Archives for January 2013

Bible Study: 1 Lent (C)

February 17, 2013

Emilie Finn, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ (Luke 4:12)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

The Book of Deuteronomy is not just a book of laws, it is a covenant. In ancient Near Eastern societies, covenants or treaties were often made between kings and their vassals. These treaties consisted of a preamble or historical prologue contextualizing the covenant, the terms of the covenant itself, an invocation of witnesses, blessings and curses, and provisions for the recording and periodic reading of the covenant to remind the people of their agreement.

The Book of Deuteronomy follows this ancient Near Eastern treaty form, but it is unique in that it is not a covenant between the people and a human king, but between the people and God. This is the beginning of a long tradition in which the people of Israel see themselves as primarily or even solely obligated to God, rather than to any human ruler, native or foreign.

The passage we read today is from the section of this covenant that outlines the terms under which the Israelites pay “tribute” to God. In a human king/vassal relationship, a portion of the goods and resources of the subject people were owed to, or even seized by, the king. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites owe the first fruits of their land to God. They “pay” this tribute by bringing these fruits to the temple and participating in a liturgical ritual that ends in a feast in which they, along with the priests and any others with them, enjoy the fruits of their harvest. This is very different from having a portion of one’s harvest taken away by a distant king!

Offering the first fruits of each harvest to God served to remind the ancient Israelites to whom they owed their primary loyalty and allegiance. As we enter the season of Lent, it is worth reflecting on this. To what or to whom do you believe you owe your ultimate loyalty and allegiance? Who or what receives your “first fruits,” the first or best part of your time, your skills, and your material goods? Does your answer to the second question follow from the first, or are they at odds?

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

The reading from Deuteronomy includes an affirmation of Israel’s history with God that is almost like a creed (“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”). In Deuteronomy, it is because of the things God has done for Israel in the past that the people continue their relationship with God in the present. Psalm 91 is another confession of faith, but instead of remembering God’s past care for God’s people, the psalmist expresses trust in God’s care in the present. The faithful person characterized in this psalm confesses, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust,” and this trust forms the basis for the rest of the psalm. In what or in whom do you put your trust? Another way of asking this question is to ask yourself, what in your life provides you solid ground to stand on, without which you would not feel safe or whole?

Romans 10:8b-13

In Romans, confession of faith is in the future tense. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that god raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

When Paul defines salvation this way, it is important to remember that “confessing” had a meaning for early Christians (such as those Paul was writing to in Rome) that is quite different from the meaning we generally assign to it today. Early Christian martyrs were called “confessors” because they publicly confessed their faith in Jesus Christ even when doing so meant risking death; even when all they would have had to do to save themselves was remain silent. Confessing that Jesus is Lord was for them a real act that could lead to persecution and death, and early Christians were able to face death because their faith in Jesus’ resurrection was so deeply ingrained in their hearts that it had become the whole basis for their actions, superseding even their natural instinct for self-preservation.

Confession of faith, then, is not an abstract assent to a theoretical principle, but the articulation of that which we believe so deeply that it is the basis for the entire way we live our life.

If you had only a few words in which to articulate the basis out of which you live your life, what would you say? Do your actions match up with this articulation? Have you ever been in a situation in which you felt you had to speak the truth, when remaining silent might have been easier or safer?

Luke 4:1-13

Although all the readings for today deal in some way with a confession of faith, the gospel account is perhaps the most striking, since it portrays Jesus confessing his faith as a response to temptation. Jesus has just been baptized and is led by the Spirit into the wilderness with the words of God still ringing in his ears: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22b).

The devil picks up on this immediately. “If you are the Son of God,” he suggests, “command these stones to become loaves of bread and feed yourself … worship me and receive all the kingdoms of the world … throw yourself down from here and see if the angels catch you.” The temptation the Son of God experiences, upon the revelation of his divinity, is a very human temptation: to use his power not for others, but for his own gain and glory. Jesus resists this temptation also in a very human way: grounding himself in the scriptures he has known since childhood, he confesses through them the nature of the God who is the core of his entire being, and says no to the temptation to be false to his own nature.

How and to whom do you confess your faith? Is it important to speak, as well as to live, your faith? Is there a way in which confessing your faith can change the way you live? Can confessing your faith can help you to resist “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 302)?

