The Most Neglected Verse

This started as last week’s Friday Facts, but then got to the point where an independent treatment seemed more fitting.

Now one could argue that the most neglected verse in the Bible lies somewhere midway through Chronicles or at the beginning of Jude, but for my money, those verses fall into the “undiscovered” category. To be neglected, a verse needs to be obviously located. And so, my vote for most neglected verse falls at the end of John 3. In fact, it comes two verses after perhaps the most cited verse in Bible, John 3.16. The verse I have in mind is John 3.18: But then again, its siblings 3.19, 3.20, and 3.21 probably have just as much right to the title. And I’d hate to contribute to the problem by leaving them out. So perhaps I’ll revise and say this: John 3.18-21 are the most neglected verses in the entire Bible, and since they’re so neglected, I’ll cite them here for reference:

18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Then again, as I think about it, perhaps neglected isn’t the right word. As a point of fact, the thought for this post sprang to mind at the curious decision of the Revised Common Lectionary to assign John 3.1-17 as the gospel for the second Sunday in Lent. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in of itself is not a strange choice. The strange choice comes in cutting off Jesus’ sermon four verses early. Even a cursory glance at the text reveals that Jesus hadn’t yet finished when he said “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Once the truncated nature of the selection comes to light, the question becomes, why? While, I have no special revelation as to the inner workings of the RCL committee, my guess is that the reason isn’t the 18 verse cap that they’ve put on Gospel readings. At face value, the clipping of the text comes at too theologically rich a point to assume it came about arbitrarily.

By removing the final four verses of Jesus’ sermon, the RCL removes all references in the text to judgement and to darkness of the world. The framers of the RCL have “improved” Jesus’ sermon by making sure that it ends on an upbeat note, on a verse that everyone knows and loves.

The irony of their choice is that as it stands, the text for the second Sunday in Lent is a perfect example of John 3.18: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” To “love darkness” and to hate the light is to prefer not to see human weakness and sin. To hate the light is to refuse to see the monstrosity that is unbelief. To hate the light is to interrupt Jesus before he can speak the truth about you!

We need John 3.18. We need John 3.18 because refusing to hear it is refusing to acknowledge the evil and the terror of this world. If we cannot face up to the terrors that we cause for one another, we are like Nicodemus, who could not understand earthly things, and like Nicodemus, we will never understand heavenly things.

We need John 3.18 because it shines the light on us and reveals the absurdity of the human situation. To be an unbelieving human is as absurd as to be a light hidden under a basket or unsalty salt. And as we read earlier this year in Matthew, by all rights, unsalty people should simply be thrown out on the path to be trampled upon. Instead, God so loved the world that He sent His only son to save those unsalty, unbelieving absurdities that we call human beings.

We live in a topsy-turvy world, a world where unbelief seems more natural than belief, a world full of lamps hidden under bushel baskets, and so we need these four neglected verses. We need them because we need the light that shows our weaknesses, the light that shows our flaws, the light that shows that our only hope lies in hearing the words of a crucified Messiah. Sometimes those words are not what we want to hear. But they are always what we need.

 

 

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – First Sunday in Lent

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 4.1

Then Jesus was led out into the desert by the spirit in order to be tempted by the devil.

Today’s reading offers a good opportunity to talk about the difference between a concordance and a synoptic word study.

A concordance word study, as I’ve done several times in Paul’s epistles (see here or here), is a study that takes a particular word and looks at its use over a body of text. That body can be as small as a single book, e.g. studying the use of the word υδωρ [water] in the gospel of John. Or it can be slightly larger, e.g. studying the use of the word πιστις [faith] in the epistles of Paul. Or it can extend to an entire testament, or with a little translational work, it could encompass the entire Bible. The goal of a concordance study is to examine how a word is used over a variety of different circumstances in order to draw out its meaning.

On the other hand, a synoptic study does the opposite. Rather than looking for parallels or contradictions in usage of a particular word, a synoptic study looks at the different ways in which different authors talk about the same story. Because a synoptic study requires authors to report on the same story, the opportunity to conduct them is much more limited than for concordance studies. In the Old Testament, the books of Kings and Chronicles provide one such opportunity. In the New Testament, the first three gospels provide the same opportunity, and because of that have earned the collective title of Synoptics.

