message also becomes offence at Jesus Himself and a turning from him in unbelief." (TDNT, VII, 350-51).  This notion that offence at Jesus' message turns into offence at Jesus himself, brings to mind St. Paul's words in II Corinthians 2:15-16 where he says, "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance form death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  I really like Ronald Neustadt's analysis of this text archived under 2012 Gospel B, Pentecost 6.  Neustadt lifts up the fact that it is easy for us to be offended by the message of a messenger we don't hold in high esteem.  He goes on to point out that Jesus took the place of low esteem to save.  Check it out at study.

8. Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry always reminded us that our job as preachers was to bring our listeners through an experience of disequilibrium to equilibrium.  In this text the disequilibrium will be easy; the challenge will be to bring each listener out of this place to a place of solid ground, having heard Christ's forgiveness.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Us? Healed? Or made whole?

Mark 5:21-43 is a double healing story, involving one who seeks healing on behalf of another, one who seeks healing for herself, and one who is raised from the dead without doing anything herself. Which character in this story do you identify with?  That is an interesting question.

(The following questions follow the format set out in my newly-published guide to Law and Gospel preaching entitled, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  Purchase it by clicking on the picture of the front cover on this page.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, Jesus, is doing many things:  responding to the request to heal, seeking out the face of one who has been healed by him inadvertently, commending the one healed for her faith, and finally raising the dead.  This is Jesus at his Gospel best - bringing life and healing and salvation to all.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Law is not prominent in this text.  At one point, when Jesus hears of the death of the child he exhorts people to stop being afraid and believe, but even this is not accusatory.  Also, there is no call to obedience, (i.e. how do we respond since we have been given new life by Christ.)

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have a choice here.  If we choose to be Jairus, we are those who come to Jesus on behalf of others, seeking healing.  If we choose to be the bleeding woman, we are those who come to Jesus, desperate to be healed, having tried everything and everyone else.  If we choose the dead child, we are those raised from death, saved, brought to the fulness of life through the call of Jesus.

4.  What, if any call to obedience is there in this text?  Any invitation to live in response to Jesus' healing and saving power, will have to be found outside this text.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Dead/Alive, Broken/Whole, Ill/Restored are just a few couplets that might work well.

6.  Exegetical Work:  Translation of this text immediately bears fruit when we see that the word translated as "made well" is also the word commonly translated as "saved" in the NT.  Particularly in the story of the bleeding woman we see the juxtaposition of several terms related to healing. For example, in verse 29 we hear the woman say that she feels in her body that she has been "healed."  This is not the "made well" term (saved), but another.  When she finally admits to Jesus that he has healed her, however, we hear him say not "your faith has healed you," but "your faith has made you well"  (i.e. saved you.)  This juxtapositon of two different terms regarding healing suggests that Jesus is about much more profound wholeness than mere physical restoration.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Joseph Justus van der Sabb has an interesting analysis of this text revolving around our unbelief at the power of Jesus to heal.  It is worth visiting study under 2012 Year B Gospel to read this.

8.  Insights of pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell always exhorts us to be the first to experience the ecstasy of the Gospel.  We might seek to share the excitement of being made whole by Jesus as we build to the Gospel climax of this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Night to Remember

The story of the stilling of the storm in Mark 4:35-41 is a logical working out of Mark's continuing disclosure of Jesus' authority.  The words of the disciples at the end of the story make obvious Mark's intent:  "And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

(The following questions are from the method I developed and explain in my book Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted: A Guide to Law and Gospel Preaching.  Purchase it from or

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case Jesus, functions in two ways in this story, although paradoxically, both are a rebuke.  First he rebukes the wind.  I like Rienecker's translation of Jesus' words to the wind:  "Put a muzzle on and keep it on!"  Then he rebukes the disciples: "Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?"  In terms of Law and Gospel, Jesus' rebuke of the sea is pure Gospel - showing Jesus' authority over the chaos in our lives, and his rebuke of the disciples is pure Law, showing them clearly their need of Him.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no call to obedience in the text, no word which says "Follow Christ."  That word, we assume, comes after the disciples have gained confidence in Jesus' authority and power.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are the disciples, prone to cry out whenever we feel that Jesus is "asleep in the stern" and we are afraid that he is unconcerned about us.

4.  What, if any call to obedience is there in this text?  See above.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Only our imaginations limit us in this story.  Several I can think of are:  Afraid/At Peace; Perishing/Being Saved; In the Storm/In Awe.

