Archives for 2013

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?

Bible Study: 2 Christmas (A)

January 5, 2014

Rod Clark, Seminary of the Southwest

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Jeremiah 31:7-14 

The Old Testament reading for today is another in a series of promises that God delivers through his prophet, to the scattered people of Israel. Jeremiah has to be pleased with today’s selected reading. After all, he finally gets to relent from lamenting.

Jeremiah’s prophecy of hope for Israel stands in stark contrast to most of his other writings. He even lamented having to lament (20: 7-9).

So, Chapter 31 takes on special significance because it is a fulfilling of long desires on two levels. First, it is a promise that the people of Israel will be released from captivity and exile. Their journey home will be one without obstacles or want for comfort. Jeremiah tells them that God “will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble” (31:9). And they are promised to have cause for celebration and dance (31:13).

On another level, it fulfills Jeremiah’s desire, not only for Israel’s release from captivity, but the promise also of Israel’s repentance. And of course, there is Jeremiah’s desire to relent from lamenting. He finally gets to bring good news.

Have you experienced a time when you have had hopes and promises fulfilled? How might that fulfillment have been working in more ways than one?

Psalm 84

This psalm is a song of longing to be in the Holy City. The Temple is the spiritual home of all Israelites, and this psalm sings praises to it.

Psalm 84 is also a pilgrim song. It begins with words of longing to be in the House of the Lord. Throughout the text there are motifs of pilgrimage: a sparrow finding a home, highways to Zion within the hearts of the faithful, a specific reference to traveling through the valley of Baca. The theme of pilgrimage also reveals the double-entendre of verse 11. For “those who walk uprightly” can be both pilgrims going up to the Temple, as well as those who follow the Torah and lead a faithful and moral life.

Making pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem was not supposed to be a singular event in the life of faith. In fact, making sacrifice at the Temple was an important aspect of Jewish life. Where do you see pilgrimage in your daily/ordinary life?

How might you incorporate pilgrimage into your spiritual disciplines?

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a 

Unlike some of the other letters attributed to Paul, it is not clear whether the letter to the Ephesians focuses in on a single community or was circulated among several communities. Instead of resolving differences or writing to specific issues, the letter to the Ephesians is general in its exhortation and teaching.

The major theme of the letter is the unity between Jews and gentiles within the church. And this unity is part of God’s vision for salvation. In His Kingdom, we are all heirs.

Today’s reading reminds us of this truth with words of adoption and inheritance. The unifying aspect of this kinship to the Father comes through Christ, and it was part of his purpose in creation. We were chosen before the formation of the world. Before there was free or slave, Greek or Jew, male or female, we were all one in Christ.

Soteriology (the study of salvation) comes in many flavors. One of which is “Universal Salvation.” In this form of soteriology, God saves all people, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Atheist or Buddhist. Some of the readings from the lectionary seem to support such a view of salvation. Yet there are other passages of scripture that seem to refute such a view. “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) is one such passage. How can we hold the tension between texts of such variance?

How do you hope God’s salvation works?

Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

The gospel reading from Matthew continues our themes of unity, salvation and pilgrimage.

It seems that Jesus’ very being is already redemptive for those who were considered “outside.” His safety is assured by returning to the land in which the people of Israel were once enslaved. As a baby he made no conscious choice to go to Egypt, but God’s plan for salvation includes all of us – the Holy Family is already caught up in this redemptive movement of the Spirit.

Likewise, the departure of the wise men in today’s reading further develops the idea of unity in Christ. The wise men were not Jewish kings, they were gentiles. So, their visitation is significant, not only as a marker of God’s Kingdom and Christ’s reign, but it gives new meaning to “God’s chosen people.” So, the prophet’s words and God’s plan come to fruition in a chain of events.

We can also see how pilgrimage continues to be a part of God’s plan. Joseph, Mary and the Christ child have not been at home since the Incarnation project began. The family is forced to go on a long journey and is taken to a foreign country for safety. And just when things are looking as if they might settle down and the family can come home, Joseph has another dream. We know how the rest of the story goes, and it seems that Jesus’ ministry will mimic the nomadic reality of his childhood years: on the move, working out God’s plan of salvation for us all.

We often read about how Christ and his actions fulfilled scriptures or words spoken by the prophets. But how does Christ continue to fulfill the promise of salvation, resurrection and justice today? What other points of contact do you see between today’s gospel reading and the other selections from today’s lectionary? How are those points of contact significant to you in your current circumstance?

Bible Study: 1 Christmas (A)

December 29, 2013

Perry Mullins, Seminary of the Southwest

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

This passage is made up of two poetic tracts written about Israel’s deliverance from exile. As a “finale” in the body of Isaiah’s prophecies, it focuses on Israel’s ultimate redemption and restoration as a nation that will once again stand “before all nations.”

The first part of the passage speaks to the salvation and righteousness that God characteristically gives to Israel. The prophecy says that God’s people are clothed with the garments of salvation and describes righteousness as a covering or an adornment. In this analogy, Israel is being acted upon – salvation and righteousness come upon them like clothing.

