Friday, November 20, 2009

Theses on Scripture

1. Scripture is Scripture because it testifies to to the God who is in Jesus Christ. In this way the Old and New Testaments are the same.

2. The New Testament, in testifying to Jesus Christ, testifies also that the Old Testament is holy scripture, given for our instruction and encouragement. Nothing in Scripture testifies that the New Testament is scripture. Thus it would appear that the Old Testament is more authoritative than the New Testament, because the New Testament defers to the Old in making its testimony about Jesus, while the Old Testament makes its testimony without deferring to the New.

3. Yet the New Testament is generally considered normative for how we are to understand the Old Testament. It would then appear that the New Testament has priority, since we cannot grasp the meaning of the Old Testament without it.

4. The best way of understanding the relation between the Testaments is to think of the Transfiguration. Jesus is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, that is, conversing with the Law and the Prophets, which are the Old Testament. Peter, James, and John, the New Testament, see this and are amazed.

5. In the Transfiguration, Jesus is also revealed in his glory. Conversation with Moses and Elijah is the truth of Jesus' life. The life of God on earth is lived in the company of the Old Testament. The New Testament only witnesses this, it is not an active part of it.

6. Yet precisely because the Old Testament is more intimate with Jesus it is less able to show us what that intimacy means. Moses and Elijah cannot stand outside of themselves to tell us about the conversation they are having with Jesus, but the Apostles, who are outside the conversation, can tell us about it. Yet the fact remains that it is Moses and Elijah who speak with Jesus and not the Apostles.

7. If the Old Testament is taken without the New, we hear all that Moses and Elijah say, but cannot tell who they are talking with. When the New Testament is taken without the Old, we hear the disciples speak very enthusiastically about something we cannot see.

8. Think of it this way: Jesus never engages with the New Testament, only with the Old Testament. But the New Testament recounts what he said when he engaged it.

9. If the New Testament has greater authority, it is because it gives us the words of Jesus; if the Old Testament has greater authority, it is because it was there that Jesus got his words.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Why a sermon for Ash Wednesday, you ask? Well, because that's what I was assigned in my preaching class.

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday (Judges 11:29-40)

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.”

There’s hard stuff in scripture. You heard Joel tell you earlier to rend your hearts and not your garments; and is there anything that rends hearts and this story does not rend hearts? For whom shall we rend them? For the daughter, cut off in the prime of youth? For the father, who has found himself bound by honor and piety to commit an abomination against nature? For God? For God who alone is holy, who alone is just, and who must yet receive this sickening sacrifice? For whom shall we rend our hearts; for at these words they surely must be rent.

Or perhaps we shall not rend them. Perhaps this story does not grieve you, does not move the emotions of sadness in your soul. Perhaps you are not sorrowful; perhaps you are indignant. Perhaps you are disgusted that the church which serves a God of love would present the murderer of his own child as a hero in its scriptures; that such a God would allow and accept such a sacrifice. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” cries the prophet. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, o man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Can the God who delivered the only son of Abraham be the God who left the only child of Jephthah to her death?

Perhaps you were not grieved. After all, you came to church tonight to enter prayerfully into a season of repentance, a season that is hard, but a season that you know, that is comfortable and expected and familiar. You came to church tonight to prepare; the house has been cleansed of its chocolate, the television, perhaps, is unplugged—or maybe the remote has just been hidden away. You have pledged not to pick up a tabloid as you check out there at the grocery and there’s a post-it on your computer: “No Solitaire.” You have given something up because it is a season of self-denial. You came because you were ready for Lent, maybe you welcomed it, maybe you welcomed the excuse to reject something, to shun a little bit of what has power over you in this world. Or maybe you came to church without any of these plans or feelings, but you came because you knew you needed Lent and knew you wouldn’t do it on your own. But you came to church, all of you to be encouraged in these weeks of penitence and self-denial, you came to be prepared for them in solemn tones, with the dimness of candles and the mark of the ash.

But where is Jephthah’s sacrifice in all of this? You didn’t come for the book of Judges; you didn’t come for a story that was hard to comprehend, even if you came for words that are hard to follow. Preacher, you say, I came to be told about my sin; I didn’t come to hear about a man sacrificing his daughter. Preacher, I came to hear about self-denial; I didn’t come to hear about some poor girl having to give up her life like this. Preacher, I came to be warned about practicing my piety before others—I know I needed that word; my husband and my friends and my children don’t really take this season seriously, and I get holier-than-thou with them. But preacher, this is a story about a man who prays in secret and is rewarded with his daughter’s blood. Preacher! I came to be told that I am dust—I did not come to see a young woman turned to ash on an altar by her father.

