Later this month I will have the opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching (and am looking forward to it). Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one emphasis of our conversation.
Luke’s Gospel wants us to be sure to know there is enough gospel to go around. There are no quotas or limits. We do not have to budget gospel or worry that it will run out. In the gospel, Jesus is throwing good news around as if there is an endless supply. One of the questions Luke seems to ask is “How are things different now that Jesus has arrived?” and Luke’s Gospel seems to answer that question with “Let me tell you…”
Early in the Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon. (It is not well received. Perhaps it is good for us to discover here that not all sermons are well received. Perhaps we should evaluate our definition of success). In this sermon Jesus tells us how things are now different. There will be good news and freedom and recovery of sight and favor. The recipients include the poor and prisoners and blind and oppressed. We are supposed to catch on to the notion that there is enough gospel to go around. And this is only the beginning. Luke will give us multiple pictures of what that looks like.
It is true that we do not know the songs Mary may have sung to Jesus and his brothers to help them sleep at night. But thanks to Luke we do know at least one song she sang during pregnancy. It is difficult to believe she would have only sung this one time. It was a song about scattering the proud and bringing down rulers. It was a song about lifting the humble and filling the hungry. Should we be surprised if her lullabies may have been a little political as well?
There is much to be made about tone, volume, and affect during communication. But the content of our communication is equally important. We might think of Mary as if she is a meek and mild Madonna who would sing only calming lullabies. Yet the content of her song has the language of a revolution. It may not have played on pop radio, but others likely sang similar songs if not this very same one. No wonder Herod the Great was so nervous. I suspect Luke would expect us to be as revolutionary in our preaching. I don’t know if the powers that be are nervous when we preach, but perhaps they should be.
As with other words from Jesus, we are able to talk more intelligently about this text when we are attentive to the episode surrounding the text (context). For example, a natural tension arises in this scene as it appears Jesus has his life taken from him. Jewish leaders have been convincing that this man needs to die. Roman executioners appear to be in charge of his fate. Yet, Jesus is not swayed by this alliance of power. Instead his words suggest ongoing confidence in the Father. On account of this confidence, Jesus gives his life on his own terms.
Luke has already told us what Jesus has said about the hostile world and what he has said to the undeserving criminal. Now Jesus is giving his very spirit into the hands of the Father. Each of these statements reveal a consistency in the worldview of Jesus. When preaching, we can communicate this by reaching back into the gospel to highlight his tendencies to forgive, to invite the undeserving into the kingdom, and his own dependence on the Father.
Again, we do not want to ignore surrounding events. We want to remember the sun is darkened for three hours, the temple veil is torn in two, the centurion praises God and declares the innocence of Jesus, and a member of the council is waiting for the kingdom of God. Perhaps Luke wants to be sure we recognize that Jesus knew what he was doing when he put total trust in the Father.
The challenge for preaching these texts remains “What will we do with this information?” This short look proposes that in response to the hostile world – Jesus is forgiving. In response to the undeserving sinner – Jesus is welcoming. And in response to the Father – Jesus is self-giving. This at least provides a starting point for preaching these “last words” of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.
The second statement from the cross may prompt us to explore the type of people we find Jesus hanging around with in the Gospel. More specifically, we might be interested in the types of people Jesus invites into the kingdom. There is a substantial list of people who are welcomed by Jesus that may prompt a series of questions. Does everyone receive this invitation the same? Are others always in agreement with those Jesus chooses to invite? What tensions enter the narrative due to Jesus and his care free invitations? Is there any significance of this criminal being with Jesus?
Luke includes multiple people who may appear unlikely to be welcomed into the kingdom. Perhaps it would be valuable to examine any number of them on the way to our text where Jesus speaks with this criminal at this place called skull. These words are spoken in the context of a conversation between three men who are being executed, one of them Jesus. It is of interest that Jesus not only spent his life with such people, but also his death. He dies with them and for them. Jesus is crucified because of conversations like this one. Yet he does not stop, not even now, not even from the cross.
