Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fulfilling All Righteousness

Matthew 3: 13-17, the gospel lesson appointed for the Baptism of Our Lord, is a brief account, but amongst the Synoptic gospels, surprisingly it is the lengthiest account we have of Jesus's baptism  It includes a dialogue with John the Baptizer prior to the baptism, which is recorded nowhere else.  In this dialogue we hear Jesus say, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."  This is a clue to the concern of the entire book of Matthew: that "all righteousness" be fulfilled.  We will need to attend closely to this theme as we enter now this Year of Matthew.

(The following questions attempt to unearth some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers as outlined in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These are questions are not meant to be exhaustive but used in conjunction with other sets of questions that unearth other insights.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This brief text is complex in that the Triune God is present and all three Persons are active.  To answer the question of how the Word is functioning we usually seek to understand what God or Jesus or the Spirit is doing or saying.  Here God is saying, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  This is an announcement of the identity of Christ - a gospel function.  Jesus also is speaking, as well as being acted upon, and his announcement is that his baptism will "fulfill all righteousness."  This is also a gospel function.  Finally, the Spirit is active in alighting on Jesus following the baptism in the form of a dove, identifying him as the Beloved Son, again a gospel function.  In each case, the Word functions to announce the good news that Jesus is the Beloved Son of God who comes to fulfill all righteousness.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Since this this text is almost exclusively testimony regarding Jesus' identity there is no Law in this text, no word which exposes our need for Christ.  We might infer from Jesus' words regarding the fulfillment of righteousness that we too need to be concerned with this, but this text offers no word in that regard.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We know that it is always important to identify with the people whom are addressed by the Word, not with Jesus or God or the Word itself.  In this case, the Word is speaking to those who witness this baptism - and by way of the scriptures to us who now hear or read this Word.  We are the ones to whom God is speaking when the voice from heaven declares, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A text functions as a call to obedience when it invites us to live in response to God's work in Christ.  Here it would seem that the call to obedience involves following our Lord's example and seeking baptism.  Having said that, the baptism of Christ and our baptism are clearly different in that Christ was without sin and we need cleansing from sin.

5.  Exegetical work:  Kurt Aland's Synopsis of the Four Gospels is often a wonderful tool for comparing similar stories in the gospels.  This story is a great example of this.  When we compare the four accounts of Jesus' baptism we see that this opening dialogue between John and Jesus is reported only in Matthew, as is the concern about fulfilling "all righteousness."  We see also that only Matthew mentions the Jordan River as the site of the baptism.  Does this have significance pointing to Jesus' entry into a new "promised land"? Finally it is important to note that the voice from heaven, which in Mark and Luke speaks directly to Jesus:  "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased," in Matthew addresses not Jesus but the witnesses of this event:  "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."  In Mark and Luke we overhear the words from heaven, but in Matthew we are addressed directly.  This is an important difference.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry was clear that moving our listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium was important.  This text, since it centers on Jesus' identity, might be an excellent opportunity to speak of our dis-ease with that identity, and then provide a way to ease that discomfort.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Not Wishing to be Cheered Up

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, found in Matthew 2:13-23, the text appointed for the First Sunday after Christmas, is a story that theologian Phylis Tribble famously called a "text of terror".  That is an apt description.  There are few texts in the Bible to match it.  Having it assigned for the day means being put face-to-face with the violence that is not only present in the world, but is even more evident at the birth of the One who is called Prince of Peace.  This text is not for preachers who are faint of heart!

(The following questions get at some of the basic issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For a more indepth discussion of this genre of preaching, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Undoubtedly, the main function of the text is Law.  This text brings us into the world of violence - murderous kings, a flight in the night for refugees, and all the rest.  This text shows us how much we need the hope that only God can give.  That being said, even amidst all this, there is a sense of Gospel, because of the phrase, "This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet."  Even amidst the tragedy and bloodshed God is at work. This is good news!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no call to obedience in this story.  That is to say, there is no point at which we are invited to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel.  We will need to look elsewhere for that.  Paul's words in Romans 8 are a good place to start.

3. With whom are you identifying in the text?  The Word most clearly addresses Joseph in this text so he must be our first choice.  Joseph is the one who receives the word from the angel concerning the murderous plans of Herod, and also the word of Herod's death.  Joseph, therefore, is the one who receives the Word which saves his family, and also assures him that he is free to go home.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Again, Joseph is our key.  Several couplets come to mind:  in danger/safe from harm; afraid/at peace; in flight/home at last.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is interesting to compare this story with the story of Moses.  Not only does that story also involve a murderous king and a miraculous rescue, but the very words that the angel uses in Matthew are present in the Moses story:  "Those who were seeking your life are dead." (Exodus 4:19)  To understand the wickedness of Herod  it is instructive to know that Augustus reportedly said of Herod, "It is better to be Herod's hog than to be his son."  Herod apparently did not eat pork, but famously had more than one of his sons killed.  One of his most infamous crimes was his command as his own death approached. "The principal men of the entire Jewish nation should come into his presence (at his deathbed) and then be ordered killed after his own death... that it might seemingly, at least, afford an honorable mourning at his funeral!" (Unger's Bible Dictionary, p. 471f)  One note regarding translation:  In verse 18b we read: "Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they were no more." The phrase translated "refused to be consoled" might also be understood as "wished not to be cheered up."  This is a potent phrase in this time of Christmas 'cheer'. There are probably those amongst our listeners who do not wish to be cheered up, but instead need to be offered hope that goes well beyond merely 'good cheer.'

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Doxology Amidst Dogma

In the opening verse of Luke's Christmas story, recorded in Luke  2:1-20, we hear that "a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered." (NRSV)   The word translated 'decree' is actually a Greek word we know well:  dogma.  A dogma was often an imperial command; one ignored it at one's peril.  Later in the story we hear of the song of the heavenly host who sing, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." The opening word in that song is also a Greek word we know well:  doxa, from which we derive the word doxology.  So what we have in this story is doxa amidst dogma - songs of praise to God amidst all the decrees of the empire.  What a sign of hope this is!

(The following questions are part of a method I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from amazon.  These questions are a way of getting at some of the fundamental issues for law and gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a very complete story from the standpoint of Law and Gospel.  The Word functions clearly to announce the multiple ways we need Jesus - this is the Law.  For example, we need Jesus because we live in a world of decrees, of emperors, of poverty, and of many other afflictions.  In short, we live in a broken world.  The Word also functions to announce God's amazing gift of Jesus - this is, of course, pure Gospel.  Jesus comes as one of us, vulerable, poor, dependent on the good graces of others.

2. With whom are you identifying in the text?  There are multiple characters we could identify with, but the shepherds seem the most helpful.  It is always important to identify with those whom the Word addresses, and the Word addresses them directly: "To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah."  We are those living in a world of decrees, poor, alone on a hillside in the night, wondering if God even knows we exist, who are visited by an angel.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is no clear call to obedience here, but it is clear that the shepherds are examples for us.  Luke tells us that "they made known what had been told them about this child." That is our charge as well - to make known what has been told us.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Again the shepherds help us here.  They are first afraid, then hopeful.  They are at first silent, then boldly telling all what they have heard and seen.

