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

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

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 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 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!