Archives for January 2014

Bible Study: 6 Epiphany (A)

February 16, 2014

Dale T. Grandfield, General Theological Seminary

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Here we are toward the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses is delivering his third and final discourse on the plain before handing over the reins to his successor Joshua so that the Israelites may enter the Promised Land. These are Moses’ final instructions to the people he has guided and instructed through the wilderness for 40 years. He’s 120 years old! Yet by God’s command, he has to stay back while the people make way into their longed-for destination. Off to Mount Nebo he will soon to go. And onward the Israelites will march to cleanse and settle the land under the command of Joshua. They are on the verge of seeing the promises God made to Abraham so long ago come to fruition: a people who have a special relationship with God who have a homeland in which to live.

It would be easy to think that after all those years in the wilderness the job of forming the Israelites should be finished. Maybe from there it would be simple: Enter the Promised Land, see the Covenant blossom, eat that milk and honey and relax. Easy Street.

But that’s not what Moses explains. While the Wilderness was certainly a place of formation – of God and the people becoming acquainted – the Promised Land is the place to live out what God intends for Israel. That leaves the people in the precarious state of a choosing. Will they love God or will they abandon God, flaunt allegiances and worship like other people? In loving God will they follow God’s commands?

When have you stood at a place of passage and had to choose between God and gods?

Have you ever thought that living in the Promised Land – the Kingdom of God – might require more than just kicking back and relaxing?

How can the life of the baptized sometimes require the leaving behind of something beloved in order to grow more fully into the stature of Christ?

Do we, the church, sometime neglect our duty to continue forming people after they are baptized?

Psalm 119:1-8

Happy. That’s an interesting little word to begin a psalm with. That little word begins the first of 176 verses of the longest psalm – Psalm 119.

Of course, we break this longest psalm up into digestible eight-verse sections based on the poetic use of the same first letter of the alphabet for each word of each verse in each eight-verse stanza. But it is really one psalm, with one story to tell.

So while today’s stanza is the first, because each verse begins its first word with the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, if we read from the beginning to the end of Psalm 119, we would find a few recurring words of greater importance: statute, commandment, judgment and decree.

Nevertheless, with ‘ashrei – “happy” – we start this psalm with two verses of increasing intensity regarding the perfect. Those people are indeed happy, their way is blameless, they walk in the Law of the Lord, they observe God’s decrees and seek God with all their hearts. But what are those commandments, decrees, statues and judgments? At first it might be easy, reading Psalm 119, to think that the focus is entirely on the law and its keeping. Yet what is more important still is seeking, is opening the intimate conversation in which God can help and teach.

How can we become more interested in what God wants for us than what we want for ourselves? How can we know what God wants?

What does it mean to allow the space to continue to learn what God wants for our lives?

When have you found that living into God’s will for you makes you happy? Have you found that to be where God’s will and yours intersect? Is this what it means to be called?

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The Corinthians were apparently very contentious. They liked to fight among themselves about matters of faith and practice, and they apparently tended to divide on issues according to factions who sided with the teachings of this or that apostle. But the real issue for these Corinthians was not matters of faith or practice but maturity in Christ. They had become so caught-up in the differences and details that they missed the bigger picture – the one that showed them to be one Body in Christ.

Paul tells the Corinthians that the Christian life is like any human life – it must be born and nurtured from infancy to adulthood. The real work of care and support begins once a person is Christian, not before. That’s why the truths of the Faith must be given in easily digestible form to the neonates, while to those more progressed and mature deeper things can be revealed.

That’s where the Corinthians got jealous. It would be like asking: “Why has that baby begun to crawl at 6 months, and this one still can’t sit up?” Or “Why can that child read at 2 years and this one still can’t form sentences?” Maybe it’s what the parents have been feeding them – or maybe it’s all that Baby Mozart? Growth and development are tedious and tenuous. That’s what Paul says to the Corinthians. But a baby can’t walk before she crawls. And she can’t crawl before she sits up. And so is the Christian life.

