The Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessan serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Contextual Theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary, and is one of the general editors of Currents in Theology and Mission. Dr. Nessan wrote the commentaries for the fourth and fifth Sundays after the Epiphany.
The Rev. Dr. Kim L. Beckmann has been a past commentator for Currents as well as The Proclamation Commentary series. She is twice a graduate of LSTC, (M.Div. 1984, D.Min. in Preaching 1999) and is the author of Prepare a Road: Preaching Vocation, Community Voice, Marketplace Vision (Cowley, 2002). Dr. Beckmann wrote the commentaries for Transfiguration Sunday and the first Sunday in Lent.
The Rev. James F. Galuhn serves as the pastor of the East Side United Methodist Church, where he participates in the church's music ministry, revels in Tuesday night Bible studies, and works for environmental justice in a neighborhood some have called the "toxic waste dump" of Chicago. Rev. Galuhn wrote the commentaries for Ash Wednesday and the second Sunday in Lent.
The Rev. Dr. S. D. Giere serves as Associate Professor of Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at Wartburg Theological Seminary, and is one of the general editors of Currents in Theology and Mission and the lead editor for the whole December issue. Dr. Giere wrote the commentaries for the third and fourth Sundays in Lent.
Each colleague contributed reflections written in a unique style, and each style is so valuable that I made no effort to conform them to a single rubric. There are many riches here, and I am grateful for each voice these fine commentators bring to the December issue of Preaching Helps.
This issue, which is the last issue of 2014, marks a long-awaited transition in Preaching Helps. At long last my interim role is at an end and the next iteration of Preaching Helps will be under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Barbara K. Lundblad, who recently retired from serving as the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It is a pleasure to introduce her to our readers. Dr. Lundblad has published several sermons in the journal Lectionary Homiletics and also in Womens Voices and Visions of the Church: Reflections from North America (2005); her essays on "Narrative Theory" and "Feminism" were accepted for publication by The New Interpreters Bible Encyclopedia of Preaching. She is the author of two books: Transforming the Stone: Preaching through Resistance to Change and most recently, Marking Time: Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense.
For over twenty years she has been one of the preachers on the radio program "Day 1" (formerly "The Protestant Hour"). She has preached in hundreds of congregations across the United States and has given lectures at many seminaries in this country and Canada, as well as a Lutheran World Federation conference in Buenos Aires.
She is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. While teaching at Union, she served as a member of the pastoral team at Advent Lutheran Church on 93rd and Broadway, leading worship and preaching on a regular basis. With roots deep in the local parish and in the academy, she is a wonderful new addition to the editorial team of Currents in Theology and Mission.
This "changing season" on our staff marks the end of a long stretch between the departure of Bishop Craig A. Satterlee and the arrival of our new Preaching Helps editor. As I gratefully step away from the duties of the past few months, I give thanks for the many wonderful pastors I "met" or re-established a connection with through the work of putting Preaching Helps together. It is inspiring to see the love and effort that goes into preparing to preach good news faithfully each Sunday, through every season.
Grace and peace to all our readers.
Kathleen Billman, Interim Editor, Preaching Helps
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 1, 2015
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
"Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now ..." (1 Cor 8:7b)! Idols claim authority over our lives. The question of authority runs through the lectionary this week. Where does authority come from? How does one recognize legitimate authority? Does authority reside in an established office? Or, does it fall upon God's servant like the wind? At stake in Deuteronomy 18 is a contest between the signs of the false prophets--diviners, soothsayers, sorcerers--and the marks of the prophet whom God has raised up. There is a bold promise that God is the One who anoints the true prophet, like unto Moses, who mediates the living voice of God to the assembly of the people. The word of the prophet is the very word of God, "who shall speak to them everything that I command" (18:18b). Woe to those who are called to prophesy and do not speak! And woe to those who hear the words of the prophet and do not heed!
Paul's admonitions to the Corinthian congregation also probe at the question of authority. Some claim a knowledge that lends them authority to eat the foods sacrificed to idols, while the "weak" are offended by the eating of food so defiled. While idols have no ontological reality for those who believe in the "one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (8:6), Paul cautions not to allow one's own liberty to become a stumbling block to the consciences of those in the community, whose faith would be undermined by my own exercise of freedom.
In the Gospel reading, the people were astounded at Jesus' teaching, for he spoke with an inherent authority unlike that of the official teachers. Even more, the unclean spirits responded to the authority of Jesus to cast them out from people possessed. As Jesus liberates the man with an unclean spirit, again the crowds were amazed by his authority, so much that his fame began to spread throughout the region. Psalm 111 makes decisively clear the ultimate source of all legitimate authority: "I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord" (111: 1-2a).
