Tuesday, January 12, 2021

January 24, 2021 - 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

                                  Biblical Words                             [698] 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

 Those who really hear God’s call to repent make major changes in their lives. 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10.  

The prophetic reading portrays Jonah, reluctantly accepting the role of prophet, preaching the time of judgment to Nineveh—with amazing success. 

This story is not interested in what it would really take to preach repentance to an arrogant people.  The story is interested in Jonah’s struggles to come to terms with God’s ways with sinners (see especially chapter 4).  Nineveh simply stands for the mightiest city, the fiercest military power, and the least likely people to repent that could be found in the table of nations.  Both the size of the city and the number of its population are fabulous (3:3 and 4:11), magnifying the improbability of any favorable response to a half-hearted prophet.  Yet God works the wonder! 

In the reading, Jonah only pronounces judgment on the city; he is not quoted as even offering repentance as an option.  The king and city, however, understand the judgment to be conditional, and respond properly with fasting, sackcloth, lamentations, and changing their evil ways (details in verse 8, not included in the reading).  Because they heed the preaching and change their ways, the Lord also changes his decision and turns aside the great judgment (verse 10). 

The repentance of the folks of Nineveh will become one of the meanings of the “sign of Jonah” for those who will later hear Jesus’ disciples preach: 

The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!  (Matthew 12:41, NRSV) 

Psalm 62:5-12.  

The Psalm selection presents a speaker of high standing who has been abused by false accusations (referred to in verses 3-4).  He declares to the people that such accusations are powerless, that only trust in God matters.  Such confidence in God must be maintained over against all other objects of trust, including wealth.  The speaker declares that God “alone” is his rock and salvation, his hope. 

This total trust on his part is urged upon the assembly of peoples present before God.  The strong verb “trust in” (bataḥ) is used twice to balance the positive and the negative objects of religious trust:  “Trust in [God] at all times…” (verse 8); “Trust not in extortion… robbery…” (verse 10, where NRSV translates “Put no confidence in …”).  God’s faithful ones are to trust in God instead of prestige and social status (verse 9) or wealth, particularly ill-gotten wealth (verse 10). 

In concluding, the speaker adopts the style of the teacher of proverbs:  “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this”:  The critical message is, “power belongs to God” (verse 11).   That is essential for the followers of the Lord to believe, that all things human weigh less in the scales of destiny than hot air (verse 9)! 

While a human proposes, it is God who disposes.

I Corinthians 7:29-31.  

The demands that the call of God makes on one’s life is what links this Epistle reading to the theme of this Sunday.  These three verses form a parenthesis within a longer passage dealing with Paul’s recommendations concerning getting married. 

The question in the larger passage is whether the unmarried (the virgins, male and female, and in verse 39 the widows) can get married without sin (7:25-28, 32-40).  Paul’s criterion is very pragmatic:  “I want you to feel free from anxieties” (verse 32, NRSV).  He thinks getting married increases anxieties, and the unmarried can give themselves more completely to the Lord because they are not worrying about whether the spouse is happy (verses 32-35). 

The parenthesis in the midst of this is a flash back to the basic reality of early Christian life:  the Lord may return at any time. 

“The appointed time (kairos) has grown short,” and this urgency impels God’s elect to act as if worldly matters no longer existed.  Mourners should act as if there is no mourning; joyful ones as if there is no rejoicing; commercial people as if possessions no longer matter; and—married ones as if they are not married. 

Paul’s first impulse, apparently, is that even the married should forget about family matters and devote themselves wholly to preparing for the coming of the Lord, “for the present form of the world is passing away” (verse 31).   

This “parenthesis” (verses 29-31) looks like an enumeration of end-time priorities that Paul ran through whenever he had to dramatize the urgency of the impending end.  It may apply better, however, to the demands on disciples and apostles than to demands on church people at large, especially after a few years of still waiting for the end judgment. 

For church people at large, then, the whole passage 7:25-40 must be the guidance on marriage.  Followers who are completely committed disciples are addressed in the parenthesis.  They may be called to live as if some worldly conditions (including the lure to marriage) do not operate.  

Folks such as these may experience Jesus’ call as a commitment to a singularly devoted life. 

Mark 1:14-20.  

In the Gospel reading Jesus proclaims that the kingdom is at hand and calls four fishermen of Galilee to be his followers. 

The passage says that Jesus came “proclaiming the good news.”   There is no detailed teaching from Jesus here, only a sweeping summary of his whole message: 

Now is the time!  Here comes God’s kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! (verse 15, CEB [Common English Bible]). 

Only later will we hear examples of Jesus’ actual teaching:  the  parables of chapter 4.  Here it is Jesus’ actions, which often include provocative sayings, that present, in the next three chapters, the power and message of the newly Spirit-guided messenger of the Kingdom. 

The kingdom of God comes through the power that Jesus exercises for those in need.  That is the presence of the kingdom.  That presence is good news, good news especially for those who need good news in their lives.  Such are the people we will meet, scene by scene, as we move through Mark. 

