Archives for November 2016

Bible Study, Advent 4(A) – December 18, 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 7:10–16

During this season of Advent, it is easy to read the prophet Isaiah and immediately jump to the birth of Jesus. Isaiah is directly quoted in Matthew’s gospel, which we also read today: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. While it is not wrong for us to understand who Jesus is in light of this text, we must also recognize that the prophet Isaiah was not predicting a future when Mary would give birth to God incarnate. Isaiah’s project is one that is much more immediate and much more involved.

If you read the fullness of Isaiah’s text beginning at 7:1, you see that the prophet is arguing with King Ahaz who has allied himself with the Assyrian empire. At this time in history, the Jewish people were split between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. As the Assyrian empire expanded, Isaiah was sent by the northern kingdom to call Judah into alliance with Israel against a common enemy. When King Ahaz refuses, Isaiah says that a child—an innocent—will come with a name that means “God with us,” but that child will see the destruction and ruin of Judah.

Isaiah’s prophecy is about how even in the face of atrocities, God is with us. Jesus, who came in love to reconcile humanity to God and one another, is one way we see that prophecy come about, but it was certainly not what Isaiah or Ahaz expected.

  • What ideas or issues split us as people of God today?
  • How does our story as told in scripture lead us to reconcile those differences?
  • Is there an Advent practice that could help foster reconciliation and love in our church/community/world?

Psalm 80:1–7, 16–18

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

This refrain is repeated in Psalm 80 in verses 2, 7, and 18. It is the cry the psalmist makes on behalf of the people of Israel that shapes the arc of the psalm. The people in darkness and despair cry out for God to bring light into the world. Although our Prayer Book translation of the psalm is beautiful, it does not always capture the subtleties of the Hebrew. In Hebrew, each repetition of this prayer builds upon the last.

v.3 – Restore us O God (elohim)
v.7 – Restore us O God of Hosts (elohim tseva’oth)
v.18 – Restore us O Yahweh, God of Hosts (yahweh elohim tseva’oth)

Try not to get too bogged down in the Hebrew, but do notice that with each cry for help, the psalmist grows in knowledge of God and who God is. The cry moves from the generic word for god to a specific god, God of Hosts, to an actual naming of God, Yahweh, God of Hosts.

Also telling in this prayer is that the psalmist asks for the light of God’s countenance – light from the face of God. We know from Exodus 33:20 that no one can see God’s face and live. That is the gift of Jesus – a God whom we can name, know, and look in the face comes into the world to spread light and life.

  • Where in this world do you see the face of God?
  • What words or modifiers would you use to describe God as you have known God?
  • What prayer would you write for your church/community/self to pray every day this final week of Advent?

Romans 1:1–7

If we break up into parts this opening greeting from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul basically does three things: he identifies himself as a servant of Jesus, he identifies who Jesus is, and he offers greetings and blessings to Jesus’ people in Rome. It is a passage full of statements of identity—who Paul is, who Jesus is, and who we, the church, are.

Paul first talks about himself in relationship to Jesus. He is a servant of Jesus, he is called by Jesus to be an apostle, and he is set apart for the gospel, or good news, of Jesus. Paul’s identity is completely wrapped up in his relationship to Jesus. In verse 6, that identity is shared with the people in Rome who are also “called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Sandwiched between these two statements of identity is a rich statement of who Jesus is. Jesus is described as “descended from David,” “flesh,” “Son of God,” “resurrected,” and “Lord.” Even Jesus’ interactions with us are laid out: Jesus gives us grace, establishes our faith, and brings in the Gentiles.

Paul, Jesus, the church in Rome, and even we who are followers of Jesus today are all enmeshed together in God’s creation. Paul is establishing in this salutation that all of us are connected to one another and to God in the person of Jesus.

  • What is your relationship to Jesus? How do you express that?
  • How do you talk to others about the good news of Jesus? Or do you?
  • How can we as a church and as individuals better live into our identity as followers of Jesus?