Bible Study: Last Sunday After the Epiphany (C)

February 10, 2013

Caleb Tabor, Virginia Theological Seminary

“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.” (Luke 9:29-30)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

Exodus 34: 29-35

This may seem to be an odd bit of scripture. It is not very often that a person’s face actually glows before us. Still, the importance here is that Moses’ closeness with God changed him. Before this moment, the Book of Exodus tells us of Moses’ whole life and how an encounter with God in an unexpected place changed him, and later the Israelites, whom Moses led out of Egypt. Here, we see Moses’ closeness with God literally shining out from his face as he goes to tell the people what he heard. A prophet is someone who listens for God and then tells others what he hears. In this instance, Moses was a prophet, when he came to speak to the people. Further, his glowing face was an outward and visible sign of his change as he encountered the Divine. It scared people somewhat, so Moses placed a veil over his face. This helped the Israelites listen for God as well without being distracted by Moses. Still, today, sometimes people are uncomfortable with us when our lives reflect our encounters with God. It is important to be understanding, as Moses was when he placed the veil over his face, as well as true to who we are, which Moses did by still speaking to the Israelites about God.

How has an encounter with God changed your life? Did people notice?

Have you ever been made uncomfortable by someone speaking of their experience with the Divine? Why? Is that discomfort warranted?

Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation were the first to come to Moses after he called to them, the rest followed. How are you helping lead people to understand how God is working in the world?

Psalm 99

Psalms are poems or songs. Like most poems and songs, the Psalms like to use metaphorical imagery to communicate a point which might be otherwise difficult to say. Here, we find that the major points of Psalm 99 are God’s power and majesty. There is something about God which is great and powerful beyond any human ability. In the days when this might have been written, images like a king, of people trembling before a throne, and so on communicate just this. God is a majesty and power to be stood in awe of. Still, the Psalm assures us that God does not misuse divine power. Rather, God is justice and mercy at the same time, in their most perfect sense. For that, we ought to be glad and proclaim the greatness of our God, who is the perfection of power rightly used.

How do you see justice in relation to God?

What does God’s perfect justice mean for situations of injustice in the world?

How is justice work a part of participating in not only the justice but the power and majesty of God? Are we, when we are working for justice, showing the beauty of God to a world which is hurting?

Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are examples of people who had a relationship with God. What is your relationship with the Divine? What does it mean for you to “call upon the LORD”?

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

During St. Paul’s time there was a great amount of tension between Christian and Jewish communities. Neither was particularly generous or kind to the other. This tension is reflected in St. Paul’s writing here when he speaks of the Jewish community of his day. Still, that tension aside, there is something very important and beautiful to be gleaned from this passage of Scripture. Paul wants us to understand our vision of Jesus Christ as an image of God without a veil. The love, redemption, forgiveness, and oneness with God we find in Jesus are God unfiltered, unfettered, unhidden. As such, our lives ought to reflect this beautiful Light as we go into the world. Part of doing that is being aware that others understand Christ by how we represent ourselves. It is important for us to consider the negative aspects of who we are and try to understand how that might be veiling the Light of Christ within us. Then, it would be appropriate to work on improving those aspects of ourselves, knowing that we can do so because of the Spirit present with and within us.

How do you feel you are exemplifying Christian values in your life?

What are things on which you need to do a little more work?

Are you generally conscious that others may be judging the Christian faith and even Christ himself by the actions you take when going about your daily living?

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

There are two things going on in this reading from Luke. The first is an encounter with holy people. This incident where Jesus appears with Elijah and Moses is known in the Church as the Transfiguration. Here, we see that Jesus is being elevated to the status of the greats in Jewish history. Peter immediately wants to make little houses for them to live in. It is important to understand that it was commonplace at the time to construct shrines for deities so that they would live there and you could visit them whenever you wanted. While Peter’s intentions were noble, it is clear the Christ will not be put in a box. The second thing going on here is a healing. While they may seem unrelated, we must consider that if the first segment here is about not putting God in a box, the second shows why we mustn’t. Jesus, because of the free-flowing power of God, heals a child and saves a family from their torment. He also shows the world the greatness and compassion of God. Jesus is frustrated with the disciples as they ought to have been able to heal the boy themselves, had they been faithful enough to the free-flowing power of God. Still, Jesus uses this moment for teaching and healing and showing the world Divine Compassion.

