Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Seeing is Believing

 


Mark 10:46-52, the Gospel lesson appointed for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is a lesson not often read in Lutheran circles because of its proximity to Reformation Sunday.  It remains, however, a very important story about faith, and one man's experience of trusting in Jesus.  The story contains elements of both Law and Gospel.  It will be the preacher's task to proclaim both.

(The following questions have been developed to help the preacher understand the function of the Word in the text, a fundamental concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but work best when used with other sets of questions with other concerns.   For more on this method and on 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?  There are several clear statements of Law here: One, the fact that Bartimaeus is blind.  Blindness is a condition in need of a savior/healer; two, the rebuke of those who would silence the blind man.  The world around us often seeks to silence our voice as we cry out to God.  The Word also functions as Gospel in several places, first, as Bartimaeus is told, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you," and second, when Bartimaeus' sight is restored.

2. With whom are you identifying in the text?  The central character whom is addressed by the Word (i.e. Jesus) is Bartimaeus, thus we identify with him.  We are those crying out each Sunday, "Kyrie, eleison!"  We are often blind, as the disciples were, even though we have some proximity to Jesus.  We need Jesus to come and heal us.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience in this story is implicit, not explicit. The final verse says, "[he, being healed] followed him on the way."  The call is clear: people of faith, follow in the way of Jesus.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The central couplet is clear:  blind/seeing.  Other couplets suggest themselves:  unbelief/faith; unenlightened/given wisdom.

5.  Exegetical work:  Donahue and Harrington state it simply:  "The healing of blind Bartimaeus is on the surface a miracle story, but it is also, and more profoundly, a dialogue about faith."  (Sacra Pagina series, Mark, p. 319).  Eugene Boring, in his commentary, concurs, and adds some detail.  He makes much of both the blind man's words and his actions.  "By throwing his cloak aside, Bartimaeus threw off the garment of his old self and the life he had been living in blindness, beside the way rather than on it."  "[The term Bartimaeus used] 'Rabbouni' is a very exalted expression, used by the rabbis themselves only in addressing God."  (The NT Library series, Mark, p. 306).  Lamar Williamson also highlights the meaning of this story as a primer on faith:  "Of particular relevance to insiders is the text's instruction on the meaning of faith. Some Christians, moved perhaps by Mark's exposure of the blindness of the disciples, may come to realize their own misunderstanding of Jesus and of discipleship, but accept their condition as normal.  The healing of Bartimaeus is testimony to the power of Jesus to restore (make well, save) those who know they are blind.  The eager persistence of Bartimaeus in calling out and his activity springing up to come to Jesus when called serve as a model for faith."  (Interpretation series, Mark, p. 199).

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  If you go to the home page at crossings.org/text-study, you will see that there are multiple analyses of this text using the Crossings model.  The way the Law and Gospel express themselves is creatively noted by at least 3 insightful writers.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Monday, October 4, 2021

The Throne of Grace

 


Hebrews 4:12-16, the 2nd Reading appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is at the end of a difficult chapter.  The author continually refers to the fact that God's 'rest' remains open to all, but everyone must make every effort to enter it.  References are numerous which point to the ancestors whose hardened hearts prevented them from entering God's rest.  This short reading begins in much the same way, but then switches to a portrait of Christ which has only been briefly introduced in this letter, that of Jesus as high priest.  And before the chapter ends, we are given hope.  It will be the preacher's task to preach this hope.

(The following questions are best used with other sets of questions that seek to illuminate the text in other ways. These questions attempt to reveal how the Word functions in the text, a fundamental concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method and on 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?  This passage is split up, half and half, between Law and Gospel.  In the first two verses, the Word shows us our need for a Savior - Law - when it points out that before God "no creature is hidden", even to the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  Then in verses 14-16, we are reminded of Christ's role as high priest on our behalf.  Indeed Christ's work is so complete, that we can even approach the throne of God with bold confidence.  That's Gospel!

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those addressed by this text.  We have need of a Savior by virtue of the fact that we are not hidden from God.  We also are those whose Savior has come in the form of a High Priest who can sympathize with us in our weakness.

