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?

Bible Study: 4 Advent (C)

December 23, 2012

Lea Colvill, Sewanee

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:41)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Micah 5:2-5

Micah was from a rural area that the King of Assyria razed in Micah’s youth. Micah criticized the urban elite from Jerusalem for corruption in morals and business. He warned that the Temple would be destroyed if the nation did not repent; and the Temple was destroyed about 150 years later.

Micah was longing for moral courage in this passage. If his people would repent and demonstrate moral courage, then God might grant them the military might to cast off invaders, such as the Assyrians, and restore national unity through a Messiah. The title “Messiah” invokes an idea of militarily strong and extraordinarily moral leadership selected by God.

Bethlehem stands for rural values, and for King David because he was from Bethlehem, the youngest son of a shepherding family. King David became a great warrior and symbol of Israel’s golden age of national unity and military might. This passage reminds us of Micah’s criticism of corruption, his longing for national restoration to moral courage and that the long-awaited Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

How do you imagine a nation of moral courage?

What has God allowed to be destroyed in your own life to call you to repentance?

Psalm 80

The people who need to be restored in this prayer are the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh – the tribes of the north. For Christians, this family is a symbol of the world. Joseph stands for those who are enslaved or in prison. Benjamin stands for the young and orphaned because he was the youngest and his mother died in childbirth. Ephraim and Manasseh are brothers born in refugee status but welcomed as heirs back into their families. They are the people who do not know the customs and yet belong to us. Ephraim and Manasseh are also two boys who have their birth order reversed when they are blessed, so one gets more than he expects and the other gets less. These lost tribes are the people who have tears instead of bread and are scorned by those who do not care.

“Restore all of us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (v. 19).

When have you felt laughed to scorn?

Who is left out in your family, school or workplace, neighborhood, or community? Who might partner with you in imagining restoration?

Hebrews 10:5-10

This passage assumes that the reader knows the rites for purification in the Temple and the psalms well enough to fill in the blanks and create a medley that will say more than what is written.

The phrase “a body prepared” (v. 5) reminds us of the offerings for every sin recorded in Leviticus 4:1-5:13. The size of the offering (grain, pigeons, doves, sheep, goats and bulls) was based on the station of the sinner, not the severity of the sin. The body God prepared was his own son because he desired to be reconciled to us.

The phrase “in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings” (v. 6) comes from Psalm 40:7. The implied refrain is, “I love to do your will, O my God, your law is deep within my heart.”

The phrase “You have neither desired … sin-offerings” (v. 8) refers to Psalm 51:17-18: “I would have offered sacrifice, but you take no delight in burnt offerings. The Sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” Offerings for sin treated the symptoms, but an obedient heart turned to God can be cured. The end of the old way makes way for the new.

Are there verses in this reading that echo through your imagination?

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In this passage, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth, who is also carrying a miraculous child. Elizabeth’s son in her old age will be John the Baptist, and even in utero, he is filled with the Holy Spirit announcing Jesus. Later in Luke, Jesus said, “What has been hidden from the wise will be revealed to infants” (Luke 10:21). Elizabeth’s greeting is the cry of the Holy Spirit and an external validation of Mary’s internal experience. Her annunciation story has the form of the call of a prophet. This form would have been as clear to first-century listeners as the form of a knock-knock joke is to us. Mary’s prophecy is the passage we call the Magnificat. It is similar to the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, Chapter 2. It is not a future wish but is already fulfilled. The couplets in her song amplify each other, as is common in Hebrew poetry. You can nearly hear Elizabeth nodding in agreement to encourage her to say more. Mary and Elizabeth invite even women, young and old, into the unfolding salvation story.

What is being made new around you?

How can you partner with God and others in this?

Bible Study: 3 Advent (C)

December 16, 2012

Broderick Greer, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zephaniah’s prophetic work came at a time of bankrupt religious and political leadership in Israel’s history: idolatry is rampant, national identity is waning, social and economic violence are commonplace, and priests are profaning the sacred. God is not in any way pleased with the trajectory Israel has chosen for itself. I was surprised by what I found (after finally finding Zephaniah in my Bible): a “minor” prophet with a major voice. After promising to “utterly sweep everything from the face of the earth” (1:1); destroy the Ethiopians (2:12); and after calling the prophets of Jerusalem “faithless” (3:4), Zephaniah tells Israel to sing. And not just sing. Zephaniah admonishes the people of God to rejoice and exult with all their hearts, because the “LORD has taken away the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies” (3:15a). Zephaniah describes the source of Israel’s rejoicing: “The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” (3:15b).