How do you try to put God in a box?

How does your life reflect Divine Compassion as seen in the healing of the troubled child?

Do you ever let doubt hold you back from bold action that might help others and yourself? Why? What does this passage have to say about taking a bold step of faith in an uncertain world?

Bible Study: 4 Epiphany (C)

February 3, 2013

Will Stanley, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“And Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.’” (Luke 4:24)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Here in the first words of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we hear God calling and commissioning the young boy into his prophetic vocation. Like Moses (and others) before him, Jeremiah’s first response to God’s call is one of trepidation. He fears he is not up to the task, due in large part to the fact that he is “only a boy.” And notice that God does not deny the fact that Jeremiah is “only a boy.” But with this, God seems to delight in this young age and assures Jeremiah that as he grows and matures, God “will be with him.” God assures Jeremiah of this by reminding him that God has, in fact, known him and formed him from the very beginning.

In this season of Epiphany, when we walk with Jesus as he too grows into his public ministry, what are places in our own lives that are in need of some growth?

How are we like Jeremiah, at times, initially resistant to growth with God? And how does seeing God as forming us in our mothers’ wombs possibly change how we look at God’s interaction with us on a daily basis?

Psalm 71:1-6

These words remind me of that peaceful bedtime service called Compline. Having been formed in communities that said this office on a regular basis, the words seem for me to instantly conjure up notions of rest and quietness at the end of the day. Here the psalmist is also honest about the reality of the “wicked” and the “evildoer.” However we may articulate what that exactly means in our own day, nonetheless, I think we all can acknowledge that daily we are confronted with powers that seek to disrupt the life God yearns for us to live. Each day we awake, pledging to take refuge in God, and each night we give thanks to God for all that has been done and all that has not been done. Our hope, our confidence, rests in that sustaining presence of God. For it is God who knew us in our mother’s womb, alluding to our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. And this same God continues to be our strength each day.

In this season of manifesting growth that is Epiphany, what are some daily practices that you could continue or begin afresh in order to live deeper into the mystery of God as refuge, as protector, as sustainer?

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

This powerful and rich passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians may be familiar to many from the context of weddings. Here Paul is reflecting upon what he sees as the three great virtues of faith, hope and love, with love as the greatest. Obviously important for a budding marital couple, it is also wise to recall the audience Paul first meant to heed these words. The church community in Corinth is rather infamous among Paul’s letters as one particularly adept at not getting along very well! Here Paul implores the community – as well as each of us today – toward a sense of humility and empathy in all our doings. For in this life we all “see in a mirror, dimly,” only in part, and as such we are wise to head Paul’s plea that we ground our daily decisions in the enduring love of God and neighbor.

What are the “noisy gongs” or “clanging cymbals” that each of us tends to boast these days? How could the abiding and humble love to which Paul speaks be a healthy alternative to these actions?

Luke 4:21-30

The lectionary texts for this Sunday come to their climatic end with this passage from the Gospel of Luke. Our reading comes just after Jesus has begun his public ministry. He has returned first to Nazareth, to the place where he was brought up. After reading a portion from the writings of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus declares that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He points to himself as the fulfillment of the prophetic vision first outlined by Isaiah. The puzzled and contentious reactions of the crowd foretell many of those that will soon meet Jesus along his road to the cross. For here he is driven out of the town and narrowly escapes death.

Each of us, like Jesus, has a hometown. Each of us has a specific place where we were nurtured and formed. Even if we were lucky enough to grow up in a loving and supportive home community, oftentimes it is difficult to return later in life to these places. Through no fault of their own, it is often difficult for people who knew us at an early and formative age to appreciate the growth and maturity we have undergone through the simple process of growing up.

How could your relationship with Jesus grow closer and deeper through the shared difficulty of being fully understood upon returning home? In this season of Epiphany, how is God calling you to be a prophetic witness in your current community?

