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 (B)

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 (B)

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?

Bible Study: 3 Advent (B)

December 14, 2014

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

Canticle 3: The Song of Mary

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

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

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

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

John 1:6-8, 19-28

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

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

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

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

Bible Study: 2 Advent (B)

December 7, 2014

Jessie GutgsellBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

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

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

Isaiah 40:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What gives you strength on this literal or metaphorical journey?

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

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

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

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

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

2 Peter 3:8-15a

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE

Read additional comments for 2 Advent (B).

Bible Study: 1 Advent (B)

November 26, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

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

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

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

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

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

In what ways have you fallen away from God?

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

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

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

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

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

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

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

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

How will you seek to find the face of God?

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

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

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:24-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE

Read additional comments for 1 Advent (B).

Bible Study: Christ the King (A)

November 23, 2014

Donna StanfordBishop Kemper School for Ministry

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

In this lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezekiel delivers the dual message of God’s judgment and salvation. God warns that he will condemn the irresponsible “fat and strong” shepherd-kings of Israel (v. 16). Because the shepherd-kings neglected their duties, the weak sheep-people of Israel were scattered into exile in Babylon (vv. 12-13). God will also judge the sheep-people themselves, promising to feed with justice the corrupt “fat sheep” people who have mistreated their fellow “lean sheep” people (vv. 20-22).

The counterpoint to God’s judgment of Israel is God’s message of salvation. God promises that He will engage in a search-and-rescue mission. As the good shepherd of Israel, God will seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak (v. 16). He will gather the people from exile, feed them with good pasture and make them lie down in good grazing land (vv. 13-14). God will re-establish his flock in Israel, and He will be their God (v. 24).

Why should the exiles believe Ezekiel’s message of promise?

As in Psalm 23, this passage from Ezekiel uses the imagery of God as shepherd and the people as his flock. What has been your experience of God’s deliverance when you felt distressed, sorrowful or forsaken?

Psalm 100:1-4

In Psalm 100, the psalmist marries the image of God as king (“serve the Lord,” “come before his presence”) with the image of God as shepherd (“we are … the sheep of his pasture”) (vv. 1, 2). God is recognized as sovereign over creation (“all you lands”) and over Israel (“he himself has made us,” “we are his people”) (vv. 1, 2).

What response does God as shepherd-king deserve? Because he has created us, we belong to him (v. 2). We are to offer our whole selves to God in service. Our proper response to God’s goodness, mercy and faithfulness is worship – joyful praise and thanksgiving (v. 3). We are to “enter his gates,” “go into his courts,” and “call upon his Name” (v. 3). We are to enjoy His presence in our lives.

How do you open yourself to God’s presence?

During worship, do you glorify and enjoy God? If not, why not?

Ephesians 1:15-23

This pericope, or passage, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may be divided into three sections.

Verses 15 and 16 are a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the report Paul received about the Ephesians’ faith in the Lord Jesus and about their putting love into practice.

Verses 17 through 19 are Paul’s intercessory prayer on behalf of the Ephesians. Paul names God as “the Father of Glory,” which refers to God’s power. Paul asks God to give the Ephesians wisdom and insight into God’s saving act through Jesus Christ. Paul affirms that God’s power is working in those who believe.

In verses 20 through 23, Paul declares that Christ’s resurrection and glorification is evidence of God’s power at work in Christ. The exalted Christ is depicted in royal terms. He is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21). The name of Christ is “above every name that is named” (v. 21). The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated – God has put all things under Christ’s authority. The pericope draws to an ecclesial conclusion. Not only was God’s power at work in Christ’s resurrection and glorification, but God’s power is still at work in Christ through his body, the church (vv. 22-23).

Is your faith cerebral assent to a creed or a whole-hearted trust in God that motivates how you live your life?

Have you observed God’s power at work in Christ through the church? Give specific examples.

Matthew 25:31-46

This passage is the end of Jesus’ eschatological discourse. The apocalyptic images reflect Christ’s kingship and his roles as judge and shepherd.

Jesus, referring to himself as the Son of Man, relates that when he comes in glory with his angels, he will be enthroned as king (v. 31). All human beings will be gathered before him (v. 32). Exercising his royal authority, Christ the King will separate the people, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (v. 32). Both the “sheep” and the “goats” will be surprised by the King’s judgment (vv. 37, 44). Neither group sees themselves as the King sees them.

Christ the King invites the “sheep” or the “righteous” to inherit the Kingdom of God that was prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v. 34). The righteous will enjoy eternal life (v. 46). He calls them, “blessed by my Father” (v. 34). On the other hand, the “goats” or the “accursed” will be condemned to eternal punishment (vv. 32-33, 46).

What distinguishes the blessed from the accursed? As described in the Beatitudes, the blessed act with unselfish, loving kindness toward needy people. The righteous welcome strangers, give clothing to the needy, visit the sick and imprisoned without knowing that they are ministering to Christ (vv. 35-36), while the accursed selfishly ignore those in need (vv. 42-43).

Do the apocalyptic images of Christ as King and judge disturb you? If so, why?