The coming of the kingdom has as its very first event the calling of disciples.  The scene of this calling (verses 16-20) is carefully constructed.  Of the setting we are told only that they are on the shore and have their fishing equipment about them.  No conversation is reported except Jesus’ “Come, follow me,” and, in the case of the first two, his wordplay about making them fish for people.  (Fishing for people is understood to be a higher, if more ambiguous, calling than fishing for fish.)  In succinct statements the narrator reports that the two sets of brothers left their work and followed Jesus. 

There is a deliberate aura around this scene:  here is a figure of mysterious power; he says, “Come,” and people come.  Those people are taken up into an enterprise vast beyond their conceptions, and in what follows they will repeatedly wonder who this is who has called them (as in 4:41).  There is enacted here, in reference to the first disciples, what the next narrative says more directly about Jesus’ teaching:  “he was teaching them with authority” (1:22). 

This authority we understand is the work of the Holy Spirit, which will in time sustain these people called to give their lives to their Lord (see Mark 13:11). 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

January 17, 2021 - 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

                            Biblical Words                                 [697]  

I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51. 

God calls servants who are known intimately—in their most secret selves. 

After the various celebrations of secret good news—Christmas and Epiphany—are complete, the Lectionary readings return to “ordinary time” for a few weeks. 

  • The readings from the Hebrew scriptures resume where they ended last year, taking us further in the selective reading of the historical books, the “former prophets.” 
  • The Epistle readings will take us through selections from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. 
  • The Gospel selections will review the early events of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, mostly from the Gospel According to Mark, though with occasional assistance from the Gospel According to John. 

I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20).  

The prophetic reading presents a time when vision and divine guidance were lacking in Israel.  The reading shows God moving in a mysterious way to call someone to hear the divine word that had become rare. 

The boy Samuel is a young servant in the temple establishment at Shiloh, where God’s throne, the Ark, currently resides.  Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah to the temple staff there, returning to God the son whose birth was literally the answer to her prayer (I Samuel 1-2:21). 

In the lay-out of the Shiloh sanctuary, the head priest Eli lives in his own quarters, while Samuel is a night guard in the holy place itself.  During the night God calls Samuel’s name.  We understand that Samuel is lying not far from the Ark, from which God’s voice would come.  Three times Samuel runs to Eli asking what he wants, and the head priest finally catches on that the kid is being whispered to by God.  He tells Samuel how to respond, and we are told that Samuel follows instructions. 

When he hears his name called in the dark of the sanctuary, he knows that he is being addressed by God’s very self! 

While Samuel is God’s man for the future—prophet, judge, and king-maker—Eli represents the old corrupt establishment.  However, he retains enough savvy (and integrity) to discern the signs of a new divine initiative.  In the rest of the chapter (optional reading) Eli forces Samuel to reveal the word of judgment on Eli’s house—and the old priest accepts it as God’s will.  Samuel, appropriately, goes on to become renowned as a prophet in Israel (verse 20). 

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18.  

Our psalm reading is part of a profound meditation on one of the old stock features of the individual lament psalm. 

A standard lament psalm presents reasons why God should rescue the speaker from the surrounding troubles.  These reasons sometimes include that the speaker is really and truly innocent, and does not deserve punishment or condemnation by others. 

However, there are times when an accused person has no human means of establishing one’s innocence to others. 

When human courts cannot decide, one can only appeal to God.  Only God knows whether the speaker is truly innocent!  Clever speakers can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time, but they cannot fool God. 

God knows the innermost truth about the speaker. 

Therefore, the speaker in a lament will appeal to God to “try my heart, visit me by night, …if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me” (Psalm 17:3, NRSV).  No one truly knows me except God, and with God there is no concealment. 

These are the premises of the lament psalms composed for the falsely accused righteous ones, laments that they may say and repeat through the night as they pass their test in God’s own presence (in the sanctuary). 

Our psalm assumes this background, that God always knows the inner truth of the one being tested.  It is a marvelous expansion on this theme, turning it into a powerfully moving meditation on God’s all-knowing presence. 

The opening states the basic point:  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me” (verse 1, NRSV).  The speaker then elaborates on God’s knowledge of all one’s actions and thoughts, whatever one has done, and concludes:  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; / it is so high that I cannot attain it” (verses 2-6). 

The second stanza of the psalm, verses 7-12, omitted from our reading, recognizes that being fully known in one’s inner being can be threatening!  It can make one want to escape such knowledge.  “…where can I flee from your presence?” (verse 7). 

The third stanza, climaxing our reading, turns to that collection of mysteries that makes up one’s bodily life and the destiny of one’s days, so unknown to others, but well known to God, who made them all. 

For it was you who formed my inward parts…
My frame was not hidden from you,
      when I was being made in secret…
In your book were written
      all the days that were formed for me,
      when none of them as yet existed (verses 13-16). 

Personal conditions unknown even to oneself, and the eventual course of one’s life—these are easy knowledge to the Divine One. 