5.  Exegetical work:  Luther, in a sermon for Christmas Eve, 1525, noted that the birth of the Christ is a fulfillment of the Magnificat:  "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."  Luther said, "Nobody notices or understands what God performs in the stable.  He permits big houses and the expensive rooms to remain empty; he permits them to eat, to drink, and to be of good cheer, but this solace and this treasure is hidden from them.  Oh, what a dark night must been over Bethlehem at that time that they did not see such a light!"(Luther's Work's, vol. 52, p. 9-10)  This reminds me again of how God brings 'doxology' in the time of 'dogma'.  When the world is enamored with pomp and circumstance, God brings life to the world through the lowliest folk.  It is as St. Paul said: "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of 'God." (I Cor. 1:27-29)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell always urged the preacher to be the first one to celebrate the gifts of God revealed in the text.  Where is our celebration going to burst forth in our sermon?  Where is our ecstasy going to be revealed?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Joseph's Christmas Story

The gospel of Luke so dominates the Christmas season that only occasionally are we afforded an opportunity to experience the birth of Christ from a perspective other than Luke's. So we are quite happy that, in this year of Matthew, on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given a chance to hear from a diffrent perspective, that of Joseph, the husband of Mary.  As we might expect, Mary is not the only one rocked by the announcement that she is pregnant without the aid of human agency.  Now it is Joseph's turn to hear those ubiquitous first words of the angel, "Do not be afraid."  Many times will we hear those words in the stories to be told in the days ahead.  They come to us now.

(The following are a series of questions I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These questions attempt to ferret out some of the basic concerns for preachers of this genre.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here to bear witness to the miraculous nature of Jesus' origin.  There is no attempt to explain: Jesus is of the Holy Spirit;  Jesus is "God with us."  In addition, we are told that "Jesus will save his people from their sins."  All of this is pure Gospel.  As the First Lesson, Isaiah 7:10-16 points out, God has heard the cries of the people, and as a result a child will be born and his name will be Emmanuel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning to expose our need for Christ we call the Law.  Is it present here?  If so, there are only hints of it.  Sins are mentioned, and our need to be saved from them, but that's about all.  In order for a robust message of the Law, we will need to mine other passages.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There is really only one answer to this:  Joseph.  Joseph is the one addressed by the Word:  "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife."  We also are those whom God calls to special work, albeit not to be the earthly father of the Christ, and we too are often afraid of that call.  This passage encourages us to trust the call of God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Much of this text is a call to obedience as Joseph is called to stop being afraid, and commanded to take Mary as his wife.  Because God is faithful, because God is powerful, because God is forgiving, we can heed this call to obedience and do the work we are called to do.  Obedience is always a response to the Gospel.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We might imagine the conflicting thoughts in the mind of Joseph and come up with several couplets;  afraid/bold; conflicted/at peace; confused/enlightened.

5.  Exegetical work:  As Matthew begins this birth narrative, he tells us that Mary "was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit."  It is clear that the reader knows this before Joseph does, because in the very next verse we are told that he is planning to divorce Mary, assumedly because he has learned that she is pregnant and he knows the child is not his.  Why does Matthew make it a priority to tell us right away that the child is of the Holy Spirit?  It could be simply that he does not want even a moment of shame to be loaded onto Mary.  Possibly, however, it is because of what has already been hinted of in the geneology preceding this passage.  In the first fifteen verses of Matthew 1 we have the "begats"(i.e. "the father of ...).  When we get to verse 16, if the pattern were to remain in force we would expect the following:  "And Jacob the father of Joseph, and Joseph the father of Jesus."  Instead we read:  "And Jacob the father of Joseph, and Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah."  Through all of these generations, only here is the father of the one born left in question. And so, in the birth narrative written by Matthew, the first order of business is to clear up the mystery regarding who 'begat' Jesus.  It turns out the father is the Holy Spirit.  In three different ways we told this is so: 1) Through the words of the angel; 2) Through the words of the prophet; and 3) Through the narration which assures us that Joseph had "no marital relations with [Mary] until she had borne a son."  All of this functions to bear testimony to the divine nature of Jesus - no small thing.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice placed much emphasis on the need to help listeners recognize their shared story in a text. This is particularly challenging in a text like this, since Joseph's experience is singular.  We will need to work hard as preachers to help our listeners recognize their shared story in this story.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The One Who is to Come

Authenticity is a buzzword these days.  Everyone, everywhere is encouraged to be authentic.  Churches are applauded which appear authentic - true to themselves.  Matthew 11:2-11, the gospel lesson appointed for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, is a study in authenticity.  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" asks John.  And the crowds around Jesus ask about John, "Is this the one about whom it was said, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you'?" The Real Deal was important to Jesus' hearers.  It remains supremely important to us all.

(The following questions come from the method I have laid out in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These are questions meant to supplement other questions asked by other methods.  These questions get at some of the issues for Law and Gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word bears testimony.  It functions to tell us that Jesus is "the one who is to come," the Messiah.  It also functions to tell us that John is the messenger who prepares the way for Christ, even as the prophet foretold.  This testimony is a gospel word, proclaiming to us that the One for whom the world has waited is amongst us.

2. How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law in this text, exposing our need for Christ.  There is clearly acknowledgement of the brokenness of the world where the blind, lame, leprous, deaf, poor, and those dying must live.  Yet there is no word of judgement here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who are questioning what is real.  We are like John, in our prisons, wondering if Jesus is the One who is to come.  We are also like those who question Jesus about John.  We want to know what is real.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We can imagine several:  doubting/faith-filled; despairing/hopeful; lost/found.

5.  Exegetical work:  Dougals Hare has an interesting commentary on this passage in his Matthean commentary.  He notes the general agreement that verse 5 (the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, etc.) echoes the words of the prophet in Isaiah 61:1 and 35:5-6.  Hare goes on to say, however, that verse 6 answers a deeper question:  "What does it mean for me that God  is opening a new age in and through Jesus?"  (Interpretation series, "Matthew", p. 121)  The answer, according to Jesus, is "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."  Hare introduces an excellent point for any preacher to ponder regarding this text:  Yes, it's true that the new age that Jesus opens up is shown by miracles of healing and reconciliation.  Where are those miracles in evidence around me?  Where do I see healing, reconciliation and resurrection?  When I can answer those questions, then I begin to have faith that Jesus is truly the One who is to come.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Mark Marius does a very inventive analysis of this text using the Crossings' diagnosis/prognosis model.  He envisions this text as a play with John the Baptist as a diva who demands a prominent role.  Archived under Gospel Year A for 2011, you can see the whole analysis by going to crossings.org/textstudy.  Highly recommended.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Voice Worthy of Our Attention

Matthew 3:1-12, the gospel lesson appointed for the Second Sunday of Advent, is a familiar text probably because it is one of the few John the Baptist texts that appears in all four of the gospels.  That is not to say that the entire Matthew account appears verbatim in Mark, Luke and John, but that pieces of this account are in all of them.  In all four the Baptist is announced as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness," and also he is the one who announces that he is not worthy to carry (or even untie) the sandals of the One who is coming after him.  If this Voice Crying in the Wilderness is thought worthy of inclusion in all four gospels, then surely we ought to listen with keen interest as he speaks to us in this age.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but to open up some of the central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For an explanation of this particular mode of preaching, you may purchase my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  John's opening line couldn't be more clear:  "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near."  The remainder of the text simply fleshes out this call.  John is shown to be a prophet like Elijah, calling the powers-that-be, in this case religious powers, to "bear fruits worthy of repentance."  This is clearly the Word functioning as Law.  The Law shows us our need for Christ, and the ways even our repentance falls short.

