At least for us living in Indiana, the year now ending has made something much more obvious.
What should have been one of the little pleasures, watching the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four played in Indianapolis in March, was badly tarnished. The tournament was suddenly all the talk not only on sports radio but in the serious media—and for nothing to do with basketball. We in Indiana were at best Neanderthals and more likely bigots and hatemongers. Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, implied so. Charles Barkley, whose expertise is supposed to be power forwards and ball screens, put in his two cents to that effect. Countless voices on ESPN and CNN, on news and call-in shows, concurred.
The issue? Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed barely a week before Duke and Wisconsin and Kentucky and Michigan State were to bring thousands of fans, millions of tourist dollars, and gleaming national attention to our fair state. You heard the hubbub. RFRA was a law intended to keep individuals and businesses from being forced to provide services in ways that violated proprietors’ consciences—such as being required to fund abortions for employees (Hobby Lobby) or (in a noted Washington State case) do the flowers for a same-sex wedding.
The pushback so far has been mostly words—which have already hurt reputations and careers. But with the rhetoric, you sense that sticks and stones could be only another confrontation or two away. It was as recent as 1993 that the federal government passed a similar bill, and thirty states have laws effectively the same, resulting in none of the discrimination critics of the Indiana act decry. Back then, everybody was on board—President Clinton signed the federal law; State Senator Obama supported Illinois’s version. Today—just two administrations later—Candidate Clinton says (Washington Post, April 3) her husband signed the bill because there was actual concern about discrimination against religions: certain American Indians were being prohibited from smoking peyote, and Muslim dress was unwelcome in some workplaces. Now, apparently, the government should see a compelling interest in assuring that babies may be killed on every citizen’s dollar and that same-sex couples must be able to choose from every florist in America.
This is a preaching journal . . . and it’s almost Christmas.
Yes, and the past year has made rather obvious that in our lifetimes we will be preaching under persecution. By now, we’ve all heard the quotation from Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George of Chicago: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” The absolute dismissal by such a wide public of the idea that the Indiana law might actually do only what its name implies, restore some assurance of religious freedom, makes me think the cardinal might need to move up his timetable. My new Pastors Conference question, “What are your thoughts on the prospect of preaching under persecution in the years ahead?” (see the Upcoming Topics box on p 2; I invite your responses by June 1), is intended for us—not for pastors in foreign countries or future generations in the United States and Canada.
And, yes, this is the Christmas issue. But we know well, don’t we, that every Christmas-season sermon—from your pulpit and in this journal—points to the cross of the Christ. Which means crosses for us too, as Simeon and Herb Mueller remind us in their sermon for New Year’s Day (pp. 57–59).
Mueller adds, “We don’t know what’s coming in the New Year”—though, as regards Christian preaching, I’m convinced the only question is whether persecution will be in this new year or, by God’s grace, in another—“but we do know who will be there. In him we hope. In his name, we stand before him when he comes again.”
Carl C. Fickenscher II
• Editor:Carl C. Fickenscher II
• Managing Editor: Scot A. Kinnaman
• Designers: Chris Johnson, Ruth Brown
• Advisory Board
—Parish Pastors: Nolan Astley (LCC), Henry A. Simon
—Seminary Professors: Paul J. Grime, Glenn A. Nielsen, John T. Pless, David R. Schmitt
—Council of Presidents: Herbert C. Mueller Jr., Dean W. Nadasdy
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without purchasing this product from Concordia Publishing House. Through this registered purchase, you are granted a nontransferable license to use this product and adapt it for your personal or congregational use. Permission also is granted to duplicate portions for classroom purposes. For all other permission requests, contact CPH at 1-800-325-0191 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This work uses the SBL Hebrew Unicode font developed by the Font Foundation, under the leadership of the Society of Biblical Literature. For further information on this font or on becoming a Font Foundation member, see http://www.sbl–site.org/educational/biblicalfonts.aspx.
This publication may be available in Braille, in large print, or on cassette tape for the visually impaired. Please allow 8 to 12 weeks for delivery. Write to Lutheran Braille Workers, P.O. Box 5000, Yucaipa, CA 92399; call toll-free 1-800-925-6092; or visit the website: www.LBWinc.org.
Concordia Pulpit Resources (ISSN 1057–1833), published quarterly, succeeds Concordia Pulpit, an annual volume of sermons published from 1930 to 1990. Concordia Pulpit Resources is also available electronically at www.cph.org/cpr for an additional $13.00 annual subscription fee.
Annual subscriptions in the United States are $57.00 ($70.00 for print and Internet access). Order by mail, online at http://cpr.cph.org, or phone: 1–800–325–3040. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to Concordia Pulpit Resources, 3558 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis, MO 63118–3875. Manufactured in the United States of America.
Please send your feedback to the editor at email@example.com.
Published by Concordia Publishing House of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
Volume 26, Part 1, Series C
November 29, 2015–February 7, 2016
Preaching Righteousness from Isaiah, Part 1
R. Reed Lessing
Why the Narrative Lectionary?
Richard P. Shields
Humbled by Preaching
Henry A. Simon
From the Editor
Ideas for Illustrating
Advent 1, 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13
So Much to Be Thankful for; So Much More Love to Show—Glenn A. Nielsen
Advent 2, Philippians 1:2–11
Excellence: Doing What Matters Most—Glenn A. Nielsen
Advent 3, Zephaniah 3:14–20
Rejoice! Celebrate!—Donald V. Engebretson
Advent 4, Luke 1:39–45 (46–56)
Blessed in Christ—Donald V. Engebretson
Christmas 1, Exodus 13:1–3a, 11–15
A Lamb to Take Your Place—Mark T. Buetow
Christmas 2, Ephesians 1:3–14
The Perfect (Glorious!) Gift: Sonship in Christ—Mark T. Buetow
Epiphany 1: Baptism of Our Lord, Romans 6:1–11
God Drowns Us with Life—Kent Fuqua
Epiphany 2, John 2:1–11
A Sign of the Time—Kent Fuqua
Epiphany 3, Luke 4:16–30
Today Scripture Is Fulfilled in Your Hearing—Daniel A. Wonderly
Epiphany 4, Jeremiah 1:4–10 (17–19)
“I’ve Got Plans for You!”—Daniel A. Wonderly
The Transfiguration of Our Lord, Luke 9:28–36
Things That Will Last . . . Things That Won’t—Aaron A. Stinnett
Advent Midweek and Christmas Series
Stir Up the Power!—Donald H. Neidigk
1. Advent Midweek 1: Stir Up the Power of Hope, Romans 15:12–13
2. Advent Midweek 2: Stir Up the Power of Preparation, Matthew 3:1–12
3. Advent Midweek 3: Stir Up the Power of Love, 1 John 4:15–21
4. Christmas Eve: Stir Up the Power of Joy, Luke 2:1–20
5. Christmas Day: Stir Up the Power of Promises Kept, Matthew 1:18–25
Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1–20
Imagine That!—Ronald D. Rock
Christmas Day, Luke 2:1–20
Fear Not!—Lawrence R. Rast Jr.
New Year’s Eve, Ecclesiastes 3:1–8; Galatians 4:4–7
A Word about Time—Herbert C. Mueller Jr.
New Year’s Day, Luke 2:21–40
The Name of Jesus—Herbert C. Mueller Jr.
The Epiphany of Our Lord, Romans 7:4–25a
Christ: What God and We See—Lawrence R. Rast Jr.
Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, Isaiah 61:1–3
Good News for the Hopeless—James I. Lamb
Advent 1–2—Glenn A. Nielsen
Advent 3–4—Donald V. Engebretson
Midweek Advent 1–Christmas Day—Donald H. Neidigk
Christmas 1–2—Mark T. Buetow
The Baptism of Our Lord–Epiphany 2—Kent Fuqua
Epiphany 3–4/Sanctity of Human Life—Daniel A. Wonderly
The Transfiguration of Our Lord—Aaron A. Stinnett
Your Responses to Practical Preaching Questions
Q: How far ahead do you plan your preaching program—and how do you do the planning?
A: I left parish ministry seven years ago to serve in the district. One thing I miss most is planning and delivering a message to people I know. My goal was always to go “to the cross!” I wanted people (and me) to know the impact the cross had not just on the next life but on life right now! We are more than conquerors now and forever!
How far ahead would I plan? I need the urgency of an impending deadline but also time for the rest of the team to provide input and prepare (more below). About three months out worked best for me. Normally I prepared one quarter, adjusted so as not to divide seasons in the Church Year or when preaching a series.
