Lectionary Commentaries for October 27, 2013
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

Mark Tranvik

It is hard to miss the theme of freedom in our text from John.

And since this is Reformation Sunday, it useful to remember that freedom was a key concern for many of the Reformers. One of Martin Luther’s most famous writings is “The Freedom of a Christian,” which he wrote in 1520 just before he was excommunicated by the church.1 Preachers might find their proclamation well-served by reviewing this classic work. Freedom is also a slippery word. It can mean a multitude of different things and proclaimers who focus on freedom need to clear a path if the biblical word of liberation is to be clearly heard.

Confused by Freedom
Probably the first task is to help listeners understand the difference between commonly held views of freedom and how the word is being used in the gospel of John. In fact, our text from today indicates that Jesus’ original hearers were also perplexed by his stress on freedom. When Jesus tells “the Jews who had believed in him” that the truth will make them free (John 8:31-32), they are confused and puzzled because as “descendants of Abraham” they had never been enslaved to anyone and therefore his talk of needing to be freed was nonsensical (John 8:33).

Similarly, it is easy for Christians in Western nations to have overlapping views on freedom. For some the mention of freedom is closely tied with the political realm. Here freedom is closely intertwined with democracy and the ability to elect our own representatives. Of course, political freedom is a great gift and this should be regularly emphasized to Christians in the West. Sometimes it is easy to take a cynical path and assume that all political systems are more or less the same. After spending six months in China in 2011, I can assure you that nothing is further from the truth! At the same time, preachers who touch on this theme would do well to remind their listeners that with the gift of political freedom comes the ongoing responsibility to work for a just society.

Others will link freedom closely to the economic sphere. Freedom here connotes the great range of choices before many consumers. A walk down an aisle in Wal-Mart can almost paralyze a shopper. Free market economies mean that average citizens enjoy an array of goods and services unimaginable a century earlier. Millions have been lifted out of poverty (again, see China in the last thirty years) by the “miracle” of the market. Of course, a shadow side accompanies economic freedom. People tend to be reduced to “consumers” and often the natural world is misused in the name of economic progress.

Of Human Bondage
But these are preliminary comments. Because of confusion about “freedom” the association with politics and economics should probably be mentioned. However, preaching on this text needs to be clear regarding Christian freedom. Jesus makes a contrast between slavery and freedom. The former indicates our bondage to sin: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Here we must be careful to avoid the notion that sin is only an action and not the reflection of an underlying condition. Our acts of sin are a reflection of a prior state of alienation from God. An addict may steal or lie in the name of his habit but the real problem is not the theft or deception. The main issue is the enslavement or bondage to the craving for the drug.

And what is our underlying problem? We reject the truth about ourselves: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). In other words, we convince ourselves that there is nothing really wrong with us. All we need is some good advice and a self-help manual or two and things will be fine. We stubbornly persist in the idea that we are fundamentally in control. Surely our church-going and charitable giving and general all-around respectability is sufficient!

In this way of thinking responsibility for our freedom rests with us. But this makes hash out of John 8:36 for there we are told “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Apparently we are not able to liberate ourselves. The text clearly claims we need a liberator.

Of Christian Freedom
The key to freedom is Christ: for freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). And the best preaching does not offer liberation or make it conditional upon the response of the listener. It is not held up as a doctrine that needs to be “believed” or a story that needs to be “applied.” It does not move quickly and nervously to all the things freedom is “for”: the work for justice, the care for the poor, the need to tend to creation. All such activity is laudable and such things can be stressed in other parts of worship or in future sermons.

But, above all, be sure to announce loudly and clearly that the day of liberation has come! Now! Declare unmistakably that the captives have been delivered. The proclaimer must announce with boldness that freedom has happened and that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Preach with urgency so that your listeners hear the most important news they can possibly hear: the foes of sin and death have been routed by Christ crucified and risen. The Son has made them free and they are free indeed (John 8:36).

1See new translation and introduction in Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, tr. by Mark D. Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Richard W. Nysse

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is an arresting set of verses.

Out of context, their familiarity often mutes their impact and audacity. Prophetic denunciation, a dominant part of the book of Jeremiah, is upended in these four verses. The future, termed “days are coming,” is unconditionally good. No more threat; no more summons to repent; no more “if” hung before the future.

