Sample from this week...
2011-03-15 by David Howell

Preaching John 3:1-17

To read the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is to overhear something like the famous "Who’s on First?"1 routine of Abbot and Costello, only in this case the subject is not baseball but spiritual rebirth. There are two levels of conversation inherent in this meeting. In both levels, the vocabulary is the same but the dictionary is not. Nicodemus asks spiritual questions, but translates in earthly images. Jesus speaks in earthly images, but communicates spiritual answers. The two pass like ships in the night.

Nicodemus is one of the most inviting and intriguing of John’s cast of characters. He is unknown to the synoptic evangelists and becomes, along with Thomas the Doubting Disciple, John’s Everyman as a result. As a Pharisee, he broadens our expectations and understandings of the openness of Pharisees as a group, and Nicodemus’ curiosity and questing is laudable even if he comes only under the cover of night. He is like so many in our culture today who say that they are "spiritual" but not necessarily "religious." He wants to kick the tires and maybe sit behind the wheel of the teachings of Jesus, but he doesn’t really want to sign any contracts or take out any loans, at least not yet.

Preaching on this text presents an opportunity to the preacher to rescue the "born again" phrasing that has become so popular in our religious parlance. The New Revised Standard translation saves us from misunderstanding what Jesus is saying. Its reference to being born "from above" is the better translation of the Greek anothen which refers not to a chronological reference (again) but to a spatial one (from above), drawing on the first century understanding of a domed universe where God dwells above, while the earth hovers below. Nicodemus is rightly mystified by the idea of trying to enter the womb to be born again. But Jesus has his mind on a religious rebirth, the kind that Pharisaic theological categories might find difficult to understand. It is precisely the renewing of thought that was most difficult for Nicodemus.

The Judaism of Nicodemus’ tradition scrupulously observed 613 laws and commandments—the oblation of cereal offerings for these sins, the sacrifice of a dove for those, directions on when a man and woman might have intimate relations and when they might not, instructions on what kind of meat you could eat and how many sets of dishes were needed, who had responsibility for a widow in the family and which brother was required to marry her, and strict rules on how the Sabbath was to be kept. Nicodemus could not help but be amazed at the simplicity of Jesus’ teaching.

Sometimes I think our congregations are looking for a spiritual rule book, a kind of Christianity for Dummies, which would carry in it the logical steps from one to twelve that would lead to spiritual completion. In a society where the self-help section in the bookstore is one of the largest, most folks are looking for a simple way to organize their steps to spiritual mastery. The problem is that life is messy, challenges in life are complex, issues are not clear, and following Jesus is more a matter of following a way of life than following a set of rules.

Finding what Nicodemus was seeking is sometimes doing what he did, misunderstanding what it is that you seek, and fumbling your way on a imperfect path. The human predicament is that we have only our limited comprehension of what we discern to be divine truth, and sometimes we settle for less than we should.

You must be born from above, Jesus said, by water and the spirit. It’s as simple and as impossible as just that. And of course, what Jesus is talking about is something that only God can make happen, a newness of life that brings life to life. It is like being an infant again, discovering the world afresh, supported, sustained, and nurtured in the everlasting arms, confident that those arms will neither abandon nor forsake you.

In a commencement address, Anne Lamott advised the graduates of the University of California Berkeley a few years ago how to discover what is most important in life. She said, "I’ve been waiting to be a successful author all my life. But when I finally did it, I was like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she’d been chasing all her life—metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn’t alive; it had no spirit. It was fake. Fake doesn’t feed anything. Only spirit feeds spirit...It had nothing that could slake the lifelong thirst I had for a little immediacy, and connection."2 I wonder if Nicodemus, in a different context and time, might have said something like that. I wonder if that realization was what drove him to meet with Jesus.

Nicodemus appears two more times in John’s gospel, as a moderating voice pleading for due process for Jesus with his Pharisaic colleagues (7:50-51), and at the end when he goes to the tomb with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes (19:39). With such a weighty quantity of spices, one wonders whether this is a measure of his emotional investment, or whether it is a weight that will lie upon the body of Jesus and hold him securely in the tomb, never to rise again. At the least it is a peculiar oblation.