But how exactly does a Synoptic study work? Matthew 4.1 provides a good example. The Greek word πειρασθῆναι, often translated “tempted,” can also mean “tested” or “tried.” And in the context of Jesus’ contest with the devil, either seems appropriate. But a synoptic study looking at the parallel passage in Mark helps to weight the translation of Matthew towards “tempted.”

Looking at the parallel passage, we see that Mark describes Jesus as being ἐκβαλλει [thrown out] into the wilderness, a word often associated in Mark with demonic exorcism. Mark’s uses of the word sets up Jesus’ encounter with the devil as a contest like the other exorcisms, and so translators are justified in rendering πειραζόμενος as tested. However, in Matthew, the word is not ἐκβαλλει. It is ἀνήχθη, a much more sedate verb choice. It means to “to lead,” and the thus sets up a less confrontational, but perhaps more tempting encounter between Jesus and the devil. Thus, by comparing the two passages, we can mark that Matthew sees the event in a different light than his fellow evangelist, and we can choose “tempt” as our translation for πειρασθῆναι.

Building the Perfect Pastor: Thoughts from Capon III

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Though it may come as a surprise to some who know me, the two authors that have made the greatest contribution to my identity as a pastor are not, denomination-wise, Lutherans. They are an Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, and a Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson. In this new (infrequently) recurring feature, I will lay out some of the insights that I’ve learned from the two of them, as I endeavor to build the perfect pastor, or at least the perfect job description. You can find the first two installments here and here.

When last we visited the topic of the role of the pastor, we heard about Capon’s first two criteria: pastors are to be faithful and wise. Last, and certainly not least, said pastors must also be stewards. And what does it mean to be a steward? It means that the pastor is in charge of making sure that everybody gets fed their square meal of the gospel.

Instead of calling for celebrity chefs, Jesus sets his stewards up to be “faithful household cooks,” to “provide [the rest of the servants] with food at the proper time.” Pastors are called to serve their congregations the meat, potatoes, and green leafy vegetables of the Law and the Gospel. The world will provide your congregation with all of the sugary indulgences of ego and the cheap liquor of idolatry that they can stomach. As a preacher, you need to make sure that they eat healthy at least once a week.

And so, when you prepare your sermons, throw away the piping bag full of icing. Stash the hip chili sauce of moral exhortation (Sriracha, I’m looking at you). Don’t worry about prepping an appetizer plate full of light and airy jokes. It’s like being an army cook. Get them fed. Fed on the hearty food of the Law and the Gospel. Fed on the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Fed so that they can go out into the world and not faint for lack of nutritional value.

For those interested in reading Capon’s thoughts in their original context, you can find them in: Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002, 243-245.

Next time: Thoughts from Eugene Peterson that have nothing to do with the Message.

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

1 Corinthians 3.18-20

18 Let no one cheat himself. If anyone among you seems to be full of worldly wisdom, let them become a fool, in order that they may become truly wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolish to God. For it is written “He catches the wise in their craftiness” 20 and again “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are useless.”

If you read through the letters of Paul, you’ll find that Paul loves contrasts. He loves to pit things against each other in order to illustrate his point. For those of us who are Lutheran, it’s important to know that Martin Luther plucked our favorite contrasts (Law/Gospel, saint/sinner, etc.) straight out of Paul’s epistles. But one contrast that doesn’t get as much airtime, but is no less important for Paul is wisdom and foolishness. You see, Paul lived in an ancient world that was obsessed with wisdom. Religious wisdom, ethical wisdom, scientific wisdom, you name it, they were interested in learning as much as they could. Paul himself was no slouch, quoting Greek poets in his letters and arguing the finer points of the Law in good Rabbinic style. But, just as Paul builds up the Law only to show its futility, he proclaims that all of the wisdom he had accumulated was foolishness in the eyes of God. In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”

At the heart of Paul’s contrast is the knowledge that human wisdom is nothing but another leg in our self-salvation project. Through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Paul understands that more than any failure, it is our triumphs: our wisdom, our religiosity, or our moral good behavior that stand between us and our Lord. Before the crucified Lord of glory, all of our wisdom becomes foolishness. And the foolishness of a God who died and rose again from the grave becomes a wisdom which passes all understanding. Because he bears the yoke of Jesus Christ, Paul lives in a topsy-turvy world. A world where saints are sinners, and sinners are saints. A world where wisdom is foolishness, and foolishness is wisdom. A world where God loves sinners and died to saved them.

