Monday, December 24, 2018

Fear or Faith

The gospel lesson for the Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord is a well-known story - the story of the magi who come from the orient, asking, "Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?"  Matthew 2:1-12 is the text, and Matthew alone includes this story, its equivalent Lukan text the account of the adoring shepherds.  It is our first glimpse of what will become the last instruction of Jesus in Matthew's gospel:  Go, make disciples of all nations.  That continues to be our charge.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but have been developed to address some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers regarding how the Word functions.  For more on this unique 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 story is a narrative form of Law and Gospel.  The characters who view the announcement of this new born king as threat - Herod and his court and "all Jerusalem with him" - show us the presence of the Law that Christ brings.  Christ will be their judge.  The magi, on the other hand, who view this announcement with humble ecstasy, show us the presence of the Gospel.  They see God doing great things and they receive this announcement with great joy.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since it is always important to identify with those who are addressed by the Word, we have a choice here; we can identify with Herod and his crowd, or with the magi.  Or we may want to identify with both.  Perhaps a task of the sermon will be to bring out our resistance to the new born king (Law) as well as God's insistence that Christ is the newborn king meant for the life of the whole world. (Gospel)

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the text functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to the work of God in Christ.  The final verse in this text could be that as we see the magi not returning to Herod, but leaving for their own country "by another road."  We too, having been drawn to worship the Christ, are invited to leave the way of Herod behind and walk another road - the way of Christ.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  In the characters in the story we see the couplets that arise:  fear/faith; resistance/embrace; threat/promise.

5.  Exegetical work:  In translating the text we see clearly the contrast between Herod's reaction and that of the magi upon encountering the Christ.  Verse 3 says that when Herod the King heard, he was "thrown into confusion" (tarasso) and all of Jerusalem with him."  In contrast, when the magi saw the star again leading them they "rejoiced greatly with great joy." (vs. 10)  Superlatives both, but what a contrast is set up between the two.  An anonymous commentator from ancient times writes this about the magi:  "They understood that the birth of the king was revealed to them by divine authority... If they had been seeking a king of this world and thus [lowly] had found him, they would have been more perplexed than delighted... They recognized him at once. They opened their treasure chests... Those who abandon Herod and come to Christ with all their heart do not wish to return to Herod."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. Ia, pp. 27-29).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  A sermon should always move a listener from disequilibrium to equilibrium, insisted Eugene Lowry.  How might we do that here?  By first identifying with the king and then with the magi?  Or another way?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, December 15, 2018

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Micah 5:2-5a, the First Reading appointed for the 4th Sunday of Advent, is good news through and through.  It announces the coming of a sovereign who shall "stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord."  This sounds better even than green pastures and still waters!  Surprisingly, this ruler will come not from the royal household in Jerusalem, but from a sleepy little of-no-account village in the hill country.  Once again, God is turning the world upside down, showing weakness as strength, smallness as greatness, and foolishness as wisdom.  What an unpredictable God we have!

(The following questions have been formulated to get at some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers (i.e. How does the Word function?).  To learn more about this unique 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?  Undoubtedly the Word functions here as Gospel, with an announcement of what God is doing.  There is an element of surprise as well, since the people first hearing this oracle might have assumed that rulers would come from Jerusalem.  Then again, their experience with the royal line was one of corruption, so this announcement that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the righteous ruler might have been good news to them.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There seems to be no word of Law here.  The only exception might be for the corrupt rulers who hear this oracle and are threatened by one who comes to rule and "whose origin is from of old.   They might well hear a threat in that word.

3.  With whom are you  identifying in the text?  We are those who have longed for this word.  We are the first hearers of this text who lived under the rule of corrupt politicians, morally bankrupt religious leaders, and greedy business folk.  We are those who long for power to be given to the just, the morally upright, and those who ensure that all live secure in the land.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  One can only look at the gospel word here and imagine the opposite of that to create some appropriate couplets.  Some suggestions:  starved/fed; dwelling in fear/dwelling secure; living in strife and war/living in peace.

5.  Exegetical work:  Hans Walter Wolff, in his excellent commentary, reminds us of the full import of this Ruler of Peace being born in Bethlehem:  "Bethlehem reminds us of the Israelite monarchy's humble beginnings.  Thence came in the hoary past the erstwhile despised youngest son of Jesse.  So when its great leaders are first buffeted and then deposed, Zion should think back to its origin in ancient days.  Despite its Lord's lowly origin, it should be certain that he will step forth with divine authority as the royal shepherd."  (Micah the Prophet, p. 93)  The ancient commentaries see in this statement regarding one "whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" an allusion to the Only Begotten Son of God.  Theodoret of Cyrrhus, 5th century bishop, is one example:  "Now this patently resembles the prologue to the Gospel, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; he was in the beginning with God.'" (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. XIV, p. 166).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock always insisted that the job of the preacher was to bring the experience of the text to the listener.  How will we preach this text so that our listeners will hear the freeing word of this coming Prince of Peace?  That is our challenge.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Song of the Redeemed

We don't spend a whole lot of time with the short book of Zephaniah, but on the 3rd Sunday of Advent we encounter the song of joy at the end of the book.  In Zephaniah 3:14-20 there is only rejoicing.  It is as though all the exhortations in weeks prior during the season of Advent have met with good success, and now God's people are ready to celebrate.  This text gives us reason only to celebrate; how will we do that?

(The following questions have been developed to ponder some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, specifically around the function of the Word.  To learn more about this unique 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 purely about what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is about to do.  It is a gospel word from beginning to end.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Any Law that is present in Zephaniah is left behind; it is not present here.  The first two chapters are filled with Law, but here there is none.  If the preacher wishes to begin with the Law, perhaps the earlier part of the book can be brought into play.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the daughters of Zion, the people of God who are exhorted to shout aloud because of the redemption of our God.  We are those who receive the word, "Do not fear."  We are those who are promised that we will be brought home.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There are only a few imperatives in this text and they are essentially two ideas:  rejoice and do not fear.  That's it.  The Lord is the subject of every other verb.  In so far as rejoicing (i.e. worshipping) is part of our life with God we are called to that, but there is little in this text that calls us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in our life.

5.  Exegetical work:  In a classic commentary George Adam Smith calls these verses "a hopeful, peaceful epilogue."  (The Book of the Twelve Prophets, p. 72)  He sees it as quite apart from the rest of the book, but does not wish to go along with those who think it was not original with the rest of the book.  Much earlier, Theodoret of Cyrene wrote: "I am aware that some commentators understood this [text to apply to] the return from Babylon and the renovation of Jerusalem, and I do not contradict their words:  the prophecy applies also to what happened at that time.  But you can find a more exact outcome after the incarnation of our Savior:  then it was that he healed the oppressed in heart in the washing of regeneration, then it was that he renewed human nature, loving us so much as to give his life for us." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures, OT, Vol. XIV, p. 218).