In either case, Nicodemus remains the Pharisee who is most like a "person of interest" in the stories of Jesus’ followers. It is not clear whether he was in or out, a disciple or not, and no doubt there have been many through the centuries, including today, who find in him both the attraction and the hesitation that has linked his name, like it or not, with Jesus all this long while.

Jon M. Walton

(Jon Walton will be a speaker at the Festival of Homiletics in May.


1. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, "Who’s On First?" Copyright Bud Abbott, Jr., Vicki Wheeler, Carole Costello, Patricia Humphreys & Christine Costello d.b.a. Abbott & Costello Enterprises, 1944.


Japan's Earthquake/Tsunami; Matthew 4:1-11
2011-03-11 by David von Schlichten

Thank you to Stephen Schuette for two excellent posts below, one in which he considers whether the temptation was challenging for Jesus to resist and one in which he considers the slickness of the serpent in Eden.

How does the temptation narrative relate to the horrible earthquake and tsunami that have hit Japan? Here are some thoughts that could be tools of Satan:

1. We'll help a little, but we have to take care of our own first.

2. This is a great opportunity for America to show its superiority.

3. If we help, what's in it for us?

4. This disaster is a sign of the end or God's wrath.

5. The disaster is awful, but what are you gonna do? These things happen.

For Sunday, I also intend to ask this question in my sermon:

"How does God help us resist temptation?"

What do you think?

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

The Truth of Your Story
2011-03-08 by Stephen Schuette

Matthew 4:1-11 

 The most interesting question about the temptation story, which the text doesn’t answer directly, is whether Jesus was actually tempted.  Is this a Godspell  Jesus who has the answers ready in order to quickly dismiss the tempter without breaking a sweat while holding a flower plucked from a nearby mustard plant?  Or is he here, as later in Gethsemene, sweating bullets?  There’s no conclusive answer, but there is evidence.  Since we can read the story through in a few short moments there may be a tendency to hear it the first way.  But the tempter comes after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness when Jesus is physically and spiritually most vulnerable, and comes with bread and offers what looks easy.  Then, like a fighter in the corner, the story ends with angels attending him, so we can assume he needed attending.  I take it that this was a real and genuine battle which required all of Jesus’ spiritual, emotional, and psychic energy.

And just as soldiers engaged in battle use bullets and bombs Jesus and the Tempter use the most powerful resource at their disposal in this spiritual struggle – scripture and narrative.  At least by the second temptation the Tempter has caught on that he’s going to have to use scripture and narrative to get to Jesus’ source of identity and meaning.  So his strategy is, using the weapon of choice, to turn Jesus’ own defense upon itself and co-opt the story.  In other words, the Devil is really trying to get inside Jesus’ head….  “Maybe you think you’re the Messiah, but you’re not really the Messiah…or…If you are the Messiah, you’re not cut out for that long, hard, servant-Messiah path that you’re bent upon so think about this alternative way of fulfilling scripture…”  It seems the Tempter will give any ground or use any means necessary to win the final point.

So the stories are engaged.  It’s a story of hunger and need and vulnerability against a story of satiation and consumption.  It’s a story of serving God against a story of God serving Jesus/self.  It’s a story of the long way of faithfulness to God against a story of quick success.  You wonder as John wrote his prologue to his Gospel if the temptation story was in the back of his mind with its battle of light and dark so that after he wrote the prologue actually repeating the story of the temptation in his Gospel would have been redundant.  So the temptation story might serve as the “prologue” in the Synoptics.

In the end Jesus knows his own story well enough to fend off the temptations.  And the gospels will unfold as he continues on his path.  Likewise for us, as followers of Jesus, it may be that our ability to fend off temptation, the ability to remain true to our genuine story will depend on how well we know The Story and to what degree we claim it as Our Story.

Marketing and Freedom
2011-03-08 by Stephen Schuette

Genesis 2:17-17; 3:1-7

The serpent/devil has a pretty slick marketing plan.  In both cases he begins with a consumer study.  The market study begins with the first survey question, “Did God say, ‘You shall eat from any tree in the garden?’”  Gather the data.  What’s the potential client thinking?  The woman gives an honest and accurate and clear response.  In fact, it’s remarkable in its clarity.

