Archives for December 2014

Bible Study: 1 Epiphany (B)

January 11, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:9-11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Genesis 1:1-5

It’s hard to imagine more familiar words than the opening of Genesis, isn’t it? “In the beginning” the famous first words ring. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the words of my Old Testament professor, Dr. Robert Wilson, as he led us through the Book of Genesis: “Don’t confuse familiarity with understanding.” So it’s with that spirit that I return to the first five verses of scripture. It’s Professor Wilson’s thoughts that will guide much of my inquiry.

Genesis is often divided into two large sections: Chapters 1-11 make up the “primeval history,” while Chapters 12-50 comprise the “patriarchal stories.”

The first two verses of the Bible jump right into the action of creation, providing no explanation of what God was doing before Genesis 1:1. Verse 2 describes the earth as a “formless void,” although Professor Wilson was quick to point out that the Hebrew phrase (tohu wa-bohu) is untranslatable. Many scholars have argued about the exact translation for centuries, which is made difficult because of word play. I find it a little funny that we struggle to define exactly what the “formless void” or tohu wa-bohu really means. It seems fitting that it would be beyond explanation.

In verse 3, God speaks the light into existence. Again, it’s hard not to confuse familiarity with understanding, but it’s what we must do as Christians. It’s incomprehensible (like tohu wa-bohu) to imagine what it means for God to speak light – something so integral to our lives – into being, but it happens!

In verse 4, God separates the light from the darkness. What does this mean? I wonder what the light and darkness looked like before they were separated. Was it like oil and water? Or a Mark Rothko painting? Or beyond imagination?

Our passage ends with the end of the first day. But we know this is only the beginning!

Close readers of Genesis will be interested to note that there’s another creation account within Genesis (2:4-24), which in some ways directly contradicts the account we begin reading today. Readers may want to compare the two versions in their study.

Consider verse 3, when God speaks the light into existence. What in your life has God spoken into existence? What do you think God might be speaking into existence in your life now? How does/would God speak to you? Through other people? Through the wind and nature? Through silence?

Return to verse 4, when God separates the light from the darkness. Perhaps you could say this was the first time that God created boundaries between things. Where in your life could you use more separation? Where could you use more blending and integration? Just as we considered what the separation of light and dark looked like, what would such separation and integration look like in your life?

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is a psalm that can be categorized as a hymn, or a song of praise. The general thrust of the psalm is to call on people to praise God, and to offer reasons and affirmations of the reasons why people should praise God.

Psalm 29 has some interesting and distinctive literary features that become quickly apparent, especially when reading the psalm out loud. The first feature is the use of “triplets.” In the verse 2 we say the words “Ascribe to the Lord” three times before breaking the pattern on the fourth time, drawing attention to that line that breaks the pattern: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” These words (also found in Psalm 96) are famous in Anglican history thanks to Archbishop William Laud. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” was one of his ways of calling Anglicans to take their liturgy seriously – and to make it uniform. Today these words form part of the Book of Common Prayer’s Morning Prayer service, as an invitatory sentence.

The next interesting literary feature to note comes in verses 3-5 with the three-time repetition of “The voice of the Lord.” The triplet breaks in verse 5 with an instance of absolute parallelism, where one sentence restates what was previously said, but in a different order: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”

This psalm is focused largely on God’s voice and the mythological qualities of it. (See verse 10.) It’s interesting to note the emphasis on God’s voice in the lectionary readings so far: God speaking light into existence, and here, God’s voice breaking trees.

In what ways do you worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness? What does this phrase mean to you? Do you associate it with liturgy?

This psalm calls us to “ascribe,” or attribute, strength and glory to God. How can you attribute strength and glory to God in your own life? In what ways should you give God more credit? More reverence?

Acts 19:1-7

The reading from Acts today comes toward the end of the book of Acts. The scene comes from Paul’s third major journey, to Ephesus. His first two journeys were to Asia Minor and Greece, and he will end his travels by going to Jerusalem and then finally with preaching in Rome.

The character mentioned in Acts 19 is Apollos, who we learned in Acts 18:24-25, is a Jew and an “eloquent man” who “spoke with a burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” What’s notable in this passage is the distinction that’s being made between baptisms. One kind of baptism involves the Holy Spirit, and the other, the one Apollos and disciples mentioned here, is “John’s baptism” (v. 3) with no Holy Spirit. What’s striking here is that the disciples say, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (v. 2). Acts is known for focusing a lot on the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 2 for the Pentecost story.) Here the Holy Spirit is not as much a dramatic character as it is in other places in this passage and in Acts, but it is an integral aspect to a full and complete baptism. The passage ends with Paul baptizing the disciples. The Holy Spirit makes a dramatic appearance in verse 6 when it “comes upon” the disciples and the people speak in tongues and prophesy.