Perhaps for show, perhaps for jealousy’s sake, the Corinthians had gotten ahead of themselves. Then, in his note to them, Paul tells them: You’ve missed the first two most important things. First, you are God’s, and God will fashion you in God’s time. Second, you are all God’s, and that means that you are equal to each other.

To quote a few verses ahead, “All [human leaders] belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (vv. 22-23).

What can you do to stay grounded in being God’s beloved child? And how can you open your eyes to see how your sisters and brothers in Christ are God’s children, too?

What types of distinctions and divisions do you find easy to dismiss? Which ones might be more convenient or comfortable for you?

Have you ever found yourself falling into the stance of being right?

Matthew 5:21-37

Here we are in the tough spot of the Sermon on the Mount. Everyone likes the beginning, the Beatitudes: “You are the Salt” and “You are the Light.” But this part, beginning with Jesus saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (v. 17) and following through Chapter 5 with the “You-have-heard-it-said”s is much less congenial. Murder. Adultery. Swearing of Oaths. Restitution. Giving Alms. Love for enemies. Jesus hits all of the tough topics of ethics in the Kingdom of God.

And not only does he uphold the law and prophets, but he ups the ante. Matthew’s Jesus takes very seriously that “the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:7) and that “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for all the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). That vision of the Kingdom is only possible if the law is not only kept, but the very heart of things is transformed.

So, for Matthew’s Jesus, being angry with, insulting or disparaging another person is tantamount to killing them. Looking longingly, lustfully at another’s spouse or casting-off one’s own spouse for insignificant reasons is the same as adultery. Shirking responsibility by word-smithing and swearing grandiose oaths on ethereal collateral is downright evil. Jesus followers should offer more than quid pro quo when their adversaries demand restitution. Jesus followers should give to everyone who begs, and loan money to anyone who wants to borrow. And Jesus followers don’t just love those they like, they love and pray for even the people who hurt and oppose them.

The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel demands a lot of his followers. In your relationship with Jesus, have you found him to have requirements?

Is it possible to love Jesus or others, with responsibility to and for them?

What does it mean when people cannot live up to the ethics of the Kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount?

How have you opened yourself to being transformed beyond the basic duty of Christianity?

Bible Study: 5 Epiphany (A)

February 9, 2014

Alan CowartVirginia Theological Seminary

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

Isaiah 58:2-9a, (9b-12)

God wants something more for us. God calls the prophet to point out the futility of fasting, worship, religion that does not make a difference in the current world. The idea of humbling ourselves is not to call God to pay attention to our posture: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” God thinks of this worship as serving our own interest.

God is interested in something more: God wants to make a difference in the life we live. Humbling ourselves in worship is about lining our interests up with God’s interest. And God is interested in making a difference today in the real pain of the world.

So what we do each day and how we treat each other matters. It is not enough to fast or follow the law as if it were a list of “do this” or “don’t do that.” The ordinances of God (that is, the commands of God) are to “treat people in this way,” “serve God in this manner.”

It is in seeking justice today, in this world, and sharing bread that we are healed. It is in covering the naked and living a life of relationship that we hear God saying, “Here I am.” We serve God when we seek after the things that God seeks. We are healed by God when we seek to heal the world around us.

When we line up our motives with God’s, our hearts with God’s purpose, our yearning for God’s end, then we shall be redeemed. Then our light and healing will break through. Then God is there, with us, as God has always been.

We are all busy. Where in your life do you need to slow down and take a closer look at what is happening in the lives of the people you intersect? Who comes to mind?

God talks about fasting to loosen “the bonds of injustice.” Who in our society needs more justice today? How can you pray for them today?

Psalm 112:1-9 (10)

This psalm continues to explore what righteousness looks like. We know that “those who fear the Lord” are happy and secure, and “their hearts are steady.” The psalmist speaks of enduring faith and a lasting relationship with God. The righteous have hope in a future, “in the end they will look in triumph.”

