The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 6:27-38] is the last in the series that was making its way through the start of the Gospel according to Luke. There were texts from chapters 4, 5, and 6. The next Sunday will be Transfiguration Sunday (Luke 9), and then we will be heading into Lent.
Since Easter is so late this year, there are a LOT of Sundays after Epiphany, almost as many as there could possibly be. But that just means that there will be a later start when we take up the Gospel according to Luke again, when we continue in the church year with the texts after Pentecost (we will be starting up again at Luke 8, but we COULD have started as early as Luke 6).
That is to say both the season of Epiphany and the season of Pentecost have a similar foundation. Epiphany means a revelation or manifestation, and that points, of course, to Christ. And the season of Pentecost is a time of growth for the Church—the color is green—but the proper focus there is also on Christ. Growth does not happen apart from focusing on Christ.
It is easy to think of the second half of the church year as one that focuses on the Church and its growth, and it is a wonderful thing for the Christian Church to grow. But there is a phrase from The Book of Concord (the documents that lay out what we believe), that says the Spirit works faith, ‘where and when it pleases God’ (The Augsburg Confession, Article 5; and, in the German, it sounds surprisingly beautiful at this point: ‘…wo und wenn er will…’). That is a very small phrase, but there is a lot within it.
After coming to faith, there are a lot of ways we can start to focus on the wrong thing. That phrase is a good reminder that we are not in control. It is not OUR Church. True growth is also not under our control. We are not to focus on the Spirit; we are not to focus on ourselves; we are not even to focus on the growth—it is usually not so obvious!
When Martin Luther ‘broke away’ from the church at that time, it was important that he followed what the scriptures had to say regarding the true Church. (This was also important when C.F.W. Walther and others came over to America.) To be clear, it is not only helpful to say what you do not believe, but what you DO believe. And it is very easy, after a person ‘breaks away’, for that person in some ways to start focusing on himself or herself instead of Jesus. This has unfortunately happened in the leadership of some other church organizations.
The thing that struck me this time going through those starting chapters of Jesus’ ministry, as he starts to ‘plough the field’ and overturn the various types of soil, was the important work of understanding who he is. Jesus will meet certain people along the way, he will certainly influence them in various ways, and then, ultimately, he will start toward Jerusalem. I do not think it a coincidence that three times within just a few chapters, the very same question is asked regarding Jesus’ identity. And there is a noticeable progression regarding them.
In Luke 7:49, the question is asked by ‘those who were at the table’: ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’ In Luke 8:25, the disciples ask, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?’ And in Luke 9:9, Herod says this: ‘John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things? And he sought to see him.’
I also do not think it a coincidence that the most ‘out of place’ of those three texts is the first one. Usually that text is near the end of a gospel account. In the Gospel according to Matthew, its parallel appears in 26:6-13. In the Gospel according to Mark, its parallel appears in 14:3-9. A parallel is also in the Gospel according to John at 12:1-8. But to have it so close to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry obviously makes that issue of forgiving sins (and being at the table with Jesus) very important.
The writer of the Gospel according to Luke told us up front that he would give us an orderly account, and this should be understood as a theological order, not a historical one (see BDAG, page 490). Comparatively speaking, a theological order is much more important. (If you know what happened to Jesus chronologically, you may still be dead spiritually.)
The proper focus for the entire Church year is Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. And his identity is important, because that leads to his purpose, his gift of salvation for all.
A proper focus on Jesus and his good news will not only bring blessings throughout the year, but it will bring blessings throughout a lifetime.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 6:17-26] contains the start of the not-so-famous Sermon on the Plain. I know this is a silly way to say it, but you might say that this sermon has lived ‘under the shadow’ of the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew 5-7).
It seems that the Gospel according to Matthew has always been more popular than the Gospel according to Luke; some people treat it very highly. It is the first of the four accounts, and some people take that to mean it was written first. This gospel account, at first glance, seems much more organized than the Gospel according to Luke. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus gives five discourses, and these discourses have connections to the first five books of the Old Testament--the foundation of the entire Bible. And we have many more early manuscripts of this account than we do of the other accounts.
It is interesting that the Concordia Self-Study Bible emphasizes the possibility that the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain could have been the same event—that there may have been a ‘plateau’ on the mount where Jesus was. Whereas The Lutheran Study Bible emphasizes the point that Jesus would repeat himself often in his important teachings, and the implication there is that this is probably not the same event.
Which one is it? Is the Sermon on the Plain really a Sermon on a Plateau? Now if someone had visually recorded what had happened that day, we would have some conclusive evidence. But I do not think that we are going to find that evidence. And even more important than the very small details of what 'happened' is what Jesus said--and what he continues to say.
I do like the idea of repetition for emphasis. Repetitio est mater studiorum. I first heard that phrase from a pastor friend soon after I graduated from the seminary. And that phrase has stayed with me. And I think it just makes more sense that these are two different events and that Jesus would repeat some important things with his disciples. (And the text begins by saying that Jesus ‘came down … and stood in a level place’. It does not say that he went up to a plateau.)
The structure Jesus uses in both sermons--starting with a blessing and ending with an importance on his words--this structure can be found elsewhere. The Psalms are an excellent example of this. The first one starts with a blessing, and the last five focus on praising the Lord--using words--because of some of the important things he does. (See especially Psalm 147:19-20; and I think these last five Psalms can also be connected to the first five books of the Old Testament; and the entire book is divided into five books anyway.)