And the girl has no name! She has no name, the scriptures give her no name, the author of Judges has no name for her; her father never calls her by name. How she suffered! And yet we have no name for the memory, no name to put to the face. And yet we can all see that face—we may imagine it differently—but we can all see that young daughter’s face when she said to her father, “Do to me as you said you would. If we do not keep our pledges to God, what can we keep?” But she has no name, and her mother has no name. What can we say of her lineage, but that she is Jephthah’s daughter, and that Jephthah was born in Gilead to a whore? Who can tell her generation? She has no name that we can see; and yet for her a name has been written that she alone can read. To us she has no name; we can only call her suffering, a woman of sorrows and a companion, a nameless companion of grief.

Let me tell you her name, brothers and sisters, for it is a name that is above all names, a name before which every knee shall bow on earth and in heaven and in the depths below.

Consider another story of a father who sent his child to their death. There was a man baptizing Jews in the Jordan. To all that came he said “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Put on sackcloth and remember your sin; cover yourselves in ashes and rend your hearts.” And a man of Galilee came to this baptizer; and he baptized him. And the heavens opened over him and a dove more radiant than the angels shine came down upon his head and a voice like power and majesty itself proclaimed, “This is my son, my dear son, my only son, whom I love, Jesus, in whom I delight.” And Jesus said, “O Father, I have vowed. Let me do according to the Word that has gone out of your mouth.” And the Spirit that was a dove became a fire, and it burned in him and drove him into the wilderness and he was tempted forty days. And it drove him out among the people and he taught and he healed. And it drove him down to Jerusalem, and he was tortured and beaten and taunted and he suffered and was crucified and died and was buried.

Is this a story of fewer tears? And yet we tell it and we cling to it and hold it. And shall Jephthah’s daughter remain unknown to us, when in the face of that child of Israel we may see the sorrow of the son of Mary? Surely Jephthah should have suffered death, when he himself desired the death and the subjection and the plunder of his neighbors, and not his innocent daughter, a virgin young and pure of heart, without deceit or dissimulation in her spirit. And surely Man should bear the punishment of heaven, man the devourer of riches and races, man who prays death for his Ammonites and gives his children to destruction to appease his own desires; surely Man should bear the punishment, and not the Son of Man, a lamb without blemish, spotless and pure; in him no sin was found. Yet God gave the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hand. But in return God desired of Jephthah a soul that was already his, a child of obedience and love who was according to the flesh the daughter of Jephthah. And what wrong was there that the one who is holy should take to himself a holy child of Israel, that the one who gave the wicked Ammonites into the hand of wicked Jephthah should draw close to his bosom the daughter who said, “Do according to the word that has gone out of your mouth. Father, give God what you have promised him, even if it is my life.”

The verse says Jephthah was brought very low by his daughter; he fell to the ground, to the dust and the ashes, and cried out “Ah! My daughter, you have brought me very low. I have vowed to the Lord and I cannot go back. I vowed that I would sacrifice to my God out of thanks for my victory, for I have many things that I could give him. But he has chosen the one thing which I love before all others and said ‘give me this.’” And his daughter said, “If you have vowed, you must do it; I am ready to give up my life to the Lord. But allow me two months, for me to go into the wilderness with my companions to mourn for my youth and my purity.” And Jephthah wept and granted her those months, just more than forty days to mourn.

Tonight we are compelled as her companions to put on ashes and mourn; we go into the wilderness with the daughter of Jephthah. We mourn for ourselves, for we are of the house of Jephthah and we feel his sins upon us, the sin always lurking in our hearts that demands and asks of God and yet is fearful to give him what he asks of us; for he is asking for our lives, he is asking that what we desire most be his, and we are brought very low when he asks for it, to dust and ashes. But more than all of that we mourn for the daughter of Jephthah, for the purity of her heart and her spotless obedience, an obedience unto death. For her we mourn, that she will be led to the knife and the fire, so innocent and undeserving of death. We put on ashes to be like her in her death, her death which should by any right be ours, her death to which she freely goes, a lamb of God, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a child of sinners giving up for them the blood of their sin. Fix your eyes upon this lamb as you mourn; as you fast and as you deny yourself this Lent, take care that in all of it the eyes of your heart are fixed upon this lamb. For it is for the lamb that we go mourning into the wilderness these months of Lent, for the lamb that we dress our faces with the ash of death, for the lamb that we keep these traditions; for there arose a custom in Israel, that every year they would remember and mourn the daughter of Jephthah. Amen.