Matthew 1:18–25

In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, names and relationships are very important. Just prior to this passage, Matthew gives a detailed genealogy that links Jesus to David, the great king of Israel, by naming all of Joseph’s ancestors. Jesus’ mother Mary and father Joseph are named, and the love Joseph has for Mary is revealed when he is unwilling to publically disgrace her for being pregnant. When the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, the angel calls Joseph by name and notes his lineage from David and his relationship with Mary. Furthermore, the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus which means “God saves.” Even in Matthew’s commentary after the story, he recalls the prophecy from Isaiah who speaks of a child who will be named Emmanuel which means “God with us.”

Names mean something here. When we love someone or know someone well, we call them by their name, and our relationship is strengthened. Names also sometimes carry their own meaning. According to Jewish practice, Yahweh, God’s name, is not spoken in order to give it a sense of holiness. When God became one of us, however, he receives a rather common name, Jesus, which is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua. The fact that Jesus has such a normal name and yet it means something tremendous – “God saves” – tells us something about God and how God interacts with us in this world.

Note all the contradictions in this story. Joseph is a simple man, yet descended from King David. Mary is in a situation that could ruin her socially, yet Joseph loves her and she bears the son of God. Jesus is given a simple, common name, yet it lays out God’s plan of salvation for the world. Matthew points out the greatness of this name and this plan through recalling the prophecy of Isaiah where a child will be called Emmanuel – God with us. It is a reminder to look for God’s presence in one another because God is with us in the common and everyday.

  • What names or titles would you give God?
  • Have you ever found God in unexpected or common places?
  • What does your name tell about your story?

Reflections by Charles Lane Cowen, Postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Rhode Island, M.Div. Candidate, Seminary of the Southwest.

Download the Bible Study for Advent 4(A).

Bible Study Advent 3(A) – December 11, 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-10

Chapter 35 is Isaiah’s prophecy about the day of God’s glory wherein there will be rejoicing, gladness, blossoming, and shouts of joy. The people will experience a sense of renewal, as he assures them that their salvation includes being saved from their enemies and restoration. There is no place for fear in God’s kingdom. Restoration occurs for those who are in need: the blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute. The people who rejected God’s way and suffered the consequences, judgement, and alienation will again be the objects of his unmerited favour. And God provides a highway for them which has two qualities: holiness and joy. The people who walk in this way are described as the redeemed and being in right relationship with God. It is the place where God brings full deliverance to the people. Hence, those who walk upon this highway will be full of joy as they march towards God’s kingdom as symbolized by Zion.

  • What were the encouragement given to the sinners and needy? How can this be an encouragement to us today?
  • Do you consider yourself walking in this highway? Why or why not?

Psalm 146:4-9

We don’t know who wrote this particular psalm and we don’t know when it was written. With confidence, the psalmist proclaims that God Almighty is the one who keeps promises forever and who will always respond to the needy by giving justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the prisoners, eyesight to the blind, lifting up the humble, caring for the stranger, sustaining the orphan and widow, and loving the righteous. The psalmist may have experienced or witnessed all of these occurrences and therefore concludes by exclaiming that God will reign forever – from beginning to end. 

  • The psalmist expressed faith and great joy in praising God through writing this psalm, how do you express yours?
  • Do you agree with the testimony of the psalmist? Why?

James 5:7-10

James of Jerusalem was encouraging his oppressed members in this passage to have patience in their sufferings. These were the poor Christians oppressed by the rich. James was encouraging them to patiently wait for the coming of the Lord.  He gave two examples how they can do this: First was the story of the farmer who patiently waits for his harvest even though it takes time before having it, and second were the prophets like Job who have given them examples of patience and endurance in suffering. Despite the disasters he faced, and the relentless attack of his friends, Job kept his faith and did not abandon his trust in God. As a result, the Lord finally brought about the restoration of Job’s fortune. Therefore, James message to them is to strengthen their hearts, keep the faith, patiently waits for the coming of the Lord and not putting justice in their own hands and not grumbling to their fellow Christians for them not to be judged also.

