Archives for November 2014

Bible Study: 3 Advent (B)

December 14, 2014

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“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 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In this passage from Third Isaiah, the exiles have returned from Babylon. Their task is to rebuild the city: to create a new Jerusalem. The theme is transformation. The messianic overtones and gospel message are unmistakable on this third Sunday of Advent as we rejoice in the expectation of God entering the world in human form to transform and save God’s people. The anointed one heralds the coming of a new era: the Kingdom of God on earth, or in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo: “the city of God.”

The encompassing gospel message of mission is announced: (1) to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; (2) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; (3) to provide for those who mourn in Zion.

The prophet/poet describes the transforming work of the anointed one in vivid metaphor: to give the people of Zion a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. Take a few minutes with a pencil and paper, or drawing materials, to describe some concrete details as you imagine the new Jerusalem, the city of God.

In a single verse, the prophet speaks of how God loves justice, and will make an everlasting covenant with the people of God. What are some of the elements of an ideal covenant, and how might they ensure justice? Is it the work of the city of God or of the earthly city to create such a covenant?

Canticle 3: The Song of Mary

In her song, Mary echoes Isaiah 61:10 “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” Like Isaiah, Mary is a servant-prophet, a handmaiden of the Lord who prophesies “Behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, the day of rejoicing. It is possible that young Mary, upon hearing the news that she was to bear the holy child Jesus, would have doubts. Instead she rejoices and praises God in the most eloquent terms. Mary is transformed by the Holy Spirit. She accepts God’s call with grace and courage.

Mary is not the only woman in the Bible to be called to witness to God’s work. Read the Song of Miriam in the book of Exodus and the Song of Hannah in First Samuel. What do the three women’s songs have in common? How are they different?

In the passage in the first chapter of Luke that precedes this canticle, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth meet. The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy when he recognizes the mother of his Lord. Try writing a Canticle of Elizabeth, either on your own or as a collaborative writing with your Bible study group.

Describe an experience when you felt called. How have you been transformed by the Holy Spirit?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

The early Christian community in Thessalonica was waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, the eschaton, God’s return in glory to reign on earth. In his letter to the community, Paul names the work of the Spirit in the midst of life. The Spirit awakens and sustains rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving. Here is another call to radical transformation: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil. Paul suggests a way that believers are to live while they wait for of the return of Christ, a way of living in community and in right relationship with God.

With the best of intentions about praying more often, it is easy to let prayer fall to the bottom of one’s to-do list, to put it aside until there is more time. Share some tips for praying without ceasing that have worked for you. For example, I like to pray in the car or on the train while I am commuting to school. Maybe you like to receive a daily prayer in your email inbox. Are there ways that you can connect with a community of prayer?

The Thessalonians were concerned about what would happen to their loved ones who had died while waiting for the coming of Christ. In the previous chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul has assured the community that the dead will rise to meet God at the last day, and that the living will rise to meet them. The Christmas holidays can be especially difficult for those who have lost loved ones. How might Paul’s words speak to those who grieve?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

This passage from the Gospel of John recalls the passage in the first chapter of Luke when the infant John the Baptist recognized the infant Jesus in Mary’s womb, and leapt for joy. That same child is now the man sent from God to testify to the light. This passage also refers back to the words of the prophet Isaiah. John the Baptist, like Isaiah and Mary, is a servant-prophet, commissioned to “make straight the way of the Lord,” empowered to speak and act in ways that bring hope, comfort and joy to the people of Israel. There is a theme of recognition and of Christ-among-us in this passage when John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Further, John says, “I baptize with water.” The one who comes after him, the one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the water of life, salvation.

Think of a time when you have recognized – or failed to recognize – the spirit of God shining in a human being. Share your stories. What words can you use to describe the feeling of the encounter?

Baptism is a form of anointing. What does it mean to you, that the Son of God was anointed by a human being, a man of humble means and demeanor? What is the connection between humility and the voice of one crying in the wilderness?

Look at Isaiah 40:1–11, the passage that John refers to when he says, “I am a voice crying in the wilderness.” How does that passage deepen and enrich your understanding of the scene of John baptizing in Bethany?

Bible Study: 2 Advent (B)

December 7, 2014

Jessie GutgsellBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Isaiah 40:1-11

The book of Isaiah is one of the most well-known and well-loved prophetic books of the Old Testament. Scholars tend to recognize four major divisions within the book: First Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-56), Third Isaiah (Chapters 56-66), and the Isaiah Apocalypse (Chapters 24-27).