Whether we like it or not, February 1 is Super Bowl Sunday, one of the highest, holiest days in the calendar of our civil religion. As crowds of people gather this day to feast together, or at least to watch commercials, God's little ones remain either marginalized from the mainstream through isolation or lack the very means to enter into the festive rituals observed by the cheering fans, with their libations, halftime gaiety in the coliseum, and, most of all, the lure of the advertisements, the real reason for the show. Paul's words about meat sacrificed to idols resonate with many facets of our ritualizing as epitomized on Super Bowl day: the preoccupation with winning, the temptations to gluttony and drunkenness, and fascination with the sophisticated and incredibly expensive commercials that capture the public imagination. In many ways the sorcerers of advertising understand humanity's spiritual longing and hungers better than the church. The flickering images planted in our brains from our omnipresent screens stir up longings for status, identity, consumption, and pleasure that are portrayed as the real meaning of our lives. While one has been freed by Christ for freedom to enjoy the game, at what point do our loyalties and ritualistic displays disclose the worship of other gods and idols?
It would take a prophet like unto Moses to dare to challenge the outlay of time, energy, and money spent not only on the game itself but on all the accoutrements now firmly scripted for our culture's ritual observance. To what degree are we summoned to raise a prophetic voice about our captivity to the dictates of culture and to what degree are we simply free to join the fun? There remain unclean spirits that take possession over our lives and, when they do, these demonic powers distort our priorities to the disfigurement of our lives. How can it be possible that after the holocaust rent against the indigenous people of this continent that we continue to tolerate the logo of a football team named for the taking of Indian scalps as bounty, "the Redskins"? God sent a prophet in Jesus, filled with unprecedented authority, to teach the way of God's kingdom and to cast out the unclean spirits that take possession of our lives, all that turns us from God and neighbor. Jesus claims still today the authority to teach us the things that make for life in the midst of a culture preoccupied with the things of death. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have good understanding." The praise of the winning team does not last; only God's "praise endures forever" (Ps 111:10).
Craig L. Nessan
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 8, 2015
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
"In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35). Jesus found himself engaged in relentless battle with the principalities and powers at every turn: fever, illness, demons. Still his disciples searched him out in the wilderness, making the appeal, "Everyone is searching for you" (1:37). At Corinth Paul also faced exceeding demands on his energy, both the forces from within that would debilitate his calling to proclaim the gospel and the forces from without that challenged his authority to transgress against the dictates of the law. For Jesus and for Paul in these texts, it was the needs of their neighbors that compelled them into service. "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do" (Mark 1:38). In a parallel way Paul declared the necessity "to become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor 9:22b).
Jesus and Paul were both finite, human vessels. Exceeding demands were placed upon their time and energy, day after day, season after season. Opponents challenged authority and mission from without; exhaustion and doubts threatened from within. To them as faithful Jews, there was only one to preserve their strength, the God about whom the psalmist declares: "God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds ... The Lord lifts up the downtrodden and casts the wicked to the ground (Ps 147:3, 6). The same God who as Creator "stretches out the heavens like a curtain" and for whom the earth's "inhabitants are like grasshoppers" (Isa 40:22), also "gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless" (40:29). God gathers the scattered "outcasts of Israel" back into God's holy city, Jeru-shalom (147:2-3), where they again may raise their voices in resounding praise (147:20c).
Trust in God's power was the only source of strength to people oppressed by their opponents, bound as captives in exile, and thereby facing exhaustion and despair. As lovers of Scripture, surely the words of the prophet Isaiah also renewed the spirits of Jesus and Paul: "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isa 40:31). Paul is led to testify: "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings" (1 Cor 9:23). Jesus draws deeply from the well of the psalter and prophets as he emerges from the desert to go "throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons" (Mark 1:39).
While we sing about the bleak midwinter at Christmas, toward the end of Epiphany in early February and as another season of Lent draws nigh, many of us in the northern hemisphere find ourselves adversely affected by the shortness of daylight and exhausted by the relentlessness of winter. The rhythm of short days and long nights begins to take its toll. Moreover, the demands of life in our contemporary world often leave little time to breath well, exercise well, eat well, play well, sleep well, or pray well. Both the preacher and the people of God need Sabbath time to renew their spirits in the midst of too many demands, too much winter of the soul.