Zephaniah challenges his people to imagine a new future for themselves. He challenges them to imagine a future with God on the throne. He challenges them to imagine a future where fear is unnatural, idolatry is irrelevant, and God’s merciful justice is the new status quo. For Zephaniah, God’s judgment is not an end in itself. For Zephaniah, God’s judgment is a means to an end. It is God’s vehicle for renewing and sustaining God’s chosen people. And in a beautifully circular moment, the same God who admonishes Israel to sing now sings over Israel (3:17). God joins Israel in rejoicing in a world set to rights. Since meaningful music cannot be contained, it spreads to the lame and outcast, turning their “shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (3:19). The God of the prophet Zephaniah is good and merciful and just and wants to share that with Israel in deep and transformative ways. If only they had realized that from the beginning. If only we knew that now.

What does the God’s singing voice sound like? What does God’s song sound like? What would it look like if we joined in the song with God?

Canticle 9

One of the most frustrating aspects of Advent is the waiting. Elizabeth waits her whole life to bear a son. Zechariah waits months before being able to speak again. Mary waits atop a donkey on her and Joseph’s trek to Bethlehem. There seems to be a lot of waiting in Bible. And the hard work of waiting may not even rest in the waiting itself. I think it rests in navigating and discerning what to do in the midst of waiting. For a reason unbeknownst to me, I believe this song is an ideal meditation at this particular point in Advent. After three weeks of waiting, we still have one week to go. This song is a sharp reminder of our hope and assurance in God. This song helps provoke an imagination of life wholly centered on and in the living God. Because of our wider culture’s imposition of a long Christmas (November 1-December 25), it can hard to resist the temptation of consumerism. Isaiah’s imagination places God in the center of life, as his sole source of rescue and safety (12:2). Isaiah calls us to trust in God instead of trusting in capitalism or a robust economy or the newest gadgets and toys.

I know that when I am waiting for an important package to arrive in the mail, I will begin waiting for it with great anticipation. But as time goes on, I will often forget about its imminent arrival and become distracted by other things. The prophet Isaiah was well aware of the human inclination toward forgetfulness, and tells his people to “see that they remember that [God’s] Name is exalted” (12:4b). One task of the church is reminding the world of all the great things God has done. God is our rescuer. God is our stronghold. God is our sure defense. The good news of Isaiah is that the God of Israel is not ours for the keeping. The deeds of the LORD are to be made known “among the peoples” (i.e., everybody). Isaiah encourages us to be generous in our retelling of God’s gracious goodness toward us. This goodness is worthy of our pronouncement. So, cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel!

Isaiah encourages his hearers to make God’s “deeds known among the peoples.” In what ways can you make the deeds of God known among the peoples? What deeds of God are worth retelling?

Philippians 4:4-7

You only have to go as far as your nearest Transportation Security Administration checkpoint to gauge American society’s collective anxiety. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States spent $711,000,000 on military protection and maintenance this year (http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2012/04). In the months and subsequent years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, our country launched conflicts in two different countries and liberally imprisoned American citizens who didn’t look “American” enough, all for the sake of peace. But this is not peace at all. It is a “peace” rooted in worry. It is a “peace” rooted in anxiety. For St. Paul, peace is not a fleeting feeling, but a solid reality anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This peace, according to the aging apostle, surpasses all understanding. The peace of Christ is not strengthened by nuclear arms or pre-emptive military strikes, but through prayer, supplication and thanksgiving. This is countercultural, right?

While our country continues pumping funds into defense budgets and border patrols, Jesus calls his disciples to practice the way of peace by conforming to the most vulnerable of postures: kneeling. Knees aren’t made for walking or running. Knees are hinge points of flexibility. And maybe the lasting peace and security hinge on our ability to kneel, requesting God’s help, celebrating God’s presence, and contemplating God’s self-disclosure: Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus do not have time to waste on worry or anxiety. The time is urgent. The Lord is near. The world is in desperate need of gentle people who are centered, non-anxious and joyful. Jesus, through St. Paul, invites us to join him on the road toward a peaceful future. It won’t hurt to invite others on the journey with us.

