Bible Study: Last Sunday After Epiphany (B)

February 15, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Matthew 17:1-2)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

2 Kings 2:1-12

There are two stories in this beautiful passage from Second Kings. One is the dramatic story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven, rich with imagery of God in the whirlwind, of chariots of fire and waters parting. It is a tale of prophets that connects Elijah with Moses and precipitates speculation about the nature of Elijah and his eventual return. The story within the story is Elisha’s grief: his desire to accompany Elijah on his final journey, even though he knows how the journey will end. Elisha’s determination to stay in the moment with his beloved teacher, against the counsel of the company of prophets who insist that the moment is passing, and his desire to inherit a double share of his teacher’s spirit are both touching and also prophetic. The ecstatic vision of the chariot of fire and the whirlwind subside; the passage ends with Elisha losing sight of Elijah and tearing his clothes in grief.

Many of us have taken or will take this final journey with a loved parent or mentor, or know someone who has. In what ways is the story of Elisha’s companioning Elijah to his ascent to heaven like a scene from hospice care? Consider the characters and their reaction to the situation. Elijah, Elisha, the company of prophets, God in the whirlwind, all have a part to play in the drama.

The prophet Elijah has been associated with the Messiah in both Jewish and Christian traditions. How does the concept of Messiah differ between Jews and Christians? How does Elijah relate to your conception of the Messiah?

Psalm 50:1-6

In these lines from Psalm 50, we hear an image of God as creator and judge. There is a way of thinking about God called “apophatic theology.” Sometimes called “negative theology,” this thinking holds that all of our names for God are inadequate. Since we can never name the unknowable and unnamable, the only way to describe God is by what God is not. Images or names such as Lord, Judge, Shepherd, Comforter or Slayer of the Wicked are all inadequate, only part of the vast greatness of God. The consuming flame and the raging storm in this passage are reminiscent of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3. These images, along with the whirlwind in today’s passage from Second Kings, are considered apophatic images of God.

With your Bible study group, make a list of all of the names and images of God that you can think of from scripture. Add as many names and images as you can from your experience or imagination. In what ways do these names describe God? In what ways do they fail to describe God? Which of your images are concrete (called “cataphatic” in theological terminology)? Which of your images are apophatic?

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul is defending his authority as an apostle and leader of the church in Corinth against a new group of missionaries who have led some church members to reject Paul’s leadership and message. When Paul describes the gospel as “veiled,” he is referring to the veil that covered Moses’ radiant face when he brought the covenant from God to the people of Israel in Exodus 34:33. Earlier in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul has spoken of his boldness as a proclaimer of God’s word, contrasting himself with Moses who veiled his face. Paul asserts his strong message and style of leadership as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. Using images of light, Paul is direct and unequivocal in his assertion that the glory of God shines through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In what ways is the image of light as a metaphor for God’s teaching like the images of the whirlwind, the consuming flame and the raging storm in today’s lesson from 2 Kings and Psalm 50?

Does Paul connect Jesus with Moses and Elijah? How? Does he connect himself with the line of prophets?

What “god of this world” might blind us from seeing the Good News of Jesus Christ as preached by the apostle Paul?

Mark 9:2-9

In the story of the Transfiguration, Mark describes a mystical experience. Imagine the terror of Peter, James and John as they try to make sense of an experience that is unknowable and unexplainable. Mark clearly links Jesus with Moses and Elijah, those prophets who stand in God’s presence and can communicate God’s word. It is interesting to note that the Gospel of Mark does not include an appearance of Jesus after the tomb is discovered to be empty, so that some scholars consider the Transfiguration to be a resurrection appearance. The voice of God from the cloud and the injunction to “Tell No One” about what they have seen echoes the Elijah’s Ascent-to-Heaven passage from Second Kings that we heard earlier today. God’s faithfulness is a theme of the story; God has never left God’s people without a prophet to lead them, without help or hope.

