Saturday, January 30, 2016

We have an Awe-Full God!

The Lukan story of the Transfiguration, found in Luke 9:28-36, is a story which leads us into wonder.  We see a Christ who is far removed from us and our experiences. He stands in dazzling white garments with figures of the Old Testament, long dead.  He speaks of things that none, especially the disciples, can understand.  He is announced by a divine voice to be "My Son, the Chosen One."  There can be no doubt that this Jesus is Truly Other.

(The following questions attempt to unearth issues that Law/Gospel preachers are concerned with.  For a complete look at this form of preaching see my book, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The writer, Luke, by his description of this scene, inspires fear and awe in us.  Jesus is being proclaimed as equal to Moses and Elijah, the figures of the Old Testament, long gone, yet revered.  He is the Chosen One, he is the one who will accomplish all things in Jerusalem (i.e. Death and Resurrection).  This Word to us functions as Law insofar as it reveals our smallness compared to Christ, but it is Gospel in that it presents Jesus as the One who will "accomplish" all things for our salvation.  A very interesting mix of functions, to say the least.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The call to obedience, that word which instructs us how to live a life of faith is nearly absent.  The divine voice says, "Listen to him!"  This is certainly a call to obedience, yet it is up to us to figure out what this will mean for our lives, so it is nothing more than the general call to obey the Lord.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Certainly we identify closely with the disciples who are completely baffled and terrified by the events of which they are a part. Peter speaks and shows his confusion.  We are these who are similarly baffled in the presence of the divine.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Our identity in this text is our clue:  confused/enlightened, in the dark/understanding, full of fear/full of faith.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is often fruitful to look at the other synoptic versions of a story.  This text is  no exception.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this story in much the same fashion, yet  Luke includes a few additional details that are interesting.  Luke says that Jesus and the disciples ascend the mountain to pray, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah is in the context of Jesus' prayer.  What significance is there in this detail? I wonder.  Also Luke is the only one to give us details about the conversation between Jesus and the other two figures.  Luke says they speak of Jesus' "departure" and all he will "accomplish in Jerusalem."  Since this text comes directly on the heels of Luke's record of Jesus' first passion prediction, it seems that this serves to confirm that prediction.  Luke also tells us that the disciples are "heavy with sleep."  Is this an allusion to Gethsemane, where this will happen again?  Finally, Luke alone tells us that the disciples are "terrified" by the overshadowing of the cloud,and that the voice calls Jesus the Chosen.  It is clear that Luke's account gives us details that the other versions fail to include.  It behooves us to ask why.  There just may be a sermon somewhere in those very details.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic:  Fred Craddock was always concerned that the preacher bring the experience of the text to the listener.  How are we going to bring the experience of awe and fear to our listeners?  How will we, the preacher, enter into this experience and find ourselves, also in the presence of the divine?  Good questions to ponder.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The year of the Lord's favor

The gospel text for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord, Luke 4:14-21, is the first half of what is often called, "The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth."  The remarkable thing is that nowhere in this first half of the story is there any indication of rejection.  At the outset we hear that Jesus is returning from his wilderness sparring with the devil "filled with the power of the Holy Spirit" and that he is "praised by everyone."  And even in the first verse following our pericope, it is reported that his listeners "all speak well of him and were amazed at his gracious words."  Rejection?  Hardly, at least not in this first half of the story.

(The following questions are meant to highlight the issues of law and gospel, essential for preachers who are committed to making this distinction.  More about this way of preaching may be found in my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available through or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is the Word here.  Jesus is the Word proclaiming gospel news - nothing else.  He is announcing that He is the Anointed One, the One who announces good news, who gives sight to the blind and lets the oppressed go free.  In a word, Jesus is the Messiah!  Today, says Jesus, "God's word has been fulfilled."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of law here, nothing that exposes our need for Christ.  That will come in the second half of this story - in next week's gospel reading. It might be interesting for the preacher to explore the human reaction when someone proclaims they are the Anointed One.  Do we immediately accept this?  Is skepticism or unbelief natural?  Or are we likely to be drawn to such a person?