What makes you anxious? Have you offered that anxiety over to God? Take five minutes to sit in silence and offer God everything: your worries, your joys, your failures and your gratitude. Invite God to be your companion on the road toward peace.

Luke 3:7-18

St. John the Baptist never pulled any punches. (If your diet consisted of locusts and wild honey and your wardrobe was camel hide, you wouldn’t either.) He was a bold public witness of God’s ongoing drama of cosmic rescue. He was busy calling Israel back to its primal vocation: as participants in God’s generosity. He calls on the crowd to share a coat with a person who needs one and food with the hungry. He encourages soldiers and tax collectors to practice honesty in their oft-corrupt professional dealings. Yes, the desert-roaming prophet can come off as a little pushy, but sometimes pushiness is necessary. Like a fire marshal attempting to rescue every person she possibly can, the saintly baptizer is attempting to rescue Israel from itself. Dishonesty and selfishness tear communities down. Honesty and generosity strengthen communities.

St. John the Baptist is a model Advent practitioner; even though his public preaching is drawing throngs of people, he points beyond himself to the coming Messiah. At its core, Christian vocation is just that: an emptying of self for the sake of the One “who is more powerful than I.” Like St. John the Baptist, we are not worthy to untie the throng of Jesus’ sandals. But our unworthiness needn’t distract us from the work Jesus has given us to do. In this Advent season, Jesus calls his church to prepare the world for his coming. Through public proclamation and private conversation, the church is always on the fringes of society calling people toward Love. We are mistaken if we believe this Love can be easily dismissed or effortlessly ignored. No, this Love has demands: that we treat our neighbors justly and turn away from practices that undermine the mercy of God.

Jesus is coming to “clear his threshing-floor and to gather his wheat into his granary” and to burn chaff with “unquenchable fire.” What parts of your life could use some burning? How can you join St. John the Baptist in preparing the world for the coming of Jesus on Christmas?

Bible Study: 2 Advent (C)

December 9, 2012

Jordan Haynie, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’” (Luke 3:4) 

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79)Philippians 1:3-11Luke 3:1-6

Malachi 3:1-4

Advent can be a tough time. We all just want to think about candy canes, ugly sweaters, children dancing the Nutcracker, eggnog and sweet little Jesus in the manger. But this Sunday we remember Christ’s Second Advent, yet to come. The prophets uniformly call for the world to be transformed, and for all that we know to be overturned for the sake of the Kingdom. This passage says that we will “delight” in the messenger of the covenant; we will like what we hear! But who can endure it? Even if we celebrate the good news of the Kingdom of God, even though Kingdom ways are better than our ways, our ways are comfortable. Being shaken out of them will be tough.

Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)

What does it mean that we have been set free? Is this an invitation to lawlessness? Does it mean physical freedom, that no one can make you a slave? Or is it a spiritual freedom? What does that freedom mean for our lives?

“God promised to show mercy to our fathers.” But sometimes He didn’t. Bad things still happened. What does God’s promise of mercy mean in the face of tragedy and doubt?

What a beautiful image, that “the dawn from on high shall break upon us” as the “tender compassion of our God.” What hope wells up in you as you hear this image? What will that dawn look like to you?

Philippians 1:3-11

Who do you remember with joy in every one of your prayers? What about them brings you so much joy? What hopes do you have for them?

What in this season do you long for in the compassion of Christ Jesus? Do you miss family and friends? Do you long to see justice done on earth? Do you ache for the Kingdom of God to be made manifest?

How can your love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight? What encourages you to love more and more every day?

Luke 3:1-6

John the Baptist is such an odd figure for the church. We admire and revere him for his work proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, and for baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan, but if we’re honest, he was a little bit crazy. So crazy that if we met him today, we would be pretty creeped out by him. I mean, doesn’t he sound like one of those guys with the signs that say “The End is Near!”?

But unlike those guys, John was actually right. He prepared the way of the Lord with confidence, and refused to be shaken by his crazy reputation. Sometimes, God calls us to be crazy Christians. Probably not to stand in the road with signs, but definitely to remind the world that it is not behaving in the way God intended. There are mountains and valleys, crooked and rough places. In order for God’s reign to truly be known on earth, these must be made straight and level.