3.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There are two exhortations in this passage.  One exhorts us to "hold fast to our confession." This is a call to obedience, an exhortation to live in a certain way in response to God's grace.  The second exhortation calls us to "approach the throne of grace with boldness... in our time of need."  This is a call to depend upon God and call upon God in times of testing.  This too is a call to obedience.

4. What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Using the language present we could imagine several:  bare before God/receiving mercy; called to render an account/finding grace.

5.  Exegetical work:  Both ancient writers and reformers notice the unique term for God's throne in this passage.  It is no longer a throne of judgment, but a "throne of grace."  4th century bishop, John Chrysostom, writes:  "How is it that we should 'approach boldly'?  Because it is a throne of grace, not a throne of judgment.  Therefore, boldly, 'that we may obtain mercy,' even such as we are seeking.  For the affair is one of munificence, a royal largess." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. X, p. 69).  Reformer, Johannes Oecolampadius, writes "to prevent anyone from shrinking back, when he hears of 'the throne', as if he intended to indicate a terrifying seat of judgment, he adds 'of grace'. This clearly refers to the mercy seat, which is Christ alone, and so he is also 'the throne of grace.'" (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. XIII, p. 67).  Thomas Long, in his contemporary commentary, makes much of Christ's emergence here as High Priest.  He says, "The task of a priest is to approach God on behalf of the people, to gather what the people bring... and to take these offerings into the very presence of God... This high priest participates in human suffering; he "sympathizes with us in our weaknesses". (4:15). Therefore, Jesus does not place ordinary offerings - mere lambs or grain or money - on the heavenly altar; he carries, instead, the human condition to God.  This high priest carries our need, our distress, our pain, our infirmities, our hunger for justice, our cries for peace to the very throne room of God." (Interpretation series, Hebrews, p. 65).

6.  How does the Crossing community model work with this text?  Timothy Hoyer uses the metaphor of the divine 'audit' to get our attention in his analysis.  He points out how we, with even our thoughts and intentions laid bare, are bound to fail the audit.  Christ alone can save.  See crossings.org/text-study for the entire analysis, archived under its reference.

Blessings on your proclamation!


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

An Old Testament Pentecost Moment

 


The book of Numbers is not a book we normally spend much time with, much less one where we expect to find a word about God's abundant grace.  Nevertheless, the First Reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is exactly that.  Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 is a story about how God's spirit is given to the elders of Israel.  It is given in such a way that it conjures up the Pentecost celebration of Acts 2, where those anointed begin to prophesy.  The preacher of this text will have much good news to share and celebrate.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are best used alongside other fine sets of questions with other concerns.  These questions are part of a method that seeks to explore the function of the Word in the text, a central concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method and on 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 here as both Law and Gospel.  In the early verses, the failure of the people and Moses to trust God is front and center.  This is the Law, for it declares our utter need for a Savior.  God's response to the whining of the people as well as Moses is pure Gospel, for God's grace is abundant.  In verses omitted we learn that the people are given what they crave - meat - but in our text we learn that something much more important is shared in abundance:  God's spirit.  What a gracious God we have!

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those to whom the Word is spoken, and in this text that could be any number of people.  We could choose to identify with the people of Israel who doubt God's provision.  We could identify with Moses, a burned out leader.  We could identify with the elders upon whom God's spirit rests, or even Eldad and Medad, who receive the spirit in absentia.

3.  What if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The only place where we are invited to live in a certain way in response to God's grace is at the very end of the story, where Moses invites us to play no favorites when it come to accepting those to whom God gives the spirit.  It is not an imperative, but an implied one akin to Jesus statement in the gospel lesson for this Sunday, "Whoever is not against us, is for us."

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Not the vocabulary, but the situation in the text, gives us a few ideas:  hungry/filled; burned out/refreshed; burdened/given help.

5.  Exegetical work:  The intensive form of the Hebrew verb is used twice in this passage, highlighting the state of the speakers.  First, in verse 4 we are told that the rabble "had a strong craving" for meat.  This is correct, but it belies the emotion behind it. The verb following, which is translated "weeping," gives more a notion of how intense their whining was.  In verse 15 it is the emotions of Moses that are revealed through the intensive form.  The translation of Moses' words is "put me to death at once," but it might better be translated as "slay me, I beg you, completely".  Again the emotion is better conveyed in the Hebrew.  It is telling that in describing the whining of the rabble and of Moses the intensive form is used.  Another interesting note is that in verse 25 where it is reported that the spirit rested upon the elders, the lexicon informs us that the prophesy that resulted suggests the elders are found in an ecstatic state. (The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, p. 612).  This strongly suggests the Pentecost moment in Acts 2.

