Archives for December 2018

Bible Study, Epiphany 1 (C) – January 13, 2019

[RCL] Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Isaiah 43:1-7

As we remember Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, the prophet Isaiah’s words speak to us about the profound faithfulness of God. In this passage, God promises his chosen people that he will be with them no matter what. During my undergraduate days at a small church-related college in the Midwest, we sang the hymn Great is Thy faithfulness constantly. My campus minister once pointed out to me why he liked it so much: “The song attributes faithfulness where it belongs—to God.” As Christians, we have a tendency to focus on our faithfulness, forgetting that it is God who is first and foremost faithful to us. Isaiah tells us that the Lord protects us. With God by our side, we can rest assured that no harm will come to us. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

  • We often consider the importance of the promises that the candidates (or their sponsors) make at baptism, but what promises does God make to us in baptism? How does God’s relationship with Israel also represent these promises?

Psalm 29

This passage again focuses on the power of the Lord. Here it is the Lord’s voice that is characterized as especially powerful. The voice of the Lord can do just about anything! It breaks the cedar trees, splits flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, and makes the oak trees writhe. On this baptismal feast, Isaiah’s image of God’s voice on the waters puts one in mind of the spirit moving over the waters in creation, an image from Genesis which is echoed in the baptismal liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. The psalmist says, “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” The same voice of God that hovered over the deep before time began also gave strength to his people Israel, anointed his beloved Son at the Jordan, and is present with us now in the living waters of creation.

  • Take a moment to read through the baptismal liturgy in the Prayer Book. How do we experience the voice of the Lord through this sacrament? What does God say to us through the waters of Baptism?

Acts 8:14-17

This passage from the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the ever-expanding body of Christ. Since the origin of the Church, baptism has meant inclusion in the Christian community. What we miss from this excerpt is that Philip has gone to Samaria to preach Jesus Christ, and he has evidently done so to great success, baptizing many along the way. When the apostles in Jerusalem hear of his success, they go to add their support and prayers for the new initiates. Putting aside complex theological arguments about the apostles’ role in bestowing the Holy Spirit, this story serves as a reminder of what baptism is really about: the Christian community. The newly baptized are part of a community that reaches far beyond the bounds of the local parish. Baptism is not a family rite of passage or a celebration of a little baby in a white dress. Just like our bishops today connect us to the wider church, Peter and John remind us that baptism is not about us, or our family, or even our parish. Baptism is about the entire community of Christ. Through it, God’s children are incorporated into an everlasting heritage dating back to the first apostles and stretching forward to eternity.

  • Do you feel connected to the larger Body of Christ beyond your parish community?
  • How does your baptism call you beyond the bounds of your congregation and into wider relationship with the people of God? 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The first three verses of this text take the hearer immediately back to Advent. On the Third Sunday of Advent in Year C, we hear these verses toward the end of the gospel reading. As John urges the people to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” they begin to wonder if he might be the Messiah. No, he assures them, I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with fire and the Spirit. Today we also hear Luke’s brief account of Jesus’ baptism. After Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon him by God: “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” The hearer gets the sense that this baptism—Jesus’ baptism—is different. This is not simply John’s baptism of repentance, this is God’s own son, specially anointed with the Spirit. Now that he has been identified by the very voice of God, his public ministry will begin to unfold.

  • Just as Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his public ministry, your baptism was the beginning of your life in Christ. What is the ministry of the baptized? How do you live into that ministry?

The Rev. Warren Swenson is a priest of the Diocese of West Missouri and is a student in the Master of Sacred Theology degree program at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Warren received his Master of Divinity degree from Sewanee in 2018 and currently serves as curate of Southeastern Tennessee Episcopal Ministry (STEM). Warren and his husband Walker enjoy lingering back-porch conversations and both love to travel.

Download the Bible study for Epiphany 1 (C).