I also think that the Sermon on the Plain is quite appropriate to the living creature that is most often connected with this account, that of an ox. The ideal field is one that is quite level. Jesus, like the ox, goes to work on a level place. And when he engages a wide variety of people—even people from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon--that is like having a wide variety of soil with which to work.
Jesus, like the ox, gets the job done. He has the power to do it (see verse 19 but also 5:17). He has the strength to overturn the lives of various people, much like the hard work of overturning soil. Soil needs to be overturned so that something significant can grow.
The Lord's Law and Gospel do that same work today.
The gospel text for this Sunday is Luke 5:1-11, and looking at that text was a reminder to me that the context of a word or a thing is important. You might think of the previous uses of a word to be sort of a dictionary, to help you understand the word when it comes up later.
Peter ends up saying that he does not want to be close to the Lord. ‘Depart from me…’, he says. And you can see that same thought come up in a lot of places.
Right after the text, Jesus heals a leper, and only in this account does the text say that the leper falls on his face (verse 12)—and is, therefore, not able to see Jesus. In the healing of the paralyzed man that follows after that, the response of the crowd is, literally, that they saw a ‘paradox’, something unusual (verse 26). According to the actions of Jesus—that he forgave and healed a person—he was God, and a person should not be able to look at God. But Jesus looked like a normal person, and they had no trouble looking at him and being in his presence.
This theme of presence has not gone unnoticed. In The Lutheran Study Bible, on page 1705, right at the very top of the page, are the following words: ‘God ‘s presence permeates the birth events of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:5-2:52).’
You can see that in the unique phrases which follow. ‘[Zechariah and Elizabeth] were righteous before God (Luke 1:6).’ ‘[John] will be great before the Lord (1:15).’ An angel says, ‘I [Gabriel] stand in the presence of God (1:19).’ There is also the part of Simeon’s song which relates to presence—in this case, the presence of people: ‘…my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…(Luke 2:30f).’ In Jesus’ temptations, Satan says that if Jesus would worship ‘before me’, then he would give him everything (4:7). And I may be making too much of this, but in the Greek text of this gospel account, Jesus sometimes says things ‘toward’ someone rather than ‘to’ someone. With that word, you also get the idea that presence is important. (The translations usually do not pick this up though; compare Mark 1:38 and Luke 4:43.) In all these ways, the issue of presence is an important theme.
I recently found another new book which emphasizes this. The book is not for the faint of heart (and mind—and pocketbook—the price is outrageous). But the book supports the point I was trying to make above. The title is Scripture Re-envisioned: Christophanic Exegesis and the Making of a Christian Bible, by Bogdan Gabriel Bucur (Brill, 2019). Here is a quote from the Forward: ‘…Bucur offers us the first full and detailed study of how the ancient interpreters viewed God’s revelation as a dramatic act of presence, originally anchored in historic theophanic moments in the Old Testament where Jesus Christ was already active as principal revealer of the Divine (emphasis original, page vii).’ In other words, this idea of God’s presence has been present for a very long time; the New Testament is very much like the old one.
Like others, Bucur starts with a look at the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49). I like that connection because we know very little about those disciples; they are like us, how we feel about ourselves sometimes; we can sometimes get the idea that God does not know or care too much about us. In the past parents often used bible names to name their children, and that provided some connection to the bible, but today that is not so common. But as Jesus came to those two unknown disciples, he comes to us.
The great thing about the theme of God’s presence is that it only takes one more step to say that the Old Testament word for gospel is one where the presence of the ‘king’—in this case, God—is important. We cannot stand in God’s presence, and so a messenger was sent with some very good news. And the name of that messenger, of course, is Jesus. And it is so wonderful that his name means the one who saves or rescues.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 4:31-44] has Jesus rebuking a fever (verse 39). That is an interesting phrase and deserves some focus. It is unique to the gospel accounts (see Mark 1:31). And that Jesus also rebukes a demon just a bit earlier in the text might make you wonder if there is some similarity between a fever and a demon!
That kind of conclusion would focus too much on ourselves and our own situations. It would certainly be nice for Christians to be able to rebuke a fever and it would leave. But the focus of this text and basically of the entire scriptures is and should always be Jesus.
Focusing on the word ‘rebuke’ will help to keep that focus on Jesus. According to its form, the word ‘rebuke’ is connected to the word ‘honor’. Whoever is doing the rebuking, that person is in a position of authority to the person (or thing) being rebuked. The person in authority deserves some sort of honor. And in the Greek dictionary [BDAG, p. 384], regarding the word ‘rebuke’, the following description is also given: ‘speak seriously’. That perspective may be helpful to understand the meaning of the word and the text’s proper focus.
Jesus is the one speaking seriously to the fever. Jesus is also the one speaking seriously to the demon. Given that context, the confessions of Jesus to be the ‘Holy One of God’ (verse 34), the Son of God (verse 41), and the Christ (also verse 41) do not seem to be serious enough for Jesus.
I also think it is not a coincidence that Peter calls Jesus ‘the Christ of God’ (Luke 9:20), and Jesus gives the same ‘rebuke’ (although it is translated as ‘strictly charged’). He starts to speak seriously to his followers. He says this: ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (verse 22).’
Jesus goes to Capernaum, and then he goes away from Capernaum. He goes to another place, but then he also goes away from that place. And then there is the famous verse in this gospel account which summarizes the rest of the account: ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51).’ He goes to Jerusalem, to his cross, and then he goes away.
From the days of his youth to the day of his death—and the days which followed after that—he was the obedient one. He was the one who spoke seriously when people needed to hear some serious words about life and death, about who they were and about who he was. He was the hard worker, the serious one, the one who is like the ox, always willing to get the job done—for us.