Isaiah also prophesies that righteousness will spring up from God’s people and grow, using an agricultural metaphor to describe how it will become a part of them and flow out from them to the nations.

The second part of the passage is about the vindication and redemption of Israel. God deeply desires to bring home the outcast and the exile. The “crown of beauty” that Isaiah describes is the vision of a redeemed Israel, through which God will bless the world. The gifts of righteousness and salvation that God gives to His people will bring redemption to all people.

Just as God saves Israel from exile, He characteristically redeems His people through the ages by saving them, teaching them righteousness, and blessing them, in order to be a blessing for the world.

Particularly in this season of Christmas, how has God clothed our communities with the “garments of salvation,” and adorned us with the “robe of righteousness”? What sorts of responsibilities come with God’s gifts?

Psalm 147

Psalm 147 is marked by calls to praise God, specifically pointing to His power and majesty as the Creator of the universe. Recalling the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis, it is clear that there is something amazing about God’s creation of humans who respond to their Creator. God simply speaks into being, and the world is – His command makes it so. But He also invites Adam to partner with Him in creation by giving names to the living things on the earth. This call and response of words between Creator and creation marks our relationship with God. He sends out His Word, and we respond.

Verse 16 of the psalm recalls God’s continuing power to act in the life of the world, as the psalmist declares, “He sends out his command to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” The psalmist is referring to God’s Word of salvation and re-creation, sent into the world in order to redeem God’s people, who are called to respond to God with words of praise. This psalm is that praise, looking forward to Israel’s redemption.

As we recall God’s redemption of the world through the Incarnate Word this Christmas season, it is important to remember our role by responding to God with praise.

How does your own creativity flow forth through words? How much power do your words have, and what is the result when you use them? Do they offer praise? How does God’s Word redeem the world around us?

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

St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians to those who believed that gentile converts must be bound to the entirety of the Law. Paul’s strong and persuasive writing style makes clear that while the Law is important, God will save the world through His Son.

This portion of Chapter 3 begins with a difficult statement that “before faith came … the law was our disciplinarian.” It seems a stretch that Paul would suggest that the people of the Covenant, who were brought out of slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea, did not have faith in God. Instead, he explains that the law guarded faith until God revealed Himself among us. It is imperative that we remember the great importance of the Law throughout the salvation story, in the life of Jesus, and in what it still teaches us today. But Paul’s point is that it was not intended to save – only Jesus Christ does that. While the Law taught us God’s character, faith in Christ restores us as God’s beloved children. Paul is simply describing the unique way that God has brought salvation to the world through His immanent presence and action in His Son.

While the law played an important role in guarding faith, and is with us for our edification, Christ is now present with us for our salvation, and for the salvation of all who faithfully look to God as their Father.

How can we guard and reclaim the spirit of the Law in our Christian beliefs? How has God’s unique action in the Incarnation brought us to new faith? What does God’s spirit of Fatherhood show us about our relationship to Him?

John 1:1-18

The prologue to John’s gospel is arguably one of the most eloquent and beautiful pieces of poetry in the entire canon of scripture. Its use of the word logos, translated in English as, “Word,” repurposes an analogy used throughout Hebrew poetry to refer to the divine will and the revelation of God. The Word, in creation, is the expression of God through an ordered universe united with its creator. In redemption, according to John, the Word is the expression of God through Jesus Christ in order to reunite creation with Creator once again. It is by God’s Word that all things were created, and it is also by His Word that God continues to act in the world today, reconciling all things to Himself. John uses this deep truth as the basis for his gospel, that Jesus is the logos or Word of God, the revelation of God to the world, and the One by whom the world is reconciled to the Father. John begins and ends his poetic passage with the statement that God and His logos are united as one, in order to explain how the Son “gave power to become children of God.” Jesus became man in order to give mankind the ability to become children of God. This is the thesis of John’s gospel, and the whole prologue points to God’s desire, through Jesus Christ, to reunite creation with Himself.

Through the Incarnate Word, the eternal revelation of God in Christ, humanity is reconciled and restored to relationship as children of God.

What do you think John means when he uses the term logos as a name for Jesus? How does Jesus, by his birth to a human mother, give us power to be re-born as children of God?

Bible Study: 4 Advent (A)

December 22, 2013

Charlie Bauer, General Theological Seminary

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 7:10-17

Our focus during the first three weeks of Advent has been the coming of Jesus and preparing ourselves for that occasion through reflection and repentance. Today, as we anticipate the birth of Christ, we must take this one step further: anticipating the coming of God, we must prepare a place within ourselves to receive the awaited God.

The Old Testament is full of characters who have been given intentionally meaningful names, but the most relevant of these to our Christian faith comes from this passage in Isaiah: “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). We will hear this echoed by Matthew in the gospel passage, but the name Immanuel, “God is with us,” immediately grabs our Christ-centered attention.

Yet Isaiah is writing here in a historical setting, and while he does so in the context of prophesy, it is much more nearsighted than something as monumental as God dwelling on earth in human form. He writes in a period of war and turmoil. But in an allegorical sense, this passage perfectly describes the human condition. Humanity is in a figurative state of turmoil and rebellion against God, prompting God to come and be with us for our salvation. As Christians, we have a bit of difficulty relating to the essence of this passage – we know what happens hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote this text. Just as the people Isaiah was writing to many centuries ago, we also must find hope in this text.

