Saturday, December 30, 2017

A Tearing and a Voice

Mark 1:4-11, the gospel lesson for the Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord in the Year of Mark, is a rapid-fire account of Jesus' baptism compared with Matthew and Luke.  John the Baptizer has little to say, and everything gets done in a big hurry.  What takes Luke seventeen verses to say and Matthew twelve, Mark says in seven verses.  It's as if Mark's favorite word - "immediately" - is already being introduced.  I wonder if Mark's urgency is born of excitement or of fear; maybe it's both?

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the basic concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are simply a starting point for exegesis, which can enhance a number of other areas of inquiry.  For more on this genre of preaching 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?  The whole impression of the text is one of urgency.  John the baptizer appears and all the people from the whole countryside come and are baptized by John, confessing their sins.  John proclaims that One is coming who is powerful beyond imagination and this One will baptize with the Spirit.  Suddenly Jesus appears and is baptized and a voice announces he is God's Son, the Beloved.  This scene is functioning as both Law and Gospel as Jesus breaks into the world and causes both hope and fear.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law which exposes our need for this Christ is hard to find here, although the Baptizer's announcement of the need for repentance is certainly that.  To the reader/hearer of this story, however, a clear word of Law is not forthcoming.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are members of the crowd addressed by John who come confessing our sins.  We are those who hear that One is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and we look forward to this.  We are those who see the heavens "torn apart" and wonder what that means.  We might even be those who hear the voice that this is God's Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well-pleased.  What joy we would take in that!

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A call to obedience always follows a call to faith, so in this text that is not yet present.  We are certainly being called to follow this One who will baptize with the Spirit, but that is not the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the Law is only hinted at here, we will have to use our imagination to come up with couplets.  Some ideas:  unforgiven/forgiven; looking for a Messiah/finding a Messiah.

6.  Exegetical work:  As was noted above, the pace of this story is remarkable.  It is as if everything is being told at a breathless pace.  Because of this it is all the more remarkable that in verse 6, Mark pauses to tell us in detail about the appearance of John the Baptizer.  It's almost as if the action pauses as Mark points out that John wears camel's hair with a leather girdle about his waist, and eats locusts and wild honey.  Clearly the purpose of this is to connect John to the prophet Elijah who is described similarly in II Kings 1:8.  The return of Elijah, tradition had it, would precede "the great and terrible day of the Lord." (Malachi 4:5)  Mark seems to be suggesting that such a day has come.  This would explain Mark's urgency.  Another telling detail in this text is Mark's choice of the word "skizo" instead of "anoigo"to describe the opening of the heavens in verse 10.  Don Juel, in his fine commentary on Mark, notes that this word translates into the heavens being "torn apart."  He notes also that this is in present passive form, indicating that this process is ongoing, not a completed action.  The image, says Juel, is "strong, even violent".  The heavens are "torn apart," and they "cannot be repaired."  "The heavens understood as a great cosmic curtain that separates creation from God's presence, are in the process of being torn open."  "God is on the loose." (A Master of Surprise, p. 34-35)  It is also noteworthy that Mark only uses this "tearing" verb one other time, when the temple curtain is torn apart at the death of Christ.  And there, as in this text, once that tearing happens there is a confession:  "Truly this man was God's Son!" (15:38-39)  The "skizo" of the heavens, in effect, bookends, the entire life and ministry of Christ.  Finally, Kittel, in discussing the use of this word in the New Testament, has this to say:  "Heavens torn open at the baptism of Jesus is a motif in eschatological revelation which God gives at turning points in the history of His people."  See Isaiah 64:1, Ezekiel 1:1, Acts 7:56 and 10:11, and Revelation 4:11 and 19:11. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, p. 959f)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock was always urging us to bring the experience of the text, not just its content to the listener.  One of the challenges for the preacher this week will be to bring Mark's sense of urgency to the sermon event.  How will that be accomplished?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Rising and Falling with Christ

Luke 2:22-40 is the gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday of Christmas in the Year of Mark.  It contains the well-known "Song of Simeon," known liturgically by its Latin opening, Nunc Dimittis."  It is a lovely text announcing Christ as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles."  But then Simeon goes on to announce that "this child is destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed..."  Gospel, then Law, juxtaposed, right here before us.

(The following questions have been developed in order to give preachers a way of getting at some of the underlying issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For a discussion of this unique genre of preaching you may see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.org or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word here functions as both Law and Gospel, in that it announces, through the words of Simeon and Anna, both who Christ is and our need of such a Savior.  Neither Simeon nor Anna are speaking to anyone particular in their praises of God, although Simeon does address Mary directly saying that "a sword will pierce your own soul too."  In other words, the sword of Christ's words which will pierce many hearts will also be Law to Mary.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who overhear these words spoken in the temple courtyard that day.  We are those who are "looking for the redemption of Jerusalem."  We are those who both long to see the Lord's Messiah, and at the same time will oppose him.  We are those whose hearts will be revealed.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   There is an overlay of obedience to the Law throughout this story.  Everything Mary and Joseph do is done in order to accomplish "everything required by the Law of the Lord."  As Luther pointed out, there is no disorder in the wish to do everything the Law requires.  The call to obedience, however, is the call to do all things in response to what God has done on our behalf in Christ.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are a number of verses that suggest couplets here:  darkness/light; seeing bondage/seeing deliverance; falling/rising.

5.  Exegetical work:  Don Juel, in his brief commentary, notes the Law in the words of Simeon:  "The coming savior of Israel will not be hailed by everyone; his mission will not be one of unequivocal blessing.  He may bring consolation to Israel, but he is 'set for the fall' of many in Israel.  His advent will precipitate a crisis in which the 'thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.'" (Luke-Acts, The Promise of History, p. 24)  Fred Craddock follows this theme, calling out our tendency as preachers to 'soft-pedal' the crisis Jesus brings:  "As much as we may wish to join the name of Jesus only to the positive, satisfying, and blessed in life, the inescapable fact is that anyone who turns on light creates shadows." (Interpretation Series, Luke, p. 39)  Two of our most formative reformers had their thoughts on Simeon's song.  In a sermon  from 1526 Luther saw in Simeon a model of one to whom Christ brings faith and hope:  "Whoever can see and recognize this young Lord who became subject to the law for us, his heart will be made happy against all adversity."  Calvin, on the other hand, focused on the word of Law:  "Simeon calls Christ 'a sign that is opposed.'  Therefore, because unbelievers are rebels against Christ, they dash themselves against him, which causes their ruin." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. III, pp. 61-63).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster does an excellent job showing how both law and gospel are present in this text.  He divides his diagnosis and prognosis into two large segments, Our Hearts Revealed and God's Heart Revealed.  Go to crossings.org/text study to see the entire, very helpful analysis.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  "Shared story" was the phrase Charles Rice used to describe the experience we want for our listeners.  A challenge in this text will be how to help our listeners recognize how their own story intersects with Simeon and Anna's.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Who? Me?

The announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she would be the mother of God's Son, recorded in Luke 1:26-38, is the gospel lesson appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent in the Year of Mark.  This announcement has become, in the history of the Church, a feast day for some Christians, celebrated as the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  While it is true that the angel told Mary that she was favored by God, the veneration of Mary tends to lead us into skewed thinking about whom it is that God favors.  Was Mary really that different from any of us?  Is it not possible that it is God's amazing power and grace that is most remarkable here and not Mary's virtue and obedience?

