How to preach a biblical text

When I was working on an STM with Robert W. Jenson at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg (late 80s–early 90s), I would sit in the library stacks and peruse through the back issues of the journal dialog for articles written by him. That’s how I came across this interesting article: “The Preacher, the Text, and Certain Dogmas.” I was immediately intrigued and have read it many times over the years, as evidenced by its poor condition. (If anybody can send me a fresh copy of this article, I’d much appreciate it.) In this article Jens describes his process (or at least one of his processes) in creating a sermon. Every preacher, I think, can learn a great deal from it. Laypersons can also learn a great deal. Given the state of preaching today, one might just as well create their own sermon for each Sunday.

Jenson advances the following bold and controverisal claim: “All biblical texts are in their literal sense about Jesus.” Ponder on that for a while. When your pondering is done, think upon how you would preach Isaiah 35:4-7 (which is the Old Testament lesson appointed in the Roman Catholic lectionary for this coming Sunday):

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

So how does this text literally speak about Jesus? What is the theme of your sermon?

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7 Responses to How to preach a biblical text

  1. Jesus quotes this passage in the Gospels when John The Baptist sends his disciples to enquire if Jesus is the Christ. This also one of my favorite passages of scripture.

    The theme would be Christ Jesus as the fulfillment of this scripture as prophesy. I know that is a bit obvious, but it could be expanded from there.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You’re right. This OT text is a pretty easy when it comes to discerning how Jesus is its literal meaning. I thought about proposing a harder passage, like Leviticus 11. 🙂

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  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for the link. Awesome article by Jenson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      I don’t deny the Logos asarkos, so I don’t find Jesus in all his historical contingency the literal meaning of every OT text, but I also never connected interpretation/preaching to the question of the Logos asarkos/ensarkos the way Jenson does – and the connection itself is fascinating. But for me the Logos asarkos does ground and relate to creation (history, revelation, Scripture, etc.) in and as this intention to Incarnate – Incarnation is creations’s ‘end’, and in that sense all Scripture tends toward that end, it’s all about Christ. But I think it can be about Christ through/in different literary forms (literal, figurative, typological, etc.). “Literal” is a linguistic category – not a metaphysical one, and Christ can be anticipated by and ultimately fulfill all these various categories.

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  3. My sermon theme would be on the saving grace of Jesus. How does vengeance fit in with that? The vengeance is directed at the original sin. Adam and Eve’s sin brought death and spiritual blindness into the world. When Jesus opened the blind man’s eyes in the Gospel of John, he was opening our spiritual eyes. Jackals are a symbolically evil creature–sorry jackals. He turns the homes of those who cling to their sinfulness into swamps. Their world becomes havoc while those who accept his grace are redeemed and no longer enslaved to sin.

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  4. David says:

    I don’t know that this is 100% faithful to Jenson’s claim, but his assertion does drive one deeper into the passage seeking all that may be found of Christ.

    :::::::::::::::::::::::::::
    The promise of Christ to us today is, very simply, “I will come.”
    “Fear not,” Jesus says, “Be strong. I will come.”

    This promise was first recorded long before our Lord came as a man, when He commanded His holy prophet Isaiah to speak these comforting words to the downtrodden children of Israel. Then, to assure our doubting hearts that he would fulfill this promise, Jesus recited them to the Holy Forerunner, John the Baptist. They are soft and comforting words from our Lord – words of encouragement and hope to all who hear. From the lost sheep of Israel, to the Baptist himself, to our own hearts today, all who hear this promise of the Lord, “I will come,” can rest their fearful hearts and diligently seek the blessing of His coming.

    And what is that blessing? What was promised to Israel in that day? What was shown to John the Baptist? What is the blessing that we receive at the coming of the Lord? What indeed! This promise, this blessing is everything! It is life itself. It is Christ Himself. It is all the fulness of God, Christ Himself in you.

    The blessing has three parts. The first is recompense. Vengeance! Christ our God, the Mighty the Lord of Hosts, comes to bring vengeance on our greatest enemies, sin and death. He will utterly annihilate them. “Be strong,” the Spirit of Christ calls to us today, “Fear not! I will come and I will destroy your enemies. They will enslave you no more.”

    The second part of the blessing is restoration, healing. Your enemies, sin and death, have caused you great harm. They have mortally wounded you, but when Christ comes, those wounds will be healed. The blindness you know in your heart, that dark place of bottomless despair, that blindness that keeps you from seeing any of the goodness of God; the deafness you feel, the numb nothingness that keeps you from hearing God’s voice; the lameness, the brokenness that keeps you from doing His work – all of this He will restore. “Be strong,” the Spirit of Christ calls to you today, “Fear not! I will come and I will heal your soul.”

