Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Five)

I’m writing this the day after Ash Wednesday worship services. “Remember that you are dust,” the worship leader intones, “and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is the first day of our annual Lenten journey. It is a meeting with mortality, a festival of finitude, a date with death. It’s not quite the trumpets and lilies of Easter, bringing in the crowds and sending us forth happy. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of what is supposed to be a hard journey.

I am encountering the latest attempts to make Lent less, well, “Lent-y.” After all, this self-denial stuff is demoralizing and depressing. We (White, western, privileged) Christians have had quite enough of limits and losses over the last two years, thank you very much. This year let’s talk about fullness and resilience and bouncing back better than ever. That’s much more fun.

Photo by Dmitriy Ganin on Pexels.com

I will show my age by noting how much this sounds like the popular acronym for Lent from Robert Schuller. You can still find Schuler’s 1996 study on Lent available for sale if you like. He declared that “LENT” should stand for “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking.” At the time, the study sold like hotcakes (a great thing after a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper), and Americans were happy to be done with the doom and gloom of traditional Lenten thinking and devotion.

The cultural context for Schuler’s work was, of course, quite different from our own. The Berlin Wall had fallen just a few years earlier. The “end of history” had been announced. Neoliberal capitalism and politics had won the day. Bill Clinton was well into his presidential run of promising that everyone could have everything if only they would like him enough. The case for eliminating negative thinking was empirically visible. We can forgive poor old Bobby Schuler for his irrational exuberance.

It’s one thing to be so deceived by success that contemplating failure seems to be a waste of time. It’s another thing to be so immersed in limits and loss that we just can’t stand one more minute of it. Just as we are suffering from economic inflation in some part due to two years of pent-up consumer demand, so I think we are suffering from emotional and spiritual inflation in some part due to two years of pent-up happiness demand.

In the face of this longing for Lenten positivity, I needed a spiritual and emotional palate cleanser. So, I am turned this morning once again to Kate Bowler’s great book, No Cure for Being Human. It didn’t occur to me the first time I read it, but a point is obvious to me now. That book title would be a great Lenten worship theme, and hers is a book that could deeply inform congregational study groups during our forty-day journey – especially at this moment. Too bad I didn’t think about that sooner. And I must point out that Bowler has co-written a Lenten devotional book called Good Enough (I like it).

Bowler is an academic historian who has looked deeply into the development and current life of the American “Prosperity Gospel.” Her first trade book was called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s an excellent description, analysis, and critique of the American theology of prosperity, the “name and claim it” school most clearly represented by Joel Osteen. A paragraph from the preface of No Cure for Being Human offers a synopsis of her work in the previous book.

“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life. You can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits. There is infinity lurking somewhere at the bottom of your inbox or in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table. It taunts you as you grip the steering wheel in traffic, attempting your new breathing practice, or in the predawn minutes when you could be working out” (p. xiv).

Bowler was moving along through life with relatively few troubles when she received a cancer diagnosis. At that point, the academic study of relentless American toxic positivity became an existential reality. She was forced to contemplate and confront her own mortality and a life that would at some point continue without her. Human existence is finite, and Bowler could not escape that reality.

“Nothing will add up to enough,” she wrote of her dawning awareness. “I wish someone had told me that the end of a life is a complex equation. Years dwindle into months, months into days, and you must begin to count them. All my dreams and ambitions, friendships and petty fights, vacations and bedtimes with a boy in dinosaur pajamas must be squeezed into hours, minutes, seconds. How should I spend them?” (p. xvi).

This is the reality of the Lenten journey. We begin by remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The first Sunday in Lent we come up against all the ways that this life tests our faith, hope, and love, and all the ways we (I) come up short. We will end this Lenten journey at the foot of the cross where all seems to be lost. There’s no amount of positive thinking, no amount of wishing for fullness, no theological alchemy that turns my dying dust into gold dust.

Once or twice, I’ve described Ash Wednesday as the Christian Feast of Full Disclosure. It’s no wonder most people avoid it like the plague.

“The trick to losing,” Bowler writes, “is to do it all at once” (page 39). I don’t know if that’s a trick or just the nature of Reality. Bowler’s husband helps her to think about this losing in terms of laying things down. He talks about a secret he learned from hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Novices always bring way too much crap to carry. After a while, the weight is more than the crap is worth.

“This will be a hard journey,” Bowler’s spouse says after she has gotten her diagnosis. “Is there anything you can set down?” (page 40).

That’s the Lenten question, as far as I’m concerned. Is there anything you can set down? And it’s a question that many of us have faced over and over in the last few years. I’m not sure, however, that we’re ready to answer it with action. Instead, I think we find ourselves, at least culturally (and in most churches) asking ourselves how much of the crap we laid down we can pick up again. We don’t want a new life. We want our old lives back.

