Monday, December 30, 2019

Fear or Joy, That is the Question

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord offers us a reading which is both familiar and oft overlooked - the story of the magi from Matthew 2:1-12, the gospel appointed for this feast day.  Its characters are familiar since the magi are often part of Christmas pageants and most nativity scenes, yet the actual scene described in this passage is anything but benign.  The central character is actually the murderous King Herod, who will do anything to destroy any who would challenge his sovereignty.  His reaction to the announcement of the newborn king is in stark contrast to that of the magi and is presented for us in vivid detail. The text beckons the question, "What is our reaction to this announcement?  Is this new king seen as threat or as a cause for overwhelming joy?"

(The following method has been developed as a way of answering some of the strategic questions for Law and Gospel preachers.  Specifically this addresses questions around the functioning of the Word. To learn more about this method and Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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 to announce the birth of the new king.  What's interesting is that this announcement is received as pure gospel by some - the magi - and as pure law by others - Herod and "all Jerusalem."  The Apostle Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (2:14-17), says that we are "the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life."  We see this working itself in dramatic fashion in this text.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting topic to consider: if we identify with Herod and the residents of Jerusalem, we will have to admit that Christ's presence threatens everything we hold dear; on the other hand, if we identify with the magi, we will be found praising God with a heart as full of joy as can be known. Perhaps it is wise to identify with both, saints and sinners that we are.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  It seems to me that the final verse gives us a call to obedience.  The writer tells us that the magi "left for their own country by another road."  We too, once we have worshiped at the foot of the Christ Child need to adjust our ways.  We are called not to return to the ways of Herod, but to follow always in the ways of Christ.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text? Many options could be considered with this vivid text:  fear/faith; threat/promise; empire/covenant; evil intent/paying homage.

5.  Exegetical work:  The text opens with this brief phrase:  "In the time of King Herod..."  What any historical reading about Herod the Great will reveal is the extent to which Herod went to insure his continued reign.  He was reported to have killed sons, wives, his wife's parents and grandparents, among others.  It is no wonder that when the residents of Jerusalem heard that a new king had been born in Judea that they, along with Herod, were frightened.  They knew all too well what his rage might lead to.  The word translated "frightened" is tarasso, and can better be translated as "disturbed" or "thrown into confusion." One can only imagine the fraught scene in the throne room when the chief priests and scribes threw open the scroll and read that "a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel" was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem.  Undoubtedly Herod knew that Bethlehem was not his birthplace.  As for the magi, their reaction was completely opposite.  They were from the East.  We can only speculate as to which country, but if they knew of this new king, they must have been familiar with ancient Hebrew texts, so one can surmise that they were either from Persia or Babylon, where the Jews had once lived in exile and likely had established a community.  In any case, it is clear that they did not enter Jerusalem asking if a new king had been born, but where, and it was clear that they knew their role to be paying him homage.  It really is marvelous to consider how certain the magi were of this new king and their need to worship him.  An anonymous writer of ancient commentaries said 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." (Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures, NT, Vol. 1a, pp. 27-28).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Archived under this text is a fine sermon, preached by Ed Schroeder, co-founder of the Crossings Community.  It is definitely worth looking at.  Also available is an analysis  by Timothy Hoyer, exploring the theme "Our Heart Always Has a King."  Hoyer challenges us, via the crossings method, to consider life under the reign of Herod, or life under the reign Christ.  See both at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, December 16, 2019

God With Us - Good News or Not?

Isaiah 7:10-16, the First Reading appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent in the Year of Matthew, has long been associated with the birth of Jesus, and announced as good news, because, as Matthew says, "he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21)  As we look at the context into which this word was originally spoken, however, we see that this announcement was anything but good news for those who first received it.  Perhaps we assume too readily that whenever we announce that God is near, or God is with us, that this will be received as good news.  What if God's presence is not welcomed?  What if God's presence reveals our unbelief?  We shall have to wrestle with this in this text.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers around the function of the Word.  They are meant to be used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions available to preachers.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching, and to see this method in its entirety, 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?  Verse 13 is the clue to how this Word functions:  "Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?"  Ahaz is wearying God.  Ahaz has been invited to seek a sign from God.  Ahaz has refused.  This word, therefore, comes to him as Law, exposing his unbelief, and his unwillingness to place his trust in God.

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  One looks for good news in this text with little success.  In the last verse it is clear that events will come to pass which will eliminate the threat to Israel that she now faces, but we know from later verses that this will not mean that Israel will be spared from suffering and ruin.  One might argue that there is a gospel word here simply by virtue of the fact that God promises a sign at all.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those to whom the Word is addressed, so in this case, that would be Ahaz.   This is not inappropriate since we are regularly found to be skeptical of God's will to grant us any sign of God's presence with us.  We are often people who cry out, "I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is no call to obedience here, but rather a call to faith.  Obedience comes as we respond to the call of God following the revelation of God's good will for us.

5.  What/Law Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The most obvious couplet is doubt/faith, but that is perhaps not strictly law and gospel.  Using the situation in the text we might opt for a couplet like standing in need of deliverance/deliverance given.

6.  Exegetical work:  In an extended article in the Theological Dictionary of the OT, on the word oth, translated as "sign" in verse 14, we are granted insight into this passage:  "It was wrong for Ahaz to reject the divine offer, and therefore Isaiah gave Ahaz another sign (v. 14), which meant disaster for Ahaz.  The prophet introduced this sign with lakhen, "therefore," which is a common introduction for a prophetic threat. This sign is not intended to arouse faith in the heart of Ahaz, but to reveal his unbelief."  (Eds. Botterweck and Ringgren, TDOT, Vol. I, p. 179).  Botterweck and Ringgren go on to say that in many other instances 'signs' were used to inspire faith, grant knowledge, and bring to remembrance the promises and covenant of God, etc., but in this instance that is not the case.  It is the use of this "common introduction for a prophetic threat" that helps us understand this.  The New Layman's Bible Commentary follows this tack: "... We can interpret the passage as follows.  Ahaz had refused to seek a sign, since he knew in his heart that such a sign would prove that Isaiah was right.  But a sign was to confront him nevertheless; it was this, that before nine months could elapse the Syrian and Israelite invaders would have departed so dramatically that many mothers-to-be in Judah wold name their newborn sons Immanuel - 'God is with us'... However, the name would be a sign or proof to Ahaz, not that the Syro-Ephraimite threat had already vanished (that fact would be self-evident), but that the God who was thus acknowledged to be 'with' His people was purposing to bring grave trouble on them, through the agency of the Assyrians." (Eds., Howley, Bruce, Ellison, LBC, pp. 776-777).

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock encouraged preachers to bring the experience of the text to the listeners.  This will not be a joyous task with this text, for that would be exposing unbelief.  When a text calls us to this, we do it by first seeing clearly our own unbelief and then inviting others to see themselves similarly.  There is no joy in preaching Law.  We must be sure to follow this task with a robust announcement of God's grace.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, December 9, 2019

Pure Gospel

Much like the First Lesson last week, this week's First Lesson appointed for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, Isaiah 35:1-10, is a picture of the reign of God.  Last week we saw that the reign of God begins with the shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse.  This week we see that, in similar fashion, the reign of God begins in the wilderness as the desert begins to blossom.  Last week we saw how the reign of God is manifest in a Righteous Ruler and in a peace-filled creation where the whole earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord.  This week the reign of God is manifest in the healing of the afflicted and waters breaking forth in the desert.  Once again, it will be the task of the preacher to celebrate this good news.

