Archives for 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.

Bible Study, Advent 4 (C) – December 23, 2018

RCL: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

Micah 5:2-5a

Despite the hopeful tone in this passage, Micah (like most prophets) is not generally thought of as a bearer of happy news. He accuses the people of his day of abandoning God to worship idols and exploiting the poor and vulnerable. He asks, almost mockingly, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Things are not looking up: the situation will get worse before it gets better, and enemies are already at the gate. But even though sin and its consequences seem to be winning the day, there will be redemption. In today’s lesson, Micah foretells the rise of a righteous ruler from the remnant who follow God’s way. This ruler will come from an unlikely place, a village of no account just like so many that had already been conquered in Micah’s day. Micah promises redemption to God’s people through one who will establish the kind of reign that God imagines, a reign where all live securely and where peace is the better way.

  • What might an unlikely leader look like today? Where are some “villages of no account” in your community?

Psalm 80:1-7 

In the darkness just before the dawn of Christmas, this psalm drives home the plaintive tone of Advent: “Show yourself, O God!” The psalmist can recall the way God has acted mightily in Israel’s past and hopes that it will be so again, but there is a raw honesty in these verses. God has not only been ignoring the suffering of the people: it seems like the suffering itself is coming from God. The psalmist is not shy in laying out how bad things are and what God should do about it – restore us! In a culture that emphasizes celebration and joy at this time of year, it can be hard to be honest about just how broken our lives and the world are and to acknowledge our total dependence on God to make things right. Today’s psalm gives us the permission and the space to do just that, even as light begins to break over the horizon.

  • When have you been this vulnerable with God? What was it like?
  • What would restoration look like in your own life? In the life of your community? In the life of the world?

Hebrews 10:5-10

As we make our final turn toward Christmas, the author of Hebrews is here to remind us why we need a Savior to come into the world. The sin and suffering named by Micah and the psalmist cannot be overcome by human efforts. We have run through all the sacrifices and offerings available to us, and our separation from God persists—but so does God’s yearning to close that gap. Using the words of the Psalms, Hebrews reminds us that all along, God has delighted more in one who does God’s will than in sacrifices that don’t address the root of the problem. By connecting Advent to Holy Week, the author of Hebrews shows us what the restoration we long for with the psalmist will look like.

  • What are some examples of human solutions we often rely on to mitigate the cause of sin? How are they limited?
  • How do you see the themes of Advent and Christmas connecting to other parts of the liturgical year?

Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) 

In today’s Gospel, we gather all the hopes and yearnings of Advent and tiptoe right to the edge of Christmas. We find two women whom no one expected to be pregnant sharing their astonishment and joy at what God is about to do – through them! Being connected to one another gives them the strength and perspective to begin to understand what God is working out in their lives; Elizabeth is the first person to name Mary’s baby as the Messiah, and Mary praises God in words freighted with revolutionary language. By going to visit Elizabeth, Mary gives them both the gift of sharing with each other the excitement and fear that comes from being on the cusp of a new thing that seemed impossible. The long-sought fulfillment of God’s promises is as close as a baby kicking in the womb. How can we keep from singing?

  • How has the presence and love of others helped you in a time of waiting for God’s movement in your life?
  • When have you given someone else the gift of noticing how God is at work in their lives?

Hailing from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, Noah Stansbury is a middler at the School of Theology at the University of the South. He is an Episcopal Service Corps alumnus and holds a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies. Two of his great loves are cats and collecting books he will never have time to read.

Download the Bible study for Advent 4 (C).