The images used to convey this unconditional promise of future restoration and wellbeing are startling. Think of the audacity in the closing metaphor: divine amnesia! “I will remember their sin no more.” Or, the end of the teaching profession: “No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord.'” This condition is not limited to the spiritual or social elite; rather all will know the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest. This is the priesthood of all believers long before the New Testament or the Reformation.

The remarkable future announced in these verses, however, can turn into sentimentality if their context is not observed, specifically their theological context. The words are addressed to those who have heard the calls for repentance and ignored — or worse, actively resisted — them. The covenant people have insisted on not being the covenant people. The book of Jeremiah is particularly forceful in condemning the elites — priests, prophets, and kings — for this resistance and for subsequently misleading the community at large. The promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is not sentimental; it is profoundly disruptive to the prior disobedience and its consequences.

Memory and remembering form one metaphorical set of terms for exploring what theologically precedes Jeremiah 31:31-34. As early as Jeremiah 2 the Lord remembers the early devotion of the people in the wilderness. Quickly, however, that devotion dissolved and, when trouble arose, neither the ancestors in general nor the priest in particular asked, “Where is the Lord?” (2:6,8).

To ask that question would have been a sign of remembering. Instead, they turned from God and toward options that were empty and unable to sustain them (2:13). They refused to serve God (2:20), and consequently the covenantal relationship was broken. The reciprocity of “my God, your people” or “your God, my people” was broken. Once that reciprocal relationship was broken, social injustice and exploitation set in. Society became tiered to preserve privilege and to advance economic interests. This led to an instability that no amount of coalitions and alliances could hold in place. North (“Israel”) and South (“Judah”) split; the widow and orphan are abused. Jeremiah 17:1 comes to this dismal conclusion: “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of their altars.”

Israel and Judah’s lack of remembering and the destructive behavior accompanying it is met with God’s remembering — not the long-gone, early devotion of the people, but their iniquity. Even their late-coming, pleading return to God is rejected. Jeremiah 14:10 announces, “The Lord does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.” Here, God’s remembering severs the relationship rather than reconnecting it.

When the people lock themselves into not remembering God (not merely disregarding God, but actively rebelling and moving elsewhere) and God locks into remembering their sin (no longer attempting to discipline them into obedience), then the result is exile. The exile may be physical displacement as it was for three waves of deported elites (see the tally in Jeremiah 52:28-30). For those who remained in the land, the book of Lamentations provides ample indication of how devastating life was in the aftermath of Babylon’s several invasions. The exile of displacement within the land was as disruptive as the exile of deportation from the land.

Could God’s not remembering become as entrenched as that of God’s covenant people?

The answer is no; God is not like the people of God. But that response is not easily given. Jeremiah 30-31 is commonly called the “book of consolation,” but it starts with reminders of Israel and Judah’s condition. There are cries of panic and terror, and there is no peace (30:4). Someone needs to rescue Jacob, for Jacob has lost all capacity. Furthermore, the wound of the people is incurable (30:12 — no summons to repentance can cure this condition!). Yet, the incurable wound will be cured by God (30:17). Currently, Rachel is weeping and Ephraim is pleading (31:15,18). Yet even in forsaking (called “the storm of the Lord” and “wrath going forth,” 30:23), God still holds onto another memory: “Is Ephraim … the child I delight in? As often as I as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him” (31:20).

God’s memory leads to a yearning heart. And, when God’s heart yearns for God’s people, the status quo of an incurable wound, Babylonian tyranny, and a destroyed, fractured community cannot stay in place.

There is yet one more obstacle that must be overturned and that is the sense that the exilic wound is deserved and thus it is permanent (31:29). Remembering iniquity, while accurate, can lock one in despair: our parents sinned, and we are doomed — they ate sour grapes, and our teeth were set on edge. The biblical text refuses such a fixed future: each will die for their own iniquity (31:30). But while that unlocks one from the tyranny of the past, it does not actually comfort one with regard to the future. Might the people simply repeat the past and then die like those before them? The cycle must be broken. Comfort is not merely having a second chance in the hope that one will not repeat the cycle. Rachel needs her children back, building and planting needs to occur, and incurable wounds need healing.

God remembers and yearns; God has mercy and forgets! The iniquity of the despairing community will not prevent or overturn God’s covenantal faithfulness. God even overturns God’s own response to the people’s unfaithfulness. God’s storm must end, and wrath must stop coming. God does not promise merely to be indifferent to iniquity. Rather, God promises an end to iniquity, to alter the human heart, make exhortation unnecessary, and restore the breaches in the community. The promise even moves beyond always being reformed to being made new with no possibility of reversal — a covenant with no possibility of unfaithfulness. God’s fidelity will make us permanently faithful. Reformation completed!


