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

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 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 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

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!