(The following questions attempt to unearth some of the basic concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but they have been developed as part of 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 word is pure good news.  It  is gospel in its purest form.  The Son of the Most High is to be born to a human mother.  Nothing will be impossible with God!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is almost no hint of Law here.  We might note Mary's hesitancy to believe the angel and her skepticism regarding his announcement, but then again, who can blame her?  Also finally she says, "Let it be with me according to your word."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are either in the position of Mary or one who overhears this conversation between Gabriel and Mary.  If we identify with Mary we might explore her response to Gabriel's words, "Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you," as well as her response to the announcement that she would be the mother of God's Son.  If we identify with one who overhears this conversation we might explore our response to God's plan to restore to David's throne one whose kingdom will last forever.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Mary's final words are an example for us:  "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  We live in response to the announcement of God's amazing love for the world.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because the Law is not present in this text we will need to imagine some  fitting couplets.  Here are a few ideas:  unfavored/favored; barren/fruitful; nothing is possible/nothing is impossible.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is worth noting that Gabriel's promise to Mary that "the power of the Most High will overshadow you," uses the same word used in Genesis 1:2 which says that "the Spirit hovered over the formless matter when the miracle of creation took place." This suggests that "there is a new creative act of God when Jesus is born."  (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. V, p. 835.)  The apostles receive a similar promise when, just prior to Jesus' ascension, they are told, "And you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses..." (Acts 1:8)  This overshadowing and emphasis on the powerlessness of those whom God chooses, is well noted in the words of  17th century Austrian Lutheran poet, Catherina Regina von Greiffenberg:  "Who would believe that the King of kings, the Lord of all the potentates, would dispatch an angel as an ambassador to a poor maiden or the wife of an artisan?  What is more absurd before the world and yet better disposed for the dispensation of heaven?  Poverty and lowliness are no hindrance to divine calling:  as little as they could take from her the right of inheritance of her royal birth from the house of David and still less the gracious election by God, whose piercing eyes see through all the mountains of misery the small flash of the metal of virtue that his hand has placed within them." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. III, p. 15)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Marcus Felde highlights Gabriel's words to Mary, "The Lord is with you," and shows how that announcement can be either a word of Law or of Gospel.  Go to crossings.org/textstudy to see the whole analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Who Do You Think You Are?

John 1:6-8, 19-28, the gospel lesson appointed for the 3rd Sunday in Advent in the Year of Mark, is John's answer regarding the identity of John the Baptizer.  The first thing we learn is that he was a man (not an angel). Then we learn that he was sent by God and his name was John.  If this does not peek our interest then we are told why he has come:  to testify to the light which we have been told about in the first five verses: the light of all peoples; the light that shines in the darkness which the darkness could not overcome.  A person with a name and a calling.  Could he be a model for each of us?

(The following questions attempt to answer some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used with any of other fine sets of questions we might use to inquire of a text.  To learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, 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?  The Word functions here to proclaim.  This word proclaims that one has come who is testifying to the light, "so that all might believe [in this light] through him."  The Word also proclaims one who knows himself to be merely "a voice crying out in the wilderness," telling of the One coming later of whom "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals."  All of this proclamation, like other Advent texts, is the Word functioning as gospel bringing good news.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Law is not present here.  That is to say, there is no word lifting up our need for Christ.  Near the end of the text we hear John say, "Among you stands one whom you do not know."  This is a hint of the need we have for a voice, for one pointing to the light.  There is no judgment in this observation, however.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who are questioning John:  "Who are you?  What do you say about yourself?  Why are you baptizing?"  We are the ones who do not recognize the One who stands among us, even though this One is the true light that enlightens all.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is no call to obedience, per se, but John is an example for us in that we also have a name.  We also are sent by God to be a voice in the wilderness.  We also are called to testify to the One who has given us light.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There is language in the text that leads us to several ideas:  darkness/light; lost [in the wilderness]/found; unknown/known.

6.  Exegetical work: It is clear from the opening verses that this text is about testimony.  John came to "testify to the light."  Kittel reminds us of the meaning behind this Greek word, martys:  "The witness is simply to the nature and significance of His person."  "He is the Son of god.  He is the light of the world.  He is the Savior.  He is the Lamb of God...etc." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. IV, p. 498)  The ancient writers were in one accord as to the importance of this testimony.  Origen, writing in the third century said that "some try to undo the testimonies of the prophets to Christ by saying that the Son of God had no need of such witnesses... To this we may reply that where there are a number of reasons to make people believe, persons are often impressed by one kind of proof and not by another."  Cyril of Alexandria, several centuries later, wrote:  "[God] did not suppose that he ought, even if of gravest weight, to demand of the readers in his book concerning our Savior credence above that of the law, and that they should believe him by himself when declaring things above our understanding and sense."  St. John Chrysostom, a contemporary of Cyril's, reminded us of the mercy God shows in using a witness:  "[Christ] could have proven that he had no need of that [herald's] testimony by showing himself in his unveiled essence, had he so chosen, and that would have confounded them all.  But he did  not do this because he would have annihilated everybody since no one could have endured the encounter of that unapproachable light." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. IVa, p. 30).

7.   Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick was quick to point out the need to limit our sermons to only the number of "moves" that the listener could keep in mind at once.  Are we careful to consider the listener's capacity as we preach?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Ta-Da! A Proclamation!

Mark 1:1-8, the gospel lesson appointed for the Second Sunday of Advent, is the first 'Ta-Da" moment in a line of many others to come in Mark's gospel.  You can almost hear the trumpets sounding as Mark begins.  There are no verbs, only the announcement, "[Hear ye, hear ye!]  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God!"  That must have garnered the crowds' attention.  Undoubtedly it also got the Romans' attention, since only Caesar was regarded as 'son of god', and only Caesar was licensed to give 'good news'.  Hints of things to come?

(The following questions have been formed to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, please 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?  This is pure proclamation.  As such it is a gospel function:  the One for whom we have waited is coming!  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!  This is a new beginning!  Lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing nigh!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law here, although there is a report of public repentance.  This is interesting in that John the baptizer, who will speak a word of Law, is announced, but here there is no such word.  That word of judgment, in fact, is completely absent from Mark's account.  Matthew and Luke include John's dire warning to those who came out to be baptized, but Mark omits this.  No word here of "the wrath to come" or of an "ax even now laid to the root of the trees," but only of the One whose sandal "I am not worthy to stoop down and untie."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As always we identify with those to whom the Word is addressed.  This whole text is addressed to the reader, thus it is addressed to us.  The announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ is coming to us.  We are the ones who are told that the baptizer has appeared in the wilderness, signalling the end of our wilderness wanderings.  We are the ones who are invited to be baptized in the Jordan, confessing our sins, and step foot into a new land on the other side of the Jordan.  We are the covenant people of God!

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? The call to "prepare the way of the Lord" could be counted as a call to obedience, except that the call to obedience is always in response to God's work in Christ.  Since all we have here is the announcement of Christ's coming, a call to obedience would be premature.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We will have to delve into the context of this passage in order to fashion some suitable Law/Gospel couplets.  Remembering that Caesar is the one for whom the terms "son of god" and "gospel" were reserved we might imagine the following:  false Christ/Son of Man; false gospel/Good News.