(The following questions are from the method I develop in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but may be helpful in unlocking the way the Word functions.  For more about this and other aspects of Law and Gospel preaching, my book may be gotten through wipfandstock, com, the Luther College bookstore, or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is pure Gospel, functioning to bring courage to "weak hands," "feeble knees," and "fearful hearts".  Into all of our conditions of weakness and doubt, we hear this announcement that we can have courage because God is coming to rescue us.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is really no word of Law here, no word that exposes our need for a Savior.  As noted above, the condition of fear is admitted, but there is no judgement here, no call to repentance.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is not a stretch to say that we have all been those with weak hands, trembling in fear at what might befall us; those with feeble knees, knocking against one another as we confront the bullies in our life; those with fearful hearts, running away from all that threatens us.  It is to us, in these states of being, that this word comes.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There are only a few imperatives in this text, in verses 3 and 4:  Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear!"  These imperatives are not calls to obedience, however, but calls to faith. The call to obedience is always the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's grace.  A good example of a call to obedience is the Second Reading appointed for this Sunday, James 5:7-10, which begins, "Be patient, beloved."

5. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since the Law is little evident here, we must make use of some of the language present in order to come up with couplets for this text.  Some possibilities:  weak/strong; dead/alive; desolate/blooming.

6.  Exegetical work:  According to the footnotes in The Lutheran Study Bible, Isaiah 34-35 "are seen by most scholars as stemming from the exile or post-exile periods.  They are placed here to begin a transition to the second part of the book of Isaiah. God's coming transformation will involve both total judgment of the wicked (chapter 34) and final salvation for the redeemed (chapter 35)."  This observation, that judgment is found in chapter 34 and redemption in chapter 35 is helpful, and one can not help but note the stark contrast between the two.  One chapter is a polar opposite of the other:  "The streams of Edom shall be turned to pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch." (34:9), as opposed to "the waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert." (35:6b).  "Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise;" (34:3a), as opposed to "the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped." (35:5).  "It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode of ostriches." (34:13b), as opposed to "No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it." (35:9a)  It is fair to say that all the judgment, i.e. the Word functioning as Law, is in chapter 34, and all the good news of redemption , i.e. the Word functioning as Gospel, is in chapter 35.

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell loved to celebrate, and he encouraged preachers to be the first to do so in a text.  This text of rejoicing is a natural vehicle for celebration.  It is the preacher's task to raise the roof!

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Miracles Proclaimed

During the season of Advent, we always have an Advent wreath present in worship, and as the weeks pass, we light first one candle, then two, and so on, through the season.  It is my understanding that one of these candles, especially one lit when the prophet Isaiah is read, symbolizes hope.  The First Reading for this 2nd Sunday in Advent, Isaiah 11:1-10, is nothing if not a proclamation of hope.  From the first verse announcing "the shoot" which shall emerge from a stump, to the penultimate verse which announces that "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord", this reading is a proclamation of hope.  It shall be the preacher's joyful task to proclaim this.

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but only offered as a way of opening up the Word and the way it functions in the text.  My guide is available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There can be little doubt that the Word is functioning primarily as Gospel here.  One after another, tumbling forth, we hear announcements of good news: a shoot is coming forth from the stump of Jesse; the Spirit of Yahweh will rest on this one, causing this new sovereign to judge the world with equity, righteousness, and faithfulness.  And then, as though the Spirit that has settled upon this one is overflowing into the whole cosmos, peace reigns, and "the earth is full of the knowledge of Yahweh".  What good news this is!

2.  How is the Word  not functioning in the text?  There seems to be little evidence of the Law in this text, unless one notes what is implied in the text.  In the first half of the text we read of the poor and the meek who need justice done, as well as the wicked who shall be killed by the breath of this sovereign one's lips.  Also in the second half of the text we read that no one "will hurt or destroy" any longer, implying that violence has been a  part of the world.  The upshot is that all this good news to the cosmos also means that the wicked will be judged.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those to whom this Word is spoken.  We are like Israel, waiting and watching for the reign of God to break forth. We are those who rejoice at this gospel word.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is always the call to live in a certain way in response to the gospel.  This text does not include this.  The 2nd reading appointed for this day from Romans 15 is a good example of a call to obedience:  "May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom. 15:5-6)

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text? Although the Law side of the equation is scant in this text, with a little imagination, we can come up with several couplets:  ignorance/wisdom and understanding; wickedness/faithfulness; violence/peace; despair/hope.

6.  Exegetical work:  Because this text has such vivid images, it is no surprise that a variety of artists have been inspired by this text.  Edward Hicks, a 19th century painter, and John August Swanson, a 20th century painter, have both produced multiple images of "the peaceable kingdom." They show, in their work, what this vision of Isaiah looks like in their mind's eye.  Ancient writers also have been taken by this text.  The 4th century bishop of Elvira, Gregory, imagined that Isaiah's vision meant a return to Eden:  "In his kingdom, God will recreate the world as wonderfully as it was made at the beginning, before the first man sinned."  The 6th century pope, Gregory the Great, finds that it is the Church itself that God uses for the fulfilling of this vision: "It is through the organs of holy charity that the wolf will dwell with the lamb, since those who were plunderers in the world now rest in peace with the meek and the tame... One who prepares himself as a daily sacrifice to God through a contrite heat, and another who once raged with cruelty like a lion, and yet another who remains in the simplicity of his innocence like a lamb have all come together in the fold of holy church."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. X, pp. 107-108).  Matthew Henry, in his commentary, also sees this vision:  "[Persons] of the most fierce and furious dispositions, who used to bite and devour all about them, shall have their temper so strangely altered... Those that inhabit the holy mountain shall live as amiably as the creatures did that were with Noah in the ark...The more there is of [knowledge of the Lord] the more there is a disposition of peace."  (Matthew Henry, via textweek.com)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Fred Craddock always urged preachers to help listeners experience the text in all of its fullness.  An aspiration of any preacher for this text might be that our listeners experience the grandeur of this vision, and exalt in it.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Unseen Reign of Christ

The Lutheran Study Bible entitles the major portion of Colossians 1:11-20, "The Supremacy of Christ."  Undoubtedly, this passage, the 2nd reading appointed for The Reign of Christ Sunday in the Year of Luke, announces this.  At the same time, when this is paired, as it is, with Luke's account of the Crucifixion, one is struck by the juxtaposition of these two announcements.  The Supremacy of Christ seems anything but evident in the scene at Golgotha.  It shall be the task of the preacher to unveil this for the listeners.

(The following questions are derived from a method laid out in my book for Law and Gospel preachers, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  These questions attempt to get at some of the crucial ways the Word is functioning in the text.  My brief method may be purchased through wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This pericope begins, oddly enough, in the middle of a prayer where the author is praying that the hearers might receive strength, endurance, and patience, as well as joy in their status as saints, who have been rescued from death and the devil and transferred to the realm of Christ.  But no sooner has the Beloved Son been mentioned when the author launches into an extended hymn of praise, giving glory to Christ. This announcement is pure Gospel, as the author announces all that Christ is, and all Christ has done on behalf of the whole cosmos.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no announcement of the Law in this text, i.e. a word which functions to announce our need for a Savior.  Having said that, it is clear that the redundancy in the hymn that lifts up Christ's dominion over all things, (five times!) all creation, and all rulers and powers, indicates the existence of many things, creatures, and powers who might try to claim that they too have some power.  The existence of such a claim is evidence of the need which the cosmos has for this Beloved Ruler.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We can certainly identify with those to whom these words were penned.  We are also those who need the prayers of this writer who asks God to give us strength, endurance, patience, and joy.  We too stand in need of this proclamation of the sovereignty of Christ, to give us faith in the face of those who would claim and abuse their own power.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is not a call to obedience, per se, but in the opening prayer, we can assume there exists the desire that we all live faithfully, enabled by the God-given strength, patience, endurance, and joy that Christ gives.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without a word of Law here, we will need to use our imaginations to come up with several couplets.  Some possibilities:  the sovereignty of evil/the sovereignty of Christ; the power of darkness/the realm of the beloved Son.