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  No text is better suited than this one to do what Henry Mitchell advised - to make sure celebration is in the design of the sermon.  How to do this skillfully is the challenge.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Monday, December 3, 2018

A Smelter's Fire

The "messenger of the covenant" in Malachi 3:1-4 is no one to be messed with.  He is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap.  In other words, if there is any impurity at all in you, it will not survive this refining process.  Is this good news?  Is it good news that the descendants of Levi will be purified?  If we believe that sin leads to death it is.  We need desperately to be purified.  How will we hear this word for the 2nd Sunday of Advent?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to be used in conjunction with other exegetical methods which draw on different questions. These questions are meant to unearth some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com and amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This word is primarily Law. The question is asked, "Who can endure the day of his coming?" and the understood answer is, "Nobody can."  We are those who need the refiner's fire and the fullers' soap to be purified of the dross in our lives.  We are the ones who desire that our offerings will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A word of Gospel is hard to find here.  Perhaps one might hear a word of Gospel in the promise that "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into his temple."  That would be good news only, however, after one is purified.  Likewise we might hear a good word in the promise that our offerings will once again be pleasing to God, but that again  is good news only after one is purified.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are those who will be purified.  We are those who will not endure the day of the coming of this messenger apart from the mercy of God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in  response to God's work in Christ.  We might see the call to offerings as a call to obedience, but it is only implied.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  If we use the words found in this text there are a few directions we may go:  unable to endure/enduring; unclean/purified; unpleasing to God/pleasing to God.

6.  Exegetical work: The first two chapters of this book give the context for the announcement of God's messenger in chapter 3.  In reading these first two chapters we learn that the people of Israel have returned from exile, rebuilt the temple, and have once again begun to make offerings to God.  The trouble is, God is deaf to their prayers and will not accept their sacrifices.  In the debate in chapters 1 and 2 we learn why:  First, God is displeased because the people are  offering only diseased, injured, or lame animals as sacrifices. (i.e, their garbage).  God says, "Offer those to your governor and see if he will be pleased!"  Second, the covenant made by the Levites has been abandoned.  The Levitical covenant wherein the descendants of Levi were anointed as priests of Israel dictated that the priests be men of integrity and uprightness, turning away from evil. This was far from the case, and so God was displeased.  In short, God was not present in the temple, nor answering prayers because both the people of God and the priests of God were unfaithful.  Thus the messenger whose arrival is announced in chapter 3 is coming to "purify the sons of Levi" so that the offerings of Israel might be "pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and in former years."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bruce Martin does a nice job of picking up on the sacrifice theme in analyzing this text.  In his diagnosis he goes back to chapters 1 and 2 and shows how our sacrifices are similarly unacceptable.  In his diagnosis he speaks of Christ's sacrifice which is acceptable for all time.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Who's the Prince? Who's the Pauper?

If you are familiar with Mark Twain's novel, The Prince and the Pauper, you know that for a time the main characters in that story exchange identities.  Unforeseen by them, this results in each of them encountering scenarios they hadn't envisioned.  In John 18:33-37, the gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday in the Year of Mark, we also have a drama in which the main characters exchange identities.  In this case, however, the exchange is done through the skillful writing of John who shows Pilate to be much less than the 'prince' he claims to be, while Jesus is much more than the 'pauper' he appears to be.  Appearances can be deceiving. We too, must be on guard, lest we heed the voice of a counterfeit sovereign.

(The following questions have been developed to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, i.e. how does the Word function in the text?  These questions work well when used in conjunction with other fine sets of exegetical questions.  For more on this unique 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?  The Word in the words of Jesus functions very much as Law here. The difference in this text is that it is all done using irony.  Pilate asks Jesus, "What have you done?" and later, "So you are a king?"  In each case, Jesus turns the table on Pilate and you can almost hear the questions returning to Pilate:  "You have done what, Pilate?  You, Pilate, are a king?"  Pilate thinks he is interrogating Jesus, but it turns out to be the opposite; Jesus is the one asking the questions. This is how the Law works.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is difficult to hear a word of Gospel here.  Again, if we listen closely with an ironic ear, we might catch some good news. At the end of the dialogue Jesus says, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  While truth seems to be a threat to Pilate and for any of us when we are claiming an authority not our own, it is good news to hear that we can belong to the Truth - that Truth claims us.  As St. Paul said, "While we were yet sinners - while we yet were in the clutches of our own self-deception - Christ died for us."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the people whom the Word addresses, and in this case that can mean only one thing: we must identify with Pilate.  While we may wish to avoid this, this identification will help us understand our own unwillingness to live under the authority of the Word and of the Christ.  We naturally wish to be the ones who do the questioning, not the ones in the dock!

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Perhaps like few other texts the classic couplet of guilt/justification fits here.  Other similar couplets could be imprisoned/free; sinner/forgiven.

5.  Exegetical work:  Kittel's extended discussion of the term 'kosmos' is of great help in understanding John's use of the term we translate "the world."  According to Kittel, "the kosmos is the setting of the drama of redemption which is recounted in the Gospel.  All the meanings of kosmos come together in the usage of the Fourth Gospel."  "When Jn. says of the kosmos that it does not know the Son of God, that it does not know God, that it does not believe, that it hates, the kosmos is in some sense personified as the great opponent of the Redeemer of salvation history." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III, p. 894)  This is shown clearly in this text in the utter inability of Pilate to understand who Jesus is.  One other term which Kittel discusses extensively is "alethiea," often translated "truth": "In John alethiea denotes 'divine reality' with reference to the fact 1.) that this is different from the reality in which man first finds himself, and by which he is controlled, and 2.) that it discloses itself and is thus revelation."  (TDNT, I, 244).  A translation of this brief text is also helpful, especially as we note emphatic word order.  In the opening verse the word translated 'summoned' suggests Pilate was speaking very loudly, saying, "YOU are the king of the Jews?!"  You can almost hear the sneer and see the curl of his lip as he looks down on this ''pauper."

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  If you go to crossings.org/text-study you will see my diagnosis and prognosis around our "belonging." We so badly want to belong.  This longing to belong gets us in trouble.  It is only because of God's overpowering desire that we belong to God that we are saved.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Inexhaustible gifts

The First Reading appointed for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark is the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, I Kings 17:8-16.  This is a marvelous story to be matched with the gospel story of the widow's mite from Mark 12:38-44.  Both stories share examples of women of faith, risking all, believing the promises of God.  Give us such boldness, Lord!

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  To learn more about this unique 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 story lifts up an example of faith, the unnamed widow of Zarephath.  More than that the story announces the provision of God, the utter reliability of God, even in the face of scarcity.  The story makes clear that God preserves and provides for God's servants.  This is a gospel function.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no "hammer breaking in pieces" the human heart in this story (i.e. the Law).  No one is condemned here,  and yet deliverance is needed - deliverance from starvation.  The woman says that she will prepare food for herself and her son, and then die.  In this way, though the text is not functioning to show guilt, it is showing us our utter impoverishment, aside from God's provision.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are undoubtedly the woman and her son, starving apart from God's provision.  We are the ones to whom Elijah says, "Do not be afraid."  We are the ones who receive the call to trust God and give out of our poverty, trusting God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to faith is not the call to obedience, therefore the first imperative in this story - "Do not be afraid" - is not a call to obedience.  The call to obedience is always the invitation to live in response to God's work.  The untold rest of this story is how this woman and her son responded to God's provision for their life.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  As I alluded to above, the Law could be understood here as the starvation which was imminent.  If that is the case, then some likely couplets could be despair/hope, lack/provision, and death/new life.