6.  Exegetical work:  I have always liked the quote attributed to Gregory the Great (d. 604):  "Whoever preaches right faith and good works prepares nothing other than a road for the Lord to come into the hearer's hearts so that his gracious power might penetrate and the light of truth illuminate them.  Thus may the preacher make straight the paths for God..."  (Lamar Williamson, Interpretation, Mark, p. 33)  Donahue and Harrington, in their commentary on this gospel, make note of the River Jordan, a "barrier between wilderness and land of promise," inviting we readers to hear this good news and enter into a new land ourselves.  (Sacra Pagina, The Gospel of Mark, p. 63)  This is a promising tack, given that a new Son of God, a new land, and a new life of repentance await us.  I am intrigued by Eugene Boring's idea that this whole prologue in Mark's gospel (verses 1-15) are heard "offstage."  Boring imagines a theatre audience hearing an "offstage voice of God speaking in words of Scripture."  The action unfolds as Jesus is introduced. (The NT Library, Mark, pp. 33-37)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In my analysis of this I highlight the ways in which we are seduced by false Christ's, passing on the untruths of the empire, and finding ourselves finally without a Savior.  The word of the prophet that One has come who is truly Son of God frees us from our bondage and illusions.  See the entire analysis at crossings.org/text study.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Could there be any better time than this to do what Henry Mitchell always encouraged?  Celebration!  Celebrate this announcement!  Christ is coming soon!

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Good News of the End

Mark 13:24-37, the gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday of Advent, appears at first glance like a continuation of the word we heard in Matthew 25 at the end of the Pentecost season.  Watch!  Keep awake!  You know neither the day nor the hour of the Master's return.  But looking more closely we notice hints of good news.  Spring is coming!  Look at the fig tree.  Maybe this isn't a threat which causes fear, but a promise that brings hope.

(The following questions attempt to get at some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers, specifically concerns about how the Word is functioning.  For more on this genre of preaching, 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 text is good news to "the elect".  Verse 27 says that the Son of Man will come with great power and glory and "gather his elect" from the corners of the earth.  This is a Gospel word to those who are enduring suffering.  The text goes on to compare the present time to the ending of a season when the cold of winter is passing away and the summer is coming.  This also is a message of good news.  Even the word that "heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" is good news to the suffering ones.  In effect the message is, "Take courage.  God's word is sure.  Though you suffer in the night, grace comes in the morning."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The word of Law, announcing to us our need for Christ, is not overly present here.  There is a word of judgment to "the powers in the heavens" and to any who stand opposed to this One who comes with great power and glory, but these opponents of the Christ are not really addressed.  This is a word to God's people who are enduring suffering.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As always we are the ones whom the Word addresses, in this case, those who are longing for the end to come.  Like the writers of the spiritual "My Lord, What a Mornin!'" we are the ones who are watching and waiting as "the stars begin to fall."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The second half of the text is a clear call to obedience.  Because we are confident that the master of the house will return from his journey and bring with him gifts for all, we are commanded to each be about our work.  Because we are servants of a good and generous master we are eager to have all things ready upon his return.  We take joy in being about the work which is ours to do.

5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the Law is not overly present in this text we will need to provide that side of the equation.  Some possible ideas:  winter/springtime; ongoing suffering/the end of suffering; absence/presence.

6.   Exegetical work:  Don Juel, in his masterful analysis of Mark's gospel, quotes an article by Nils Dahl titled "The Purpose of Mark's Gospel."  Juel points out that "rather than presuming a readership whose problem was persecution, [Dahl] argued that the Gospel addresses a church that has tasted success and found it satisfying.  It envisions believers who have taken the gospel for granted, who no longer see the world painted in dramatic colors.  The story of Jesus is retold to shock them into awareness." (A Master of Surprise, p. 87-88)  Dahl's view is quite in contrast to the usual view, that the readers of Mark's gospel were enduring persecution and indeed even longing for the end of the world.  Lamar Williamson pretty well sums up this consensus:  "On either the literal, the pragmatic, or the existential interpretation, the vision of the future in Mark 13 serves to strengthen discipleship in the present.  It arms us against the wiles of deceivers (vv. 5b-6. 21-23).  It sustains us in whatever suffering or persecution we must endure (vv. 8c, 13b, 20b).  It motivates us to get on with the preaching of the gospel to all nations (v. 10).  It both ennobles and relativizes the common round of daily life by making each moment subject to the invasion of the Son of man, who comes to judge and to save."  (Interpretation series, Mark, p. 242-243).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?   Michael Foy, in his analysis of this text, centers upon the image of being watchful.  He points out that we can be either those who watch in fear, or those who watch in faith.  Christ's bursting in upon this world in power and glory is the event that changes our fear to faith, and liberates us to be watchers of the promise.  Go to crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Members of the Family - the Final Word

In Matthew 25:31-46, the final parable in this triad of Final Judgment parables in Matthew 25, we get one last look at Matthew's piety, which was revealed early on in the Sermon on the Mount.  We recall the words of Jesus, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (7:21)  So it is.  Both the righteous and the unrighteous refer to the king as kyrios but they have starkly different ends.  The many parallels in this parable behoove us to pay attention to the details which lead to these ends.

(The following questions have been developed to answer some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to be used in conjunction with many other fine sets of exegetical questions which attempt to get at other concerns.  For more on this genre of preaching, please 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?  There is no doubt that the Word is functioning as Law here.  The final verse seals it:  "And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life."  There is a strong sense of the Law functioning as mirror here, showing us our sin.  We have all neglected those in need, and so we all stand under judgment.  As the prophet said, "There is none righteous; not even one."  But as St. Paul reminds us, the Law is meant to drive us to repentance, and so it does, urging us to take care of our siblings in need.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Like the previous parables in Matthew 25, the Gospel is not immediately obvious.  One important statement gives us a hint, however:  "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."  Notice that this inheritance was set up long before anyone had had an opportunity to earn it.  It has been God's will since the foundation of the earth to keep in readiness an inheritance for the blessed ones.  This inheritance is evidence of God's great love for all creation.  It is equally important to note that the eternal fire is not prepared for the cursed, but for the devil and his minions.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those on the right and those on the left.  We are those who both see the needy neighbor and those who are blind to them.  We are those who are called to repentance by this parable.  Again, there is none righteous; not even one.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text, just like the previous two parables, can be understood as a call to obedience.  Here we are called to minister to those in need in no uncertain terms.  As recipients of God's grace, as joint heirs with Christ, we are compelled to reach out with compassion to our siblings in need.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are obviously some very neat couplets present in the text:  cursed/blessed; shunned/embraced.  We might explore others.

