Bible Study: 1 Epiphany (A)

January 12, 2014

Christine HavensSeminary of the Southwest

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Matthew 3:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43Matthew 3:13-17

Isaiah 42:1-9

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Arguably, Juliet’s words about Romeo in the famous balcony scene from Shakespeare’s play are among the most frequently quoted in Western culture. She speaks aloud, unaware that he is below in the garden, listening. Juliet wonders why the man she loves must bear the name of the family with whom her family is in a blood feud; she reflects on the properties of names and their relationship to the things they represent. Not only do Shakespeare’s works exemplify the limitations of names and of language itself, but also our creaturely ability and freedom to play within those limits.

The poetry of Isaiah in today’s reading embodies this also, and serves to help Christians today ask Juliet’s question and then ask more questions: What is in a name? What is in God’s name? What is our relationship with God? What is in a word? What in a word prompts action? What in God’s Word prompts action?

Follow this link to Act II, Scene II of “Romeo and Juliet” and read lines 40-143. Then re-read Isaiah 42:1-9. What words stand out in both? What theological themes come to mind as you read each? Are the ideas of name and covenant connected in each piece? If so, how? Are names important? If so, how? How is this reflected in action, for example, in God’s actions? In the actions of Christians?

Psalm 29

Doxology. I love “logy” words, the “speaking of” words. These words, such as psychology, sociology, biology and even theology, abound in contemporary American language. James Luther Mays, in his commentary on the Psalms, states that “our tendency is to see the world as a complex to be explained and exploited.” We are so conscious of being, conscious of our world that often our “poetic and mythological vision is dimmed” (“Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,” John Knox Press, 1994, p. 138).

The “ologies” attempt to be scientific and objective, and attempt to make ideas manageable. Perhaps these words are among the best examples of our creatureliness. This is why I particularly love “doxology,” which is the “speaking of praise” to God. This makes it the perfect word for Psalm 29; we use a word that is all about “the speaking of praise” to God in order to describe a song that is all about sound and voice; Qowl, the Hebrew word for voice, sound, noise, appears nine times within five of the song’s verses. And yet, this one word, with its quiet, lyrical sound, cannot contain the psalm.

Praise God whose powerful voice cannot be contained in a few words, but whose glory and action in our lives we yet can celebrate with our voices, our words.

Acts 10:34-43

In today’s reading, Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v. 47).

Luke’s relating of Peter’s experiences prior to this statement, from his vision of the clean and unclean on the sheet and his encounter with the gentile centurion, Cornelius, in Chapter 10, suggest that perhaps the apostle might be on the path to truly trusting in Jesus and in God, rather than in earthly things. We are all familiar with the Peter of the gospels, who is afraid, lacking trust, who denies not only Jesus’ assertions about what is to come in Jerusalem but also denies even knowing Christ. That Peter appears to have all but disappeared in this story. Though he is “puzzled” by the vision sent by God, he does not hesitate to obey the Spirit’s instructions when the Spirit says to go with Cornelius’ men.

Peter’s growing trust mirrors his growing understanding. His trust in God allows Peter to articulate his belief to those present, which translates itself into the action of baptism and sharing. Then he is able to articulate the same to those in Jerusalem who questioned his actions regarding the gentiles. They, in turn, trust this revelation through Peter, which leads to praise of God and to the forming of a community greater than any of the apostles thought possible.

What implications does trust or lack thereof have for Christian community?

Have there been times in your own life when you heard the Spirit’s words and trusted to act upon them? Have there been times when you have not trusted to act upon the Spirit’s words?

Matthew 3:13-17

Take a moment and read the part of Eucharistic Prayer C (Book of Common Prayer, p. 372), which asks for “deliverance from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” How might this prayer be related to today’s gospel reading?

Jesus approaches John in order to be baptized, yet the gospel’s writer shows John as not recognizing the gift of service that he could provide to his cousin. How do we, as Christians, enact service? How do we enact our relationship with Jesus as God’s Son, “the Beloved”? How do we receive the gifts offered to us through the Spirit, whether they be in the form of friends, family or the offer of fulfilling our needs?

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