6.  Exegetical work:  The first thing to notice is that this unnamed widow is a foreigner, from Zarephath, "which belongs to Sidon." Sidon is where wicked queen Jezebel is from.  Sidonians worshipped Baal and Ashforeth.  If God was going to use someone to provide for the needs of one of God's prophets, this would seem to be a most unlikely candidate.  Jesus will later allude to this faithful widow in his first sermon in Nazareth. (Luke 4:25-26).  Augustine, in commenting on this passage, suggests that "Elijah came to the widow because Christ was to come to the Church." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures, OT, Vol. V, p. 103)  The Church, Augustine suggests, is also an unlikely recipient of God's grace, but similarly is dying apart from God's provision.  Again, Augustine says, "Why was it that no Jewish widow merited to offer food to blessed Elijah...? That widow...typifies the Church." (Ibid.)  Matthew Henry, in his commentary, notes God's sneaky provision by noting that "Jezebel was Elijah's greatest enemy; yet, to show her the impotency of her malice, God will find a hiding place for him even in her own country." (textweek.com)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock was always insistent that the preacher must bring the experience of the text to the listener.  Perhaps our task here will be to help our listeners experience their own desperate hunger and then rejoice in God's abundant provision.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bon Appetit!

Isaiah 25:6-9, the First Reading appointed for the Festival of All Saints in the Year of Mark, is a marvelous text of comfort.  Not only does it promise us that death will be swallowed up forever, but it also gives us a picture of a compassionate God who wipes tears from all faces.  This is the picture we have:  a God who is able to defeat death, and yet also able to stoop down and wipe the tears from our eyes.  What a marvelous God we have!

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only to open up some of the questions which are important for Law and Gospel preachers; specifically we ask, "How is the Word at work?"  To learn more about this unique 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?  The Word of the prophet is pure gospel.  God will provide a feast, destroy death, and wipe the tears from our eyes.  The only thing we can do in the face of this amazing God is rejoice.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is really no word of Law here, except, of course, the mention of "the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations", (i.e. death).  If the Law always functions to show us our need for Christ, then the mere mention of death shows us our need for Christ, and thus is a word of Law.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the people of Israel, God's people, to whom this good word is addressed. We are the ones who experience the shroud and the sheet which is spread over the nations.  We are the ones who rejoice in the salvation of our God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The last phrase is our call:  "Let us rejoice and be glad in [God's] deliverance."  We are called to point to the deliverance of our God and give God all praise and thanks.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Some of the most classic couplets are appropriate for this text:  defeat/victory; death/life; mourning/rejoicing.  They are all here.

6.  Exegetical workThe Lutheran Study Bible does a nice job of pointing out how Isaiah 24:1-27:13 contain a combination of prophecy and apocalyptic literature.  While Biblical prophecy is "generally linked with historical times and places," apocalyptic literature "moves to cosmic themes and often refers to things seemingly impossible in history as we know it."  Such are the verses we encounter in this text.  Clearly announcing the annihilation of death is beyond history as we know it.  So what we have is an apocalyptic text revealing an end to the world as it stands.  A translation of this brief text reveals an ongoing use of the Piel and Pual forms of verbs. These forms are intensifiers.  So a word which could be translated "swallow" could more aptly be translated "devour". And a word which is translated "waiting" could more accurately be translated "looked eagerly."  These verbs reveal the intensity of this passage.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Paul Jaster uses the language of this text well in offering his analysis.  He works off of the "swallowing" of death by the death of Christ.  He follows that with more swallowing as he witnesses to the great feast "of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines" which is to come.  Bon Appetit!  See crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, October 22, 2018

New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the Old Testament text appointed for Reformation Sunday every year.  It is a gospel text if there ever was one!  God is announcing all sorts of wonderful things on our behalf.  Perhaps our greatest challenge as preachers will be to discover how to adequately celebrate the amazing grace that this text announces.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but work well when combined with other sets of questions that come from a different perspective.  In order to learn more about 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?  The opening verse says it all:  "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel."  This promise is then fleshed out in the subsequent verses. In all cases God is the actor, putting the Torah in our hearts, forgiving sins, and remembering our sin no more.  This word  is pure Gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is hardly a suggestion of Law in this text, i.e. any word which shows us our need for Christ.  There is a reference to the former covenant, which God's people broke, but there is no accusation here.  If we are going to preach Law from this text, we shall need to use other resources to accomplish this.  One might readily turn to the Second Reading from Romans 3:19-28 where we hear that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We will want to identify with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, those with whom God is making a new covenant.  We too have broken covenant with God through our sin and long to be restored to God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A call to obedience is not present here.  We are not called here, albeit in plenty of other places in the writings of the prophet, to live faithfully in response to God's amazing grace.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in this text gives us plenty of ideas for couplets:  old covenant/new covenant; no knowledge of God/sure knowledge of God; guilty/sin remembered no more; forgiven.

6.  Exegetical work:  Scholars have named Jeremiah 30:1-31:40 The Book of Comfort or, in some cases, the The Book of Consolation.  Scholars differ as to whether someone other than Jeremiah wrote this section using Jeremiah's name, perhaps to balance the prophet's many sermons of doom.  In the 31st chapter there is much talk of a homecoming, God assembling the exiles back in their homeland:  "There is  hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country." (31:17)  Finally in 31:31 Yahweh speaks of establishing a new covenant (b'reeth).  This term refers to a "binding settlement". (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. Booterweck and Ringgren, vol. II, p. 255)  There are different kinds of covenants:  "In contradiction to the Mosaic covenants, which are of an obligatory type, the covenants with Abraham and David belong to the promissory type." (Ibid, p. 270)  Jeremiah's covenant seems to fall into the promissory type. "The covenant idea is first given greater importance in Jeremiah.  He rebukes the people who have broken the old covenant, but tells of a new covenant which Yahweh will make." (Ibid, p. 277).  Such covenants were apparently a special feature of Israelite religion, which was the only religion "to demand exclusive loyalty" akin to husband and wife.  No double or multiple loyalties were possible as in other religions. (Ibid., p. 278)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  There is no better time than when dealing with this text to follow Henry Mitchell's advice and pursue a celebration in this sermon.  Mitchell said that the preacher should be the first one to experience the ecstasy of the gospel, and then should pass that on to the listeners. 