Does this parable contradict the doctrine of justification by faith and not by works?

Bible Study: 23 Pentecost, Proper 28 (A)

November 16, 2014

James MillerGeneral Theological Seminary

“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Judges 4:1-7Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4:1-7

In our Old Testament reading, we find that the Israelites are being punished by the Lord for the evils that they have committed. In fact, they have been “sold” to King Jabin of Canaan. This is about to change. Deborah, who is a prophetess and the only woman in scripture to be a judge, summons Barak and tells her vision: The Lord will bring the army of the Canaanites under Sisera to him, a battle will ensue, but the Lord will make Barak victorious.

There are three important issues here.

First, once again, Israel is being punished for evil: worshipping false Gods.

Second, while there are some notable depictions of prohetesses in scripture (Miriam, sister of Moses in Exodus 15:20; and Huldah, who authenticated the rediscovery of Torah in 2 Kings 22: 14-20, Joel 2:28 and Acts 21: 8-9), Deborah is unique in that she is the only female judge noted in scripture.

Third, Sisera had a commanding military advantage over the Israelites with his 900 chariots of iron. The use of iron was a technique not available to the Israelites at that time. Yet, the prophecy is that Barak will be victorious. This is because it is not physical strength of armies or weapons that will carry the day, but the power of the Lord.

Trusting in the Lord for deliverance is an important theme of scripture. See David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17; Gideon in Judges 6-8, Psalm 37:39 and Psalm 46. Note also God’s reaction to David, who took a census in order to determine Israel’s strength.

Is all of our faith being placed in Jesus, or are we guilty of portioning out to some false gods?

Can we look past gender when we receive God’s Word?

Can we think of ways to increase our faith in Jesus instead of spending time stockpiling physical resources?

Psalm 123

The psalmist is not angry, but is calling for help, for relief. Scorn and contempt has been laid upon the people, and they are either incapable or unwilling to fight against it alone. They turn to the Lord with confidence that they will receive mercy. An important dimension of mercy, רַחֵ֖ם(Isaiah 49:15), is that it can be understood as the tender love a mother has for her children. The psalmist’s wish is for the Lord to show motherly care for the people.

If you feel that there is no place to turn, no one to help, will you turn to the Lord for mercy? In fact, will you turn to the Lord first?

Consider the innocent of the world, those suffering oppression, hunger, disease, those living in war-torn regions, those who have been kidnapped. Can you pray to the Lord for mercy for them?

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Paul is exhorting the church to be vigilant. In using “day of the Lord,” he is invoking code from Old Testament that was well-understood as “judgment day.” He describes it as sudden destruction (v. 3). He calls on the church to be ready – awake and sober (v. 6) – and to use the “weapons” that they have been given: faith, love and hope (v. 8). Most importantly, though, Paul wants them to know that those with faith in Jesus will not receive wrath, but salvation. Finally, note that Paul encourages community. We are not to look to our own futures to the exclusion of others. Part of our calling is to “encourage one another and build each other up” (v. 11).

Do you think that the scenario of destruction that Paul paints is real or symbolic? Either way, are you prepared?

What do you think of the armor Paul describes: breastplate of faith and love; helmet of the hope of salvation? Can you relate this to the passage above from Judges?

How can we build each other up?

Matthew 25:14-30

There are two issues at play in this parable. One has to do with the use of one’s gifts, assets, or as they are called here, “talents.” The other has to do with relationships.

Our reading is a parable (“For it is as if …”), but it is interesting to consider the literal as well as the figurative meaning of “talent.” One source notes that one talent was worth the equivalent of more than 15 years’ wages for a laborer. Another suggests that one talent was worth the equivalent of 7,300 denarii (with 1 denarius = 1 day’s pay). This would work out to more than 26 years’ wages. In any case, it is clear that a talent was extremely valuable. Just consider the one who received five talents was given over a lifetime of earnings.

We read that the owner entrusted these talents with his slaves. There is a settling of accounts upon his return. Two of the slaves traded with their talents and produced a profit. This trading was not reckless gambling; they carefully considered how to increase the value of what had been entrusted to them. They had faith that they were serving their master’s best interests. This looks like a good relationship.

Not so with the third slave. Out of fear, he did not use the talent with which he was entrusted. He was not interested in the betterment of his master, or even his own betterment. He had disdain for his master and accused him of a pattern of theft and injustice.

Think of the talents/gifts with which God has entrusted you. They could be health, physical or mental acumen, friends, family, prayer, the sacraments. Are you using/investing them to your fullest ability? Can you see them as not being yours, but being entrusted to you by God?

Do you view your relationship with God as one of trust and gratitude for the blessings you enjoy, leading you to use them for God’s glory, or do you so fear God that you feel mistrustful and perhaps accuse god of being the source of injustice?

Bible Study: 22 Pentecost, Proper 27 (A)

November 9, 2014

Hunter Ruffin, Seminary of the Southwest

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Memory is a powerful vehicle for us as intellectual creatures. Memory connects the past to the present state of things and helps us recall the stories told by our ancestors. Memory works its magic in the stories that we tell to each other as we recollect the years past, which helps us make sense of the present condition. As L. Daniel Hawk points out in the Berit Olam series’ “Joshua” (Liturgical Press, 2000), in Chapter 24, Joshua begins by connecting the leaders of Israel to the past – both near and far – as a way to exhort Israel to choose life through their worship of the Lord.