Commentary on Psalm 46

Fred Gaiser

As always, preaching for a festival of the church brings competing goods: Do we preach the text or preach the day?

I will always want to err on the side of preaching the text, though I recognize that people suffer not only from biblical illiteracy but also from historical and doctrinal illiteracy, so there will be an appropriate place in the sermon (or elsewhere in the service) to make clear just what this day is about and why it shows up in the calendar.

Still, if we want to preach justification by faith, “apart from the works of the law” (or feel the need to do so), then by all means preach on Romans 3, not on Psalm 46. Let the text drive the sermon — this text, this particular text — not a generalized doctrinal message derived from Romans and the broader teachings of Luther and the Reformers. One could make such a doctrinal sermon work, but not with integrity as a sermon on Psalm 46.

Happily, given the Reformation’s “sola scriptura” slogan, we might argue that the best and most appropriate way to preach this day is to preach the text; that is, do “sola scriptura” rather than talking about “sola scriptura.” So, what to do with Psalm 46?

The dilemma I just described seems to have existed already within Israel’s history. Psalm 46 is one of the Songs of Zion (the list often includes also Psalms 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122), those psalms that celebrate God’s presence in the temple on Mount Zion, a presence that promised security and blessing to God’s people.

But just how much security and what kind of blessing? Was Zion “inviolable,” because it was the dwelling place of God? Was Israel guaranteed success? Israel sometimes got such ideas apparently, based on a mistaken insular and nationalistic reading of lines like “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved” (Psalm 46:5). Nothing bad can happen to us, because we are God’s chosen people and this is God’s chosen nation!

The prophets had to denounce such thinking, especially, for example, Jeremiah in his temple sermon, where he reminded Israel that no slogan (“This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”) could take the place of faithful and ethical living (Jeremiah 7:4). To turn promise into slogan, creed into talisman, is to court death, as Israel learned the hard way when Babylon had the last laugh (“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”; Psalm 137:3).

The biblical tension between celebrating promise and banking on it could certainly inform a contemporary sermon on Psalm 46. The delineation is not easy for people to grasp (or for preachers to proclaim). One wants to do nothing to undermine a faithful trust in “The Lord is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge!”; verses 7, 11); but one wants to do everything to undermine a false confidence that mouthing the verse provides temporal security or even prosperity. God is our security, but not our security blanket. God provides a home for all, not membership in an exclusive club for some.

Our trust, the psalm’s trust, is not based in a naive notion that “nothing bad can happen” — indeed, the psalm assumes the possibility of natural catastrophe and enemy attack — but it invites the singers and hearers to put their trust in God, who alone stands firm when all else shakes. The careful structure of the first part of the song (verses 1-7) is already a poetic hedge against chaos:

A God is our refuge and strength

             B The earth changes

                         C God is in the midst of the city, which therefore shall not be moved

            B’ The nations are in an uproar

A’ God (Immanuel) is our refuge

The second part is similar (verses 7-11; reusing the refrain in verse 7):

A God is our refuge

            B God is above all creation and history (earth and war)

                        C “Be still and know that I am God!”

            B’ God is above the earth and the nations

A’ God (Immanuel) is our refuge

Notice what stands out: God is our refuge and strength; God is in our midst; God is with us; “Be still and know that I am God.” The call to “be still” is radical, since it demands utter reliance on God, certainly not on human weapons, not even on the good gifts of an ever-dangerous creation. Trust in God alone!

To sing this song is to call its promise into the present, to anticipate its reality. But that must be done everyday (thus, the need for regular liturgical rehearsal of the song); it is never something once given that we now own or control. In that sense, we might say the song has an eschatological character. That is, it anticipates and invites us into the coming fulfillment of the divine promises, making them real for today without trivializing the very real threats under which God’s people always live.

An incarnational word would be in order here as the sermon moves to proclaim the text to those who live in Christ. New Testament Christians recognize the psalm’s promise (“the LORD of hosts is with us”) in Jesus as Immanuel (Matthew 1:23), Jesus as temple (Matthew 12:6; John 2:21). Now God’s presence in Christ fully shares the tests and turmoil of temporal existence. The God who stood above creation has now entered creation. In Christ, God comes not to save us from all harm — especially not to think that those like us are preserved from danger brought by the likes of them — but to wonder in amazement that God now bears with us and for us every personal, national, and natural distress.

