Saturday, December 31, 2016
(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
(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
(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
(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 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!