But then with the data in hand the serpent puts on the spin.  “Not so!” he says.  And quickly he begins to shift the thinking so that the woman can consider what is advertized.  “I won’t die.  I’ll just be a better ‘me,’ more knowledgeable and capable and more in control of my own destiny.  Why wouldn’t I want this product that’s so readily available and accessible?”

The serpent is simply opening up the choice.  For as accurate and clear as the woman is in repeating the instructions it’s still not a choice until she makes the choice.  I have the sense that she really hadn’t considered it until the serpent urges her to really consider it even though she had the response by rote perfectly committed to memory.

So freedom seems to be offered through countless choices abundantly available in our culture.  And we may carry within us, trained in the consumer culture as we are, the idea that we aren’t free until we’ve tried them all.  But it’s a mirage, chasing an endless assortment of options that leaves us anything but free.  See how they acknowledge their new feeling of constraint rather than freedom with clothes?

It could be that freedom is not just about more options, but rather the ability to say "No," while committing yourself to a path.

Ash Wednesday Sample from
2011-03-07 by David Howell

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This lectionary pericope, from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount (immediately following Jesus’ exhortation to perfection [Mt 5:48; see also 5:20!]), omits the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13) and its bracketing material (6:7-8, 14-15). In the passage, Jesus describes the kind of genuinely pious behavior that characterizes those whose identity and lives are in conformity with the reality and values of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:1-2 seems to imply that Jesus’ words were directed primarily (if not exclusively) toward the disciples, but 7:28-29 indicates that Matthew envisions the crowds as also among Jesus’ addressees.

The first verse, which warns against making unnecessarily public displays of piety (lit. "justice," "righteousness" [BAGD suggests "righteousness in the sense of fulfilling divine expectation not specifically expressed in ordinances"]) designed to gain human honor and approval, seems to make Jesus’ overarching point, serving as an introduction to the entire passage. In addition to providing a bridge to the material at the end of the chapter (vv. 22-34), verses 19-21 effectively summarize the section—pointing to the utter foolishness of those who waste their efforts by devoting themselves to things (including human approval) that do not endure.

The intervening statements in verses 2-6 and 16-18—all of which are framed casuistically ("When you…")— illustrate the warning highlighted in verse 1 by offering relevant examples of activities characteristic of first-century Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (cf. Tobit 12:8-9). This illustrative section consists of a repetitive, parallel pattern (partially obscured by the location of the Lord’s Prayer [vv. 6:7-15], though elements in the pattern also appear there), as follows: "When…" (A/A’) / imperative (B/B’) / motive (C/C’) / reward (D/D’). For example, the casuistic "when" clause referring to almsgiving in verse 2 (A) is repeated in verse 3 (A’). Each topic (such as almsgiving) includes two imperatival commands (B: "don’t blow a trumpet before you" [v. 2]; and B’: "don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" [v. 3]), the first of which (see also vv. 5 and 16) includes comparison to "the hypocrites." References to motive, both inappropriate (C: "so that they may be praised by others" [v. 2]) and appropriate (C’: "so that your alms may be done in secret" [v. 4]) are made in each case. Finally, there are references to reward, linked either to human approval (D: "they have their reward" [v. 2]) or to divine approbation (D’: "your Father who sees in secret will reward you"; note the close relationship implied by the reference to "your Father,’ indicating that the one whose approval truly matters is actually a closer relation than almost any others whom a person might otherwise seek to impress).

Verses 1 and 19-22 lack the "when" clauses (A; A’) characteristic of the illustrative material in verses 2-6 and 16-18, underscoring their framing and summarizing function. (Note that v. 1 contains only B’, C’, and a negative twist on D’. Verses 19-21 include B-B’ [with the references to moths and corrosion functioning as explanatory statements similar to comments about "the hypocrites" cited elsewhere] and D-D’; motive [C-C’] is less evident in verses 19-21 [though "for yourselves" and "heart" seem to point in that direction]. Verses 19-21 (cf. Luke 12:33-34) thus move quickly to the idea of reward ("treasures"), explaining in the process what happens when motive [represented by the "heart," v. 21] is inappropriate [i.e., directed toward earth as opposed to heaven].)

