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  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

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 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 study to see the whole analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!