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postmodern preaching

Fifth Sunday in Lent Year B

  • Jeremiah 31:31-34

Living through the threat and the actual destruction of Judah/Jerusalem, Jeremiah relentlessly bemoaned the fate of God’s people and railed against their actions, which he believed brought them to this heart-breaking crisis.  Therefore, the chapters of “consolation,” including chapter 31, are more striking because of their Hosea-like hope.  Jeremiah expresses confidence that out of this terrible mess, God will initiate a new covenant that will be as crucial as the original covenant through Moses!  This re-start of God’s relationship will be accessible to all.  God will wipe the score card clean, “For I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more.”

  • Psalm 51: 1-13

Among the most powerful (and prominently used in Hebrew and Christian liturgies), this psalm of confession lays bare all past sins.  The psalmist even imagines that “in transgression was I conceived.”  Out of this full acknowledgment of sin-full-ness, the psalmist finds the audacity (or desperation?) to ask God for forgiveness.  She pleads, “do not take your spirit from me.”

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  • Psalm 119: 9-16

In what shall a young person, starting out on the perils and promises of adult life trust?  The psalmist offers God’s commands, utterances, laws, precepts, decrees, paths, “word” as more valuable than “all kinds of wealth.”

  • Hebrews 5: 5-10

Using a thorough familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures, the writer of this “Letter to the Hebrews” provides a sustained, complete interpretation of this significance of Jesus, “In the days of his flesh.”  The significance can be understood by saying that Jesus is like the High Priest, except he surpasses the High Priest through his complete obedience and submission in his suffering, which made him “perfect” and “the source of eternal salvation for all who believe in him….”

  • John 12: 20-23

In Johns narrative  Jesus is omniscient.  He knows precisely when “the hour has come.” As the crisis approaches, should he ask: “Father, spare me from this hour…?”  Jesus walks into the betraying, mocking, humiliating taunts and actions of others, friend and foe, knowing full well and proclaiming to any who might listen that this is the necessary means through which God will be “glorified.”  To emphasize the situation and what he is proclaiming, there is an epiphany.  Some clearly hear a “voice” from heaven say, “I have glorified it [God’s name] and I will glorify it again.”  Others hear “thunder.”  Jesus declares that this voice, confirming the significance of all that is about to happen to him, is “for your sake, not for mine.”

 

Gabriel Josipovici offers an intriguing contrast between modern and postmodern approaches to scripture.  In The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, the British novelist, critic, and playwright reviews the “modernist crisis” that shrank the Bible to a text to be analyzed under the scrutiny of various sciences.  In contrast, there are others (we might mention here Auerbach, Frei, Kermode, Alter, among others) who take the “ragbag” of narratives which tradition stitched together as biblical on their own terms.  One approach reduces the biblical text to concepts, systems, theological homogenization and endless critical speculations that want to close-off interpretation.  The other approach embraces the contradictions, wildly varying perspectives, incompleteness and even confusion as the cause for enduring, life-giving interpretation.  In one chapter he particularly considers the “Letter to the Hebrews” in the Christian scriptures.

 Josipovici sees in this “Letter” a desire to take the wild, unruly Hebrew scriptures and re-cast them as “notions of perfection and fulfillment as hermeneutical tools.” (p. 275)  Then he writes:

“the Epistle to the Hebrews forces us to ask such questions.  Is clarity better than unclarity?  Fulfillment better that non-fulfillment?  And what does better mean in this case?”

 The “Letter to the Hebrews” and John’s gospel characterize Jesus as omniscient and self-aware of fulfilling some grand scheme, which raises the question on this penultimate Sunday before the beginning of Holy Week: Will we merely be going through the motions of a self-contained theological/liturgical conceptualization of a doctrine/dogma or are we about to embark on something far more personal, ragged, unpredictable and potentially transformative?   In Holy Week, the church reads a passion narrative from one of the synoptic gospels (this year, Mark) on Passion/Palm Sunday and always from John’s gospel on Good Friday.  Therefore, could it be said we begin this journey with Jesus all the way to Golgotha and the empty tomb not knowing exactly how we will react this time, this year?  Is the story of God’s love through Christ settled or open-ended?  Is it “history,”  or “theology” or something more important, more urgent?

 In the “Letter to the Hebrews” and John’s gospel in particular, there is a feel of a grand narrative of obedience, completeness and fulfillment.  We have heard it before and it provides answers.  But with Jeremiah maybe we might also hope/expect this year a renewal of our relationship with God through this journey through this awe-full week.  We will be starkly reminded of  the horrible consequences of our personal and corporate failures as we recount the story of betrayal,  cowardice, and injustice.  But even in a dark time,  Jeremiah could put forward the audacity to hope, even imagining that God will re-start the relationship, the love affair with us.  God is willing to re-start–“I will remember their sins no more…”    Are we ready to re-start?

 

 

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