Where are the deserted places in your life, where you can retreat for a time to dwell with God? How can you structure your days to be a good steward of your own finite life? Even more, how can you give permission to the people who hear you preach to take time for Sabbath as part of the regular rhythm of their lives, each day and each week? How can congregations truly serve as sanctuaries for our dwelling in the presence of God, who is the only source of renewable energy for the spiritual life of the world and its people? If Jesus, himself, time and again needed solitude and prayer in order to gather strength for the journey in serving the needs of the crowds, how might you schedule time during these days before Lent to center yourself in God's presence? And how might you as spiritual leader of the people where you serve grant permission to others in their weariness to go out to a deserted place?
Surely it was God's word that spoke to God's people of old to see them through the brevity of the light and darkness of the night. If exiles, apostles, and even the Savior of the world withdrew to a quiet place to receive ministry by listening to God's promises in prayer, so the texts for this Sunday invite you to dwell in God's renewing presence, thereby modeling the practice of Sabbath and encouraging God's people of now to do likewise. Only "the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth... does not faint or grow weary." Only this God "gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless" (Isa 40:28-29). Proclaim the promises of divine renewal to God's weary people and take time to listen to those same promises for the renewal of your own life!
Craig L. Nessan
The Transfiguration of Our Lord
February 15, 2015
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Like most of us, Elisha doesn't want to hear about it. Change is coming. He knows that. But it doesn't help that everywhere he goes fellow prophets feel they have to keep reminding him today is the day Elij ah will leave them.
When Elijah had tossed his mantle to Elisha for a wild ride as prophet of God, Elisha had invested everything; liquidating his assets in the ox-stew and fire of his own going-away party. So he really doesn't want to hear about it, doesn't think they should be talking about change and what it might mean. Until they have to.
Truth is, Elijah and Elisha were already on their transitional tour. They arrived at Gilgal, base camp for the arrival of the people of God at the promised land. Gilgal was the separating place, the going-out and coming-in place of twelve stones from the Jordan where God had parted the waters, just like the Red Sea, so they arrived sure and dry footed.
"No need to take this journey with me," Elijah tests. But Elisha isn't budging: "Not on your life."
Elijah and Elisha set out from this going-out-from-what-we've-known to the something-new place of Bethel, where God's promise and presence dwells, at the threshold between heaven and earth where Jacob saw angels ascending and descending. Bethel's prophets come out to say, "You know, today's the day." Elijah says, "No need for you to hang around... God's called me to Jericho." "Not on your life, or mine," says Elisha.
Jericho is rhe place in the promised land where things weren't clear for the people of God. It's a murky story of conquest of a people already inhabiting the city. A story of not knowing who to trust after Moses passed on the mantle to Joshua and was taken from their sight. A story of some walking around and blowing of horns that was supposed to get them somewhere but seemed pretty wacky and time consuming as a strategy. Days and days of this. Until walls fell down and they knew Joshua was their new leader and that who they should trust was God.
You know the pattern: the prophets of Jericho come out to say, you know... Elisha still saying, don't talk about it. Elijah still testing Elisha. The two of them going on.
On the way to Jordan, the company of prophets walks with them. This is the crossing over, stepping into freedom out of bondage place. The "you never walk into the same river twice" place of change. The death and resurrection place where Jesus will be baptized, the Spirit will rain down and the voice will say, "This is my beloved."
Elijah takes his mantle, like Moses took his rod. The waters part. They cross over. Elisha goes for the gold: the inheritor's portion of Elijah's anointed Spirit. Elijah says that it is God's to give. But if Elisha can bear up to what's next... eyes wide open... he'll have what he prays for. Elisha gets chariots and horses of fire, the whirlwind, Elijah whirling away. A cry is ripped from him in the midst of weighty glory. But he doesn't look away. When Elisha can no longer see his beloved leader--and realizes he's it, the embodiment of that spirit now--he gives in to grief.
Who hasn't been there, in this time of rapid change in all its grief and glory?
In the transfiguration of Jesus we experience with the disciples the disorienting light of God's dynamic, unchanging love. The company of prophets come up on craggy peaks to tell us something about following Jesus, who has just announced to his disciples he is going to Jerusalem. If they are going with him they are going to the cross.
In the icons, the disciples are wrapped in mantles like sleeping bags. In other gospels, they have not wanted to talk about changes coming, have not been able to keep their eyes open for what God is doing in their lives. They wake up at the last minute, bowled over in a parting glimpse of the bright show. Peter offers tents to shelter this glory but God's cloud lets him know that God's got this journey covered, up and down mountains, to the cross and the new life of resurrection. In places where the landscape is so changed we can't find our bearings, we listen to the voice of Jesus calling the way forward.
We trace a spiritual geography of leading in times of transfiguring change: Gilgals of thresholds for going out and coming in.
* Bethels of presence, promise, and cloud. Because God is, God has this covered.