And there is a final exclamation of awe at God’s knowledge:  “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! / How vast is the sum of them!” (verse 17). 

I Corinthians 6:12-20.  

At first glance the Epistle reading does not seem to have much to do with our theme—the calling or the deep inner knowing of God’s servants.  Instead, it is about the need to avoid sexual immorality on the part of the Corinthian Christians.  But some links with our theme may turn up all the same. 

This is as explicit a passage about sexual sins as we will find in the Lectionary.  The Lectionary suggests that this is the moment in the three-year cycle for the Christian congregation to ponder this issue.  The topic is especially appropriate given the change going on recently in American public discourse about unwanted sexual advances. 

First, however, a word about language.  The NRSV, following the tradition of the Authorized (King James) Version, speaks here of “fornication.”   For example, “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord” (verse 13). 

Few words sound more "Biblical" and old-fashioned than “fornication.”  It tells your hearer that you want to talk about a current social reality but you are using archaic and antiquated terms. 

The Greek word we are dealing with here is porneia, a noun that names the sin (“the body does not belong to porneia,” verse 13; “flee from porneia,” verse 18).  There is also an agent noun, pornē, which refers to one who is a professional at this sin, translated “prostitute” (verses 15-16).  And there is a verb, porneuein, meaning to engage in the sinful activity (latter part of verse 18).  (One may recognize in this group the ancestry of the English term “porn-ography.”)  Lexicographers are agreed that porneia includes adultery but is not confined to it.  Adultery is porneia, but so are several other sexual sins that do not involve marriage. 

How to get this porneia word group effectively into English is not easy, but translations that handle the language of this passage better than the NRSV are the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and the New International Version (NIV), both of which translate the sin as “sexual immorality.”  Even better is the New Century Version (© Thomas Nelson, 1997), which translates porneia as “sexual sin.” 

Our theme in this Sunday’s readings is God’s inner knowledge of those whom God calls.  Of all things secret and hidden, sexual sin has to be near the top of the list. 

Such actions are likely to be hidden from all except God and at least one other guilty party.  Sexual sin—sex outside a covenanted union—involves threats not only of exposure, scandal, and betrayal, but also of personal guilt and shame.  The prayer that confesses that God knows all may be very important for the servant of God, innocent or otherwise. 

As Paul expands his treatment of this issue, he puts it in terms of the Christian’s physical body belonging to Christ.  “He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit” (verse 17, NIV).  The Lord here is Christ, and Paul seems to mean that the spirit of Christ takes over one’s whole self in such a way that the body is preserved from corruption and is a fit temple for the Holy Spirit (verse 19).  All the weight and threat (or relief) of the psalm’s “God knows everything” is contained in the apostle’s declaration:  “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (verses 19-20, NIV). 

What we have then in this passage, perhaps, is a guide for the self-understanding of the servant of the Lord in reference to one particular domain of sinfulness.  The called servant has been known by God and therefore has experienced the full weight of both sinfulness and forgiveness through the knowing Lord. 

John 1:43-51.  

The Gospel reading relates the story of Jesus meeting the wry and crafty old Israelite Nathanael.  

Jesus has called Philip and Philip has gone and told Nathanael that they have found the Coming One spoken of in Moses and the prophets.  He is Jesus of Nazareth.  Nathanael’s famous reply is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” 

However doubtful, he comes along.  When he meets Jesus, what Jesus says reveals that he already knows Nathanael in his inmost character:  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (verse 47, NRSV).  When Nathanael asks how he knows him, Jesus says he saw him back when he was under the fig tree where Philip found him.  This is apparently conclusive for Nathanael, and he confesses movingly who Jesus is:  “You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!” 

Nathanael apparently recognizes that he is known by his Lord, and that means he is called to confess and serve the Son of Man. 

Jesus’ confirming word further assures Nathanael that in future he will receive even greater revelations concerning this holy man:  “I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (verse 51), like Jacob in the revelation at Bethel (Genesis 28:12). 

As Jesus begins his mission, he knows truly and intimately those who will in time carry it on.

Friday, January 1, 2021

January 10, 2021 - Baptism of the Lord

                        Biblical Words                                    [696]

Genesis 1:1-5Psalm 29;  Acts 19:1-7Mark 1:4-11

              The baptism of Jesus is a moment in the life of God’s Spirit with the world. 

Genesis 1:1-5. 

The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. 

Baptism involves water and the Spirit.  The Genesis reading sets as vast a context for the baptism of Jesus as possible, the beginning of all created things and the first rustling of the Spirit in the affairs of the universe. 

There are two material phenomena present in the formless and dark chaos at the beginning:  water and wind.  Water is the Deep (tehom), and the Wind of God (ruah elohim; also translated “mighty wind” = divine wind) is “hovering” over this Deep, as an eagle hovers over its nest (Deut. 32:11, the only other Biblical occurrence of this Hebrew verb form). 

In Biblical discourse, the work of the spirit looks like the effects of wind or air activity.  

