Archives for December 2012

Bible Study: Epiphany

January 6, 2013

Will Prosser, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“On entering the house, the three wise men saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” (Matthew 2:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Isaiah 60:1-6

It’s Epiphany! This is the day of the year that we celebrate the Incarnation of God into the person of Jesus Christ. From the Incarnation flows everything else in our faith: the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Without the Incarnation, these things do not happen. Part of the power that comes from Epiphany is where it is placed in our liturgical season, for to get to Epiphany, we must go through Advent. We have gone through four weeks of fasting, repentance and darkness to get to the light of Epiphany.

After this “darkness” that will “cover the earth” and “the people,” Trito-Isaiah proclaims “Arise, shine; for your light has come!” Most scholars agree that the book of Isaiah is written by three authors, and that the core of this third Isaiah is Chapters 60-62. As Joseph Blenkinsopp points out in “Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary” (Yale University Press, 2003), this core speaks exclusively of salvation, and uncharacteristically of the prophets, there are no denunciations or conditions. In other words, this is a time of celebration. The day spring has come. Our God is with us, and it is now time for cheer and for the gloomy clouds of night to disperse.

Isaiah, as if entering into our Advent, proclaims a message of light and salvation into our dark and gloom.

One can become accustomed to the dark and gloom after a period in both. How might we be willing to accept the light and salvation of Jesus into our dark and gloom?

Discuss the feeling of this light entering in and how you are experiencing it.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

I think this psalm is incredibly useful to us in understanding the environment that Jesus comes to through his birth. This, among other reasons, is why the apostles seem constantly perplexed by Jesus’ teachings and actions. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, he is supposed to come in and start judging “with righteousness” and “crush[ing] the oppressor[s].” In more concrete terms, the expectation is that Jesus will come in, drive the Roman Empire out of the Holy Land, and overthrow false kings like Herod the Great. So when we come to Jesus’ ministry and he tells people to keep his identity a secret while preaching love of enemies, the apostles and the other people of first century Galilee want to know, “What gives?”

However, as we continue reading, we see how the last four verses give us the meaning of Epiphany and tell us “what gives” about Jesus’s ministry. The rulers of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba come to pay homage to the king. These places represent that which is foreign, strange and far away, in much the same way as the Magi when they visit Jesus. Christ, as the king in the psalm does, comes for the “the weak and the needy” and those who experience “oppression and violence,” and the foreigners who came from afar to pay homage are included in this promise. The King, Christ, comes to redeem the lives of all, including those foreign.

How do you feel about subverting expectations? Have you ever had God answer prayers or do something completely outside of your expectations?

Ephesians 3:1-12

Well, if Jesus subverted some traditional expectations, Paul confused everyone. Paul began persecuting followers of Christ when they first appeared. After having a revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, Paul became one of the most fervent followers of Christ and one of the faith’s most vocal proponents. Then, Paul, a Pharisee trained in a Hellenistic world, says that God called him to bring the faith to the gentiles. A member of one of the most conservative and traditional sects of Judaism wants to bring the faith of the promised Messiah to the Jewish people to those who know nothing of Judaism, the promised Messiah, or Jesus. Let’s just say that Paul raised a few eyebrows with his ministry.

This is a message of hope that Paul brings to the believers in Ephesus, for he says that the promise of relationship and covenant that God has historically promised to the Jewish people since they first heard the story of their patriarch Abraham is now available to all peoples through Jesus Christ. This, plain and simple, is why we should all be excited about Epiphany. The vast majority of us, Christians that is, are not of Jewish heritage, and the reason we know Christ at all is because we were brought in to the salvation story through Christ and told about it through his servant Paul. “Through faith” in God, we now have the “boundless riches of Christ” and the “wisdom of God.” Thanks be to God!

Do you ever think about your life in Christ within the framework of the covenant given by God to the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible? What do you think about that?

In light of this, what do you think about our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters? What should it be?

Matthew 2:1-12

The story that we celebrate on this day of Epiphany presents a clear dichotomy between Herod the Great, false king, and Jesus, genuine royalty, according to Ulrich Luz in “Matthew 1-7: A Commentary” (Fortress Press, 2007). Herod’s fright upon hearing from the Magi in verse 3 is the opposite of the joy that the magi have upon realizing that they will see Jesus soon in verse 10. Herod’s evil plan in verses 7-9 is frustrated by God in verse 12. Even in its structure, this story is meant to undercut Herod while “paying homage” to Jesus. (Interesting note: The verb used here for paying homage, προσκυνεω, is only used in reference to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.) This is clearly the story of the gentiles, the magi, coming for a connection with Judaism, for they specifically ask to see “the king of the Jews.”

Now, of course, what we always remember from this story is the star and the magi. Julius Caesar, Augustus and Herod all had stars on their coins to symbolize their kingship. Some theories would like to explain the star using science. Ulrich Luz, for example, points out a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction as one of the explanations. But this misses the point. The point is that God uses a miracle to symbolize God’s son’s kingship and divinity. This miracle shows God’s will in bringing the gentiles into the unfolding salvation plan. The star hanging in the sky is God announcing to the world, “Arise, shine; for your light has come”!