I was blessed with members who gave me keys to their lakeside cabin. Once a quarter, I’d retreat for a couple of days, preceded by prayer for insight and inspiration. I had a worksheet divided into nine columns. The first six I’d complete for each weekend/special service; the last three would be completed later with my team. The six columns I completed on my retreat:
• Date/Event: identified both by Church Year and by any secular celebration (July 4) or congregational event (officer installation, graduate recognition)
• Summary of each of the three lessons: I began with the Lectionary but would often preach a series based on the Lectionary or independent of it
• Bulletin: description of the cover
• Theme: that which came to the forefront as I prayed and studied
But the fun was only beginning! I then shared these sheets with my team, members with a variety of gifts and interests, including one who was a movie buff. Together we’d complete the final three columns:
• Visual: identifying a visual representing the theme that could be displayed or, if appropriate, given away
• Multimedia: identification of movie or television clips to enhance key points
• Music and Miscellaneous: not just hymns, but other appropriate music or anything else to help draw out the theme. For example, once while focusing on the last days, we had some of the youth go around town and videotape residents’ answers to the question “What would you do if you knew the world would end next week?”
With these pieces in place, we’d go to work making preparations, anticipating the Lord’s blessings!
Rev. Mark A. Gerken, executive assistant
Missions and Human Care
Iowa District West, LCMS, Fort Dodge, Iowa
A: My preaching program has a long and a short view. I tend to see my preaching in quarters. I begin to plan about a month before the end of the current quarter by taking a look at the pericopes and the season(s) of the next. I choose the orders of worship and the hymns for that coming quarter so our organists and secretary have that information well ahead. By choosing the hymns early, I’ve begun thinking about sermon themes and ideas. When the next quarter includes Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter, I’ll have already considered ideas from other pastors or from sermon kits available by various publishing houses and will have decided on a midweek sermon series. Series from CPH, the seminaries, and other publishers come out well before the season, so they can be purchased and reviewed early.
Then comes the week by week work. Usually over the weekend, I begin reading the next week’s pericopes and checking blogs and emailed sermon notes I receive. Phil Brandt of Concordia Portland sends out an email, “Sunday Sermon,” that is a great thought-starter. These notes include an Internet discussion with other pastors and church workers. I also read commentaries, blogs, websites, and publications like CPR, current and past issues. By Wednesday or Thursday, I’m usually ready to write. “Writing” includes speaking out loud, working to develop the oral communication. After completing my sermon, I like to “sleep on it” and then review/revise the next day.
Rev. Mark P. Eichler, pastor
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Webster City, Iowa
26-2: How do you and the other pastors in your circuit help one another in your preaching? (Thank you for your responses.)
26-3: What suggestions do you have for proclaiming comfort at a time of suffering—for example, after a disaster or a tragedy or losses? (Submit by December 1, 2015)
26-4: What special plans do you have for preaching to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—coming up next year?! (Submit by March 1, 2016)
27-1: What are your thoughts on the prospect of preaching under persecution in the years ahead? (Submit by June 1, 2016)
Responses should be a maximum of 250 words and may be sent to Editor, Concordia Pulpit Resources, 3558 S. Jefferson Ave., St. Louis, MO 63118–3875 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. We also invite suggestions for future topics.
Preaching Righteousness from Isaiah
Rev. R. Reed Lessing, PhD, pastor, St. Michael Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Located on the front of the historic Trinity Church in Boston are the sculptures of six men. At the center are the four Gospel writers, who are flanked on the right by Paul and on the left by Isaiah. Isaiah’s presence in this distinguished cloud of witnesses speaks volumes about his importance for the Church. For sheer grandeur, majesty, and supreme artistry, no book in the Old Testament comes close to Isaiah. The prophet’s saving message, soaring language, and unforgettable imagery are tightly woven into the fabric of Christian hymnody, liturgy, and devotional literature. The book’s influence on the New Testament is massive. About one out of every seventeen verses in the New Testament is inspired by his pen. And it is primarily through Isaiah that the New Testament articulates its Christology, ecclesiology, and missiology.
It is one thing, though, to appreciate Isaiah’s beauty and power. It is something entirely different to preach from the prophet. Isaiah is a long and winding road with many twists, turns, and about-faces. Even though textual blocks are linked vis-à-vis allusions, parallels, and citations, the prophet’s complexities and ambiguities often leave preachers confused and frustrated.
But Isaiah left us with a map that, when understood, makes preaching from his book easier and much more inviting. While “holy” (appearing sixty-nine times in Isaiah) and “salvation” (appearing seventy-two times) are key features in the prophet’s theology, the most important motif joining Isaiah’s book is “righteousness.” Words from this root appear eighty-one times and are evenly dispersed in the book: chs 1–39 (twenty-eight occurrences), chs 40–55 (thirty occurrences), and chs 56–66 (twenty-three occurrences). Understanding how Isaiah employs “righteousness” is the key to deciphering the book and making it preachable.
Isaiah’s Life and Times
When compared with Jeremiah or Ezekiel, Isaiah encompasses a greater chronological sweep. The book’s vast historical scale may be symbolized by two names appearing in it: Uzziah (Is 6:1) and Cyrus (Is 44:28; 45:1). Uzziah was a king of Judah who reigned from 791 BC to 740 BC. Cyrus was a Persian emperor who ruled from 539 BC to 530 BC. Since Is 6:1 refers to the death of Uzziah, there is a 200-year period represented by these two rulers, extending the historical horizon of the book from the Assyrian period through the Babylonian and into Persian times.
Isaiah began his ministry during Israel and Judah’s “Silver Age,” an era inaugurated by Jeroboam ben Joash (793–753 BC) in the north and Uzziah in the south. The prophet also lived through the Assyrian capture and exile of Samaria (723 BC) and the semi-escape of Judah and the nation’s colonial status under the same Assyrian colossus (701 BC). The Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were impacted by Isaiah’s ministry. And, although he doesn’t include Manasseh (697–643 BC) in his superscription, the prophet most certainly lived during this monarch’s reign of terror, for Isaiah records the death of Sennacherib (681 BC) in Is 37:38.
Overview of Isaiah
One of the errors higher critics make is that they fail to see that the Book of Isaiah is arranged in a topical manner. This ought to be evident by the placement of Isaiah 6, the prophet’s call. Since this chapter does not occupy the beginning position in the book (in contrast to the calls of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which are in the lead positions in their books), it should be recognized that Isaiah is arranged topically, and this, not disparate authorship, accounts for the changes between the major sections (Isaiah 1–39; 40–55; 56–66). And the major topic—indeed, the hallmark of the book—is the subject of righteousness.
Isaiah 1 lays out the book’s overall message which also reflects his three main sections: judgment (Is 1:1–9 corresponding to Isaiah 1–39), salvation (Is 1:10–20 to Isaiah 40–55), and the call to respond (Is 1:21–31 to Isaiah 56–66). Righteousness is the driving theme in all sixty-six chapters. The prophet sees none of it (for example, Is 1:21–23) but is certain that the Davidic Messiah will become the locus of a reformation that will empower Israel to live righteously by showing compassion on the orphan, widow, and alien in the gate (as in Is 11:1–4; 32:1). This Spirit-inspired Savior will die and rise again to grant righteousness for all (Is 52:13–53:12; 61:1–3).
In Is 1:21, Zion is called to be righteous and act in righteousness but fails miserably throughout Isaiah’s first thirty-nine chapters; the nation’s abandonment of its calling is a reoccurring theme in this section. In spite of it all, though, Is 1:26 affirms that days are coming when Zion will be called “the city of righteousness.” Righteousness, therefore, is lacking in chs 1–39 (see Is 5:7), so it is promised through the Davidic Messiah (for example, Is 9:7). In chs 1–39, “righteousness” is paired with “justice” (Is 1:21, 27; 5:7, 16; 9:7; 11:4; 16:5; 28:17; 32:1, 16; 33:5). It is never linked with “salvation.”
Active righteousness, then, is the only kind of righteousness that appears in Isaiah 1–39. Passive righteousness, Yahweh’s gift to all people, is the focal point of chs 40–55. Both active and passive righteousness are intertwined in the book’s last eleven chapters.