Now, our song is not so much that we can come to saving Zion, but that saving Zion has come to us — where “us” is not defined as those who look or believe just as we do (the persistent danger of turning Reformation Day into a celebration of ourselves), but as all God’s people from every nation now called together in God’s son. God is present! We don’t build a fence around that promise — not a fence of orthodoxy, ideology, nationality, race, or gender. We open doors so that all may hear, see, and participate.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Mary Hinkle Shore

Paul has just spent two chapters making sure that all the Gentiles among his hearers and all the Jews alike will recognize themselves to be pretty much out of wiggle room.

Gentiles, he argues, might not have had the law to guide them, but they had revelation from God in the natural world, and they did not follow what they knew. Jews have even less of an excuse. They had the law and yet did not remain faithful to the covenant God made with them. Quoting Psalm 14, Paul concludes, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

While all the religious language in Paul’s argument might not speak to you, you don’t have to be a particularly religious person to look around the world and see that it’s a mess. And it doesn’t take much for most of us to admit that at least some of the mess has our fingerprints on it. Sometimes we can draw a straight line from something we did to some harm that happened to another. Most of the time, the lines are messier than that. We are part of systems that are broken, so we are not the only ones responsible. Or it’s not that we did something; it’s that we failed to act when an action might have helped someone else, or we tried to help and we made things worse.

The Righteousness of God

So Paul sets up this scenario where everyone listening to his letter is staring at their shoes and wishing it would just be over soon, and then he says, “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed” (Romans 3:21).

Of course, it is not immediately good news that the righteousness of God has been revealed. In Luke, “the righteousness of God” is pictured this way: 

51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts. 

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

When Old Testament prophets speak of the God’s righteousness, they are pointing to God setting things right for God’s people. The little people will be vindicated, and Israel will know justice, peace, and prosperity.

Paul has just spent those opening chapters of Romans documenting how far we all are from that vision. Now, when he says the righteousness of God has been revealed, you have to wonder, is this good news or bad news? If no one is righteous, not even one, then a righteous God might just give up on the human project altogether. 


Paul continues, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22b-24). When you redeem something, you recapture its value. Think of a coupon or a returnable bottle. The store or the manufacturer buys them back from you. They are worth cash.

In Christ Jesus, God redeems not coupons or bottles, but people. Paul would not have had to look far for a case in point. He himself had tried to do the right thing and ended up persecuting the church. The book of Acts tells us that when the deacon, Stephen, was martyred, the men doing the killing laid their cloaks at the feet of the young man we know as Paul, and he “approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1). The world is this way, and it should not be. Paul had been on the wrong side of God’s righteousness. And God’s response? The Lord Jesus had found him on the road to Damascus and redeemed him for something better.

The whole ministry of Jesus was dedicated to this kind of buying back. He healed people — a few he even raised from the dead — and he gave them back to their families. He ate with tax collectors and other sinners, people everyone else had already written off as a loss. He bought them back. The justice he embodied in his life and his death was not content to rail against sin. The justice of God that Christ lived out so faithfully aimed to break the power of sin, to restore sinners so that they could love God and those among whom God has placed them. 


The Protestant tradition speaks of God as always reforming the church. Not just individually, but also together, in the body of Christ, we drift away from the righteousness of God as Jesus lived it out and made it available to all. Sometimes we abandon it altogether. Part of what we observe with Reformation Day is this movement of God, in Christ and through the Spirit, to redeem not just individuals, but also the church. 

One of the stories of Protestant Reformation is the story of God buying back a church whose creative ways of keeping the budget balanced (that is, through the selling of indulgences) had effectively put a price on “the free gift,” as Paul describes being right with God (see Romans 5:15 and following). The reformers rejected the idea that anyone could buy or sell the righteousness that God bestowed. 

It is easier to recognize the compromises of the church in a previous century than it is to see such failures in our own time. Yet just as it is always true in our individual lives and in our societies that “there is no one righteous, not even one,” the same is true of our individual congregations and of the church as a whole. Those who have spent any time at all in the church are likely to find that illustrations of “the church is this way, and it should not be,” come rather too easily to mind.

We, as the people of God, lose our way. To say that the church is always being reformed is to say that God is still paying attention and paying the price to redeem our communities from all the ways we sell out to sin, death, and the power of the devil. God is still buying us back for something better.