The story of the magi often gets lost in the mix of the nativity story. What do you think of the story when we see God’s will throughout it in the background?

Discuss some periods in your life when you look back and can see God’s influence over what was taking place.

Bible Study: 1 Christmas (C)

December 30, 2012

Susan Sevier, Virginia Theological Seminary

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:12-20; Galatians 3: 23-25, 4:4-7; John 1: 1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The writings of the prophet Isaiah are some of the most prominent as we walk through the teachings of Advent and Christmas, and today’s lectionary cycle begins with an outburst of hope and salvation – not a bad beginning for our worship on this first day of the Christmas season.

In these words, we hear the kind of hope that many of us may be feeling at this time, looking back on our holiday celebrations and looking forward to the promise of the New Year ahead. But read carefully; the hope in our text is the hope that comes with second chances, the hope that is built on the ashes of failure. It is a second marriage in v. 10; it is a return to fertility from fallowness that fills the garden of v. 11; it is, in fact, the return from exile to the land of Israel. It is the hope born of learning our lessons, licking our wounds and pulling together our inner strength to start again. And yet, it is a song of praise and thanksgiving that invites us all to live into this time, this season, and every day of our lives, fully – full of hope and possibility. Let your praises ring; let your hope fill the air. That is the message of this reading for today. Take a minute, and read this passage again along with the “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5. Compare the condemnation of that passage with the thanksgiving and praise of today’s reading. How far has Israel come from the moment of exile? What lessons are there for us in this? How can we move from our lowest point to reclaim that feeling of hope and praise and thanksgiving that can help us move on and continue our work in this world? Who is the speaker in verses 62:1-3? Is it God? Or is it the unknown writer? Is it meant to be you or me? When have you stepped forward to praise the Lord in a time when things around you did not look necessarily praiseworthy? What does the ability to praise from a place of faith rather than from a place of proof say about the strength of your faith?

Psalm 147

Our psalm for today is part of what is often called the “Hallelujah collection,” a five-psalm set that brings to a close the Psalter and therefore continues the praise and thanksgiving of our reading from Isaiah. In particular, the psalm continues praise and thanks for the blessings granted to Jerusalem. It offers praise for the God who provides, praise for the God who renews and uses nature imagery to weave this hymn of praise. But again, it is a hymn of praise built on the ashes of failure, because like our passage from Isaiah, this song is a song at the end of exile. And we know that the historical truth was that the Jerusalem to which the Israelites returned was smaller, more poor and in many ways a pile of rubble. At the end of the period of exile, the Israelites had nothing; they needed the God that made the grass grow and the water flow. And they needed the God that would strengthen their gates and grant peace where there had been none. And yet, in that need, they were still able to sing praises and remember the majesty of that God, the God that heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.

In this season of Christmas, many of us have given and received gifts. And despite the piles of things and gifts that surround us, and the general bounty of the culture in which we live, maybe we too, are empty-handed like the Israelites and in need of the God who provides. The question of this psalm is, can we look past our material surroundings and see what is important? Can we stand empty-handed before God despite our material comforts and sing praises of thanksgiving for all God does for this world? Read carefully v. 7-11 and v. 15-20. There are two types of giving here. What are they? Are there any conditions on that giving? Is there any particular danger in v. 20?

And finally, this psalm is written completely from the perspective of the receiver, not the giver. What is it like to be the receiver? What is like to need the gift, as did the people of Jerusalem? How does the knowledge that we need the gifts God has to offer change our relationship with our Maker?

Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7

Our psalm of praise and thanksgiving ends with a statement of Israel’s chosen position among all nations, that they are chosen because they alone adhere to God’s ordinances or Torah. And our passage from Galatians begins by connecting our obedience to God’s laws and faith in the redemptive power of Christ. Here we stand, drained by the Advent journey to Christmas, and Paul offers us a vision of the Pentecost ahead: yes, God sent the child born of woman to lead us from simple obedience to the Law, and now, because we, as children of God, have accepted that greatest gift of all, we receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

Paul says that the Holy Spirit enters our hearts crying “Abba, Father!” Why? What does this tell us about our relationship with God and with Jesus? In the Greek text, at the beginning of v. 7, the pronoun “you” changes from the plural form used early in the passage to a singular form: the text suddenly becomes less universal and more personal. What does this mean for Paul’s message to us?

John 1: 1-18

Our gospel passage for the day contains words that are simultaneously among the most comfortable and the most difficult in all the gospel texts. We hear the story told from the creation of the world through the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. We are offered the Word, who was one with God, who became flesh and walked among us, but we do not known Him. And we hear the echo of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in v. 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then, if we believe, the light will dawn and we too will see God through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Much of this passage is devoted to the unfolding identity of Jesus in the world. What metaphors are use to describe him? What do those metaphors mean to us today?

Read through the passage and look at all the references to “light.” And then, think about the first creation story, in which God creates the world with the words “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). What relationship is there between these two passages?

In v. 10, we are told that Jesus was here on earth, but the people did not know him: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” What are the ways every day (and in particular during this crazy holiday season) that we miss the presence of Christ in our world and our lives?