A recurring theme in the psalms is the contrast between the righteous who follow God’s commandments and the wicked who stand against God or seek to do us harm. But this psalm barely mentions the wicked. In the end, they will be of no consequence; they will “melt away” and come to nothing.

Instead, the focus is on the result of living in righteousness. And this way of being is not simply about a right relationship with God, but also with those around us. It is striking that in addition to helping those in need and focusing on following the commands of God, those who delight in God’s commands “rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.” It seems the focus is on living righteously with our neighbors and sharing the light we have found, which is a result of fearing God. This is the righteousness that will endure forever, that will be called “upright.”

If you have warmed yourself with the light of God, how can you share that light with someone else this week?

1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)

Paul reminds the Corinthians of their first meeting. The gospel was proclaimed simply, in an accessible way. The essence of the gospel is Jesus. The words are not as important as their content. The God who died on the cross is the central message. This is an Epiphany message. The child born and revealed to the magi is the child crucified and revealed to the world.

Paul adapts his message to the audience but is clear that not everyone “gets it.” Those trying to gain control of the young congregation by aligning with different factions (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17) must now align themselves with the principal message of Jesus crucified. It is a simple message but perhaps too simple for some. The message of the gospel doesn’t always make sense by our standards. And if we think of God’s love for the world in purely mathematical ways, it will never add up. It is something that must be experienced. “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?” The experience of God is brought about by God, initiated by God and revealed by God.

How has your life been changed by an experience of God?

Matthew 5:13-20

Today’s gospel reading is near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and provides a bridge between two important sections of this long discourse. Jesus has concluded the familiar beatitudes “blessed are the poor ” and here identifies his audience more specifically: “you are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world.” I have always been struck that he didn’t say “You are like salt” but that salt and light are who we are. Our interactions in the world matter.

Many of us feel used up, tired. Salt that is no longer salty is useless. But here’s some good news: We can’t not be salt; we can only stop acting like it. We can only stop being salty to the world. God’s light is never extinguished, we can only choose to hide it or let it shine.

Jesus continues this idea when he speaks about the Law and the prophets. We think of the law as a way to measure the rightness or wrong-ness of our or someone else’s actions. But like the Old Testament reading today, the law identifies who is already living in right relationship with God. Jesus makes his point when he says that he fulfills the law. Jesus has a high regard for the law, for the relationship with God that it identifies. Those who follow Jesus, who seek to live in right relationship with God and with the world will discover that they remain salty, and the light of Christ will be revealed in their life.

Think about where your daily actions reflect your experience of God.

We are the light of the world. Where do you choose to hide rather than shine your light?

Bible Study: Presentation (A,B,C) – 2014

February 2, 2014

[NOTE: Because the Feast of the Presentation falls on a Sunday this year, its lectionary readings take precedence over the usual readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany in Year A.]

Brian PinterGeneral Theological Seminary

“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (Luke 2:22)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Malachi 3:1-4Psalm 84Hebrews 2:14-18Luke 2:22-40

Malachi 3:1-4

The Book of Malachi, a name that literally means “my messenger,” was written in the period following Israel’s exile in Babylonian and subsequent return, circa sixth century B.C. Malachi addressed a number of justice-related issues, but his book contains a great deal of reflection on the Temple cult of sacrifice and its priesthood. The theme of the Temple runs throughout our readings today. Malachi in this first text sets out a warning that one is coming to purify the priesthood of abuses the prophet outlined in vv 1:6-2:9.

The prophet’s concern for the integrity of Temple ritual speaks to the great reverence and respect our tradition has long attached to liturgy. Ours is an era that sometimes struggles with the temptation to coopt liturgy for ideological purposes. Malachi reminds us that worship is directed to God, not us, and requires that we execute it with reverence. Malachi’s is not a call to any sense of strict traditionalism, nor does it in any way foreclose development of our liturgical practices. Rather, the prophet underscores that worship is the outward expression of the deep faith and eternal longing of the heart. He calls us to view our outward offerings to the Lord as the fruit of a righteous heart (v. 3).