While the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah demonstrate poetic brilliance and artistry, the next sixteen chapters take this gift to a higher level. Isaiah 40–55 is organized like a series of connected, revolving discs, placed side by side. Every section is connected to what precedes and follows, yet each new passage differs from the others. Isaiah 40 introduces the entire unit, while chs 41–48 announce Yahweh’s plan to stir up Cyrus, who will return the Judean refugees to Jerusalem. Chs 49–54 declare Yahweh’s intention to forgive Israel’s sin that landed them in Babylon in the first place. Isaiah 55 summarizes the unit. The dominant theme throughout is righteousness.
In terms of righteousness, a tension exists between chs 1–39 and 40–55. Zion fails miserably at active righteousness throughout Isaiah’s first thirty-nine chapters. So what does Yahweh do? Israel will be restored by God’s righteous act and salvation, as explicated throughout Isaiah 40–55, where he grants the passive gift of righteousness through his Suffering Servant (Is 53:11; 54:17).
In Isaiah 39, the prophet appears in Hezekiah’s court and promises that Judah will undergo a Babylonian exile, but not an annihilation. There will be an end, but the end will be the start of a new beginning. Chs 40–55, then, naturally follow ch 39 and fit into Yahweh’s judgment against Hezekiah and the kingdom of Judah. There are both thematic connections between Isaiah 1–39 and 40–55 as well as a logical progression.
These links, though, do not abolish the gap between Isaiah 39 and 40, which represents the defining interruption in Israel’s history. A series of events occurred between Isaiah’s call in 740 BC (Is 6:1) and 539 BC (Cyrus’s defeat of Babylon). The Northern Kingdom fell in 723 BC. Nineveh collapsed in 612 BC, and the Assyrian Kingdom was destroyed (cf the Book of Nahum). The disastrous reign of Manasseh hastened Judah’s demise (2 Ki 21:17–18; Jer 15:4). Josiah died at the battle of Megiddo in 609 BC (2 Ki 23:29–30), and the subsequent rise of the Babylonian colossus under Nabopolassar (625–605 BC) and his son Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 BC) brought with it near-anarchy in Judah. Most important, however, was Jerusalem’s massive destruction and devastation in 587 BC (2 Ki 24:20–25:30). The prophetic word in Isaiah 39 came to pass. Judah’s lack of active righteousness prompted Yahweh to stir Nebuchadnezzar’s forces against Jerusalem, the capital city, and brought its leaders to the other side of the Fertile Crescent.
The Babylonian Empire, however, was a brief blip on the stage of ancient Near Eastern history. By 550 BC, the kingdom of Persia began to eclipse Babylon and became the dominant power until the rise of Alexander the Great (333 BC). Isaiah 40–55 addresses these times between exilic displacement in Babylon and return under Persian permission. The prophet’s words of comfort follow directly on the heels of his prediction of disaster (Is 39:5–7). In chs 40–55, the eighth-century and early-seventh-century prophet addresses sixth-century postexilic Israel. And he does so through the motif of righteousness.
While righteousness is paired only with justice in the book’s first thirty-nine chapters—accenting its active aspect—in Isaiah 40–55, righteousness is frequently parallel with salvation. These terms appear together in, for example, Is 45:8, 21; 46:13; 51:5, 6, 8. The significant theme of righteousness in these chapters is that Yahweh will work righteously to bring salvation to unrighteous Israel through his righteous Servant (Is 53:11; 54:17). Chs 1–39, therefore, detail an active righteousness commanded by Yahweh for Israel and his Messiah to do, while Isaiah 40–55 offers a passive righteousness as Yahweh’s gift received by faith.
Isaiah writes these oracles for the benefit of future generations in Babylon after Jerusalem’s demise in 587 BC. These are not prophecies after the fact (vaticina ex eventu), as the critics would have it. In fact, Isaiah is specifically told at his call that his contemporaries would not understand his words, but that future generations will comprehend it (Is 6:9–13; cf 29:11–24). In the context of the Babylonian exile—which left Israel staring into the abyss—it was important in chs 40–55 for Isaiah to announce the gift of passive righteousness. And this gift is understood only as it is interpreted along with the prophet’s four Servant Songs.
The Four Servant Songs
Isaiah’s Servant Songs are some of the most debated texts in the Old Testament. They appear in Is 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12. The epilogues for each song are Is 42:5–9; 49:7–13; 50:10–11; 54:1–17. Who is the Servant? Those who identify him with an individual have named, among others, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Uzziah, Josiah, a leper, Jeremiah, Moses, Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, Jehoiachin, Eleazar, Ezekiel, Cyrus, Job, Meshullam, and Zedekiah. The dominant Christian position until the end of the nineteenth century was that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of the Servant Songs (cf Acts 8:32–35). On the other hand, the collective view identifies the Servant as a group of people who are described in individualistic terms. This assembly has been understood to be empirical Israel (the entire nation), ideal Israel, a righteous remnant within the nation Israel, the Davidic dynasty, as well as the prophetic and priestly orders. Many do not view the above categories as mutually exclusive and often scholars interpret the Servant using a combination of several groups. The key, though, to interpreting the Servant is to read the songs as a narrative, a narrative tied together by God’s gift of passive righteousness.
Is 42:1–4 is the first Servant Song, and the servant (Is 42:1) is described in terms similar to Jacob-Israel in Is 41:8–10. Both are upheld by Yahweh (Is 41:10; 42:1), and both are chosen (Is 41:8, 9; 42:1). Is 41:29, though, plays a key part in the song’s interpretation. Yahweh’s lawsuit against Babylonian deities leads up to this verse, which renders his verdict: “Behold, all of them are iniquity, their works are nothing, their images are an empty wind” (Is 41:29, author’s translation here and throughout following verses). It follows that the threefold mishpat in the first Servant Song, often rendered “justice,” is better translated “verdict.” Servant Israel is to bring Yahweh’s court decision to the nations; their idols are fakes, phonies, and absolute frauds. The people were called “in righteousness” (Is 42:6); that is, just like their ancestor Abraham (Gen 15:6), Yahweh’s passive righteousness established a people who were forgiven and cleansed of all sin.
But an almost unsolvable problem appears the next time “servant” appears in this part of the book. Yahweh’s servant is blind (Is 42:19–20). And in the Book of Isaiah, “blind” is shorthand for a life trapped in idolatry (cf Is 6:9). How can blind Israel lead the blind nations out of idolatry? They cannot. Israel fails again in her vocation to be light to the nations (cf Is 42:7).
So what does Yahweh do? In Is 48:1, he finally divests his people from their servant status. True, the verse announces, the exiles are called Israel. They also came from Judah and swear by Yahweh’s name. But, and this is the big but, none of this was “in true righteousness.” Life with Yahweh was going through the motions and hypocritical playacting. His people retained the form of godliness but denied its power (2 Tim 3:5).
Is 48:1, then, plays a pivotal role in Isaiah’s presentation of Yahweh’s servants. The verse may be summarized in the statement the servant needs the Servant. Just as Adam needed a Second Adam (see 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45), so the servant nation needs a Second Servant. This new Servant says, “But now Lord Yahweh sent me and his Spirit” (Is 48:16c). The connections between Is 48:16b and Is 49:1–6, as well as with Is 50:4–9, are clear. “But now” in Is 48:16b anticipates a similar usage in Is 49:4, while the title “Lord Yahweh” appears again in Is 50:4, 5, 7, 9. Moreover, the theme of “Spirit” reaches back to the first song in Is 42:1. Both servant Israel and the Suffering Servant are directed by Yahweh’s Spirit. The first is defeated by idolatry. The second is victorious, winning righteousness for the world.
The Second Servant will both restore Israel and bring salvation to the ends of the earth (Is 49:6). His mission will be accomplished through acute rejection and suffering (Is 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). Because of the Servant’s obedience, even to the point of death, Yahweh will declare many righteous (Is 53:11). Israel is then recommissioned as “servants of Yahweh,” for their righteousness is from him (Is 54:17c). To describe the servants of the Servant as righteous is fitting—a form of the root tsdq occurs forty-six times from Is 54:17 to the end of the book. Isaiah 40–55, then, gives us two servants—one whose idolatry made the nation blind and deaf (Is 42:19) and the other whose eyes and ears are wide open (Is 50:4–5).
In chs 49–55, the term “servant” appears seven times (Is 49:3, 5, 6, 7; 50:10; 52:13; 53:11). Each occurrence denotes Yahweh’s substitute Servant. The literary structures of Is 42:1–4 and 49:1–6 correspond with one another, indicating that the new Servant shares a similar mission with the failed nation. Both are followed by Yahweh’s speech (Is 42:5–9; 49:7–13), and within each of them are the words “And I am setting you to be a light to the nations” (Is 42:6; 49:8). The Servant in the second song is given the additional assignment of restoring Jacob/Israel (Is 49:5). The new Servant will “raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel” (Is 49:6). Also, Yahweh will make him “as a light to the nations, so that my salvation may be to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6).