How can we work to make this a reality in our own place and time?

Bible Study: 1 Advent (C)

December 2, 2012

Dorian Del Priore, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.” (Luke 21:34-35) 

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah 33:14-16

As we enter the season of Advent, we are reminded of God’s gracious providence. These verses from Jeremiah were a reminder to God’s people in the midst of exile of the promise of a Davidic Messiah and the divine grace that will bring peace and security. For us today, it is an announcement that God’s providence is still relevant for our lives. God continues to be concerned about our situation and circumstances, a wonderful reminder in the midst of economic uncertainty, political friction and natural disasters. We are shown love and care in that God desires justice and righteousness to be executed on behalf of God’s people, and we are promised security and safety within our community. What is most profound is that we, as a community of faithful, are claimed and defined by the righteousness of God.

How should the providence of God shape the orientation of our faith and our daily lives?

What does it mean as a community to be defined by an attribute of God?

Psalm 25:1-9

The psalmist captures a deep desire to be engaged and formed by the very life of God. Beginning by acknowledging a dependence on God, the psalmist petitions for God’s movement in his life: deliverance, direction and forgiveness. As we enter Advent, this type of posture grants us an unparalleled opportunity as we wait expectantly for God’s movement and what is to unfold. This psalm is an honest call to self-reflection as we approach the throne of grace with our brokenness. Finally, the psalmist proclaims hope in God’s divine providence in anticipation of new beginnings.

In the midst of the noise of the public, secular Christmas season, how can we engage authentic self-reflection?

What most gets in the way of expectantly waiting for and engaging God’s movement in our lives and in the world?

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Hope frames our preparations as we await God’s movement expectantly. But we are not to wait passively. We are called to engage others in love. Our formation as the people of God is rooted in the love of others. And so as we prepare ourselves for God’s movement in the world and in our lives, as we seek the holiness of God and prepare for the coming of the Christ, we are called to be a blessing to the people our lives come into contact with.

How does this posture frame the Advent season on a personal level?

How could this orientation encourage families to engage others during Advent in creative and practical ways?

How would it look different if we gave presence instead of just presents?

Luke 21:25-36

We can easily find apocalyptic literature a bit bewildering, and it is not any easier to swallow when it comes from the mouth of Jesus. What we have to remember, though, is that Jesus does not speak of the end times or the end of the world. This apocalyptic discourse that ushers in the season of Advent is a reminder and proclamation of new things to come: new realities and new life. The coming of the Kingdom of God ushers in a hope for the redemption of the brokenness of the world in which we live.

But maybe what is most amazing is that the words of Jesus tell us that this movement is so big and so essential that the entirety of the cosmos echoes with signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Creation groans with expectation for the incarnate Jesus and the movement of God in the world.

Where do you see the movement of God in the world?

Where do you see signs of redemption?

How does the promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God give you hope, individually and corporately?

As a follower of Jesus, how are you motivated by the hope found and promised in Jesus?

Bible Study: Last Sunday After Pentecost / Christ the King (B)

November 25, 2012

Sarah Ginolfi, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’” (John 18:37)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Samuel 23:1-7 and Psalm 132:1-13, (14-19) (or Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Psalm 93); Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

2 Samuel 23:1-7

In King David we see a man of both triumph and woe. This crafty king rose in status by toppling Goliath, yet King David would not be the king who would go on to defeat death. His last song in Second Samuel reminds us that time restricts even a king’s human walk on earth. On Christ the King Sunday, however, King David’s last song prepares us to welcome the Christ child into the world – the everlasting King whose song still rings in churches, homes and communities throughout the world. In our preparation for Advent, this reading helps us to see that God’s leadership in the world is everlasting and that God’s continued leadership on earth through Christ transcends human limitation.

Why do we celebrate times of transition?

How do we prepare our communities and ourselves?

Psalm 132:1-13, (14-19)

When I was a teenager, my church youth leaders took my friends and me on a number of outings. During these trips, our leaders gave us free reign to listen to whatever music we wanted along the way. As we made our way to the museum, the camp ground, the soup kitchen, etc., we shouted popular songs at the top of our lungs. Often, the car ride was the most memorable part of the trip.

I’ve lost touch with most of my friends from youth group and my taste in music has changed, but every now and then, I hear one of the songs that my friends and I used to sing on our outings and feel a deep sense of rootedness despite our physical separation. These memories keep me united with the God who is beyond touch, time and, thankfully, my teenaged preference in music.