Have you ever had a mystical experience when you felt that you were in God’s presence? Can you describe the experience? Were you afraid? Did you think of any biblical stories, prophets or images? Or was your experience beyond description?

One interpretation of the Transfiguration is that it is a glimpse of the end time, a promise of a kind of life that we cannot imagine, that is not visible to our earth-bound eyes. How do you imagine the Kingdom of God? What glimpses have you had of the ways in which the Kingdom of God is not comparable to anything in our human experience? What characteristics of the Kingdom of God can translate to earthly life? How?

The experience of the Transfiguration reminds the disciples of the transcendent glory of God. The voice from the cloud bids the disciples to listen to God’s beloved Son, Jesus. How might the apostle Paul have preached on this passage? How does it speak to you?

How does this passage mark a turning point from the liturgical season of Epiphany, with its emphasis on miracles and the Good News of God’s kingdom, and the season of Lent, with its emphasis on Jesus’ journey to suffering and the cross?

Bible Study: 5 Epiphany (B)

February 8, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” (Mark 1:30-31)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Isaiah 40:21-31

This passage is from Second Isaiah, written toward the end of the Babylonian exile. The prophet promises the people of Israel that deliverance from exile in Babylon is coming soon. The message is of consolation and the greatness of God the king and creator, a powerful God who is in control of history and events. The passage is lyrical, a series of rhetorical questions and images that show the power and wisdom of God the creator. Verses 21-24 describe a powerful maker of the world and its people who also controls their history. Verses 27-31 reassure God’s people that God is aware of their situation and will renew the strength of those who wait faithfully.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Try setting some of the passage to music, as G.F. Handel has famously done for the preceding passage Isaiah 40:1-11. Or try a dramatic reading with several people. Enjoy the language and the message of renewal.

Does God control history? Yes? No? To some extent? How? The incarnational theologians say that God entered history by becoming incarnate in Jesus. How does that idea relate to this passage from Isaiah?

Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

Psalm 147 is a hymn of praise incorporating themes and motifs from Isaiah 40. The emphasis is on God the creator. Praise of God’s power and wisdom is joined with praise of God’s care for the lowly. God’s people are called to sing and make music in praise of God, who loves and cares for creation. We are reminded that God and God’s people are in relationship. The joyful expression of faith brings God delight.

Look for motifs from today’s passage from Isaiah in the psalm. Notice the difference in voice. The passage from Isaiah is spoken from the point of view of a teacher and prophet; the psalm is the voice of the faithful listeners, the people of Israel. Try writing a dialogue or responsive reading based on the two passages.

Write a psalm of praise using your own images of care for creation. You might read your psalm as the Prayers of the People or as a blessing during a worship or prayer service, or for an opening or closing for your Bible study meeting.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

The passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians expresses Paul’s thoughts on evangelism and on being paid by the church community. Today’s verses and the ones preceding them make it clear that the apostles in the early church expected to be supported by the community (v. 14). When Paul speaks of placing an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ in verse 12, he is worried that the financial burden of his support might prevent some from joining the church community. Paul has two motivations for preaching the gospel – his own free will and commission by God. For a true servant of God, doing God’s will by proclaiming the gospel is its own reward. Paul writes of being all things to all people, speaking to different groups in terms they can understand, so that he can convert more people, win more souls to become members of the community. Thus he proclaims the gospel for the glory of God and to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.

What are the implications of lines 19-23 for preaching and evangelism in Paul’s time? In our time and place? What does evangelism mean to you?

Do you belong to a church community that supports its clerical leader financially? Does this affect the relationship between the proclaimer of the gospel and the community? Does it affect the way the gospel is proclaimed? Are there other models for support of the clergy? Is it possible or practical to proclaim the gospel with authority without material reward?

Mark 1:29-39

At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been the talk of the town. News of his healing and exorcism has spread from Capernaum throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. He is in great demand, having healed the mother-in-law of his friends Simon and Andrew, and has cured many diseases and cast out many demons for the people who have gathered to ask for his help.