Let me quote Bowler again. “We worship at the altar of plenty. Our heroes are corporate titans, fitness-empire builders, grinning televangelists, music legends, and decorated athletes whose gilded lifestyles and totalizing success hold out the promise of more. Twelve-car garages and infinity pools and walk-through closets and red-bottomed heels. Despite the boom and bust of the American economy over the last fifty years,” she continues, “we cling to stories of more-than-enoughness, believing the future is full to the brim for all of us.” (page 44).

Masking that desire for fullness with “spiritual language” doesn’t change the deep-down desire to claw back what we feel has been “taken” from us.

It strikes me that the Diabolical One tries to prey on a sense of entitlement in the Wilderness Testing. Since you’re the Son of God, Satan says, you should certainly have these pretty things. That’s part of the deal, after all, isn’t it? The Diabolical One never argues about Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Instead, that identity is a given. The temptation comes in converting that identity into the assumption that Jesus is entitled to being full, powerful, and invulnerable. If that assumption is accurate, then there’s no limit to what Jesus ought to do in order to achieve fullness, power, and safety.

The really deceitful part of the Wilderness Testing is that the Diabolical One promises Jesus things that Jesus already has. Satan offers nothing to Jesus that is beyond what it means to be the Son of God. I laugh sometimes at those junk mail pieces that trumpet on the envelope, “You may have already won!” Who can resist that? That’s the test Satan gives to Jesus. You may have already won, but why take the chance that you haven’t? Name it, claim it, and have a nice sandwich while you fly around on your world-conquering throne.

That, unfortunately, is the problem, not the solution. “But no matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves,” Bowler writes, “we cannot solve the problem of finitude. We will always want more. We need more” (page 185). It’s terrifying to be empty enough to be filled with the Spirit. It’s horrifying to set down all our stuff and fill our hands with prayers. It’s nonsense to let go of our all our self-justification and fill our heads with good words from God.

And yet, that is the real Lenten task. It’s will be a hard journey. Is there anything I can set down? I can’t speak for you. But I can, with the Spirit’s help, set down my desperate needs for approval, belonging, and significance. Six decades and more of effort to wrestle these things from life have not been successful. Of course, when I stop for a moment, I know that these things are already mine in Christ.

If only I could stop for a moment more often…

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.


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Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 4); December 12, 2021

Expect Joy

In the traditions of the liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is “Gaudete” Sunday – the Sunday of the pink candle. “Gaudete” is the Latin word for the command to rejoice. Thus, this third Sunday is the rejoicing Sunday.

It is the Sunday when we turn the Advent corner from judgment to joy, from preparation to celebration. But our Gospel text seems to be an odd traditional choice for Gaudete Sunday. On its face, Luke 3 and the dour preaching of John the Baptizer is not the first text that comes to mind when I think of joy.

Photo by Tim Douglas on Pexels.com

Perhaps the problem is not in the text but rather in me. Rejoicing is hardly one of my personal strong suits. It comes naturally to some people, and I envy them this personal quality. I find joy suspect, a trap of good feelings that will result in a disappointing end. I approach joy from a defensive stance. Better to forego a bit of emotional froth in order to avoid a dive into the dark chasm when the existential fraud is revealed.

No, I’m not great fun at parties.

I come by this approach to joy quite honestly. I come from people who like a good laugh as much as the next person but were disposed to see the glass as routinely half-empty (or completely empty a great deal of the time). My mother, of blessed memory, was orphaned young and had a difficult childhood afterward. She came equipped with a somewhat joyless demeanor and life built numerous structures on that foundation.

Any positive experience could be jerked away at a moment’s notice. So, it was better to maintain a gray exterior and an even keel. I tend to minimize the potential for disappointment rather than to maximize the potential for joy. I’m not recommending this as a general approach to life, but I know that I’m not alone in my experience. And I’m sorry that I have bequeathed at least some of this emotional framework to my children, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.

If we were to rely solely on the Luke 3 lection, we might find ourselves trapped into another depressing week of judgment and anxiety. That’s not really the heart of our text, as I hope I’ve pointed out previously, but it can be hard to see how John’s preaching leads to “good news.” Fortunately, we have the companion texts to assist us in embracing the joy of Gaudete Sunday.

The first lesson, for Zephaniah 3:14-20, may be an editorial insertion from a member of the Second Isaiah school during the Babylonian Exile. That suggestion comes from Rolf Jacobson in the current edition of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast at workingpreacher.org. With that background in mind, I can hear the echoes of Isaiah 40-42 in this prophecy.

There is the reversal of judgment, the promise of the Divine presence, the healing of bodies broken by oppression, and the promise that the people shall return home. “The presence of these exilic themes suggests that the book of Zephaniah was revisited and reshaped for a post-exilic audience,” Margaret Odell writes in her working preacher.org commentary, “an audience who had survived the judgments of the previous generations but still awaited the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises of restoration.”