 

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 5.21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34

21 You have heard that it is said…22 but I, myself, say to you…

27 You have heard that it is said…28 but I, myself, say to you…

31 It is said…32 but I, myself, say to you…

33 Again, you have heard that it is said…34 but I, myself, say to you…

There is rhythm in this week’s gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Over and over, Jesus introduces his teachings with this formula, contrasting what has come before with what he now brings. There’s a lot to unpack within Jesus’ new teachings themselves, but they also provide an opportunity to reflect on a broader topic.

You see, the formulaic nature of this section of the Sermon on the Mount reflects the fact that Jesus didn’t write his sayings down. He was a preacher, not a scribe, after all. The repetition within the sermon is a common feature of oral cultures. It both serves as a organizational principle, and it’s a help towards memorization. The repetition helps the words to stick in a hearer’s brain.

And for the Lutheran preacher, this leads to a further reflection: The gospel is living word. It is primarily a speech act, transmitted by the living voice of one person to another. Therein lies the rub. We live within in a culture of strange media. On the one hand, we are dominated by the text around us. In books, on the internet, on signs. On the other, we are also dominated by an ephemeral audio/visual culture. From cable television, Netflix, and Youtube we consume vast amounts of information, but it is information that is not designed to stick. Think about the last television show you watched and how many lines of dialogue you can remember.

But, as you sit down to write your sermon, read these words and remember that they are designed to stick. With their built in repetition, they are intended to work their way into the brains of their hearers. The Gospel is a living word, which does its work far beyond the few minutes that you spend preaching it from the pulpit. But, if your sermon obscures the oral nature of the Gospel, if your sermon cleans off the stickiness and turns the Word into just another chunk of the mass of audio that people consume, it becomes nothing more than dead letter.

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 5.13

13 You are the salt of the earth. If ever salt becomes tasteless, with what can it be made salty again? It is good for nothing except to be thrown out to be trampled on by people.

Over the next few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary presents different selections from the Sermon on the Mount, and so I have taken the liberty of presenting a selection of a selection here. This particular verse, a miniature, salty parable, contains an interesting verb. That verb is ἁλισθήσεται. The word that Jesus uses for salt in this passage is ἅλας, and so, ἁλισθήσεται means literally “to make salty.” Or, if we wanted to be a little more clever with our English usage, we could say to “saltify.” In other words, Jesus is saying if “salt loses its saltiness, how it be saltified again?” Saltiness, of course, is an intrinsic quality of salt. It seems nonsensical to talk about salt without its salty taste. But, remembering that this is a parable, and that Jesus is not actually talking about salt, things get more interesting. Jesus’ parable is aimed right at the paradox of the human condition: “If a human loses their humanity, how can they be humanized again?” or perhaps more biblically, “If a creature loses their creatureliness, how can they be creaturified” again? As humans in revolt against our God, we live a monstrous existence. We’re as nonsensical as salt that’s not salty. But, what can make us salty again? Despite their salt content, not our sweat and tears. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can do it.

How to Read the Bible – Advice from Ole Hallesby

God’s Word is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. – Hebrews 4.12

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Reading the Bible daily is a great difficulty for many of God’s children. They don’t stop reading, but it becomes heavy and tiresome. And they’re scared that all of their reading is useless because they think they don’t get anything out of it.

My friend, don’t let yourself be confounded if you with prayer and simplicity read your Bible every day. Perhaps you misunderstand your reading. You have thought that it’s you has to strive in one or another way to wrestle something spiritual out of what you’re reading.

No, it is the Holy Spirit who will make the words that you read into food for your soul. Remember that the Holy Spirit must perform a miracle every time that you read the Bible, if your reading is to become bread for your soul. And the Holy Spirit is glad to do this miracle.

Therefore, when you take up your Bible, fold your hands and like a child pray that He will do this miracle for you, whether you read a little or a lot. And when you have done this, you can read with cheerfulness and be certain that what you are reading goes into your soul as a spiritual nourishment.

Don’t sit there with nervous questions about whether it will become food, and whether that food will be enough for your soul. Those people, who think too much about food and digestion while they eat, unsettle their stomachs.

No, collect your thoughts about the Word while you read. And thank God for the eternal truths that have traveled through your soul. The Spirit shall do the work of making the Word work in you, even if you can’t immediately say what that work is.

From Hallesby, Ole. Daglig Fornyelse: Andaktsbok for Hjemmet. Translated by Kristofer Coffman. Oslo: Lutherstiftelsens Forlag, 1951, 36.