Consider verse 2, where the disciples say they have not even heard of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever met or can you imagine meeting someone who had never heard of the Holy Spirit? How would you explain the Holy Spirit to someone who didn’t know about it?

What do you imagine “receiving the Holy Spirit” would feel like? (See verses 2, 6.) Have you ever “received the Holy Spirit” before?

Mark 1:4-11

This reading comes from the very beginning Mark’s gospel. All that comes before this is a quotation from Isaiah (actually a conflation of quotes from Exodus, Micah and Isaiah) about a messenger “crying out in the wilderness” (Mark 1:2-3). Notably Mark does not begin with a birth narrative like Matthew or Luke’s gospels do. Instead Jesus’ ministry begins with John the Baptist.

What the reading for today focuses on is both the role John the Baptist played and Jesus’ baptism. John the Baptist is said to have worn a shirt of “camel’s hair” and to have eaten “locusts and wild honey.” Not only does this conjure an image of a rather extreme, ascetical man, but it also strongly alludes to the Old Testament prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Verse 9 tells us that John baptized Jesus. John the Baptist is later beheaded (Mark 6) at the instruction of King Herod.

The passage also focuses largely on Jesus’ own baptism by John (v. 9). What’s described is an epic, almost mythological scene, of the “heavens being torn apart” (v. 10). Then the Spirit, like a dove (or a pigeon, as some have said), descends from above (v. 10). Next comes a voice from heaven with the comforting and yet almost-secretive words “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (v. 11). This line is perhaps an allusion to Psalm 2:7.

If you’ve been baptized, now would be an appropriate time to reflect on your experience of baptism. What do you think baptism does?

Consider looking back on the Baptismal Covenant and praying through it. Keep in mind as you do this how the fact that Jesus was also baptized connects Him with us even more.

Read verse 11 again: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Imagine God saying these words to you as well (exchanging “son” for “daughter” if appropriate). You also are a child of God. Consider how really believing this might change your view of yourself and your life.

Bible Study: 2 Christmas (A,B,C)

January 4, 2015

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

“Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” (Matthew 2:14)

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

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of what is really important in life. The people of God have struggled to keep their end of the covenant with God, and every time they stray, disaster befalls them. In the Deuteronomic Code, they have been given numerous and detailed examples for how to love their God, yet Jeremiah has spent almost 30 chapters demonstrating that their repeated failures to love God as their God loves them has brought them into ruin and exile. At the end of Jeremiah, however, he assures them that God has not forgotten them. No matter how many times God’s people stray and forget to love their God, God remembers them and will always bring them back into the covenant that was promised to them.

In our own lives, it is easy to become distracted by all the things in the world that pull on us. Sometimes, it is only when we lose something that is really important that we realize how valuable it was. Fortunately, we have been assured that God will always be ready to welcome us back when we get distracted, and it is never too late to remember God’s love for us.

When have you found yourself so distracted that you missed what was truly important in life?

What is it like to only realize something is important when it’s gone?

How can you remind yourself that God will always be waiting to take you back?

Psalm 84

It is important to recognize the little joys in life. In this psalm, the people are shouting for joy in praise of God because they know what it means to see and hold onto what is important. They do not need to be the king or have great material wealth to be happy, because they can rest in comfort in the love of their God. They know what it feels like to be away from that which they love most, and they are sure to give great thanks when they have it close to them once again.

We are often pulled by the world into thinking we need the fastest cars, the biggest TVs, the trendiest vacations, or the fattest bank accounts. In reality, the greatest joys in life come from the smallest, simplest moments of spending time with a dear friend, coming home after a long journey, or being comforted in the arms of a loved one. The flashy things fail to fulfill us when love and relationship are missing. God has created a world for us in which the greatest happiness can be found in unassuming places, so don’t forget to seek them out and be thankful when you have them.

What does it feel like to be without something you hold dear, then to have it back again?

Do you remember to give thanks for what you have when you have it?

Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19

Being a good person is how we live out our joy and thanksgiving, not a way of paying God for what we have. When Paul is greeting the church in Ephesus, he is quick to praise them for how faithfully and richly they are living out their Christian lives. He is equally as quick to remind them that they have already been assured that they are God’s beloved people whom Christ has saved once and for all. Paul acclaims the people of Ephesus and wants to them keep doing good work, remembering that they are not buying God’s love (because it has already been freely given to them) but they are instead showing thanks for God’s love in the way they live their lives.

