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 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

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 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!