6.  Exegetical work: Some of the details of this text appear noteworthy:  One is the obvious same wording that is used when the king speaks to the faithful and to the unfaithful.  Neither see Christ in their needy neighbor.  Both encounter the same neediness; one ministers to them, one does not. One interesting detail is that the king describes "the least of these" as those who are "members of my family" in speaking to the faithful, while the king leaves out that detail in talking to the unfaithful.  It makes me wonder if a key to a life of compassion isn't in seeing the needy as siblings of ours.  Another interesting parallel, alluded to above, is that the eternal fire and the kingdom have both been prepared beforehand.  The word could be translated "kept in readiness."  God's kingdom is kept in readiness to be inherited by the blessed.  The eternal fire is kept in readiness for the devil and his minions.  Both have been kept in readiness since the foundation of the world.  St. Chrysostom in commenting on this says, "He did not say [to the blessed] 'take' but 'inherit' as one's own, as your father's, as yours, as due to you from the first. 'For before you were,' he says, 'these things had been prepared and made ready for you, because I knew you would be such as you are.'" "But concerning the fire, he does not say [prepared for you from the foundation of the world] but 'prepared for the devil.'  I prepared the kingdom for you, he says, but the fire I did not prepare for you but 'for the devil and his angels.'  But you have cast yourselves into it.  You have imputed it to yourselves." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 232-234)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text? Jerry Bruce does a nice job of reminding us of the interrelatedness of all these parables in Matthew.  He reminds us that, as I pointed out, Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount are echoed here.  Finally, the good news is that we are not sheep or goats, but "members of God's family."   That's the really good news.  Christ has seen us in our hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, and imprisonment, and ministered to us. To that we say, Thanks be to God!  See Jerry's entire analysis at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Dreadful or Wonderful Piety

The second parable in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Talents, is the gospel lesson appointed for the 24th Sunday of Pentecost.  This Sunday is also called the 3rd Sunday of End Time, Saints Triumphant.  Like the parable that precedes it and the one that follows it, it is clearly a parable about the return of Christ.  Here, however, the relationship that the slaves have with their master is lifted up.  The question for us seems to be, What characterizes our relationship with the Master?  Dread or wonder?

(The following questions try to address some of the central concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more about this unique 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?  This text is lifting up faithfulness and condemning unfaithfulness.  Because it is clear that the unfaithful are judged harshly, the Word is functioning as Law, reminding us of the ways that we "bury" God's gifts to us.  The example of the unfaithful slave also lifts up the relationship of dread he has with the Master.  Clearly he lives in fear of what the Master will do to him if he fails.  Somehow, although he lives in the same home as the faithful slaves, he fails to trust or have faith in the Master and so his fear controls him.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  At first glance a Gospel word seems hard to find in this text, but if we take careful note of the faithful servants we catch a hint of Gospel.  Noting the bold, adventurous, fearless actions of the faithful servants we might ask ourselves, how is it that they can act with such abandon?  Answer:  they have an absolute faith and trust in the mercy of the Master.  They do not fear losing the Master's money - they know the Master to be generous and forgiving.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the slaves; which one we shall identify with is up to us.  We might ask ourselves, "Which attitude characterizes my relationship with God?"  Do I dread God's wrath?  Or do I have confidence in God's mercy?  Am I able to do what Luther advised:  "Sin boldly, but believe even more boldly still"?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  It could be argued that this whole parable is a call to obedience, a call to live faithfully, anticipating the Lord's return.  How we serve, after all, is a response to God's grace, not what we do to gain it.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The contrasting attitudes of the faithful and the unfaithful provide us much fodder for our imagination:  living in dread/living by faith; fearful/trusting; hoarding gifts/living with abandon.

6.  Exegetical work:  A narrative critical analysis of this parable reveals that the place where the most detail is shared is in the section about the unfaithful slave.  Two verses are devoted to the conversation between the faithful slave who received five talents and the master.  Similarly, two verses are devoted to the conversation between the second faithful slave and the master, with that conversation being a repeat of the first.  In contrast, four verses are spent on the conversation between the unfaithful slave and master.  This suggests that the key to the parable is here, which I believe it is.  By the unfaithful slave's description of the master we see why he has acted as he has:  he views his master as cruel, unscrupulous, and worthy of fear.  Thus his decision to bury his master's money.  And so we are warned, as Chrysostom did, that "it is not only the covetous, the active doers of evil things and the adulterer" who are condemned, "but also the one who fails to do good."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. Ib, p. 221)  As Douglas Hare points out, the unfaithful one's sin is not merely that he fails to use his gifts faithfully, but his failure to see the gifts as precious and, most importantly, his failure to know his master.  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 287). 

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was a master of celebration in his sermons.  Perhaps a challenge we could take up here is that of finding a way to celebrate the Master's entrusting us with God's gifts, and celebrating those who throw caution to the wind in investing those gifts for others.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Word to the Wise!

In the midst of two chapters exhorting us to readiness for the coming of the Son of Man, we have this interesting parable.  It ends with a message much like those preceding and following it:  "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."  The divide amongst those in the parable, however, is unlike the other parables in that they are not labeled "trustworthy or worthless" or "blessed or accursed," but rather "wise or foolish."  This parable suggests that wisdom is part of discipleship.  Perhaps we have overlooked this.

(The following questions are an attempt to get at some of the foundational concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are intended to be used in conjunction with other sets of questions which have other concerns.  They were developed as part of 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?  It is clear that this parable is a call to readiness.  Similar calls in the preceding chapter provide the context.  It is a call to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. It is a call to those who have already been invited to the wedding feast - to those who are known by the bridegroom.  That is why the final word, "I do not know you," is so startling.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There seems to be a lack of Gospel in this text.  We are exhorted to be ready for Christ's coming.  We are told to be wise and prepared.  We are told that there are some who have been invited to the feast who have finally been left outside.  None of this sounds like Gospel, telling us what God has done in Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are, of course, the bridesmaids, either wise or foolish.  We are those to whom the message comes, "Be prepared.  Bring oil for your lamps. You know neither the day nor the hour."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  It could be argued that this entire parable is a call to obedience.  In other words, this text invites us to respond to what God has done in Christ by living wisely as we await the coming of the Son of Man.  We might look at the passages immediately preceding this one to see what living wisely entails.  These preceding passages suggest that working faithfully at our callings is the best way to be prepared.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without gospel content we must use our imaginations to create the couplet.  Possible examples:  left out/invited in; having no oil/having an inexhaustible source of oil.

6.  Exegetical Work:  There has been a lively discussion down through the ages as to the allegorical identity of the various pieces of this parable.  Augustine argued that both the wise and the foolish maidens were members of the Church, but that the wise maidens - the ones with oil in their lamps - were the members of the church who practiced an enduring love.  He thought that the foolish maidens were those who were interested primarily in mere appearances, and they were even foolish enough to believe that works of charity could be purchased.  They were foolish mainly then, because they believed that the appearance of charity was all the Lord required, rather than an enduring love.  Augustine's entire discussion can be seen in the helpful collection Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 1b, pp.214-220.  Luther, not surprisingly, argued that the oil in the lamps was faith.  According to Douglas Hare, the most popular suggestion regarding the oil is that it represents good works.  He believes this comes from Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."  (Interpretation Series, Matthew, p. 285) In all cases, whatever the oil represents, it is considered essential in order to be admitted to the heavenly feast.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessman, in a very clever analysis, also picks up on the oil in the lamps as a central element, highlighting the "energy crisis" we all share.  She shows how Christ comes amongst us as the one who takes our place as one unknown by God.  Our energy source is restored and we are freed to share our energy with others.  See crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Shareholders in the Kingdom

Matthew 5:1-12, the gospel lesson appointed for All Saints' Sunday, is one we are all familiar with.  Like Psalm 23 or the traditional Lord's Prayer, it flows off the tongue in an easy rhythm.  What these familiar words announce are the identity of those who are shareholders in the time of God's reign.  What might surprise us is the solidarity we are called to with all those who are called blessed.