Our reading for today comes from the very beginning of Second Isaiah. This section of the book is thought to have been written while the people of Jerusalem were in exile in Babylon. The major focus of the section is the people’s return from exile back to Jerusalem under the Persian King Cyrus.

The passage for today, often associated with the iconic Handel’s “Messiah,” deals directly with the question “What will the community’s role be in the return from exile?”

The community returning from exile is called upon to be active agents, to be comforters. The people fully acknowledge the fall of Jerusalem and the exile as a major failure. But – and this is important – they were never abandoned by God in the process. They’ve gone into exile, they’ve “served their terms” and “paid the penalties.” Now it is time to go home.

A major theme of the Second-Isaiah community is the idea of recreating the old to be something new – a new creation, a new Israel, etc. Verses 3-4, which are later quoted in the gospels, conjure up an image of a new exodus. But this time the exodus will be easier – the valleys will be lifted up, the mountains made low, and so on. This time, the journey will be straighter and easier.

Verse 6 illustrates the struggle of the community to move forward with their return to Jerusalem, their new exodus. The voice in the wilderness is told to cry out, but “What shall I cry?” the voice asks.

The answer, an oft-heard scriptural line, is that people will pass away and fade, but the Word of the Lord will stand forever (v. 8). Thus, the job of the people is to trust in God, to return home and to spread the Word of the Lord from the mountaintops, so that Jerusalem will be a beacon for all.

I invite you to find a recording of Handel’s oratorio quoting these lines and to rest in the deep and rich tradition of music and religion that we have been given. As you sink into the music and into these words, I invite you to let the idea of God comforting you surround you.

The Second-Isaiah community was preparing for a long journey, a journey home. Reflect on your own journeys in life of returning home. Is home a place you can go? A place you want to go or want to avoid?

What gives you strength on this literal or metaphorical journey?

As you prepare to enter into the Christmas season, a season filled with memories and experiences of home, I invite you to remember the words of Isaiah that “the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord will stand forever.”

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

The Bible is rich with imagery, poetry and prose about people and their relationship to the land. This psalm often mentions the land, naming it as God’s in verse 1, and then exhorting that the glory of God will “dwell in our land” (v. 9). An increase in harvest would signal that God, indeed, had blessed the land (v. 12). Thus, for the people of the time when the psalms were written, and for us today, the land is integrally tied up in our relationship to God. When people turn their hearts to God, and when love and faithfulness meet, then “faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (vv. 10-11). Even the earth and the skies will join us in our song of praise and faith.

In what ways would you treat the land differently if you saw it as God’s? How would you treat it differently if you saw the land as a companion in the work of praising God?

This psalm is full of often-used words like “faithfulness” and “righteousness.” How would you define these words in your own language, not in the language of the church? Try describing these words in terms of your five senses. What would faithfulness taste like? Look like? Feel like? And so on.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Peter’s second epistle is one of the shorter books of the Bible, focusing on the responsibilities of Christians as they wait for the end times. The apostle Peter, the named and likely author, is concerned about the actions of Christians as they wait for the Second Coming. Early Christians understandably thought Christ was coming imminently, “like a thief in the night,” but they had to adjust their message when they realized that Christ’s coming was perhaps not quite so imminent.

Second Peter echoes a theme we heard from the Second-Isaiah community, anticipating a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” But while the people and the churches wait for this newness, Peter exhorts them to live lives of integrity, without “spot or blemish.” Peter emphasizes the importance of patience in the Christian journey. Peter likely wrote this book soon before his martyrdom, which adds a level of drama to his message, making it somewhat like a last will and testament. Also, it is interesting to note that Second Peter quotes extensively from the Book of Jude, which likely points to Jude as a major source for the epistle.

In verse 8, Peter speaks of the different way in which God views time. Peter stresses that time is different for God, and that ultimately God is patient and wants us to grow and develop. What in your life has God been patient with you about? What do you need to continue to develop within yourself and your Christian life?

In verse 14, Peter asks Christians to live “without spot or blemish” as they wait for the end times. What in your life feels like it could be a “spot or blemish”? What spiritual practices might “clean” those spots and blemishes?

Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark is considered by most scholars to be the first gospel written, and subsequently the source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Notably Mark’s gospel doesn’t begin with a birth narrative, but instead begins with the introduction of John the Baptist. Scriptural quotations and Old Testament allusions are woven all throughout the gospels, and this is no exception. Mark’s use of Isaiah establishes John the Baptist as a prophet, and Jesus as the Messiah who will come. Later in the passage, the mention of John’s camel’s hair clothing and diet of locusts and honey is likely meant as an allusion to Elijah, another major prophet of 2 Kings (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8a). While most modern readers miss these allusions, they serve to enrich the gospel text by rooting it in tradition.