2.  How is the Word not functionng in the text?  A word of Gospel is tough to find in this text.  The promise that he "will gather his wheat into the granary" may be seen as a promise that all will not be burned up, but this is a meager announcement of good news, if it even qualifies.  The Old Testament text appointed for this day, Isaiah 11:1-10 is a much more complete announcement of the Gospel than anything in this account of the Baptist.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This text compels us to identify with those to whom John speaks.  We are the ones coming to be baptized, confessing our sins.  We are the ones who fail to bear fruits worthy of repentance.  We are the vipers who slither out of the fields when the fires are lit.  We are the ones who need to hear these words of warning.  As preachers it is not our place to identify with the one speaking the Word, but only with the ones who are spoken to by the Word.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the call that invites us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in our lives.  "Bearing fruits worthy of repentance" is certainly that.  It could be argued that this text is functioning primarily as a call to obedience except that the call to repentance is so prevalent. If there was a clear word of Gospel here, that also would signal a call to obedience in a more clear way.

5.  Exegetical work:  A fine source of insight into this text comes from the Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures.  I would highly recommend this series.  In it are centuries of commentary on every text, collected for easy reference.  Saint Jerome's commentary is insightful:  "One's confession is morally valueless when one does not believe in the punishment of future judgement."  "Vipers are beautiful on the outside... but on the inside they are full of poison."  "The hypocrites showed the beauty of holiness on their face while they bore the poison of malice in their hearts." (ACCS, NT, vol. 1a, p. 42-44)  Hilary also comments:  "Succession to Abraham in the flesh is not required, but the inheritance of Abraham's faith."  "This passage [about stones] indicates the power of God, who made everything out of nothing." (p. 45)  Finally St. Chrystom weighs in:  "Axe is laid to the root means it is poised right next to it.  He first heightened their fear in order to fully awaken them and press them on to repentance."  "The axe signifies the power of the divine word."  "Through the designation of fire... the life-giving energy of the Spirit is given."  "Fire is appointed... which is in itself neither wicked nor evil but powerful and able to purify from evil." (p. 45-48)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Ready or Not, Here I Come!

Matthew 24:36-44, the gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday of Advent, is a piece taken from Matthew's version of the Little Apocalypse, as recorded in Mark 13 and Luke 21. Interestingly, this piece is not included in Mark's apocalypse at all, and it is included in Luke's gospel in chapters 17 and 12, not in the apocalyptic chapter. As a piece of this tradition, then, it is an outlier.  It fits very well with the Second Lesson for the day, Romans 13:11-14, where believers are exhorted to "put on Christ."

(The following questions are from a brief method to Law and Gospel preaching I outline in my recent book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  They are meant to be questions which get at some of the main issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  My book is available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The function of the text is clear - to warn, encourage and exhort believers to be prepared for the coming of the Lord.  My Bible entitles this passage "the necessity for watchfulness," which is apt.  The final sentence encapsulates this message:  "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word is not functioning here to bring the gospel; that is clear.  There is no attempt in this text to announce Christ's work on our behalf.  It also seems to be the case that the main work of this text is not to lift up our need for Christ, i.e. the Law.  This text is unusual in this regard - usually, either Law or Gospel is present.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since it is always important to identify with those who are being addressed by the text, we must look back a few verses to see who Jesus' audience is.  It turns out that his audience is his disciples.  We then, who are spiritual descendants of these first listeners, are those to whom Jesus is speaking.  We are those who are likely ill-prepared for the Lord's return, and who need this exhortation and encouragement.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the text functioning to show us how to live in the wake of Christ's saving work on our behalf.  This text is exactly that.  It is wholly a call to obedience.  How should you live as Christ's disciples?  Answer: by staying awake and making preparations for the return of the Son of Man.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There is a clear couplet which comes to mind in reading this:  anxiety/certitude.  We might also term it worry/assurance.  It signals the move from fear to faith.

6.  Exegetical work:  The word translated as "coming" is a very rich word in the Greek language.  It is the word parousia.  "Coming" is a fine translation of this word, but it does not give the richness of meaning that is present here.  Parousia was a word used to announce the coming of a ruler.  In Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament there is a very helpful article about this word which lifts up the unique nature of this coming:  "The customary honours of the parousia of a ruler are:  flattering addresses, tributes, delicacies, asses to ride on and for baggage, improvement of streets, golden wreaths or money, and feeding of the sacred crocodiles." (TDNT, vol. V, p. 860)  Clearly then, the parousia of Christ about which Matthew speaks is not simply Christ's coming, in the sense of a person coming to visit, but his coming is an event for which one is necessarily very prepared.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In looking at the archived examples on the Crossings Community website (crossings.org/text study), I note that there are several sermon designs posted for this text under "Year A Gospel" for the First Sunday of Advent.  One example from 2011 by Paul Jaster entitled "Christ's Advent, Catastrophe Averted" is a fine example of how this method can work.  He centers on the idea that an event is coming that will undo all the plans of humanity - a cataclysm, if you will - but then shows how the event that changes the world is the cross of Christ.  This is well worth seeking out in its entirety.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Not Saving Self? What's with that?

The gospel text for Christ the King Sunday, Luke 23:33-44, describes a scene in stark contrast to that which the Second Lesson announces.  There, in the Apostle's letter to the Colossians, Paul announces that in Christ "all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers - all things have been created through him and for him."  In Luke's account, Jesus is dying, being mocked, cursed and laughed at.  Only as Jesus promises Paradise to the repentant thief hanging near him, do we get a glimpse of the majesty Paul testifies to.

(The following questions are derived from a brief method for Law and Gospel preachers, which I detail in my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only to suggest some possible avenues to understanding what's at stake for Law and Gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this text, comes at us in two ways: as the words from Jesus' mouth, and as the words of the narrator to us readers.  Jesus' words are pure gospel:  "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing;  Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."  All who are addresssed by these words are given hope.  The words of the narrator, however, function quite differently.   They function as Law, telling us of our desperate need for Christ.  These words show humanity at its worst:  murderous, scoffers, mocking the Christ, deriding the Innocent One.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   There is no call to obedience in this text, i.e. there is no word which instructs us how to live in response to the Gospel.  One hidden call, perhaps, is to emulate the one who forgives his enemies.  This is certainly a call to obedience elsewhere in the scriptures.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are invited to be part of the scene around the Cross.  With whom do we identify?  Perhaps we are tempted only to identify with those who stand by watching, or with the repentant thief.  We need to also spend some time imagining ourselves as the soldiers who crucified Jesus and later cast lots to divide his clothing.  We need to consider how we might scoff at or mock this Crucified One who seems so helpless.  We all are among those who do not understand one who does not attempt to save himself.

4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?   Several couplets come immediately to mind as we read this story:  murderous and callous/forgiven; mocking/favored with paradise.

5.  Exegetical work:   It is striking that for all of the bystanders at the crucifixion, the one thing they expected out of Jesus was that he would save himself.  Three times this call was made: First, by the leaders who called out, "He saved others; let him save himself."  Second, by the soldiers who offered him sour wine saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"  Third, by the unrepentant thief who derided him:  "Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!"  All assumed that if one had power he would use it to first save himself.  They were wrong.