When warriors are seized by the spirit they are inflated; and “spirited” (proud) persons are puffed up.  When persons are abandoned or defeated, they are deflated and there is no spirit (wind) in them.  On a larger scale, strong winds move clouds and generate intense storms, and quiet winds are soothing breezes.  All are understood as the work of God’s Spirit.  In Genesis 1:2, the Wind of God is the only active force before creation. 

The passage presents the creative act of the first day:  “Let there be light.”  Darkness is the state of chaos, and the construction of a cosmos begins with the most elemental phenomenon of the physical world, light.  The Prologue to the Gospel according to John builds on this feature of creation.  The Logos, through whom all things came to be, is equated with “the true light...[that] was coming into the world” (John 1:9, NRSV). 

In so far as the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of salvation, it is like the movement of the Spirit of God to bring light to all people. 

Psalm 29. 

While Genesis 1 gives us the Spirit of God, Psalm 29 gives us the awe-inspiring Voice of God (also heard at Jesus’ baptism). 

This hymn has a framework of worship in the heavenly palace of God (verses 1-2, 10-11).  In the center (verses 3-9), God is celebrated and worshipped as the Lord of the Storm.  It is a great electrical storm that arises over the Mediterranean Sea (verses 3-4) and moves east until it strikes land in the Lebanon mountains.  It then crosses the valley to the Anti-Lebanon range at Mount Hermon (Sirion), a great peak on the northern border of Galilee (verses 5-6), and then flashes and roars past Damascus into the wilderness to the east beyond.  (The wilderness of Kadesh in verse 8 is named for a Canaanite city at the north end of the Lebanon range.  The name means holy place.) 

At each stage of this stormy passage, the speaker bursts out, “Voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh!) and continues with a clause elaborating the activity of the storm.  Seven times in seven verses the phrase qol YHWH! opens a declaration of praise.  The storm is given as a revelation of God’s awesome power and vastness.  The physical manifestation that corresponds most directly to the Voice of the Lord is thunder. 

To someone who has lived through many electrical storms on the shore of Lake Michigan, this psalm evokes sky-splitting and blinding lightning strokes from clouds to black water surface, utterly deafening explosions that reverberate over houses and high-rises, and sheets of water moving horizontally over violently swaying park trees and streets. 

In the psalm, all this upheaval in nature is climaxed by the cry of worshippers in the temple, “Glory!” (verse 9).  Perhaps today the word would be –  “Awesome!”  

Acts 19:1-7. 

The Epistle reading provides a curious glimpse into the aftermath of John the Baptist’s work.  Paul is described as meeting twelve “disciples” who knew only the baptism of John and had no knowledge of the Holy Spirit.  (If historical, this would have been about 25 years after the death of Jesus.)  After Paul re-baptizes them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” the Spirit comes on them and they speak in tongues and prophesy. 

The book of Acts has a particular view about the way the Holy Spirit works, which is seen clearest in the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13).  That understanding of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, as associated with baptism in Jesus’ name, is applied to John’s disciples here. 

What this passage says about the baptism of Jesus is that the coming of the Holy Spirit was not a regular part of John’s baptism, but was a unique endowment for Jesus at his baptism. 

Mark 1:4-11. 

Our reading covers two main events:  the mission of John the Baptizer, and the divine action at Jesus’ baptism.   

John the Baptizer.  Mark’s description of John the Baptizer portrays him as a new Elijah, or an Elijah returned.  That is the point of his comments about John appearing in the wilderness and his dress and food as those of a desert hermit (verses 4 and 6). 

What was the significance of Elijah for the Baptizer? 

The Elijah (and Elisha) story is contained in I Kings 17-19, 21, and (Elisha’s part) II Kings 2-10. 

Elijah was a second Moses.  He won a mighty battle against the Ba‘al prophets (I Kings 18), trekked through the wilderness to meet with Yahweh at the holy mountain (I Kings 19:1-14), and received authorization from Yahweh to overthrow the dynasties of Damascus and the northern kingdom of Israel (I Kings 19:15-18).  In summary, Elijah brought the judgment of God on a wayward and unfaithful Israel.  This was the model John the Baptizer was following in his mission to Israel. 

John the Baptizer had a further authorization in the prophecy of Malachi.  “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me...” (Malachi 3:1).  And, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5; Hebrew text 3:23).  John was certainly understood as the “messenger” of the Lord announcing the immediate coming of God in judgment. 

Mark’s Gospel certainly intends to say that John the Baptizer was the “messenger” sent before Jesus.  The historical John himself, however, probably thought he was carrying out the prophecy of Malachi – that he was preparing the way for God’s own coming to judge the sinners in Jerusalem, as the rest of the Malachi prophecy suggests (see Malachi 3:2-7).  Later disciples of Jesus recognized that in reality it was Jesus who was coming in judgment – though with some amazing surprises in God’s way of dealing with the world! 

The Baptism of Jesus.  Whatever John may have thought, early Jesus followers learned that the baptism of Jesus was, at least for Jesus, an awesome revelation of what God was about in Jesus of Nazareth.  Repeating the ancient declaration to the Davidic king (Psalm 2), God says to Jesus, “You are my son...” and all that follows is the consequence of that declaration. 

