Saturday, February 25, 2017

Led Into Temptation

Since we so often pray, "Lead us not into temptation", it is noteworthy that in Matthew's account of Jesus' wilderness experience in 4:1-11, the gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday in Lent, we are told that "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."  There is no mistaking it; this is a purpose clause (i.e. the purpose of the Spirit's leading was to put Jesus in a place where he would be tempted).  This begs the question "Why?  Why would the Spirit want Jesus to be tempted?"  Could it be for our sake?

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  They are meant to focus the Law/Gospel preacher who wants to understand how the Word is functioning in the text as a guide to preaching a Law/Gospel sermon.  My guide is available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a very unique text in that the perspective of the reader is one of "a mouse in the corner" - we simply get to watch the action from the sidelines.  The clue to our own place in this story is Jesus' identity as Son of God.   Immediately prior to this story in Matthew, Jesus' identity is made known as the voice from heaven at his baptism announces, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  We too, at our baptism, are announced as children of God.  We too are tempted.  This text functions as Gospel, assuring us that because we "have been crucified with Christ" in our baptism and thus it is no longer we who live, but "Christ within us", the Christ within us is able to withstand the wiles of the devil.

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  In the text itself there is not a word of Law, that is to say, there is not a word that explicitly exposes our need for Christ.  If however, we take seriously the fact that only as Christ lives within us can we have any hope of withstanding temptation, then this whole text is Law as it exposes our vulnerability to temptation. The three temptations of Jesus are common to us all:  temptations to indulge, to possess, and to impress.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  In almost all texts our role is to identify with the one whom the Word addresses. In this unique text, however, that would mean identifying with the tempter.  That does not seem like a helpful alternative.  In this situation we identify with Jesus.  We are the ones who find ourselves tempted.  We, like Jesus, call upon resources outside of ourselves to overcome these temptations.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  The most obvious couplet is, of course, temptation presented/temptation thwarted.  Another the story suggests is devil asserts power/Jesus claims power.

5.  Exegetical work:  The Greek text is very helpful here primarily because it shows us what kind of conditional phrase we are working with here.  Conditional phrases can either be condition-of-fact, condition-of-nonfact, or condition-of-uncertainty.  This is clearly a condition-of-fact. This is important in that when the tempter says to Jesus "If you are the Son of God..." he is not implying that Jesus might not be the Son of God, because that would be a condition-of-uncertainty.  No, rather the tempter is really saying, "If you are the Son of God - and you are ..." (Condition-of-fact).  I often translate such conditions using the word "since."  So here, "Since you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.  Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple pinnacle."  This shows us clearly that these temptations come to Jesus precisely because he is the Son of God.  Therefore this story reveals to us that there are temptations that will be uniquely ours as children of God!  Douglas Hare, in his fine commentary on Matthew (Interpretation Series) shows this connection by revealing the parallels between Jesus' temptation and the temptations of the Israelites in the wilderness. (p. 22f)   This is worth studying.  Gregory the Great, long ago, in his commentary on this text drew parallels to the temptation story in the Garden of Eden:  "Our ancient enemy rose up against the first human being, our ancestor, in three temptations.  He tempted him by gluttony, by vain ambition, and by avarice:  Taste it, you will be like gods, knowing good and evil."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. 1a, p. 56f).  Commentators down through the ages have seen the commonness of temptation.  Even Oscar Wilde had some advice:  "The only way to get rid of a temptation, is to yield to it." Ha.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Look, Look! Here is Christ!

Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday in the season of Epiphany, comes to us this year in Matthew 17:1-9.  Consistent with Jesus, the new Moses, Matthew includes some details about Jesus' transfiguration that remind us of the appearance of Moses in Exodus 34:29-30 when he comes down the mountain the second time with the stone tablets.  His face shines and all who see it are terrified.  We hear also the voice speak which we heard first at Jesus' baptism: "Listen to him," and again we know that obedience is required of this One.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only as a way of getting at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers. For more on this genre see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  If the functions of the Word can be summarized as Law (You need Christ!), Gospel (Here is Christ.), or the Call to Obedience (Follow Christ.), then clearly this story is pure Gospel.  Here is Christ, the Transfigured One, the Son, the Beloved, the One who gently touches his disciples and says, "Get up and do not be afraid."  This story is an announcement of the Divine identity of the Christ, and given to us as pure gift.