Another striking fact is that all the conditional phrases are conditions of fact, i.e. they imply that what's being said is true.  So when the leaders scoff about his messiahship, the phrase could be thought of as "Let him save himself since he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!"  Also, when the soldiers mock him the phrase could similarly be translated as, "Since you are the King of Jews, save yourself!"  Of course, it is clear that even though this is a condition of fact, it comes out of the mouths of these characters in a mocking tone.  Nevertheless, Luke often uses the words of Jesus' enemies to speak truth, albeit without them meaning to.  So, out of the mouths of Jesus' enemies we have testimony to the fact that he is truly both Messiah and King.  All of this mockery brings to mind another Mocking One, the devil himself, who three times tempted Jesus to use his Messiahship to save himself.  (Luke 4) Twice in these three temptations the devil begins his taunt with the words "If you are the Son of God..."  This again is a condition of fact, testifying to the Sonship of the Christ.  How common a temptation it is to want to use power to save oneself.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Hope Amidst Doom and Gloom

Luke 21:5-19 is the gospel lesson appointed for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, also known as the Third Sunday of End Time, Saints Triumphant.  It follows in the tradition of apocalypic texts from the prophets down to the Revelation according to John.  Most of the text gives a grim picture of the days to come, and yet at the very end we have a note of promise:  "But not a hair of your head will perish."  Is this a gospel word in the midst of the prediction of suffering?  It seems so.

(The following questions are taken from my brief introduction to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions are not meant to be complete, but they get at some of the key issues for Law and Gospel preachers. For more insight into this genre of preaching, my book is available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The main function of this text is to warn disciples of Jesus that a time of suffering is at hand.  It clearly functions as Law for us, where we are sent to our knees, asking Christ to be near us in the days to come.  The end of the passage functions as Gospel, where Jesus promises that "not a hair of your head will perish."  In other words, life that is truly life is not at risk even when hardships come.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those whom the Word addresses.  Here the Word addresses the disciples who are admiring the beautiful stones and adornments of the temple.  We are those disciples, apt to trust things that have the appearance of strength and endurance, but are not at all solid.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functions as a call to obedience in the verses regarding testimony.  We who follow Christ are called to testify to Christ's work in the world in the days of suffering.  We are promised that the Spirit will give us the words to say.  We obey when we trust this Spirit and are available to speak a Christlike word when called upon.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  A number of couplets are imbedded in the text itself:  persecuted/testifying; dying/gaining one's soul; led astray/enduring.

5. Exegetical work:  I like Fred Craddock's commentary on this text  when he says that apocalyptic speech "is hope's response to the cynic who mocks the faithful, saying, 'Where is the promise of his coming?'"  Also, Craddock notes the irony that disciples are not exempt from suffering, but in fact, are guaranteed it, when he says these are "no modern apocalyptists where believers are raptured above persecution and hardship." (Interpretation Series, Luke, p. 242)  It is telling that the word Luke uses to describe the utter destruction of the temple (kataluo) is the same word from which we derive our word "catastrophe".  The days are coming when ... "all will be thrown down", i.e. destroyed, torn down, demolished, abolished, annuled, made invalid.  Catastrophe is an apt term for what happens when that in which we have trusted is utterly destroyed.  This text exhorts us to trust in the One who cannot be destroyed any longer - the Risen Christ!

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  The Crossings Community is a community of preachers with a keen interest in Law/Gospel preaching.  Ron Starenko, in his analysis, uses not only this text, but also the Old Testament lesson from Malachi 4:1-2a, to get at the fascination we have with "doom and gloom."  In his prognosis he shows how Christ enters the doom and gloom and becomes for us our cosmic deliverer.  See his complete analysis at crossings.org/text study archived under 2013 Gospel C.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Insults Galore!

John 8:31-36, the gospel lesson appointed for Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church, is an unusual text in that it sits amidst a dispute narrative in John's Gospel.  In the section just prior to this reading Jesus says to his listeners, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.  I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he." (vss. 23-24)  And just following our lesson Jesus says to these same listeners, "You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires." (vs. 44)  Clearly Jesus is pulling no punches with these folk.  Likewise, Jesus pulls no punches with us who encounter this text today.  Let the reader beware!

(The following questions come out of a methodology I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, that is Jesus, functions in a way that is clearly Law, but unique in that Jesus insults his listeners.  He tells them they are not free.  He tells them they are slaves to sin.  He also tells them that "there is no place in you for my word."  All these statements function as Law, declaring to them their lostness.  Another way this text is unusual, however, is that a word of Gospel is also present.  Jesus says, "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  This is pure promise.  The conditional phrase is also telling for in effect it says, "Whenver the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."  Good news indeed!

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the ones who are being addressed by the Word, and this text is no exception.  We are the ones who chafe at the notion that we are not free.  We are the ones who declare that we are descendants of Abraham and have not been slaves to anyone.  We are the ones who need to hear the word of Gospel that Jesus sets us free.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the word functioning to show us how to respond to God's work in our life.  Sometimes we call this "the call to discipleship."  In this text, that call is not present.  We will need to look outside this text for that call.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are several couplets which jump right out when we read this text:  in bondage/free; slaves to sin/freed by the Son; slaves/sons.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are many resources for this classic text. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture offers the insights of early theologians, for example:  "Our freedom comes when we subject ourselves to the truth." (Augustine)  "The more freely people follow their perverse desires, the more closely they are in bondage to them."  (Gregory the Great)  "In whatever measure we serve God, we are free.  In whatever measure we serve the law of sin, we are still in bondage."  (Augustine) (ACCS, NT, IVa).  Martin Luther has much to say on this text in his Commentary on the Gospel of John:  "Anything that is not God's Son will not make you free."  "How, then, can I become free?  Men answer 'I will [do this]...'  But Christ says, '...No, let Him who is called the Son of God deliver you from sin; then you are free.  If you give yourself to Him and let Him set you free, all is well.'" (LW 23: 409, 413)  Kittel also offers some excellent insights into this passage in his extended article on eleutheros (freedom) in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  One example:  "...In the NT it is evident that freedom is not absent because there is inadequate control of existence but because there is no control at all, and therefore no self-dominion.  It realizes that existence is threatened by itself, and not by something outside; it realizes that it is itself deficient, with all that it does.  Hence to take oneself in hand is simply to grasp a deficient existence."  (TDNT II: 496)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Jarring Turn-about

Both the teachings regarding prayer in Luke 18 include an explanation of the teaching as well as a parable illustrating it. In verses 1-8 we are given a parable about the "need to pray always and not to lose heart."  In Luke 18:9-14, the gospel lesson appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, we are given a parable aimed at "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."  While the first parable announces the good news that God hears our prayers, the second parable is a word of law, which calls us back to reality whenever we are wont to say, "I am not like other people."  We do well to heed such a word.