* Jerichos where God's call is crazy. Where we march in circles, or to the cross, or cross town and eat with tax collectors and sinners, not always sure who is on the right side or of the right thing, but walls come down and God is revealed.
* Jordans passing with Jesus through the valley of shadows and waters of baptism to die to sin and rise to the freedom of life forever, set apart for service as kings, priests and prophets with an inheritance of Jesus' spirit to share.
* Mountaintops of vision to see Jesus only through the wilderness of Lent and loss, Easter's new creation, the fiery whirlwind and Spirit's power filling our churches, this world, this life. Jesus' transfiguration in glory as the first wave of what is to come, the transformation God imagines for us and this world.
Elisha picks up his mentor's mantle and carries on the ministry with the company of prophets who want to look for Elijah's body. Elisha knows it's not there. The body is us! They have to take time to look, and see it for themselves. With confident eyes wide open for God's glory.
Ash Wednesday February 18, 2015
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Another Ash Wednesday, another Lent. If you are just starting out in pastoral ministry you will be living with these passages for many years to come, if you have been doing this for several years you are wondering how to keep these texts fresh. We are all in the same boat. Indeed, what other message could there be, other than we have all fallen to the forces of destruction and "Yet even now," as Joel puts it, there is hope, there is a chance that the power of creation's fulfillment will stop for a moment in this little corner of time, in this speck of space, and "Sanctify the congregation," that is, make us holy, good, clean, renewed, dare we say, born anew?
Novice preacher or one full of practiced wisdom, the struggle of speaking about how all this works for the people, the "congregation' our society, our culture, our tribe, how it works for a bunch of us, must be set alongside how it works with each one of us as an individual. People want to know how it works for them, how they can come to church and feel better. "What do I get out of going to church?" The effort to widen the circle is risky. Unless preaching to the choir is your calling, we speak with those who, like ourselves, sometimes have difficulty seeing how God calls us into community to be the church together for the sake of others and not just ourselves. It isn't so easy to go from speaking to individuals to speaking of how it makes sense only when we keep "the congregation" in mind. Will the call to change, to repentance, to transformation ever be one of comfort? Will it ever help us "feel better"?
The minister may have tattoos or a roman collar, or both, who cares, we have all come, Pastor, because somehow we know or sense that we are broken and we just want to get fixed, get our bounce back, our "new and right spirit," as the psalmist turns the phrase. Someone may ask, "Can you do that? Can you do that for me? For us?" Can you? And then there are those who are pretty sure that they are OK with God, and your job is to fix it for those other poor, suffering, unspiritual, sinful folks. "Can you do that, Pastor? They need your help a lot more than I do. Can you fix this mess?"
Out of a natural and ecological disaster Joel offers a way ahead. The locust infestation, the disaster of the moment, hits everyone in the community. Such disasters have also hit our communities. Lost jobs, disappearing water, gun violence, fearing the loss of our "way of life" to foreigners, diseases we don't understand, a world that seems out of control. Let me vote for the one who talks the toughest about keeping things as they are, or let me stay home fearful of the inevitable changes yet to come. Joel asks us to pick up our angry, fearful, and broken hearts to offer them to God. "Return to the Lord your God who is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive" (13b). Joel reminds us that each of us is called to respond to such troubles out of the strength that comes from God's never failing mercy. Stop what you are doing. After all, it isn't working. Just, stop it! Turn in a different direction, turn toward a different vision of life. Seek that new direction, pray for that so that it is clear in your mind and heart just how it is you need to live so you can truly live.
Isaiah reminds us that merely attending worship services is not substitute for social justice. What we do in a service is not just meant to make us look good to others, nor meant just to make us feel better about ourselves. Worship, studying scripture, fasting, practicing our piety are not ends in themselves. Rather, they can become opportunities for us to learn to render our service. Look at the mess all around you--you can begin to make it better. This is the partnership I choose, God says. This is what would be an acceptable offering.
Psalm 51 speaks directly to one who is self-aware enough to know both what one's own transgression is and against whom that broken heart has betrayed the hope of faithfulness. This self-awareness of what and how we disappoint ourselves, others, and God is a shared condition. We confess such common and disturbing troubles together as a household of faith, finding in our common brokenness our common resource for renewal.
Paul endures the criticism of those who say that the trouble he gets into is evidence of his failed apostleship. He counters such "feel good" prophets by celebrating the gift of God's grace today, as if this day of trouble was God's great day of giving us what is essential to live in communion with God and one another. "It may look like I have nothing," Paul says, "but I have everything."
