What’s with the lectionary in Lent?

What is going on with the lectionary during Lent?

This Sunday and the next couple, the gospel text is nearly 40 verses long or longer. I realize these are extended stories, but really? It is not the reading time that bothers me, so much, but the challenge of coming to a clear focus for a sermon when the congregation has just been given 40 verses. No matter what I preach, there are going to be scads of questions or loose ends. And if I try to tie those up, the sermon will be a mess.

I realize this is the challenge every week we preach. No sermon ever says everything that could be said or even needs to be said.

But, still. Ouch. Three weeks in a row. Ouch.

Lectionary blogging: Why was Jesus baptized?

The gospel lectionary this week recounts the baptism of Jesus, which raises questions about why Jesus was baptized.

At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

So John agreed to baptize Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” (Matthew 3:13-17, CEB)

It seems only right that we ask questions about the meaning of baptism since John the Baptist himself asked such questions.

John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament include these comments on these verses.

It becometh every messenger of God to observe all his righteous ordinances. But the particular meaning of our Lord seems to be, that it becometh us to do (me to receive baptism, and you to administer it) in order to fulfil, that is, that I may fully perform every part of the righteous law of God, and the commission he hath given me.

And

Let our Lord’s submitting to baptism teach us a holy exactness in the observance of those institutions which owe their obligation merely to a Divine command. Surely thus it becometh all his followers to fulfil all righteousness. Jesus had no sin to wash away. And yet he was baptized. And God owned his ordinance, so as to make it the season of pouring forth the Holy Spirit upon him. And where can we expect this sacred effusion, but in an humble attendance on Divine appointments.

Wesley comes down on the side of interpreting Jesus’ baptism as a model for his followers. Jesus was baptized even though he had no sin and required no repentance, which were key aspects of John’s baptismal message. Jesus did this to set a model for us. For Wesley the baptism of Jesus is an example of the obligations that rest on us as Christians for no other reason than Jesus Christ commands us to observe them. If we reject the command, Wesley argues, we should not expect the Holy Spirit.

As I ponder this passage, my mind turns to Paul’s teaching in Ephesus about the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. The key question in those verses had to do with the Holy Spirit. Did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit when they were baptized? To which the disciples say they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit?

Paul, engaging in some spiritual diagnosis, asks which baptism they received. He goes on to explain that the baptism of John was a baptism of repentance that prepared the people for the coming of Jesus (as Gabriel said of John in Luke 1).

Paul’s teaching here makes me wonder if the baptism of John was meant to come to an end with the presence of Jesus and the coming of his kingdom. The pre-show shuts down when the main act arrives. Jesus underwent baptism as a way of bringing to conclusion the baptism that is a sign of repentance and opens up the age of baptism that conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit. Could the fulfilling of all righteousness be the fulfilling of the purpose of John’s baptism of repentance?

No ghost of Christmas past?

He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ (Luke 16:24-26, NRSV)

This week’s gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary defies cuddly interpretations. To use a phrase from the coach of my favorite NFL team, this parable bowls you over like a rolling ball of butcher knives.

I cannot escape that verse that we might call the anti-prosperity gospel: You got your good stuff in life. Now, you get agony.

Here Luke forces on us the sharp-edged version of the beatitudes. In Matthew, we are told the poor in spirit are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Luke is having none of that spiritualization:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6: 20b, 24)

The rich man in the parable has been given riches and now is in agony because he did not use them the way God wanted them used. His heart was captured by things God finds an abomination (Luke 16:15), instead of being captured by love for his neighbor. While he feasted in luxury, Lazarus starved on his doorstep. And now, the rich man gets fire and agony.

Unable to save himself, the rich man thinks he might help his family. When I read these words, Marley’s ghost from the Christmas Carol materializes before my eyes. This is the same story. The damned Marley seeks to warn his old partner Ebeneezer before it is too late. And it takes not one but three ghosts — four if you count Marley — to get the point across.