Bible Study, Day of Epiphany – January 6, 2019

[RCL] Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Isaiah 60:1-6

It’s Epiphany! This is the day of the year that we celebrate the Incarnation of God into the person of Jesus Christ. From the Incarnation flows everything else in our faith: the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Without the Incarnation, these things do not happen. Part of the power that comes from Epiphany is where it is placed in our liturgical season, for to get to Epiphany, we must go through Advent. We have gone through four weeks of fasting, repentance and darkness to get to the light of Epiphany.

After this “darkness” that will “cover the earth” and “the people,” Trito-Isaiah proclaims “Arise, shine; for your light has come!” Most scholars agree that the book of Isaiah is written by three authors, and that the core of this third Isaiah is Chapters 60-62. As Joseph Blenkinsopp points out in “Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary” (Yale University Press, 2003), this core speaks exclusively of salvation, and uncharacteristically of the prophets, there are no denunciations or conditions. In other words, this is a time of celebration. The day spring has come. Our God is with us, and it is now time for cheer and for the gloomy clouds of night to disperse.

Isaiah, as if entering into our Advent, proclaims a message of light and salvation into our dark and gloom.

  • One can become accustomed to the dark and gloom after a period in both. How might we be willing to accept the light and salvation of Jesus into our dark and gloom?
  • Discuss the feeling of this light entering in and how you are experiencing it.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

I think this psalm is incredibly useful to us in understanding the environment that Jesus comes to through his birth. This, among other reasons, is why the apostles seem constantly perplexed by Jesus’ teachings and actions. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, he is supposed to come in and start judging “with righteousness” and “crush[ing] the oppressor[s].” In more concrete terms, the expectation is that Jesus will come in, drive the Roman Empire out of the Holy Land, and overthrow false kings like Herod the Great. So when we come to Jesus’ ministry and he tells people to keep his identity a secret while preaching love of enemies, the apostles and the other people of first century Galilee want to know, “What gives?”

However, as we continue reading, we see how the last four verses give us the meaning of Epiphany and tell us “what gives” about Jesus’s ministry. The rulers of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba come to pay homage to the king. These places represent that which is foreign, strange and far away, in much the same way as the Magi when they visit Jesus. Christ, as the king in the psalm does, comes for the “the weak and the needy” and those who experience “oppression and violence,” and the foreigners who came from afar to pay homage are included in this promise. The King, Christ, comes to redeem the lives of all, including those foreign.

  • How do you feel about subverting expectations? Have you ever had God answer prayers or do something completely outside of your expectations?

Ephesians 3:1-12

Well, if Jesus subverted some traditional expectations, Paul confused everyone. Paul began persecuting followers of Christ when they first appeared. After having a revelatory experience on the road to Damascus, Paul became one of the most fervent followers of Christ and one of the faith’s most vocal proponents. Then, Paul, a Pharisee trained in a Hellenistic world, says that God called him to bring the faith to the gentiles. A member of one of the most conservative and traditional sects of Judaism wants to bring the faith of the promised Messiah to the Jewish people to those who know nothing of Judaism, the promised Messiah, or Jesus. Let’s just say that Paul raised a few eyebrows with his ministry.

This is a message of hope that Paul brings to the believers in Ephesus, for he says that the promise of relationship and covenant that God has historically promised to the Jewish people since they first heard the story of their patriarch Abraham is now available to all peoples through Jesus Christ. This, plain and simple, is why we should all be excited about Epiphany. The vast majority of us, Christians that is, are not of Jewish heritage, and the reason we know Christ at all is because we were brought in to the salvation story through Christ and told about it through his servant Paul. “Through faith” in God, we now have the “boundless riches of Christ” and the “wisdom of God.” Thanks be to God!

  • Do you ever think about your life in Christ within the framework of the covenant given by God to the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible? What do you think about that?
  • In light of this, what do you think about our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters? What should it be?