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  Although there is confusion and terror on the part of the disciples, this text does not really function as Law.  This text does not convict of sin or show us our need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the disciples.  We are those who are confused by the Lord's glory.  We are the ones who fall to the ground, cowering at the voice of God.  We are those who need to be touched by Christ and to be told, "Do not be afraid."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  "Listen to him!" is definitely a call to obedience.  What this means is a further question.  Since the text begins by setting up the temporal context, "six days later", we might ask, "What was going on six days prior to this event?"  What we learn is that Jesus  is foretelling his death and resurrection and assuring his followers that "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  So, perhaps this is what we are called to listen to.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The whole event suggests several couplets:  cowering in fear/touched by Christ; confused about Christ/clear about Christ.

6.  Exegetical work:  Kurt Aland's Synopsis of the Four Gospels is often a great source of insight, as the stories of Jesus are put side-by-side in their original language, and differences between the four gospels shown clearly.  In this case we see that Matthew alone adds the detail that Jesus' "face shone like the sun."  This suggests a tie with Moses, seen in Exodus 34.  Matthew is also the only one to tell us that "when the disciples heard [the voice from heaven] they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe."  This also suggests a tie with Exodus 34.  Another interesting detail is Matthew's use of the Greek marker "idou" which is translated "behold" or "lo" or left untranslated.  This marker is in Matthew only, calling our attention, in verse 3, to the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and in verse 5 to the emergence of the bright cloud, and the sound of the voice.  It is as if Matthew is pointing us to these three verses and saying, "Look!  Look closely.  This is important!'  Another piece that can be seen from the original language is that the voice from the cloud uses the exact words used in 3:17 at the event of Jesus' baptism:  "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," except here the phrase is added, "Listen to him."  This tie to Jesus' baptism, another theophanic event, is also crucial to take note of.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer does an interesting analysis of this text using Peter's confusion regarding the Law and the Prophets as the starting point.  He shows how when we try to conflate the work of Christ with the work of the Law we are lost.  See the entire analysis archived under 2008 Gospel A at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

That's Unfair!

Matthew 5:38-48, the gospel text assigned for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, is the final passage in this first section of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is the climactic piece in Jesus' instructions in living in the way of a "righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees."  The last line leaves no room for doubt as to the seriousness with which Jesus takes the call to righteousness: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  How do we who are far from perfect understand this call?  That is the question with which we shall wrestle.

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions attempt to explore some of the central issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this genre of preaching, my book is available at or through amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This Word functions as Law.  It shows me my utter inadequacy in the face of Christ's demands.  If we take these demands seriously we will cry out, "But I cannot do this, Lord!  I cannot turn the other cheek, love my enemies, bless those who persecute me, and give to everyone who would beg from me.  And furthermore, I don't even want to!" This is exactly right.  This is our bondage to sin.  If we are going to obey this command we are going to have to die to ourselves. And this dying is the call of Christ.

Even the statement that our Father in heaven "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" is not good news to us.  "That's unfair!" we cry.  Indeed it is.  And yet that is precisely who the Father is, and we are called to be children of this Father.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  We might argue that the Word is not functioning as Gospel here.  I would argue that it is hidden.   The Gospel word is that same scandalous word that announces that God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  At first we don't want to hear this word, but then we hear the grace within these words.  "[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him." (Psa 103)  This is a word of Gospel.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are, as always, those addressed by this text.  We are those who only want "what's fair".  We are those that insist that an eye for an eye is a good system, even though as Gandhi said, it leaves everyone blind.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus." In a way, this whole text is a call to obedience.  It could be taken as such, if we recognize that before we follow Jesus, we will need to be crucified with him.  That is why this text first functions as Law.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this whole text is about giving up what is rightfully ours, the couplets should suggest this:  holding a grudge/freely forgiven; hanging onto my rights/released from all that binds me.