  • The word for suffering probably refers to a broad category which includes all different kinds of suffering. In our society today, what do people currently suffer from? How about you as an individual? What is your own suffering?
  • Reflecting from this passage, how do you deal with your own suffering?

Matthew 11:2-11

In today’s Gospel, Matthew highlights Jesus’ identity as an unexpected Messiah and Jesus as the fulfiller of Isaiah’s vision of restoration and Jesus as God’s wisdom. He was frequently rejected by the Jews, especially the Jewish leaders, because they have their own qualifications of a Messiah that Jesus failed to pass. Even John the Baptist who prepared his coming and who baptized him has his own expectation of him as a Messiah. John was in prison and sent his disciples to Jesus asking him “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” He asked this not to question his Messianic identity but to further explain to him what’s going on because he expected the Messiah to come with fire, brimstone, with winnowing fork in hand to exercise judgement as what Isaiah prophesied.  Jesus answered it by sending also John’s disciple to inform him about his works as a healer, preacher and teacher. Jesus’ answer indicates that his messianic identity is characterized by signs that include healing the sick and preaching good news. He was not the kind of Messiah who came to judge them but to have compassion and mercy for them.

  • What are your expectations of Jesus? Were your expectations fulfilled?
  • Do you agree that Jesus is our Messiah/saviour?
  • Who is Jesus Christ to you? State in your own words and in accordance of your own experience. 

Written by Naliza S. Balaki, a third year seminarian of St. Andrew’s Theogical Seminary in Quezon, City, Philippines. Balaki is a graduate of Bachelor of Secondary Education majoring in math. She is Indigenous, from Mountain Province. 

Download the Bible Study for Advent 3(A).

Bible Study, Advent 2(A) – December 4, 2016

[RCL] Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:1-10

In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 11, Verses 1-10, Isaiah shares his prophetic vision, most likely revealed to him in a dream, of the coming of the long awaited messiah, who we as Christians now know to be Jesus, and life in the messianic age when the wait was finally over. We are told of his nature with the Spirit of God resting upon him, that he would be wise, just, righteous, and faithful. In this age there would be peace, an absence of evil, and all would know about God. We are even offered a utopian vision of an upside down inside out world where even different animals are at peace in each other’s company, a world of dreams in this age of the messiah.

We could easily be critical of what the followers of Jesus have offered to the world in this age of religious conflict and ideological divisions within churches, making it hard to imagine the utopia that the prophet Isaiah offers us in his imagined age of the messiah. In our own reality it may be easy to overlook the many unimaginable acts inspired by Jesus happening all around us, but they are there if only we are willing to see them.

  • Are you convinced that this vision of the coming messiah offered by the prophet Isaiah is Jesus? What would you say to somebody who is doubting that Jesus is really the expected messiah?
  • Can you imagine a world without Jesus? How different would the world be now without his coming and is there any evidence of this imagined utopia in reality?

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

In Psalm 72 the psalmist tells us of King Solomon’s desire to be a good and respected leader, and so he asks God to grant him justice and righteousness, the qualities of God that the king most admires and which he hopes to imitate. The king succeeds in his desire and is loved by his people, however instead of being proud of himself for this achievement he acknowledges God as the source of his greatness and that God is much greater than he.

  • What are the qualities you most admire about God? Have you ever asked God to help you be a great leader by imitating those qualities? What was the outcome?
  • Do you know any great leaders that have acknowledged the role of God in their lives? What qualities do they demonstrate in their leadership?
  • In what ways has God helped you in your achievements? In what practical ways do you or can you acknowledge him?