Matthew 2:1-12

The story that we celebrate on this day of Epiphany presents a clear dichotomy between Herod the Great, false king, and Jesus, genuine royalty, according to Ulrich Luz in “Matthew 1-7: A Commentary” (Fortress Press, 2007). Herod’s fright upon hearing from the Magi in verse 3 is the opposite of the joy that the magi have upon realizing that they will see Jesus soon in verse 10. Herod’s evil plan in verses 7-9 is frustrated by God in verse 12. Even in its structure, this story is meant to undercut Herod while “paying homage” to Jesus. (Interesting note: The verb used here for paying homage, προσκυνεω, is only used in reference to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.) This is clearly the story of the gentiles, the magi, coming for a connection with Judaism, for they specifically ask to see “the king of the Jews.”

Now, of course, what we always remember from this story is the star and the magi. Julius Caesar, Augustus and Herod all had stars on their coins to symbolize their kingship. Some theories would like to explain the star using science. Ulrich Luz, for example, points out a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction as one of the explanations. But this misses the point. The point is that God uses a miracle to symbolize God’s son’s kingship and divinity. This miracle shows God’s will in bringing the gentiles into the unfolding salvation plan. The star hanging in the sky is God announcing to the world, “Arise, shine; for your light has come”!

  • The story of the magi often gets lost in the mix of the nativity story. What do you think of the story when we see God’s will throughout it in the background?
  • Discuss some periods in your life when you look back and can see God’s influence over what was taking place.

This Bible study, written by Will Prosser, originally ran for Epiphany in 2013.

Download the Bible study for Epiphany.

Bible Study, Christmas 1 – December 30, 2018

[RCL] Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

It is clear in the prophecy given to Isaiah that God intends for his people Israel to be a beacon to other nations. The strong imagery of “garland,” “jewels,” “crown,” and “diadem” bespeak a richness that God bestows upon those who are faithful to him. But these riches adorn his people for a single purpose: they are meant to be a sign to those who do not yet know the God of Israel. The gifts which God graciously gives his people are meant to draw others into relationship with him. The salvation we receive from the Father is meant not as a vindication of ourselves in the face of those who are perishing, but as a means to bring salvation to them. God intends Israel to be a torch to light the path for others.

  • What gifts has God bestowed upon you? How might you use those gifts to draw others to God? 

Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

Psalm 147 is a song of praise and thanksgiving which speaks directly about how God is faithful in keeping his promises to his people. Those to whom he is faithful are called to worship him. Our worship of God is all that we may offer in thanks for the renewal of life and bountiful provision we receive from him.

  • “Word” is used in verses 16, 19, and 20. How might the meaning of “word” vary between these three verses?
  • How does the coming of God’s Word in the person of Jesus Christ, who has been revealed to all nations, affect our understanding of the “chosen” quality of God’s people?

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

Paul’s epistle to the Galatian Church recognizes both the merit and limitations of “the law” – before the coming of Christ, the law stood as the means of covenant and relationship between Israel and God. The law was the previous means of claiming God as Father, but through his son, we may now claim in a truer sense to be sons and daughters of God the Father. Because the Word of God has taken our human flesh, our humanity is free to be united to the Father in a new way.

  • Does our claim on God the Father free us from our responsibility to his law?
  • To what are we heirs? What responsibilities does that heirship lay upon us?

John 1:1-18

John’s Gospel account varies greatly from the accounts of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Far more concerned with theological notions than the narratives that drive the other three accounts, his prologue jumps feet-first into some deep waters. Much of our understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son, as expressed in the creeds of the Church, is drawn directly from this prologue. Recalling the creation story of Genesis, John assures us of the nature and authority of the Word who takes upon himself our human flesh, in order that he might live among us—and that we might truly live. The Word made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ calls us to grow into the lives he wills for us and to accept God as our Father. As in the letter to the Galatians, we see that the Son has come to fulfill what could not be realized by the law alone: true relationship with God the Father.

  • What does John mean when he writes, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”? How might this be related to the statements about “the law” in both John and Galatians?
  • In what ways do our lives in Christ witness to his power? What is one concrete way that you might testify to the light of Christ?

This Bible study, written by the Rev. Andrew Cruz Lillegard, originally ran for Christmas 1 in 2017.

Download the Bible study for Christmas 1.