"No, I can't fix this mess," the pastor replies. But I can help us confess the mess. I can point to the same place that Joel, and Paul, the psalmist, and even Matthew pointed to. I can remind myself and all of us here that others have been where we are, others wondered what is the point of this life that turns to ashes, to dust, to nothing. It is certainly not to pretend that we are better than we are, closer to God than some others, less sinful, better loved, better informed, better fed and watered, better organized, better invested. Jesus warns: "Beware practicing your piety before others..." The point of life is, evidently, not to look better than others, either in our own eyes or in the eyes of God. The point of life must surely be to connect with others with our true selves, as risky and terrifying as that may be. It is hard to be the first to admit to a mistake. It is hard to be the first one who says, "I love you." Or, even more difficult, "I love you, still." It is hard for us not to put on a show for others or for God, but to offer that life, the life inside, the one you hear at night and see in the mirror, to offer THAT life to God's glory, to God's service, to God's children in humble service, in honorable service, in service made worthy by God's own heart changing love.
First Sunday in Lent
February 22, 2015
1 Peter 3:18-22
One Ash Wednesday we tried the Word and just the dust. No sweet communion wine on my lips to take the edge off the grittiness, off that fairly burnt, dry, feel of the day with ashes drifting down my nose like sands through an hourglass. Nothing companioning me while I peered into the abyss and pondered mortality, but the tantalizing smell of Shrove Tuesday pancakes still lingering in the church air.
In one of my past congregations we actually poured sand into the baptismal font. A "dry Lent" we called it. But it was painfully dry. Abrasive. A shock. A cruel joke. What father, Jesus once asked, when their child asked for an egg would give them a snake instead?
It's harsh, this landscape of early Lent. Stark, in contrast to the dark intimacy of the candlelit birth cave and the starshine of Epiphany. It's gritty here. We feel the dust and ashes on our lips and already long for something to cut the isolation and terror.
In the gospel of Mark there are no gentle transitions. There is no birth story, except for God breaking water in Jesus' baptism, the heavens tearing and God going through the claiming ritual of the newborn, the one who can say, "Yep. That's the one. That's the very bowling ball, the big fish I've been carrying around inside me. That's the one. This one that has torn through me now. It's mine." As Jesus comes up out of the Jordan, the Spirit showers Jesus while a voice bathes him in love and affirmation.
Then, just as immediately, the Spirit that has torn the heavens apart in his baptismal birth casts Jesus out into the dry, cruel wilderness of the world. The word translated "drove out" means to take someone by the scruff of the neck and give them a toss. Now, that's harsh.
So Jesus, still dripping wet from rebirth, is in the desert wilderness for 40 days. The same amount of time the world was once covered with water, smothering all life not safe in the womb of the ark. Weather persistence that leads to cracked earth droughts or ravaging floods is a sign of creation, of life, an ecology, seriously out of balance. Into this chaos and distortion Jesus goes, from flood to parched wilderness to the grim foreshadowing of the passion in just 60 seconds in this first chapter of the gospel of Mark.
Was Jesus thinking, as everyone does at some point: "What am I doing in this god-forsaken place?"
We get this story every First Sunday in Lent. It's where we start the 40 days of practicing discipline, resisting that which separates us from God's heart, creation, and our interrelatedness with all flesh, drawing us into a renewed basis and balance for our life and the life of this world. Through prayer. Through unflinching self-examination. Through the sobering realization of the shortness of days. Through opening our eyes to the other, and our place with them in the scheme of God's plan for justice, peace, redemption of all creation. In this wilderness with Jesus we encounter God in our testing. And Satan and temptation. And ourselves.
Anyone with a little life experience knows temptation comes in lots of guises. Looking for all the world like the promised land, the answer to everything, just what we need to take the edge off the dread and dustiness of our lives--or with the grime of a long slog in a lonely wilderness writ ten all over it. Temptation comes as the abandonment of confidence in ourselves and God's call. It comes as the creeping or sweeping doubt that life is intended to be a gift and good. Or as the suspicion we are at the end of the road and might as well give up.
Just as Jesus comes up out of the Jordan, the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit rains down and a voice bathes him in affirmation: You are mine. You're a good child. I love you.
It is that confident message with Jesus in the wilderness. While he does without, while he slogs through the grit and dust, while he fasts and prays, takes the test, faces temptation and the wild beasts ... this Word is materialized and Jesus comes to know of what he is made. Water and the Spirit of Life. God's good pleasure.
Jesus comes to know it so deep into his bones he comes out of the desert proclaiming it. He has been so tested, is so convicted by this realm and his call to live and bear witness to its presence, that the news of the arrest of John and its underlying drum beats only spurs him on to urgency that the world needs this news.