(The following questions are designed to unearth some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which open up the text in different ways.  They have  been developed as part of 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 announces God's favor to any number of people who would not expect to be counted as blessed.  This is a gospel function.  Those whom the world views as cursed, unlucky, and pitiful, Jesus announces as blessed.  Similarly viewed are those who stand with these blessed ones.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   Unlike the woes announced in Luke 6, this account of the sermon does not contain a word of Law.  There is no word which expresses our need for Christ, only the announcement of blessedness.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is always an interesting question when approaching this text.  We cannot identify with everyone whom the Word addresses simply because we are not likely to be enduring at all times all those things listed here.  Perhaps we have been poor in spirit, or have been in mourning, but we are no longer.  Those whom we can identify with,  however, are those who are actively living under God's reign:  the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The second half of the text implies that we are to pursue a life under God's reign, showing mercy, longing for righteousness, seeking peace, and willing to be persecuted for righteousness' sake.  To do these things is to live in response to the blessedness that Jesus announces.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  Without a word of Law, we will have to imagine the first half of each couplet.  Some ideas:  outcast/embraced; orphaned/called heirs; rejected/favored.

6.  Exegetical work:  It has long been agreed by scholars that Jesus' announcement of those blessed under the reign of God is a reversal of the customary evaluations given in the world.  What has not been agreed on is if blessedness is a result of misfortune or virtue.  More than one attempt has been made to force all of these beatitudes into one pot or another.  Mark Allan Powell, in his book, God With Us; A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel, offers a way out of this dilemma.  He first lifts up the pattern of the beatitudes which resembles Hebrew parallelism.  He also notes that both Matthew 5:3-6 and 5:7-10 contain exactly thirty-six words, "the proteses of 5:6 and 5:10 both conclude with the word dikaiosyne, and 5:3-6 exhibits internal alliteration through the naming of groups that begin with the letter p:  the poor (ptochoi) in spirit, those who mourn (penthountes), the meek (praeis), and those who hunger (peinontes) and thirst for righteousness." (p. 121)  Powell then goes on to show how the first stanza may be thought of as announcing blessings on the unfortunate, and the second stanza as announcing the same blessing on the virtuous.  Finally, Powell shows how the concluding verses offer a way of tying together these two stanzas, as Jesus announces God's favor upon those who because of their virtue (stanza two), experience the struggles of those in stanza one.  Noting the shift to second person in the concluding verses, Powell writes that "Matthew's readers are expected to realize that continued empathy with the disciples means adopting a perspective that leads to identification with those whom Jesus has declared blessed." (p. 140)  I highly recommend picking up Powell's book and reviewing the entire analysis.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Eric Evers, in his analysis, provides an interesting tack.  He show how fruitless it is to try to establish our own blessedness.  The end of this is only self-righteousness.  How much better to be called blessed even though unrighteous.  See the entire analysis at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Shamed by the Shema

The controversy narratives have continued in Matthew, but now are coming to a climax.  The Sadducess have been silenced, so the Pharisees try one more time to test Jesus, asking him a question which they believe might spark a dispute that they can win.  They are wrong.  To these religious leaders who begin each day with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4f), Jesus quotes the Shema.  In Matthew 22:34-46, the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus silences his opponents.  They have nothing to say in reply.  All that is left now is for his enemies to plot Jesus' death.  They will not be reconciled.

(The following questions have been formulated to bring to the surface concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive in themselves.  For a  more complete understanding of these concerns, as well as this genre of preaching, you may 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?  The Word, in this case Jesus, functions to silence his adversaries, thus a function of Law.  Whenever we need to be silenced by Jesus, we are being rebuked, and the function of the Word is to reveal to us our sin, i.e. our need for Jesus. 

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Once again, as is common in these late chapters of Matthew, there is no word of Gospel, no word that shows us the love of God shown us in Christ.  We will need to look elsewhere for this Gospel word, perhaps in the First Lesson appointed for this day:  Jeremiah 31:31-34:  "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, says the Lord:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Here is a rare opportunity:  We can identify with those who have been silenced by Jesus.  We can identify with those who attempt to test Jesus and cause him to stumble, who are instead caused to stumble.  We might want to ask, when have we been silenced by Jesus?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In one sense, the entire first half of this text is a call to obedience.  Love God. Love people.  There is no simpler call to obedience.  It is what we do in response to God's love for us in Christ. We love because God first loved us.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without the Gospel present here, we have to use our imaginations to come up with a couplet.  Here are some ideas:  silenced/freed to testify; unlovable/ loved unconditionally.

6.  Exegetical work:  The extended article on love (agape) in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is very helpful in thinking about the love command in this text.  Here are a few highlights:   "[Jesus] demands love with an exclusiveness which means that all other commands lead up to it and all righteousness finds in it its norm.  For Jesus, too, love is a matter of will and action.  But he demands decision and readiness for God and for God alone in an unconditional manner which startles his hearers." (TDNT, Vol. I, p. 44)  "Jesus frees neighborly love once and for all from its restrictions to compatriots.  He concentrates it again on the helpless man..." (Ibid., p. 45)  Kittel also offers an insightful analysis of the term for neighbor (pleision):  "[Neighbor] carries with it the element of encounter..." "One cannot say in advance who the neighbor is, but that the course of life will make this plain enough."  (TDNT, Vol. VI, p. 317)  Augustine, in his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, offers much wisdom:  "For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves." (Chapter CXVII).  "We love God now by faith, then we shall love Him through sight.  Now we love even our neighbor by faith; for we who are ourselves mortal know not the hearts of mortal men." (Chapter CXXI). 

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Jerome Bruce does an outstanding job of showing how Jesus 'strikes out the side' in this controversy with the Pharisees.  Jesus proves to be 'unhittable.'  Finally, however, the 'home run' that Jesus hits is one whereby even those who have 'struck out' are enabled to 'run the bases.'  Go to crossings.org/text study to see the complete analysis - one that goes perfectly with this being World Series season!

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hypocrisy Exposed

Two-faced is what we sometimes call it.  There are other names as well:  duplicitous, double-dealing, fraudulent, phony.  In Matthew 22:15-22, the gospel lesson appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus calls it what it is:  hypocrisy.  This controversy story is only the first of several which will end in Jesus' march to the Cross.  His willingness to expose the religious leaders for the frauds they were eventually cost him his life.  How will we react when Jesus shows us our hypocrisy?

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at the some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are part of a method I more fully develop 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 functions here as pure Law.  It does the task of holding up a mirror to those who would rather not see whom they really are.  It "breaks the rock in pieces" as Luther said, exposing the sin beneath.  There is no holding back in this controversy between Jesus and the disciples of the Pharisees.  He rails against  them with their polite phoniness:  "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?"