John the Baptist is serving a crucial role by paving the way for Jesus. He will baptize people with water, but Jesus will come and baptize people with the Holy Spirit. John paves the way with humility, emphasizing that he’s less powerful than the one who will come after him.

Jesus had John the Baptist to “cry out in the wilderness” and “make the paths straight.” Who in your life has played this role? Who has paved the way for you in your journeys?

Thinking in a larger context, what historical figures do you think have paved the way for our faith and for Jesus Christ? Do you think this is still a relevant role to be filled in our modern times?

What would it look like to pave the way for Christ today?



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Bible Study: 1 Advent (B)

November 26, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:35-37)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, is the prophet of Advent, proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God, the Messiah, and the joy and hope of Zion. However, the use of Isaiah in the New Testament betrays an underlying truth of the book – as Paul D. Hanson points out in “Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation” (John Know Press, 1995), it was written over several years, had many writers and editors, and it is difficult to understand as a cohesive whole. Today’s scripture comes in what is known as Third Isaiah – the final and latest addition to the canon of Isaiah’s prophecy. Hanson explains that this passage comes after the joy of Zion is delayed, leaving Third Isaiah to reconcile the current experience of the people of Israel with the one promised in earlier times.

When reading this passage, it is important to remember the narrative of Jewish history. God acted mightily to save the Israelites from Egypt, leading them into the Promised Land and giving them the Law. However, the people of Israel had a difficult time responding to God’s self-giving, straying from God time after time – a normal human tendency. Hanson explains that in this passage, the writer recognizes (and blames) the unfaithfulness of the people of God – and himself – for the delayed promises of Second Isaiah. The writer of Isaiah here implores God to “tear open the heavens and come down” (v.1) that the people of God might believe. Verse 9 gets to the heart of the prophet’s message; recognizing the failures and waywardness of his people, the prophet begs God to “not be angry,” to not “remember iniquity forever” – to remember, that despite all of this, that the prophet’s people are the people of God.

For the reader of this passage today, and at the start of Advent, Isaiah is calling us to remember, to hold ourselves accountable, for the ways that we fail to follow God to the fullest. Isaiah reminds God, and reminds us, that we are God’s people, and although we have strayed, and although we fail to love God and our neighbor, that God does “forgive and forget” and that we are still inheritors of the promises of Second Isaiah – that we might see God, that the Messiah will return, and that we will revel in the joy of the coming Zion.

In what ways have you fallen away from God?

How can you live into the reality of being a child of God?

In what ways will Advent be, for you, a time of return and preparation for that which God is calling you to do?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

The psalms were an integral part for the worship of the Jewish people. In Jewish liturgy, both past and present, the role of history – and how God acted in history on behalf of God’s people – was essential to how Jewish worship was understood and practiced. Psalm 80 is the counterpart psalm to Psalm 79, both answering a simple question: How do God’s people return to God after falling away?

In the Berit Olam series’ book on “Psalms” (Liturgical Press, 2001), Konrad Schaefer writes that Psalm 80 is about returning to a normal relationship with God – a returning after a falling away.

Psalm 80 recognizes several things about the relationship between Israel and God. First, it recognizes God’s sovereignty and role in the lives of the Jewish people – God is a shepherd leading a flock.

Second, that flock has become wayward – and they are suffering under the burden of their waywardness. This psalm might remind a reader of the prayer of confession, “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 331). In this psalm, the people of Israel – as a worshiping community – recognize that they have fallen out of right relationship with God, and suffering under this burden, look to be drawn back into the fold of God their Shepherd. There is an urgency in the psalm, a desire to be again – and immediately – under the care and direction of God.

Verses 7 and 19 serve as a refrain and express the longing of the psalm’s writer: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” The writer of the psalm recognizes that it is in the capacity and graciousness of God to be forgiving – to offer restoration to all who seek God’s face. In the face of our own sinfulness, and our own wanderings from the fold of the Shepherd, God is always there, beckoning us back, offering restoration and salvation for all who seek God.

How will you seek to find the face of God?

In what ways is the psalm speaking to you, your church and your community?