6.  Exegetical work:  In Ralph Martin's commentary on this passage, he notes that the situation at Colossae revolved around the status of the stoicheia, the elemental forces of the universe.  These forces, seen in the sun, moon, stars, and other aspects of creation, when they retained their status as "created orders", presented no problem for followers of Christ.  But when these forces become part of a cosmology that treats them as rivals to Christ, there is a problem.  "No longer do such cosmic forces remain neutral as part of the creation; they are in rebellion and need to be 'recreated' by having their hostility drawn and neutralized."(Martin, Interpretation series, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, p. 107)  This is the underlying situation; followers of Christ need to understand that only Christ is sovereign - there is no other.  All things, all creatures, all powers, seen and unseen, are under the reign of Christ.  Finally the author announces that "all the fulness of God" is pleased to dwell in Christ.  No stone is left unturned in announcing Christ's dominion. When one does a word study on the "thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers" in verse 16, this becomes even more obvious.  According to Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, thrones are "one of the highest classes of angels", dominions are "members of a class of angels", rulers are ""those who have at their command supernatural and ungodly powers", and powers are "powers in Satan's sphere of domination." (Volumes I, p. 488-89, Vol. II, p. 566f, Vol. III, pp. 166 and 1096).  What this reveals is that Christ's reign is, in many cases, an unseen one.  Christ's dominion is in the spiritual realm, at least for now.  On the Cross, we are told, the victory has been won. We must live in faith, for it remains unseen for us.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bruce Martin does a nice job of picking up on the cosmic struggle that is evident in this text.  In his analysis, "War and Peace",  he shows how reluctant any of "the powers", either within or without us, are to give up our claim to sovereignty.  Christ, however, "makes peace through the blood of his cross" despite our best attempts to continue the war.  See Martin's complete analysis at crossings.org/text-study.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  This text is a deeply theological one, thereby in danger of seducing the preacher into preaching a theological lecture.  Eugene Lowry always cautioned us to remember that the sermon must have a plot, with tension and release.  This is good advice, particularly when working with this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Age To Come

Luke 20:27-38, the gospel lesson appointed for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, puts us in the place of those who overhear a dispute between the Sadducees and Jesus regarding the resurrection.  It is a prime example of those who live by the Law and One who lives by the Gospel.  It shall be the preacher's task to bring this dispute to light and turn one's hearers to the Gospel.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions available to exegetes.  These questions attempt to wrestle with some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers regarding the function of the Word.  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?  One needs to look past the initial dispute to see how the Word is functioning here.  In his reply to the Saduccees' question, Jesus speaks about an age yet to come where the children of God "cannot die anymore because  they are like angels... and are children of the resurrection."  This announcement is certainly the Word functioning as Gospel as Jesus announces to us a coming reality of the age to come.  His announcement that even Moses knew God to be a God of living is also a gospel word.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  At first glance there seems to be little evidence of the Word functioning as Law, i.e. exposing our need for a Savior.  Indeed it is true that Jesus condemns no one in this passage.  The statement by Jesus found in the other synoptic accounts, "You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God" is omitted from this Lukan version, and in fact, added to the Lukan account in verse 39 is a report that some of the scribes answered Jesus, "Teacher, you  have spoken well," indicating  a certain receptivity to this Word.  Having said all this, it is yet true that the Sadducees, as strict followers of the Pentateuch only, are prime examples of religious folk who live by the Law.  That, St. Paul reminds us, leads to a dead end.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As always we need to identify with those to whom the Word is addressed, in this case the Sadducees.  We are like them in that the Law holds a certain appeal to us.  We like rules, boundaries, and certainty.  We naturally find the freedom of the Gospel problematic, and the mystery of the resurrection untenable.  We long for a faith that is packaged neatly and tidily in ways we can understand.  Jesus refuses to give us this, but instead simply points us to the age to come.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functioning as a call to obedience always invites us to live a certain way in response to the Gospel.  The Word is not functioning in this way in the text.  The second reading for this Sunday, in II Thessalonians 2, is a good example of this, calling us to live courageously as we anticipate the age to come.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We can imagine several couplets that might fit well using the words from this text:  law of Moses/gospel of Christ; dying/death is no more; death/resurrection.

6.  Exegetical work:  An extended article in the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible regarding the Saduccees is helpful background for this text.  One brief passage will suffice to show it's helpfulness:  "The NT and Josephus agree that the Saduccees denied the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; Josephus adds that they denied all future punishments and rewards, holding that the soul perishes with the body.  According to Acts (23:8), they also denied the existence of angels and spirits.  Josephus tells us that they also denied fate.  The reason for these denials probably was that the foregoing doctrines were not found in the law." (Vol. 4, p. 162)  As other writers note, the Saduccees regarded the Pentateuch alone as authoritative.  Knowing that, Jesus makes the point that even Moses argues for the resurrection when he speaks of "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob", who are regarded by Moses as alive.  Jesus knows to whom he is speaking.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  I like the simplicity of Chris Repp's analysis of this text.  He sees the clear dichotomy present here between "this age" and "that age", i.e. the age to come, with all of the relevant characteristics of each.  See his entire analysis archived under the text at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Saturday, October 26, 2019

Law and Gospel in a Nutshell

Luke 6:20-31, the gospel lesson appointed for All Saints Sunday, is a perfect example of Law and Gospel.  In this brief text we have all the ways that the Word functions:  to announce God's mercy, to announce our need for God's mercy, and to call us to obedience.  It shall be the preacher's challenging task to either choose one of these functions to center on, or to try to incorporate all three into one sermon.  Either choice will be a challenge.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but they function best in conjunction with other fine sets of questions meant to lift up other aspects of the text.  These questions try to unearth issues regarding the way the Word functions for Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this unique genre, 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 Gospel function which proclaims God's mercy is clearly present here in announcing God's blessing.  Makarios, the word we translate as 'blessed' is defined in Bauer's lexicon as "privileged recipient of divine favor." To be announced as a recipient of God's favor is certainly a Gospel function.  The Word clearly functions as Law as well in "the woes".  Again, Bauer defines the Greek word ouai almost as a lament meaning "alas!"  There is a sense of grief in this word over the fact that calamity is imminent.

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Since this text, unlike its more familiar Matthean version, is written in the second person, we are behooved to identify with those whom are addressed by this text.  Are we poor, hungry, weeping or hated?  Are we rich, well-fed, laughing, or spoken well of?  Whoever we are most like, it is those with whom we are called to identify, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text? The call to obedience, i.e. the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's grace, is clearly present in the last third of the text:  "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, etc."  Verse 31 sums up every call to obedience:  "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are many words in this text that suggest useful couplets that could be helpful in preaching this text.  A couple of suggestions:  weeping/laughing; hungry/filled; destitute/well-supplied; cursed/blessed.

