Saturday, January 30, 2021

February 14, 2021 - Transfiguration Sunday

                               Biblical Words                          [701]

II Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9. 

At times of transition in leadership or mission, God grants forecasts of coming glory. 

The readings for Transfiguration Sunday are about revelations of power and meaning that ordinary people do not normally see.  These include the glory of God seen in the face of Jesus. 

II Kings 2:1-12.  

The prophetic reading presents the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha. 

For the age of the kings in Israel, Elijah is as massive a founding figure as Moses is for the Sinai age.  When Moses was taken by God (Deuteronomy 34), all the provisions had been made for Israel’s life in the promised land, but the work of occupation was yet to be done.  It was Joshua who was to complete the work (Deuteronomy 31:14-15, 23). 

The same was true of Elijah.  He had been the model of zeal for the Lord:  he had defeated a host of Baal prophets on Mount Carmel and he had received the new revelation on the holy mountain authorizing him to overthrow the royal houses of Damascus and Israel.  What was left undone at Elijah’s departure was to be completed by Elisha.  Elijah was a new Moses for the northern kingdom and Elisha was his Joshua.  (All this is in I Kings 17-19 and II Kings 2; Elisha carries out the revolution in II Kings 8-10.) 

Both Moses and Elijah were taken away to God (in approximately the same geographical location!), and both were taken away before the completion of their work. 

The enigmatic but clever story of Elisha hanging on to Elijah to the last second shows that Elisha was worthy of Elijah’s mantle (which he actually picks up in verse 13, just after our reading). 

As the story is presented, Elijah, on his way to his rendezvous with God, keeps trying to put off Elisha, telling him there is no need for him to go further.  But Elisha knows better.  The several speeches to Elisha by the local companies of prophets are like the chorus of a Greek tragedy:  he is leaving you, you know!  Elisha hangs on, and is rewarded by being present when God’s fiery horses and chariot whisk Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind. 

While this story is about Elisha, Elijah is the major figure standing as a colossus in Israelite prophecy.  Elijah was such a favored one of God that, like Enoch before him (Genesis 5:21-24), he was taken to God without seeing death.   Having gone to heaven without dying, Elijah was available to return when God had special work on earth at a later time (see Deuteronomy 18:15-18, Malachi 4:1 [3:23 in Hebrew], and Mark 9:11-13). 

Psalm 50:1-6.  

The Psalm reading is the opening section of a covenant liturgy in which God appears before the hosts in fiery and stormy presence to bring judgment.  The later parts of the psalm address the question of what constitutes appropriate sacrifice (verses 7-15) and delivers an indictment of covenant-breakers (verses 16-23). 

The opening of the psalm is a theophany.  God comes in earth-spanning majesty to muster the covenant ranks.  The rigor and discipline of this awesome parousia is presented very effectively in the New Jerusalem Bible translation: 

The God of gods, Yahweh, is speaking,
from east to west he summons the earth.
From Zion, perfection of beauty, he shines forth;
he is coming, our God, and will not be silent.
Devouring fire ahead of him,
raging tempest around him,
he summons the heavens from on high,
and the earth to judge his people. 

“Gather to me my faithful,

who sealed my covenant by sacrifice.” 
The heavens proclaim his saving justice,
“God himself is judge.” 

II Corinthians 4:3-6.  

The Epistle selection presents the radiance of the new covenant against the background of the old. 

Paul has just been talking about the old covenant brought by Moses (II Corinthians 3:7-16).  There was a glory to that covenant written in stone, a glory that was reflected on Moses’ face after he had been talking with God.  Moses put a veil over his face to protect the Israelites from its radiance—or as Paul suggests (3:13) to conceal the fact that the glory was fading.  This veil on Moses’ face symbolizes the concealing of God’s revelation and glory from the elect people.  “Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (3:15-16, NRSV). 

In our passage, Paul says there are powers (“the god of this world”) that keep the power of the gospel veiled from some people.  Nevertheless, when the gift of faith is given, the original first-created light of God shines in the hearts of the believers, and they behold the glory of God’s own self in the face of Jesus Christ. 

The real “transfiguration” brought by the gospel is that unveiling from inner blindness, that showing forth of the image of God (verse 4), that is seen in the radiant face of Jesus Christ. 

Mark 9:2-9.  