The parable says such ghosts will not do the job. Not even the resurrected Lazarus will do it. No, instead, the rich man’s brothers should read their Torah and Prophets more closely and take them to heart.

‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ (Luke 16:29, NRSV)

The first book I ever read on preaching — and in many ways the one I still lean on the most — instructs us to always look for the word of grace in the text. It asks, for whom is this text good news? My answer: For the poor and hungry and wounded in the streets; for those who thought they needed ghosts and miracles and did not realize that Moses and the prophets were enough.

This week as this text is read in church, do we hear with the ears of the rich man or with Lazarus? Do we hear the parable at all? Or are we like those who will not repent even if a man were to rise from the dead to send us the message?

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:31, NRSV)

For those preaching about the rich fool

If you are preaching from the gospel lectionary reading this week, here is a good post by Dan Dick that might stir some thoughts and applications.

Reading Luke 13:31-35

A reading for the second Sunday in Lent: Luke 13:31-35

This is one of those texts that makes following the the Revised Common Lectionary a challenge. Often we people speak of the discipline of the lectionary, they talk about the way it forces you to deal with “hard” texts like divorce and carrying your cross and hating your mother. But it is texts like this one that I find the most challenging.

When I preach, I try to find a way past lecturing about a passage. I don’t want to educate people about the Bible, I want to preach a message that comes out of the Bible but gets as close to the gut and as far from the head as possible.

With texts like this one, I have a hard time doing that. I have a hard time opening up questions that speak to the spiritual state of the congregation. The closest I come feels like missing the heart of the text: Jesus did today’s work today and did not let what was coming down the road intimidate him.

I think of the hymn “Work for the Night is Coming.”

There is a sermon in there somewhere, but this week I think I’ll end up preaching on Philippians.

God in the lectionary gaps

It is fascinating how much the God of Scripture makes us uncomfortable.

This thought came to me as I was working up my summer preaching plans based on the Revised Common Lectionary. I will be preaching through the Old Testament lectionary selections that highlight some of the major points in the story of David.

What I noticed as I was listing the texts was how often they left gaps in the readings. The lectionary often suggests we skip over several verses in the  middle of a long passage. I’ve learned in my brief preaching career that such gaps often indicate “difficult” passages — things that might be tough for a preacher to work with or for a congregation to process. (I generally find the passages much more interesting when the excised portions are put back.)

For instance, on July 8 the lectionary offers us 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10. This is about David’s taking the throne of Jerusalem. What the reading leaves out, however, is his conquest of the city. Here are the excised verses:

6 The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.” 7 Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion —which is the City of David.

8 On that day David had said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.[a]” That is why they say, “The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.”

I do not deny these verses present some challenges to the preacher, but I do not see why they should be skipped over in the pulpit.

Nor do I understand why the reading for July 15 leaves out these verses:

6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

8 Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.[e]

9 David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” 10 He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11 The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household.

Or finally, why does the reading for August 12 hide Joab’s complicity in the death of Absalom?

My theory is that these readings make the life of the preacher hard. They are difficult texts because they demand attention. In the case of the death of Uzzah they challenge our comfortable notions about who God is and what God is capable of doing at any moment. We want to keep God in a box, and when he breaks out of that box, we protest.

But these are not just messy texts about God. They are messy texts about us as well. The cut out portions show us places that our human life gets ugly or conflicted. They show us “men of God” doing things we don’t consider all that holy, only this time no prophet comes stomping into the throne room to call them on it.

Many Christians would defend the editing of the lectionary readings by taking account of biblical scholarship that says the Scriptures come to us as human products. They give us an edited God who has been created to advance certain theological and ideological agendas.

I’m sure the arguments are persuasive, but I find them uninspired and uninspiring. Being a people of one book means affirming that the God revealed in Scripture — even the hard texts — is God. He confronts, challenges, and tests us precisely because he is not the God we would choose. Instead, we are the people God chooses and calls.