5.  Exegetical work:  The tenses of the verbs in this text are particular important.  You will notice both present and future tenses, used alternately.  Fred Craddock, is his commentary, makes much of these tenses:  "...in blessings and woes two and three, 'now' is contrasted with 'you shall', clearly indicating future fulfillment.  The joining of present and future reminds us that the eschatological reality is already beginning with the advent of Jesus." [The hope] of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2) concerning the poor..."is no longer a hope but is an agenda for the followers of Jesus." (Interpretation series, Luke, p. 88)  Craddock is suggesting that this announcement by Jesus is nothing less than marching orders for the people of God.  This suggestion is supported by Luke's placement of this address immediately after the calling of the disciples in 6:12-16.  Another interesting note is that when one looks at the common source we know as "Q" which the gospel writers often called upon, we see that Luke 6:24-26 has no parallel in Q or in the other gospels.  In other words, the 'woes' seem to be original with Luke, suggesting that Luke's particular community was the context for this lament. (Robinson, Hoffman, Kloppenborg, The Critical Edition of Q, p. 54).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steven Albertin has several entries for this text, archived under All Saints.  In both analyses he centers on a certain 'defiance' that Jesus reveals here.  Jesus defies the economy of this world, and announces a new economy under God's reign.  Jesus also invites us into a defiant belief and a defiant living which includes loving enemies, praying for those who hate us, and turning the other cheek.  Both analyses are well worth considering in full, and can be found at crossings.org/text-study by entering the text reference.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Wheeee! Little Man

Luke 19:1-10, the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, is a delightful story about a wealthy man who is quite the contrast to the rich fellow we met only one chapter earlier.  To that fellow Jesus said, "There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (18:22) And Luke tells us that this fellow went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions.  In marked contrast to that man, Zacchaeus, the rich man here, like a little kid that just got permission to have his best friend stay overnight, alights from the tree he is in and welcomes Jesus into his home with joy! (In Greek, chairon)  Even the grumblers don't sour his mood, but he happily proclaims the freedom he has found in Christ.  It shall be the preacher's job to proclaim this story with joy as well.

(The following questions were developed to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, particularly questions about how the Word is functioning.  To learn more about this unique genre of preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, where you will find the rationale for this method.  It can be gotten at wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here as Gospel as the story shows us the gospel worked out:  a known sinner, one who admits his sins as well, comes to faith and finds freedom from the god Mammon.  Jesus announces to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham."  There is no greater gospel news than that.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little evidence of Law in this text, i.e. a Word which declares, "You need Jesus."  We could perhaps understand that those who grumble that Jesus is "the guest of one who is a sinner" stand in real need of a Savior, and that is so, but there is no word of condemnation for those grumblers here.  It is good news that Jesus is the guest of one who is a sinner, not bad news.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the people whom are addressed by the Word, and so here we happily identify with Zacchaeus.  We are those who are small of (spiritual?) stature whom the Lord notices.  We are those to whom the Lord says, "I must stay at your house today."  We are those who make peace with all those we have wronged because we understand that salvation has come to our house today.  We are the lost whom Jesus came to seek out and to save!

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience in this text is the implicit call which comes from the actions of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus understands that because salvation has come to his house, he must respond in repentance, renewal, and works of justice.  So we too are called to do the same.  Our lives must reflect the compassion of the Savior.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are a number of terms in this story that lend themselves well to couplets: lost/found; shunned/welcomed; sinner/forgiven.

6.  Exegetical work:  Speaking of the response of Zacchaeus to the graciousness of the Christ, St. Augustine says this:  "While imagining it was a marvelous piece of luck quite beyond words to see [Jesus] passing by, he was suddenly found worthy to have him in his house. Grace is poured out, and faith starts working through love."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. III, p. 291).  Fred Craddock's contemporary commentary follows in this same vein: "His salvation therefore, has personal, domestic, social, and economic dimensions... The whole life is affected by Jesus' ministry, a foretaste of the complete reign of God."  (Interpretation series, Luke, p. 220)  Craddock is also quick to note that since Zacchaeus is called a "chief tax collector" he is even more deeply embedded in a corrupt system, thus making his salvation that much more dramatic. (Ibid., p. 218)  Ben Witherington also sees the "this worldly" results of Zacchaeus' salvation:  "By labeling Zacchaeus a 'son of Abraham,' Jesus reinforces the tax collector's membership in the covenant community.  By speaking of his 'salvation,' Jesus focuses not on eternal life but on restitution with others in that same community." (New Cambridge Bible Commentary series, The Gospel of Luke, p. 512).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Ed Schroeder, one of the founders of the Crossings Community, shows well how this text can function as Law and Gospel.  In his diagnosis he shows that Zacchaeus is "too short" in many ways, his heart is corrupt, and in the final analysis is "lost."  Jesus sees him as he is and invites him to "come down" rather than "climb up."  In other words, Zacchaeus is invited to learn that salvation comes to your house by grace not by climbing up to it.  See Ed's entire commentary, "Jesus, A Do-it-Yourself Study" archived at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Dire Warnings

Some of the fiercest judgment pronounced against God's people is found in the book of Amos, and in the readings for Pentecost 15 and 16 we have prime examples of this.  In Amos 8:4-7, assigned for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, we hear the Lord railing against those who through their business practices trample the poor and vulnerable.  In Amos 6:1a, 4-7, the First Reading for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke, we hear the prophet calling out those who live in luxury without even a thought for those who suffer outside their gates.  These fierce texts beg to be  preached.  How shall we do this so that they will be heard?

(The following questions were developed to get at some of the fundamental questions for Law and Gospel preachers around how the Word functions.  For more insight into Law and Gospel 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?  There is no doubt that in both of these texts, the Word is functioning as Law.  It is a call to repentance.  It is a call to recognize one's sins.  It is, as Luther says, the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Clearly, there is no word of Gospel here. God is grieved with those who cheat their patrons, and with those who live in luxury with no thought to the suffering around them.  God is a God of justice.  God is One who suffers with us. 

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with the people whom are addressed by the Word, not with the spokesperson or the Word itself.  It is tempting to take the place of the prophet here, and perhaps that is part of our call, but first we must take account of our own proclivity to cheat others or to ignore the suffering around us as long as we have all we need.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is implicit here: Live justly, be cognizant of those who suffer, grieve the injustice and poverty around you and do all you can to alleviate it.  This, though not expressly spoken, is assumed.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Couplets for these texts are hard to come up with given the nature of these texts.  We might employ some of the language here to create some:  feeling insecure/secure in Christ; grieving over sin/forgiven.

6.  Exegetical work:  It is interesting to see how commentators have found texts like these speaking to the situation of their own age.  In a letter to 4th century patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, we read:  "There is nothing else to see happening everywhere in the world except disorder, unheralded war, unrestrained wrath and savagery exceeding all barbaric in humanity, and there is no one suffering "by the collapse of Joseph." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. XIV, p. 106).  Likewise, in his late 19th century commentary The Book of the Twelve Prophets, the Scottish theologian, George Adam Smith wrote this:  "The ruin of Joseph is the moral ruin, for the social structure of Israel is obviously still secure.  The rich are indifferent to it; they have wealth, art, patriotism, religion, but neither heart for poverty nor conscience for the sin of their people.  We know their kind!  Who live well and imagine they are clever and well refined.  They have their political zeal, will rally to an election when the interests of their class  or trade are in danger.  They have a robust and exuberant patriotism, talk grandly of commerce, empire, and the national destiny; but for the real woes and sores of the people, the poverty, the overwork, the dissoluteness, which more affect a nation's life than anything else, they have no pity and no care."  (p. 181)  To read these words, written in the U.K. over one hundred years ago, and realize that they could well describe our present situation in the U.S. is to wonder if ever we are destined to repeat the sins of our ancestors.  Will we never learn?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Confused Identities

Identities are confused in Exodus 32:7-14, the First Reading for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke.  It seems God is confused about whose people the Israelites actually are, and the Israelites are confused as to who their God actually is.  Moses seems to have it all straight, but what a spot to be in!  It's no wonder that in the next section, Moses, himself, is at his wit's end.  It might be fruitful for the preacher to mine the treasure of our identity in Christ, through this passage.