It is correct, then, to interpret the first Servant Song (Is 42:1–4) typologically. It initially describes the nation of Israel and foreshadows Christ (cf Mt 12:17–21). However, the second (Is 49:1–6), third (Is 50:4–9), and fourth (Is 52:13–53:12) Servant Songs are rectilinear prophecies pointing only to Jesus. Notice 2 Cor 5:19, 21 clarifies the issue. Paul states that “God was in Christ (Is 52:13) reconciling the world (the many, Is 52:14, 15; 53:11b–12) to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). “For our sake he made him to be sin (Is 53:10) who knew no sin (Is 53:9), so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (Is 53:11; 54:17c)” (2 Cor 5:21). Isaiah’s narrative about the two servants contains within it the Pauline doctrine of forensic justification—or what Luther termed “passive righteousness.”
As chs 40–55 end, then, an apparent contradiction arises between Israel’s unrighteous behavior (chs 1–39) and Yahweh’s promise of a righteous standing regardless of personal righteousness. Israel is called to be righteous, but fails, for only Yahweh is righteous. Yet, Yahweh promises salvation to the unrighteous. Should Israel, then, continue to sin so that this grace may abound (cf Rom 6:1)? The answer comes in the second part of this study. Next time, we will take up how the prophet employs righteousness in Isaiah 56–66.
In some places, the Old Testament flows like a brook toward its fulfillment in Christ, while other places may be likened to a quiet backwater or small stream. In Isaiah, though, we come upon a rushing river that moves us mightily forward toward the New Testament’s proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord. He is Immanuel (Is 7:14; Mt 1:23), the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (Is 9:6), the Shoot that comes forth from Jesse’s stump (Is 11:1), a tested Stone and Cornerstone and a sure Foundation (Is 28:16). When preaching on these and other messianic promises in the book, it is helpful to link them to the prophet’s central theological thrust—active and passive righteousness. This is a powerful and faithful way to present Law and Gospel according to Isaiah.
Why the Narrative Lectionary?
Rev. Richard P. Shields, pastor, Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church (TAALC), Frazier Park, California; president, American Lutheran Theological Seminary
My life has been lived with the liturgy and the lectionaries. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I worshiped in a congregation using The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) and the one-year Lectionary. The 1970s were a time of transition, as I was exposed to some of the new liturgical work being done in those days. By 1982 when I began seminary and began preaching every third weekend, I was introduced to Lutheran Worship and the three-year Lectionary. That had been my worship life . . . until 2012. It was in January of that year that my worship life, that is, my lectionary life, changed.
A Lectionary Dilemma
I began serving my current congregation in southern California in August 2011. It didn’t take long to discover that this area was not the typical Midwest, church-life-saturated community. The unchurched rate in our area is about 98 percent, and many people who were coming into the church had little or no background in the Bible and Bible history.
Late in that first year in my new parish, I was preparing for the 2012 Epiphany season. When looking at the Readings, it dawned on me that the sequence of the Readings would not necessarily connect with my people. Here are the Old Testament Readings for that season, along with the Sundays, followed by the general time period in history of each reading:
Epiphany 1 (Is 42:1–7) 7th century BC
Epiphany 2 (1 Sam 3:1–10) 12th century BC
Epiphany 3 (Jonah 3:1–5, 10) 8th century BC
Epiphany 4 (Deut 18:15–20) 15th century BC
Epiphany 5 (Is 40:21–31) 7th century BC
Epiphany 6 (2 Ki 5:1–14) 10th century BC
Epiphany 7 (2 Ki 2:1–12) 10th century BC
Notice the “jump forward, jump back” time sequence. Granted, the Gospels for the season are in chronological order according to Mark’s Gospel. But if one is preaching on the Old Testament during that season, then the out-of-order time sequence becomes not only noticeable but confusing to many of the people worshiping. Add to that the fact that, for the year as a whole, even the Gospels are not consistent in terms of chronological sequence, skipping around as they do during Advent, Lent, and Easter, before “settling in” during the Pentecost season.
I considered alternative lectionaries such as the Eisenach Selections, the Thomasius Selections, the Synodical Conference Selections (1912), and the Soll Selections.1 The Soll Selections offered a unique perspective in that they offer two Gospels for each Sunday. Each of these provides variations of the standard lectionaries, and each might be worth examining for lectionary use. But they still have the same problem with out-of-chronological-sequence readings, particularly with the Old Testament Readings.
Was I making a mountain out of a molehill? Was this really a problem? Lectionaries have followed similar patterns for centuries, even millennia. And, yes, the historic and newer lectionaries have and do serve the church extremely well. But do the lectionaries as we know them teach the story of the Bible as well as might be desired . . . or might they leave some worshipers with just stories? Knowledge of the biblical story is crucial to a maturing Christian faith. Unfortunately, most Christian preaching seems to assume that worshipers already know this basic biblical story—and thus does not function primarily to teach people the story. In my setting, a community of so many unchurched and the potential for so many new believers, it did indeed seem important to teach the grand narrative of Scripture in the best way I could.
The Premise of the Narrative Lectionary
It was at that point that I wondered whether there might be anything out there more helpful for our congregation. In my exploration I came across something called the Narrative Lectionary (NL). On the website, the NL was introduced this way: “The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. On the Sundays from September through May each year the texts follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church.”2
The NL seemed to be a possible answer to the dilemma I noted in the other lectionaries. The NL offers a unique approach—one part of what could be a much broader program—to equip people to know God’s story, to discover God’s story, and to find in that story the love of God in Christ for all, especially the reader/hearer.
Like any lectionary, the NL is a set of Readings from the Bible for each Sunday of the Church Year. As we’ve seen, various lectionaries have been used since the time of the Early Church. Most Lutheran congregations have been using either the one-year Lectionary or a three-year Lectionary. These lectionaries cover quite a bit of the Bible. They are also probably the most effective week-after-week tool for teaching the liturgical calendar of the church, a valuable lesson in itself. But what happens when so many people coming into the church are struggling to learn both the liturgical life of the church and the story of the Bible? The NL is an experiment to help these new Christians who have no such background to grow into people who have a mature knowledge and faith.
As advertised, the NL is a four-year series of Scripture readings for Christian worship and moves through the overarching biblical story in a nine-month period. The series starts in September and ends in May. The summer allows a variety of topical preaching, or even portions of the Scriptures not covered during the school year. At the same time, the Narrative Lectionary respects the traditional Christian Church Year, with its principal festivals and seasons—Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.
Fall: NL moves chronologically through the Old Testament story—beginning in Genesis around the start of September and culminating with the last prophetic promises of the coming Messiah during December (Advent).
Winter: NL moves in order through one Gospel—tracing the story of Jesus in canonical order from his birth, through his earthly ministry and Passion, and finally climaxing with the story of the resurrection at Easter. There are four years to the cycle, so NL covers all four Gospels. Thus, Year 4 focuses on the Gospel according to John. Contrast this with other lectionaries, in which John is relegated to readings that supplement the other Gospels, primarily Mark.
Spring: NL engages part of the story of the Early Church, as told in Acts and other New Testament writings.
Summer: The NL does not provide any help or direction during this season. So pastors are left to select for their congregations from any lectionary and preaching options they like. One summer I preached on additional texts in the Gospel for that year. Another summer I preached on two short New Testament books.
A Closer Look at the Narrative Lectionary
This lectionary is not simply a series of stories; rather, it is a series of stories intended to provide an understanding of and appreciation for the broader biblical narrative. A closer look at the details reveals how the four-year system works.
The NL seeks, in a nine-month cycle, to tell the biblical story in historical sequence that is also in basic canonical order. It moves rapidly through the biblical narrative in that canonical order. The Old Testament segment covers the sweep of history in sixteen weeks, but each of the four years makes a new pass at the same full sweep of the centuries. Thus, from year to year, the theme for each week of the sixteen weeks remains the same, but with four years, four different sets of yearly readings address that theme. Consider as an example Week 1, with the creation theme:
Year 1 (Matthew) Gen 6:16–22; 9:8–15
Year 2 (Mark) Gen 2:4b–25
Year 3 (Luke) Gen 2:4b–7, 15–17; 3:1–8
Year 4 (John) Gen 1:1–2:4a
Thus, the creation theme is explored in four different ways through the four years. Notice, however, that there is some fluidity with a theme among the four years; the flood account in year 1 is presented as part of this theme. Is that perhaps picturing the flood as a “restart” of creation? (Curious perhaps also that the flood is included in year 1, rather than in year 4.)