Remember that when Jesus and his companions arrived at the synagogue in Capernaum in last week’s reading, Jesus taught with authority, proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom on earth, before he got sidetracked into healing and exorcism. The next morning, after praying by himself, Jesus’ sense of purpose is renewed. When the disciples come to tell him that everyone is looking for him, he tells them that it is time to move on to the neighboring towns to proclaim the message “for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God.

What is the relationship between proclaiming the message and casting out demons? Is one more important than the other? Should Jesus stay in Capernaum and continue to heal and exorcise? Or is that a distraction from his mission? Can you think of a contemporary scenario similar to Jesus’ dilemma?

What is Jesus’ mission? Refer to Mark 1:1, Matthew 4:23-25 and Luke 4:42-44. Consider the irony that Mark’s readers and we know Jesus’ significance while his disciples do not. How does knowing his identity change your response to his decision to move on from healing in Capernaum to proclaim his message?

Bible Study: 4 Epiphany (B)

February 1, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mark 1:23-26)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

This passage defines the nature of a true prophet. A prophet is a gift from God. A true prophet is obliged to speak God’s truth – good news or bad – and must be heard and heeded by the people of God. A true prophet may not speak in the name of other gods, nor speak in God’s name what God has not commanded. In this sermon to the people of Israel, Moses reports God’s promise to raise up for them a prophet like him from among their own people. Christians have long interpreted Jesus to be this prophet – the “one like me from among their own people” – as is evidenced in the Gospel of Matthew’s strong identification of Jesus with Moses. In Acts 3: 22-23 ff, Peter reminds the congregation in Jerusalem of this promise, specifically naming Jesus as the appointed prophet and Messiah. He also reminds the congregation of their roots as people of Israel: “You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors” (Acts 3: 25).

In the name of what other gods might a false prophet speak? How can we distinguish between God’s commands and what God has not commanded?

Can you think of any prophets in our times? Someone you know or someone you’ve encountered in books, the news, social media?

How does the description of a true versus false prophet apply to the qualifications and trustworthiness of our community and religious leaders?

Psalm 111

Imagine this psalm as a response to the excerpt from Moses’ sermon that we read in today’s passage from Deuteronomy. The gathered people respond as a congregation with thanks and praise to God. In the opening verses, the people are thankful for God’s work and deeds, and for the gift of studying God’s word. On this day, they are especially thankful for God’s covenant with them, for the justice and steadfastness of God’s commandments, and for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Finally, they are ever mindful of the eternity of God. God’s righteousness and praise endure forever.

How does reading and meditating on this psalm connect worshipers here and now with the worshipers who might have heard Moses speaking in ancient times?

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This passage from First Corinthians offers a fascinating glimpse into Paul’s first-century Christian community. The earliest Christians were Jewish followers of Jesus. In most cases, they followed the Jewish Law. It was the Jewish custom to refrain from eating the meat that was sold in the marketplace, because of the possibility that it had been used in pagan sacrifice. Paul’s mission was to bring the Good News of Christ to the gentiles. This is not the only time in his letters when he addresses whether or not a gentile (or pagan or Greek) must conform to Jewish practices in order to be a part of the community of followers of Jesus. Paul says those who possess the knowledge of Christ’s salvation understand that food has no bearing on one’s relationship to God. However, it is best not to cause discomfort to those who are offended by eating food sacrificed to idols. So do not sin against Christ by wounding the consciences of others. Later in the letter (1 Corinthians 10:32) Paul is quite specific in his instruction to his mixed community of Jews and gentiles: Do not offend the Jewish believers by what you eat.

What does this passage say to you about dietary laws, respect and religious tolerance? Are there specific examples from your campus community, workplace or multi-faith community that apply to this discussion?