Romans 15:4-13

In the Letter of Paul to the Romans, Chapter 15, Verses 4-13, the great missionary Paul writes to the Christians in Rome in his longest letter yet and perhaps the most influential of them all. In this part of his letter he is encouraging the Christians there to maintain hope in God and not to give up. He’s also reminding them of the importance of living in harmony with other Christians and to be welcoming of each other just as Christ first to welcomed them, and in so doing reflect positively on the God they all represent, especially to outsiders. Just as in the vision of the prophet Isaiah, all people should praise God and have hope in him, but this can only be possible by how outsiders see Christians behaving especially towards one another.

  • As a Christian community and as individual Christians do we actively strive to live in harmony with other Christians and welcoming of them, even if we sometimes disagree with each other or struggle to relate to each other? Do our actions bring harmony or disharmony to the Church?
  • In this age of divisions within the Church, in what practical ways can we attempt to bring harmony to the Church as Paul suggests we must do in order to allow outsiders to have hope in our God and praise him?

Matthew 3:1-12

In the Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 3, Verses 1-12, we are presented with a somewhat eccentric image of a fearless man living rough in both his appearance and in his daily sustenance for what he knew was his life’s mission, considered to be the fulfilment of a great prophesy from the visions of the prophet Isaiah. This fearless man was of course John the Baptist, and the prophesy, preparing for the coming of God in to the world, the hope and prayer of generations of his stubbornly rebellious and long suffering people, the Israelites. The primary act of preparation for John we are told was the humbling act of the confessing of sins, those thoughts and actions below the expectations God has set for us and with the best intention of no longer doing those things, followed by the cleansing waters of baptism.

Perhaps surprisingly, we are told that John was not impressed when even Pharisees and Sadducees turned up in the crowd seeking baptism, even comparing them to venomous snakes and implying that no good could come of it.

If we read further to the Gospel of John in Chapter 15, Verses 1-11, we find references again to bearing fruit in the parable of the vine and the branches and a more detailed indication of what this could mean. Further in to this chapter we are told by Jesus in very clear and simple terms that the fruit he expects of us is to follow his teachings, just as he himself has done for his Father.

This is not just any love, but a sacrificial love. A love that may be difficult, a love that may seem impossible, a love that we may not even be able to comprehend. It is not the love often shown to us in this world, but the love shown to us by Jesus and ultimately our heavenly Father who sent him to us. As Christians already baptised or those eagerly awaiting to be baptised, this is our final test if we are truly to consider ourselves as followers of Jesus, as branches of the true vine producing the fruit expected of the one who planted it and continues to nurture it with great hope.

  • If we as a community of Christians turned up for baptism by John, do you think he would welcome as warmly or also consider us venomous snakes like the Pharisees and Sadducees for not bearing the intended fruit of our baptisms?
  • Can we with confidence consider ourselves true followers of Jesus in showing sacrificial love to those around us? In what ways are we doing this or could be doing this?

———————–

References:

  • New Revised Standard Version Bible (2007). San Francisco, CA: HarperOne
  • Burge, Gary M., Hill, Andrew E., eds (2012). The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books

Written by Daniel Woods. Woods, a New Zealander, is a second year seminarian from the Episcopal Diocese of Davao in the southern Philippines and Master of Divinity candidate at St Andrew’s Theological Seminary in Quezon City, Metro Manila. He has spent his entire adult life involved in various lay ministries in Anglican parishes from choir member to verger to vestry member and everything in between, and in several Anglican provinces: New Zealand, Japan, Korea, and now the Philippines. Daniel has a particular interest in Church History and a love for church music. During his two years as a seminarian he has most appreciated semester-long field education opportunities in a variety of church institutions including St Luke’s Medical Center, Episcopal Care Foundation (Relief & Development), and now Jigsaw Kids Ministry Philippines. Daniel has spent most of his working life in the education sector, including 7 years teaching English in Korean and Japanese public schools. He is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand with a Bachelor of Commerce & Administration in International Business, a Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours in International Relations, and a Graduate Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Download the Bible Study for Advent 2(A).