Blessings on our proclamation!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Irony Personified

Mark 9:30-37, the gospel lesson appointed for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, contains the second foretelling by Jesus of his betrayal, death and resurrection.  The account ends with these words regarding the disciples:  "But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him."  So it could be said of us.  We, like the disciples, continue to argue about who is the greatest, but have a hard time understanding the death we are called to die in Christ.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of unearthing some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method and this whole unique 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 Word is functioning in both law and gospel ways in this text.  The word of gospel is clear as we hear of the betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus.  This will happen to the Son of Man.  This must happen for the sake of the world.  The word of law is present as well, as the disciples reveal their utter inability to understand either Christ's sacrifice or their own call to sacrifice. Their ambition and selfishness is clear for all to see.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the disciples.  We are those who do not understand and are afraid to ask.  We are the ones who incessantly argue about who is the greatest, if not aloud, surely in the quiet of our own minds.  We are the ones who are silent when confronted with our secret sins.  We are the ones who need to be taught again about true greatness.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The final scene is a classic call to obedience.  In essence Jesus says, "As my followers, welcome the little ones.  When you do that you welcome me."

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking the evident split between the example of Christ and the behavior of the disciples we can imagine a number of couplets:  living for gain/dying for love; claiming to be first/embracing being last.

5.  Exegetical work:  As pointed out by the Lutheran Study Bible Luther's theology of the cross and theology of glory are on full display in this text.  To quote the Heidelberg Disputation, where we find Luther's most succinct statement regarding these theologies:  "19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. [Rom.1:20].  20.  He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.  21.  A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil.  A  theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." (Luther's Works, Vol. 31, pg. 40)  In the text before us the disciples fail to see the "visible and manifest things of God" in the cross.  They instead  call "evil good and good evil" by pursuing their futile argument about who is the greatest among them.  As Eugene Boring points out in his commentary, "The supreme irony is that their argument about hierarchical order within the group of Jesus' followers had taken place 'on the way' - Mark repeats for emphasis - the self-denying way of the cross which Jesus has chosen and to which he calls his disciples. (8:34)" (The NT Library, Mark, A Commentary, p. 280)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Peter Keyel, in the most recent analysis of this text by the Crossings Community, picks up on the silence of the disciples as a clue to their own brokenness.  He points out how we so often claim not to understand something, when the truth is we are trying to ignore it. Keyel goes on to point out a similar silence when Jesus asks about their conversation on the way. This analysis can be seen in its entirety by going to crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Christ the Disciple

Isaiah 50:4-9a, the First Reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is often referred to as the Third Servant Song.  This is understandable since it bears resemblance to the first two songs in 42:1-4 and 49:1-6, yet in this passage the writer does not refer to self as servant, but rather as one who is taught.  Another way to think of this term is 'disciple'.  This song, in other words, is the song of one who is being taught, one who is listening and following and learning.  I wonder how many times we have thought about Christ as one who is himself a disciple, one being taught.  I wonder how important that might be for the church, if we identified ourselves as ones who are perpetually listening, being taught, and learning.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive.  They are part of a method to help Law and Gospel preachers discern some of the ways the Word functions in the text.  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?  The Word functions as testimony and witness to God's faithfulness.  As such it is a Gospel word.  This can be seen clearly in the latter verses where the disciple declares "I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near."  This resembles very much the psalms of trust with which we are familiar.  (e.g. Psa. 27:1-6)

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of rebuke here, or any word which exposes our need for Christ.  There is allusion to the temptations we face, such as refusing to have open ears to God's leading, being rebellious, or turning back from following Christ, but a rebuke is not present.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There is only one voice in this text, and it is one with whom it is difficult to identify.  Can I be confident that I will be open to God's call, never rebellious, never allowing myself to abandon the task set before me?  I can aspire to this and hope for God's help, but I dare not presume that I shall be the one who sets"my face like flint."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  One way of looking at this text could be to regard it wholly as a call to obedience.  In other words, the speaker here is an example for us to follow.  We are to be those who have a call to speak a word to the weary and we must not veer from that,  no matter the hardship.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in the text is helpful in constructing couplets here:  deaf to God's leading/open to God's leading; rebellious/obedient; turning back/following faithfully.  These, of course, are not so much Law/Gospel couplets as disobedience/obedience couplets.

6.  Exegetical work:  Long before George F. Handel wrote his magnificent Messiah oratorio, the words of this text were assumed to be the words of Christ.  "I gave my back to the smiters" was assumed to be spoken by Christ by writers from Athanasius to St. Jerome to Cyril of Alexandria.  Theodoret, Bishop of Cyr, brings to mind the Passion of Christ most directly:  "This whole recital is taught by the holy Gospels.  For the servant of the high priest gave [Christ] a blow on the cheek; some struck his face, saying, 'Prophecy to us, Christ!  Who is the one who struck you?' Others spat in his face; as for Pilate, he had him scourged and delivered him to be crucified.  so, all this he predicts in the prophecy to teach of his own patience." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. XI, p. 132)  It goes without saying that in the modern era scholars have recognized more and more the identity of the servants as speaking corporately of the nation of Israel.  Yet, as the Lutheran Study Bible points out, "in the traditional four servant songs, the servant is given a particular commission or task that sometimes sounds quite individual... Certainly the servant is Israel, but it may also be true that sometimes a particular member of Israel represents the whole people."

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was well-known as a preacher who celebrated God's grace in a big way in every preaching event.  Since this text is a witness to God's faithfulness, what better way to preach it than to celebrate God's faithfulness throughout.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Good News in Abundance

There are few passages of scripture that are as full of good news as the First Lesson appointed for the 16th Sunday of Pentecost in the Year of Mark, Isaiah 35:4-7a.  Throughout this passage we hear how circumstances that were hopeless have become hopeful, how places of despair have become places of rejoicing, and how what was thought to be dead has now come alive.  Paired with the gospel reading for this Sunday, Mark 7:24-37, a reader can see where the Syrophoenician woman received her faith: she believed these promises!  It will be our  task as preachers to proclaim these promises to our hearers who need to hear this good news.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but work well when paired with other sets of questions which unearth the treasures of a text.  These questions get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, who are particularly interested in how the Word functions.  For more on this unique 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?  There is no doubt that this is a Gospel text.  Over and over God is promising to bring life from death.  Nothing could be clearer.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is also no doubt that there is no word of Law here; there is no word which exposes our need for Christ.  We could identify our need for Christ by understanding ourselves as blind, deaf, lame, thirsty, deserted, but the Word does not function to lift this up.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who need to hear this good news.  We are "those who are of fearful heart."  We are those who have wondered if God has forgotten us in our exile.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the call to live in response to God's work on our behalf.  This call is not present here, but the call to rejoice in God's goodness comes later in this passage.

5.   What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplets within the text are our best vehicles.  They are:  fearful/fearless; enslaved/rescued; blind/seeing; deaf/hearing; lame/leaping; speechless/singing.  These couplets will serve well to help us construct a coherent Law/Gospel sermon.