When we go out into the world to live out our call as Christians, we have two choices: We can love all people and spread the Gospel of the Lord because we are trying to pay God back for what has been freely done for us; or we can love all people and spread the Gospel of the Lord because we are thankful and joyous and this is how we want to live our lives in response. The first way diminishes our relationship with God into one of a mere transaction. It is far more meaningful to let our gratitude to God be demonstrated in the lives of love we live out in the world.

When someone gives you a great gift, do you try to pay them for it?

How can you demonstrate your gratitude for someone’s gift to you?

How can you demonstrate your gratitude for God’s love for you?

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

When we have been given great gifts in life, it is important not to forget those who are suffering or living in want. Right in the midst of the birth narrative of Jesus Christ – the great gift that God has given us to be reconciled and healed – is a terrible tragedy that should not be missed. A great many lectionaries, including this one, skip past the story of the massacring of the innocent infants by Herod, in his attempt to kill the Messiah. It is a story that makes us uncomfortable, sad, mad, and is not in keeping with the happy story of Jesus’ birth into the world. Yet we cannot ever forget that, even as someone is experiencing great joy, someone else is in pain.

We need to give thanks to God for the joys and great blessings we experience in our lives, and it certainly is right to do so. Give thanks, but do not forget those who are homeless and hungry, lost and alone, dying and ill, persecuted and victimized. We are called to do the hard work in this world of being thankful while yet seeing there is much healing that needs to be done, resting in God’s love while yet seeing that we need to challenge injustices in the world, finding joy in Jesus’ birth while yet wrestling with human sin.

When has wrongdoing in the world kept you from feeling joy?

When has joy in the world kept you from noticing wrongdoing?

What can you do to balance being joyful about gifts and diligent about injustice around you?

Bible Study: 1 Christmas (A,B,C)

December 28, 2014

Johanna YoungDeacon Formation Program in the Diocese of Massachusetts

“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; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The reading from the Hebrew Bible today comes from the final section of Isaiah, generally referred to as Third Isaiah (Chapters 56-66), and is marked by Israel’s return to Palestine after a long time in exile. Salvation, hope and transformation are key themes in this passage.

The metaphors move from what more concretely describes the human domain, the splendid garments for a wedding (v. 10) to nature “as the earth brings forth its shoots” (v. 11), but there seems to be no division between the two, as the images flow one into another.

What is the writer saying about the future of God’s people?

How is salvation described in this passage from Isaiah?

What does “you shall be called by a new name” (v. 2b) signify to you? And how does it relate to transformation?

Psalm 147 Laudate Dominum

Psalm 147 makes up part of a quintet of praise psalms (Laudate Dominum, Book of Common Prayer, p. 804), starting with Psalm 146 and ending with Psalm 150. The praise psalms are typically read during Christmastide.

The Hebrew Hallelujah is translated as “Praise the Lord.” In the Book of Common Prayer it is subtitled Laudate Dominum, Latin for “Praise God,” and is often sung in many congregations today as a Taizé chant. (The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic order in France.)

God’s promises have been fulfilled (vv. 1-6): Yahweh rebuilds (v. 2), heals those traumatized by years in exile (v. 2), counts the stars (v. 4), “lifts up the lowly” (v. 6), brings rain (v. 8) and provides food for all creatures (v. 10).

What is the purpose of praise?

If you were rewrite this psalm today, what metaphors would you change?

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

In the epistle lesson for today Paul addresses a conflict between gentiles and Judaizers in Southern Galatia (modern-day Turkey). The debate was about whether gentiles be part of the faith community without adhering to the rituals (e.g., circumcision) of Mosaic Law.

Paul forcefully says that, yes, they could, because Christ’s coming made the rituals of the Law unnecessary for salvation. With that, Paul flings open the door to salvation to the gentile community.

The Greek word paidagogos, translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as “disciplinarian” and in other translations as “custodian” or “tutor,” appears two times in the passage. William Barclay points out that in the Greco-Roman world, it was customary to leave the ethical upbringing of a child up to the most trusted and oldest slave/servant of the household. (“The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians,” Westminster Press, 2002):

“It was the function of the law to bring a man to Christ by showing him that by himself he was utterly unable to keep the law. … But once a man had come to Christ he no longer needed the law, for now he was dependent not on law by on grace” (p. 33).

Where does the Law leave off and grace pick up in your own life?

Are there Christian religious practices that sometimes get in the way of grace?