As a practical matter, the flood narrative’s appearance in week 1 does indicate the challenge of covering the entire Old Testament sweep in sixteen weeks. There are far too many significant stories to be taught than to allow any of them to be revisited in all four years, so the flood is addressed only in year 1.
From the foundation of the creation theme, the Old Testament narrative then unfolds. Week 2 in all four years focuses on Abraham (various stories about Abraham among the four years). Week 3 focuses on Jacob and Joseph (but likewise with different stories for the four years), and so on through week 16.
By the very nature of the NL, the primary focus is on narrative passages. The exceptions would be prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament segment (leading up to Advent and the coming of Christ) and the Epistles for the day during Easter.
The NL focuses on one reading each week. While only one reading is provided on the website, we have identified three readings plus a psalm (see below, Filling Gaps in the Narrative Lectionary). The pivotal text provided in the basic structure of the NL remains the main reading and is suggested as the sermon text.
Because the NL is shaped as it is, one concern for me had been the Church Year calendar. Thankfully, the core of the Church Year calendar is not abandoned—the birth of Christ Jesus is still celebrated at Christmas; the resurrection of Christ is still celebrated at Easter. The time of Advent is kept by focusing on the promise of the coming Messiah primarily through Old Testament texts. Appropriate Readings have also been chosen for church commemorations such as Reformation, All Saints’ Day, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week.
Filling Gaps in the Narrative Lectionary
As I began seriously exploring the Narrative Lectionary, I noticed some gaps in what was provided on the website. Is one reading sufficient for a liturgical lectionary program? I didn’t think so—especially since the full sweep of the biblical narrative is ultimately all about Jesus. How could this be clear if readings from the Gospels weren’t even offered through the first three months? Likewise, there was no support work that would complement the liturgical text. Thus, about six months prior to beginning the NL, I spent time filling those gaps.
Filling the first gap, the NL’s use of only one reading per Sunday, required considerable time to go through each week and supplement the one main reading with the “missing readings.” I followed the rubric of selecting the Gospel for the day from the particular Gospel that would be used by the NL during the upcoming winter quarter (year 1 Matthew, year 2 Mark, and so on)—with the goal of demonstrating that Jesus is in fact the point also of all those Old Testament stories. The year our congregation began using NL was actually year 3 in the NL cycle. So for the first Sunday in September, the Old Testament Reading (theme: creation) was Gen 2:4b–7, 15–17; 3:1–8. I added a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel (Psalm 130; Rom 5:12–19; Lk 11:1–4) that fit with that theme.
I have done that for every Sunday since Sept 9, 2012. Moreover, there is that problem of the NL having no readings at all for the summers. That also became an immediate project. I usually plan all these additional readings at least six months ahead. For instance, I completed that first year’s post-Easter through end of August readings by about Feb 1. Well before the time our congregation has completed its first four-year cycle, therefore, I should have a full set of all the additional readings determined.
Is it a lot of work? Yes. But there is an added benefit to me as pastor. I find that it helps me in long-term planning, as well as in preparation for each Sunday. Even more, I’ve found that, by the time a Sunday comes up, I know the full set of texts very well, because I’ve read every reading several times to make sure it fits together with the other Sunday elements. And that’s led to refining; on occasion, as part of my sermon preparation, I have added or changed a reading in the week or two prior to the actual use of the lesson.
Another gap to be filled: when I began using NL, I did not find any prayers or suggestions as to how the historic collects might be paired with the readings. (I should note that the Narrative Lectionary website does now offer Prayers of the Day to match the lectionary readings.) A future project could be a careful gleaning of the collects in Lutheran Service Book to see which ones would lend themselves to the NL. Particularly with the many new collects LSB offers for the three-year Lectionary, no doubt most Sundays would find excellent voice, especially during the many months when the Gospel for the day sets the theme.
In the meantime, however, because the Sunday themes in NL did not match the one-year or three-year series, I began writing a Prayer of the Day for each Sunday to match its specific theme. That was a challenge for me, but I plunged ahead. Early in our process of preparing the congregation for introduction of the NL, Pastor Hank Simon contacted me about using the NL. In the conversation, we agreed that I would supply him with the additional readings, and we would share writing the Prayer of the Day for each. Our congregation has been greatly blessed by Pastor Simon’s thoughtful, clear, appropriate prayers. Since then others have contributed prayers to support NL readings as well.
Introducing the Narrative Lectionary
Serving as a pastor over the years, I have been aware of the importance of preparing a congregation for any change in worship. Depending on the changes, it might take a few weeks, a few months, or (more than!) a few years to prepare. In the case of the NL, I looked at six months as the time necessary to implement the transition to a new lectionary.
The first step of preparation was to go to the elders and then to the church council and explain the use of lectionaries, including the ones commonly in use (the three-year and one-year). In these two meetings I helped the leaders realize the deficiencies in our people’s knowledge of the overall biblical history and discussed the difficulties for the three-year and one-year Lectionaries to answer those deficiencies, based on the reading sequences. The entire leadership—elders and council—were 100 percent committed to moving toward use of the Narrative Lectionary. At this same time I began preparing the additional texts to be included each week.
In the three months prior to beginning the NL, I included a bulletin insert that explained the purpose of the NL and its application in our congregation. At regular intervals during the summer, I announced that the NL would begin the Sunday after Labor Day. During the last month we included a bulletin insert with the fall themes for each Sunday.
The first Sunday we actually used the lectionary, I introduced the topics by means of a visual, a timeline. Each week I added a new theme in chronological sequence. That way the worshipers had a visual reference to previous weeks’ themes. Again, the purpose was to give that unfolding salvation history according to a basic chronology. This visual orientation was more critical in the Old Testament segment, given the vast time periods covered and the multiple Old Testaments books used. In the Gospel segment (Christmas to Easter), each week’s reading came from the Gospel, strictly in canonical order, although not every passage of every Gospel was covered. If the Epistles were used as the primary teaching, then a simple New Testament timeline could be used.
As I considered using the Narrative Lectionary, I realized that it could be only part of the solution to providing a biblical framework for understanding the texts. Back in 1989, I was one of the seventy pastors who introduced the LifeLight Bible study series to the LCMS. About that same time, I was developing similar Bible studies for my own congregations. By 1991, I had completed development of an eleven-week Old Testament survey class and an eleven-week New Testament survey class for my people. I have taught these in several congregations over the years. So I decided to use these study guides to complement the NL.
The same week we began using the NL, we began the Old Testament survey class. I taught it on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Although I had not checked how the survey course would match the NL readings, as it turned out, the sequence fit together very well. The survey course finished the week before Thanksgiving, somewhat earlier than the Old Testament portion of the NL, but a number who participated in the course said it was an additional blessing. The combination of the survey and the NL gave the needed historical and canonical framework for better understanding of the Old Testament story.
After Christmas, I began two sessions of the New Testament survey. The correlation with NL wasn’t as tight as the Old Testament because the survey covered all of the New Testament, whereas the NL covered only the Gospel according to Luke. Nevertheless, participants reported the survey to be useful.
I plan to offer the two survey classes about every third or fourth year. This will catch up new people in the congregation and provide a helpful review for those who have taken the courses in prior years.
Reflections on the Narrative Lectionary
After two years of using the NL, my overall assessment is that it is well worth exploring for any pastor or congregation. For congregations, I definitely think it offers people new to the Christian faith a good framework for following the biblical story; this is particularly significant in the fall season with sixteen weeks using the Old Testament themes. And for those who have been Christians for years, this may also be either a good review or even the first time they have been able to follow the biblical narrative.
For preaching purposes, I especially liked the opportunity to preach through John’s Gospel. The one-year and three-year series offer relatively fewer pericopes from John. Because most of John’s Gospel is “new” for preaching, it allowed me to explore the Gospel in a refreshing way. With the Synoptic Gospels, the introductions to my sermons tied together the historical sequences leading up to the current text. But for John’s Gospel, my sermon introductions each week tended to focus more on relating the thematic structure of the Gospel to the current week’s pericope.