Odell notes that Amos and some of the succeeding prophets had reversed the current understanding of “The Day of Lord.” That day had been regarded as a time of rejoicing over the Lord’s victories on behalf of Israel. But Amos and his colleagues declare that this Day shall be about judgment, not victory. The response to the Day should be fear, not joy. Much of Zephaniah has this tenor in regard to the Lord’s coming.

“Just as suddenly, Zephaniah 3:14-20 reverses expectations yet again.” Odell writes. “YHWH removes the judgments, vanquishes Zion’s foes, and comes once again to dwell in Zion’s midst. Zion and YHWH exult in this reconciliation. If Zion rejoices because of YHWH’s mighty acts on her behalf, YHWH rejoices over her. It is a shared joy that reverses a long and difficult history of shame and dishonor, as even the nations are summoned to sing Zion’s praise.”

Zephaniah 3:14 simply effervesces with rejoicing. Shout with joy! Rejoice exceedingly! Exult with all your heart! Do this in response to the rescue and renewal the LORD is bringing about. But verse 17 has a wonderful twist. The LORD, our God, will rejoice over us with joy and renew us in love. This is a Sunday not only for our rejoicing over God but for God to rejoice over us as well! I think this text would make a marvelous call to worship or declaration of absolution during a rite of confession.

The text of verse 17 is hard to translate and then interpret. “The Hebrew in these verses is so obscure,” Odell writes, “that there is little scholarly agreement about their meaning. What is clear is that YHWH rejoices over Zion, and that it is his love for Zion that motivates his actions.” For example, the verb for “renew” is really the verb for “to keep silent.” Odell offers a helpful commentary on this little challenge.

She suggests that it is not necessary to edit the text as the NRSV does and move to the word for “renew.” Instead, the LORD perhaps keeps silent in love in order to refrain from speaking further words of judgment. “And, since this silence is surrounded by song and rejoicing,” Odell proposes, “we can conclude that this silence is not simply divine forbearance but rather full acceptance of Zion as she is. Past conflicts, past complaints, remain definitively in the past,” she argues, “What now bind YHWH and Israel together is joy in one another, and song.”

Odell quotes Martin Luther from “Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day” in this vein. “For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine,” Luther writes, “then I have no angry God and I must know and feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart.” The call of this Gaudete Sunday is to expect joy!

This call is multiplied and magnified in the second reading from Philippians 4:4-7. “Rejoice in the Lord at all times,” Paul writes to the Philippian church. “Let me repeat that – Rejoice! Let your kindness be known to all people,” he continues, “the Lord is near!” This sounds a great deal like the Baptizer’s counsel when people asked what they should do in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom. Rejoicing is not expressed in private celebrations but rather in public behavior.

That is because living in the joy of the Lord is a subversive act. The powers of sin, death, and the devil – inhabiting the domination systems of the world – demand from us a depressed and dour acquiescence. Our rejoicing is a visible affirmation that the powers of the powers are not the final word, and that our lives are not determined by the drumbeat of domination.

Those powers seek to satisfy us with mere happiness so we will be distracted from authentic joy. I am re-reading Kate Bowler’s marvelous memoir of her journey in and through cancer, No Cure for Being Human. As a scholar and critic of the “Prosperity Gospel,” she was uniquely positioned to understand and interpret her own experiences of suffering and joy.

“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life,” Bowler observes. “You can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits. There is infinity lurking somewhere at the bottom of your inbox or in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table. It taunts you as you grip the steering wheel in traffic, attempting your new breathing practice, or in the predawn minutes when you could be working out” (p. xiv).

Bowler knows that these pre-packaged promises of mere happiness are doomed to fail. They founder on the rocks of our finitude. But joy comes just as we strike those rocks and discover that the promises of God are with us in the midst of our changes and challenges. Paul knows this as well, writing one of his last letters before he heads to Rome and execution. I would consider using this text from Philippians as the sending of the congregation as the worship service is ending.

At our house, we are finding joy in our Advent devotions as we read from Walter Brueggemann’s Celebrating Abundance. His reflection for the second Monday in Advent lifts up the new and subversive song of joy. “The new song never describes the world the way it now is,” Brueggemann writes. “The new song imagines how the world will be in God’s good time to come. The new song is a protest against the way the world now is. The new song is a refusal to accept the present world as it is,” he continues, “a refusal to believe this is right or that the present will last” (page 22).

If joy is a delighted protest against the oppressive status quo and a laughing proclamation of the changes to come, then it is no wonder that we encounter joy most often in the midst of the changes and challenges of life. Brueggemann offers a joyful prayer for living in the midst of those changes and challenges. “In this Advent season, teach us the new song, which heralds the new world that is coming, the new reality that is taking shape before our eyes. May we rejoice,” he prays, “in its truth and power and join all creation in its loud amen!” (page 23).

It is Gaudete Sunday. Expect joy!

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Brueggemann, Walter. Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Know Press, 2017.

Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003;  65,  1;  ProQuest Religion pg. 80.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-zephaniah-314-20-5.

SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.