(The following questions are meant to help the preacher understand how the Word is functioning in the text, a crucial question for Law and Gospel preachers.  To learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is a definite word of Law in this text, as Yahweh's wrath "burns hot" against Israel.  Most fearsome is Yahweh's insistence that these idolaters who worship the golden calf they have made with their hands are not Yahweh's people, but Moses' people, whom Moses has brought out of Egypt.  The idea that God is capable of being so angry that we are dis-owned, if you will, is a fearsome thought indeed!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little Gospel here.  Indeed it seems that only as Moses reminds Yahweh that promises have been made which must be kept, and Yahweh's name would be forever blemished if Yahweh were to destroy the people, is Yahweh's wrath cooled.  To think that a mediator must talk God out of destroying sinners is hardly a piece of good news.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is a unique text in that the Word addresses first Moses and then Yahweh.  It's hard to identify with either.  Perhaps we should identify with those who have gone after other gods.  Perhaps we can see ourselves as those whom God is considering having mercy on, but also those who have deeply grieved the Lord.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This text is more a call to faith in the True God than a call to obedience.  The call to obedience always comes after the call to faith, and so we will have to wait for further instructions to find out what we are invited to as people of faith.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The language in this text is helpful, even if the text itself is not a Law/Gospel text.  Some suggested couplets are:  under wrath/under mercy; estranged from God/embraced by God; condemned/pardoned.

6.  Exegetical work:  Terence Fretheim, in his commentary (Interpretation series, Exodus), says that "a key phrase for interpreting this passage is 'let me alone'.  [vs. 10]  For such a word to make sense, one must assume that, while God has decided to execute wrath (see v.14), the decision has not reached an irretrievable point; the will of God is not set on the matter." (pg. 283)  Fretheim goes on to say that it is God's relationship with Moses that is key here.  "God here recognizes the relationship with Moses over having an absolutely free decision in this matter." (Ibid., p. 284)  Fretheim concludes his commentary on this short passage by talking about what this reveals about God: "The God of Israel is revealed as one who is open to change.  God will move from decisions made, from courses charted, in view of the ongoing interaction with those affected.  God treats the relationship with the people with an integrity that is responsive to what they do and say." (Ibid., p. 287)  What Fretheim is suggesting is that there is good news here:  our God is One who regards our relationship with God as having such great value that even God's will is open to change.  In the words of Rob Bell, "love wins."  It is telling that the word used to describe God's change of heart in verse 14 is nacham, which means to be sorry, to rue, to suffer grief, to repent of one's doings. (BDB, p. 637a). This is a relationship word:  God did not merely change God's mind; God suffered grief over"the disaster he had planned to bring on his people."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Bruce Martin has an interesting analysis of this text entitled, "Golden Cross, Bloody Cross."  Translating this story into our time Martin suggests that much religiosity is merely cloaked idolatry, even when done ostensibly in the name of Christ.  He calls us to remember that only "by God's own intercession are we saved."  This is an analysis worth pondering. Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the entire analysis, archived under the reference.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Choosing Life

"I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses," says Moses.  "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."  This is an ancient text, coming to us on this 13th week of Pentecost in the Year of Luke, from Deuteronomy 30:15-20.  It is the end of the long farewell speech to Israel, as Moses prepares to die, and the people of Israel prepare to enter the Promised Land with Joshua as their leader.  Does this text come to us as Law or Gospel or a call to obedience?  That is the question.  Ancient writers differ. 

(The following questions have been formulated to get at some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, particularly around the way the Word functions in the text.  These questions are meant to be used in conjunction with other sets of exegetical questions which inquire in different ways.  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?  It is clear that Israel's identity is secure: they are God's people; they have come through the Red Sea and been fed with manna and have drunk from the rock.  This passage is therefore not a call to faith, but rather a call to obedience.  God has claimed them and guided them and kept them.  In response to God's faithfulness they are now invited to live in faithfulness as well.  The Word functions to call God's people to obedience.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  While there is the dichotomy of blessings and curses here, this text does not seem to function as Law and Gospel.  Law and Gospel says, "You need Jesus!  Here is Jesus!"  This text, rather says, "God has been faithful; now, you be faithful in response."  The Word here is functioning as a call to obedience.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is easy to identify with the recipients of this text, for we too are called the people of God, the children of the promise.  We too are called to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.  We too are promised blessing when we choose God's way, and cursing when we go our own way.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  This is a bit tough to come up with since the text is a call to obedience.  Taking some of the language of the text, we could imagine several couplets:  living under the curse of sin/freed by Christ's obedience; dead in sin/alive in Christ.

5.  Exegetical work:  This passage contains a phrase that Erasmus made much of in his Discourse concerning Free Choice, which Luther so earnestly attacked in his famous treatise, The Bondage of the Will.  To be called to "choose life", said Erasmus, was proof that God's people had freedom of choice.  "Not so fast," said Luther.  "Truly ... we are at a crossroad, but only one way is open; or rather, no way is open, but by means of the law it is shown how impossible one of them is, namely, the way to the good, unless God gives the Spirit, and how broad and easy the other is if God allows us to take it." (LW, vol. 33, p. 126)  Here Luther insists that without the Spirit, we cannot choose the way of life.  In other words, were we not already claimed by God and filled with God's Spirit, we would have no path to choose but the one that leads to death.  Basil the Great, 4th century bishop of Caesarea, seems to side with Erasmus:  "There is a certain balance constructed in the interior of each of us by our Creator, on which it is possible to judge the nature of things."  Caesarius, 5th century bishop of Arles, seems to side with Luther:  "Power [to choose] is given to you through the grace of Christ: 'Stretch forth your hand to do whichever you choose.' 'Choose life, that you may live'; leave the broad way on the left that drags you to death and cling to the narrow path on the right which happily leads you to life." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. III, p. 326-327)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Peter Keyel takes a classic Law/Gospel approach to this text, understanding that this call to choose life brings into stark relief our inability to have hearts that turn to God.  In his prognosis, Keyel rejoices in the news that Jesus, by his perfect obedience, broke through the system that only leads to death.  Go to crossings.org/text-study to see this analysis in its entirety.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Final admonitions