While we cannot pinpoint the exact derivation of Psalm 132, a song often grouped in a collection called “ascent psalms” (Ps 120-134), we have evidence that it might have originated on pilgrim journeys to Jerusalem. By remembering King David through song, the ancient Israelites recalled the many ways that God worked through David’s life. These memories created an everlasting image of kingship that would continue in the life, death and perpetual memory of Christ that we celebrate today.

What makes your heart sing?

What songs do you associate with your walk in Christ?

Revelation 1:4b-8

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come.

I wonder why the writer of Revelation doesn’t not proclaim that God is all the letters of the Greek alphabet. Wouldn’t this help us imagine the God who is as well as the God who was and is to come? This image of God – the one who is today – is the hardest for me to locate on a daily basis. Christ came to earth to model the God who is, but sometimes I get so lost in my own what is – school assignments, projects around the house, business meetings – that I lose sight of the greater GOD WHO IS. Only when I live fully into the life of community – the church without walls of service, friendship and family – I am reminded of God’s daily presence in my life.

What does the God who is look, taste, touch, smell and feel like?

How does life in community help you find the God who is?

John 18:33-37

Immediately following this passage, Pilate asks Jesus: “What is the truth?” What is the truth? Well, we never receive a direct answer to this question. The unanswered question lingers in our minds as Pilate walks to consult “the Jews.” (Here, I place “Jews” in quotations to emphasize how the Gospel of John refers to Jesus’ opponents, in general, as “the Jews.” John does not use the term in an anti-Semitic way.)

I wonder what Pilate was thinking each time he walked back and forth between Jesus and the crowd of shouting Jews. Who is this man who proclaims to be from another world, and why is he in my headquarters? Or: Why can’t these people manage their own judgment and punishment? Here, John’s gospel portrays “the truth” as an unanswerable question sandwiched between Jesus and his opponents.

Today, we acknowledge a truth in Christ that can be hard to explain to our friends, neighbors and global family. Pilate’s movement back and forth between Jesus and the crowd mimics our own struggle to live into such a truth.

So – how do we share a complicated truth with the world?

Bible Study: 25 Pentecost, Proper 28 (B)

November 18, 2012

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Mark 13:8)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (or Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16); Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

1 Samuel 1:4-20

The books of Samuel deal with the period that marked the emergence of prophecy and monarchy in ancient Israel. The First Book of Samuel opens with a recurring theme in Israel’s history – God hears the cry of the marginalized and oppressed. In this case it is Hannah, the beloved wife of Elkanah, the man who will be the father of Samuel. She is unable to have children. Hannah is taunted for her lack of fecundity by Elkanah’s other wife, Penninah.

This story, like so many others from the scriptures, illustrates how God finds a way into our lives in times of desperation and sadness. In fact, the biblical record indicates that God longs to be with us in the moments of trial and hurt; the Lord has a preference for those who are suffering. While God certainly does not design or plan hardship for us, it is through our wounds, through the crack in the heart, that God’s light enters our lives.

Hannah represents all of us who have faced hopeless situations. Her story shows how God can transform even the most desperate situations into surprisingly wonderful futures. Above all, she teaches us the necessity of communicating our deepest longings to God, trusting in the Lord’s power to turn darkness into light, even when we see no way to that dawn.

Have you experienced the consoling presence of God in times of hardship? Does Hannah’s story stand in solidarity with your own?

Where/when in your life have you experienced God’s transforming power (i.e., God’s power to turn hopeless situations into a hope-filled future)?

1 Samuel 2:1-10

The author of Luke’s gospel based his Magnificat text (Luke 1:46-55) on this Song of Hannah. The themes of Mary and Hannah are similar – joy at the birth of a child and praise of God’s power. The Magnificat speaks of God’s mercy, whereas Hannah extols God’s justice. Both sing of God’s casting down the rich and uplifting the poor. Hannah’s words mention explicitly the defeat of God’s (and her) enemies. What are we to make of this rather strong language: “The bows of the mighty broken” and “the wicked shall be cut off in darkness”? While most mature adults do not plot or pray for the destruction of people they do not like, there are many negative forces we face in our lives; forces that perpetuate oppression; forces that only God can counter and transform. For example, we fall victim to self-loathing, depression, difficult family/marital issues, grudge-bearing and harbored hurt. These forces oppress us, keep us from being the people God calls us to be. And sometimes these powers can be so strong that it seems there is no way out. The song of Hannah, however, is a testimony to God’s ability to defeat even these seemingly insurmountable issues.