Bible Study, Advent 3 (C) – December 16, 2018

RCL: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20

At the heart of this passage is Zephaniah’s exultation in God’s drawing near to his people. Zephaniah cannot help but proclaim God’s character with all his poetic skill as he calls for us to join him in rejoicing. Let us then join with him in extolling the God who loved us so fiercely that he drew nigh to us, and who took on human flesh—the God who took up a cross so that fallen human nature could have victory over its oppressors and spiritual foes, and the God whose grace-filled humanity overflowed to us for the forgiveness of our sins and strengthening of our weak hands against all temptation! Let us praise and delight in the God who rejoices over his redeemed people with gladness, who renews us in his love, who exults over us with loud singing as on a day of festival! And let us take up his heart for the lame and the outcast and the needy of the earth as we rejoice in our hope of finally seeing him face to face, “when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.” Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

  • Have you ever imagined God (or specifically Jesus) as a triumphant warrior rejoicing over you as spoils of battle? How comfortable are you with this image?
  • Are there any people or groups of people in your neighborhood, town, or city that you sense God longs to save and gather into his Church? How do you sense that God might want to use you and your church to show these people his powerful, redemptive love?

Canticle 9

The Prophet Isaiah has often been called “the fifth evangelist,” and this passage certainly gives us some sense of his evangelistic fervor. Our steadfast faith in the God who saves us is the victory that overcomes the world and all our fears. This is the faith that manifests itself by drawing water from the springs of salvation that Jesus has given us, the waters of baptism. Now Jesus has promised us that whenever we gather in his name, he will be in the midst of us—and this “great one in the midst of us is the Holy One of Israel.” Therefore let us make his deeds known among the peoples and sing his praises continually!

  • Do you find it easy or difficult to share your Christian faith with others? Are there any environments in which this is particularly difficult for you?
  • Are you confident in your ability to articulate the basic message of the Gospel and your own faith story? As you attempt to articulate it, does it cause you to surge with joy and confidence, or does the telling of it somehow fall flat?

Philippians 4:4-7

What is it that gives St. Paul the confidence to say something so bold as, “Rejoice in the Lord always” and “Do not worry about anything”? For the most part, we treat those who take such advice seriously to be hopelessly naïve optimists—unless we ourselves happen to be one! But if we look back a couple of sentences to Philippians 3:20-21, we see one reason for his boldness: “Our citizenship is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”

St. Paul sees the changed lives of those who have received the Gospel as evidence of the power of God reordering human hearts from the inside out; this causes the human heart to resemble the heart of God, demonstrating that their true homeland is indeed heavenly rather than earthly (unlike those for whose “god is the belly”). St. Paul knows that this same God will surely soon return to finish the renewing work he started, to make not only our hearts but also our bodies fully like the pure heart and glorified body of Jesus Christ our Savior! With such a God, such a defender and intercessor, and with such a hope, our fear, impatience, and anxiety gradually become swallowed up by the victorious life of Jesus coursing through us, who are his own “flesh and blood,” his Body. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness and confidence, requesting of God (and thanking him ahead of time for) such things as accord with his will through Jesus Christ. Thus shall we come to know the peace of God which passes all understanding.

  • Have you ever felt so close to God that “the changes and chances of this mortal life” were unable to shake you as they otherwise might have? Do you often sense Jesus’ nearness in times of fear and anxiety, or is he harder for you to reach at those times?
  • Do you feel confident that your heavenly Father answers your prayers?
  • Did Paul’s model of prayer – Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God – challenge you in any way?

Luke 3:7-18

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

How bizarre to think that what John has just proclaimed is called good news by St. Luke! But this is exactly the good news that we have heard and anticipated in our readings from the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah: the Lord is coming to be in our very midst and he is bringing judgment with him. That judgment will at once be salvation to those who humbly repent and bear good fruit, and doom to those who harden their hearts and continue to live selfish lives. Although the Messiah’s first coming surprisingly brought mercy, forgiveness, and grace to sinners, his second coming will be in glory to judge both the living and the dead.

Jesus, like John, understood the Son of Man’s mission to be to “bring fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49), and it is for this reason that Jesus undergoes the “baptism” that he is to be baptized with on the cross. This giving of the fire of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire will not bring peace, however, but division—division because the sins of our own flesh will resist it and because the corporate sin of our communities will resist it. May we be consumed with the fire of His loving Spirit now, that we may avoid the fire of judgment when he returns!

  • Did anything surprise you about John’s councils to those who came to him? What do you suppose John the Baptist would say if people from your workplace or school or community were to come asking him how to repent?
  • The fourth verse of the hymn How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord reads: “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.” Have you ever experienced the Lord consuming your dross through fiery trials, or through a fiery experience with him in prayer?