In what ways do you see the potential for God’s restoration of those things in your life and in society, that are wayward – those things that don’t resemble the Kingdom of God?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

We often take for granted that the letters of Paul are actually letters. When we hear them read in church, or in private devotions, we often lose the fact that Paul was writing a letter – opening up a dialogue – with a specific people, in a specific church, in specific region, time and context. The First Letter to the Corinthians in no different. Paul was writing to the Corinthians about certain aspects of their church – problems that they faced in their own, Roman, metropolitan context.

The reading today comes from a section of Paul’s letter known as the “thanksgiving.” It was typical – and rhetorically expected – that first-century letters would begin with a salutation and thanksgiving, usually to a Roman deity. However, Raymond F. Collins, in his analysis “First Corinthians” (Liturgical Press, 1999), points out that Paul subverts this tradition by appealing to the work that Christ is doing, and has done, in the midst of the Corinthian church. In this letter, the thanksgiving has a very eschatological edge – meaning that Paul is looking forward, too, and reminding the Corinthians of the promise of the return of Christ. This foreshadows themes found later in the letter.

Twice in the thanksgiving (vv. 7, 8) Paul reminds the Corinthians of the promise that Jesus would return. Paul’s sentiment has the air of a Markean immediacy – as if Paul is convinced that Jesus could return at any moment. It is easy, when the Bible speaks of the return of Christ, to get lost in the uncertainty and mythos surrounding this item of faith.

However, Paul is clear about what this expectation should do for us, as Christians: exercise and hone one’s spiritual gifts, and work to be blameless. This is not a call for the Corinthians to work harder; Paul’s exhortation is matched by his belief that “God is faithful.” Paul reminds us that it is God who called us through the revelation and person of Jesus Christ. In this way, God will not forget or abandon us; God is preparing us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to be prepared and blameless before the reign of God is fully realized on earth. Paul is calling the Corinthians, and us, to work toward the ends of the Kingdom of God – undergirded by the faithfulness of God through the life and revelation of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

What are your spiritual gifts? Which ones would you like to hone and improve?

How are you working toward the reality of the Kingdom of God in your church and community? How is the Holy Spirit working in those places, and how can you participate in that work?

Mark 13:24-37

Mark, despite its position in the New Testament, is, historically, the first gospel written – the gospel closest to the ministry of Christ. Key themes, often attributed to its early nature, include the “Messianic Secret” (that Jesus’ nature as the Messiah was a secret known only to a select few), rhetorical immediacy of the gospel message (often identified by Mark’s use of the word “immediately”), as well as Mark’s “eschatological immediacy” (Jesus was coming back, and soon, so we all must be ready).

Narratively, this reading comes during the section of Mark’s Holy Week narrative where the story slows down, and Jesus does a lot of talking. This passage concludes what scholars call Jesus’ “Little Apocalypse” – Jesus looking to the future and proclaiming the mysteries of heavenly things. We often think of Revelation or of the TV show “The Walking Dead” when we think of the word “apocalypse,” but as John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington remind us in their analysis “The Gospel of Mark” (Liturgical Press, 2002), in Jesus’s time, and throughout the Bible, the word “apocalypse” describes a genre of literature that tends to be prophetic and forward thinking. This passage is no different.

One of the ways to read this passage – the image of the Coming Son of Man, the warning metaphor of the fig trees and the call to prepare for the return of the Messiah – is to recognize the dual nature of the comments. The writer of Mark is using Jesus to speak to two parties: his disciples (historically), and to all Christians reading the gospel (narratively). Imagine the writer of Mark using Jesus’ apocalypse as a means of breaking the third wall – Jesus is speaking beyond the narrative setting and talking directly to the reader.

Moreover, what is Jesus saying? After affirming the divinity of Jesus as the Son of Man (v. 24-27), Jesus uses the fig tree and the warning about the impending apocalypse to get the reader’s attention. Mark, through Jesus, is calling Christians into a deeper life of faith and call, calling on them to be prepared for the immediate return of Christ, that they might be ready to join in the work of the Kingdom. (Think of Markean themes.)

Verse 33 is a nice summary of this call: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” The passage is calling Christians to live lives with an eye on the future – and an eye on the fulfillment of the work that God started in the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is an important reminder during the Advent season: We are not only looking forward to the commemoration of the birth of Christ, but we are the church expectant, waiting for God’s reconciliatory work to be fulfilled.

Have you considered how the work of God is made manifest in your life?

How are you participating in making the world look more like the Kingdom of Heaven?

Reflect on whether your faith feels important or immediate. How will you try to express or find that during Advent?



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