6.  Exegetical Work:  I often like to look at Kurt Aland's Synopsis of the Four Gospels to see what the parallels are between one gospel's version of a story and another's.  When we look at the parallels in Matthew 8:23-27, and Luke 8:22-25, we see that the words Mark puts into the mouths of the disciples are notably different from the other synoptics.  Mark's version has the disciples saying, "Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?"  This question about "caring" is notably absent in the other versions.  It reminds me of the Israelites' common lament as they wandered in the wilderness:  "Did you bring us out into this wilderness to kill us with hunger?  (i.e. Don't you care?)  Also Mark's version gives us Jesus' words of rebuke of the sea:  "Peace!  Be still!"  Finally, only Mark has Jesus asking his disciples, "Why are you afraid?" All of these are hints of Mark's intent which is to show that the disciples genuinely doubt their Lord's care for them.  It is also worth noting that in all three gospels the word for the disciples' plight is "perishing."  (i.e.  They are being lost/ being destroyed/ not being saved).  Ironically, it is precisely the reason Jesus came - to save - that they are doubting.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  As always you can go to study and look under Year B, Pentecost 4 and find any number of models for this text.  One model I have played with is as follows:

D1:  Life is sinking into chaos.  D2:  Depending on self shown as an illusion.  D3:  We are wholly lost.  P4:  We are wholly saved in Christ.  P5:  Depending on Christ is no illusion.  P6: A great calm.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Rice's insistence that we help our listeners recognize their shared story in the text is an excellent way to go here.  Certainly all listeners will share the experience of being in "a storm" and wondering if Christ cares about us.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mysterious marvels of God's reign

Almost all of Mark 4 is devoted to parables about seeds and sowing and their relation to the reign of God.  Mark 4:26-34 gives us hope that God's reign is amongst us now, growing, living, moving towards its fruition, even if we "know not how."

(The following questions follow a format fully developed in my recent book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted; A Guide to Law and Gospel Preaching.  To understand this method in its entirety this book may be purchased directly through or through  It is available electronically on Kindle.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is teaching about the reign of God, comparing it to the barely discernible growth of even the smallest of seeds.  Both the statement that seeds "sprout and grow" though the sower "does not know how," and the statement that the "smallest of all seeds" grows into the "greatest of all shrubs" are words of Gospel.  They announce that Christ is at work amongst and in us, even when we are unaware.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word that lifts up our need for Christ may perhaps be inferred from the word about sickle and harvest.  This hints that God's reign will come in all of its fulness someday, and it's best to remember this.  Nevertheless, the word that says directly "You need Jesus!" is absent.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  In these parables we might choose to identify with the sower who does not understand how the seeds can grow, but sows faithfully nonetheless.  Or perhaps we will identify with the disciples or the crowds who are being addressed and are puzzling about the reign of God amongst them.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to follow Jesus in this text might well be the call to faithfully sow God's word, trusting the power of God's word to bear fruit in the world.  It's as if Jesus is saying, "Take heart, fruit will be borne."

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Doubt/Faith seems a natural pairing.  One of Herman Stuempfle's classic couplets, Anxiety/Certitude could also work, or one of Richard Lischer's: Old Creation/New Creation.

6.  Exegetical Work:  I often appreciate the insights of John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in their commentary on the Gospel of Mark in the Sacra Pagina Series, Vol 2.  Here's a quote:  "The contrast between the power of Jesus, which is hidden and absent on the cross, and the glory when he returns, is no less than the contrast between the smallest of all the seeds and the greatest of all the shrubs. The parables of Mark 4:1-34 are metaphors for the christology of the gospel."  It is also interesting to note that the 4th chapter of Mark is the only place in this gospel where parables of the kingdom are shared.

7. How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under 2012 Gospel B is an insightful design by Bill White.  I particularly like his diagnosis according to 3 D's:  When we fail to look at Christ's work on the Cross for signs of the reign of God amongst us we end up 1) Discouraged, 2) Disillusioned, and finally 3) Dead.  Good stuff.  Check out study to see the prognosis side of the equation.

8. Insights from the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry's remarkable way of moving listeners from equilibrium into disequilibrium and back to equilibrium could work well with this text as we explore the perceived failures we all experience as sowers of God's word.

Blessings on your proclamation!