6.  Exegetical work:  The Lutheran Study Bible does a nice job of setting the context of this passage, noting that these chapters are from exilic or post-exilic periods. "They are placed here to begin a transition to the second part of the book of Isaiah.  God's transformation will involve both total judgment of the wicked (Chapter 34) and final redemption for the redeemed (Chapter 35)."  David Payne, in his commentary, notes similar themes and says that "this passage links with later chapters, and its earliest, partial fulfillment will have been the return from Babylonian exile which is the major theme of chapters 40-55). (The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 795).  It is interesting to think of this passage as part of the transition from the themes of judgement in First Isaiah to the themes of redemption in Second Isaiah.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In Chris Repp's insightful analysis we see the couplets in this text brought to life in a Law/Gospel way.  In his diagnosis of our condition he identifies our blindness, deafness, etc.  In his prognosis he celebrates the rescue of the fearful, by our fearless God.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the entire analysis.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry thought it important to always move listeners from disequilibrium to equilibrium.  We shall have to call on the couplets in this passage to do this well here.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Classic Call to Obedience

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 is the First Lesson appointed for Pentecost 15 in the Year of Mark.  It matches with the gospel lesson from Mark 7 where Jesus is instructing the Pharisees and elders regarding God's commandments. The context of the Deuteronomy text is that the Israelites are at long last about to enter Canaan.  The wilderness wanderings are finally ended and Moses, who will not be allowed to enter with them, preaches his final sermon to the people.  This sermon will encompass nearly 30 chapters of this book; what we have here is merely the introduction.  Even in this small sample we have the main thrust of this sermon.  All preachers would do well to take note of the clarity with which Moses speaks.

(The following questions have been developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions are meant to help unearth some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  My book is available through wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is no better example of the classic Call to Obedience than this text.  The Call to Obedience is the Word functioning to call us to live in a certain way in response to God's gracious work in our life.  This can be seen clearly here as Moses begins his words with the transitional phrase, "So then, Israel..."  This transitional phrase hearkens back to God's wonders and powers spoken of earlier.  In the NT, the Call to Obedience is usually some version of "So then, followers of the Christ, because of what God has done in Christ, I call you to..."  Here the call begins as the people recall God's faithfulness to the children of Israel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little hint of either Law or Gospel in this text.  The Law functions to show us our need for Christ.  One could argue that verse 9 hints at this when Moses  exhorts the people to "take care and watch yourselves closely," but that would be an indirect use of the Law.  A Gospel function, whereby we hear of God's saving work, is also only hinted at when, in verse 1, we hear that observing God's Law brings life to the faithful.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Moses is speaking to us.  We identify with the listeners.  We are the recipients of God's signs and wonders.  We are the ones called to discipleship.  We are those who gain life through Christ, who is the living Word, the true Torah, if you will.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since neither Law nor Gospel are obvious in this text, we need to expand on what is suggested here.  Some possible couplets:  death/life; forgetting/remembering; foolish/wise.

5.  Exegetical work:  At least one commentator has written that Deuteronomy 4 is equivalent to Romans 12 in the NT. (Cousins, The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 289).  Paul writes in Romans 12:1:  "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."  It is the "therefore" of this opening sentence that equates with the "So, now" of Deuteronomy 4.  We are called to obedience in response to what God has done prior to this call.  Another point to ponder is the place that witnessing plays in this passage.  Moses instructs the people to be diligent in obeying  God's law for the result will be that other nations will regard them as wise and discerning, and as a people who worship an extraordinary God.  In this way, our obedience brings glory to God.  What this obedience also will give witness to is the nearness of God, as other nations say, "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?" (vs. 7)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessmann does a nice job of ferreting out the possibilities for Law and Gospel in her analysis of this text.  She contrasts God's gift of the Law with God's gift of the Giver.  She weaves in the Mark 7 text, also assigned for the day, in pointing out how we often confuse gift and giver.  See her entire analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Real Food

John 6:51-58, the gospel lesson appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is a text which has seen no little debate over the centuries.  Is a sacramental interpretation appropriate?  Is the fact that the writer uses a rather coarse word, "munching," for eating the flesh of Christ significant?  Are similar words in other texts regarding eternal life which speak of belief and unbelief helpful?  These questions continue to be debated.  One thing is clear:  Jesus is real food.  Jesus nourishes us.  How will we proclaim that?   That is the preacher's question.

(The following questions have been developed in conjunction with my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted. These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but they work well with a host of other exegetical questions which seek to unearth the meaning of a text.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is almost pure promise and as so it functions primarily as Gospel.  Look at all the promises:  "whoever eats me will live forever; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;  those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them;  whoever eats me will live because of me; the one who eats this bread will live forever."  There is one word of Law as well:  "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."  We need food to live!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no call to obedience in this text.  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's work in Christ.  There is no such word here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the hearers of this Word.  We are the ones given these promises and assured that we have no life without the nourishing presence of Christ in our life.  We might even try identifying with those who dispute the meaning of Jesus' words.  Warning:  trying to enter into a dispute about meaning might lead to an unhelpful tangent.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are a number of words in this text that naturally fall into couplets:  dead/alive; not eating/eating; no life/life eternal; dying/living forever.

5.  Exegetical work:  Raymond Brown, in his classic commentary, brings to mind an interesting patristic interpretation of this text:  "The Church Fathers recognized this contrast between the bread of life and the forbidden fruit in Genesis; for example, Gregory of Nyssa presented the eucharistic bread as an antidote to the forbidden fruit.  And if the bread of life in vss. 35-50 primarily represents the revelation and knowledge that Jesus brings from above, then it is not unlike the knowledge of good and evil that the first man hungered after." (The Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 279)  Gerard Sloyan offers some wisdom regarding how much we buy into a single interpretation of this text, noting that even Augustine "was found on all sides of the question [of interpretation]: urging eating as belief; assuming a sacramental eating; seeing the food and drink as symbolic members of a church predestined to glory - amongst other interpretations."  Sloyan summarizes his thoughts with this statement:  "Consequently, anyone who maintains publicly that any segment of this chapter bears but a single interpretation blunders through a misplaced certitude." (Interpretation Series, John, p.74)  Craig Koester, in the appendix to his helpful book on Johannine symbolism argues convincingly that "to eat is to believe."  (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p. 103) Particularly helpful is his point that "taking eating as a synonym for faith also makes the passage consistent with the rest of John's gospel, and the NT generally..." (Ibid., p. 304-305)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  In the most recent post on this text, Bruce Modahl does a very fine analysis showing how our penchant to be "picky eaters" ends in our starvation.  See crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick always cautioned preachers to count the number of 'moves' they made in the sermon.  Our listeners can only absorb so many.  This is always sound advice.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Withered Hands, Withered Hearts

Mark 2:23-3:6, the gospel lesson appointed for the 2nd Sunday in Pentecost, is a study in the relationship between Jesus and his enemies.  We are only just into the third chapter of Mark and already the Pharisees are plotting to destroy Jesus.  How quickly their envious hearts have turned murderous.  Can it be that we too are capable of such a reaction to Christ's life and teachings?  What threat does Jesus pose to us?