To me, the use of four readings (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel) in a liturgical service is a strong commendation. I was disappointed that NL did not really offer anything beyond the focused reading, aside from one or two verses in the Gospels to correspond to the Old Testament Readings. My initial thought was that I could choose additional readings as I went forward. That sounded easy enough at the beginning, but once I got into the use of NL, I was at times a little overwhelmed time wise (may the busy pastor understand!) with choosing additional readings. I should also note that because of the length of a few readings, I have on occasion omitted either the Old Testament Reading (during the non-fall periods) or the Epistle. This happens only about once or twice in a quarter’s worth of pericopes.
Over the past twenty-five years I have always worked out a grid for planning sermons at least three months ahead. This is even more crucial when using the NL. At the same time, I have benefited from this detail work, as I have in finding the additional readings over the first four years.
One thing I will pursue in the future is to reach out to other pastors who use the NL. I would like to connect with them, perhaps meeting once a month for an exegetical and homiletical exchange and discussion. Since I teach seminary classes using live video, that might be an appropriate venue. The closest Lutheran Church to me is about fifty miles away, so face-to-face meetings would not be practical. But I do think this would benefit me as well as the other pastors.
Obviously the historic lectionaries (those with centuries of history and now the various three-year Lectionaries with their first half-century of use) are here to stay. And more than just to stay! Not only have they well proven themselves as means of delivering the full counsel of God over a repeatable period of time, but the very popularity of their use is precious in binding the Church together. There is great value in pastors and congregations that share the same confession—and even those that don’t—being on the same page . . . and the same texts. We would never wish to discourage any of that. But for a setting in which many members really don’t know whether King David was a contemporary of Jesus or perhaps a more faithful successor to King Herod, the Narrative Lectionary offers help. I’ve found the switch to and the use of NL to be a positive benefit to my preaching and to our congregation.
2. Published on WorkingPreacher.org, used by permission. http://www.narrativelectionary.org.
Humbled by Preaching
2 Corinthians 4:5–6
Rev. Henry A. Simon, pastor, Galilee Lutheran Church, Pasadena, Maryland
Preaching can be very humbling.
I’m not talking about struggling to touch the listener in the same way we are to love God—starting with the heart, so that the head will follow.
I’m also not referring to wrestling with the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter . . . and having some of Thomas’s questioning resurface in an unsettling way in one’s own life.
And though it does happen, this is not about stepping down from the pulpit and realizing, “Shoot! That’s how I could have said that more clearly!”
While incidents like that may humble preachers, preaching is humbling in other ways. Several years ago, when a member stepped into my office, he wanted to share with me how a sermon had come to life. While driving to the ocean for a weekend getaway with his wife, their car had a flat tire.
Unexpectedly, a total stranger changed the tire. “It made me think of your sermon on the Good Samaritan a few weeks ago,” the member told me. The only problem was that I had been fifteen hundred miles away in Houston serving as a delegate to the synodical convention on that weekend!
Preaching also humbled me several weeks later. It happened when the Gospel quoted Jesus’ words about a heavenly money bag. So at our Saturday afternoon service, I asked people to open their wallet or purse, take out something valuable, and hold it up. The plan was to go on and talk not about money, but about what we consider valuable.
Instead, the muted and scattered response to my request showed that I really was violating the private space of many worshipers. The disjointed response threw me out of sync. Neither I nor the sermon ever recovered. Thanks be to God, I did change the sermon and salvaged it for the two services the next morning. But I was definitely reminded once more that preaching can be humbling.
Humbling can be good. About ten years ago, I picked as my current favorite Bible verse the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Cor 4:5–6: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s words beckon and bolster me to stay humble. For when I am humbled, I feel in the dark. It’s not just that I am out of the spotlight—which, in the case of the church I serve, does shine on the pulpit. I feel in the dark because humbling reminds me of my imperfection and sin—a worse kind of darkness.
But God who said “Fiat lux!” also creates the light of faith. That faith is a tool with which the Holy Spirit works to make good of being humbled.
If being wrong or my ego or, God forbid, laziness should get in the way of being a servant for Jesus’ sake, faith assures me I am forgiven. Even the sins of preachers were handled by Jesus on his cross.
If I have made mistakes in a sermon, they can be corrected for the next time. That’s at least one advantage of preaching three services each weekend.
And if my sermon has been imperfect—as they all are, of course—that can be turned over to the Holy Spirit. The Breath of God can take even our mistakes and use them for divine purposes. That’s still another example of being humbled by preaching—the worshiper who shares how he or she was helped by a sermon you thought was not all that well done.
So it is good that preaching is humbling. Again and again, we can be pushed back to the Savior and Lord whom we proclaim: Jesus Christ, whose servants of proclamation we are.
His face shows the light of the Father’s gracious glory. The Holy Spirit uses that heavenly light to shine in our hearts. Then, as we seek to do our best, that light, that love, that life will shine through in our sermons too. . . . in the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
’Tis Not Ourselves That We Proclaim
based on 2 Corinthians 4:5–6
(Tune: St. Anne)
’Tis not ourselves that we proclaim
But Jesus Christ as Lord.
His Father, who the light did make,
Sends us the living Word.
This light now with redeeming love
Shines on our Savior’s face.
As we behold his glory bright
We see the Father’s grace.
So through our words we point to Christ
And his forgiveness free.
The Gospel true we seek to share
With all humility.
O Father, send your Spirit bold
To guide all those who preach,
That in their words they point to Christ
And his salvation teach.
Text may be used without charge, provided the following acknowledgment is included:
(The following personal story is intended to reflect Paul’s personal style in his correspondence with the Thessalonians.)
When I was going through college, I did house painting in the summer to pay for my educational expenses. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was trying to do that painting in the way Paul prays the Thessalonians would respond to God’s love (1 Thess 3:12)—that is, to do our work so people would respect us for what we do (4:11–12). I tried to make sure the blue house paint didn’t get on the white window trim. I’d do this even on the second-story windows, where people couldn’t check out my work. Every day, I cleaned up after my work. My price was fair, and when the job was done, I made sure the homeowners were satisfied. What often happened, though, was that a next-door neighbor would see me working and come to take a look at how the job was done. I’d end up painting a living room or another house that hadn’t been planned. At the beginning of the summer, my schedule wasn’t full, but by the end of the summer, it had been a full schedule.
As I look back on that work, I realize how important Paul’s words are. See your work as given by God and representing your relationship with him. Do your work well so others respect you. When that happens, prayers are answered, including the one about our love increasing and abounding.
Glenn A. Nielsen, St. Louis, MO
Thankful for One Another as God’s Gifts
(This relational story showing how we are gifts to others in the church is used with permission from the family. It was actually preached with the coordinating sermon to a congregation that had just lost this “pillar” member to a sudden heart attack.)
I saw how we can be gifts to one another in the church last Tuesday evening when so many people came to the church for Frank’s visitation. The line stretched to the back of the narthex. What a wonderful gift of support and encouragement for his wife and the family!
But think about Frank for a minute. What made him such a gift from God? I looked at the pictures on display at the visitation and saw someone who gave so much of himself for others in the church. He was a partner in the Gospel, in what Jesus was doing here, in many ways—just as St. Paul describes his beloved Philippian Church (Phil 1:3–5). Youth service trips—he helped right along with the kids, standing on a ladder, showing them how to fix up someone’s house. He’d help serve food during the evenings we tutored the school kids. He’d step into a leadership role when needed. He’d pack up the van and drive a group to some faraway VBS in Canada. Notice how each of these activities would help bring Jesus to someone else. Frank was participating in the Gospel. He was helping to show others what Jesus can do in our lives. What a gift from God he was, and we thank God for him!
Glenn A. Nielsen, St. Louis, MO
Baby showers and bridal showers are celebrations before the celebrations. The actual event has not occurred; that is, the baby is not yet born, and the couple is not yet married. So the real celebrations are yet to come, days or even months into the future. Still, people bring gifts in anticipation of the event and have a party celebrating what they know is coming. Even in a sin-corrupted world, where tragedies such as miscarriages and stillbirths cut short an otherwise joyful pregnancy, and called-off engagements end hope-filled wedding plans, people nevertheless come seemingly without any thought of these possibilities. They celebrate, believing the joy will happen. They feel sure about what’s coming. And they celebrate as if the event has already occurred.
The prophet Zephaniah wrote some six centuries before the birth of Christ—and at a time of impending judgment on God’s people. Yet already he writes as if there’s reason to celebrate: “Sing aloud!” “Rejoice!” “Exult!” Already he writes that the Lord has taken away his judgments against the people. Why? Because even during those centuries of the “first Advent,” Zephaniah was certain that the baby, the Messiah, was coming (Zeph 3:14–15).