Are there any words, phrases or images in the Song of Hannah that speak to you?

How do Hannah’s words of the “great reversal” resonate with you (i.e., the hungry are fat with spoil, the barren has borne seven, etc.)?

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25

In times of desolation, we might feel that we are unworthy to approach God. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by an instance or pattern of personal failure, a bout of melancholia, or we become conscious of our own distance from God due to neglecting our relationship with God. We might find it difficult to turn to God because we lack confidence in our worthiness to resume the relationship. While such feelings are not predominant in the spiritual life, they are real enough.

This passage from Hebrews tells us that Jesus has provided us irrevocable access to God. Like any favored son, Jesus may go right to his Father, even when it appears that the doors are closed. And Jesus takes us with him. So when we desire to approach God, there is no sin, no failing, no time or distance away from God that will prevent us. This is the compassion of God; Jesus’ love for all humankind, and faith in the will and vision of the Creator, even though it required that he pass through a torturous death, has shown us just how much God desires to be in the life of every person. Our text today teaches us that there are no barriers between us and God, only the ones we set up ourselves in our own minds and hearts.

What are the barriers we erect that keep us from God? How does today’s passage from Hebrews speak to this concern for you?

How does the verse “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” resonate with you?

Mark 13:1-8

The stones of the Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple, which can still be seen standing today, were and are rather impressive. In fact, some are 30 feet long. These were surely the stones to which Jesus’ disciples were referring. Jesus uses their observation about the stones to springboard into a prophecy concerning the nation and people who were dear to him. This is appropriate in the context of his approaching execution. While modern Western people often speak of life “flashing before our eyes” before death, ancient Near Eastern people believed that in the days before death one gained powers of prognostication. Jesus exhibits that here. What follows from Jesus is an example of apocalyptic thought and discourse. “Apocalyptic” was a literary form common in the biblical period (see, for example, the Book of Daniel and Revelation), but alien to those of us in the modern world. Apocalyptic literature uses certain vocabulary and imagery, in this case earthquakes, wars, famines, etc., to convey a larger truth. Jesus is telling us to beware and persevere in times of hardship and trial, because no power can prevail against the power of Almighty God.

Where/how do you find spiritual comfort/nourishment in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in today’s gospel?

How do you relate, from your own experience, to what Jesus says in verse 8, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs”?

Bible Study: 24 Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – Nov. 11, 2012

Discussion Leader: Erin Jean Warde, Seminary of the Southwest

“Then Jesus called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12: 43-44)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127 (or 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146); Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

1 Kings 17:8-16

In this text, Elijah has been sent to Zarephath, and in this place he encounters a widow. He finds her at the gate, making her both literally and figuratively in the margins of society. In 1 Kings a continual theme is that God overcomes drought and famine to assert power over the natural world, in such a way that questions the sensibilities of the people. This is no different. Elijah speaks to the widow and asks her to feed him, and she explains that she has such little food that after eating it with her son, they would still die. Elijah empowers her and sends her to feed the three of them, with the promise that she can, through the power of God, offer this meal. Not only does he ensure that they will be fed once, but he also ensures that the jar of meal will not empty until God’s power is shown to the earth in the form of the end of the drought. Elijah brings to the widow a prophecy of abundance in a scarce land. Where the world may offer death, Elijah promises that God offers the provisions that ensure life.

Psalm 146

This psalm sings praises to Yahweh, while also in the third verse juxtaposing the power of God to the power of earthly rulers. The psalm proclaims, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” The psalm continues by taking readers back to the first showing of God’s power, creation, in verse six. The exclamation of the power of God shown in creation gives way to praise of God’s power on earth, a power shown through the means of justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry. To show the far-reaching extent of God’s power over the world God has created, God is defined as a God who sets prisoners free, heals people of their earthly infirmities, welcomes the stranger, shows compassion toward the orphan and the widow and defends the faithful people of God.