How can you reconcile the literal and historical interpretations of this passage?

How can you, as today’s collect asks, prepare yourself so that God may “find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 212)?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

“Restore us O God of Hosts, Show us the Light of your countenance and we shall be saved” (Psalm 80:3).

The above passage is so important to the writer of this psalm that it is repeated twice more, in verses 7 and 18. Continuing the theme of salvation in light of pain and unrest in Isaiah, the psalmist repeats this plea to God for relief.

Several verses of this psalm are directly addressed to God, essentially reminding God of part of the Abrahamic covenant: God promised a special relationship with God’s chosen people, and the psalm writer pleads with God to remember that promise. This reminder comes in the form of explaining the hardships and pain that God’s people are facing: “You have fed them with the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5) and “our enemies laugh us to scorn” (Psalm 80:6). Essentially, the psalmist is being very blunt with God: If we are so special in your sight, why are we suffering so? “Restore us, O God of hosts,” to that special place of covenant between God and chosen people. We are those people. In the form of Jesus, God has indeed affirmed this covenant, but now we are the ones who must be reminded of that special relationship, and this holy season is the time for us to remember that promise.

Think of something you are struggling with in your life. How can you find the Light of Christ to help you with that struggle?

Imagine yourself as Mary (or Joseph), knowing that God will soon be entering the world through the child you are about to bear. How might this psalm speak to you?

Romans 1:1-7

Paul reflects in this text to what God “promised beforehand through his prophets” (Romans 1:2) – so there is little doubt that passages such as that in Isaiah are critical to the understanding of Jesus’ life and mission. What is new here, of course, is the understanding that Christ also calls for the inclusion of gentiles within the faith. This should not be entirely surprising in this specific context; in writing to the Romans, Paul would have expected an audience of gentiles and needed to make it clear from the beginning that they, too, have a part in this story.

In a sense, this is a major contrast to the theme for this day; rather than being inward-looking to find a place within ourselves for Christ, Paul reminds us that we also must be mindful that Christ was born and died for all. These are indeed comforting words: What is asked of us in the coming of Jesus is asked of us all, and we can all share in the reward that is to come.

What does Paul’s message of inclusiveness mean to you?

Matthew 1:18-25

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a long genealogy and other accounts to link Jesus to the God and prophesies of the Old Testament. And just to make the point perfectly clear, we receive a direct quotation – complete with a translation for the name “Emmanuel” – from Isaiah. The writer of this gospel is making a clear connection here – the God of Israel, of Moses and Abraham and Isaiah is not only the same God of our faith, but is the very God that came to be with us on earth. But the gospel here also tells us that this child – Immanuel, Jesus, the Messiah – comes by way of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that is the distinction between the understanding of Isaiah and of Matthew; and it is through that same Spirit that we can find God among us today.

How can we open ourselves to let the Holy Spirit work within us?

The birth of the Christ is almost here. Are you ready?

Bible Study: 3 Advent (A)

December 15, 2013

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-10

Contextually speaking, this passage refers to the flowering of the southern desert in Edom, an area below the Dead Sea. Building up to a crescendo that speaks of the final return of those exiled from their holy land, these verses paint a rich portrait of the coming age of fulfillment. The ancient Israelites long held fast to the hope of a messianic future; a time when God’s reign would be realized on earth, and all creation would be transformed, returned to its original, pristine state. Additionally, all would be restored to physical and spiritual health (cf vv 4,5,10). It would be a time of peace, harmony and above all, the fullness of life.

We still live in the period of preparation before the full unfurling of God’s reign. The work of our hands, guided by God’s plan, will further the work of making the desert bloom. While we are all called to play a small role in the furthering of God’s vision of peace for the world, each of us is called also to personal conversion; to make our own journey back to the land of God’s heart. The is the place where our blinded eyes see, our deafened ears here, and we are ransomed from all that holds us back from being our true selves in God.

Which word, phrase or image from this passage resonates most with you?What are those things in your life that keep you in exile, from living life as the person God intended you to be?

Psalm 146:4-9

Today’s psalm echoes the themes of our reading from Isaiah. Scholars suggest that this text was written after Israel’s heartbreaking exile in Babylon (587 BC to 538 BC). This contextualizes the praise of the Lord who keeps faith (v. 6), executes justice and sets prisoners free (v. 7).

Note how God is recognized not only as the creative power of the universe, but also as the upholder of the moral order. In other words, the same One who flung the stars from the furnace of creation into the vast expanse also takes a personal interest in the relationships human beings foster among each other.

The narrative arc of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation, is that Israel’s God has made a preferential option for the poor. The psalmist is here praising the Lord who is God of the poor. This stands as a challenge to the apparent values of our own society and to each of us as individuals. While God shows partiality to those who are defenseless – the orphan and widow (v. 9) – to whom do we show partiality? Are the poor among us our chief concerns?

Which word, phrase or image from the psalm speaks to you?