(The following questions have been developed to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but only intended to highlight how the Word functions in the text.  For more on this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfand stock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word, in this case Jesus, is functioning to lift up the bondage these Pharisees are in.  He is showing them their blindness regarding sabbath observance, both by using an example (David's example) and a principle (Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath?)  Showing blindness is a Law function, lifting up their need for repentance.  He is also announcing the freeing principle - the sabbath was made for humankind! - which is a Gospel function.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those whom the Word addresses; in this case, those are the Pharisees.  As uncomfortable as it may be, we are called here to ask ourselves what things we are in bondage to, that we firmly believe we must retain.  It may be cooperate sins identified by the "last seven words of the Church":  We have never done it that way.  Or it may be a personal bondage that we are being called out of.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is not a true call to obedience here. The call to obedience is the call to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel.  What we have here is a call to repentance, which is a response to the Law.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  This text suggests several couplets:  living under the law/living under the gospel; serving the sabbath/freed by the sabbath; hardhearted/full of compassion.

5.  Exegetical work:  I like Lamar Williamson's succinct summary of the theme of this text:  "Jesus challenges every form of legalism that reduces religion to the keeping of rules." (Interpretation series, Mark, p. 76)  Other commentators try to describe where this legalism comes from.  Athanasius, writing in the 4th century, had this to say: "In the synagogue of the Jews was a man who had a withered hand.  If he was withered in his hand, the ones who stood by were withered in their minds." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. II, p. 37.)  One could speculate how a person's mind becomes "withered".  Mark Allan Powell, in his thorough analysis of the enemies of Jesus in the gospels, understands Mark's Pharisees to have "only a human understanding of Scripture, and so they are frequently 'in error.'  This lack of understanding, in turn, causes them to be 'accusatory' with regard to Jesus and his disciples, unjustifiably criticizing them when no wrong has been done." (What is Narrative Criticism? p. 62)  M. Eugene Boring sees a more complex situation regarding the "hardness of heart" illustrated here:  "The modern reader should therefore not view this scene superficially as portraying some particularly obtuse, evil, or obstinate individuals who rejected Jesus' liberal attitude toward the Sabbath because they were bound by their own narrow orthodoxy - as though, if we had been there, we would have responded differently - but as exemplifying the miracle of God's initiative and election."  (The NT Library, Mark, p. 95) 

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell was big on celebration in preaching. What, in this text, moves us to celebration?  We might consider the fact that the Son of Humanity is the Lord of the Sabbath, or that the Sabbath was made for humankind.  These  could lead to some substantial rejoicing.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Seeing the Complete Package

Isaiah 6:1-8, the First Lesson appointed for Trinity Sunday in the Year of Mark, is a great example of a text that invites us to see something.  We are invited to see the hem of the Lord's robe filling the temple; we are invited to see the seraphs swooping about, crying out "Holy, holy, holy"; we are invited to see the thresholds shaking and the house of God filling with smoke.  It is a very vivid scene.  This will be our task as preachers - to help our listeners see this scene as well.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only offered as a way of getting at some fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more insight into this unique 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?  This brief text is the whole package, if you will.  First, we hear the Law:  "I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips."  Then we hear the word of Gospel:  "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."  Finally we hear a call to obedience:  "Whom shall I send?...Here I am; send me!"  The complete package.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the prophet who sees this vision - the ones who are lost; the ones whose sins are blotted out; the ones who are called to go out and speak the gospel.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  As I said above, the call to obedience is within this text.  It is instructive to note, however, that the call only comes following the absolution.  God does not call us to obedience, without first calling us to repentance.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because this text is so complete, we can readily see the couplets that are present:  unclean/cleansed; sinner/forgiven; terrified/confident.

5.  Exegetical work:  The ancient commentators have much to say about this call of Isaiah.  Some notes of interest center around the understanding of the live coals which touch the prophet's lips and cause sin to be blotted out.  Cyril of Alexandria thought that these coals were God's word:  "By saying, 'taken from the altar with tongs,' Isaiah means that we receive faith in and knowledge of Christ from the teachings or announcements in the law and the prophets, in which the word of the holy apostles confirms the truth."  John of Damascus, on the other hand, equated the live coals with the sacrament of the altar:  "Isaiah saw a live coal, and this coal was not plain wood but wood joined with fire.  Thus also, the bread of communion is not plain bread but bread joined with the Godhead."  St. Jerome makes much of the order of events in this vision:  "As long as Isaiah's tongue was treacherous and his lips unclean, the Lord does not say to him, Whom shall I send, and who shall go? His lips are cleansed, and immediately he is appointed the Lord's spokesman; hence it is true that the person with unclean lips cannot prophesy, nor can he be sent in obedient service to God."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. X, pp. 47-55).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steven Albertin does a fine job of ferreting out the layers of Law and Gospel that exist in this text.  He notes that the external layer of the Law is right there in the opening line, when we learn that King Uzziah died.  In other words, we are mortal, kings included.  He goes on to say that our recognition of our uncleanness is the second layer of our lostness, and the cry, "Woe is me!" is the third.  The layers of the Gospel are also to be found in this text.  To see the entire analysis, go to crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Prosecutor and Defender

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 is the passage from Jesus' farewell discourse appointed as the gospel lesson for the Festival of Pentecost in the Year of Mark. This passage is filled with all sorts of promises as to what the Holy Spirit will accomplish when the time of the Spirit has come.  Some of these promises sound like Gospel, some like Law.  Perhaps this is the whole point of this description of the Third Person of the Trinity - that God brings us both the truth about ourselves (Law) and the truth about Jesus (Gospel).  We shall be attentive to this.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  Specifically we are interested in how the Word is functioning.  To learn more about this unique preaching genre, 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 whole passage is a description of the Spirit's work.  Part of that work is testifying to and glorifying Christ and part of that is guiding us into all truth.  There is also the work of proving "the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment."  The first two functions we could understand as a gospel function - good news.  This is the Spirit showing us who Jesus really is and guiding us to live as Christ lived.  The other function we could understand as a law function.  The Spirit reveals to the world (us included) sin, righteousness and judgment.  The hope is to lead all to repentance.  Leading all to repentance is a function of the Law.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  In this text there is almost an "us/them" dichotomy set up.  For "us" the Spirit functions in a gospel way, assuring us that we have an advocate - a defender.  For "them" (i.e. the world) the Spirit functions in a law way, assuring us that the world will have its sins and erroneous ways exposed.  With the world the Spirit is not defense attorney but prosecutor.  So depending on the audience, the Word functions as either law or gospel.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question.  We are drawn to identifying with those whom the Spirit defends.  We ought to do this.  We might consider identifying also with those whom the Spirit exposes, calling to repentance.  We are certainly among those who are called to repentance.  We are both saint and sinner, as Luther said.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Most of this text is about what the Spirit will do; not about what we are called to.  There is one brief verse which does call us to obedience; verse 15:27:  "You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning."  This is our call - to bear witness to Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Using some of the language from the text, we can imagine a number of couplets:  sinful/made righteous; unrighteous/justified; under judgment/freed from judgment.