As Christians, we have assurances even more firm. We are called to celebrate not only what God is doing right now, but what we know with the certainty of faith he promises yet to accomplish at the end. Even if great tragedies occur and death results, the Christian may still rejoice. The Christian may keep on celebrating regardless. Why? Because, like those attending a baby or wedding shower, we come believing that something good is still ahead. We do this even at a funeral full of the emptiness of loss. Those who die in Christ have gone to be with him—which is far better (Phil 1:23). More than this, they will also rise again on the Last Day. They look to new life and the great wedding feast of the reunion of all God’s people.
Donald V. Engebretson, Antigo, WI
Why Am I So Honored?
Some years ago, I got the chance to meet the governor of my state. He came to my little village, touring the clinic where I was manning the hospice office of our town. It was an exciting honor finally to be face-to-face with him. I was surprised at the time to discover how short he was and how ordinary he looked. He had none of that charisma many associate with popular public figures. Yet, his attendance at the clinic was special, and I was humbled to meet him. I was honored to be in his presence. Why? It was not the man as much as the office he represented. He was the governor, the most powerful man of my state here in my humble little town.
So it was with Elizabeth when Mary came to visit her in her house. Mary was just a simple, young woman, hardly known outside of her town, a common maiden little different from other young women of her day. Yet Elizabeth was deeply honored and humbled that Mary would come to see her. For this simple young woman was also “the mother of [Elizabeth’s] Lord” and the one in whose womb was the incarnate God (Lk 1:43). The honor Mary possessed was the Christ she carried, and the honor Elizabeth felt was of one who knew she stood in the presence of God himself. So, too, the presence of the Lord among us may at times seem common and simple (for example, in bread and wine), but we know from God’s Word that the Lord has visited us here, and we are truly honored that he would be among sinful people such as us.
Donald V. Engebretson, Antigo, WI
Christmas Eve or Day
A World without “Joy to the World”?
Imagine a world without “Joy to the World.” Hard enough to imagine a Christmas without “Joy to the World,” isn’t it? Hard to imagine going a whole Christmas season of worship services and caroling parties and family devotions without singing “Joy to the World” at least once. Of course, there was a time, there were in fact many Christmases, when there was no “Joy to the World.” The poet of Psalm 98 wrote long before Christ, “Oh sing to the Lord a new song,” and many centuries later, Isaac Watts did just that—penned a brand new Christmas song based on Psalm 98, matched to a tune by Georg Handel (actually from a movement of Handel’s Messiah) that we sing to the Lord as “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” (The song was first published in 1719.) Before that, there was no “Joy to the World.”
An Ancient Church heresy argued, “There was a time when the Son of God was not.” Yes, that was heresy. It’s not true. The Son of God has been with the Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity, always the one triune God. But there was a time, many centuries in time, before the Son of God became a human being. Then it happened; God became one of us. That’s what we celebrate today, God becoming incarnate, truly human, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and being born in Bethlehem.
Imagine a world in which the Son of God was not. Never was such a thing. But imagine a world without the Son of God becoming human. There was such a thing. From the time Adam and Eve sinned, for thousands of years, there was yet no Savior living among us, no Immanuel, God with us, to feel our pain and suffering, no Child of Mary to take our sins to the cross. That would have been a world without joy to the world! But today we do “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” (Ps 98:1). Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King and Savior!
Carl C. Fickenscher II, Fort Wayne, IN
Redeeming My Books
The idea of redemption is that of “buying back.” My wife once worked for a community health clinic that held a large rummage sale and dinner. The night before the big sale of all of these donations, employees and their families were invited to a dinner and to browse the merchandise. As I was looking through the large selection of books, I noticed several aviation books that looked interesting. I also recognized them as my books! My wife had donated them for this big sale. What could I do but spend the money to buy them back? It was for a good cause, of course, but I had to redeem my own books.
So it was that Jesus redeemed us. As the Israelites in the Old Testament were to redeem their sons in memory of God bringing them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex 13:13–15), so Jesus bought us back with the price of his blood and his suffering and death, so that we who were sold into sin might once again be in God’s family.
Taking Our Place
In the popular Hunger Games books and movies, Katniss is born into a society in which every year children from each district are forced to fight in a competition to the death. When her younger sister is chosen, rather than let her go to face certain death, Katniss volunteers to take her place, fully convinced that now she herself will die. Likewise, the lives of Israel’s firstborn children would have been forfeited if God had not delivered them through the blood of a lamb, given in their place (Ex 13:13–15). This lamb points to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes the place not only of all the firstborn but of every sinner, so that they are rescued from sin and death.
Mark T. Buetow, Du Quoin, IL
Planning, Wrapping, and Giving the Gift
Christmas gift-giving generally takes place in three parts. First is the planning stage. We think about the most suitable gift for another person. We decide where we need to do our shopping and what type of gift, what color, what size, you name it, will make the best gift. Once the gift is purchased, next comes the gift wrapping. The gift is wrapped up and tagged to be a mystery for its recipient as it sits under the tree. Finally, the gift is opened and received. There may be surprise or wonder and, if the gift is just right, hugs and thank-yous.
God’s glory is revealed in the same way with respect to our salvation. First, even before the foundation of the world, he prepares a gift: to call us into his family and to make us his children in Christ (Eph 1:4). Next, he “wraps the gift” by sending his Son, who gives his life for our sins and rises from the dead. He is the ransom paid to redeem us from sin and death (1:7). Finally, that gift is given to us, and we receive it through hearing the Gospel and the waters of Holy Baptism (1:13). God has planned his gift of salvation in Christ, accomplished that salvation in Christ in time, and given that gift of salvation to us through the working of the Spirit by his Gospel and Holy Baptism.
Mark T. Buetow, Du Quoin, IL
The Epiphany of Our Lord
Clue number 1: In the Old Testament, God promised, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17).
Clue number 2: Sometime between 8 and 4 BC, a great new star appears in the sky.
Clue number 3: Wise Men from the East, Gentiles, follow that star to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2).
Clue number 4: The Holy Spirit inspires Matthew to record that when these Wise Men found the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, they fell down and worshiped him and presented gifts to him.
Can you solve the mystery? St. Paul does for us in Eph 3:6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs”—with Israel, the Jews—“members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” For centuries, this was indeed a mystery; it seemed as if only one family of people was included in God’s grace. But Epiphany is the revealing that Jesus is the Savior of all people, including you and me.
Carl C. Fickenscher II, Fort Wayne, IN
Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Our Lord
Emerging from the Water
Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, I was heavily involved in scouting. I went all the way through the ranks into the Explorers, and our post was involved in scuba diving as part of our public service. On a few tragic occasions, the fire department (which had only two certified divers) would ask our help when a fishing boat had overturned and someone had drowned in one of the many sandpits that surrounded Wichita. We’d gear up, test our regulators, get our buddy, and get wet in the dark waters in search of the body. It was sad duty, because someone had died. But after completing our work, we’d emerge from the dark waters and once again breathe God’s air! Our hope was always that the one who had drowned had also emerged from death to God’s fresh air of heaven.
That’s very much what happens in Holy Baptism, isn’t it? In Baptism, we dive into the depths and reemerge again to breathe fresh air. We’ve died to sin and are brought back to new life in Christ (Rom 6:4)!
(Due credit for this comparison goes to my pastor at the time, Rev. Bob Kerekes, who used our diving as an example in a message at a Wichita area lake resort.)
Kent Fuqua, Hudson, FL
Weddings Are Worth It!
Let’s face it: weddings take an awful lot to put on! They’re a huge amount of work for the couple—although experience reminds me that the bride probably does a lot more work than the groom, at least a lot more than this groom did. Weddings are a lotta, lotta stress for the mothers of the bride and groom. I’ve seen that up close! Weddings are a lot of more than work for the father of the bride; yeah, they’re a lot of money. Weddings are even a big production for pastors—not just preparing the sermon, but balancing the wishes of bride and groom and mothers and fathers and musicians and photographers and videographers with proper reverence for a worship service in God’s house. As a pastor, I love the premarital education classes with the couple. I love to take them to the Scriptures and show them what God says their union is all about. I love seeing the faces of young people light up when they have that “Aha!” moment of understanding. It’s all those other things bride and groom and parents and pastors et al. have to juggle that make you wonder about weddings.
