Monday, May 19, 2008

Welcome to Your Nightmare

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

It's my dream, but many of you have had it too: I am enrolled in a college course, it's more than halfway through the semester…and I have done nothing. No lectures. No reading. No thinking. In its most virulent form, the dream pops up every week or two; the semester marches on even in dreamland, but I continue to do nothing.
I suspect seminary graduates may have their own variation on this nightmare. You are tucked away in your study, happily going about your sermon preparation, when you feel a cold breath on the back of your neck. You turn in horror to see the ghost of J. Gresham Machen, or the spectre of Bill Mounce, standing behind you. He speaks no word, but only points to your Greek New Testament sitting unused on your bookshelf, and then disappears. You awake in a cold sweat.
Let me offer a few words of encouragement for those of you drowning in a sea of Greek Guilt (those of you with Hebrew Humiliation will have to wait for now). First of all, remember that you can derive all sorts of benefit from reading the Greek text even if you can't tell a passive periphrastic from a Pittsburgh Penguin. In fact, if you do nothing but notice repeated words in the Greek text, you will find your sermon preparation is made easier, not more difficult, by examining the original text. More often than not, the New Testament writers make their main point clear the same way you make your own main points clear: by repeating them.
Here are few quick examples. We all know the story of the Wee Little Man, Zacchaeus. (You can repeat the lyrics in your head here now to refresh the tale.) But did you know that Luke says literally that “Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus…” (Luke 19:3)? When you work your way to v.10, you see the same word appear: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” With that simple observation, you come upon the heart of the story: Zacchaeus is indeed seeking Jesus…but Jesus' seeking of Zacchaeus is deeper and truer and more enduring than Zacchaeus' seeking of Jesus could ever be.
Luke does something similar back in chapter 4, when Jesus speaks to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. In v.19, Jesus concludes his Scripture reading from Isa. 61:1 by saying he is proclaiming “the acceptable year of the Lord”. The word for “acceptable” is dektos (and its importance is highlighted by the fact that it is the final word of the quotation). When Jesus goes on to rebuke the crowd and say, “No prophet is accepted in his home town…” (v.24), “accepted” is, you guessed it, dektos. This gives us the central tension of the story: God is now willing to accept people into his kingdom, but the people of Nazareth are unwilling to accept his king.
Paying attention to repeated words can also help make sense of bigger portions of Scripture. If you read carefully through Philippians, for instance, you will see that much of the vocabulary in the “hymn to Christ” in 2:5-11 is picked up in the rest of the letter. Perhaps the most striking example comes in 2:30, where Paul says that Epaphroditus came “unto death” for his faith in Christ. While of course Epaphroditus recovered from his illness, it is no coincidence that the phrase Paul uses is identical to the one he uses in 2:8 to describe Christ's death. The lesson is clear. Epaphroditus is living out Christ's story, and the Philippians are to go and do likewise.
Be encouraged! None of this is beyond your grasp. With a little work brushing up what you already know, you can make your sermon preparation simpler, faster, and more faithful to the intent of God's word. That sounds like a dream come true.

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