6.  Exegetical work:  The extensive article in Kittel's NT dictionary around the word "Paraclete", translated alternately as Comforter (KJV, LB), Helper (Ph, TEV), Counselor (RSV, NIV), and Advocate (NRSV, JB, NEB) is very enlightening.   Kittel looks back through antiquity to show that in Greek usage, the term was "clearly legal".  The "whole sphere of known Greek and Hellenistic usage outside the NT yields the clear picture of a legal advisor or helper or advocate in the relevant court." (Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. V, pp. 803).  The term does not appear in the LXX, and in rabbinical teaching, the term is always used for an advocate before God.  In the NT, however, the usage changes, but never includes the role of comforter, which would exclude several of the most popular translations.  The term is used only in the Johannine writings, and seems to be functioning as a hybrid of the usage employed by the 3rd century Mandaean gnostic community, where "divine helper" is its meaning, and the OT and Jewish world where "advocate" is its function.  "More difficult to define," Kittel says, "is the idea, expressly attested only in John, of a Paraclete at work in the world both in and for the disciples.  Jesus Himself is regarded as such during his earthly ministry."  Finally then, Kittel argues that it is best to think of the Paraclete as Supporter or Helper, "though the basic concept and sustaining religious idea is that of 'advocate'."  (Ibid, p. 800-814) Another smaller article by Kittel around the word translated as "prove the world wrong" (vs. 16:8) is also important.  The meaning is "to show someone [their] sin and summon [them] to repentance."  "The word does not mean only 'to blame' or 'to reprove'... or 'to expose', but 'to set right', namely, 'to point away from sin to repentance'."  (TDNT, Vol. II, p. 474)  This means that the work of the Paraclete to expose sin and righteousness and judgment is not merely an act of prosecution, but one which hopefully leads to new life for those exposed.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Mark Marius does a nice job of showing how the Law functions in particular ways, each deepening our dependence on the work of Christ.  First, we are wrong about sin; then, we are wrong about righteousness; finally, we are wrong about judgement and it is too late.  See the entire analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Surprises Continue

"Astounded" is the word Luke uses to describe the reaction of the circumcised believers who witness the pouring out of the Spirit on the Gentiles.  This description comes in Acts 10:44-48, the First Reading for the 6th Sunday in Easter in the Year of Mark.  It is the climactic ending to a chapter-long story whereby Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and his entire household receive the gift of the Spirit in full view of the apostle Peter and his entourage.  There is no doubt; God has given the Spirit to those not of the Jewish faith.  This development may seem to us, in retrospect, natural, maybe even predictable.  Not so amongst the earliest followers of Christ.  I wonder what folks we would be similarly "astounded" to learn had become believers.

(The following questions were developed to answer some of the fundamental questions of concern to Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but they work with many other fine sets of exegetical questions.  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?  Like the story of the Ethiopian court official from Acts 8, which we studied in Easter 5, this story is an announcement of the wideness of God's mercy:  "The Holy Spirit is poured out even on the Gentiles!"  This is a decidedly gospel function. This story shows again the power of the preaching of God's word to bring faith.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Also like the story from Acts 8, this story contains only a hint of Law, as Peter asks if "anyone can withhold water for baptizing these people."  This question, expectant of a negative reply, gives us a hint of our predilection to reserve God's grace only for those of whom we approve.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We could identify with the Gentiles who received the Spirit, but it seems better for our purposes if we identify with those who witnessed this outpouring.  We are those who are astounded.  We are those whose astonishment is a clue to our prejudice and bias toward or against certain folks regarding their eligibility of God's grace.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is indirect, albeit clear:  do not withhold water for baptism to anyone who desires it.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without the presence of the Law we shall have to use our imagination in creating couplets.  Some ideas:  in bondage to our prejudices/freed from our prejudices; closed to God's movement in the world/drawn up into God's good work; skeptical/rejoicing.

6.  Exegetical work:  Third century theologian, Origin of Alexandria, calls to our attention the fact that the beginnings of these astonishing events is the preaching of the Word.  "See then, how ... when Peter is speaking to Cornelius, Cornelius himself and those with him are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Hence, if you speak God's word and do so faithfully with a pure conscience, it can come about that while you are speaking the fire of the Holy Spirit will inflame the hearts of your hearers and immediately make them warm and eager to carry out all you are teaching in order to implement what they have learned."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. V, p. 139).  John Calvin, in his commentary centuries later, follows a similar track:  "For as Peter was speaking God poured out his Spirit to show that he does not send teachers for the purpose of beating the air with the sound of empty words, but so that he might work powerfully through what they say and quicken their words by the power of his Spirit for the salvation of the godly."  (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. VI, p. 146).  A modern commentator, William Willimon, agrees that it is God at work through the Word, not only in this scene, but in the whole scenario detailed in Acts 10.  As Willimon succinctly says, "The author of this plot is God." (Interpretation series, Acts, p. 99).

  7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Preachers need to introduce disequilibrium into their sermons, said Eugene Lowry, in order to later introduce equilibrium.  How will we do that this week?

Blessings on your proclamation?

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Surprise!

They may never be a more unlikely setting for evangelistic outreach than the one described in Acts 8:26-40, the First Lesson appointed for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in the year of Mark.  The setting is a wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Philip is plucked up from the hotbed of activity in Samaria, sent out to this lonely place and miraculously encounters an Ethiopian official, who equally miraculously, becomes one of the first converts that Acts 1:8 called for, who are from "the ends of the earth."  Surprises abound in this story.  It reminds us that we have a very surprising God, who is always working in ways that would have never occurred to us.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but have been formulated to get at some of the basic questions that Law and Gospel preachers have regarding the function of the Word.  For more on this unique 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?  The Spirit is the active presence in this story.  The Spirit sends Philip into the wilderness, urges him to join the Ethiopian in conversation, gives him the words to say that lead the Ethiopian to faith, and finally snatches Philip away while the Ethiopian goes on rejoicing.  What this story achieves is a testimony to the wideness of God's mercy, undoubtedly a Gospel function.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Law here, no word which exposes our need for Christ.  The Ethiopian asks the question, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" and in that we might hear faint signs of our tendency to exclude some from the grace of God, but those signs are faint indeed.  This is a good news story.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since we are called to identify with the ones whom the Spirit speaks to, we could identify with either Philip or the Ethiopian.  If Philip, then we could reflect on how it is to have the Spirit leading us into surprising places to share the gospel with people we thought we'd never encounter.  If the Ethiopian, then we could reflect on those times that God has provided surprising people who inspire us and lead us into a deeper walk with Christ, or perhaps into the life of faith initially.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  A call to obedience always functions to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work.  There is no explicit call to obedience here, but at the end of the story we are told that the Ethiopian "went on his way rejoicing."  That is certainly our call as well.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the Law is absent in this story we will need to invent some couplets based on the gospel side of the story.  Some ideas: lost in the wilderness/found in the wilderness; confused/enlightened; outcast from God's people/joined with God's people.