(The following questions follow a method which gets at some of the issues for Law/Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  For a detailed look at this method, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Luther sometimes said that the Word is like a hammer, breaking the rock in pieces.  Here we have a clear example of that. The Pharisee in the parable thanks God that he is "not like other people."  He basks in the righteousness of his own making.  He is content with a life lived entirely with "I" as the subject of every sentence.  In so doing he misses out on the righteousness which only God can grant, and the justification that God alone can give.  He misses out on the complete forgiveness and righteousness of God and trusts in himself.  The truth, which he does not see, is that he is like other people, and along with all others he needs the forgiveness that only God can bestow.  The Word in this parable, then, functions as Law, pointing us to our need for Christ.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning as Gospel is well hidden here, if not absent.  When the Word functions as Gospel it announces, "Here is Jesus, for you!"  There is no word like that here.  Having said that, we hear Jesus announcing that the tax collector who cried out, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" is justified.  This is certainly a gospel function.  This word reminds us that God does justify those who come to God humbly.  This word then encourages us to trust in this God who justifies.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Many a writer has pointed out that we who are "church folks" are more like the Pharisee in the parable than anyone else.  We who serve and give and pray and sing somehow are very prone to self-righteousness  and to a hidden pride which clings to the fallacy that we are "not like other people."  We need to pray for the miracle of repentance which comes to the tax collector, for we truly are like other people, as in bondage to sin as any.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The final verse in this text gives us some wonderful couplets:  humbled/exalted; condemned/justified; trusting self/trusting God.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are several telling details in this parable: 1)  The Pharisee's prayer is 33 words long; the prayer of the tax collector is 7 words long.  2)  The subject of the Pharisee's prayer is "I" four times; the subject of the tax collector's prayer is God.  3)  The Pharisee stands "by himself" indicating that he "trusts in himself"; the tax collector stands "far off" indicating his sense of unworthiness.  Another thing to be aware of is that these two characters are stock characters in Jesus' day; that is to say, they have expected characteristics.  In our day, a joke might begin, "A priest, a rabbi, and a lumberjack entered a bar."  Each one of those characters is a stock character with which we associate certain attributes.  So with Pharisees and tax collectors in Jesus' day.  What's most interesting is that the Pharisee was assumed to be righteous and the tax collector was assumed to be a scoundrel.  The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible gives this description of Pharisees:  "law-abiding, righteous, pious, religious folk." (III, 774)  Tax-collectors, on the other hand, are given these characteristics: "traitorous, base, despicable, greedy, 'robbers', excluded by common consent." (IV, 522).  This is interesting because for Jesus' listeners, the turn-around in this story would have been jarring.  The unrighteous one is the one who goes"down to his home justified", while the pious Pharisee does not.  We do well to attempt to enter into this jarring experience by substituting modern stock characters who might fit these molds.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Weary Faith

The parable of the indifferent judge and the persistent widow from Luke 18:1-8, the gospel lesson appointed for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, has much in common with the parable of the persistent friend and the annoyed neighbor in Luke 11:5-8.  In both parables the one to whom the request is made seems deaf to the needy one's concerns, and yet, because they are so annoyingly persistent, their requests are granted.  Similarly, Jesus' conclusion is, in the latter parable, "Ask, (and keep asking) and it will be given you," and in the former parable, "God [will] grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night."  It seems that both parables are teachings in persistence, with the assurance that God will grant us justice.  Take heart!

(The following questions attempt to get at some of the key issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive.  For a more complete look at this genre of preaching, and what its concerns are, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com and amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions to encourage faltering faith, therefore it is a gospel function.  Jesus says, in effect, "Don't lose heart.  If even unjust judges finally grant justice to some, will not the God of all justice grant you mercy?"

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law is not present here.  When a word of Law is present its effect is to say, "You need Jesus."  There is none of that here.  The effect is much the opposite:  "God is for you. Who can be against you?"

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  The widow who cries out for justice, as well as all those whom Jesus speaks to "about their need to pray always and not to lose heart" are those with whom we identify in this text.  We all have times in our lives when prayer seems to go unanswered.  Jesus says here, "God hears.  God will grant you justice."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functions as a call to obedience when it shows us how to live in response to the gospel.  It could perhaps be said that this is exactly what this text is:  Because God is just, because God hears our prayers, keep praying. Do not "grow weary in well-doing," as St. Paul says.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The context of the parable gives us a few ideas for couplets:  discouraged/encouraged; faith flagging/faith rewarded.

6.   Exegetical work:  I like what Amy-Jill Levine points out about the common translation of what constitutes the judge's motivation for justice.  She writes:  "The NRSV's mild suggestion that the widow will 'wear out' the judge is another taming of the widow.  The Greek uses a boxing term:  the judge is concerned that the widow will give him a black eye." (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 225)  Another way this term could be translated suggests that the judge is concerned that unless he does what the widow requires she will slander him or besmirch his name.  It reminds me of Moses' argument before God in Exodus 32:  "But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ..."Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'?..."And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." (vs. 11-14)  In that story, Moses has to remind God of the possible 'black eye' God will receive if mercy is not extended to the idolatrous Israelites.  Similarly here, the indifferent judge thinks to himself that he may receive a 'black eye' in the community if he does not heed the widow's cry.  Clearly the judge is the distinct opposite of God. The argument is as Luise Schottroff suggests, an "minore ad maius:  If even an unjust judge does justice, how much more will God." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 193)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Simple Gift of Thanksgiving

Luke 17:11-19, the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, is also the appointed text in the U.S. for Thanksgiving Day.  It centers on the thankfulness of the 10th leper in contrast to the other nine who fail to return and give thanks.  Noteworthy is that the healing happens to them all without condition or prerequisite.  What follows the thanksgiving of the 10th leper is a further blessing: he now knows - and so do we - that faith saves us.

(The following questions are an attempt to come to terms with some of the key issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  Law and Gospel preaching is a genre of preaching that balances the demands of God with the promises of God. For more information on this genre, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, functions first to heal.  This is an act of grace, without condition, without demand upon the healed ones.  This is a gospel act.  Second, Jesus announces to the thankful leper that his faith has saved him.  Jesus announces his salvation.  This too is a gospel act.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no real word of law here.  Jesus does wonder that the other nine have not returned to give thanks, but they are not present for his admonishment.  Furthermore, he condemns no one.  This is not a text shaming us for not returning and giving thanks.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those addressed by the Word. We are the healed ones and the one who returns to give thanks. We are the ones who hear from Jesus' lips, "Your faith has saved you."  We are the recipients of the good news and of healing.  We are also those who need to be reminded to return and give thanks to God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in the text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to instruct us how to act in response to God's grace in our lives.  Clearly the message here is:  Be thankful.  This is a call to obedience.  When we see clearly the gifts of Jesus in our lives, we can't help but live thankfully.  It is what faith does.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several obvious ones come from the language in the text itself:  diseased/made clean; isolated/restored to community; dying/saved.

6.  Exegetical work:  The various translations of verse 19 are interesting:  KJV: thy faith hath made thee whole; TEV: your faith has made you well; JB: Your faith has saved you; NEB: your faith has cured you.  The Greek term used in this verse is most often translated in Luke's gospel as "saved" in agreement with the Jerusalem Bible translation.  It is clearly a different word than the one used in the rest of the story where the lepers are "cleansed" or "cured."  Some writers make much of this final verse and the implications of this, while others point out that Luke also uses this word regularly for being healed.  Fred Craddock, in his commentary, says that this text can be understood as two stories; one about the healing of ten lepers and their obedience and the other about the salvation of one lost soul. (Luke, Interpretation Series, p. 202-203) This analysis, of course, hinges on the translation of this final verse.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text? Steve Kuhl, in his working with this text, also makes much out of the distinctions between the words of healing and wholeness in the story.  In his diagnosis of the story he points out how the lepers are all pariahs - outcasts - and the invitation to go and show themselves to the priests is exactly what they are longing for - to be admitted back into the community.  They are, as Kuhl says, "cured, but not made well."  Kuhl sees that in order for us to be made well, we come to Jesus.  We return.  We repent.  And in that we are made truly well. You can see the entire analysis archived under Year C Gospel 2013 at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Joy of Tiny Faith

In Luke 17:5-10, the gospel lesson appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, we encounter a well-known saying of Jesus that "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."  Noteworthy is the fact that this construction is a condition of certainty.  That means that Jesus is saying, "If you had faith - AND YOU DO! - you could do this."  In other words, Jesus is saying that the faith you already have is sufficient.  This is good news!  Jesus has never been about having great amounts of anything - save love.  This means we can celebrate the gift of faith given us, and spend our time living out the Gospel, not worrying about growing our faith.  How freeing!