Do you think Paul is advocating an inclusive tolerance within the Christian community at Corinth? Why or why not? What are the implications for multicultural intra- and inter-religious relations today?

Mark 1:21-28

Today’s passage from Mark returns to the question raised in Deuteronomy 18:15-20: How can we recognize a true prophet? While the people gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum react with surprise and wonder to Jesus’ teaching, the unclean spirit recognizes him immediately: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The title Holy One of God is a reference to the prophet and healer Elisha (2 Kings 4:9). True to form as one who works and teaches in the tradition of the most honored prophets of the Jewish people, Jesus has authority to direct the power of God’s kingdom against the power of evil. “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus commands, and the spirit obeys. While the scribes depend on their knowledge of Torah and tradition for their authority, Jesus preaches and heals with the authority of one sent by God. As his fame spread throughout Galilee, might the people have wondered: Is this the prophet from among their own that God promised in his covenant with the people of Israel?

Imagine a conversation between two witnesses to this day’s events in the synagogue. One is struck with awe and wonder: Surely this is the prophet promised by God in Deuteronomy! The other is a skeptic and warns against being taken in by folk healers and false prophets. Try role-playing or a debate between these two points of view.

What is the relationship between authority in teaching and the power to exorcise? Why do you think the evangelist Mark chose to introduce the public ministry of Jesus with stories of healing and exorcism?

Try bringing this healing story into the 21st century. What demons might a new prophet need to cast out? How might the Good News of the Kingdom of God have power over such demons?

Bible Study: 3 Epiphany (B)

January 25, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’” (Mark 1:16-17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The Hebrew prophet Jonah has been sent by God to foretell the destruction of the city of Nineveh. Jonah is reluctant, and tries to escape God’s call. He boards a ship headed in the opposite direction; God sends a storm; the sailors throw Jonah overboard into the sea where he is swallowed by a great fish. In the belly of the fish, Jonah prays; and in his mercy, God delivers him from the great fish and sets him on dry land. Then Jonah answers God’s call and goes to Nineveh. The miracle is that the reluctant prophet is remarkably effective; as a result of his warning, the people repent and God forgives them.

The message of the book of Jonah is uplifting: God is willing to forgive those who repent. The importance of hearing prophets, of repentance and right action is affirmed: We can change God’s mind and save ourselves from calamity. Salvation is possible by our own intention and effort, with God’s grace. Jonah has answered God’s call and the results surprise him.

Can you think of a time when you have turned away from God’s call? Questioned God’s purpose for you? How did the outcome surprise you?

How does the story of the prophet Jonah challenge your assumptions about the God of the Hebrew Bible?

Psalm 62:6-14

This psalm might be called the Song of Jonah, as Jonah rejoices in his renewed trust in God and sense of purpose after he has been delivered from the great fish. The psalmist begins with personal experience; he affirms his trust in God. Then the psalmist’s voice turns to exhortation, urging the listeners to join in and find their safety in God. The psalmist offers a contrast, listing those temptations that interfere with trust in God. The message is that in God alone can we put our trust. The passage ends with a transition to a prayer, addressing God: “Steadfast love is yours.” It is a strong and poetic affirmation of faith.

How does the selection from Psalm 62 look back to the story of Jonah before our Hebrew Bible passage for today? How does the selection look forward to the events of today’s passage? Look for specific passages from the text to guide your answer.

How does the notion of salvation in this selection contrast with the notion of salvation in the passage from Jonah in today’s Hebrew Bible reading? Where do you stand on the issue of salvation by works versus salvation by grace?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

This poignant passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is a prophecy in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Paul calls his readers to right behavior in the face of crisis: Time is growing short; the present form of the world is passing away. For Paul, he and his communities are living in an eschatological era that has been ushered in by Christ’s sacrifice. This passage falls in the middle of a series of directives concerning marriage in the end times. From how those who are married ought to behave – as if they have no wives – he broadens his instructions to those who mourn, those who rejoice, and especially those who deal with the world of possessions. He seems to forecast that the world will be turned upside down, and it is urgent for those who have focused on the things of the world to repent.