Ryan Jordan is currently a senior at Nashotah House Theological Seminary from the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande. He previously graduated from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies and Japanese and a master’s degree in the Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is married to his wonderful wife of four years, Mallory, and has two cats at home.

Download the Bible study for Advent 3 (C).

Bible Study, Advent 2 (C) – December 9, 2018

[RCL]: Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Baruch 5:1-9

In the previous chapter of Baruch, the city of Jerusalem speaks as a mourning mother to her children who are in exile, encouraging them:

“Go, my children, go; for I have been left desolate. I have taken off the robe of peace and put on sackcloth for my supplication… Take courage, my children, cry to God, and he will deliver you from the power and hand of the enemy. For I have put my hope in the Everlasting to save you, and joy has come to me from the Holy One, because of the mercy that will soon come to you from your everlasting savior. For I sent you out with sorrow and weeping, but God will give you back to me with joy and gladness forever.” – Baruch 4:19-23

In this passage, the prophet addresses to Jerusalem a message of great hope: he tells her to remove the garment of her mourning and replace it with a robe of righteousness, beauty, and glory that comes from God, for God has commanded that her children should be brought back to her. He has “ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low,” by the preaching of John the Baptist; Christians proclaim that the “fragrant tree” God would command to shade Israel was fulfilled in the Cross of Christ.

Advent is a season for Christians both to remember God’s saving visitation of his people in the past and to anticipate the fulfillment of his promise to “come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead” and usher in life everlasting. In like fashion, this passage at once captures Israel’s immediate hope of being restored to the land God gave to their ancestors and their hope, which merges with ours, as it looks forward to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ.

  • Can you identify any language in this passage that anticipates or prefigures baptismal imagery?
  • Galatians 4:26 states that the Jerusalem above “is free, and she is our mother.” How might this affect our reading of Baruch 4:19-23?

Canticle 16

The song of Zechariah wonderfully captures what God’s salvation is all about. Zechariah begins by declaring God “blessed,” just as we do every day in the Mass: “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” We are not merely calling God supremely happy, like the archangel Gabriel calls Mary; rather we are calling God the very source of beatitude and perfection of all creation. Zechariah then carries on, describing why God is blessed. He has visited his people with the purpose of freeing them by means of the anticipated Savior. But freed for what? Just as when God delivered his people who were enslaved in Egypt, they are being freed in order to worship God: “Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” It is the effects of sin in our lives that God is saving us from, that our lives might be fully given to God without fear or hindrance, and so that he might fully share his blessedness with us. This has always been the purpose of God’s covenants: to restore humanity to communion with himself, ever since Adam turned away in the Garden. It is for this reason that John the Baptist comes onto the scene, preparing the way for Jesus by preaching God’s overwhelming generosity in declaring amnesty for repentant sinners. “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” “And blessed be his Kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.”

  • What would it look like to be “free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight” in your everyday life?
  • Have you experienced worshipful and joyful freedom at some point in your life?

Philippians 1:3-11

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” This is precisely our Advent hope as we wait for the day of Jesus Christ’s return. The good work begun in us was our baptism, where we were joined to Jesus Christ as members of his mystical Body, forgiven our sins, and given a new source of life in God by the giving of the Holy Spirit. Paul prays that the life of God given to the Philippians as a seed in baptism would come to maturity in an overflowing of love and prudence, virtues that produce the likeness of God in us because God is love (cf. 1 John 4:7-9). These virtues enable us to discern what is good in every circumstance and to will to do it wholeheartedly, producing the “harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” God is glorified above all by his likeness being reproduced in his people, and so he is at work in us, pouring his life and love into us, transforming us into transparencies of himself—holy, blameless, pure, and righteous. This is a wonderful gospel: let us join with Paul in proclaiming it, no matter the cost!

  • Who is one person God is stirring you to share the Gospel with? Who can you ask to help you pray for that person, so that God might lay the foundations of faith in him or her?
  • How is God calling you to mature in the life of Christ?