We do not know what else, if anything, these three on the cross may have said to one another. If there was anything else, Luke did not think it necessary to report it. Yet this conversation continues. Every one of us continues to ask for or to receive what we do not deserve. We are either asking Jesus to do things the way we want them done “Save us and yourself” or we are believing he knows what he is doing “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Again, we are not accumulating information for the sake of information. When working toward application, we ask ourselves “what are we to do with this information?” It is not enough to know that Jesus welcomed unlikely people into his kingdom. We are also expected to be inviting as well. But be aware, one has already been crucified for this kind of behavior.
Luke shares three different statements from Jesus on the cross. Simply stated, one of them is directed to the Father about the mob or the hostile world. The second is directed toward an unlikely recipient. The final one Jesus directs to the Father about his own self. While it would be easy to make too much of this observation, it is possible that distinguishing the words this way could help during our preaching.
For instance, upon reading the first text, we might explore the way the world operates. What is important to the world? What are the world’s expectations of others? How far is the world willing to go to maintain its control on the way things operate? Questions like these will help us understand the crucifixion from the world’s perspective.
On the other hand, there is another perspective on display in the text. We might explore the way that God operates (in this case, how God operates in the person of Jesus). What is important for Jesus? What expectations does Jesus have for the Father? How far are Jesus and the Father willing to go in order to demonstrate the way they operate? Questions like these help us reframe the crucifixion from God’s perspective.
Keeping questions simple will help preachers to prompt listeners to think without making the sermon a cognitive exercise. The episode surrounding our text reveals information about how the world responds to the ways of God. It also provides us with information of the way God responds to the ways of the world. Our text helps us understand that what the world (and all onlookers) thought was a criminal execution was actually an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate the way God works.
Our application is then related to what we do with this information. While we are reminded of God’s desire to forgive, we are also reminded that as followers of one who is willing to forgive (even from the cross), we are expected to be a people who practice forgiveness.
It is obvious that Luke mentions the manger three times in chapter two. “Manger” seems to connect the story even as our attention is pulled along from a narrator to angels to shepherds.
It is also noteworthy to point out that for us; the word “manger” has taken on an unintended definition. Somehow a word intended to mean feeding trough has become a piece of religious furniture that seems more synonymous with a cradle than a feeding trough. Luke’s repeated reference to the place where Jesus was laid suggests that he does not want us to think like that. He may prefer that we see it as a reference to the humble beginnings of the one born in Bethlehem.
In an attempt to connect the repeated use of manger and to communicate these humble beginnings I attempt to echo the conversation with words that are not stated directly but seem to reinforce the tone of the speaker.
Therefore when the narrator first reported the child was laid in a manger, I can hear an echo (seriously, the child was laid in a feeding trough). When the angels announce the child can be found in a manger, I hear (seriously, you will find the child in a feeding trough). The third time the manger appears the shepherds have found the child exactly where they were told they would (seriously, they found him in a feeding trough).
Of course, it is always difficult to know how effective our homiletical moves are but I remain hopeful since on the way out several people while shaking my hand repeated “seriously, in a feeding trough.”
Preachers are always looking to put words together in ways that make a sermon move. We want to help listeners recognize themselves in the story and see themselves as part of a spiritual adventure. I fear that we sometimes overlook the biblical text as a natural place to find movement. Exploring structure, genre, and purpose are not simply academic exercises. This is necessary work to discover narrative movement. In our discovery we find that sometimes physical motion helps the text move. Other times, emotion, behavior, or newly introduced characters or places move the narrative. The fact is that the text has a pace and moves in a specific direction. The text knows where it is going and the preacher should follow it.
For example each of the four Gospels may take us to Easter, but they pace themselves differently and highlight different things along the way. In an effort to illustrate this I make the following simple statements (perhaps too simple) about the Gospels.
Mark is intentional about moving us to a fuller understanding about who this Jesus is, especially His relationship to a cross.
Matthew creates space for us to reflect by switching back and forth between narrative and teaching sections.
Luke pulls us forward by demonstrating how innumerable barriers to the Good News are overcome by the activity of God.
John carries us along with scene after scene (or sign after sign) toward the possibility that we might believe.
I am not suggesting that we get locked in on a particular path to the neglect of others. I am suggesting that the text tends to take us along specific routes. We hinder the text when we try to take it down paths it was not intended to travel.