Do you find God’s call more urgent in times of crisis? How does your notion of salvation change under stressful, demanding circumstances? How does your notion of Godly behavior change under such circumstances?

What is your reaction to Paul’s injunction that those who mourn should be as if they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as if they were not rejoicing?

How does living as Paul directs in this passage – as if circumstances were not as they are – relate to your sense of call or vocation?

Mark 1:14-20

Jesus’ words in the first chapter of Mark, verse 15 – the time of the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news – echo Paul’s injunctions that we heard in today passage from First Corinthians. More rightly stated, Paul’s words echo those of Jesus, which echo the words of John the Baptist and the Hebrew prophets.

In all today’s readings, we have been urged to repent and believe in the Good News. Simon, Andrew, James and John react to God’s urgent call in the opposite way from Jonah in the Hebrew Bible lesson today. While Jonah responds to God’s call by running away to sea, these four fishermen are compelled by Jesus’ compelling charisma to leave their nets and their boats behind and follow wherever he leads them. Their trust in Jesus as God’s prophet is unconditional. This passage affirms the Good News that God calls each and every one of us to the work of God’s Kingdom, even if the end of the journey – indeed, the next step – is uncertain.

It can be difficult to believe in good news and to respond with trust. When have you responded to good news as Jonah did, by running away? When have you responded as the disciples did, by dropping everything and embracing the news? How did your response affect the outcome?

Look back to the psalm for today, and read it as if you are hearing the four fishermen praying after their encounter with Jesus. Return to the notions of salvation and repentance. Does the Good News of Mark’s gospel change your conversation about salvation by grace and salvation by works?

Bible Study: 2 Epiphany (B)

January 18, 2015

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“And Jesus said to Nathanael, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” (John 1:51)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

This first half of this Sunday’s passage, the story of God’s call to Samuel, is often left to stand alone. It is made even deeper and more meaningful when read in conjunction with the second half, in which God speaks concerning the punishment of the house of Eli. Eli was the high priest in the temple of Shiloh. The boy Samuel had been promised to God by his mother Hannah, and is an acolyte to Eli. The sons of Eli were behaving badly, taking the best of the meat that was brought for sacrifice for themselves, and committing adultery with the women who serve in the temple. Eli knows this, but has been unable to stop their behavior. As the passage tells us, the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. God calls Samuel, but the boy doesn’t realize who is calling him. Eli is wise and humble and instructs Samuel to listen to God. Further, Eli insists that Samuel tell him what God has said, even though it is a curse against his line.

There are two stories here. One is the story of God’s call to the boy Samuel to be a prophet. The other is the story of Eli, who instructs Samuel to listen to God and to tell the truth about what God has told him, even though it is bad news. The result is that Samuel becomes a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. There are two parts to a call. One is listening. The other is truthfully responding to God’s call.

What is the role of a mentor? Think about wise teachers, parents or substitute parents whom you have known. How have they helped you to recognize and speak the truth?

Think about Eli’s role as a parent of sons who have behaved so badly that God curses their line. Has Eli failed as a parent? Should he have been able to control his sons? Does his lenience with his sons preclude his ability to teach others?

God’s call is not only for clergy. It’s important to think about how laypeople are called to serve. How have you been called? What is your response to God’s call?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

These verses of Psalm 139 are about being known intimately by God. This psalm is a prayer of radical gratitude and surrender. It is a prayer of praise to a God who is creator of all that is, and it is especially a prayer of a profound personal relationship with God. These lines are a beautiful response to God’s call, words that Samuel might have spoken in response to his experience of being called in the Hebrew Bible passage for today. Like the story of Samuel’s call by God, these beautiful lines are often separated from the rest of the psalm. The lines following today’s lectionary selection speak of killing and hating. The psalm is more than a song of praise; it is a prayer that offers comfort in the face of evil, fear and loneliness. We are never separated from God, no matter what the circumstances.