Is there a word or phrase from this reading that resonates with you?

What are the challenges to reverent and proper worship we face in our own time that require “purification and refinement”?

Psalm 84

The theme of the Temple and its central place in the believer’s life continues in today’s psalm. Pilgrimage, the beauty of the courts and the safety of the Holy place, even for the birds, are all underscored. Especially noteworthy is the Valley of Baca (v. 6), mentioned near the very center of the psalm, an indication of its significance in this particular text. (Ancient writers placed the most important points of a text in the middle, unlike modern authors who save the point of a story for the end.) Baca might refer to the place where David defeated the Philistines, or could symbolically refer to a time of trial, dryness and desolation we face on the broader pilgrimage of life.

Pilgrimage can bring challenges, difficulty and exhaustion, but the place to which the pilgrim is headed provides the inspiration and resolve to continue. Zion, the holy city, the dwelling place of God, represents our lifelong journey to union with God. The psalmist captures the entire narrative arc of this journey, from the soul’s initial deep longings for God, to the unavoidable dryness of the valleys, to the rejoicing experienced in those moments of union with our Creator. This text invites us to reflect on our individual spiritual pilgrimages and embrace where we are now, whether it be the stages of the initial call, the valley of Baca or the beautiful city we see as we approach the place of God’s dwelling.

Is there a word or phrase from this reading that resonates with you?

Where do you find yourself in the spiritual pilgrimage suggested by this psalm?

Hebrews 2:14-18

The epistle to the Hebrews interprets Jesus in light of the Israelite Temple and its priesthood. This lengthy sermon sees Jesus as both ultimate High Priest (the most significant Temple priestly office) and ultimate sacrifice. Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross deals with the power of sin once and for all. There is no need, according to the epistle, for any further sacrifices.

Our lectionary text today from Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus shared in our life experiences, including human frailty, the fear of dying and the many temptations that all people face as we struggle to remain faithful in our relationships with God. Although the epistle underscores Jesus’ exalted status (i.e. that Jesus is the human being par excellence), he nonetheless totally identifies with us – in our joy, in our longing for God, in our trials and suffering. As the gospels show, Jesus faced trials as he persevered in his fidelity to God and the mission to which God called Jesus. We all experience the impulse to infidelities, large and small, whether in actions or attitudes. Jesus stands ready – and according to Hebrews very well qualified – to support us in those times where we face the darkening temptation of infidelity.

Is there a word or phrase from this reading that resonates with you?

When have you felt Jesus standing in solidarity with you as face a time of trial or temptation?

Luke 2:22-40

Luke is very careful to situate both the beginning and conclusion of his gospel in the Jerusalem Temple. He seeks to demonstrate that Jesus, as well as his family and disciples, were faithful, law-abiding Israelites. Luke also uses the initial chapters of his gospel as a bridge to bring Old Testament characters forward to meet Jesus. For example, Zechariah and Elizabeth represent Abraham and Sarah. Gabriel last appeared in the book of Daniel. John the Baptist is Elijah. And in today’s text we see Simeon and Anna representing Eli and Hannah. Jesus is depicted as the fulfillment and the culmination point of Israel’s long journey.

Today’s gospel text provides us with the prayer known as the Nunc Dimittis, an oration still used in the Daily Office prayers of the church. Simeon also utters a second, interesting, mysterious and challenging oracle regarding Mary and the sword that will pierce her heart. Commentators since the earliest centuries of the church have struggled to interpret this oracle, and many have relied on sources outside Luke’s gospel in the quest to unravel it. In the context of Luke’s story that is to unfold in subsequent chapters, however, Luke foreshadows that Jesus will redefine the notion of family, and even Mary herself will be forced to make a choice (Luke 12:51-53). Jesus sees his family to be not simply those who are his biological relatives, but those who hear the word of God and do it. According to Luke 8:19-21, Jesus’ mother and brothers pass the test of discipleship, but nonetheless are subject to the discriminating judgment Jesus brought.