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   We are certainly in the position of "all in the synagogue."  We gather for worship regularly.  We regard ourselves as God's people.  We think we are in tune with God's way of thinking.  But are we?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the part of the text which invites us to live in response to God's work. The ongoing reading from 1 Corinthians 12, which is the second lesson for the day, is an excellent example of a call to obedience.  There we are invited to regard each member of the body of Christ as essential.  In this gospel reading the Word does not function as a call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Some of the words in the text suggest several helpful couplets:  oppressed/set free; captive/released; blind/seeing; unfavored/favored by God.

6.  Exegetical work:  I often find it enlightening to read what the earliest scholars of the Church, as well as Reformation scholars, have said about a passage.  Collections of this commentary are available in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) and the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (RCS), both published by IV Press.  About today's text, for example, the 3rd century scholar, Origen wrote, "[Jesus] says, 'He sent me to preach the gospel to the poor.'  The 'poor' stand for the Gentiles, for they are indeed poor. They possess nothing at all; neither God, nor the law, nor the prophets, nor justice and the rest of the virtues.... 'To preach release to the captives.' We were the captives.  For many years Satan had bound us and held us captive and subject to himself.... 'To preach an acceptable year to the Lord.'  But all of this has been proclaimed so that we may come to 'the acceptable year of the Lord,' when we see after blindness, when we are free from our chains, and when we have been healed of our wounds.'" (ACCS, NT, III, 80-81)  Also, John Calvin writes, "It is certain that what is related here belongs properly to Christ alone for two reasons: first, because he alone was given the fullness of the Spirit, so that he would be our witness and the representative of our reconciliation with God... and second, because he, alone, by the power of his Spirit, brings about and performs all the good things promised here.  (RCS, NT, III, 100)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A wedding like no other

The first four words from the account of the wedding at Cana in John 2:1-11, ought to clue us in that this is not merely a nice story about how Jesus rescued a bridegroom from certain embarrassment.  No, a story that begins, "on the third day" in the gospel of John is certainly about more than a wedding - it is about the revealing of the Son of God as Messiah and Lord of all.  It is no coincidence that Mary's two appearances in the gospel are here, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and in chapter 19 as Jesus again addresses her as "woman" and ends his ministry by entrusting her care to the hands of the Beloved Disciple.  All of this is finely orchestrated by the writer, along with much, much more.

(The following questions are related to my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available by clicking on the image on this site.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a classic law/gospel text because the Word functions to both lift up our need for Jesus and to present Jesus to us.  If we understand this wedding scene as a parable of the human condition, we see immediately that "running out of wine" is a metaphor for our mortality, our brokenness and our sin.  In many and various ways, we "run out of wine":  we lack faith, virture, love, well-being, wholeness, etc.  Our condition as humans is that we are continually experiencing lack.  Jesus, the source of abundance, enters the scene, and taking common elements, ends our lack.  Using merely water, he transforms our lives from lives of scarcity to lives of abundance.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the guests, the steward, the servants, and the bridegroom.  We are all those who experience lack.  We are those who have invited Jesus to the wedding, not even realizing who he is.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  In this text we have, to my mind, no such word.  This text reveals the glory and identity of Jesus, and through this revelation we, like the disciples, believe, but this is not the call to discipleship.  The second reading assigned for the day, I Corinthians 12:1-11 speaks about the "manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." This is an example of a text about following in the way of Jesus.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets for this text are easily imagined:  scarcity/abundance, water/wine, fear/joy, dying/living.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are many fine commentaries on the gospel of John, but for my money, few are as helpful as Craig Koester's Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  Here are just a few insights that Koester offers:  "Jewish tradition associated the outpouring of wine with the advent of the Messiah." (84)  See Joel 3:18.  "Greeks... would have understood that the miraculous gift of wine revealed the presence of deity." (85)  "The divine favor revealed by this gift of wine was a prelude to the gift of his own life." (86)  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary on John's gospel, seems to agree with Koester as he points out that during the feast of Dionysus, the god of vintage, the fountains of the pagan temples spouted wine instead of water. (101)  Brown asks, "How did Cana reveal the glory of Jesus?"  He answers, "Messianic replacement and abundance." (104)  Brown points out that the disciples may well have known the prophecies regarding the abundance of wine as a sign of the arrival of the Messiah, and this is why "they believed in him."  See Amos 9:13-14, Hosea 14:7, and Jeremiah 31:12. (104)  Other insights from Brown:  The wedding feasts are always signs of the messianic days; "they have no wine" is a commentary on Judaism's barrenness; the abundance of wine is the joy of the final days. (104ff).