What, in your experience, places you among the poor to whom God is reaching out? Conversely, in what ways does this psalm challenge you to respond to God’s option for the poor?

James 5:7-10

The epistle of James contains themes of wisdom and imminent apocalypse. In today’s text we see both. The first verse echoes a common theme of the end time (i.e., patience), but follows with an observation rooted in the wisdom tradition – looking to lived experience as a locus of God’s revelation. While we as a church no longer wait in anticipation for Jesus’ immediate return, this short section of James has something to teach us.

First, we are summoned to have faith in the future and trust in God’s overall guidance of history. We are being drawn to an age of fulfillment when God’s vision of peace for all will be realized.

Second, the proper disposition for the coming reign of God is right relationship with neighbor. We will be judged on how well we made the effort to live in harmony with others, especially our fellow Christians.

James ties these themes together by pointing to the faith and long-suffering of the prophets of old. So often they were rejected by their own people for preaching a message of conversion; a message that called for return to the deepest precepts of genuine neighborliness that were the foundation of their Israelite religion. James calls us to carry that mantle in our own time.

How does James’ call to avoid “grumbling against one another” speak to our Christian communities today?

How does James exhortation to “be patient” speak to your life experience?

Matthew 11:2-11

Matthew’s narrative here is bursting with richness and drama, but only if one understands the contextual clues his first-century listeners were sure to appreciate.

First, John the Baptist is asking questions of Jesus. Why? The answer lies in Matthew 9: Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. To John, this was not acceptable. He called sinners to repent; Jesus appears to be accepting sinners even before they evince any sign of repentance. While Jesus clearly still has great respect for his teacher John, he is no longer preaching John’s fire-and-brimstone message of repentance, but rather a message of compassionate acceptance.

Jesus then goes on to praise John by contrasting him with Herod Antipas – the one who imprisoned and later executed John. While not mentioning Antipas by name, Jesus is clearly speaking of him – soft robes, royal palaces, etc. The biggest clue is Jesus’ mention of a reed swayed by the wind. The coins that Antipas circulated in Galilee were imprinted with the image of a reed.

The challenge of today’s gospel lies in the difference of the approach between Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus accepts sinners with compassion. He forgives even before forgiveness is asked for (if it’s asked for at all). The simple presence of Jesus has a transformative effect on those who gather around him that precedes any action or disposition.

Consider the ways in which Jesus is present to us today: in the word, the Eucharist and the gathered Christian community. How does his grace have a transformative effect on you through these?

Bible Study: 2 Advent (A)

December 8, 2013

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:1-10

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” As with the rest of Isaiah, especially this passage, this first verse has exerted a strong influence on Christian imagination. For example, in medieval art – illuminations and stained-glass windows, the Jesse Tree these images, which vary in detail and complexity, offer highly symbolic representations of the ancestry of Jesus.” (See “Jesse Tree” in the “Images of Salvation” CD, University of York, 1999.) Jesse is usually recumbent at the bottom of the image, with a rod or shoot springing from his loins. The rod branches out, with further images of Isaiah, David, the apostles, the virtues, and the church frequently represented among them. At the very top is Jesus Christ.

Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the various versions of the Jesse Tree is that Mary is generally featured prominently somewhere in the center of the image, connected to Jesse through the rod. Scholars point to the cult of the Virgin Mary that formed so much of the church’s theology as well as the word play engendered by the Latin words for “virgin” – virgo – and “rod” – virga as the reasoning for these images. When one reads Jesus’ genealogy as given by Matthew, however, it is Joseph who is demonstrated as the descendent of Jesse. Perhaps, as others, including Rowan Williams, have suggested, this is not a literal family tree at all. Williams reminds us that “Mary’s child is of God” (“Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment,” Eerdmans Publishing, 2000, p. 20). Perhaps Jesus’ connection to Jesse is a theological one, a spiritual one.

As we continue through Advent, draw your spiritual family tree. Who would you include? Why? Take some silent time to pray and give thanks to God for them.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

How do you pray for someone else? How do we converse with God about someone other than ourselves without making the prayer about ourselves? Perhaps today’s psalm shows us the way as an example of intercessory prayer. (See Howard Neil Wallace’s “Words to God, Word From God: The Psalms in the Prayer and Preaching of the Church,” Ashgate, 2005, p. 116.) What do you notice about the language? What is missing in this psalm that appears in many other psalms? Who is the focus of this psalm? How is that focus represented by the psalmist’s language, in other words?

“The need of the other is related to our faith and hope in the kingdom of God” (Wallace, p. 116). How is this statement reflected in today’s psalm? How is this statement reflected in the other passages for today? How is it reflected in your own life this Advent season?

Romans 15:4-13

“If I’m king, where’s my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.” Colin Firth, as King George VI, says this in the film “The King’s Speech.” He feels a sense of impotence, of helplessness at what he perceives to be a weakness on his part, as he stutters when he speaks. Part of that is his feeling that he does not have a voice, that his voice does not matter.