The second person Greek pronoun ("you") seems to alternate in a rhetorically patterned way—the notable exception is almsgiving (all singular pronouns)—between the plural ("y’all" [vv. 1, 5, 16, 19-20]) and the singular ("you" [vv. 2-4, 6, 17-18, 21) The use of the plural pronoun effectively reminds the listener/reader that everyone is susceptible to hypocrisy; the singular pointedly draws each individual into the discussion in a specific and personal way, emphasizing the necessity that each person participate actively and concretely (beyond hypotheticals) in the life of the kingdom.

The text is a study in contrasts. Again, actions done with the motive of human recognition are distinguished from actions that are done only for recognition by God (note the use of purpose clauses pointing to behavioral motivation). In fact the very arrangement of the passage highlights contrasts between hypocritical and genuine behavior: "Here is what some do. Don’t do that. Do this." There is also a contrast between actions that are done visibly (again, for recognition by others) and actions that are done anonymously, in secret (for God’s eyes only, as it were); particularly intriguing is the encouragement to hide one’s fasting, not by going into a private room (as in the case of prayer, v. 6) and thus becoming physically invisible, but by coming out into the open (washed and anointed, v. 17) and thus being both visible and secretive at the same time. Locations also seem to be contrasted throughout the passage: some things are located in heaven (e.g., God the Father, treasures stored appropriately) or in other invisible locations (e.g., a secret room with the door shut), whereas some things (inappropriately) occur in very public locations (e.g., streets, synagogues). Worthless and worthwhile rewards are certainly contrasted throughout the passage.

The intricate patterns and contrasts in the passage serve to emphasize the difficulty humans have in maintaining complete devotion to God and avoiding the temptation to hypocrisy. Eduard Schweizer aptly captures the radical distinction between appropriate piety and hypocrisy as it comes to expression in verse 3: "If a man’s left hand no longer knows what is being done, then his heart, which might expect a reward for it, also does not. Here is accomplished the breakthrough that eliminates all thought of measuring one’s achievements so as to claim an appropriate reward, from other men or even from God."1

Where is the heart ("the center of human commitment and decisions")2 located—in heaven or on earth? That is the question that verse 21 emphasizes at the end of the passage. Seeking a reward by doing things others will see actually relegates any such reward to nothing more than the fleeting and misguided recognition one gets from others. By contrast, actions that receive no human praise (or at least are not oriented to it in a hypocritical fashion) show both that one’s heart is appropriately located in heaven and that a true reward will be forthcoming from God—the reward has been stored up appropriately.

It is worth reflecting on the way verse 21 is phrased. As someone whose worldview is almost inescapably informed and influenced by North Atlantic consumption patterns and tendencies, it strikingly counter-intuitive to read that one’s "treasure" determines the location of the "heart"—that the heart effectively follows one’s treasure. Most of us probably tend to think of the heart as being able to determine what is to be treasured (e.g., What our hearts want is what we devote ourselves to, what we spend our money on, and so forth.) Jesus turns that equation around. Treasure captivates the heart. Jesus thus challenges his listeners to consider how an inappropriate goal (e.g., human reward, earthly treasure) can control the heart itself: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." In this regard, the connection between verses 19-21 and the material that follows (vv. 22-34) is quite strong (see, especially vv. 24, 33). Whether Jesus’ followers seek external affirmation and approval (vv. 1-6, 16-21) or daily needs (vv. 25-34), the appropriate source, according to Jesus, is God "your Father" (vv. 1, 4, 6, 8, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32; cf. v. 9). Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 emphasizes that only God can ultimately provide truly meaningful approval (vv. 4, 6, 18); therefore, even though we may be tempted to seek human affirmation, there is next to nothing to be gained from hypocritical piety.

Michael Barram

Saint Mary’s College of California


1. The Good News According to Matthew, trans. David E. Green (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 144.

2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2000), 173

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