In this episode, Joshua calls Israel to make a decision for itself – whom will Israel serve? Will the people choose to serve foreign gods, or will Israel choose to serve the Lord? When the people respond that they will serve the Lord, their response also recounts the history of the people of Israel and the ways that the Lord helped the people of Israel. The result is a covenant that Joshua makes with the people and creates new statutes and ordinances for them. Memory helped the people remember that they are to serve the Lord. Hawk writes that the memory of the past reveals that the covenant is a freely chosen commitment to the Lord of the people’s hearts and lives.

What memories do you keep close to your heart? How do those memories remind you of the love that God showers on God’s people?

In what ways can you recommit your heart and life to God, today?

Psalm 78:1-7

Just as Joshua used memory to call to the people of Israel to choose the Lord, the psalmist also uses memory to remind the present congregation of the “praiseworthy deeds” (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 694-695) of the Lord. The psalmist wants the people to remember the “mysteries of ancient times” (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 694-695) and, as Konrad Schaefer observes in the Berit Olam series on “Psalms” (Liturgical Press, 2001), to remember the ways in which the Lord protected Israel. Memory and remembering continues to instruct the present congregation in the ways of the Lord.

Schaefer also notes that the psalmist’s use of memory is an instruction about faithfulness, fidelity to God. The poet is exhorting the present congregation to remember themselves as God’s people and to commit themselves to being faithful to the Lord by not forgetting the deeds of God. The work of memory and remembering is the way the people avoid past mistakes while forgetting dooms the people to repeat past mistakes.

“Re-membering,” putting the people back together as a whole, stimulates the people’s wonder in God’s deeds within creation and connects them to having a deeper faith and faithfulness in God.

Search through your own memories. Where can you identify that God was at work in your life?

What memories serve as a call to forgiveness for yourself? What memories ask you to forgive another?

How does the act of remembering your own life inform your faith in God?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the power of memory is once again at work; however, the memories of loved ones by the community at Thessalonica now serve to create deep, worrisome questions for the community. As Charles Cousar points out in his commentary “Eschatological Encouragement” (Smyth & Helwys, 2001), though there is no evidence of a letter from the community to Paul, it appears that Paul is attempting to respond to a concern held by the community relating to the fate of those that have died before Christ’s return.

In fashion similar to Joshua and the psalmist, Paul uses memory to call the community into hopefulness through Christ. Through the memory of Christ’s resurrection, Paul speaks words of hope to the people in Thessalonica in a time of grief. Unlike others who have no hope in death, the community is reminded of the hope that is discovered in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Cousar explains that the resurrection of Christ opens a new door to a new future that grants hope to those that live and those that have died.

The death of loved ones prior to Christ’s return does not mean that they will be left or that they will be the last to experience the resurrected Christ. In fact, Paul says the exact opposite: The dead will be the first to bask in the warmth of Christ’s love in the Resurrection. Cousar notes that the cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet are all military images that announce the coming of the one that will destroy all powers and principalities, including the power of death.

How do you encounter the risen Christ in your daily living? In what ways is Christ calling you toward the hopefulness of the Resurrection?

How does the return of Christ speak to you? How does remembering the hope experienced in Christ’s resurrection call you into faithfulness to God through Christ?

Matthew 25:1-13

The parable of the 10 maidens in the Gospel According to Matthew is definitely one of the more difficult parables for modern listeners. The parable features a group of 10 women who take lamps to the wedding feast, but only five of the women are wise enough to take extra oil with them in the event that the bridegroom is delayed. The parable features two different realities: the hope of the coming of the bridegroom and the dismissal of those who followed false teachings.

The split in the group of women is a focus on the positive and negative behavior of different members of the community. In his commentary “The Gospel of Matthew” (Liturgical Press, 2001), Daniel Harrington writes that the women who exemplify the positive behavior are granted entry to the wedding feast while the women who exemplify negative behavior are kept out. The parable is one more analysis of the relations between Matthew’s community and the Jewish community surrounding it. The conflict is focused on the acceptance of the apocalyptic nature of Christ’s return by Matthew’s community and the rejection of that by the surrounding Jewish community.

The role the women played was obviously important to Matthew’s community. In her essay “Got Into the Party After All” from “A Feminist Companion to Matthew” (Sheffield Academic Press 2001), Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt writes that the women behave as leaders when they go out with their lamps to meet the bridegroom; as a result, it is important to understand that the parable is not against women’s leadership in the church. The parable seeks to teach all of Matthew’s community about the importance of adhering to true teachings of the church.

What are the sources of division in your own context? Is it appropriate for the church to respond to difference in the way it does at the end of today’s parable?

What might be other ways of addressing division within the church? How might that include a commitment to reconciliation?

In what ways are you divided with family, friends or loved ones? How might Matthew’s idea of being watchful call you toward forgiveness and reconciliation in your own life?