When Jesus finally comes to the cross, its violence and injustice; and then when he comes to the dust of the grave; when he descends to the dead, harrows hell and redeems the prisoners, the ones God has waited patiently to awaken, the formerly willfully disobedient of God; when Jesus goes to these places in order to bring us back to God--he knows of the stuff of which he is made: God's own Word, and the eternal power of God's love that sustains him.
God's rule has burst through the heavens to claim us. It has grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and is letting us see of what stuff we are made: the stardust of creation; Water and the Spirit; God's good pleasure to call us children; the sweet blood of Christ in our veins and on our lips with a word to share.
Second Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2015
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Last week's Old Testament lesson centered on the covenant made with Noah and with "every living being." This week we have the covenant made with the newly renamed Abraham and Sarah that together they shall be the ancestors of "many nations." Looking ahead, next week will highlight the covenant made at Mt. Sinai with the soon-to-be nation, Israel, focusing on the Decalogue. This is followed by the raising of the serpent from Numbers 21 in concert with that Sunday's reading from John. The fifth Sunday returns to the covenant theme with Jeremiah's prophetic introduction of a "new covenant" that will be written on the heart. Notice that the focus narrows with each successive covenant, as the Priestly writer has envisioned the scope of history between God and creature. We move from "every living being" to "many nations" to those brought out of Egypt, "out of the house of slavery" to this particular house, the house of Jacob, known as Israel; and finally to a covenant made within each heart.
The psalm reiterates the Abraham-Sarah promise reminding us that from this family "every family among the nations will worship you. Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord, he rules all nations" (27b-28). The psalmist remembers the promise in the context of remembering the pain of the exile, holding out hope for "future descendants [who] will serve him, generations to come... those not yet born (30-31).
The passage from Romans refers specifically to the Genesis 17 text and is the basis for Paul's argument in favor of the inclusion and acceptance into the church of the gentiles, those from outside the household of faith, outside the nation. The argument is critical. Abraham was credited with righteousness because of the faith with which he and Sarah responded to God's call rather than because they obeyed the Law of God, which, would have been an anachronism in that there was as yet no Law, no Moses, no Mt. Sinai, no Decalogue. God's crediting Abraham and Sarah with righteousness could not be because of obedience to the Law which did not yet exist, but because of their obedience of the call to faith that Abraham and Sarah followed which was counted as righteousness by God. So too, Paul argues, it is because of their obedience of faith to the call of God to follow Jesus that the gentiles should be included and accepted as those who fall under the righteousness of God without regard to obedience to the Law, specifically the requirement for men to be circumcised. As descendants of Abraham and Sarah (who parented "many nations") gentiles will inherit what the other children of the covenant inherit. Verse 16: "That's why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God's grace." (CEB)
The lectionary context for the Gospel passage is one of "promises made, promises kept" in so far as God's covenantal relationship with us endures and trumps all our attempts to control or limit the depth of God's grace. Peter rebukes Jesus. And why would he not? Peter clearly believes that following God will not lead to destruction but to God's ultimate triumph. What Peter fails to remember about the triumph of God is that God's triumph is a victory for the broken, the lowly, the oppressed. God will not proclaim a victory while human suffering, indeed while creation, groans in pain. The kenotic exchange of glory for humiliation is intrinsic to this gospel where suffering and rejection "must" take place if God is to be revealed for who God really is. This is the God of every living being, many nations, and every heart that longs for justice and mercy. This is the God who is revealed on the cross.
This is what Jesus "began to teach his disciples." This is what they could as yet not understand. Thinking human thoughts instead of God's thoughts, they think of victory and triumph as beating down the Roman oppressor, humiliating the legalistic hypocrites of the temple, and entering the City of God on a white horse with a golden sword and shield to the call of "Son of David," dashing the liberals or the conservatives into the dust of history. Jesus will have none of it. Instead he begins to teach both the disciples and the crowd that to follow him means to make the same kenotic exchange of denying one's own glory for the sake of lifting God's vision of solidarity, lifting one's own cross as we are given the vision of faith to see it, the courage of faith to carry it, and the hope of faith to plant it firmly in the ground where we stand day in and day out.
Verse 37 openly asks, "What will people give in exchange for their lives?" What illusions of power and control will we exchange for valuing others as worthy as ourselves, as worthy as those of us who count themselves among the righteous of God and need not concern ourselves with those from other "nations"? And if we are instead among those who believe we are not inheritors of such covenantal love because we don't look like, or act like, or think like those who seem to have all the benefits of life, the gospel calls out to you not to be ashamed of where you come from, or where you are, or, most pointedly, not ashamed of the one who is with you now and calling you into God's glory of life made whole and good for each of us and all of us. It seems we are all, all of us, out of excuses. It seems we are all, all of us, called to righteousness through grace and grace alone.
