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 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 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 ( 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 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 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 study archived under 2013 Gospel C.

Blessings on your proclamation!