One of the challenges that pastors face as they prepare sermons is what to do with texts that are heavy on Law and light on Gospel. As I look at the four assigned lectionary texts for each preaching occasion, I am often drawn toward preaching texts where the Gospel predominates quite clearly in the text. Perhaps other pastors can relate. If the text has overt, obvious Gospel, it becomes much easier to move from the Gospel in the text to the Gospel for the congregation. But how do we handle texts that are light on Gospel? Texts that do not blatantly point us to the Good News of Jesus? Below are two ideas.
Look to the Language of the Text
One such text that’s a bit light on Gospel is coming up in the three-year lectionary: Mark 7:1–13. In this text, the Pharisees confront Jesus and His disciples for not washing their hands according to the tradition of the elders. Jesus calls them out for their hypocrisy, abandoning the commands of God in favor of holding to their own traditions. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees are accusation and condemnation. Preachers probably have no shortage of application to their own contexts. This problem of setting up our own traditions and ignoring God’s command is something that continues to affect us. But a sermon that follows a text-application structure will be found just as lacking in Good News as the text itself.
If we look to the language of the text, we find several options for proceeding toward Gospel proclamation. I like to look for two things in the language of the text: (1) problem words or phrases and (2) potential grace words or phrases. There are many options for Mark 7:1–13, including defiled, unwashed, far from me, in vain, leave, reject, void, washed, hold, and establish.
After finding these words, I look for where there might be Gospel movement from a problem word to a grace word. Here are two examples from Mark 7:1–13.
Defiled → Washed
In verses 2 and 5, we see the Pharisees’ complaint. Jesus’ disciples are eating with defiled hands. The Pharisees are concerned about ceremonial washing and ritual purity. In verse 4, we see that these religious leaders are washing (βαπτίζω) all sorts of things in a particular, ceremonial way. But this washing is not bringing any true purity or cleansing. These Pharisees are still defiled, the very problem for which they are accusing Jesus’ disciples. (In the next pericope, Mark 7:14–23, we see what truly defiles the person is the heart, not external matters.) How are people cleansed and made pure from defilement? One might use the language from the text of being washed (not washing oneself). For us, such washing occurs in Baptism (Titus 3:4–7) and in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). The Pharisees reject and refuse not only God’s Word of command by refusing Baptism but also reject Jesus Himself, who seeks to bring them true cleansing by the blood of His cross.
Leave/Reject → Hold/Establish
In verse 8, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of leaving or abandoning (ἀφέντες) God’s Word and commands in favor of holding to (κρατεῖτε) the traditions of men. In verse 9, Jesus repeats a similar condemnation with different words. The Pharisees have rejected (ἀθετεῖτε, which would perhaps be better rendered as “nullify,” “invalidate,” or “ignore”) God’s Commandments in order to establish (τηρήσητε, perhaps better translated as “keep”) their own traditions.
One option for grace in this text is that Jesus shows the Pharisees a different way. Jesus does the opposite of the Pharisees, and Jesus’ actions are for us. Jesus leaves the heavens and comes down to earth for us. Jesus does not ignore God’s commands but holds fast to them on our behalf. Jesus is rejected by His own people, but God establishes Him as the resurrected Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).
As we read Mark 7:1–13, many people will naturally identify with the Pharisees in the story and hear Jesus’ words of accusation against them. Hearers will consider how they have been hypocrites. But there is another option for where we might identify with this text: the disciples.
If we put ourselves in the disciples’ shoes, the problem shifts. No longer is Jesus confronting us. Jesus is defending us. The disciples’ problem is that the Pharisees are accusing them of being inferior, of being sinners, of being outside of God’s favor.
Jesus defends the disciples. He points out the ridiculousness of trying to measure God’s favor by something as trivial as how a person washes their hands. The Pharisees are nothing but a bunch of hypocritical bullies who go around burdening people with made-up rules, all the while ignoring God’s most basic instructions, such as honoring their parents.
Like the disciples, we, too, face bullies. We face lies and accusations of all kinds. Satan loves to lie to and accuse God’s people in the past and present. When the problem is a bully, what do we need? We need somebody to defend us, protect us, and get rid of the bully. As Luther writes in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” stanza 2:
No strength of ours can match his [Satan’s] might.We would be lost, rejected.But now a champion comes to fight,Whom God Himself elected.You ask who this may be?The Lord of hosts is He,Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,God’s only Son, adored.He holds the field victorious.
Jesus gives us the victory over our enemies, over bullies and Pharisees, over Satan’s lies and accusations. We see this victory in Jesus’ victory over death in His glorious resurrection. United with Christ, we, too, will rise from the grave, victorious forever.
So if you come across a text that seems a bit light on Gospel, don’t fret. Look to the language of the text for Gospel movement, or try changing the perspective you are taking. Perhaps you’ll see the text from a new angle and discover once again how gracious and loving our God is.