Bible Study: 3 Epiphany (C)

January 27, 2013

Susan Butterworth, Episcopal Divinity School

“Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4: 20-21)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor were the leaders of the Jewish community in the post-exilic period, after the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem from exile in Babylonia. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are a narrative of the restoration of the Jewish people to their homeland after the exile. The Jews are able to rebuild the temple, resume temple worship, and re-establish the law of Moses. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra reads the law to the people at the Festival of Booths, a harvest festival that also commemorates the 40 years the people of Israel wandered in the desert. As a pilgrimage festival, the Festival of Booths requires the Hebrews to make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, hence the occasion for Ezra to address the people.

In this passage, the people are summoned to gather in the square before the Water Gate, outside the temple, where even those who are ritually defiled may participate, and the law is read to all who can understand: men, women and older children. The seventh month, Tishri, is the most important festival month in Israel. Tishri 1, the date the events of this passage occur, later became Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day. Ezra opens the book (unrolls the scroll), blesses the Lord, and all the people praise the Lord, saying, Amen Amen. The Levites make sure the people understand what they have heard, and the people weep in repentance for having disobeyed the law. But Ezra tells them to celebrate the harvest festival and send portions to the poor and foreigners as prescribed by the law. The lectionary passage ends with a passage that echoes the language of the prophets and the psalms: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Why might the date when this passage takes place, Tishri 1, become the date of the festival of the Jewish New Year?

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are credited with creating a distinctive Jewish identity in the post-exilic period. How do the events of this passage contribute to a national identity for the Jews of the fifth century B.C.? How do they contribute to a Jewish identity for the Jews of today? How does this Jewish identity connect to the practices of Christians in the time of Jesus and today?

Psalm 19

The psalms were used in the worship life of ancient Israel. When Ezra blesses the Lord in Nehemiah 8:6, “Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands,” he might have used this psalm of praise, extolling the glory of God as revealed in the creation of the heavens and of the law. Reasons to praise God are given in some detail in Psalm 19, with the demonstration of God’s power in creation and in his faithfulness and love to Israel in giving the law.

Verses 1-4 describe the paradox of the communication of the knowledge of God. There is neither speech nor words in the firmament, yet speech pours forth from the heavens to the end of the world.

Verses 5-6 present the sun as a particular manifestation of the handiwork of God. The sun is described by the poetic device of personification as a bridegroom and a man running a course with joy.

Verses 7-10 describes the law of the Lord as perfect, reliable, clear, righteous and truthful.

Verses 11-13 admit that even with the benefits of the laws, it is difficult to avoid hidden sin and faults.

Verse 14 is a concluding prayer of dedication.

Verse 6 is a transition from the praise of creation to the praise of the law. How does the idea that nothing is hidden from the heat of the sun create a connection to the law of the Lord?

How does this psalm connect with the reading from Nehemiah? How do verses 11-13 about offenses and faults echo Nehemiah 8:9?

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

“There are many members, yet one body.” Paul reminds us that we are all members of the one body of Christ, baptized by the Holy Spirit.

Paul emphasizes the harmony of a diverse community that included people of social prominence, but was most likely mainly composed of people of lesser means and social standing. He wrote his letter to the Corinthians to respond to reports of discord within the community that he had founded, especially reports that the congregation’s less advantaged members had not been treated with respect, and to respond to ways in which the congregation has deviated from the gospel that Paul preached.

Apparently some members of the community had boasted of special spiritual gifts, including the gift of tongues or ecstatic speech, and felt they had a higher spiritual status. After he preaches unity, using the metaphor of the body and its members, he reprimands those who claim to have a higher spiritual status than others. Instead, all must strive for the greater gifts of being called to God into new life in Christ and of Christian love. The apostle exhorts his community to strive for the greater gifts, those that sustain the congregation. Paul’s “more excellent way” is the way of love.

Paul’s congregation in Corinth mirrored the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of a large urban port city. How does he acknowledge this diversity? What do the members of the Corinthian congregation have in common? What brings them together?

What diverse gifts do you observe among the members of your faith community? Do you think there is spiritual competition among members of your community? In what ways are the members of the body that seem to be weaker indispensable?