Luke 3:1-6

The Evangelist Luke takes great pains to provide historical context for John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance in the wilderness. First, Luke places us in the timeline of emperors, governors, tetrarchs and high priests—the “this world” history defined by the plans of powerful men and their governments. Then Luke places us in the timeline of salvation history with the quote from the prophet Isaiah (vv. 4-6). Here the eternal plans of God intersect with a particular place and time, and at that intersection is a particular person making a unique summons to repent and be forgiven. This call to re-think the direction of our lives in preparation for the Lord’s visitation is, however, remarkably universal—repentance is the great equalizer. Jews as well as Gentiles, strong as well as weak, rich as well as poor, people of the 1st century and people of the 21st century alike must turn humbly to God to ask his forgiveness and start living a life that bears good fruit. But it is an equality that paradoxically favors the Gentile, the weak, the poor, the humble, and even the one without modern prejudices against a notion of divine revelation.

We too, therefore, must examine ourselves in light of Jesus’ imminent return, and ask that God would give us grace with joy to make good on our baptismal repentance and renunciations, that he would help us make every crooked way straight, every prideful barrier low to receive his grace, every deficiency filled, and our roughness smoothed, so that we might greet Jesus with joy at his return.

  • Do you find yourself wishing you had more time before Jesus returns, or can you say “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus” without hesitation?
  • What crooked ways might our Lord want to make straight in you? What obstacles have you placed in front of him that he needs to remove so that you can more joyfully anticipate his return?

Ryan Jordan is currently a senior at Nashotah House Theological Seminary from the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande. He previously graduated from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies and Japanese and a master’s degree in the Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is married to his wonderful wife of four years, Mallory, and has two cats at home.

Download the Bible study for Advent 2 (C).

Bible Study, Advent 1 (C) – December 2, 2018

[RCL]: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah 33:14-16

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

Two things strike me about this sentence. I am assured that God is good, and will fulfill the promises made. Simultaneously, I am struck by the frustration of the Israelites, and indeed of us today, with having to wait upon the Lord.

  • What are the promises God has made to you?
  • For what are you waiting for God to fulfill?
  • How can we rest in the assurance that God will fulfill and bring to fruition the promises God has made?

Let us rest in the faith and reassurance of those promises.

Psalm 25:1-9

In the first lines of this psalm, we get a great prayer of trust – “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you.” What a great way to begin a prayer! The psalmist also shows their own humanity and doubt in the very next line, “let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.” The story of our walk with God in faith is often one of trusting even in the face of doubt.

  • When we come to the end of our days, can we too say, “In you have I trusted all the day long”?
  • How would it feel to continually put our trust in God?
  • What would this challenge in us?
  • How might our lives be transformed?

Perhaps we would find that “all the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” – what a gift that could be.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

This letter is written by Paul to one of the early church communities. I wonder, in our position as members of the Anglican Communion, how often we think this way of our fellow churches. I suspect the practice of writing encouragement to one another has ceased, partly because we are in a world where written letters are not the fastest forms of communication – and partly because we simply forget to encourage and thank God for one another. Following God’s call is difficult. We need to lift one another up, to encourage one another in our callings, even when we don’t immediately see eye to eye.

  • How might we lift up one another?
  • In what ways can we encourage one another in our callings and ministry?

May we abound in love for one another and have our hearts strengthened in holiness.  

Luke 21:25-36

It is hard for me to read this gospel lesson of the signs of the coming of man and not connect it to some of the doom and gloom teachers and preachers who love to talk about the end of time and draw lines in the sand over who will be saved. After reading it through a few times, though, I find this passage not to be about living in fear but rather about standing in our truth as Christians. Jesus’ instructions are not to spend time worrying and preparing for this coming, but rather to “stand up and raise your heads” when these things come to pass.

  • Are we ready to stand strong in our faith? Why or why not?
  • “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” How can we hold more firmly to the everlasting words of Jesus and let go of the things that will pass away?

This Bible study, written by Jazzy Bostock, originally ran November 29, 2015.

Download the Bible study for Advent 1 (C).