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There are few texts as bereft of a gospel word as this one.  Jesus is taking on the powers of this world.  He will die for the sins of all, but there is no word here which declares the gift his death will be to the world.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As always we must identify with the ones whom the Word addresses.  This means that here we must identify with these self-serving hypocrites.  This is a tough place to put ourselves, but this text challenges us to ask, "How have I been phony, two-faced, and hypocritical?  How have I declared a self-righteousness which is at odds with how I actually live?  How have I tried to play the polite questioner of God, when in my heart of hearts I am dismissive of all God stands for?  Tough questions indeed.

Note:  It is so easy to read these texts and think of others whom we imagine this word addresses.  We so easily think of public examples of misconduct (e.g. politicians, clergy in misconduct, etc.) whom exemplify hypocrisy and fail to embrace this text as a mirror to ourselves.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  In addition to its function as Law, this text also functions as a call to obedience in that we are invited implicitly to live authentically as disciples of Christ.  We are called to throw aside our penchant for false living, and live humbly and faithfully as disciples of Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the gospel word is absent here, we need to use our imagination to come up with couplets.  Some ideas:  hidden lives/open lives; self-righteousness/Christ's righteousness; two-faced/whole-hearted.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is noteworthy that the use of the word translated "put to the test" in verse 18 is a word Matthew only uses for the work of Satan and the work of the Pharisees.  Satan is the tempter and the Pharisees are his disciples.  This is consistent with the way Jesus portrays the religious leaders throughout his gospel:  they are irredeemable.  In Matthew there are no good examples amongst the Pharisees.  The term "hypocrite" is also a favorite term for the Pharisees in  Matthew's gospel.  Out of the 20 times this term is used in the NT, 15 of them occur in Matthew.  Chapter 23 is the place where Jesus really unloads.  According to Kittel's analysis, "The [hypocrisy] of the adversaries [of Jesus] consists in the fact that they are concerned about their status with men (sic) rather than their standing before God.  They thus fail to achieve the righteousness which they pretend to have."  (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, p. 568)  Severus of Antioch, 6th century bishop, gives this insightful analysis: Those who "don't know where [this] one is from call him 'Master'."  Those who were calling him deceiver say, "We know you are truthful."  Those who were saying, "He has a demon," witness that he teaches truth.  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 149)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice was a champion of the shared story of the listener.  He felt that a preacher's main task was to connect the story of the text with the story of the listener.  In this text it is worth pondering how our own experiences of hypocrisy connect with those whom Jesus confronted.

Blessings on your proclamation!



Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dangerous Feasts

The wedding feast described in Matthew 22:1-14, the gospel text appointed for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, is a feast that one wonders if we would want to be invited to or not!  Some who are invited and fail to RSVP properly are destroyed and their city burned.  Another poor soul who obeyed the call to come in from life on the streets and join the party is suddenly informed that wedding garments are required and he finds himself thrown into "the outer darkness."  Is this parable, as some scholars have argued, provided to show us a way contrary to the way God deals with us, or is this a warning to us who presume we have been invited to the feast?  That will be for us to decide.

(The following questions are an attempt to address some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from the method 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?  No matter how you understand this parable, as one showing us the way of God or showing us a way contrary to God's way, the Word functions here as Law.  In the first line of the chapter Matthew tells us that "once more Jesus spoke to them in parables."  "Them" refers to the chief priests and Pharisees identified at the end of the previous chapter. (21:45)  The parable then goes on to lift up the outrageous behavior of wedding guests who have been invited to the banquet of the prince, but who show, not only complete contempt for the king, but even go so far as to seize the king's messengers, mistreat them, and finally kill them.  This early portion of the parable announces clearly, "Beware of this king!  He will judge those who act as these scoundrels did!"

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little Gospel here, any word that proclaims what God in Christ has done.  One could argue that the announcement that "both good and bad" were called into the feast is a Gospel word, but even that word is overshadowed by the last piece of the parable.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are called to identify with the chief priests and Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking.  This parable functions as the Law often does, as a mirror, showing us our sin.  "We have Abraham as our father," was the line of the Pharisees.  We might substitute any number of other presumptuous lines ourselves:  "We have Luther as our forbearer."  In any case, presumption will not do.  We also, in our self-righteousness, might bristle at the thought that "both the good and bad" are invited to God's banquet table, not celebrating the generosity of God.  In many ways this parable is fashioned to lead us to repentance.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The final piece of the parable has been seen by many commentators as a call to obedience.  The necessity for a wedding garment is once again a warning to us of any further presumption we might have regarding God's expectations of the elect.  We have been chosen to attend the feast.  Good.  Now, be dressed in a manner worthy of Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  With little evidence of a Gospel word here, we are left to our imaginations regarding couplets.  We might try:  uninvited/chosen; outside the feast/called to the feast; unclothed/clothed.

6. Exegetical work:  Any number of commentaries on the parables of Jesus are helpful with this text.  David Buttrick reminds us that "Behind the parable of the Feast is an image of the great messianic banquet, a symbol of worldwide salvation. [from Isaiah 25]." (Speaking Parables, p. 158)  Luise Schottroff argues that this parable must not be read ecclesiologically but eschatologically.  She rejects the idea that Matt. 22:14 means "salvation for a small, elite group and rejection of the rest of the world." [Rather] "The genre of Matt. 22:14 is "praise of God who has called and chosen, and thus has given a task to both the many and the few." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 47-48)  A number of ancient commentators have centered on the final piece of this parable, notably Augustine:  "The garment that is required is in the heart, not on the body, for if it had been put on externally, it could not have been concealed even from the servants.  But what is the wedding garment that must be put on?  We learn it from these words, 'May your priests be clothed with righteousness.'"  And later Augustine more precisely identifies this righteousness as "charity" as defined by St. Paul.  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 147)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry insists that we must always move our listeners from equilibrium into disequilibrium and then out again.  This parable is an excellent vehicle for this, for this follows the story line quite closely.  The difficulty will be to make the gospel sing when it is all but hidden in the story itself.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What Will He Do to Those Tenants?

The final paragraph of Matthew 21:33-46, the gospel lesson appointed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, announces that the bad news continues for the enemies of Jesus:  "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them." (vs. 45)  But the question remains:  "What will the owner of the vineyard do to these wicked tenants?"  That is the question we too must ponder.

(The following questions follow a method I have developed to bring out some fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  If you wish to know more about Law and Gospel preaching, 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?  The primary function of the text is to lift up the wickedness of the tenant farmers.  This is certainly the Word functioning as Law, calling into judgement those who would destroy the ones sent to collect the fruits of the vineyard rightly the property of the landowner.  Another function of the text, however, is to lift up the absurd patience of the landowner.  Who is this landowner who continues to send messengers to this murderous bunch, even naively sending the heir?  Could this be the word of the Gospel, hidden, that God's patience is beyond our understanding?

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  One could argue that the hidden word of Gospel mentioned above is overshadowed by the later verses in which Jesus declares, "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." (vs. 43)  This verse indicates that God's patience does have a limit.  I would lift up the fact that the answer to Jesus' question about the fate of the wicked tenants comes not from Jesus' mouth, but from those of his hearers.  They say, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death..."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices, it seems.  We can identify either with the chief priests and Pharisees, or with those who answered Jesus' question, if we assume they are not the same persons.  According to the last verse, the crowds were present as well, so perhaps it was them who answered Jesus' question.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text is not a call to obedience, but a call to repentance.  As St. Paul says, "Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4b)  The picture we have here of an endlessly patient landowner is a good image for us of God's infinite patience with God's people.  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to the Gospel, is not present here.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The text as a whole does not suggest a couplet, but if we think of what God calls us to here, our couplet is:  rebellious/repentant.