John 1:1-18

John begins the prologue to his gospel with the Word, logos, from the Greek legó, which means “a word as embodying an idea, a speech, a statement.”  The English word “logo” also derives from the Greek word, and is defined by Dictionary.com as “a graphic representation or symbol of a company name, a trademark abbreviation, etc., often uniquely designed for ready recognition, also called logotype.” But the Word becomes much more than a representation of an idea. The Word is Christ: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 13).

The reading from John’s prologue serves as a bridge between the human birth of Jesus at Christmas to the mystery of God made flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelling among us, and leads the reader closer to the incarnation of Christ celebrated during the season of Epiphany.

How is the Word embodied and revealed in communities of faith today?

How does your answer relate (if at all) to verse 18: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Bible Study: 4 Advent (B)

December 21, 2014

James MillerGeneral Theological Seminary

“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:38)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 15; Romans 16:25-27;Luke 1:26-38

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

We find David dwelling in his house, the Lord having given him rest from his enemies. Notice, this is not something that David wanted: “The Lord gave him rest.” We read that David wanted to build a house for the Lord. This may be a gesture of thanksgiving on the part of David, but even at that, it is presumptuous that David will build a house for the Lord. God answers David through the prophet, Nathan, and makes it clear that it has been God who took the shepherd, David, and made him king. It is God who will create a stable place in which the people of Israel will live. It is God who will “give you rest from all your enemies” and it is God who will build David a house. This house will be “established forever.”

From this we are to understand several things: Greatness is a gift from God; we do not accomplish greatness without God; greatness is accomplished through us and for us by God; God promises to work great things through us.

Most importantly, we must realize that we can do nothing to build up the Lord. The only building that can take place is when we turn to the Lord. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 126:1).

How does secular society understand greatness and building?

How do you understand what are considered to be great accomplishments in the secular world?

How do you understand the House of David in the context of being established forever?

Who is the House of David? Are we members?

Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55), the Magnificat

Mary has accepted what Gabriel has told her. She has literally accepted Christ in her life.

Notice the great amount of vertical motion in this passage. Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord. Another translation of the Greek word Μεγαλύνει is “to cause to be held in greater esteem through praise or deed, to exalt, glorify, speak highly of.” Mary’s soul exults, raises up praises to the Lord. She refers to her lowly state, yet she knows that she will be called blessed forever.

God’s mercy is on those who fear him. God puts down the mighty and raises up those of low degree. Finally, notice that the cause of all of this motion is the one mighty downward motion of God: God became incarnate in Mary.

How can we magnify the Lord in our daily lives?

Can you see the vertical motion described in the Magnificat in the world today?

Romans 16:25-27

These three verses are packed with potent words and thoughts. God strengthens us according to Paul’s gospel and the preachings of Jesus Christ. All of this is the “revelation of the mystery which was kept secret … but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the nations.”

It is important to appreciate Paul’s background, steeped in the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. He is noting the link between the prophetic writings and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul frames all of this as being the “command of the eternal God.” The purpose of this command is to “bring about the obedience of faith.”

What is the obedience of faith? If we consider that faith is the presence of Jesus in the believer, we then must look at the obedience of Jesus: “He, though he was in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Paul concludes this letter to the Romans by saying God’s purpose for us is to be empowered by the presence of Jesus in our lives to be servants of all. This servitude is the offering of love, hope, kindness and mercy to all. We are strengthened by God (v. 25) to do this.

Can you look at the prophetic writings and see how what may have seemed to be mysterious or hidden has now been disclosed for all nations through the gospel?

How can you better serve God’s purpose by serving others more each day?

Luke 1:26-38

In this beloved passage, we learn how Mary receives the news that she is to be the mother of our Lord Jesus. Upon being told that she was “favored,” Mary was “greatly troubled.”

We don’t know what she was thinking, but it may have involved her wondering, “Why me? Who am I? Will I measure up to what is about to take place?”

We do know she questioned how she would conceive since she was betrothed but still a virgin: a practical question. Gabriel assuages her doubt with the example of Elizabeth’s pregnancy though she was advanced in age and had been barren. Most importantly, though, he proclaims, “For with God nothing is impossible” (v. 37).

Mary, empowered by faith, not at all unlike the faith of Abram (Genesis 15:6), believes and offers herself as God’s handmaiden, fully committed to serve.

Mary didn’t earn her favored status; she was chosen. Do you consider yourself favored (chosen) by God in any way? What are you doing about it?

Gabriel assured Mary that “for God, nothing is impossible.” As we approach the celebration of the Incarnation of the Word – the birth of Jesus – how can you be strengthened by this assurance and offer it to others?