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell regularly exhorted us to celebrate all we can in our preaching and what better time than to do it here.  God's grace is abundant, so much so, that the Spirit cannot be contained even by those who received it.  Even those who are absent the "official" giving of the Spirit receive it.  Let's celebrate!

Blessings on you proclamation!

P.S.  The wild goose is the ancient Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit.


Monday, September 13, 2021

Wisdom from Above and Elsewhere

 


The Second Reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark is James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, where we see the writer return to the subject of wisdom.  What is godly wisdom?  That is the writer's question.  Clearly known is what godly wisdom is not.  The final admonitions are where the preacher will be drawn:  submit to God; resist the devil; draw near to God and God will draw near to you.  This summary might be a fine outline for a fine sermon.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive but are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which explore other concerns.  These questions have been formulated to answer the question of how the Word is functioning in the text, a central concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method and 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 the primary function of the Word in this text is Law.  The strife and jealousy that apparently exists in this community is lifted up, as well as the ungodly desires that members hold in their hearts.  All of this creates disorder and every evil.  Submit yourselves to God, cries the writer.  Stop behaving as children of the devil!

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Is the Gospel present at all in this text?  Perhaps the only hint of it is in the last phrase:  Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.  This last line suggests that God's mercy is indeed everlasting.

3. With whom are you identifying in the text?  As members of Christian community ourselves, we are those being addressed here.  We are those who know strife within ourselves and amongst the body of Christ.  We are being addressed here.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This entire text could be considered a call to obedience if one discounted the tone.  A call to obedience is the Word inviting us to live in a certain way in response to God's work in Christ. This text is certainly that.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Without any Gospel present in this text, we must imagine pairs to go with the Law vocabulary we are given.  Some suggestions:  false wisdom/wisdom from above;  wickedness/righteousness; cravings/fullness.

6.  Exegetical work: Bede the Venerable, the 7th century monk, whose wisdom has been sited down through the ages, has this to say about the wisdom of James:  "For someone who lives in a humble and wise way will give more evidence of his standing before God than any number of words could ever do."  And again:  "Draw near to God in humility, by walking in his footsteps, and he will draw near to you in his mercy, setting you free from anxiety."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. XI, pp. 42, 49).  Reformation giant, John Calvin, also weighs in on this text:  "They, then, are alone wise in the sight of God who connect this meekness with an honest conduct of life; for they who are severe an inexorable, though they may excel others in many virtues, do not yet follow the right way of wisdom."  (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT., vol. XIII, pp. 243-44).  Finally, modern scholar, Pheme Perkins, unpacks the critical notion of submitting to God, reminding one of the Gospel call to be willing to lose one's life in order to save it.  She speaks to the context into which James is writing:  "The earlier discussion of rich and poor indicated that Christians continued to act out the prejudices of their society.  They have not traded in worldly views of power and importance for God's viewpoint.  The Christian community should not provide another forum for human jealousy and ambition to work themselves out." (Interpretation series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 121).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Carolyn Schneider, in her 2014 analysis, provides a simple way of speaking Law and Gospel into this text.  She breaks this text up into phrases from the text;  The Wisdom that does not come from God and The Wisdom (Jesus) that does come from God.  Go to crossings.org/text-study for the whole analysis.

Blessings on your proclamtion!

Monday, August 30, 2021

An Apt Exhortation for Any Age

 


Readings from the book of James continue on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, in the Year of Mark, with James 2:1-10 being appointed for this day.  As is typical with James, there is exhortation, but in this case, not a little bit of Law.  The preacher  will have to search elsewhere for a word of Gospel when preaching this text.