(The following questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon. They are meant to get at some of the key questions for preachers of this genre.  For more insight into this type of preaching, check out my guide.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Because of the construction of the saying by Jesus in verse 6, the Word functions here as gospel.  Jesus is saying, in effect, "The faith you have been given is sufficient; celebrate that!  The faith you have, though small, is more than enough to do all that you dream of and more."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, because of the construction of the saying, the Word is not functioning here as Law.  It is not saying, "If only you had a wee bit of faith, you faithless ones, then you could do great things."  No, because faith is a gift, and because God's grace is sufficient, even the tiniest piece of faith, like the tiniest sip of wine or taste of bread at the Lords' table, is sufficient for our needs.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are undoubtedly the apostles who say to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"  We wish to have greater faith because we mistakenly believe that more faith will mean greater power or greater wisdom, or perhaps even a greater station in the household of our Lord. The parable which follows Jesus' saying shows clearly that even when we have done all things well, we are simply the servants of Christ, no better or worse than any other servants in the household. So with faith - greater faith will not elevate us to a different place in the Lord's household.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience, is there in this text?  The parable within this text is simply that - a call to obedience. We are to do all that our Lord commands us, and when we have done that we have only done what is rightfully our responsibility.  We are servants; that is our identity.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several obvious couplets come to mind in this text:  discontent with faith/trusting God; discontent with our station/trusting our Lord.

6.  Exegetical work:  There is an extensive article about faith in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  I would recommend it to you.  Here are a few pieces I found especially helpful:  "As the Old Testament understands it, faith always is man's reaction to God's primary action.  Related here is the fact that older Old Testament religion was collective in structure, and it was difficult to give expression to the inner life of the community." (TDNT, VI, 182)  "'Faith' in the Old Testament denotes a relation to God which embraces the whole man in the totality of his external conduct and inner life." (TDNT, VI,  188)  General Christian usage of the word faith is 1) To believe God's word; 2) To obey; 3) To trust (i.e. God will fulfill promises); 4) To hope; 5) To be faithful. (TDNT, VI, 205)  Martin Luther had this to say about faith in his Sacrament of Penance, 1519:  "Now if God allows faith to remain weak, one should not despair on that account, but rather recognize it as a trial and temptation by means of which God tests, prods, and drives a person to cry out all the more... with the apostles, "O Lord, increase our faith."  Thus does a person come to learn that everything depends on the grace of God; the sacrament, the forgiveness, and the faith.  Giving up all other hope, despairing of himself, he comes to hope exclusively in the grace of God and cling to it without ceasing." (Luther's Works, 35:19).

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell always urged preachers to include celebration in their sermon design.  Since this text lifts up the sufficiency of even a wee bit of faith given to us by God, what better time to celebrate than that?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Great Chasm

Luke 16:19-31, the gospel lesson appointed for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, is noteworthy in that chasms of every kind play key roles in the parable.  There is the spiritual chasm between the rich man and Lazarus which prevents the rich man from seeing the poor man lying at his gate.  Then there is the chasm in Hades between the rich man in torment and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.  And finally there is a chasm of faith that prevents the five brothers from mending their ways even though someone should rise from the dead.  How will these chasms be crossed?  That is the question.

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but they get at some of the issues for law/gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is little question that in this text the Word functions as law.  The Law always points us to Jesus saying, in effect, "You need Jesus."  The last line, particularly, shows us our broken state:  "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no gospel word here.  Yes, Jesus will rise from the dead; yes, the poor man has been comforted; but still there is no word here that says, "Here is Jesus come to bring you life."  We will need to explicitly bring the Gospel to bear on this text by using other texts.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those being addressed by the Word. Who are they?  In this text they are most likely the Pharisees, as revealed in verse 14.  They are revealed there as "lovers of money."  Is it comfortable identifying with these folk?  No, it is not.  In the parable the Pharisees are portrayed as the rich man and his five brothers.  Again, are we comfortable identifying with the rich man and his brothers?  No, we are not.  Yet that is the Word we are given.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   The call to obedience, the Word functioning to show us how to follow Jesus, is not primary here, although it might be argued that the call to feed the poor is an obvious call to obedience.  While it is certainly true that the call to care for the poor is part of following Jesus, the function of the Word here is not primarily to address that.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Given that this is not a gospel text we must imagine a new scenario in order to complete a couplet.  Some suggestions are:  in agony/comforted; chasm between God and us/chasm crossed; deaf to Moses and the prophets/hearing in faith.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of excellent commentaries on the parables of Jesus.  Here are a few insightful comments from some of those scholars:  Bernard Brandon Scott writes:  "The rich man's fault is that he does not pass through the gate to help Lazarus.  It is not simply that at the end there will be a reversal or that God will help the poor.  Even more, 'so long as there is time, the gate/door to the neighbor lies open to be entered and passed through, while one day the chasm between those distanced from each other will not be able to be bridged.'" (Hear Then the Parable, p. 158-159.)  Luise Schottroff has this to say:  "The Pharisees (or better: some Pharisees) are not really being addressed as representatives of this wealth, but rather as those whose interpretation of Torah legitimates this wealth and indirectly profits from it. The Lukan Jesus presents his social analysis in accordance with Torah.  It is his vision that Pharisees and wealthy Jews should remember the Torah - and that means its idea of social justice - so that the universal liberation of the people can become a reality." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 170)  Amy-Jill Levine, in her recent commentary, challenges many traditional readings of this parable which see neither a teaching about the afterlife nor a teaching about economic status in this parable.  She asks: "What if the parable does say something about the afterlife, which is what the church fathers thought and probably what the majority of the original auditors of the parable... thought as well?  What if we took seriously Jesus's own concern for how people related to each other, or how they might live if they already had one foot in the kingdom of heaven?  What if the parable does say something about economic status, a major concern of both the scriptures of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth?"  (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 250-251)  Good questions.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Serving Two Masters

The parable of the dishonest manager, a piece of the gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 16:1-13, is one of the most puzzling of Jesus' parables.  The puzzle revolves around verse 8 where Jesus reportedly says "[the] master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly."  This commendation is jarring.  How could a faithful master commend this man? Perhaps part of the problem is that we assume motivations are more important than actions.  Are they?  Or perhaps we are assuming that the master's values are ours?  Or maybe our very assumptions about the consistency of God's mercy are being questioned.  In any case, our assumptions are being challenged here, and when we are forced to grapple with our assumptions that always leads us to new insights.  We must, therefore, pay attention to this.

