|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Genesis 21:8-21||Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17||Romans 6:1b-11||Matthew 10:24-39|
By Ron Allen
The Priestly theologians gave the book of Genesis its present form shortly after the exile. The Priests believed that God sought to bless the entire world and that Israel had a particular mission within that purpose, namely, to alert the other nations to blessing.
From the Priestly point of view, the story of Hagar and Ishmael indicates that, despite the troubled history between the descendants of Sarah and her child Isaac (the Jewish community) and the descendants of Hagar and her child Ishmael (others), God maintains covenant with the latter and seeks to bless them.
The congregation can thus hear the text as assurance or challenge (or both). The preacher might identify groups today who are in situations similar to that of Hagar and Ishmael, as well as Sarah and Isaac, and choose the emphasis of the sermon on the basis of the local context. The story assures those who are in situations similar to Hagar and Ishmael of God’s providence. The story challenges those who, like some folk at the time of the Priestly group, want to claim that God’s blessing is limited to them.
The story makes the aforementioned points through a brutal narrative. The sermon could take such themes into account, e.g. the picture of God who seemingly sanctions breaking apart the family and sending Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, jealousy, conflict between women, homelessness, Abraham’s relative passivity, a single mother in a threatening environment, the injustice of the master/servant (mistress/servant) hierarchy, and impotence in the face of a threat to a child.
God eventually steps directly into Hagar’s situation. Today that role typically comes to life through people, agencies, movements, and legal actions. The preacher might help the congregation identify practical means by which to participate with God in such life-restoring ways.
Scholars sometimes identify the movement of Psalm 86, an individual lament, in a way that could suggest a movement for the sermon: (a) Circumstances of lamentation (vv. 1:1-10); (b) learning God’s ways in such circumstances (vv. 11-13); (c) trust in God in such circumstances. The lament assumes that God can intervene in history. Those who do not believe in an interventionist God could help the congregation rethink what they can expect from God.
Psalm 86:15 draws on a traditional understanding of God also found in Exodus 34:6 and Psalms 103:8 and 145:8. This text, could spark a doctrinal sermon on the nature of God. What does it mean to say God is merciful? Gracious? Slow to anger? Steadfast in love? Faithful?
Both Paul and Matthew were apocalyptic theologians who believed that after Genesis 3, history proceeded as a broken old age marked by idolatry, Satan, the demons, injustice, fractiousness, sickness, exploitation, enmity between humankind and nature, violence, and death. Through Jesus, God signaled that God was about to end the old world and replace it with the Realm of God when all things would manifest God’s purposes of love, justice, peace, health, mutual support between humankind and nature, community, and eternal life.
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul vividly describes the old age. In Romans 2:1-4:25 the apostle interprets Jesus as the turning point in the ages. The church is an eschatological community which is to embody the life of the coming Realm. However, in Romans 5-8, Paul deals with the fact members of the eschatological community continue to be buffeted by the brokenness of the old world. They suffer as a consequence of conflicts between the ages (e.g. Rom 5:3; 8:20). They struggle with sin (e.g. 5:20; 6:12-14). They are conflicted between the desire to live according to the values and practices of the old age and those of the new (e.g. Rom 7:14ff.).
Most likely the early churches practiced baptism by immersion of believers. In Romans 6:1-11 Paul wants the community to see that through baptism, they not only are they united with Christ. God uses baptism to assure the community that they have been transferred from the dominion of the old world to that of the new. The old self, that is, the self that assumed that complicity with the values and practices of the old age was the normative life, has died. Instead, they are on a pathway to a resurrection like his, which includes life in the coming eschatological Realm.
In the midst of the conflicts between the old and new ages, immersion gives the self a body-memory of this change of dominions. The self is covered with water as if being entombed: the self has died to the power of the old world. The self is then raised from the water, thus dramatizing Christ being raised from the dead. .
The preacher could help the congregation consider ways in which baptism continues to assure the community of God’s presence and encouragement amidst the conflict between the values and practices represented by the two ages. This effect is true regardless of the mode of one’s baptism (immersion, sprinkling, pouring) or the age at which it occurred (adult, child, infant).
Matthew 10:24-39 is part of the second large teaching discourse in the first gospel. Matthew portrays Jesus as the eschatological rabbi teaching the community how to live in response to the partial dawning of the Realm of God and in anticipation of the coming full manifestation of the Realm.
The preacher could use vv. 24-33 to help the congregation to remember (a) to model themselves on Jesus and not on Beelzebul (Satan) (vv. 24-25), (b) to witness to the Realm with power, even in the face of opposition because God has them in divine care (vv. 26-31), and (c) to remember to be faithful or to be ready to face condemnation at the second coming (vv. 32-33).
A preacher needs to handle 10:34-39 with care. These verses sound as if Jesus intended to set family members against one another. More likely, Matthew shaped this material to provide a theological rationale for family breakups that were happening in the Matthean community. In the first century, identity was corporate, and family identity was the most aspect. Some families had probably broken apart as a result of some members identifying with Jesus and the Realm, and others not doing so. Matthew placed these words in the mouth of Jesus to justify the household ruptures that had taken place, and to assure such alienated family members that they had replacement family, so to speak, in the eschatological community.
A preacher does not want to use this text to foster unnecessary household alienation. To be sure, family members today do sometimes get in the way of faithfulness to the Realm. But in today’s individualistic and self-serving culture, a preacher might often foster greater witness to the Realm by encouraging family members to imagine how they can support one another, even (perhaps especially) in the face of adversity caused the old age.
Ron Allen is Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary and the author of Reading the New Testament for the First Time (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), a work designed for lay people.