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Wind and Fire

Those of us who baptize babies are accustomed to baptisms which are pretty benign.  The children are brought to the font by the parents and godparents.  Everyone, including the infant, is dressed in their finery, and the congregation is all smiles as we administer the water.  Little evidence there of what St. Luke reminds us of in the gospel text for this Sunday, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, the Lukan version of the Baptism of our Lord.  In this account, John the Baptist declares, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."  Is this a word of law or gospel?   Or is it both?

(The following questions are from my guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  They are an attempt to get at some of the key issues for Law/Gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  I hear an interwoven theme of law and gospel throughout this text.  On one hand, John's words that "the One who is coming" already has "his winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor" is clearly a word of law.  "The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" is a reminder that baptism is a dying to sin, as St. Paul makes clear.  On the other hand, we have the voice from heaven which is pure gospel:  "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."  This is the Word revealing Jesus to us.  This is God's assurance that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the people who are "filled with expectation."  We are "all the people [who] were baptized."  We are those who are privileged to watch and listen as God's Son is revealed to the world.  We are also those who are called to repentance as we feel the Spirit casting us up into the Spirit's cleansing wind and watching as the "chaff" in our lives is revealed and separated from us.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text is not one that calls us to discipleship.  Discipleship will come to the baptized in short order as Christ calls all the baptized to follow and to become servants in the world, but neither this text, nor the others appointed for this festival, give us this word.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets come right out of the text:  chaff/wheat, unclaimed/beloved, unnamed/child of God.

5.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Ronald Neustadt, in his analysis of this text, archived under 2013 Gospel C, does a nice job of highlighting our attraction to deeds of power.  The diagnostic portion of the analysis he calls "loving might" and in the prognosis, he terms the solution, "mightily loved."  He talks about how we are so easily seduced by things that look powerful, but end up only being "chaff."  Check out the complete analysis at study.

6.  Exegetical work:  This Sunday might be an excellent opportunity to do some teaching on baptism.  One of the best sources for Luther's insights on baptism is his treatise, "The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism," (LW, Vol 35).  A few examples; "Baptism is an external sign or token, which so separates us from all men not baptized that we are thereby known as a people of Christ, our Leader, under whose banner of the holy cross we continually fight against sin." (29)  "There is a fine sentence of St. Augustine which says, 'Sin is altogether forgiven in baptism; not in such a manner that it is no longer present, but in such manner that it is no longer imputed.'"(33)  "We must humbly admit, 'I know full well that I cannot do a single thing that is pure.  But I am baptized, and through my baptism God, who cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me.  He will not count my sin against me, but will slay it and blot it out." (36)   Another tack might be to do some teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit on this Sunday.   Robert W. Jensen, in the second volume of Christian Dogmatics, provides a fine summary of the work of the Spirit in scripture.  Here are a few pieces from the essay entitled "The Spirit that Spoke by the Prophets":  "The Spirit is experienced as moving transcendent force, to create or throw down, whether in nature or in society." (110)  "The Spirit is freedom for, and the power of, the word that opens the future." (113)  "Jesus does not bear the Spirit only for his own empowerment; he bears him in order to give him, and this gift is eschatological, a baptism with the fire of judgment." (115)  "Life 'according to Spirit' is life that rejoices in being moved and inspired by God, to be just so itself spirit." (118)

Blessings on your proclamation!