Is there a word or phrase from this reading that resonates with you?

In what ways has the call to discipleship been a sword “which pierces your own soul”?

Bible Study: 3 Epiphany (A)

January 26, 2014

Debra GoebelGeneral Theological Seminary

“As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’” (Matthew 4:18-19)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 9:1-4Psalm 27:1, 5-131 Corinthians 1:10-18Matthew 4:12-23

Isaiah 9:1-4

The Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, including the regions of Zebulon and Naphtali. As God’s covenant people and recipients of his special favor and protection, there could be no explanation for this utter catastrophe except that God was punishing them for their lack of faithfulness to him and his covenant.

In the previous passage, the writer describes the anguish that the conquered were suffering. The chapter that follows abruptly changes its tone to one of hope. It describes the ascent of a king, likely Hezekiah, who had introduced reforms to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Verses 9:1-4 describe how Judah, reformed by Hezekiah, shines out as an example to Israel of obedience to Torah and faithfulness to God. This will bring hope to Israel. They need no longer live in darkness and despair because if they repent and return to the pious observance of Torah as Judah had, God would one day throw off their Assyrian oppressors.

Isaiah believed that Hezekiah would “save” Judah with his reforms and “deliver” Israel by encouraging it to repent. We can see the “messianic seed” being planted by Isaiah. Although he is not prophesizing the coming of Jesus, but describing the ruler of an earthly kingdom, the concept is there. By the time Jesus begins his ministry, people will immediately make the connection between Isaiah’s words and the Messiah.

What does it mean for us to be God’s covenant people? If God does not protect us from all the calamities of life, what benefits do we derive from this relationship? What are our responsibilities?

Judah was an example of faithfulness to the covenant, a light of hope for fallen Israel. In what ways is the church a light of hope? How does it sometimes fail to give hope?

Who are the oppressed in our society? How might Christians be a light to them and offer them hope?

Psalm 27:1, 5-13

The psalmist describes to us the steadfast love that the Lord has shown him, to which he has responded with unwavering trust and faith in God. He fears no one, because the Lord is ever faithful and has never failed to come to his aid. The psalmist has only one prayer, which is that he be allowed to make a pilgrimage to the temple where he might experience God in a deeper and more profound way. There, in the presence of the Lord he will be at peace, he will feel safe and give thanks and rejoice in the Lord. The psalmist feels the Lord tugging at his heart; it is his heart’s only desire to be closer to the Lord, to see him face to face. The psalmist asks to be kept safe from his enemies until this, his greatest hope, is fulfilled. Although making a religious pilgrimage is not as common today as it was for Christians in the past, it is still something many feel a strong desire to experience. The Holy Land, Iona and other holy places are still visited by pilgrims. Retreats have replaced pilgrimages for many, however; in this case, the “event” becomes holy whereas the location has little or no significance.

The psalmist feels God speaking to, or tugging at his heart and drawing him into a “face to face” relationship with him. Have you ever felt God tugging at your heart in this way? How did it feel? How have you responded to this “tugging”?

What does it mean to meet someone face to face? In what ways would this change your relationship with someone you had spoken with but had never seen? How might we meet God “face to face”?

The psalmist’s faith seems unshakable. Have there been times in your life when your faith faltered? Looking back, do you believe God had remained faithful in his care of you although it may not have been apparent at the time? In what ways do you believe he cared for you?

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Paul receives news that the community of Jesus followers he had established in Corinth is in trouble. It appears divisions are forming on the basis of who had baptized different individuals. There is the “Paul” group, the “Apollos” group, the “Cephas” group and the “Christ” group. This is, of course, an attempt by each group to gain influence over the others.