Luke 4:14-21

At the beginning of the passage, Jesus has just returned from his baptism in the Jordan and his 40 days in the wilderness. The Holy Spirit remains with him as he begins to teach in the synagogues of Galilee. Luke portrays Jesus as a faithful Jew who customarily goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He has been invited to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and to comment. According to Jewish custom of the time, one stood to read scripture and sat down to teach. Luke sympathizes with Judaism; for him the ideal follower of Jesus is one who behaves in a manner that allows harmony with the Jewish community. Luke emphasizes the theological concept that Jesus has been sent to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah – that there is continuity between ancient Israel and the Christian story. The inclusion of this passage from Isaiah in Luke’s gospel at this point also announces Jesus’ pastoral mission to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Revisit today’s Hebrew Bible passage from Nehemiah. How does the passage from Luke reflect the passage from Nehemiah? How does the passage from Nehemiah support Luke’s purpose of creating continuity between ancient Israel and his portrayal of Jesus?

Liberation theology has been defined as “the belief that Christianity involves not only faith in the teachings of the Church but also a commitment to change social and political conditions from within in societies in which it is considered exploitation and oppression exist.”

How might the prophecy of Isaiah in this passage from Luke anticipate liberation theology? Do you think that Jesus’ ministry as related in the gospels requires Christians to act politically? Why or why not?

Bible Study: 2 Epiphany (C)

January 20, 2013

Josh Hosler, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine.” (John 2:6-9)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 62:1-2; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Isaiah 62:1-5

Even after the Babylonian exile was over, times were tough for the people of God in Judah. They were rebuilding their temple, but would it just be overrun again? If God hadn’t protected them before, why would God now? In this passage, though, we hear that God will never stop pursuing the chosen people. God will not rest until Zion becomes once again a shining example to all the nations. “Zion” literally refers to the area where Jerusalem is built, but it stands symbolically for the chosen people of God.

Isaiah writes, “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord shall give.” God gives new names to people who are called to change their lives radically. Isaiah also uses a metaphor of marriage, so a new name makes sense in this situation. Here, God promises a new name to Zion but does not hint at what it will be.

Has God ever given you a new name? Perhaps the name is “spouse,” or “parent,” or “sister,” or “disciple of Jesus.” With new names, we are given new responsibilities.

O God, please help us remember that you will never stop pursuing us in the hope of a deeper relationship.

Psalm 36:5-10

If a child ever asks you whether pets go to heaven, you could do worse than to quote Psalm 36:6: “You save both man and beast, O Lord.” But the word “salvation” doesn’t just mean “heaven after we die”: it also refers to the here and now. This psalm affirms God’s love, righteousness, justice, salvation and “loving-kindness,” which, in Hebrew, is chesed – one of the most mentioned of God’s attributes in the Hebrew Bible. Images of food and drink point to God’s never-failing abundance.

But our lectionary gives us only the middle portion. The first part of the psalm laments the actions of those who do not reject evil but participate in it. The conclusion continues the psalmist’s plea for God’s protection, specifically from evildoers. This may seem like a distant scenario, until we hear news of school shootings in our own backyard. At such times, praying to God for refuge comes as naturally as breathing.

O God, please help us to remember that salvation means living a life of love. In this life, we practice love as best we can, so that a more perfect union with you beyond the grave will feel like coming home.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

I have a friend who describes one very valuable leadership style as, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Don’t rush to judge where the Holy Spirit is not at work, he says. Rather, step back, observe and listen. Someone is using a very special gift from God, even in the last place we might think to look.

Paul writes to the Corinthians that God does not depend on us exclusively. The Holy Spirit is instrumental in all our prayer, praise and work. Variety is the order of the day, and God decides what gifts we will be presented with next. At the same time, God hopes we will use our gifts in loving ways, in order to reveal Jesus’ good news that the Kingdom of God is already among us. Even in the weedy places, there is wheat. Are we without light? We can learn to treasure darkness as a holy mystery. And when we feel despondent or at low ebb, we can benefit from the gifts God gives us through the people in our lives, both loved ones and strangers.

O God, thank you for the gifts you give us daily. Grant that we may remember to use them in love.

John 2:1-11

John structures his gospel around seven miracles, or “signs,” of Jesus. This is the first one. During the season of Epiphany we take a good long look at Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.