Today’s passage is all about voice. Paul is wrapping up his exhortation (parenesis) to the Roman community, hoping that his words, his voice will help this community of Jews and gentiles work toward listening to each other instead of finding fault with each other. However, Paul has not yet traveled to the community at Rome; they do not know him except by reputation. Is it possible that Paul felt slightly unsure of himself in this context? Was he concerned that his voice would carry no weight, even though his experience and standing with the other early Christian communities to which he wrote gave his words authority?

We cannot answer this question with any surety, though we can remember that just like King George, that Paul was a thinking, feeling human, as are we. We can also, in this Advent season, marvel that Paul’s voice is with us still. And that his voice gives us hope for our own voices.

Read verse 5 again. What do Paul’s words “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” mean for us as Christians? How do you put them into action?

In this passage, Paul uses the word “hope” rather than “faith” or “love.” How might these concepts be linked for Paul? For the Roman community? For Christians today?

Matthew 3:1-12

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” With these words, Matthew sets in motion his narration of Jesus’ adult life. We see Jesus through John’s eyes, through John’s ministry. How does this affect our expectations of the rest of Jesus’ life, as Matthew relates it?

How do you read the gospels, for instance, today’s passage? This might seem like an easy question on the surface, but take a few moments to reflect on this. Do you read these words of Matthew to answer your own questions? In other words, do you have questions already formed in your mind when you come to this text? Questions about Jesus, about God, about yourself in relationship with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit? Or instead, do you approach the text seeking information, to learn what Matthew has to say about John and Jesus, in this case?

Either way, do you hope for a clear-cut meaning, something that is direct and to the point? Words that provide clarity, whether in response to one’s questions or easily accessible information? We often hope that meaning will be right on the surface. Possibly, we ask someone else to tell us the point of the story – summarize it in one sentence. Perhaps someone asks that of us. How do you respond when someone asks you about the gospels, when someone asks you about today’s passage, which can be problematic if we, as Christians, don’t ask questions of the text?

During this Advent season, maybe our answer should be, “Let’s read it again, together.”

Bible Study: 1 Advent (A)

December 1, 2013

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44; Psalm 122

Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah in this passage paints with the colors of peace and pilgrimage a visionary portrait for the future of all peoples. All nations, he prophesies, will live in peace because they recognize Israel’s God as the true God. This passage makes it clear that strife, hostility and fighting thwart God’s plan for peace. The course of enmity and conflict leads to a way of living that is inauthentic in light of God’s hope for humankind. When God’s law finds a permanent home in the human heart, war and violence are renounced.

The prophet recognizes that his people – and all people – are far from realizing this vision. The image of pilgrimage (vv. 2-3) subtly instills the truth that all humanity must struggle to overcome tendencies of violence, but that this journey will find peace at its end. The pilgrimage to Zion will be a long walk toward a change of heart that accepts the wisdom of God’s vision. At the journey’s end, the prophet foresees abundance regarding both temporal and spiritual needs.

Despite these divine promises – that walking in the way of the Lord will bring peace to all humanity – most of us are afraid to trust God completely in God’s vision for peace. Rather, the quick resolution that comes with winning, defeating, besting, etc., often proves irresistible. Isaiah’s prophecy we hear today summons us to hear God’s vision for us again.

What are the obstacles, personal and societal, which impede us from walking “in the light of the Lord” toward the age of peace on earth?

What must you change about your own life in order to fully respond and live the vision for peace the prophet presents?

Psalm 122

Scholars suggest that this psalm was sung by pilgrims upon arrival in the holy city of Jerusalem. Thematically, it is closely linked with our previous text from Isaiah. Notice, for example, how verse five of this psalm speaks of the “thrones of judgment,” similar to Isaiah’s proclamation of God as the arbitrator among the people (v. 4.) More significantly, the resounding hope for peace is again expressed.

This psalm reminds us of the proper orientation for, and culmination point of our lifelong pilgrimage – the peace that permeates every aspect of our lives. Not only will there be peace among nations, as Isaiah foretold, but also in the lives and hearts of every pilgrim who enters the city gates. Peace in the biblical sense meant not the absence of strife, but the fullness of life – right relationship, freedom from fear and the satisfaction of physical and spiritual needs. Jesus embraced this notion of peace and sought to bring it to all he encountered, as is evidenced by his healing miracles, exorcisms and preaching of God’s peaceful reign. The final two verses of this psalm serve as a challenge to all who hear: Do we have hearts wide enough and hope strong enough to say to all of our fellow human beings “peace be within you,” and “I will seek your good”?

Which word or phrase from this text resonates with you?

How does this text challenge you and/or give you hope?

Romans 13:11-14

Paul’s words in this passage present an interpretive challenge to modern readers. The apostle speaks in apocalyptic terms, anticipating the immediate return of Jesus and the total transformation of the world. The church (for the most part) no longer shares Paul’s expectation of imminent apocalypse, so what are we to make of his exhortation?

Continuing our theme of pilgrimage, the traveler on the spiritual journey gradually grows in relationship with Jesus, ultimately experiencing a total metamorphosis. The disciple becomes Jesus through a transformation of will, desire and action. Notice that Paul calls the hearer to express this metamorphosis through a change in one’s way of living – renewed integrity, authenticity (verse 13) and above all, peace. Paul, without saying so directly, is calling us to die to self (i.e., die to the self-centered but ultimately small desires that so often define us as we seek our own security and personal fulfillment). When we die to self, we are now free to assume the larger mind of Christ-consciousness – that way of seeing and living in the world that is characterized by compassion and love. This is the ultimate destination for the heart of every Christian wanderer.