Let’s take a slightly larger view of this prologue to Mark’s Gospel. 

It is fair to say that the opening of the Gospel (1:1-15) is audacious!  There was somewhere between 25 and 40 years of inspiration and reflection behind these succinct verses – years filled with reflections about Jesus and Israel.  Jesus is envisioned here as a New Israel, or as re-enacting Israel’s story. 

A prophet goes before him, linking him to God’s past revelation.  Jesus appears – without speaking – to pass through the waters, but is greeted with a divine address giving him a status beyond any other human being.  This is Jesus re-doing the exodus. 

Jesus is then subjected to trials in the wilderness (the “temptation”), withstanding the full force of the anti-God forces.  This is immediately followed by a simple but awesome announcement of “the good news of God”:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near...”  A new option is available to suffering humans. 

The long-hoped-for reign of God in the human scene has begun.  Humans may now re-direct their lives to be included in that divine regime.  This is Jesus’ equivalent of the revelation at Sinai.  The “son of God” here brings a new reality for God’s people! 

The Baptism of Jesus was a declaration of his identity and of his endowment with the Holy Spirit.  This revelation is known to the powers of heaven and hell, as later stories will show, though it will take the disciples a long and hard road to fully catch on.  The hearer, however, knows from the beginning that the Holy Spirit has entered the human world, which is wracked by demons, sin, and oppressive authorities.  Going forward, the Spirit will be working through Jesus’ actions and words. 

The mission of the baptized Jesus is to bear the power of the Spirit against the powers that so oppress the world. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

January 6, 2021 - Epiphany of the Lord

                              Biblical Words                                [695] 

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

Epiphany is light to the nations, whose sages come to find a king, and who hear of their inclusion in the good news.  

If Christmas celebrated the share of the humble and poor in God’s salvation for Israel, Epiphany glorifies the royalty of God’s servant, whose righteousness and power shine like a beacon light for all the nations. 

Isaiah 60:1-6.  

Epiphany is about light shining. 

This great Prophetic passage of Epiphany summons Zion to shine with the reflected light from God’s “dawning” upon her.  (The verb and noun “dawn” appear three times in 60:1-3, translated in NRSV as “risen” and “will arise” as well as “dawn.”)  This light is to shine in a darkness, deep darkness that enshrouds the peoples of the world, the nations (“gentiles”). 

This is a breathtaking view, worthy of a Hollywood extravaganza or a Disney laser-light spectacular. 

The script of verses 1-3 would read: 

All the world is a vast black space when a piercing light cuts through from the east and illumines a glorious city on an elevated summit (see Isaiah 2:2).  The city on the hill shines for all the distant lands that have only that brilliant glow to guide them as they move to redistribute the wealth of all the world according to new priorities, now manifest as the righteousness and peace of the Lord of all creation. 

The great light that shines on Zion attracts the wealth of nations.  And as the nations bring their wealth toward the center, they also bring the dispersed sons and daughters of the mother city now restored to her glory (verses 4-5).  Included in the tribute flowing to Zion from Midian, Sheba, Kedar, and the like, are gold and frankincense.  Such gifts constitute “the praise of the Lord” (verse 6), and are the kind of gifts discerning sages will bring to a king as offerings from the nations. 

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14.  

The Psalm selection also focuses on the tribute and enrichment from the nations, but now the emphasis is on God’s rule through a chosen king instead of on the glory of the city. 

The psalm is a prayer uttered on behalf of God’s king by the king’s people.  The superscription says the psalm is “For Solomon,” i.e., for “the Son of David.”  In the prayer the king is seen as the source of blessing for the whole natural realm, producing “prosperity” (shalom) for the people and rain and showers for the earth. 

More especially is the king the source of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed of God’s people.  The tribute prayed for from the kings of Tarshish and Sheba is deserved because “he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (verse 12, NRSV).  He redeems the poor from oppression and violence, “and precious is their blood in his sight.” 

This is the kind of rule by the Son of David that will lure the devotion of the nations and cause them to stream to God’s city with gifts and new orientations of their power and wealth! 

Ephesians 3:1-12.  

The Epistle selection for Epiphany is an instance of a passage too rich to be exhausted in a lectionary reading. 

The relevant thread, however, is “the mystery of Christ” (NRSV; “secret plan” or “hidden plan” in CEB).  This mystery concerns the nations.  

(The English versions use “Gentiles/gentiles” to translate the Greek ethne and the Hebrew goyyim, both of which mean “nations.”  This is a translation error:  there were no such things as "gentiles" between Judeans ("Jews") and the Nations.  “Gentiles” is a Latin word left over by lazy translators -- who spoke Latin in their everyday work.  Instead of “gentiles” read either “the nations” or “people of the nations.”)  

While much of this passage emphasizes Paul’s status as the Apostle to the Nations, the major point is the content of the “mystery.” 