Hebrews 9:24-28

In this reading from Hebrews, the reader is reminded of the power of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which has offered grace to creation: past, present and future. Christ “did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands,” because the power of God is not from this world. Christ was present before God in God’s kingdom, and from that place intercedes for us, by offering us the power and presence of God-in-Christ. The work of God through Christ has transcended time and ended death. Death was ended not only for Christ, who was resurrected, but for the whole of humanity, because God has promised a savior who is sent “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Mark 12:38-44

In this text, the writer of Mark juxtaposes a story about the hypocrisy and false witness of the scribes with a story of a widow who gives her most honest offering. In verses 38-41, Jesus teaches against those who serve God, yet reap earthly rewards for doing so. This seems to go along with Jesus’ teaching that the first in the kingdom of God shall be last, and the last shall be first. The “places of honor at the banquets” are not for the people of God; the people of God are last on earth, and ushered first into the kingdom of Heaven. Earthly authority has no bearing on whether or not a person will receive the glory of God on the last day. Continuing in verse 41, the gospel writer tells the story of a poor widow giving a penny, which is “everything she had, all she had to live on.” Again, like in the reading from 1 Kings, the power of God takes a place of scarcity and transforms it into an offering of abundance. The widow is faithful, and she doesn’t give out of scarcity, she gives out of the abundance that she believes will come to pass through the faithfulness and power of God.

Bible Study: 23 Pentecost, Proper 26 (B) – Nov. 4, 2012

Discussion Leader: Anne Thatcher, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” (Mark 12:28-31)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ruth 1:1-18 and Psalm 146 (or Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Psalm 119:1-8); Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Deuteronomy 6: 1-9

In this passage we are commanded to love one another. This is not a recommendation or piece of wisdom. There is no disclaimer such as “if you feel like it” or a promise of reward such as “if you want others to love you.” This is not a helpful Tips for Living list. In fact, this entire passage is full of command words: hear, love, keep, talk, recite, bind, fix, write. This is about action. This is a call to live in ministry, not just chitchat about it or theorize. LOVE. Not “like,” not “spend time with.” LOVE.

What does that look like? We are so resistant to being commanded to do things, and yet, if this were not a command, would we take it as seriously? Would we truly understand what Jesus is telling us to do?

What would your life look like if you reminded yourself with every interaction that you are called to love the individual, regardless of who they are, where they come from? Love, regardless of the quality of your interaction, regardless of your expectations. Love, regardless of your feelings, opinions, and beliefs.

Psalm 146

This is a psalm of thanksgiving and the traditional format in a thanksgiving psalm is followed here: personal praises, followed by general praises, then a meditation on God’s justice. This meditation provides comfort for the individual because it rests on the historical evidence of God’s faithfulness to his people. It ends with the promise of God’s commitment to his people forever.

When times are difficult, when things are not going the way I hoped, when I feel that God is not answering my prayer, I unconsciously follow the pattern of this psalm. I start thinking about all that God has blessed me with up to this point in my life, the beauty, the surprises, the moving of mountains that I thought would never shift. And in that new perspective my frustration or disappointment seems less, for if God can move mountains, what is one small task in comparison? If God created the sea and all that is in it, what is my small request? Who am I to doubt God’s power? In these reflections I find great comfort in knowing that God’s promise is forever, there is no time limit, no condition upon which it will change. Never-ending love.

Hebrews 9:11-14

There is a criticism here of the traditional sacrificial offerings; they no longer qualify as a way to redemption. What are the sacrificial offerings in your own life that you keep going back to, that you offer to God as a way of making amends or asking for forgiveness?

Quitting smoking, losing weight, no more gambling,
ceasing use of alcohol or drugs, working less,
better money management, more exercise, marriage counseling,
stopping the practice of various vices

Are you living as if these changes will buy you God’s forgiveness?

Mark 12:28-34

We are called to love, but it is a love in and through Christ, not human love. In his book  “Life Together” (HarperOne, 1978), Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that “human love makes an end in itself” while “spiritual love is bound solely to the Word of Jesus Christ … because spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother.” Our love for others must come through God, for our own personal love will get in the way, it will be too full of humanly desire and agendas. And yet this does not begin with the loving of others through God, it begins with loving God fully – loving God with every essence of our being, with heart, soul, mind and strength.

Is there someone in your life whom you find disagreeable? What happens when you view them through God, as God’s creation, rather than through your own filter?