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 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 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 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 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 to see this analysis in its entirety.

Blessings on your proclamation!