The mystery referred to is that the assembly of God’s people (the church) is not confined to the people of Israel, but is destined from of old to include the nations.  It is the peoples of the nations who are here told about the mystery.  They “have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers [with the people of Israel] in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (verse 6, NRSV).  In the old days, this mystery was a secret, not revealed to former generations.  Now, however, through apostles and prophets, the Spirit has revealed this new inclusiveness of the gospel of Christ (verse 5). 

The conclusion of this inspired line is that the heavenly powers themselves have received the revelation — the revelation that the nations are joined with Israel in the church of Jesus Christ.  Why?  “So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (verse 10). 

The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church of Jesus Christ is a revelation to the heavenly beings themselves! 

Matthew 2:1-12.  

The exalted language and imagery of the message about the nations used in the Prophetic reading and in the Epistle are left behind by the Gospel reading.  Here a series of simple circumstances are related very concisely.  We do not even hear of these magoi while they are still in the east, but they simply appear in Jerusalem and say, Where is the king?  We learn only later that they had previously seen a star leading them from the east (verse 9). 

Here there is no fanfare or spectacular laser light show; only some ambassador types trying to get local directions in order to make an appearance in a very modest court.  Where the prophets and the psalmists exulted in pyrotechnic language to refer to worldly realities that were more modest, here the divine aura behind the simple events is significantly understated. 

Some of the mystery behind these events is revealed unintentionally by the current king, Herod the Great.  Learning of the foreign ambassadors’ goal, Herod has the local scholars consult the scriptures.  The small town of Bethlehem is relatively insignificant among famous Judean sites, but it was long ago identified by the prophet Micah as one from which a ruler would come for Israel (Micah 5:2 [Heb. 5:1], quoted in verse 6).  Thus for both good and evil, Bethlehem becomes deeply involved in the light for the nations. 

The narrative presents, without emphasizing, that these sages are lofty representatives of the nations of the world, seeking the secret king whose coming changes the whole world.  Their star leads them to precisely the house they needed, and they bow in worship before presenting their gifts. 

These are royal gifts, representing great treasures, but their glory is presented in a few simple narrative phrases.  The modesty and the secrecy of the real identity and destined work of God’s saving King are preserved.  Only those with special wisdom (knowing the “mystery”) are aware of the cosmic import of what has happened and know how to conduct themselves accordingly. 

The welfare and the secret of these sages are preserved by God.  Having been warned in a dream, as is usual in Matthew, they “left for their own country by another road.” 

The light which Epiphany is about had come into the world, and only a few knew it. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

January 3, 2021 - 2nd Sunday after Christmas

                        Biblical Words                                  [694]

 Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:(1-9), 10-18. 

God’s own Word came to people, bringing awesome gifts of grace. 

There isn’t always a 2nd Sunday after Christmas in the liturgical year.  It happens only when Christmas falls on a Wednesday or later in the week, pushing Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas (January 6), past the 2nd Sunday in Christmas season. 

The texts for this Sunday are in the maximum voice.  

For Israel there is the most emphatic celebration of the end of Exile and the abundance and glory of Restoration.  For the Jesus communities, magnificent but somewhat opaque passages make vast and encompassing claims for the action of God in Christ.  These texts make the greatest theological claims to be found in the New Testament.  

Jeremiah 31:7-14.  

All of Jeremiah 30-33 is about the future of Israel and Judah, the two kingdoms that had been judged by their God as hopelessly guilty of disloyalty and punished by defeat and destruction at the hands of world powers. 

Those who created the great scroll of the Jeremiah traditions believed that the Lord had instructed Jeremiah to write out a separate set of prophecies that looked beyond the judgment. 

Write in a book [scroll] all the words that I have spoken to you.  For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it (30:2-3, NRSV). 

Scholars through the ages, therefore, have talked of this part of Jeremiah as “the Book of Consolation.” 

After the judgment, the people have prayed, “Save, O Lord,, your people, the remnant of Israel” (verse 7).  What survives the judgment and is the object of the proclamations of hope is the remnant of Israel.  The proclaimed answer to their prayer follows (in the New Jerusalem Bible translation): 

Watch, I shall bring them back
from the land of the north
and gather them in from the far ends of the earth. 
With them, the blind and the lame,
women with child, women in labour,
all together:  a mighty throng will return here! 

In tears they went away,
consoled I shall bring them back [following translator's note]. 
I shall guide them to streams of water,
by a smooth path where they will not stumble. 
For I am a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my first-born son.  [Verses 8-9, NJBV.]

God has made the return from exile a family matter, lordly parent rescuing lost offspring. 

The rest of the passage declares how mourning will be turned into joy and need into abundant prosperity in the restored land.  

“I shall refresh my priests with rich food [because the tithes will be so abundant], and my people will gorge themselves on my lavish gifts” (verse 14, NJBV). 

Psalm 147:12-20.  

The Psalm reading is virtually a continuation of the Prophetic passage.  The complete psalm began, 

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
      he gathers the outcasts of Israel.  