First-century Jewish weddings typically lasted a week, and it may be that guests were expected to bring provisions of their own to contribute – rather like a very long potluck! Yet to run out of wine would have brought disgrace on the groom’s family. By turning water into wine, not only did Jesus help prevent deep embarrassment and shame, but he also enabled the party to go on.

When people wonder whether Jesus’ miracles really occurred, it’s important to remember that each miracle had a purpose. Jesus wasn’t just showing off; he was revealing to us what God is like. We can reflect theologically on any of Jesus’ miracles. God cares about the shameful places in our hearts and would rather we be joyful. What work is God doing in you to make this possible?

O God, remove our shame and gladden our hearts with the wine of your love this day and every day.

Bible Study: 1 Epiphany (C)

January 13, 2013

Sharron Cox, Sewanee

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3: 21-22)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Isaiah 43:1-7

The Old Testament reading for today comes from a portion of Isaiah that scholars call Second Isaiah. It was written near the end of the Hebrews’ Babylonian exile and is replete with themes of doxological praise of God’s sovereignty, hope and assurance, comfort and promise. Verse 2 speaks of God’s power over waters and is reminiscent of the Red Sea waters the Hebrews were obligated to pass through to leave behind their enslavement in Egypt. These waters will not overwhelm them any more than the waters of the Red Sea did – nor will any fire consume them!

Through this text, God is speaking directly to the reader, assuring us that he is with us, reminding us that he created us and redeemed us. God will gather us from all corners of the earth – from all places of physical, spiritual, or emotional exile – because we are precious to him. “Fear not! Fear not!” God continues to tell us – we were created for his glory!

Yes, this is a powerful and salvific Creator God – but even more, this is an intimate God who calls us by name and claims us as his own. This is a God who manifests himself through deep relationship with his people.

From what place of exile has God gathered you, or from what place does God need to gather you? Is it a physical, spiritual or emotional exile?

How do we respond today to God’s desire to be in relationship with us? How can we live our lives today in a way that reflects God’s glory?

Psalm 29

Again, on this Sunday when the Church celebrates the Baptism of our Lord, there are more images of water in our scripture readings. The psalmist is comparing God with a powerful thunderstorm, a common image for a theophany. “Theophanies” are manifestations of God, one of the means by which God enters directly into human lives and events. Most theophanies get people’s attention, whether God speaks out of a burning bush, a thunderstorm, a chance encounter, a sunset or headline news. Regardless of the form in which they come, theophanies first force us to stop, look and listen – and they generally require us to respond.

Do theophanies happen today? What do they look like? Have you ever experienced a theophany? How did you respond?

Acts 8:14-17

At first reading, it appears this scripture is our only one today without a reference to water. But read a little more closely. The Samaritans had been baptized – but the manifestation of the Holy Spirit so tightly linked to the receipt of baptism in the early church was not present. Peter and John had to come and lay hands on the already-baptized Samaritans. Is Acts telling us that we sometimes require a second washing, a second touch?

Baptism is a one-time event when a person is united with Christ and his church. Through submergence in the baptismal waters, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. The power of sin is broken, and we receive a new identity in Christ. No second, third or fourth baptism is required!

But because of our proclivity to sin, to live self-absorbed rather than “God-absorbed” lives, a “second” baptism of sorts may be needed. This “second touch” can be understood as the conversion of our hearts, a process that begins with our baptism and does not end until our death when we are drawn into the very heart of God.

Have you experienced a “conversion of the heart?” Has a theophany led you to a deeper experience of God, one that requires you to re-evaluate your priorities, your way of living in this world? How do you draw, or are drawn, closer to the heart of God?

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

John the Baptist is quick to clarify his identity. The people had misidentified him as the Messiah, the longed-for king and Son of God who would transform their lives and their world. No, says John, I only have water – a mere symbol for cleansing – while the Messiah who is to come will be manifest by Spirit and fire.

The scene in verses 21-22 at the Jordan River is the first manifestation of the three-in-one persons of the Godhead: God the Father’s voice spoke from heaven, God the Son was baptized, and God the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. It is here that God the Father not only proclaims Jesus’ identity to the world but also God the Holy Spirit is sent to empower Jesus for ministry.

Have we ever “misidentified” our Messiah? Has God proclaimed your identity? What ministry has God empowered you to do?