Paul insists that regardless of who performed the ritual, it is Christ in whom they are all baptized and therefore united as one body of believers. Paul implores them to be of one understanding regarding this so that they may be united in their purpose. Paul has convinced most Christians that there is only one baptism and that it is in Christ that we are baptized; however, we have since come to align ourselves denominationally. Instead of saying, “I belong to Apollos,” we say “I belong to the Episcopal Church,” or “I belong to the Methodist Church.”

Paul claims that the straightforward way in which he proclaims the gospel is the most effective and will endure the test of time, while the “eloquent” rhetoric used by others, presumably Apollos and Cephas, although perhaps not invalid, prevents people from fully appreciating the power of Christ’s message in the cross. We do not know the content of Apollos’ or Cephas’ preaching, or Paul’s for that matter. I believe the message here is that we must carefully consider what we hear from the pulpit, “measuring” it against the cannon of scripture while considering our traditions and engaging our reason.

There are many issues that divide Christians today. In what way does baptism in Christ unite us? Is it possible for Christians to be of “one mind” and yet disagree on certain matters?

Paul suggests that some others may be presenting the gospel in a way that limits the power of the “cross of Christ” to truly change people’s lives. Reflect on our tendency to “water down” the gospel. What aspects of Christian discipleship make you most uncomfortable? Why?

How does reducing expectations minimize the cost or sacrifice of discipleship? How would raising expectation increase the power of the cross of Christ to change lives in a more profound way?

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus, having retreated into the wilderness after his baptism, receives word that his cousin John has been arrested. Jesus knows it is time for him to begin his ministry and decides to leave his home in Nazareth for Capernaum in Galilee. Galilee is in the area that was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been overthrown by the Assyrians. In Hebrew scripture, Isaiah spoke of Israel’s fall as the result of its lack of faithfulness to God and Torah, its disregard for its covenant responsibilities.

Matthew draws an analogy between Jesus and the pious King Hezekiah whom Isaiah prophesized would restore the Kingdom of Judah to righteousness and bring the fallen Kingdom of Israel to repentance. Hezekiah was unable to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, and eventually Judah was conquered as well. Matthew suggests that Jesus will achieve what Hezekiah could not; however, the kingdom Jesus will restore is not an earthly realm, but God’s Kingdom of Heaven.

In Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes upon Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, who are fishing. He calls to them to leave their present way of life behind to follow him and promises to make them fishers of people. He later calls James and his brother John as well, who drop everything to follow Jesus. He then travels throughout Galilee, teaching and healing and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.

Jesus is sometimes described as not being a “family man.” On the surface, it appears that Jesus is calling the disciples to leave behind their livelihoods and their families. I believe we need to understand passages such as these figuratively. Jesus calls us to leave behind our “old way of life,” our former way of understanding and participating in the world. Our lives, as well as our everyday tasks will take on new meaning.

In what things, people or ideas do we tend to put our faith, believing they will somehow “save” us? What are the dangers in doing so?

Jesus tells his disciples that they will “fish” for the citizens of his kingdom. Evaluate the many kinds of “nets” we use in which to “catch” people for the Kingdom of heaven.

Jesus “cures every disease and sickness among the people.” What do you believe sickens our society today? How do the teachings of Jesus address these diseases?

Bible Study: 2 Epiphany (A)

January 19, 2014

Yolanda RolleBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”’” (John 1:32-33)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 49:1-7Psalm 40:1-121 Corinthians 1:1-9John 1:29-42

Isaiah 49:1-7

In this passage the author answers three important questions: What is the nature of the servant’s origin? What is the nature of the servant’s work? And who are the benefactors of the servant’s work?

First, the nature of the servant’s origin is identified. According to the text, before birth, the servant has an intimate relationship with God. And while in the mother’s womb, God equips the servant with tools (verse 2).

Second, the passage outlines the nature of the servant’s work. The servant’s work is to save Israel from further destruction, and to restore her to God. As a result, the servant’s work might be described as prophetic and salvific.