He heals the brokenhearted, 
      and binds up their wounds (verses 2-3, NRSV). 

Our reading summons Jerusalem / Zion to praise the Lord for the security of the City, protection through hot and cold weather, and the gift of God’s statutes by which to live righteously and well.  The conclusion to be drawn from these blessings is, 

“He has not dealt thus with any other nation; / they do not know his ordinances” (verse 20). 

After restoration from exile to a blessed holy city, Israel has the security and joy of living their lives entirely by God’s ordinances. 

Ephesians 1:3-14.  

The reading from the Epistle is an outpouring of religious language that overwhelms sense with eloquence. 

An early 20th century commentator wrote of this passage,

The twelve verses which follow [the opening] baffle our analysis.  They are a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights and shifting colours:  at first we fail to find a trace of order or method.  They are like the preliminary flight of the eagle, rising and wheeling around, as though for a while uncertain what direction in his boundless freedom he shall take.  (J. Armitage Robinson, Commentary on Ephesians, 1904, Kegel reprint of 1979). 

The difficulty in following the thought is compounded by the fact that what are six complex sentences in the NRSV translation is a single sentence in Greek, as modern editors punctuate it. 

Nevertheless, so much is clear:  the whole passage is a blessing, a benediction (“Blessed be the God and Father…”).  It is common to find the center of the thought in the phrase “the mystery of [God’s] will” (verse 9).  It is also possible to see (as do the notes in The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985 ed.) this topic developed in a sequence of blessings running through the whole as follows: 

1) we were elected, verse 4 (“he chose” NRSV);
2) we were predestined for adoption, verses 5-6; 
3) we were redeemed from our sins, verses 7-8;
4) we received revelation of the mystery of God’s will, verses 9-10;
5) we received hope, “inheritance” of promised future, verses 11 and 14;
both for us Judeans, verse 12;
and for you people of the nations,
who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, verse 13. 

The overall sense of the passage is that there is a vast work of God underway throughout the cosmos and the ages, and we are the blessed recipients of its benefits, without any reference to our works or merits. 

John 1: (1-9), 10-18.  

The Gospel reading presents the highest Christology in the New Testament.  That is, here Jesus is most completely identified as divine, as side-by-side with God Almighty, as in some sense identified with God (“… and the Word was God,” 1:1, NRSV). 

The “Word,” Greek Logos, means something like the rationality, the intelligibility, of the entire cosmos, of all reality.  That rationality is inherent in all creation.  The creation was an expression of God’s deliberateness, of God’s logos character.  Creation makes sense.  (“All things came into being through him [the Logos], and without him not one thing came into being,” verse 2.) 

The great difficulty of such views for a modern hearer is the personification of this logos-character of God and reality.  Here the Logos is a semi-personal entity, even before it assumes human form.  And the impossible transaction that is the most scandalous and the most radically important is that the Logos, this rationality of God and creation, became human:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (verse 14). 

This fantastic event in the life of the universe did not happen in the academies of Athens, where the schools of the old philosophers continued their transmission of wisdom.  Nor did it happen in the newer, modern style universities of Alexandria in Egypt, where the accumulated scientific, philosophical, and religious wisdom of the ancient world was gathered in libraries and lecture halls.  It happened in backwater Judea, and its human manifestation was a Judean.  A Judean who was in line for a great worldly dominion as successor of an ancient king David.  However, this figure was so paradoxical in his worldly course that he ended up executed in a shameful (not even tragic!) death as a political criminal. 

This Logos of the universe came to the Judean people, “to his own,” but “his own people did not accept him” (verse 11).  However, it was not only the Judeans who did not accept him.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him” (verse 10). 

A colossal event for the entire universe had happened here, and practically nobody knew it!! 

Only a handful of folks knew the immeasurable significance of all this; it was an inside secret for some time.  But some did know: 

...to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, … not of blood [like all Judean people] or of the will of flesh [by human contrivances] … but of God.  [Therefore,] ...from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ [verses 12-13, 16-17]. 

Only as time had passed, as local lore about Jesus of Nazareth had gradually expanded and came to be seen in the light of the loftiest wisdom of the age – only then were reflective and born-again Jesus believers (John 3:3) able to grasp and proclaim the awesome declarations of this new scriptural witness.  Only then could this amazing Prologue to the Gospel According to John be given to the world! 


Friday, December 18, 2020

December 27, 2020 - 1st Sunday after Christmas

                                Biblical Words                            [693] 

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

In the fullness of time God gives joy to those seeking the Consolation of Israel.  

The readings for this Sunday visualize (1) the glorious public appearance of an awaited king with the prolific mother city, (2) the hallelujah choruses of heaven and earth, (3) the human dimension of the fullness of time, and (4) the consummation of hope for the faithful visionaries in Israel

Isaiah 61:10-62:3.  