    The third part of the blessing is resurrection, new and abundant life. We are the wilderness in this passage. We – that is our hearts – are the deserts, devoid of life. And into these wildernesses, into these deserts, into our hearts, He sends the life-giving water of His Spirit. Children of God, though we are but dry bones, though we are but empty, burning sand, a place where nothing dwells but the wild jackals, the beasts of our foolish desires, though we are dead, His Spirit calls to us, He calls to you: “Be strong! Fear not! I will come and I will fill you with my Life. You will be fruitful once more.”

    As you can see, the threefold promise of His coming is a great encouragement. It is the promise of the Life of Christ within us, our hope of glory. This is what we need. This is what we hope for. So, naturally we wonder then: when will He come? Will it be soon or not? Perhaps we missed His coming? Will He come again? Child of God, hear the happy news: Yes, Christ has come, and Yes! Christ will come again. The promise of Christ to you today is still “Be strong, fear not! I will come!”

    In what way can we say that Christ has already come? First, we need to affirm that Jesus Christ is always near us. He has always been near; He has never left us. He was already there at the very first moment of time. He created all things and is everywhere present sustaining all things. He walked with Adam and Eve in Paradise, and that was the design, that He would always be with us. But we have sinned, and in our sin, we have tried to leave Christ. We have walked away from God. We have set ourselves against Him. But, people of God, He is always coming. From the very first sin, He came to Adam and Eve, and He does the same with us. He is, you could say, the always-coming-never-leaving, God. The promise of Christ to you today is “Be strong, fear not! Even though you have walked away, I will come!”

    And what a wonder it will be when He comes! Consider His great coming so many years ago, His Incarnation, where Christ, the God of all the Universe, took on our flesh and walked among us on our own soil. There He showed the blessings of His coming: Recompense, Restoration, and Resurrection. There was restoration: He healed a multitude of physical and spiritual infirmities. There was recompense: He tricked our enemy death by surrendering to it, and once inside, Christ took His vengeance. He despoiled Hades, openly shamed it, robbed it of the souls it had kept in bondage. He rose from the dead and brought with Him resurrection for all the souls He had stolen from mighty death. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

    Then, Child of God, Christ Jesus came again, to you, in your Baptism, where he united you to His own death and so destroyed the power of death in you, where He raised you to new life in Him. He blessed you with the gift of the Spirit, that precious water of Life, that rains down in the wilderness of your heart and causes you to spring to life and bear much fruit.

    All of that He has done for us, He has done for you, and yet the promise of Christ today is still “Be strong, fear not! I will come!” How then will He come? First, of course, we look forward to His second great coming, that Great Day when He restores all things, eradicates the last whispers of sin and death, and heals every wound and infirmity. Make no mistake, He will come again. He will finish the death-destroying, sin-destroying work in our lives. There will no corner of your heart still wanting His healing and resurrection. Of His Kingdom there shall be no end.

    But you don’t have to wait long, People of God. The promise of Christ today is “Be strong, fear not! I will come!” And indeed, the ever-coming-never-leaving God will come this very day! He is already here, He stands ready, and He will come to you in the Sacrament, in Holy Communion. Here we have His presence in the bread and the wine. Look and see, People of God, the Living Word is very near us, even in our mouths and our hearts and He shall feed His flock as a shepherd. And as promised in our text, we will experience the same threefold blessing: Recompense, Restoration, and Resurrection. As King David wrote, this table is offered in the presence of our enemies. Think of it! The Judge of all the Earth, the Mighty Lord of Hosts feeds you while your humiliated enemies look on. Further, this meal is a meal of restoration, a meal of healing in your soul. As Blessed David sings in the same psalm, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters; He restores my soul, He leads me in the paths of righteousness”. When He comes today, Jesus Christ, heals your wounds, feeds you with Himself, and resurrects you, raising you to new life, so that even if you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you have nothing to fear. You have Christ Himself!

    And that is the message of Jesus Christ to you today. “Be strong, fear not! I am restoring you. I am healing you. I am raising you up and I will feed you a great feast in the very presence of your enemies.”

    Child of God, Be strong! Fear not! Behold, your God will come. Rejoice! Gladly receive Him! Taste and see that the Lord is good.

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