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 is the Second Reading appointed for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke.  It is the final reading in this series of readings taking us deep into the book of Hebrews, a book Tom Long has described as one masterful sermon. (Interpretation series, Hebrews).  Now, says Long, the sermon is over, and "the Preacher ... turns to the more routine aspects of congregational life, to the ministry of hospitality, the prison visitation program, the stewardship emphasis, and the like." (Ibid., p. 142)  This final chapter, note other writers, is much like the ending of a Pauline letter, filled with admonitions, akin to a parent writing to a child away from home for the first time:  Be good, mind your manners, be careful, watch the company you keep, etc.  It will be the preacher's task to discern the gospel amongst all this admonition, and lift that high as well.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, especially concerns around how the Word is functioning in a text.  These questions are meant to be used with other sets of questions that help open up a text in other ways.  For more on Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is little doubt that this text is almost purely a call to obedience, which is the Word functioning to invite us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in Christ.  The writer of Hebrews has just finished announcing to all that we have received "a kingdom that cannot be shaken." (12:28)  We are now invited to live in grateful response to God's amazing abundance.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is almost no hint of the Law here.  We might well understand that beneath all these admonitions is the implicit acknowledgement that sin lies close at hand and "the devil prowls about as a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour," but no such thing is said here.  Also a Gospel word which announces what God has done in Christ seems also to have been omitted.  While it is true that the text is not here functioning primarily as Gospel, several verses could certainly be considered announcements of the good news: "I will never leave you or forsake you," (vs. 5c) and "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." (vs. 8). Both those verses are good news to be sure.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As always we want to identify with those being addressed by the Word.  We then are those who are being reminded to "let mutual love continue" in all the various ways it does.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this is primarily a call to obedience, we must stretch a bit to find couplets that are law and gospel related.  Using some of the language in the text as a launching point, several ideas come to mind:  strangers/friends; in prison/freed; defiled/made clean; forsaken/embraced forever.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is instructive to understand that all the imperatives in the text are present tense imperatives. That is to say, they are reminders to continue doing what you are already doing, or in the case of prohibitions, to stop doing the things that you are doing.  If these imperatives had been aorist in form, they would have signaled the command to start something new.  The present tense suggests that these admonitions are reminders of things the listeners already know. Another grammatical detail is lifted up by the Swiss-German reformer, Oecolampadius, who calls our attention to the strong future denial constructions in verse 5:  "I will never leave you or forsake you."  A literal translation of this verse might be "By no means will I ever abandon you and not by any means will I ever forsake you."  Oecolampadius notes that "the Lord said this to Joshua, when he charged him to take up the leadership of his people.  But because the Lord purposes not to leave anyone who wholeheartedly entrusts himself into his care, the apostle rightly cites this promise as belonging to all believers in general.  For he is near to all who call on him in truth."  (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol. XIII, p. 190).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Douglas Chamberlain tackles this text in an interesting way, lifting up the way that our inhospitable habits, eventually lead us to rejection of God as well.  Thankfully, God's promise to never match our inhospitality with more of the same, but rather to go above and beyond being hospitable to us strangers, is fully seen in Christ. Go to crossings.org/text-study to see the entire analysis archived under the reference.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, August 19, 2019

Promises galore!

Isaiah 58:9b-14, the First Reading appointed for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke, is filled with conditional language.  "If you remove the yoke... if you offer your food to the hungry...etc."  Yet this text has a gospel feel to it; it is filled with promise.  It will be the preacher's task to preach gospel while guided by this text of conditional phrases - a challenge to be sure!

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to be used with many other fine sets of questions that help preachers uncover the treasures in a text.  These questions are meant to uncover treasures sought by Law and Gospel preachers.  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?  Claus Westermann calls verses 9b-12 " a conditional promise" akin to Job 11:13-19.  (The OT Library series, Isaiah 40-66, p. 331f)  It is a promise of blessing.  It is this promissory quality that gives the "gospel feel" to this text.  Over and over God is promising blessing.  It sounds very much like a Hebrew version of "if you believe in your heart and confess with your lips you will be saved." (Romans 9)  In Hebrew thinking faith always shows itself in action.  So faith is what is being described here. When we do acts of justice, we are "doing faith," as it were.  And from faith comes blessing.  A gospel text.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Law has already been announced in all its ferocity at the beginning of chapter 58:  "Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins." (vs. 1b)  Here there is only conditional promise.  God clearly longs to bless the people, offering them a way to obtain this blessing.  There is no condemnation here, but rather an invitation to "the life that is truly life."  It is reminiscent of Joshua's invitation:  "Choose this day whom you shall serve... as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15)

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the ones being addressed in this passage. We are the people of God. We are the individuals God is inviting into this way of blessing.  We are those who are invited to remove the yoke from among us, to feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. We are those who are invited to call the sabbath a delight.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live in response to God's work in Christ. This text invites us to live in response to God's invitation; not the same thing, but close.  As is typical in OT faith language, faith is a response to God's faithfulness, and looks forward to what God is promising; it does not look back on what God has done.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  There are a number of phrases in this text that lend themselves to the couplet form:  sitting in darkness/light rising in the darkness; gloom/noonday; lost/guided; parched places/watered gardens; dry/springs of water.

6.  Exegetical work:  The Lutheran Study Bible mentions the presence of the term "nephesh" (Hebrew for "self" or "soul") in this passage, suggesting that there is a deliberate word play here.  When we replace the common translations with this term, we see the depth it offers.  Verse 10:  "If you offer your nephesh to the hungry and satisfy the nephesh of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness..."  If we recognize that our nephesh is not only the seat of our appetites, but the seat of our emotions and passions, indeed our essential self, this passage gains considerable weight.  We are being invited to give of ourselves in ways that go far beyond bringing a bag of food for the food bank.  Also nephesh shows up in the promise as well:  "The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your nephesh in parched places, and make your bones strong." (vs. 11)  A deep contentment is being promised here, even during days of lack.  Another unique aspect of this passage is that it addresses not the people of Israel, but individuals. The verbs are singular.  This is very unusual.  What is clear, however, is that the individual response of faith will produce blessing for the community, (e.g.  your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt), as well as the individual (e.g. you shall take delight in the Lord).  This address to individuals is consistent throughout this passage, whether it has to do with love of neighbor (vs. 9b-12), or love of God (vs. 13-14).  Luther has much to say on this passage.  One quote will suffice:  "Just as one ungodly man can harm a whole city and region, so God can through one good man provide much benefit for the state and the whole region." (LW, XVII, p. 289).

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Running with perseverance

Hebrews 11:29-12:2, the 2nd Reading appointed for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke, is the rhetorical climax of a sermon which has been gathering momentum since the beginning of Chapter 11.  I love how Tom Long in his commentary imagines a traditional African-American call-and-response style sermon here whereby the preacher is asking rhetorical questions and the people are responding with responses like, "Tell it all, brother, tell it all!"  (Interpretation series, Hebrews, p. 124)  It will be the preacher's challenge to emulate that pattern once again and strike the celebratory note that is in this text.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of answering some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, especially concerns about the way the Word functions.  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? There is no doubt that this text has a gospel feel to it.  It celebrates the faith of our spiritual ancestors who endured unspeakable suffering for the sake of the gospel and now are part of that "great cloud of witnesses"  that cheer us on as we run the race that is set before us.  Finally, entering chapter 12, we hear the gospel proclaimed loud and clear:  "Jesus,... who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little word of Law in this text.  A hint of our need for a Savior comes in 12:1 as we are exhorted to "lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely."  The word translated "weight" is a rare word (ogkos) which can also be translated "impediment"; many translations go that way, translating this "hindrance" or "encumbrance."  Certainly it is true that there are many hindrances that would cause us to slow or give up our journey of  faith, and our sins are foremost amongst those.  Yet, this text offers no word of judgement.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those whom the Word addresses here.  We are running the race of faith, and it is we who need encouragement to look to Jesus, the founder and end goal of our faith.  We also need to be reminded that there are many who have died in faith, who now give us inspiration to run our race well.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The exhortation in 12:1 is pure call to obedience: "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us."  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, and here that invitation has everything to do with God's faithfulness that creates faith in us.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this is not a complete Law/Gospel text, we shall have to use some of the language in the text and then add to it to produce our couplets.  Some suggestions:  weighed down/liberated; sin clinging closely/Jesus clinging closely.