Spend some time in quiet prayer with Paul’s teaching to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” How is the Spirit moving you to interpret that for your own life?

If Paul were writing to us today, how might he recast verse 13 for our times? What issues would he enumerate?

Matthew 24:36-44

This gospel text affirms that Jesus will indeed return, but that no one, not even Jesus himself, knows the day or hour. Such knowledge has been reserved to God alone. Some Christians, however, have interpreted the exhortation to “be ready” to mean that one must be physically prepared for the events that will accompany the Second Coming. Others attempt to calculate when this event will occur. Interestingly, such predictions and calculations often attract widespread public attention and curiosity.

While mainstream Christians usually don’t get caught up in the hype and anxiety that surround apocalyptic predictions, such incidents, as well as today’s gospel text, invite us to reflect on a few significant issues. Often, spiritually and emotionally, we distract ourselves from what is essential by focusing our attention and energy on that which is tangential and often beyond our control. But in the end these are pseudo concerns that draw us away from responding with maturity and wholeness to the Christian call for transformation of heart and mind.

In what ways do you succumb to the temptation to excessively focus on peripheral issues over which you have little control?

How might you apply Jesus exhortation to “keep awake” (verse 42) to your own life and circumstances?

Bible Study: Christ the King (C)

November 24, 2013

Joseph Farnes, Seminary of the Southwest

“Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:34)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 23:1-6Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79) or Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Jeremiah 23:1-6

In this passage, Jeremiah was writing during a time of conflict and fear. Nations were at war and invading each other, and Judah as a nation was right in the middle of it all. Jeremiah’s message, however, was directed not at other nations but at the monarchy of Judah, the southern kingdom of what once was a united Israel. The kings of Judah, according to Jeremiah, were harming the people with their policies and with their lack of reverence for God.

Jeremiah and God tell the kings that this harmful behavior will not be allowed to go on forever and that God will intervene to set things right. The people scattered by war will be brought home. The people confused will find guidance. Jeremiah writes that God “will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing” (23:4). In other words, God will raise up leaders who are real leaders, God will raise up shepherds who are true shepherds, and God will raise up kings who are good kings.

Jeremiah turned his attention not on the nations threatening Judah but rather on the monarchy of Judah. In the midst of conflict, what makes it hard for us to look at ourselves and see our own role and mistakes in the conflict?

What are the qualities of a good leader? A good member of Congress? A good governor? A good priest? A good bishop? Most importantly, what are the qualities of a disciple of Christ?

Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79), Song of Zechariah

The Song of Zechariah has traditionally been said or sung at Morning Prayer for hundreds of years. It has a very hopeful feeling at the beginning that sets a wonderful tone for the day ahead.

God has come to the people and set them free! God has promised to show mercy to us and set us free from the hands of enemies, and finally the mighty savior has been raised up for us. We are free to worship God without fear, and we are free to be holy and righteous all the days of our life. Sweet freedom!

The second part of this canticle suddenly shifts to “you.” Who is being addressed? The canticle is addressing John the Baptist, who has just been born.

John the Baptist’s father is praising God and telling his infant son of the joys and dangers of the road ahead. John will go before the Lord and give people the knowledge of salvation and the forgiveness of their sins. John will be a prophet. Being called a prophet is a bittersweet thing, however. The life of a prophet is hard, for it means speaking the truth as a humble servant of God and often being rejected. John the Baptist leads people to repentance, but he lives in the wilderness and is imprisoned and executed by Herod.

When we sing or say this canticle together, we remind ourselves that God has raised up salvation for us in Christ, but we are also remind ourselves that this is not an easy road. God saves us and sets us free, but we must walk in God’s way.

How can you live like John the Baptist and live his message today?

How do you experience the freedom given by God, a freedom that frees you to worship God and to be holy and righteous?

Colossians 1:11-20

In this letter there is an explanation of what Christ has done for us, and it explains how we should act in the world to live out Christ’s salvation. This passage contains a hymn to Christ starting at verse 15, “He is the image of the invisible God,” and going until verse 20, “by making peace through the blood of his cross” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 627).

Can you imagine singing it? Try setting the text to a tune you know: a traditional hymn, chanting, or a contemporary song. The text seems less like a “lecture” on who Christ is, as if it were just listing a bunch of facts about Christ that we need to memorize.

Now the text rejoices: Christ is the image of the invisible God! All things were created through him and for him, and through Christ all things in heaven and on earth may be reconciled to God through the peacemaking of the cross!

That is definitely a hymn of praise. It conveys a strong message, and it helps us to be more joyful in how we give thanks. All these facts about Christ lead us to be joyful and to be strengthened for the journey.

What are some of your favorite hymns? How do you feel when singing them? Do you sing them when you are stressed, angry, sad, hurt? Try writing out the text of a hymn to see what it teaches you and what gospel truth it proclaims.