Bible Study, Christ the King Sunday (B) – November 25, 2018

[RCL]: Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19); Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37 

Samuel 23:1-7

King David—perhaps the greatest King of Israel—in his final words, did not take credit for himself, but instead declared that it was God who had anointed and exalted him to his place of leadership. David credited God not only for his rise to power, but also for his ability to rule the people justly. David proclaimed, “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” Godly leadership was not simply the right thing to do for King David, but it was a thing of great beauty. David understood that to use our positions of authority and influence for good and just purposes is to make our houses, our tiny kingdoms, like the Kingdom of God.

  • In what positions of authority do you serve where you could invite the Kingdom of God to be made present?
  • What is something small you could do today to make your house more like the Kingdom of God?

Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19)

The Psalmist reminds us, the readers, of King David’s commitment to building a temple, a dwelling place for God. This commitment was not simply a line item which could sit on the back burner, nor was it a campaign promise that would stir the hearts of the people to support him, even if it were never fully realized. Instead, King David made the creation of a place for God to dwell a priority in both his life and leadership. David vowed, “I will not come under the roof of my house, nor climb up into my bed; I will not allow my eyes to sleep, nor let my eyelids slumber; Until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.” This prioritization and relentless pursuit of creating a space for God in the midst of the people of Israel became the desire of David’s heart. Imagine how we might harness our own authority to serve others if our desire were to ensure that God lived within our midst.

  • Where have you created space for God in your own life?
  • Where else in your life could you prioritize creating a space for God to dwell?

Revelation 1:4b-8

The scene that is described for us here in the first chapter of Revelation is one of a king arriving and there being no mistake regarding who he is or why he has come. The author declares, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” In this foretelling of Christ’s second coming, the Messiah is returning to the earth in an unmistakable fashion, befitting a king. This is most unlike his first inbreaking, when he arrived without the expected pomp and circumstance and instead came into the world as an infant, totally dependent upon those who would raise him up. This Jesus, he is the Messiah King, the “ruler of the kings of the earth,” who breaks into the world in surprising ways, not only to change the course of history, but also to invite the whole world to participate and become his Kingdom on earth.

  • How did Jesus come into your life and in what way(s) did his arrival surprise you?
  • In what practical ways can you live in the Kingdom of God in your everyday life?

John 18:33-37

When questioned by Pontius Pilate, Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.” This statement would be more surprising if it were the first time we encountered Jesus describing the Kingdom of God, but the more we hear about God’s Kingdom, the more we understand that it is very much upside-down or in reverse in comparison to the world as we know it. While our world so often operates on systems of scarcity and determining value based on supply and demand, in God’s Kingdom, there is not only enough for everyone, but there is abundance. In God’s Kingdom, all have enough and no one wants for anything. It is in this Kingdom that we can be loosed from the bondage of impulse and endless desire and finally be free to find eternal contentment in the One who had freed us. This is the good news that Christ our King came into the world to proclaim, and all who belong to the truth will listen to his voice.

  • In what ways do you imagine that the Kingdom of God is different from the world today?
  • In what small ways could we act to change our daily lives to allow the Kingdom of God to break in?

This Bible study was written by the Rev. Josh Woods.

Download the Bible study for Christ the King Sunday (B).


Bible Study, Pentecost 26 (B) – November 18, 2018

Proper 28

[RCL]: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

1 Samuel 1:4-20

The books of Samuel deal with the period that marked the emergence of prophecy and monarchy in ancient Israel. The First Book of Samuel opens with a recurring theme in Israel’s history – God hears the cry of the marginalized and oppressed. In this case it is Hannah, the beloved wife of Elkanah, the man who will be the father of Samuel. She is unable to have children. Hannah is taunted for her lack of fecundity by Elkanah’s other wife, Penninah.

This story, like so many others from the scriptures, illustrates how God finds a way into our lives in times of desperation and sadness. In fact, the biblical record indicates that God longs to be with us in the moments of trial and hurt; the Lord has a preference for those who are suffering. While God certainly does not design or plan hardship for us, it is through our wounds, through the crack in the heart, that God’s light enters our lives.