6.  Exegetical work:  As in the Hebrews 11 text appointed for Pentecost 9, it is important to note the way the term "faith" is used throughout this passage.  That term is not to be understood here in the way that St. Paul most often uses the term, in relation to faith in Christ.  Here the word is used much more in the manner of the OT, where the emphasis is not on what God has done, but what God will do.  Kittel's extensive discussion of the term pistis makes this very clear.  (Theological Dictionary of the NT, vol. VI, p. 205f)  So we see in the examples of faith which the writer lifts up:  the Israelites at the Red Sea must trust in what God will do; the armies of Israel who march around Jericho must trust in what God will do; Rahab, the prostitute who helps the spies of Israel must trust what God will do.  As Tom Long says in his commentary, "Faith is a response to the trustworthiness of God." (Interpretation series, Hebrews, p. 113) Long goes on:  "When we see the disciplined, loving, strong, merciful, and faithful way that Jesus ran the race, we are motivated to lace up our running shoes, to grasp the baton, and to sprint for the finish line." (Ibid., p. 129)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell, the dean of celebratory preaching, would have had a field day with this text.  Just as Tom Long describes, this text is a sermon in itself, waiting to be preached.  So preach it!  Let the celebration of God's faithfulness, the witness of the great cloud of our forebearers,and the supreme example of Christ commence!

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Hope Vs. Nostalgia

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, the 2nd Reading appointed for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke, contains perhaps the best known verse on faith in the Bible:  "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  As we read the entire text we realize that "things hoped for" have nothing to do with nostalgia - a longing for a golden age - but rather they have to do with God's promises for the future.  It will be the task of the preacher to lift up these promises.

(The following questions have been developed to answer some basic questions for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to stand alone, but to be used in conjunction with other questions which seek to answer other concerns.  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?  Without being explicit, this text has a "gospel feel" to it.  It sounds like good news.  Finally in the last verse, we receive the promise which has only been hinted at earlier:  "God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them."  This is a gospel word, that God is not ashamed to be our God, and has prepared a dwelling place for us.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is hard to find a word of Law in this text.  There is little evidence here of our need for a  Savior.  One little piece could be used to describe our state apart from Christ: "good as dead" (vs. 12).  That is, of course, how St. Paul describes us apart from Christ.  But here that verse is clearly not talking about our present state, but Abraham's.  We may have to look at other texts to announce our need for a Savior.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those who are "seeking a homeland."  We are the ones desiring "a better country, that is, a heavenly one" even if we cannot claim to have the faith of Abraham and Sarah.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This entire text could be understood as a call to obedience, but particularly in verse 8 and following, we hear this call.  When the writer lifts up Abraham and Sarah, and says they "obeyed" when called them to set out for a new land even though they did not know where they were going, that is the call to obedience.  Faith is also being lifted up, of course, but in this usage, obedience follows.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Because this is not a full Law/Gospel text, we shall have to use our imaginations to come up with couplets.  Some possibilities:  as good as dead/alive as can be; homeless/having found a home; living in the far country/finding a better country.

6.  Exegetical Work:  Kittel has a very important discussion regarding 'pistis' which we translate 'faith.'  When we hear the word 'faith', we are very likely to immediately jump to St. Paul's understanding of the word, especially the idea of "faith in Christ."  Kittel makes it clear that there is a different usage in Hebrews that is significant.  He says that St. Paul's use of the term "looks primarily to what God has done, not to what He will do." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VI, p. 209).  In other words, faith, according to Paul, is primarily a looking back, while faith as used in Hebrews is primarily a looking forward.  According to Kittel this is a continuation of the Old Testament usage of this term and thus "to believe" is "to obey." (Ibid., p. 205)  Also, "In the OT and Judaism the sense of 'trust' is combined with faith." (Ibid., p. 206).  Finally, "Trust in God is very closely related to hope... This is indeed the predominant sense in Hb. 11. It explains why the heroes of the OT can be examples for Christians, whose faith is also directed to the future which God has promised, and who also know that they are 'strangers and pilgrims on the earth.'" (Ibid., p. 207).  It is well worth reading the entire article in Kittel's TDNT to a get a good sense of how this term is used.  Suffice it to say, faith is not related to nostalgia, but hope.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Michael Hoy picks up on the homeland theme in his analysis of this text.  He talks about our trust in the visible lands  around us, and our skepticism about any heavenly city.  The turn of the Gospel is indeed when God gives us the better country as our inheritance in Christ.  Go to crossings.org/text-study for the whole analysis.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice emphasized the preacher's task of helping listeners recognize their shared story in the text.  This text might be an excellent vehicle for helping listeners identify their dead end nostalgia, and then lifting up the hope of a better country which God promises.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Seeking the Things That Are Above

The first two chapters of Colossians have centered on what it means to die with Christ, to be buried with him in baptism.  Now, as we begin the second half of this letter, Paul turns to what it means to live as one who has also been raised with Christ.  Now in this text, Colossians 3:1-11, appointed for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke, instead of centering on our life before Christ, and the overpowering event of Christ's death and resurrection, Paul centers on what life is going forward.  How then does one live? is the question.  The question for the preacher will be how to preach a law and gospel sermon, when this text is primarily a call to obedience.

(The following questions have been developed as a way of getting at some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers around the function of the Word.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but meant to be used with other fine sets of questions which lift up other issues.  To learn more about Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from wipfandstock.com or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Right out of the gate, the writer assumes that the Gospel has done its work:  You have been raised with Christ!  So then, says Paul, "Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." This then is purely a call to obedience.  We are exhorted to live in a certain way in response to what God has done for us in Christ.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is really no word of Gospel here, no word which announces what Christ has done; all of that has been thoroughly proclaimed in chapters 1 and 2.  Also there is only a glancing blow from the Law, where Paul reminds his readers that "on account of these [sins] the wrath of God is coming upon those who are disobedient." (vs. 6)  Besides that there is little mention of our need for a Savior.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Clearly we are those to whom this word is addressed.  In our baptism we have been buried with Christ, and by the power of God we have also been raised with him.  We are the ones being called to seek the things that are above, and not set our minds on the things of the earth.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this is almost wholly a call to obedience, we must improvise in coming up with couplets for this text.  Some ideas:  dead/raised; life hidden/life revealed.

5.  Exegetical work:  It is telling that in Luther's extensive commentary on Psalm 51, he refers explicitly to Paul's words here:  "This is the Christian life, as it is marvelously described in Colossians 3:1-3, that we seek the things that are above, as [those] who are dead to the world and whose life is hid in Christ; and in 2 Corinthians 7:1, that we 'cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.'  He means that in him and in all Christians there remain such defilements of the spirit, that is, evil opinions about God, and defilements of the flesh, that is, vicious lusts; and that it should be our labor and effort to clean these out with the help of the Spirit... You can readily say, 'I believe in Christ.' But it takes the hardest kind of work to keep this faith fixed and sure and permanent in the heart." (Luther's Works, Vol. 12, Selected Psalms, p. 329-330)  It becomes evident in looking at the grammar in this passage that our death and rising in Christ is an accomplished fact, but our ongoing life is a continual struggle.  The present tense imperative instructs us:  "Seek (and keep on seeking) the things that are above."  "Set your minds (and keep setting them) on the things that are above."  The aorist form in verse 5, however, gives us a new command:  "Put to death (once and for all!), therefore, whatever in you is earthly."  Similarly in verses 8 and 9, we have the aorist form:  "You must get rid of all such [evil] things..." (once and for all!) and "seeing you have stripped off the old self with its practices..." (once and for all).  It seems that Paul wants us to be seeking the things above continually, while ridding ourselves of our death-dealing habits, once and for all.