You wonder, Was it worth all the time and effort and stress? The answer is always a resounding yes! Why? Because weddings are opportunities—rich opportunities, really—to proclaim the Savior, to let people see in a wonderful way who this Jesus is—even people with whom a pastor may have no other chance to share Christ, the only time they’ll ever be in your church, maybe in any church. That’s what the wedding at Cana of Galilee came down to: a chance for Jesus’ disciples to come to believe in him (Jn 2:11).
Kent Fuqua, Hudson, FL
“Today” is always a big day. It’s the one we’re on. It’s the only one happening right now. It may be cloudy and rainy or bright and sunny; we may be having friends over or spending it alone. But it’s all we’ve really got right now, so we’d like to have something happen today.
In the Gospel of Luke, “today” takes on a special significance, as Luke records several of Jesus’ statements that place salvation in the present moment, rather than only in the future.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth. He entered his synagogue and was invited to preach. Seated before the home folks, Jesus made a profound statement to the congregation—picture: his neighbors and friends whom he’d known for years!—“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21, emphasis added).
Later, toward the end of his ministry, as Jesus proceeded to Jerusalem to meet his destiny at the cross, he stopped and called to Zacchaeus, saying that he needed to stay at Zacchaeus’s house that day. And before dinner was over, Zacchaeus would come to know Jesus as the Savior sent from God. Then, in response to Zacchaeus’s joyful generosity to his conversion, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9, emphasis added).
Then in the last hours, perhaps last minutes, of Jesus’ saving work on the cross, he was asked to be remembered by the thief dying next to him. And Jesus assured the man, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43, emphasis added).
In a very real sense, today is the most important day. And Christ makes something—something important!—happen. “Today” is the day of salvation for all who, right now, right this minute, hear and believe the word that Jesus is the Christ of God.
A professor of ethics presented his college students with a hypothetical problem: “A man has syphilis, and his wife has tuberculosis. They have already had four children: one died, the other three have what is considered to be a terminal illness. Now the mother is pregnant again. What would you recommend that she do? Should she proceed and deliver her unborn child, or should she abort the child and spare everyone, especially the child, a lot of grief and anguish?”
Well, following a spirited discussion, the majority of the class decided that the mother should abort the unborn child instead of risking the possibility of bringing another sickly child into the world.
Then, following this conclusion, the professor added, “Fine, abort the child! But do you realize that you’ve just killed Ludwig von Beethoven?”
That’s right, Beethoven! And just how different our world would be without his artistic contribution!
Well, thankfully, Beethoven’s parents didn’t abort him—they didn’t do such things much in those days!—and our world today has been greatly enriched as a result. Even before Beethoven’s conception, God knew him and all he would accomplish, just as he knew Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), just as he knows every child he allows to be conceived, just as knew each one of us.
Daniel A. Wonderly, Burton, Michigan
The Transfiguration of Our Lord
From Suffering to Glory
In the transfiguration, Jesus gave the disciples a glimpse of his glory. But he also taught them that he would not finally and fully enter his glory until he had suffered and died for us (Lk 9:31). Suffering would precede glory.
The disciples who witnessed the transfiguration went on later to experience that same sequence themselves—first suffering, then glory. As Peter, James, and John took up their crosses and followed after Christ, they suffered a great deal for the faith:
• James was the first of the twelve disciples to be martyred—killed with a sword at the order of King Herod (Acts 12:1–2).
• History records that Peter was later crucified under Roman Emperor Nero.
• And John was sent into exile on the island of Patmos for his dedication to Christ and his Word (Rev 1:9).
These witnesses of Jesus’ glory bore heavy crosses in this life—but no more. They are now in paradise, worshiping the Lord with Moses, Elijah, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. The peace and joy they now have will never be taken away. And it is theirs because Jesus suffered and died for them and us on the cross before entering his glory. Our suffering will come to an end and will be followed by a glorious life without end!
Aaron A. Stinnett, Mandeville, LA
Gospel Handles: Old Testament Lessons. Francis Rossow.
Rev. Karl A. Weber, DMin, pastor, St. John Lutheran Church, Ottertail, Minnesota, and St. Paul Lutheran Church, Richville, Minnesota
As a refreshing glass of water quenches thirst on a hot summer day, Gospel Handles by Francis Rossow waters the spirit with the good news of Christ. Presented within its pages is a wealth of Gospel insight to comfort yearning hearts and bruised reeds (Is 42:3).
Rossow appreciates the rich treasure the Marcionites could not, dismissing the Old Testament as they did in the misplaced belief that it does not contain Christ. Rather, as a faithful disciple of Martin Luther, Rossow equips us to declare Christ from throughout the Old Testament, in this case by the device he has dubbed “Gospel handles.”
Preachers may struggle, knowing that Old Testament texts are less obvious in Gospel content than are New Testament pericopes (7). So, apart from Old Testament texts specifically referenced in the New Testament, preachers may tend to shy away from preaching the Old Testament. Or, when they do, it may be in a less than fulfilling manner. Direction, aid, and encouragement for proclaiming those challenging Old Testament texts come from this new Rossow book.
The goal of Gospel Handles is to cultivate the art of taking words that contain no Gospel and seeking similar language elsewhere in Scripture that does contain Gospel (9). Naturally, this is eased by adopting one Bible version and sticking with it, as Luther instructs (SC 244). Rossow is at home with the sublime beauty of the King James Version, but he is adept at drawing from other translations when helpful. Rossow acknowledges in fact that other translations suggest other and new Gospel handles (11).
In addition to aiding sermon preparation for busy pastors, Rossow’s book readily lends itself to devotional reading much as one uses Treasury of Daily Prayer or the Small Catechism. Certainly God’s Word contains data and facts that are beneficial for the baptized. But God’s Word is so much more, in that it is also nutrition for the soul. Unto Ezekiel it was said, “ ‘Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat” (Ezek 3:1–2). Focused on Christ Jesus and what he has done for us, Gospel Handles presents a feast of sumptuous fare to nourish us.
Thematically, the book breaks the Old Testament into its major classifications: Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. The book concludes with four sample sermons Rossow preached at various times at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Rossow, of course, emphasizes seeking first all Gospel actually to be discovered in the text, but handles, he says, sometimes allow proclaiming Gospel that would otherwise require rather adventurous claims about the original intent of a passage. He says he prefers “not to get involved in exegetical debate. The Gospel handle approach allows one to get at the Gospel without the danger of making any possible false claim” (45, see also 51).
After each select Old Testament text is the section “Gospel in the Text.” Using Ex 13:1–3, 11–15 as example, Rossow states that every Egyptian firstborn male—human and animal—was destroyed by God’s destroying angel. By means of the ceremonial laws, Yahweh instructed Israel to sacrifice each firstborn male animal, which paralleled the sacrifice of the Egyptian firstborn (39). The Gospel is found in its typology, says Rossow. God has rescued us from the unholy axis of sin, death, and the devil through the sacrifice of his Son upon the cross for the forgiveness of our sins (39).
Following the “Gospel in the Text” section, there is the key section, “Bonus Gospel via Gospel Handle.” Addressing Is 42:1–9, Rossow states that use of the word “reed” is a metaphor for “a poor miserable sinner.” The salutary use of sticking with a certain translation is seen as Rossow directs us to similar words with Gospel meaning found elsewhere in Scripture. Reflect when soldiers beat our Lord about his head with the “reed” (Mt 27:30). As Jesus endured this punishment and much more, he bore the sins of the world upon himself, making atonement for our transgressions. As our Lord received his beating from a reed, it “enabled him to realize his wish in the Isaiah text of not breaking a bruised reed” (125)—miserable sinners such as ourselves! And then when he was on the cross, soldiers used a reed to hoist a crude anesthetic to Jesus’ lips—which he refused.
The four sermons reprinted from chapel services at Concordia Seminary are delightful gems giving comfort to the heart. In one based on Gen 32:22–30, we peer into the hidden mystery of prayer with a reference to Blaise Pascal, who once said that “when it comes to prayer God confers upon us humans the dignity of causality” (219). Mysteries such as these and more are reverently explored as the Potter (Jer 18:5–6) remains upon his throne amongst the cherubim.
After twenty-three years of preaching, I can certainly say that I wish I would have had this book earlier. I have been thoroughly edified by reading and reviewing it. This resource will benefit me as I seek to serve my parishioners. I heartily endorse it for pastors in their high calling of serving Christ’s flock in Word and Sacrament . . . and commend it as well to laypeople who desire to understand and appreciate the scarlet thread of redemption that runs through both testaments.