James F. Galuhn
Third Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2015
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The Lenten movement toward the church's celebration of the Paschal Mystery is a time of both repentance and catechesis. The teaching of the church, traditionally for those preparing for baptism at the Great Vigil, focuses on central aspects of the Christian faith. This week's lections draw the church into a rich encounter with the Decalogue, the broader scope of the Torah, and the centrality of the cross of Christ in God's self-revelation.
"The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple." (Ps 19:7) In English there is no verb for "making wise," whereas both Hebrew ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and Greek ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) have the rich capacity to speak succinctly about the gain of wisdom. Psalm 19 draws its singer into a cosmic choir. Imagining ourselves standing in this choir alongside the heavens and the firmament, the day and the night, the cosmos rings forth telling the glory of God, proclaiming God's handiwork. At the heart of this cosmic worship is the world-orienting nature of the Torah of the Lord, which revives the soul and makes wise the simple (v.7) and which is more desired than gold and sweeter than honey (v. 10).
So, how do we understand this Torah that makes wise the simple?
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: you shall have no other gods before me." (Exod 20:2-3) The first move of wise-ifying the simple is this first person speech of the Lord. The teaching of the Lord begins with the most profound of God's self-revelations: "I am the Lord your God." (1) The fullness of the Ten Commandments flows from God's self-revealing declaration, and God anchors this self-revelation with the deliverance of Israel from slavery into freedom. God ties God's being to God's action in history, in particular God's act of emancipation. God cannot be defined by abstractions like justice and love. Rather God attaches God's self to the world in history. The Torah, signified here by the Decalogue, is not a shackle but a way of life by which God invites Israel to live in the covenant. Torah, then, serves as a movement from foolishness into wisdom.
Paul in his first letter for the church in Corinth plays with the dichotomy of foolishness and wisdom. For Paul, Jesus Christ is "the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor 1:24) Who is this God who would turn the wisdom of the world upside-down? This selfsame God who declares, "I am the Lord your God," is the God who reveals God's self in the hiddenness of suffering and death on a cross. It is the proclamation of this particular message of the cross of Christ that re-centers our understanding of who God is and what God does. As the wisdom of the Decalogue opens with a statement about who God is (I am the Lord your God--Exod 20:2a) together with a statement about what God does (who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery--Exod 20:2b), so the proclamation of Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23) declares who God is and what God does. Not erasing but accentuating the cosmic paradox of all of this, Paul writes, "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (1 Cor 1:25) As with God's self-revelation in the Decalogue (deliverance from slavery in Egypt), so God's saving activity for the cosmos is historically rooted in the crucified Christ.
As Christians, when we think about this movement from foolishness to wisdom, our gaze is constantly being reoriented toward the cross of Christ. There are so many things/relationships/pursuits/ideologies calling for the Christian's devotion. As Luther writes in his explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, "to have a god is to have something in which the heart trusts completely." (2) The clarion call of the Decalogue and of the cross draws our attention away from all the gods which demand our devotion and toward Christ crucified--the God who emancipated the Israelites from bondage and who emancipates the world from the bondage of sin and death. Such is the song we sing among the cosmic choir. Such is the song that sings the Christian and the community of faith from foolishness into wisdom.
A prayer frequently heard at the outset of the Christian sermon, echoes from the final verse of Psalm 19: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer." (v. 14). Perhaps a reflection on this, what is best attended to by the preacher as a silent prayer, would be beneficial for the hearer in this Lenten time, especially in light of the making wise of the First Commandment and the foolishness of Christ crucified.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 15, 2015
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
The texts for this week place our fingers on the pulse of the church: faith in Jesus Christ. Numbers 21, Psalm 107, and John 3 work in concert to draw the gaze of the reader to God's gracious healing activity in Christ--an activity that bespeaks God's trustworthiness and invites our trust. Ephesians ices the cake.
Psalm 107 begins the final book of the Psalter with a call to worship: "O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south" (Ps 107:1-2). The psalmist is calling fellow children of Adam to return the Creator's declarations of good-ness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in Genesis 1.3 Those whom, with the rest of creation, God called good in the first creation story now offer their thanks to the one who is good ultimately. This goodness coupled with God's steadfast love, which has no "sell by" date, is the foundation for thanksgiving. The psalm then proceeds with four situational vignettes (4) wherein God displays this goodness and steadfast love in spite of the decisions of the creatures. More specifically, the rhythm of the relationship is that when the people cry to the Lord from the midst of their trouble, the Lord delivers. It is the third section that serves as our song this Sunday--a section that focuses on God's healing. The people, from the midst of their own foolishness, (5) are suffering. They cry to the Lord, and the Lord saves ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) (6) them.