Finally, the passage gives us clues about the benefactors of the servant’s work. The servant’s first attempts are to save Israel – primarily the tribes of Jacob (verse 6). However, the author suggests that the servant’s attempts have fallen on deaf ears (verse 4). In response to Israel’s resistance to the servant, the author paints a picture of God stepping in (verse 6) and telling the servant to preach the message of salvation to non-Israelites.

In summary in this text, we see a movement from the traditional image of God’s salvation being solely offered to the Israelites, to an image of a God who shares salvation with all people.

Reflect on the servants in your community who represent God’s salvation. What does God’s salvation mean for you? And how do you recognize it?

What obstacles might get in the way of recognizing and ultimately accepting God’s saving grace?

What does it mean to you to have God’s saving grace extended to all people?

Psalm 40:1-12

This is one of my favorite psalms. Right away, the first verse speaks to my experiences.

For example, I remember an evening when I crying because I had just lost a dear friend, and I remember hearing in a hush voice: “I am here with you.” God saw and heard my cry; I needed this reassurance. The pain of loss did not go away immediately, but in that moment and subsequent moments, I imagined God with me.

Another reason why I love this psalm is because of the non-traditional images of God in relation to people. Before discovering this psalm (and similar texts), I had always felt disconnected from the God who required burnt offerings as sacrifice, and evidence of commitment. But in these verses, the psalmist imagines a new kind of relationship between God and people. It is a relationship that appears unattached from the traditional sacrifices and offerings (verse 7), and one predicated on recognizing God’s love (verse 5) and sharing God’s love with others (verse 11). What good news!

Describe biblical images of God that are disconnected from your experiences. Describe biblical images of God that resonate with your experiences.

Take a few moment throughout the day to reflect on images, old and new, that draw you closer to God.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

In his introduction, Paul writes an upbeat greeting to the church in Corinth. First, Paul gives thanks and celebrates how God has enriched the lives of the Corinthians. Specifically, Paul acknowledges how God’s grace has empowered the message of the church in Corinth, and how, through grace, the Corinthians are filled with all spiritual gifts.

Second, Paul encourages the Corinthians to remain faithful to the message of Jesus Christ. Paul believes that their faithfulness to this message will grant them the necessary strength and patience as they await the return of Jesus Christ.

And finally, Paul reminds the Corinthians of God’s faithfulness to them. Paul reminds the Corinthians that their commitment to and love for Jesus Christ is a result of God’s invitation. Paul believes that their success in believing and sharing the good news is a result of God’s faithfulness.

In effect, Paul’s introductory remarks seek to encourage the Corinthians never to forget the centrality of God’s grace and faithfulness in their ministry. Why might Paul think this message was an important one to share with the Corinthians?

Reflect on and describe the gifts of the Spirit that are present in your life.

How do these spiritual gifts empower you?

John 1:29-42

In this reading, John the Baptist is portrayed retelling his first adult encounter with Jesus, and what he believes distinguishes his ministry from Jesus’ ministry. While John the Baptist acknowledges the significance of his work (verse 31), John declares that Jesus, unlike he, has the power to take away sins. Consequently, he calls Jesus the Lamb of God. This description of Jesus is unique to the Gospel of John, and shows the author’s desire to further illustrate the differences between John the Baptist and Jesus. In addition to describing Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist recalls the evidence that he witnessed as proof of Jesus’ stature and significance. (See verses 32-34.)

Finally, in the latter verses of this passage, we are given a unique description, unlike any account in the other gospels, of how Jesus met and called his first disciples, including Simon Peter and Andrew. It is interesting that Jesus’ first two disciples are described as first being disciples of John the Baptist. It was on John the Baptist’s instructions that his disciples left him to follow Jesus. This scene further illustrates the author’s intentions of privileging Jesus’ ministry over the ministry of John the Baptist.

The author describes Jesus as one who can “take away sins.” What does it mean to you to have your sins taken away? What does it look like in your life?