Is it comforting or frightening to be so intimately known by someone that your thoughts are known even before you think them, someone who is acquainted with all your ways? Do you think that God judges your unspoken thoughts? What would happen if you spoke all your thoughts aloud to someone you trust?

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

This passage from First Corinthians is reminiscent of today’s passage from Psalm 139. The message is one of total unity with God: Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

Paul brings the Hebrew message of unity with God to a Christian community when he says, “for you were bought with a price,” referring to the sacrifice of Christ. Paul’s purpose is to tend to his community’s health, to be a pastor to them, to equip them with the theology that they need to live in community. The message of Epiphany, the revelation of God’s coming, takes on a note of salvation in Paul’s theology. God raised his son Jesus Christ and will also raise us. It is Christ who has freed us. Paul expands the horizon of the church to think about the nature of freedom and freedom’s relationship to our life in community. Certainly we are free, but we must be accountable to others.

Meditate for a few minutes on these words: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” With your Bible study or scripture discussion group, begin a list on chart paper of some things that may be lawful but not beneficial. Which of these things are concrete and which are abstract? What is the relationship between the physical and the spiritual in the context of this passage? What is the relationship between the individual and the community?

How does this passage from First Corinthians relate to today’s theme of God’s call to us?

John 1:43-51

“Follow me.” “Come and see.” These are words of invitation. This is a passage about being called to discipleship. It is also about seeing and being seen. Philip identifies Jesus as both the promised deliverer about whom Moses and the prophets wrote and also as the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s question – Can anything good come out of Nazareth? – might be read as asking whether a powerful deliverer could rise from such humble beginnings. Philip answers, “Come and see,” as if to say, “See for yourself.”

Indeed, Jesus seems to enjoy Nathanael’s candid reaction to his humble origins. Jesus recognizes Nathanael as a man in whom there is no deceit. Nathanael’s response is to recognize Jesus as a prophet and name him: Rabbi! Son of God! King of Israel!

When Jesus says, “You will see [and do] greater works than these,” the words are not only addressed to Nathanael but also to all of us who hear and read these words. We are all invited to discipleship. In our response to the call we both see and are seen. This is the nature of being called. And indeed, like Samuel and like Nathanael, we are called to see even greater things. The ultimate fulfillment of the call to discipleship will be the revelation of the Kingdom of God.

In this passage, the message of Jesus is passed from person to person. Jesus finds Philip. Philip finds Nathanael. The Christian message is experiential. Think about other passages in the Bible where people experience Jesus’ presence and are drawn to his message about the Kingdom of God. Then think about people in your own life who have been drawn to the Christian message through personal experience passed from person to person.

Jesus says to Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree.” Some scholars suggest that this would have been the place where Torah was discussed. Perhaps Nathanael had been listening to some teachers talking about the law and the prophets. Perhaps Nathanael was ready and waiting for the teacher who would open his heart, and that teacher was Jesus. Think about times when you have been under the fig tree, metaphorically. How has waiting and listening opened you to discipleship?

Bible Study: 1 Epiphany (B)

January 11, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

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

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

Genesis 1:1-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 19:1-7

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:4-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 4, 2015

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

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

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

Jeremiah 31:7-14

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 84

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 28, 2014

Johanna YoungDeacon Formation Program in the Diocese of Massachusetts

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

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

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

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

How is salvation described in this passage from Isaiah?

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

Psalm 147 Laudate Dominum

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

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

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

What is the purpose of praise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 1:1-18

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

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

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

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

Bible Study: 4 Advent (B)

December 21, 2014

James MillerGeneral Theological Seminary

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

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

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

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

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

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

How does secular society understand greatness and building?

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

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

Who is the House of David? Are we members?

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

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

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

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

How can we magnify the Lord in our daily lives?

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

Romans 16:25-27

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 1:26-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?