6.  Exegetical work:  It's hard not to notice Luke's use of the word idou, (Look!, Lo and behold!) in this story.  Even though this word often goes untranslated, in the Greek it may signal surprise, and in this story, that is definitely the case.  The first instance is in verse 27 after we are told that Philip goes to this wilderness road.  The Greek text says, (literal translation) "And look! an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of queen Candace..."  This encounter is surprising to say the least.  How unlikely to encounter anyone, much less a foreigner, a eunuch, and a court official in the middle of the desert!  The second instance is in verse 36 where again we are surprised.  The Ethiopian says, "Look! water."  They are traveling in the desert.  Is it not surprising that there is water here, and even enough for the two of them to "go down into"?  God is definitely doing surprising things here.  Bede the Venerable, in his ancient commentary on this story, lifts up another surprise quoting St. Jerome: "'[The eunuch] found the church's font there in the desert, rather than in the golden temple of the synagogue.' For there [in the desert] something happened that Jeremiah declared was to be wondered at, 'an Ethiopian changed his skin,' that is, with the stains of his sins washed away by the waters [of baptism], he went up, shining white, to Jesus." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. V, p. 97)  The last surprise of this text has been argued about for centuries, especially by the reformers:  verse 37 is omitted in most manuscripts.  Only in a few manuscripts is it included, likely as a late addition.  It reads, "And Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And he replied, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'"(NRSV).  It is not likely that Luke included this formulaic statement. For a God who is surprising us at every turn, is it not likely that the Spirit had already done its work within the heart of this official and that his desire to be baptized is evidence of this?

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  I like Cathy Lessmann's analysis of this text, lifting up the insider/outside theme with which we are so familiar these days.  The Ethiopian eunuch was considered an outsider, yet God clearly had other ideas.  We who consider ourselves insiders need to take heed, lest we too have false ideas about whom God favors.  See Lessmann's complete analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Blind Builders


Acts 4:5-12, the First Lesson appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in the Year of Mark, is the second scene in the story of the healing of the man born lame which began in Chapter 3.  The scene has now shifted to a trial before the chief priests - the power brokers of first century Judaism - who want to know one thing: "By what power or by what name did you do this [healing]?"  They are apparently blind to the miracle.  Later in the scene (well after the appointed lesson), as they deliberate amongst themselves, they are embroiled in debate:  "What will we do with [these men]?  It is obvious to all... that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it." (4:16)  So to them it is a sign, but a sign of God or Beelzebub, they do not know.  Isn't it amazing how blind we can be to the simple workings of God, the Author of Life.

(The following questions have been developed to answer some of the fundamental questions of Law and Gospel preachers around how the Word functions.  They are not meant to be exhaustive.  To learn more about his unique 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?  The Word here is accusatory.  It comes from the apostle Peter to the "rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem."  As such it functions as Law:  "This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you; the builders...'"  This word serves to accuse and convict, hoping to lead the accused to repentance.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit word of Gospel here, yet there are hints of it:  "this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth." And "[this stone, this Jesus] has become the cornerstone." Through these words we hear of the power and position of the Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We must always identify with those whom the Word addresses, and in this text they are those who have "rejected the cornerstone."  Ouch. We don't want to identify with the religious authorities.  We see them as murderous, cruel, blind hypocrites.  Even though Christ forgave them from the Cross and St. Luke calls them merely ignorant, we want nothing to do with them.  That is all the more reason to identify with them.  We need to ask, "In what ways do we continue this pattern of rejecting the stone that God has made the cornerstone?"

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  As in previous Acts readings, the call here is not to obedience, but to repentance.  When Peter announces that "there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved," this is a call to repentance.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking some language from the text, we can imagine several couplets:  rejecting the cornerstone/embraced by the Living Stone; threatened by the name of Jesus/healed by the name of Jesus.

6.  Exegetical work: It is important to notice that the rulers are referred to by Peter as "the builders". (vs. 11).  These rulers are indeed building something which they have deemed worthy, and they have rejected Christ as a stone which will have no place in this edifice they are building. Justus Jonas, the German Lutheran reformer, thinks that what the rulers are building is a righteousness based on the law:  "Peter calls them builders, as if he were saying, 'You are the ones who are teaching the people the external observation of the law. But your building - that is, righteousness of the law which you teach against the judgement of God - will not stand.  And you are making nothing other than counterfeit saints and hypocrites.'" (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. VI, p. 50).  William Willimon has a different take, thinking that the rulers have rejected Christ as "an unworthy foundation for national aspirations." (Interpretation series, Acts, p. 49)  No matter what we decide the rulers are building, we can see that Christ has no place in their thinking, and that is where the question comes to us:  What are we building?  Does Christ have a place in it?  St. Peter, in drawing on this metaphor exhorts us:  "Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (I Peter 2:4-5)

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Author of Life

Acts 3:12-19, the First Lesson for the Third Sunday of Easter in the Year of Mark, is another post-resurrection story where we see the power of God at work in the post-Easter people of God.  The apostle Peter refers to Jesus in this text as the Author of Life.  This title comes as he declares that it is the power of the Risen Christ that has healed the man born lame, but that title comes down to us as well.  Could there be any more apt title for the Risen Christ than that?

(The following questions have been developed as a way of answering some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but to be used alongside other fine sets of questions which might reveal the treasures of a particular text.  For more on this unique 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? The Word here, in the form of Peter's preaching, is explicitly both Law and Gospel.  The Law comes as Peter confronts the people with the fact that they killed the Author of Life, albeit, as he says, "in ignorance."  The Gospel comes as Peter invites all to repent and turn to God, "so that your sins may be wiped out."  This text also functions as testimony to the power of the name of Christ, which "itself has made this man strong."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the listeners, those who are confronted with our willful murder of the Christ.  This brings to mind the cries of the mob in Luke's gospel:  "Crucify!  Crucify!" (Luke 23:21)  We are those who are invited here to repent and turn to God.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The only imperative here is to repent, therefore any call to live in a certain way in response to the Gospel is missing here.  The call to repentance is not the same as a call to obedience.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are plenty of phrases to draw on in this text in order to compose couplets.  Some suggestions:  ignorance/wisdom; calling for death/embracing life; killing the Author of Life/being saved by the Author of Life.

5.  Exegetical work: It is important to remember that Acts is the second part of Luke's account of the Jesus story, and so his view of the enemies of Christ continues into the Book of Acts.  Mark Allan Powell, in his excellent work, shows the differences in how Jesus' enemies are portrayed, reminding us that in Luke's account, "The religious leaders are not evil but self-righteous, not blind but foolish.""In short, [Luke] expresses sympathy for them, not hostility, and thus the implied reader will surely regard them with sympathy also." (What is Narrative Criticism?, p.65)  This view of Jesus' enemies can be seen in a striking way at the Crucifixion as Luke is the only one to report that Jesus cried out from the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)  This is exactly what Peter argues in the Acts text:  "I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers." (Acts 3:17) Another noteworthy point is Luke's explanation for the death of Christ:  "You killed the Author of Life whom God raised from the dead." (Acts 3:15)  There is no Pauline understanding of the Cross here. As William Willimon points out:  "We find no substitutionary atonement in Luke, no notion that Jesus Christ had to die to satisfy some divine requirement of justice.  No, the explanation for Jesus' death in Acts is simply human perversity."  (Interpretation series, Acts, p. 46)  The only solution for us who are party to this murder?  Repentance.

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steve Kuhl focuses in on the very thing that Peter lifts up in the text:  "Why do you stare at us as though by our own power or piety we had made [this man] walk?"  He argues that this is our bondage, that we too are seduced by power and piety, instead of relying on Christ.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!