Hannah represents all of us who have faced hopeless situations. Her story shows how God can transform even the most desperate situations into surprisingly wonderful futures. Above all, she teaches us the necessity of communicating our deepest longings to God, trusting in the Lord’s power to turn darkness into light, even when we see no way to that dawn.

  • Have you experienced the consoling presence of God in times of hardship? Does Hannah’s story stand in solidarity with your own?
  • Where/when in your life have you experienced God’s transforming power (i.e., God’s power to turn hopeless situations into a hope-filled future)?

1 Samuel 2:1-10

The author of Luke’s gospel based his Magnificat text (Luke 1:46-55) on this Song of Hannah. The themes of Mary and Hannah are similar – joy at the birth of a child and praise of God’s power. The Magnificat speaks of God’s mercy, whereas Hannah extols God’s justice. Both sing of God’s casting down the rich and uplifting the poor. Hannah’s words mention explicitly the defeat of God’s (and her) enemies. What are we to make of this rather strong language: “The bows of the mighty broken” and “the wicked shall be cut off in darkness”? While most mature adults do not plot or pray for the destruction of people they do not like, there are many negative forces we face in our lives; forces that perpetuate oppression; forces that only God can counter and transform. For example, we fall victim to self-loathing, depression, difficult family/marital issues, grudge-bearing and harbored hurt. These forces oppress us, keep us from being the people God calls us to be. And sometimes these powers can be so strong that it seems there is no way out. The song of Hannah, however, is a testimony to God’s ability to defeat even these seemingly insurmountable issues.

  • Are there any words, phrases or images in the Song of Hannah that speak to you?
  • How do Hannah’s words of the “great reversal” resonate with you (i.e., the hungry are fat with spoil, the barren has borne seven, etc.)?

Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25

In times of desolation, we might feel that we are unworthy to approach God. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by an instance or pattern of personal failure, a bout of melancholia, or we become conscious of our own distance from God due to neglecting our relationship with God. We might find it difficult to turn to God because we lack confidence in our worthiness to resume the relationship. While such feelings are not predominant in the spiritual life, they are real enough.

This passage from Hebrews tells us that Jesus has provided us irrevocable access to God. Like any favored son, Jesus may go right to his Father, even when it appears that the doors are closed. And Jesus takes us with him. So when we desire to approach God, there is no sin, no failing, no time or distance away from God that will prevent us. This is the compassion of God; Jesus’ love for all humankind, and faith in the will and vision of the Creator, even though it required that he pass through a torturous death, has shown us just how much God desires to be in the life of every person. Our text today teaches us that there are no barriers between us and God, only the ones we set up ourselves in our own minds and hearts.

  • What are the barriers we erect that keep us from God? How does today’s passage from Hebrews speak to this concern for you?
  • How does the verse “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” resonate with you?

Mark 13:1-8

The stones of the Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple, which can still be seen standing today, were and are rather impressive. In fact, some are 30 feet long. These were surely the stones to which Jesus’ disciples were referring. Jesus uses their observation about the stones to springboard into a prophecy concerning the nation and people who were dear to him. This is appropriate in the context of his approaching execution. While modern Western people often speak of life “flashing before our eyes” before death, ancient Near Eastern people believed that in the days before death one gained powers of prognostication. Jesus exhibits that here. What follows from Jesus is an example of apocalyptic thought and discourse. “Apocalyptic” was a literary form common in the biblical period (see, for example, the Book of Daniel and Revelation), but alien to those of us in the modern world. Apocalyptic literature uses certain vocabulary and imagery, in this case earthquakes, wars, famines, etc., to convey a larger truth. Jesus is telling us to beware and persevere in times of hardship and trial, because no power can prevail against the power of Almighty God.

  • Where/how do you find spiritual comfort/nourishment in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in today’s gospel?
  • How do you relate, from your own experience, to what Jesus says in verse 8, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs”?

This Bible study, written by Brian Pinter, originally ran November 18, 2012.

Download the Bible study for Pentecost 26 (B).