(The following questions I find helpful for examining a passage from a Law/Gospel perspective.  For more on this perspective, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Until the last two verses in the text, the audience for these words are the disciples of Jesus.  The summary teaching verse in the passage seems to be verse 13:  "No slave can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and wealth."  With these things in mind, the Word is functioning primarily as a call to obedience.  Jesus is teaching his disciples how to follow him; i.e. to be faithful in even little things and to serve only God, not wealth.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   The functions of law or gospel are not present here.  It's true that Jesus calls attention to the unfaithfulness of the dishonest manager, but this is not done to drive his listeners toward God, but to teach them about faithfulness.  The Law always drives us toward God.  The gospel function of the Word gives us the gifts of grace.  These functions are absent here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are Jesus' disciples, those listening to this parable and the subsequent teaching.  We are the ones who need to be reminded that faithfulness in little things is important.  We are the ones who are continually trying to find ways to serve two masters.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since neither the Law nor the Gospel are present in this text we are hard-pressed to see couplets in the text.  Nevertheless the main teaching offers a few ideas:  serving wealth/serving God; children of this age/children of light.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are several interesting commonalities between this parable and the parable of the Prodigal Son, just prior to this in Luke 15:  The dishonest manager was accused of "squandering" his master's property - this is the same word used for the actions of the younger son who traveled to the far country and there "squandered" his property in dissolute living.  Also the conversation the dishonest manager had with himself once he realized how much trouble he was in is reminiscent of the conversation the younger son had with himself once he realized he needed to return to his father.  Finally, the jarring commendation of the dishonest manager by the master reminds us of the extravagant welcome the younger son receives from the father.  In neither case is the wickedness of the offender denied, nor is it a stumbling block for the one with whom reconciliation is sought.

There are a number of good commentaries on the parables of Jesus.  Two that seem particularly helpful with this parable are Bernard Brandon Scott's Hear Then the Parable, and Kenneth Bailey's Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes; A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke.  Scott summarizes the parable this way:  "The parable presents a counterworld to the hearer's normal, implicit world.  In that normal world of patron and clients, power and justice are coordinates.  The rich man possesses power, and his initial judgment, arbitrary and summary, can be carried out because he is powerful.  The steward also possesses the power of a victim: he draws the hearer to his side by sympathy, allowing one and all to enjoy his getting even....By a powerful questioning and juxtaposition of images, the parable breaks the bond between power and justice.  Instead it equates justice and vulnerability." (Scott, p. 266)  Bailey gives us a very extended analysis of the parable, leaving no stone unturned in examining this puzzling parable.  Finally he says, "...the parable of the Unjust Steward is a parabolic ballad followed by a three-stanza poem on Mammon. The parable in an unforgettable backhanded way illuminates, from a unique angle, the splendor of the grace of God in which alone the believer must trust." (Bailey, p. 118).

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The scandal of God's welcome

It is interesting that chapter 15 of the gospel of Luke starts with the grumbling of the Pharisees who say, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them," but is filled with stories of the lost.  Indeed, the two lost ones in Luke 15:1-10, the gospel reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, are not sinners at all; they are a sheep and a coin.  Clearly the focus is not on their sinfulness, but on their lostness.  The question for us becomes, "When we see people outside of our religious communities, do we see sinners or lost ones?"  It's an important question.

(The following questions are a sample from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  If you wish to understand more about this genre of preaching, my book is available through wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is pure gospel; it shows us the extravagant love of the Father.  The Father's love compels God to scour the wilderness and the whole house to find the one who is lost.  Clearly the lost ones are the treasure of the Searcher.  Clearly the love for the lost is beyond human capacity.  Clearly no thought is given to the cost or the effort required to find the lost.  God's great love is announced with gusto in this text.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The law is quite absent here.  When the Word functions as law it says, in effect, "You need Jesus."  It is clear that when we are lost, as the sheep and coin are, we need Jesus, but these parables do not lift up our need, but rather the love of the One who seeks us.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question, because the Word addresses the Pharisees - those who grumble at Jesus' welcome to all.  Knowing that it is always important to identify with those whom the Word addresses, we might well be advised to identify with the Pharisees.  Another possibility exists, however, and that is the sheep and the coin.  We are the lost ones.  We are the ones Jesus is searching for.  Of course, it is worth considering that the grumblers are also the ones who are lost.  That might be a strategy worth pursuing.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  Here there seems to be a call to obedience implied in the description of the Pharisees' grumblings.  The implied call is, "You follow Jesus when you invite sinners into your midst."  The parables don't dwell on this, however, so the text doesn't seem to be mainly about this invitation to sinners.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets are suggested by wording in the text:  grumbling/rejoicing; losing/finding.  Another one that comes to mind: indifference/extravagant love.

6.  Exegetical work?  I like Amy-Jill Levine's description of the searching shepherd in the first parable:  "The parable presents a main figure - the owner, not the sheep - who realizes he has lost something of value to him.  He notices the single missing sheep among the ninety-nine in the wilderness. For him, the missing sheep, whether it is one of a hundred or a million, makes the flock incomplete.  He engages in an exaggerated search, and when he has found the sheep, he engages in an equally exaggerated sense of rejoicing, first by himself, and then with his friends and neighbors." (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 41)  Kittel's extended article on amartolos (i.e. sinners) is also very instructive for this text. Here are a few excerpts:  "[Jesus] never contested nor avoided the distinction of the people into sinners and righteous."  "Jesus thus accepted as such those who were regarded as sinners by the community.  It was just because they were sinners that He drew them to himself."(Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. I, 329).  Also in his discussion of tax collectors - the other despised group - Kittel points out that Jesus never said that tax collectors and sinners weren't lost.  Indeed he was very clear that they were, and deserved to be.  It is precisely because of the extent of their sins that there is so much joy in heaven when they repent. (TDNT, vol. VIII, 104).

Blessing on your proclamation!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Building Towers, Waging War

Luke 14:25-33, the gospel reading appointed for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, comes to us as an abrupt reminder that following Jesus is no "walk in the park."  The two metaphors Jesus uses to illustrate this fact are building towers and waging war.  It behooves us all to consider how much our discipleship resembles either of these.

(The following questions are a sample from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  In this guide I lead the preacher through a process whereby one can understand how the Word functions and thus how the sermon must function.  This guide is available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This word of Jesus is a call to obedience.  That is to say, it shows us how to follow Jesus.  One could view it as the Law, pointing out to us our failure to have Jesus as our first love, our only passion, and our true treasure, but that comes only as a bi-product of the first function, the call to obedience.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word here is clearly not functioning as gospel. There is no word of grace here.  Having said that, the preacher might well understand that Jesus, in saving the world, has done all the things required of disciples: 1) He has been willing to make us his first love; 2) He has been willing to bear the cross; and 3)  He has been willing to set aside all things so that we might belong to God. (Phil. 2)

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are clearly part of the "large crowds" that follow Jesus, wanting to believe that following Jesus requires little of us.  We are the ones who do not want to give up all, who cannot help but love what and whom we love, and who do not want anything to do with carrying crosses.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this text is not a law/gospel text, couplets are difficult to come by.  One that comes to mind is "in bondage to loving stuff/freed in Christ."