6.  Exegetical work:  Joachim Jeremias, in his classic analysis of the parables of Jesus writes this:  "The whole parable is evidently pure allegory.  Nevertheless this impression undergoes radical modification when the different versions are compared." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 70) Jeremias then proceeds to show how the three synoptic versions of this parable, as well as the version in the Gospel of Thomas, bring us to different conclusions about the allegorical nature of this parable.  David Buttrick also warns us about concluding too quickly that "the other tenants" to whom the vineyard is leased are the Gentile church to come.  Buttrick writes: "Certainly preachers will not want to historicize the parable - Israel has been the wicked vinedressers and now the vineyard is turned over to us responsible Christian tenants.... Besides, any preacher who supposes that 'Christian nations,' by contrast, welcome prophets and are faithful to God's will have failed to notice the Holocaust or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr." (Speaking Parables, p. 81)  What Buttick further lifts up is the fact that the most interesting character in this parable is the owner of the vineyard.  Is it not true that the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories of God's unending patience with God's people, and our own journey with God is filled with our experience of God's patience?  Do we not come to God again and again in confession, and each time God forgives us and "cleanses us from all unrighteousness?"  It seems to me that the correct answer to Jesus' question following this parable is not "He will put those wretches to a miserable death," rather, "In light of what we know about this landowner, he will continue to have mercy on them."  This parable is called "The Wicked Tenants."  I would rename it, "The Merciful Landowner."

7.  Consider the insights  of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?   Fred Craddock always insisted that our listeners must experience the text.  What would it be like if our listeners experienced themselves answering Jesus' question, and then heard from God a different answer to the question - one of grace?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Things of God and Things Not

Matthew 21:23-32, the gospel text appointed for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, is a fierce condemnation of the enemies of Christ.  We are left no doubt about the trajectory of this story:  the enemies of Jesus will now stop at nothing in order to accomplish Jesus' death.  The triumphal entry is behind them, the lament over Jerusalem and Good Friday are on the horizon.  What is the warning to us?

(The following questions have been developed as part of a method for Law and Gospel preachers.  This genre of preaching has several fundamental concerns which this method attempts to deal with.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching 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?  There is little doubt that the Word functions here as Law.  The enemies of Jesus are portrayed as dishonest cowards, who finally will reject the Christ and call for Christ's death.  They will not answer Jesus' questions, nor will they admit their own sins.  Repentance is far from them.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little word of Gospel here.  I suppose that if the tax collectors and prostitutes were overhearing this conversation they might find some good news here, but there is no evidence that they are present.  This is a stark reminder of what we have read earlier in Matthew:  "The first shall be last, and the last first."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We must, even in this text, identify with those whom the Word addresses.  Since the Word addresses the chief priests and the elders, we must assume their position.  We are the ones who refuse to answer Jesus' questions.  We are the ones who are condemned by Jesus.  We are the ones called to repentance.  This is not a comfortable place to be, but this text is an opportunity to reflect on our own hypocrisy, dishonesty, and fear.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience, the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's work, is not present here.  The call to repentance is not the call to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In the second half of the passage, when Jesus tells the parable about the two sons, he gives us an obvious couplet:  disobedient/obedient.  We might extend that further:  unfaithful/faithful, unbelieving/believing.  The fact that the first son "changed his mind" is the fulcrum of these couplets.

6.  Exegetical Work:  A good exercise when considering this text is to use the analytical method outlined by Mark Allan Powell in his book, What is Narrative Criticism?  In this method Powell has us consider the events, characters, settings, and overall interpretation of this text.  In the appendix to his book Powell outlines his method and asks many helpful questions which bring insight to the scene described in the text.  Also Powell is helpful in his analysis of Matthew's portrayal of Jesus enemies:  "In Matthew's story, antipathy for the leaders is the rule.  There are no exceptions in this story - no wise scribe, no ruler of the synagogue whom Jesus helps, no member of the council who comes to bury Jesus.  Matthew's characterization of the leaders is consistent:  they are evil, they are aligned with Satan, and everything they do, say, think, and believe is wrong."  (What is Narrative Criticism?  p. 64)  Douglas Hare, in his commentary on this text, reminds us of our tendency to behave as the chief priests and elders did:  "As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing."  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 247)  We would do well to heed this warning:  God is always doing new things.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer, in his analysis, centers on the question of authority which is at the crux of the debate between Jesus and the leaders.  Who's in charge?  is the question.  Hoyer suggests that there are several answers to this question, but when we decide Jesus is not in charge, we, like the leaders, find the tax collectors and sinners entering the kingdom of God before us.  How much better if Jesus is in charge.  See Hoyer's entire analysis by going to crossings.org/text study.  It is archived under the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 2015.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

God's Agreement? Or Ours?

The workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, the gospel lesson appointed for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, are a varied lot.  Much speculation has been done regarding their laziness or industriousness, their availability or unavailability, and other traits.  One group, the ones who are hired early in the morning, are the only ones who speak.  We often identify with them. What if we identified with those who were hired at the 11th hour?  How might that change our reading?

(The following questions bring to the fore some central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which get at other issues.  To learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, you may 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?  This word generally functions as a rebuke, or as Law, since we most often identify with the workers who are hired early in the morning and grumble when they learn that those who worked only part of the day will receive the same wage as them.  The landowner points out that they have made an agreement with him which he is merely keeping.  We too, often may be accused of reducing God's actions to an 'agreement' we have made.  This leads to all sorts of problems.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Word functioning as Gospel is hidden in plain view once again in this text.  Although the landowner seems to be a tough customer, at the end the landowner reminds the workers of the generosity shown in the equal pay given to all.  Is this a gospel word?  Perhaps not, if we identify with the workers who believe  they deserve more than the others.  Is this a gospel word for some?  I would argue that it is, especially for those hired at the 11th hour.  I think of the repentant thief in Luke 23.  The word to him that he would be in Paradise with the Lord even as he hung dying on a cross was certainly a word of grace.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This, for me, is one of the crucial questions in this text.  Because the context of this passage appears to be Peter's question just prior to this story:  "Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?" we are naturally drawn to identify with the workers hired early in the day.  In that case, this text is a warning to our tendency to self-righteousness and to making deals with God about what is "fair" and what is not.  But if we identify with the workers hired later in the day, especially with those hired at the 11th hour, all of a sudden our perspective changes.  Suddenly the landowner's actions are welcome.  This text then becomes a text about God's generosity and how we stand ever dependent on that generosity.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is not present in this text.  That call is the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in our lives.  We will need to look elsewhere for such a word.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets depend on the tack we take in this text.  If we identify with the grumblers, then a couplet might be: grumbling/thankful.  If we identify with the other workers a couplet might be: fearing the worst/receiving the best.