Bible Study, Pentecost 25 (B) – November 11, 2018

Proper 27

[RCL]: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi’s and Ruth’s family is on the brink of extinction. Both are widows, both destitute, and Ruth is a Moabite, a non-Israelite, an outsider. Naomi, too old to remarry and have children, sends Ruth to see Boaz, an extended family member, in the hope that Boaz will marry her and take them into his household. He does, and becomes the kinsmen-redeemer, and Ruth becomes King David’s great-grandmother.

A significant theme in the book of Ruth is that of outsiders being let in. The loving-kindness of Boaz for those whom he could easily have dismissed (Ruth was more closely related to another man in the community who wouldn’t take her in) is in keeping with Yahweh’s constant refrain throughout the Old Testament on the care for foreigners and the impoverished.

  • Who in your life could use some purposeful loving-kindness?
  • Who knows what that person, perhaps on the fringes of your social circles or family, could do for the kingdom of God, if you would but invite them in…

Psalm 127

Holy Scripture has a pretty radical view of our world’s dependence on God: if master builder and watchmen don’t have God’s assistance, their labor is a waste of time. Like the reading from Ruth, the Psalm echoes the theme of the Lord’s care and provision for God’s people. This Psalm in particular focuses on children, as the “Lord’s heritage,” as gifts of God: the means to sustain our very species is itself totally dependent on the Lord’s making prosper the fruit of the womb.

Our society at large does not have this view of children. What the Psalmist calls “gifts,” “happiness,” and a “heritage,” our society often calls “inconveniences,” “unnecessary expenses,” or an “obstacle” to your career. Even the most devout Christians fall into this type of thinking from time to time. If we’re honest, those thoughts cross our minds more than we’d like to admit.

Eventually we must come to a conscious choice:

  • Where will we be taking our cues from when it comes to how we think about children?
  • From the script of that new sitcom, or from our holiest text?
  • From the pulpit of pop culture, or from the mouth of God himself?

Hebrews 9:24-28

We can’t pretend that these ancient ideas about how to cleanse a community of the guilt of their wrongdoings are natural for moderns like us to comprehend, but we must try, if Jesus’ sacrifice is going to make any sense to us. Pardon the analogy, but if sin is pollution, then blood is a successful “clean up our streets” initiative. If sin makes us dirty, blood makes us clean. But whose blood, and what kind? That from a pure victim, offered to God by a priest. Like the high priests of old, Jesus appears before God in the most holy place, presenting not the blood of an animal, but his own blood, that which was spilt on the strangest of altars, the altar of a Roman cross. Paradoxically, He is at once priest and sacrificial victim, making a “perfect offering and sacrifice unto God.”

Jesus’ blood is re-presented to us when we receive the Eucharist, our principal act of worship where we proclaim our Lord’s death until he comes again. This is not easy to grasp, in fact, it is “foolishness to those who are perishing,” but it is inestimably worthy of your meditation and devotion. Christian, behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.

  • How do you see this sacrificial act?
  • How does that inform your view of the Eucharist?

Mark 12:38-44

Aquinas’ Catena Aurea quotes Bede as saying that the allegorical meaning of the passage is that the “the poor widow is the simplicity of the Church: poor indeed, because she has cast away the spirit of pride and of the desires of worldly things; and a widow, because Jesus her husband has suffered death for her. She casts two mites into the treasury, because she brings the love of God and of her neighbor, or the gifts of faith and prayer; which are looked upon as mites in their own insignificance, but measured by the merit of a devout intention…she understands that even her very living is not of her own worthiness, but of Divine grace.”

More obviously, the literal sense contrasts the religious elite, who are corrupt and hypocritical and donate their money for the spectacle, with the humility of the widow who gave nearly nothing, and yet everything.

  • Since the Holy Scriptures are written for the Church, of which we are a part, what does Jesus’ praise of this woman inspire in us?
  • How can we imitate her humility?
  • What can we give to God, even out of our poverty?

This Bible study, written by the Rev. Ryan Pollock, originally ran November 8, 2015.

Download the Bible Study for Pentecost 25 (B).