"... and the people became impatient on the way ... 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.'" (Exod. 21:4-5, RSV) Consonant with the foolishness about which the psalmist sings, the Israelites in their foolish impatience complain in the wilderness. Against God and against Moses, they direct their "sickness." In one of the (many!) texts that can challenge safe constructs for the Lord that we might cherish, the Israelites' foolishness conjures the ire of God. Fiery serpents (7) bite many of the people "so that many of the Israelites died" (Num 21:6). Human folly and God's resulting wrath leads to death. From the midst of the carnage, the people come to Moses and repent. Moses intercedes to the Lord on their behalf. What results is a divine fix--a serpent of bronze upon a pole. The snake-bitten Israelite need only look upon the bronze snake and live.
The life of this story from Numbers 21 goes a couple of different directions within Scripture.
What was a divinely instructed instrument of healing (8) at the beginning becomes an idol to which the people of Israel burn incense. (9) What was an instrument of healing morphed into an object of worship. King Hezekiah, who "held fast to the Lord," re-centered Judean piety on the Lord and, among other things, shattered the serpent of bronze "that Moses made." (10)
"And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). The life of this wild little story from the wilderness takes on a different accent here in John's gospel. The emphasis here is on the analogy with Moses' lifting up of the serpent so that those who had earned God's wrath might live by looking upon God's mercy. The power of the adverb [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ought not to be underestimated. John goes on to interpret Numbers 21, which in turn helps us to interpret John 3. This lifting up of the Son of Man is God's love for the world... the whole world. The extent of this love does not exclude Israel, but it does extend beyond Israel to the fullness of the world.
Faith is trusting participation in God's love revealed in Jesus Christ lifted up for the healing and salvation of the world. Such is the ultimate good-ness and steadfast love of the Lord.
Consider the rather spartan narrative of Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, and its resonances with the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness: "All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ... For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the results of works so that no one may boast" (Eph 2:3-5, 8-9).
Within the Lenten catechetical movement toward the Great Vigil of Easter and marking of the Great Paschal mystery, there is a richness in these texts that encourages the church to reflect upon the heartbeat of the church; faith. Faith in Christ orients the believer toward God's goodness and steadfast love, which come in spite of our idolatries whereby we seek life in that which can only bring death.
With Melanchthon in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, we consider that "... faith that justifies is not only a knowledge of history; it is to assent to the promise of God, in which forgiveness of sins and justification are bestowed freely on account of Christ. To avoid suspicion that it is merely knowledge, we will add further that to have faith is to desire and to receive the offered promise of the forgiveness of sins and justification." (11) And again, "... whenever we speak about justifying faith, we must understand that these three elements belong together: the promise itself; the fact that the promise is free; and the merits of Christ as the payment and atoning sacrifice. The promise is received by faith ... For faith does not justify or save because it is a worth work in and of itself, but only because it receives the promised mercy." (12)
(1.) There is a Jewish midrash on this verse which relates this to the creation of the cosmos: God created the world with 2 the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet (the opening word of the Torah [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] begins with it). When the first letter, X, complained, God consoled it saying, "I will start the Decalogue with you ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). For I am One and you are 'one.'" Midrash Aseret ha-Dibrot, Introduction. Quoted in W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 544.
(2.) Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 387.10. [Hereafter BC.]
(3.) Cf. Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25.
(4.) They are: w.4-9, 10-16, 17-22, 23-32. The psalm concludes with a reiteration of God's goodness and steadfast love (vv.33-43) and a summative statement that reinforces that this invitation to thanksgiving is also a movement toward wisdom: "Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord" (v.43).
(5.) The Hebrew here is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the foolish ones. Both the RSV and the NRSV correct this to "sick." Insofar as foolishness is a sickness, this may work, though the correction obscures as much as it clarifies, especially given the wisdom horizon of the whole psalm, cf. Ps 117:43.
(6.) Also Ps 117:13.
(7.) The NRSV's move to translate "poisonous serpents" here flattens the text unnecessarily. It is unclear exactly what the (rather woodenly translated) seraph serpents were. It may have been a poisonous snake whose bite caused burning. It may also be a more mythic reference.
(8.) Note the general resonance between the bronze serpent of Numbers 21 and the Rod of Asclepius, often used as a symbol for medicine and/or physicians, as symbols of healing in the ancient world.
(9.) Cf. 1 Kgs 14:15 and 2 Kgs 18:4.
(10.) 2 Kgs 18:4.
(11.) Apology IV. BC 128.48.
(12.) BC 128.53, 56.
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany--Fourth Sunday in Lent|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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