5.  Exegetical work:  Johannes Brenz, 16th century German Lutheran pastor, hits the nail on the head in his commentary:  "[Those that followed Jesus] had various afflictions, others were oppressed with need, some were escaping bad reputations or the tyranny of magistrates or trouble at home.  They all thought that the kingdom of Christ would be a carnal and earthly kingdom and should bring with it earthly happiness, and so everyone hoped that if he followed Christ, he would not only be delivered from his affliction but also might obtain some kingdom or principality of his own.... And so he turned to them and explained to them that his kingdom was a different sort of kingdom than they had ever imagined." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. III, 304)  Basil the Great, 4th century bishop of Caesarea, also commented on this passage:  "Whoever would truly be a follower of God must break the bonds of attachment to this life.  This is done through complete separation from and forgetfulness of old habits.... The apostle said, "But our citizenship is in heaven." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. III, 242).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry, in his work always reminded us that the preacher must move listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium.  This text puts us almost immediately into disequilibrium.  It might be a good opportunity to let our listeners experience this disquieting sense before showing them the way through it.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

God's Etiquette

The gospel lesson appointed for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 14:1, 7-14, is a multi-layered text.  On one hand it is clearly a teaching about humility and hospitality akin to similar teachings in the wisdom literature.  On the other hand, since the banquet table is a well-known symbol of the reign of God, this text is also teaching us about who is welcome at the Lord's banquet table.  Finally, then, this text is speaking to us about who is welcome at the Lord's table in our worship space.  Who is invited to our banquet table?  that is the question.

(The following questions are a sample from my method for exegesis based on a Law/Gospel reading of the text.  A more complete explanation of this method may be found in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the one speaking the Word in this text, is clearly giving instructions.  He is not saving, healing, or granting life - gospel functions.  He is also not judging, condemning or challenging - law functions - even though we are told that he notices the shortcomings of the guests who seek honor for themselves.  Since he is giving instructions, the Word here is functioning as a call to obedience.  This is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  Jesus is showing us here how to live in response to God's gracious work in our lives.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functions as Law when it says in some way, "You need Jesus!"  The Word functions as Gospel when it says, "Here is Jesus!"  In this text neither of these functions is present, therefore it is a call to obedience.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always advisable to identify with those whom the Word addresses. In this text we are "the guests [who choose] the places of honor."  We are the ones who routinely forget that in God's economy, "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  We are also those who routinely invite only our friends, or siblings, or relatives, or rich neighbors - those who offer us something in return - into our churches, when in God's economy "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" are those whom God most wishes us to invite.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language of this text gives us several ideas:  uninvited/welcome; humbled/exalted; excluded/blessed.

5.  Exegetical work:  Fred Craddock, in his commentary on Luke (Interpretation series) says that in this text Jesus is calling for "kingdom behavior." (p. 77)  I like that.  Kingdom behavior is behavior based on faith in the One who hosts the banquet.  Kingdom behavior is behavior based on hospitality, compassion, and justice.  Kingdom behavior is behavior that assumes that all have the right to sit at the Lord's table, and there are none who are either too high or too low in status to be excluded.  As the old saying goes, "The ground is level at the foot of the Cross."

The text follows in line with a great number of Old and New Testament verses that instruct us in kingdom behavior.  Here are just a few examples;
     Psa 49:12  "Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish."
     Hab 2:6  "Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!"
     Matt 23:5  "They do all their deeds to be seen by others."
     Mar 9:33  "They had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest."
     Mar 10:45  "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve..."
     John 5:44  "How can you believe when you accept the glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?"
     I Jn 2: 16   "For all that is in the world.... the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world."

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Mark Marius does a very nice analysis of this work using the Crossings Community model.  It is archived under 2013 Year C Gospel for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost at crossings.org - text study.  In this clear two-part model, Marius shows how we buy into the world's notion that "You are where you sit."  Because we buy into this, we begin to misplace our faith in the status we gain, in the places we are seen, and in the honors bestowed on us.  In the second part of his analyis Marius shows how Christ breaks through our misplaced faith by inviting us to the banquet at the baptismal font and showering us with grace.  We then, in turn, secure in our place in the kingdom, are freed to offer others the best seats at our tables.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Who is Bound More?

I love this corner of the 4th century Two Brothers Sarcophagus.  It depicts Jesus showing compassion for the woman described in Luke 13 who was said to have been crippled for 18 years.  Other figures from this story also are present.  One fellow is holding his hand to his chin and seems to be considering the protest filed by the leader of the synagogue (on the right) who rebuked the crowd who witnessed this healing, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day."  For this comment the leader received a strong rebuke from Jesus.  This text, Luke 13:10-17, the gospel lesson appointed for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, is unique in that to one of the characters Jesus' word is pure gospel, and to the other, pure law.  How will we hear this word?

(The following questions are some of the questions I ask in interpreting a text from a Law/Gospel perspective.  For a more complete understanding of this genre see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is an unusual text in that the Word functions in two very distinct ways:  For the crippled woman, Jesus' words, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment!" are the definition of gospel.  Jesus has announced healing and freedom to this woman.  She has been given the gift of grace, indeed without even asking for it, or a hint of her deserving it.

The leader of the synagogue who protests this healing on the sabbath, however, receives quite a different word:  "You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set from this bondage on the sabbath day?"
This word is, of course, pure law.  This strong rebuke breaks the rock of self-righteousness in this man and humbles his pride.  This word shows the speaker his hardheartedness.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question because we have two distinct persons with whom we can identify.  If we identify with the crippled woman, then we will hear this freeing word, "You are set free!" as a word to us.  If we identify with the leader of the synagogue, then we will hear the rebuke, "You hypocrite!'  The question we must ask is who are we - persons broken in need of healing, or the self-righteous in need of rebuke? Perhaps we are both.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  I do not hear a clear call to obedience in this text. The call to obedience is always the call to "Follow Jesus," and that seems absent here.  If we look at the Old Testament lesson appointed for the day, Isaiah 58:9b-14, there we have a clear call to obedience:  "If you remove the yoke from among you... if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like th noonday." (vs. 9b-10)

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Certainly this text suggests several:  crippled/whole; in bondage/freed; dead in sin/alive in Christ.

5.  Exegetical work:  This text begs the larger question:  "What does it mean to be bound?"  The crippled woman was clearly bound, and Jesus announced freedom to her.  The leader of the synagogue was also bound, in the sense that his understanding of the sabbath law was so strict that he had lost sight of the purpose of this law.  He had lost sight of the life-giving that comes to us when we observe sabbath in God's way.  Luther, in his lectures on Isaiah, talked about sabbath practice:  "The true Sabbath works consist in doing works of God, hearing the Word, praying, doing good in every way to the neighbor.  The ungodly neither do nor teach any of this." (LW, vol. XVII, p. 289)  Luther could well have been speaking of this leader of the synagogue when he wrote this.  Augustine also spoke of sabbath practice in his preaching:  "Since that is what the Lord says about the woman whom Satan had bound for eighteen years, it was now time for her to be released from her bondage on the sabbath day.  Quite unjustly, they criticized him for straightening her up.  Who were these, except people bent over themselves?  Since they quite failed to understand the very things God had commanded, they regarded them with earthbound hearts.  They used to celebrate the sacrament of the sabbath in a literal, material manner and did not notice its spiritual meaning." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. III, p. 226)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy J. Hoyer, writing for Year C Gospel in 2013, goes deeply into the discussion of our boundness as mortal beings.  He points out that the crippled woman is just as bound in sin as is the leader of the synagogue; they both need to be released from the crippling notion that their good deeds merit their standing with God.  Hoyer also points out that Jesus was often healing and saving on the Sabbath, prominently on the Day of Resurrection, when all the world was freed from the bondage of death.  For a complete look at this analysis go to crossings.org - text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!