6.  Exegetical work:  Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is often a treasure trove of insight and this text is no exception.  In the extended article on misthos, translated "wage" or "reward", we read:  "Because God is understood quite absolutely in the greatness of His being and the incomparability of His generous love, because He is in no way dependent on or conditioned by human action, the idea of merit is left behind and in no human action is there any place for counting on divine or human reward.  There is a reward only in so far as God in sheer love, which is unintelligible to mere justice, draws human obedience, for all its limitations, into the power and glory of the kingdom of God." (TDNT, vol. IV, p. 719)  Bernard Brandon Scott, in his commentary supports this reading with these words:  "The parable's strategy is not unlike Paul's argument that with God there is no distinction, that justification (making right) is through gift (Rom. 3:22-24)." "To insist, as the parable does, that invitation, not justice, is the way of the kingdom radically subverts the kingdom of God as a reward for a faithful and just life." (Hear Then the Parable, p. 297-298).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster, in his analysis of this text for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost in 2015, writes of how dangerous it is when we count ourselves among the "firsts" believing we are better than the "lasts."  We become, as Jaster says, the grumbling ones, the ones with grudges against all those who have not "earned" God's favor as we have.  This finally leads to our growing mistrust in the goodness and generosity of God, and his final word to us is not a word of grace, but "Take what belongs to you and go!"  Thankfully Christ takes the burden of day upon himself, and rescues us from ourselves.  See crossings.org/text study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mercy in the Air

Matthew 18:21-35, the gospel text appointed for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, has a clear message:  Now is the time to forgive.  Now!  We may discuss the various identities of all the characters in the parable, but the clear message remains.

(The following questions are provided in order to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, foremost, "How does the text function for the hearer?"  If you'd like to explore the genre of Law and Gospel preaching, 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?  This text has a strong word of Law, encapsulated by the master's rebuke of the unforgiving servant in verses 32-33:  "You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?"  The text ends with a warning:  "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The word of Gospel is hidden here, although it is in plain view.  The Gospel word is that God is like the master who forgave the slave his entire debt, a debt that was far greater than anything he could have ever paid back.  Indeed, this complete forgiveness of the entire debt is wholly unexpected, bringing to mind the words of St. John, "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I Jn. 1:9)

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   This is an interesting question.  Looking at the context of this parable, we might assume we are represented by Peter, the one asking the question about forgiveness.  If we identify with Peter, then we would be the unforgiving slave in the parable: the one who though having been forgiven everything, will forgive his fellow slave nothing.  This is certainly an appropriate way to go.  But we might try identifying with the other slaves in the parable.  What if we identify with the one who experiences the merciless action of his fellow slave?  Or what if we identify with the other slaves who tattle-tale to the master the sins of their fellow?  It might be interesting to explore our own self-righteousness by stepping into that perspective.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Living mercifully, the theme of this parable, is a call to obedience.  Like any call to obedience, this is one of the ways we live in response to the gospel. We do not forgive in order that we can be forgiven, but because we have been forgiven.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The theme is clear; couplets that describe it are innumerable:  unforgiving/forgiving; merciless/merciful; indebted/debt-free.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of helpful commentaries on the parables of Jesus, and I would recommend the serious preacher avail him or herself of copies of each.  David Buttrick's Speaking Parables is particularly insightful in this parable.  He notes how this parable lifts up the fact that "if we refuse to forgive a neighbor, we are violating the merciful context of our lives." (p.111)  This suggests that we, like the unforgiving slave, often fail to see that as forgiven sinners, mercy is in the air we breathe, and when we fail to recognize this, our lives violate the context of  our life.  Luise Schottroff agrees with Buttrick's assessment and offers a rabbinic parallel to Matthew's teaching:  "Forgiveness between human beings is a sign of the presence of this God:  'Let this be a sign in your hand:  As often as you are merciful... the Almighty has had mercy on you.'" (The Parables of Jesus, p. 201)  "The content of the Gospel of Matthew is very closely related to the later rabbinic idea about the necessity of forgiveness between human beings and its basis in God's promises." (Ibid., p. 202)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under Gospel A for 2011, Eric Evers reminds us that forgiveness is essential not only in personal encounters, but even more essential in our communal life in this post-9/11 world.  He speaks of the violence in our hearts that causes us to 'seize others by the throat' and demand they return to us what they owe.  Evers reminds us that if this is what we want, God will finally agree to this, which will in turn lead to our demise.  See the whole analysis at crossings.org/text study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Mesh God Made of Us

The Church can certainly be a messy place, so witnesses the gospel lesson for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 18:15-20.  Here we have words attributed to Jesus that have found their way into many a church constitution, which speak to the need for church discipline.  But the passage ends hopefully with the promise of our Lord's presence whenever we come together in his name.  What would that mean - to gather in Jesus' name?  There is probably more there than we first think.

(The following are from a series of questions which get at some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive in themselves.  They come from 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 is clearly instructing the future church on its life together.  This is a classic example of the call to obedience.  This is instruction in how to live in response to the gospel.  The Law is present in this text as the need for such instruction implies that church members sinning against one another is part of our life together, and so forgiveness must be part of our life as well.  A word of Gospel comes right at the end as Jesus promises that the Father will work on our behalf whenever we agree together, and Jesus himself will be present whenever we gather in his name.  These are powerful promises.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit word of Law and Gospel in this text since the main intent of the text is to instruct.  A word of Law here would be a clear word regarding our need for Christ, and a word of Gospel would be a clear word about what God has done for us in Christ.  Neither is present here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are members of the worshipping community.  It is we who need forgiveness from one another,  we who need to seek reconciliation with those who have sinned against us, we who will stand with those who have been sinned against in the body.  This text is addressed to any who are members of a faith community.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The text gives us language for several couplets:  sinned against/regained into fellowship; not listened to/reconciled with the body; bound/loosed from sin.

5.  Exegetical work:  The words translated "bind" and "loose" have a rabbinic background.  They are terms used "to declare forbidden or permitted, thus to impose or remove an obligation.  Hence to impose or remove a ban, to expel from and receive back into the congregation."  (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, p. 60f). These terms may suggest that if you ban someone from the congregation on earth, that person is banned in heaven from the assembly of God's chosen.  And if you admit one, or permit someone to share the assembly on earth, it will be so in the kingdom of God.  (Ibid.) Augustine, in his writing, reminds us of our continual need to show mercy and charity to those who have sinned against us:  "Therefore, when any one sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves.  For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries.  Just set aside your injury, but do not neglect your brother's wound."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 77).  Augustine continues, reminding us that even when a person refuses to be reconciled by any means, our duty is still to love them:  "[When one has refused to be reconciled] we don't consider him now in the number of our brothers.  But not even is his salvation  to be neglected.  For even the heathen, that is, the Gentiles and pagans, we do not consider in the number of our brothers, yet we constantly pray for their salvation."  (Ibid, p.78)  I appreciate the perspective Douglas Hare shares in his commentary on this passage:  "There is a sense in which verse 20 interprets not only the immediately preceding saying but all the verses of the paragraph.  The risen Christ is 'in the midst' of each stage of the procedure of verses 15-17, and it is he who has conferred on the congregation the responsibility of binding and loosing.  If the Christian fellowship is to survive the strains imposed by human failure, it will be only because the risen Lord sustains it."  (Interpretation series, Matthew, p. 215)

 Blessings on your proclamation!