postmodern preaching

The Presentation

  • Malachi 3:1-4

Up to this point in the text attributed to a “Malachi,” (which means messenger), the writer has dwelt on specific failures and specific leaders (“priests”) and all people.  The indifference of all to God’s teachings have caused moral, social and religious confusion.  If the dating of this text by scholars is historic, it was also a time when God’s people were under the rule of another nation and the Temple and Jerusalem were is disarray.  Into this era, the text says, the Lord declares:  “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me….” The appearance of this messenger will prepare/initiate an event when “the Lord will suddenly come to his Temple.”  This “messenger is “the messenger of the covenant.”  The appearance will have a stunning impact.  This appearance will be intense, searing and breathtaking; it could best be compared to “a refiner’s fire.”  It will “purify” the Temple clergy (“The descendants of Levi”) like “gold and silver,” i.e. melted down and made into a new shape for a new purpose.  Now they will present to the Lord an “offering” of “righteousness” “As in the days of old and as in former years.”

  • Psalm 84

The poet expresses a passion for the Temple.  Robert Alter suggests that the Hebrew words convey a passion that borders on an “erotic intensity,”  (Book of Psalms, p 297).  Something happens to the poet in this sacred place that happens nowhere else on earth; in the Temple, she experiences God’s distinctive attributes.


  • Psalm 24: 7-10

Scholarly consensus assumes a new psalm commences at v. 7.  The prior verses are concerned with who is eligible to enter the Temple; vv 7-10 are focused on the moment when one enters into the Temple of “the King of Glory.”  And “Who is this King of Glory?”  The poet relies on the image of the strength and force of  a valiant warrior to offer a response.

  • Hebrews 2: 14-18

Using the most sophisticated Greek in the Christian scriptures and displaying an awareness of ancient and contemporary philosophy, the “Letter to the Hebrews” alternates between dwelling on the historical humanity of Jesus and the “perfect” high priest who is also the “perfect” sacrificial animal whose slaughter ended the need for ritual animal sacrifices.  In this excerpt, the writer says that Jesus “shared” our “flesh and blood,” yet he was able to accomplish something that no human being could accomplish:  to be “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”  Furthermore, because of his humanity, he was “tested” in his suffering, which makes him “able to help those who are being tested.”

  • Luke 2: 22-40

Once again, the writer of this gospel tells readers that in the course of Mary and Joseph dutifully fulfilling a rule that they are in a specific place at a particular time that turns out to be highly significant.  They bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to fulfill a “purification” requirement in “the Law of Moses.”   While they are there fulfilling the Law, a “righteous and devout” man named Simeon also came into the Temple, as he frequently did; “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”  Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms and declares that he is now “ready to depart in peace,” because he has seen the promise fulfilled.  He sees in this infant “a light to lighten the Gentiles” and the “glory of your people, Israel.”  Simeon blesses the young parents and then says ominously: this infant will cause “the falling and rising of many in Israel.”  His life and his teaching will expose the “inner thoughts” of many.  They will know personally the sorrow of his fate.  In the Temple that same day, there was a prophet, Anna, a widow who virtually lived in the Temple.  She “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”  The writer completes this significant vignette by telling us that Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus returned to Nazareth, where the infant became a child who “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.”

If one accepts that biblical texts are sophisticated, clever texts, as do many writers classed as post-modern, then it is assumed they require deep readings.  In today’s portion of Malachi, the excerpt from the “Letter to the Hebrews” and Luke’s carefully crafted vignette when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple to fulfill the Law, the attentive reader will realize that these texts are telling us two contradictory things simultaneously.  In Malachi, we are told that the God “whom you seek” can in fact come so unexpectedly and so forcefully that the appearance, “like a refiner’s fire,”  melts, “purifies”  and re-casts what seemed so solid and unchangeable.  The author of “Letter to the Hebrews”  asserts without any sense of obligation to explain exactly how that Jesus was both fully human and fully capable of fulfilling a task no human being could attempt, much less fulfill: liberation from the fear of death.  The writer of Luke re-casts the well-known story of the childhood of Samuel to tell the alert reader: this helpless infant Jesus, just forty days old, will be the cause of disruption,  His teaching and his life will expose the darkest and the best places in the human heart. 

At the conclusion of The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy trains his acute but non-believer’s attention on a question: “What is God?”  He provides a survey of responses from [Western} philosophy and from the world’s major religions to that question.  He provides his own answer.  [With apologies for the exclusively masculine pronouns we quote.]  “the divine is precisely what manifests itself and is recognizable outside of all knowledge about its ‘being’.  God does not propose himself as a new type of being… for us to know.  He proposes himself, that is all.” (p. 116)  This is one of the strains in biblical texts  to which the lectionary for The Presentation attests:  God as the One who when there is revelation causes disruption because the motive and the means are “outside of all knowledge about its ‘being’.”  So, it should be assumed that any revelation of God, including and perhaps especially in Jesus,  will not happen without disruption and exposure.  Then Jean-Luc Nancy considers  when revelation makes a different tact, i.e. “the divinity lets itself be seen.”    He continues: “God reveals himself– and God is always a stranger in all manifestation and all revelation.”  (p. 124)  As Malachi insists and Simeon declares, the revelation of God to humanity comes as the exotic, the strange, the unexpected and unforeseen.  It inevitably upends and exposes.  Nancy quotes Pascal: “Instead of complaining because God has hidden himself, you will give thanks to him for having revealed himself so much.”  (ibid)

These readings succeed in telling us two contradictory things simultaneously.  Because God is God, any revelation of God  will be experienced by humanity as strange, but not necessarily alien.  It will feel unfamiliar and familiar simultaneously.  Jesus, in the Christian experience, is both sympathetic to us because he was human and yet he accomplished something no human could even begin to figure out much less attempt:  some way to break a relentless cycle of “atonement” for sin.

We seek some revelation of God.  But when it is experienced by humanity, it necessarily exposes to us more about ourselves than we anticipated or imagined or perhaps even wanted.  It is what it is beucase it is on Gopd’s terms.  Biblical texts make no attempt to explain, they simply make announcements.  We decide how to respond to these announcements.



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