6.  Exegetical work:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets right at the heart of this text:  "By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, ... [but] ... Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it.  And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and utterly devoid of love?" (Cost of Discipleship, p. 148)  "The love of our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified." (p. 164)   Douglas Hare in his commentary (Interpretation series) notes that this passage is about renouncing rights.  He says that "the ultimate sanction appealed to is not the will of God ("Do it, no matter how difficult, because God commands it!") but the nature of God. (p. 60)  Another great source in understanding how forgiveness is always a call to renounce our rights is found in Walter Wangerin's book, As For Me And My House.  In the chapter entitled "How do we practice forgiveness?" he says this:  "The world says ... that it is your legitimate right, your dignity, and your duty to bring suit against the one who injured you, to press her until she has redressed the wrong, to accuse her, to punish her until her hurt at least is equal to yours.  This is just.  This re-establishes the order her sin destroyed. This place the burden of reconciliation totally and righteously upon the one who started the mess - and this is not forgiveness.  As scandalous as it seems to the world..., forgiveness places the burden of reconciliation upon the one who sufffered the mess." (p. 99)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Good Enough Righteousness?

Matthew 5:21-37, the gospel lesson appointed for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, is clearly a working out of verse 20 in this same chapter:  "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  Jesus makes increasingly clear that, as he said, he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets, "but to fulfill" them.  This quickly disabuses us of any notions we might have of "cheap grace" (Bonhoeffer), and gives us reason to take seriously the ethical standards of following Jesus.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only to unearth some of the issues most important to Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are part of a method I lay out in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus is clearly raising the standards for his disciples.  He is calling into question any nonchalance the community might have concerning the Law.  He is condemning even hidden sins, and calling all to repentance and greater integrity.  This Word then functions primarily as Law, alerting us to our need for repentance.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Clearly there is no word of grace, no announcement of what God has done in Christ, no gospel here.  The Word which proclaims that Christ has been the One whose righteousness exceeds all other righteousness will have to be found elsewhere and brought to bear on this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Throughout the Sermon on the Mount we are the listeners, the disciples.  We are the ones who are likely to be found saying, "I may not be perfect, but I never killed anyone," as though that is the standard of godliness for a follower of Christ.  We are the ones who need regular reminders that to follow Christ means to take on a higher standard of concern for the neighbor and God's world, not look for loopholes.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functioning as a call to obedience is always the Word inviting us to live in a certain way in response to God's grace.  This text could be viewed as wholly that were it not for the repeated warnings about what failure to keep these laws entails.  Christ's followers are certainly invited in this text to the higher standard, but the text still functions primarily as Law.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The whole message of this text must be considered in order to come up with a helpful couplet.  Several ideas:  presuming/repenting; minimal standards/Christ's standards.

6.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allan Powell, in his insightful work on Matthew's gospel, God With Us; A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel, argues that "ethical formation" of Christ's disciples is paramount for the writer of Matthew's gospel. (p. 64)  Powell writes that for "Matthew, the teaching of the church is primarily concerned with ethical formation and this is to take place within the community of faith rather than in the world at large." (p.69)  "Matthew's readers are expected to accept what Jesus says in chapter 5-7 not because it makes sense or rings true existentially but because Jesus himself is the authoritative agent of God."  "Matthew's Gospel assumes that acceptance of Jesus' ethical teaching is predicated on prior acceptance of the christological doctrine expounded in the narrative." (p. 70)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Chris Repp, in his analysis of this text, archived under Gospel A, 2011, does a nice job of pointing out the slippery slope that exists when we get caught up in "good enough righteousness."  He shows how Christ's commitment to exceeding righteousness frees us to be the people of faith we are called to be.  See the entire analysis at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!