(The following questions are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions which open up a text to preachers.  These questions are designed to uncover the function of the Word in the text, a key concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method and on 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?  This text is split up quite neatly into two distinct functions:  the first 7 verses are a call to obedience, while the last 3 verses are a word of Law.  The opening call to obedience is obscured in the preferred NRSV translation by failing to keep the original imperative voice in the text.  Better is the alternative translation offered in the margins of the NRSV:  "Hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ without acts of favoritism."  Most other translations retain the imperative voice.  In any case, this is a call to obedience, exhorting believers to love all equally.  The last three verses point out our precarious state, vis a vis the Law, noting that failing in even one point of the Law makes one guilty of the whole Law.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no word of Gospel here, no word which proclaims what God has done in Christ.  One could infer that God is not a God of partiality, but that is not stated here.  The only hint of that is in verse 5b, where we read of God's high regard for the poor.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those under judgement here.  We are those who consistently fail to treat people without favoritism, consistently doing the very things that are forbidden here.   We stand guilty as charged.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  We can imagine a number of couplets, just based on what is the opposite of what is illustrated here:  under judgement/under mercy; treated dishonorably/honored; poor/rich; ignored/welcomed.

5.  Exegetical work:  The word translated as "partiality" is rare in the NT.  It is a composite of two words - face/appearance and receiving/regarding (prosopolemphia).   One can see in this word, prosopo, the word for face, and a form of lambano, the common  verb for receiving.  To show partiality, then, means to receive a person according to their appearance only.  The only other places this word occurs are in Rom. 2:11, Eph. 6:9, and Col. 3:25, where we are assured that "God shows no partiality."  In the OT, we have this same claim in Dt. 10:17 and II Chr. 19:1.  It is interesting that in the disputes with the Pharisees, Jesus was flattered as one who did "not regard people with partiality," (Mk. 12:14, Mt. 22:16, Lk. 20:21), but taught "the way of God with truth."  Even though this is empty flattery, it is true:  Jesus does not receive people according to their appearance.  In one final NT passage, Jesus exhorts his followers to "not judge by appearances." (Jn. 7:24)  John Donne, the 17th century poet and preacher, writes why this is so important:  "And this is truly, most literally, the purpose of the apostle here, that you undervalue no one for their outward appearance; that you overvalue no one for their goodly apparel, or gold rings...But it is a precept of accessibleness, and of affability; affability that is, a civility of the city of God and a courtship of the court of heaven, to receive other people, the images of God, with the same easiness that God receives you." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, NT, vo. XIII, p. 228.)  Pheme Perkins, in her commentary, speaks of the language of early Christians, and how this bears on this subject:  "Early Christians went beyond the language of benefaction and friendship to speak of one another as 'brothers' and 'sisters'.  The family was the only sphere in which benefits did not come with a corresponding obligation attached."  (Interpretation series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 109).

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Bit of Gospel from James?


 James 1:17-27, the Second Reading appointed for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is part of that book Luther called "the book of straw."  Luther's view of the book of James was so low he reportedly recommended deleting it from the accepted Scriptural canon of his day.  This is understandable given the proverb-like character of much of the book.  Having said that, in this passage, there is a bit of Gospel; it will be the preacher's task to proclaim this good news along with the exhortations that follow.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are best used in conjunction with other fine sets of questions that have other concerns.  These questions attempt to get at the function of the Word in the text, a central concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method and on 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?  In the opening verse, "the Father of lights" is the central actor, the source of "every generous act of giving" and "every perfect gift."  "In fulfillment of [God's] own purpose, [God] gave us birth by the word of truth."  Other translations of this verse make clear the good news nature of this announcement:  "It was a happy day for him when he gave us our new lives;" (Living Bible), "Of his set purpose, by declaring the truth, he gave us birth." (New English Bible).  This is the Word functioning as gospel.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   The Word functioning as law, that is to say, exposing our need for Christ, is not front-and-center in this text.  Perhaps the closest we get to Law is at the end of the passage when James declares what worthless religion looks like.  Even this passage is done in the context of exhortation.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those to whom this letter is written.  We are the ones being exhorted and those receiving the good news.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  As is typical of James, calls to obedience are common in this text.  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to invite us to live our lives in a certain way in response to God's "implanted word."  In this passage the call is to "be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger," to rid ourselves  of "all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,"  to "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers," and finally "to care for orphans and widows in their distress." All these are calls to obedience.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Looking to the opening gospel verses we might imagine several couplets:  in poverty/generously provided for; dead/alive; non-existent/birthed.