6.  How does the Crossings community model work with this text?  Betty Krafft, in her analysis, raises up one of the issues for Law and Gospel preachers with a text like this, which is primarily a call to obedience:  what if all this text is doing is proving to us the truth of Romans 7?  "The evil that I wish not to do, that I do, and that good which I would do, that I do not."  She suggests that the first half of the equation ends for us in the wrath of God which "is coming on those who are disobedient."  The second half of the equation is that we have died and been raised in Christ.  We will have to decide if this text functions this way for us. See her entire analysis, archived under the reference at crossings.org/text-study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Whole Fullness of Deity

Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19), continues the argument that the apostle Paul has been making throughout chapter one.  This text, the 2nd reading appointed for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke, reminds us that "the whole fullness of the deity" dwells bodily in Christ.  We, like the Colossians, are reluctant to believe this, preferring to include other 'deities' in our pantheon of preferred religious personalities.  It will be the preacher's task to make it known that Christ is sufficient.

(The following questions have been developed to help Law and Gospel preachers assess how it is that the Word is functioning: one of the chief 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 or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Paul's concern is clearly that these dear Colossians not be taken "captive through philosophy and empty deceit." (vs. 8)  He announces to them again how God has done all that is needed in Christ Crucified.  This is a purely Gospel function, culminating in the grand announcement that "when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with [Christ]."  There is no clearer gospel word than this!  Of course, it is also true that there is no clearer word of Law than this:  "You were dead in [your] trespasses."

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  As is usual with these epistles, we must identify with those to whom the letter is written.  We are the ones who are easily led astray and taken captive "through philosophy and empty deceit," we are the ones who were dead in our trespasses before Christ came, and we are those whom God has forgiven in Christ.  Alleluia!

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is present in this text both at its beginning and at its end.  In the opening verse, Paul exhorts his listeners to "continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith."  There is no clearer call to obedience than this.  Also, at the end of the passage, (vss. 16-18), Paul encourages his listeners to not let anyone condemn or disqualify them in connection with matters of little importance.  This too is a call to obedience.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since this is a complete law/gospel text, it is not hard to suggest several couplets:  dead/alive; guilty/forgiven; keeping score/erasing the record.

5.  Exegetical Work: When baptism is highlighted as it is in this passage, it is not surprising to find that virtually all the reformers (Calvin, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Agricola, etc.) have commented on this passage, as well as the writers of a number of confessions. (e.g., Belgic and Schleitheim Confessions).  (See the fine commentary series on the Reformers available from IV Press, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, for the complete list.)  Martin Luther's concluding remarks in his article regarding Baptism in his Large Catechism will suffice as an example:  "Thus we see what a great and excellent thing Baptism is, which snatches us from the jaws of the devil and makes God our own, overcomes and takes away sin and daily strengthens the new man, always remains until we pass from this present misery to eternal glory.  Therefore let everybody regard his (sic, etc.) Baptism as the daily garment which he is to wear all the time.  Every day he should be found in faith and amid its fruits, every day he should be suppressing the old man and growing up in the new." (Tappert, The Book of Concord, p. 446)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Marcus Felde does a little play on words to help us understand what is at stake for us in this text.  Playing on the "spiritual circumcision" we receive in Christ and the "uncircumcision of our flesh" in which we lived before Christ, Felde talks about our state as those who go from "circumscribed" (i.e. held captive, bound) to "uncircumscribed" in Christ (i.e. free, without limit).  He also suggests that Paul is raising up Christ as a colossus of sorts, the One who disarms the powers and principalities.  See crossings.org/text-study for the whole analysis, archived under the reference.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Christ: The Firstborn of All Creation

Colossians 1:15-28, the 2nd reading appointed for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Luke, is certainly one of the most, if not the most Christocentric passage in all of Scripture.  Near the end of this reading, the writer gives us a summary of his intent in writing this letter, and specifically in writing this passage:  "It is he (i.e. Christ) whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ."  There it is:  proclamation, warning, and teaching.  This is the content of this passage.  It will be the preacher's task to do this as well.

(The following questions have been developed to help answer some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers, specifically around the function of the Word.  For more on this method and 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 functions in all the ways that it can in this passage, albeit overwhelmingly as Gospel.  Especially in the ancient creed-like hymn quoted in vss. 15-20, the Word is functioning as Gospel.  The message is a proclamation of the preeminence of Christ, and the reconciliation achieved through the Cross. 

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The Law gets only a small role in this passage.  Verse 21 reminds us of our place outside of Christ:  "estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds."  Besides this there is precious little evidence of Law in this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices in this text:  the Colossians, or the writer of this letter.  If we identify with the Colossians, then we will need to claim their identity as previously "estranged, hostile, doing evil."  If we identify with the writer, then we are the proclaimer, the one sounding the alarm, the one whose job it is to "present everyone mature in Christ."

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is implied in verses 22-23:  "[be] holy and blameless and irreproachable before him...Continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard."  While there is no imperative given in these verses, it is definitely implied, lest the listeners fall prey to the notion that once baptized, one's ongoing life is of no concern to Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  If we borrow the writer's language in verse 21, we can come up with several couplets: estranged/embraced; hostile in mind/welcomed; doing evil/walking in righteousness.

6.  Exegetical work:  According to a number of sources, the main problem in Colossae that was being addressed here was the notion of "the stoicheia" (the 'elemental spirits of the universe'), which it was taught "constituted the pleroma (the 'fulness,' the full complement) of divine powers through whom God ruled the world. These powers were the means whereby divine revelation was given unto [humanity]; they controlled the ways of access whereby [mortals] ascended to their eternal destiny." (Price, Interpreting the New Testament, p. 465)  This heresy is what the writer seeks to address by highlighting the work and preeminence of Christ.  The writer "affirmed that 'all the fullness of God' - the full complement of divine power - dwelt in Christ alone.  The conclusion followed: the stoicheia possessed no power superior to, nor in any way qualifying, the power of the Christian redeemer." (Ibid., p. 468)  "As in no previous situation, [the writer] was led to press beyond the thoughts of Christ's eschatological role in history to a proclamation of his pre-eminence in the order of Creation, to an acknowledgment that Christ's power to reconcile was not restricted to the Church, but was sufficient to reconcile everything that exists in the universe unto God." (Ibid.)  Ralph Martin affirms Price's analysis and also reminds us what is at stake for the Colossians:  "[The writer] has given to the stoicheia (2:8, 20), the elemental forces of the universe, a changed status.  Like his Colossian readers,he believed that such cosmic agents owed their being to the creator Christ, but when they are brought into a cosmological system and treated as rivals to Christ they stand in dualistic tension with the Christ... They take on a demonic character and require him to assume  that they have broken away from their station as 'created orders' by claiming an independent status, demanding human allegiance and veneration.' (Martin, Interpretation Series, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, p. 107)

Blessings on your proclamation!