The Prophetic reading opens with the exultant cry of a royal figure who speaks on behalf of true Israel

God in God’s own person has dressed this speaker in “garments of salvation” and a “robe of righteousness.”  This attire is appropriate to the joy and delight of a royal wedding, a time when the groom wears the most glittering headdress and the bride the most luxurious jewels.  This glory in the social and political world is like the outbreak of new growth in fields that are fertile and blessed, and like the luxuriant plantings of well-watered and carefully tended gardens (verse 11). 

As this figure representing Israel is gloriously clad before the nations, so Mother Zion will be revealed to the nations as vindicated from past woes (62:1-3).  For her too, the headdress of royalty will glitter and shine as the Lord puts his arm around her (as it were:  “…in the hand of the Lord,…in the palm [literally] of your God,”62:3).  Zion and Israel, marvelously attired, are re-united in God’s loving care for wife and son.  They will be the ornaments of the time of fulfillment. 

Such is the prophet’s vision of the consolation of Israel

Psalm 148. 

As if beholding the blinding glory of the royal coronation, the Psalm breaks forth in a tumult of Hallelujahs!  (Every occurrence of “Praise …” in the English versions is a translation of the Hebrew hallelu, the plural imperative.  In hallelu-jah, the jah is the shortened form of the divine name Yahwéh.) 

The psalm drives exuberantly through all the reaches of heaven and earth to find entities and creatures to summon to Praise! 

In verses 1-6 the heavenly realms are called upon at large and in detail to hallelu the Lord.  The poet follows the cosmic structure of Genesis 1 and of Psalm 104, so these heavenly powers both extend beyond and encompass what human eyes can see.  After all the unseen heavenly things are summoned, the call goes out to all the stuff more familiar to the human eye. 

As for the earthly realms, their summons to praise (verses 7-12) begins with the exotic creatures of the deep, then goes on to the mysterious places of the sky and the distant horizons with their storehouses of all kinds of weather.  After summoning the mountains, trees, and the animals, both wild and domestic, humans are addressed:  the mighty of the earth, but also the ordinary young men and women.  Let them all hallelu the Lord because of his glory, but also … also because “He has raised up a horn for his people…for the children of Israel who are close to him” (verses 13-14). 

Thus, as the climactic—and almost add-on—thought, the realms of heaven and earth are called to rejoice in something special for Israel.  Because of this newly-revealed glory for Israel, all the world is called to hallelu-jah

Galatians 4:4-7.  

The Epistle selection is part of a rather complex theological discussion, but its pertinence to the Sunday after Christmas stands out in the following clauses (NRSV translation): 

·        “when the fullness of time had come…”

·        “God sent his Son, born of a woman…”

·        “born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law…”

The “Fullness of Time” has its meaning in reference to Israel’s covenant history with the Lord, ranging through the promises to Abraham, Moses, and David, and the prophetic messages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the visionary Daniel. 

The phrase “born of a woman” has echoes of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, but primarily affirms that God’s care reaches its embodiment at a fully human level. 

The phrase “born under the law” insists that salvation under the New Covenant is first of all for Israel, coming as the fulfillment of all God’s patient and yearning care for that troublesome and beloved people.  Whatever else Paul had to say about his fellow kinfolks, this priority of Israel in God’s plan of salvation is steadily maintained. 

Luke 2:22-40. 

The most gracious and endearing presentation of the Consolation of Israel is in this Gospel reading.  It is the narrative of the aged ones who have waited so faithfully and persistently to see the salvation of the Lord, the righteous Simeon and the dear prophetess Anna. 

The passage is at pains to make clear that Jesus’ birth was fully in accord with the laws of Moses.  (Strictly speaking, two separate rituals are combined here, the purification of the mother after birth, Leviticus 12, and the presentation of the male firstborn, Exodus 13:2, 11-16.)  From this viewpoint, Jesus was fully an Israelite.  He was duly circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (verse 21, just before our reading), making him a son of the covenant of Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14).  Then, forty days after his birth, he and his mother were brought to the temple for the “purification” and the redemption of a firstborn son. 

In the logic of the sacred rules, the firstborn belonged to God until the father made a sacrifice to redeem it and allow it to live in the ordinary world – an action referred to the sparing of the Israelite firstborn at the time of the exodus (Exodus 13:14-15). 

Though Jesus was fully an Israelite, he was a poor one—economically speaking.  The sacrifice presented by Joseph and Mary for her purification was two pigeons, the sacrifice made by the very poor who could not afford a sheep (2:24, referring to Leviticus 12:8). 

It was while the parents were engaged in the details of fulfilling the law of Moses that Simeon and Anna found them.  By the ordinary work-a-day folks, crowded and busy in the temple precincts, these two old folks must have seemed strange characters from another age.  In the evangelist’s view, however, they are heirs of Israel’s true hope for its time of fulfillment. 

In a poignant moment of prophetic insight, Simeon foresees Jesus’ destiny and the pain that the mother is yet to know.  Speaking to Mary he says, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition... And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (verses 34-35, CEB). 

So, true Israel, in its ancient wisdom, anticipates the agony and disturbance that yet lie between the coming of this little child and the mystery of God’s final salvation!