6.  Exegetical work:  Both Augustine and Luther were clear in highlighting the gospel announcement in this passage.  Augustine, in his letters said, "Man's merit is a free gift, and no one deserves to receive anything from the Father of lights, from whom every good gift comes down, except by receiving what he does not deserve."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. XI, p. 15).  Luther, in his commentary on Romans, went further:  "Therefore we must always pray and work so that grace and the Spirit may increase but the body of sin decrease and be destroyed and our old nature become weak.  For God has not yet justified us, that is, He has not made us perfectly righteous or declared our righteousness perfect, but He has made a beginning in order that He might make us perfect. Hence we read in James 1:18:  "That we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures." (Luther's Works, vol. 25, "Lectures on Romans", p. 245).  Pheme Perkins, in her contemporary commentary, begins by reminding us of God's gift of the "implanted word" and then goes on to explain James' strategy:  "Lest the previous reference to the 'implanted word' (v. 21) suggest that Christianity dispenses believers from the practice of virtue, James warns that they must practice what they hear."  (Interpretation Series, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, p. 105).  She goes on to say that other commentators observe that "James involves all parts of the body in the schema of perfection... By working together references to all parts of the body, James presents a picture of "the implanted Word" governing all our activities.  (Ibid., p. 106).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Jerry Bruce, in an appealing and inventive analysis, brings to light the "worthless" religion that James talks about, introducing us to Ernie and Emma Ernest, both lost in their own self-righteousness.  Through the master "caterer" they are fed and nourished unto eternal life.  Go to crossings.org/text-study for the whole analysis, archived under its reference.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

A Call to Faith


 Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, the First Reading appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost in the Year of Mark, is a piece of Joshua's final discourse.  Immediately after this speech, the death of Joshua is recorded, and the history of Israel turns to the era of the judges.  In this portion of the speech, Joshua exhorts the people to remain faithful to God, indeed to serve God faithfully and completely all their days.  It will be the preacher's task to issue this exhortation.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are designed to answer questions regarding the function of the Word in the text.  This is a fundamental concern of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this method or on Law and Gospel preaching in general, 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?  As stated above, the Word functions here as an exhortation, but an exhortation to what? To faith.  To worshipping the true God.  This is a call to faith, complete with a brief review of God's mighty acts (Gospel).

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  This portion of Joshua's speech does not contain a word of Law, a word which lifts up the people's need for God's saving power.  That comes in verses not included here.  The people proclaim their faithfulness to God, and this text ends there.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those being addressed.  Whom shall we serve?  The God of mighty acts, our Deliverer from slavery (to sin), or the false gods that proclaim much and do little?

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   The call to obedience is not the same as the call to faith.  A call to obedience is the Word functioning to exhort us to live in a certain way in response to God's saving works.  A good example of a call to obedience is the Second Reading appointed for this Sunday:  Ephesians 6:10-20.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The couplets are clear:  non-faith/faith; false gods/True God.

6.  Exegetical work:  The setting for this discourse is noteworthy.  Joshua summons the leaders, whether they be sacred or secular.  Those leaders present themselves before God.  The implication is that they stand at the ready to serve God.  Then Joshua addresses the people, not the leaders, as though he wants the leaders to overhear his words, and see the people's response.  We have no report of the leaders speaking; it is the people who are addressed and the people who respond.  Later in the story, Joshua makes a covenant with the people, again exhorting them to do all that they say they will do.  He seems to lay a choice before them, but is it really?  The Reformers are quick to point out that it is not a choice in the common sense of the word.  An example is John Calvin's analysis:  "For the real object of Joshua was, as we shall see, to renew and confirm the covenant that has already been made with God. Not without cause, therefore, does he give them freedom of choice, that they may not afterward pretend to have been under compulsion, when they bound themselves by their own consent." (Reformation Commentary on Scripture, OT, vol. IV, p. 195).  

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick was the one who always reminded us of the capacity of the listener to attend to a sermon.  He advised to be aware how many moves are made in the plot of the sermon. Too many and we lose our listeners.

Blessings on your proclamation!