Try writing a hymn like this one. What do you love most about Christ? How do you know Christ in your own experience? What images or stories from Scripture come to mind when contemplating Christ?

Luke 23:33-43

On this last Sunday after Pentecost we are reading the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and we are calling today “Christ the King Sunday.” What are we saying about Christ as a king by reading about the crucifixion today? What is being said about kingship?

First, there is the sign that was nailed to the cross: “This is the King of the Jews.” Rome did not do this as a confession of faith. They were showing through a brutal act what happens to the leaders of nations who stand in their way, and they were showing what would happen to anyone who stood up against them. Ironically, Rome is only partly right. This is the King of the Jews, but this is also the King of the Gentiles (and thus King of the Romans, and the Greeks, and the Persians – and everyone else).

Second, this is a king whose characteristics are not agreed upon. One of the criminals mocks him, and the other defends him. Some mock him as a Messiah while others confess him as the Messiah. Compare the image of Christ in the Book of Revelation, as the conquering hero coming in glory, to the image of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, as the suffering Messiah. These different images of Jesus show that his kingship is not like earthly kingship in its pomp and extravagance but is still kingship in its power.

Third, what does Jesus say from the cross? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” and “Truly, I tell you, you will be with me in Paradise.” This is a king who does not seek vengeance but reconciliation. (See Colossians 1:11-20, the epistle reading for today.) This king does not tell Rome, “What you’ve done to me, I will do to you,” but rather asks that they be forgiven. Instead of condemning the thief who mocks him, Jesus turns to the thief who recognizes Jesus’ innocence and gives him a promise of hope and peace.

What qualities from your list of leadership qualities for today’s Jeremiah reading are shown here in Jesus?

What images of Christ in the New Testament or church tradition speak most to you? What images do not speak to you? What can you learn from both sets of images?

How does one forgive such injustice and brutality? How can reconciliation and hope be brought to a world in need?

Bible Study: 26 Pentecost, Proper 28 (C)

November 17, 2013

Jordan Trumble, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“And Jesus said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.’” (Luke 21:8)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 65:17-25Canticle 92 Thessalonians 3:6-13Luke 21:5-19

Isaiah 65:17-25

In this passage, we encounter the prophet Isaiah speaking to the Jewish people who have returned from their exile in Babylon. Despite the fact that they were no longer exiled, Isaiah’s audience was not particularly well off. Instead of returning to the sparkling city that was prophesied throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the Jewish people in the generations following the exile had not recovered and still lived in a dilapidated, crumbling Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that was far from what they have been expecting.

Yet the prophet Isaiah has a message of hope for the post-exilic Jews, a message that can offer us hope, too. We hear the message that the Lord God will “create new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17) and “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (v. 25). This message is one of restoration, of newness, and of peaceful coexistence, but it is also a radical promise of an entirely new creation. The same God who created the world and brought abundant life out of a formless void will once again create order and beauty out of disarray, confusion and trials.

What sort of practices do you have in your spiritual life that help you feel refreshed, restored and renewed?

Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12)

In this song of praise, we once again hear the perspective of the post-exilic Jews who have been through trying times but who have also heard the promise of restoration and are still awaiting this future day of transformation. This text is a vision of what the people will say to God on the day when God’s promises are fulfilled.

The line “Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation” (v. 3) presents a particularly striking image. Although drawing water may be a foreign chore to us in the present day, it would have been a task all too familiar to Isaiah’s original audience. This task of drawing water, one pot or bucket at a time, would have been tedious and labor-intensive but was utterly necessary for living; water must be drawn for drinking, cooking and agriculture. This task was absolutely essential and, although perhaps difficult, had a life-giving result. Like the chore of drawing water, our relationships with God can be this way, too. Despite toil and struggles, we have the hope and promise of eternal life and salvation through relationship because, as the prophet promises, it is God who saves us.

What are challenges in your daily life that give you the opportunity to “draw water with rejoicing”? That is, where in your life can your struggles and frustrations lead to a deeper, life-giving relationship with God?

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

It is quite easy to moralize this passage and use it to pass judgments on others, especially since it contains phrases like “Anyone unwilling to works should not eat” (v. 10). Yet, this passage also offers us an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be in community, particularly to consider the difficulties and frustrations of life in a Christian community.

How, then, should Christians treat each other? We are called by God to love our neighbors as ourselves, but what does that mean? For Paul, in communication with the Thessalonians, this means to not be idle. When we are idle, we place a burden on other people. If I don’t clean up after myself, someone else will have to. In choosing idleness, I am making a choice for myself but also a choice to burden those affected by my actions.

But idleness can also affect our relationships with God. When we are idle, we are not giving our best to God, which does a disservice both to God and to ourselves. We are shirking our calling as children of God, called into loving relationship. Instead of idleness, we must choose to be active in our relationships, with God and those around us, giving the very best of ourselves to those with whom God calls us into relationship.

Are you idle or active in your relationship with God? If you are idle, what can you do to be more active? If you are active in your relationship with God, how do you sustain that relationship?

Luke 21:5-19

Throughout the gospels, we witness Jesus critiquing the temple and its authorities: This is the same temple that was cleansed by Jesus and the same temple where Jesus denounced the scribes. The corruption of the temple authorities, those who are supposed to be religious and societal leaders, is leading people away from right worship of God and must be destroyed in order to bring people into right relationship.

As this passage continues, Jesus warns his followers of the difficulties that are in store for them: arrest, persecution and betrayal. It certainly doesn’t make the path of discipleship sound appealing. Yet as difficult as this passage can be, it ends with a promise: “But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (v. 18-19). By the time this gospel was written, the temple in Jerusalem had, in fact, been destroyed and Jesus’ words had been fulfilled. And if Jesus was right about the temple, can’t we also believe his promise that, if we follow him, not a hair on our heads will perish? In the face of corruption, Jesus is a trusted name, and by following him, we can rest in the promise of new life.

Like the temple scribes in Jesus’ time, we all have people or influences in our lives that can get in the way of our relationship with God. Who or what stands in the way of your relationship with God?

In the face of trials and difficulties, how do you find God’s promise in your life?

Bible Study: 25 Pentecost, Proper 27 (C)

November 10, 2013

Andrew Moore, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’” (Luke 20:34-35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Haggai 1:15b-2:9;Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Admit it, you had to check your Bible’s table of contents to find the Book of Haggai. One of the lesser-known prophets, Haggai was written approximately 70 years after the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile, as many Jews were returning to their homeland. As such, the book of Haggai is less concerned with questions of exile than with reclaiming and rebuilding the land. Specifically, Haggai prophesizes about the importance of rebuilding the temple. In the second chapter of Haggai, the people of Judah seem less than impressed with the beginnings of the rebuilt temple.

In today’s passage, Haggai is admonishing the people of Judah to keep faith, that God will help rebuild the temple to be even more splendid than the first. This must have sounded counterintuitive to the people. They were struggling to meet even their basic human needs. How could they possibly rebuild the temple in glorious fashion? Haggai reminds the people of God’s great promise of faithfulness to God’s chosen people. The work of rebuilding the temple is ultimately God’s work, not the work of the people.

What are ways in which we become discouraged when our attempts to do God’s work in the world are seemingly fruitless? How can we reframe our discouragement into an exercise of faith?

Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21

Psalm 145 is a hymn to God’s gloriousness. The last psalm attributed to David, it precedes the final group of songs of praise that end the book of Psalms. It is effusive in its praise of God and God’s works in the world. It paints a picture of God who is responsive and active in the world, worthy of unending praise. “I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works.”

Yet sometimes this effusive praise can be hard to hear, hard to speak. How hard must it be for the long-suffering to hear “He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he hears their cry and helps them.” It can be difficult to reconcile the God of action who is described in Psalm 145 with the God whose action can be difficult to discern. Perhaps the key to reconciling the two lies in verse 2: “Everyday I will bless you and praise your Name for ever and ever.”

Embedded in this song of praise is a call to faithfulness. We are called to continue to praise God and trust in God’s good works, even when we lack the evidence to see them.

What are the challenges you face in praising God effusively?  What holds you back?

How might a daily practice of praising God transform times of discouragement and suffering? What would it take to praise God fully in the most challenging times of our lives?

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

This passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians addresses a key theme continued from the gospels. When will the Kingdom of Heaven arrive? Many people believed that with the coming of the Messiah, the end was imminent. Paul warns the early Christians not to believe those who claim to know that the coming of the kingdom is near. He is essentially reminding us to not get ahead of ourselves and remain present in our earthly lives.

In the second part of the passage, Paul offers thanksgiving that God offers salvation.  This thanksgiving echoes similar passages in 1 Thessalonians. It is also invokes images of the Israelites in Hebrew scriptures. God chose to make promises to the Israelites just as God then chose to offer salvation to those who believe in Christ. Paul seems to be encouraging the Christians of Thessalonica to remain steadfast in their belief and their practices despite the fact that their hopes for the coming of God’s kingdom have not been fulfilled.

What are the ways in which you get ahead of yourself and focus on the promised reward and not your daily life?

How can we have faith in God’s promises even when we don’t see or experience the reward?

Luke 20:27-38

This passage continues a long line of reminders in Luke that we do not place value in the correct places in our earthly lives. The Sadducees were an aristocratic Jewish sect during Jesus’ time, often contrasted with the Pharisees. Historians describe the Sadducees as often being rude to their peers. As the passage indicates, they did not believe in the resurrection of the body or of the soul. They lay a trap for Jesus by invoking the Torah’s requirement that if a man should die before having children, one of his brothers should marry his wife. It was hoped that the woman would have a son so that the man’s family, and property holdings, could continue.

Yet Jesus deftly avoids the trap the Sadducees set for him by challenging the grounds for the question. Jesus reminds us that heaven will not be like earth. We are not able to comprehend just how different heaven will be from our earthly existence. We will not take the things we value with us into the afterlife. It reinforces Luke’s earlier messages about the importance of sharing our earthly abundance with the poor and suffering.

How do you picture God’s kingdom in heaven? How does it compare to your earthly life?

What parts of your earthly life do you value too highly?