The Gospel reading is the “transfiguration” of Jesus before the three disciples of the inner circle. 

This is a surprising narrative.  If you are reading along through Mark, it leaps out from the surrounding narratives, because it is a heavenly intervention down into the human scene, like nothing else since Jesus’ baptism.  In detail, the three disciples see Jesus brilliantly shining in heavenly clothes, as heavenly beings usually do in visions (Daniel 10:5-6) or as messengers (“angels”) do in special moments (Matthew 28:2-3).  Talking with this heavenly Jesus are—Elijah and Moses. 

The disciples suddenly behold Jesus in his real heavenly status, a figure especially beloved by God.  The Voice declares that he is God’s own Son, the Beloved One. 

Before the Voice speaks, however, Peter is inspired (or misled) to propose erecting three tents (“booths,” as at the Jewish festival of Sukkoth in the autumn) to memorialize these three heavenly lords.  The narrator indicates that there is something wrong with Peter’s proposal (“He did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” verse 6).  The Voice dismisses Peter’s proposal by declaring, “This is my Son.  Listen to him.” 

What is wrong with Peter’s suggestion?  The answer, almost certainly, is shown by where this narrative comes in Mark’s Gospel.  It comes shortly after Jesus has first revealed that “the Son of Man” (Jesus) must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die, and that those who are his followers must lose their lives rather than save them (8:31-38).  Peter has violently rejected this declaration by Jesus, and shortly afterward Jesus takes him with James and John up the mountain for the revelation. 

Though Jesus has a primary place in the heavenly glory, the way of the gospel is not the way of glory, but the way of suffering and death at the hands of the tenants of the vineyard.  “The glorious vision may be what Peter and many others want to see, but it is the message of suffering that all must hear” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel).  And the Voice says, Listen to him! 

The Feast of the Transfiguration was long observed in the Eastern Christian churches before it was observed in the West, but its date in both traditions was August 6th (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., “Transfiguration”).  Why does Transfiguration Sunday now appear at the end of the season of Epiphany, just before Lent begins? 

Surely for the same reason it appears where it does in the Gospel According to Mark:  The epiphany of the Lord in power and good works (Mark 1:14-8:30) has reached a climax, sealed by this moment of glory.  But what the disciples need to hear from here on (for the season of Lent) is that ahead lies the real cost of Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). 


Special Note:  Transfiguration as Resurrection Appearance

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, some New Testament scholars have seen Mark’s transfiguration narrative as his (only) report of a resurrection appearance. 

The early versions of this theory thought of a piece of writing that got more or less mechanically transferred to the mid-point of the ministry in Galilee.  Other scholars have said, “Oh this can’t be a resurrection appearance because it’s not at the end of the Gospel.” 

This misses the point, of course.  This is not a misplaced appearance of Jesus after the resurrection; it is a vision – a preview – of the real heavenly Jesus, the one who will return on the clouds as the Son of Man. 

In this Gospel the Transfiguration is one of only two times when GOD declares who Jesus really is.  (The other is at Jesus’ baptism.)  But this declaration is not for Jesus only (as the baptism voice apparently is); this is for eyewitnesses, who are here given divine certification that the one who is about to suffer for “many” is really a glorious heavenly lord! 

The End of Mark’s Gospel.  It is striking that Mark does NOT have any appearances of the resurrected Jesus at the end of the Gospel.  The revelation to the women at the tomb (16:1-8) has two main points:  Jesus has risen, he is not here (at the tomb); and, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).  However, the women do not tell anyone, but run away in fear.  So, Mark’s Gospel ends in what must seem confusion and disarray.

(This was a great embarrassment to Christians in the second century, and they felt compelled to add Mark 16:9-20, which gathers snippets from the other Gospels to round out Mark’s narrative.  A couple of other shorter “endings of Mark” also appeared.) 

Obviously, the Gospel has some resolutions built into it before the last paragraph.  For example, in the midst of the Passion narrative Jesus says to the disciples, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, / and the sheep will be scattered.’  But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:27-28, NRSV). 

Mark is very much a Galilee-centered Gospel.  In its overview, Jerusalem is a place of betrayal and death, not the place where the post-resurrection community had its beginning.  It is Galilee that is the place of healing and life—the place where the announcement was first made, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (1:15).  In Mark, the risen Jesus leaves Jerusalem and goes back to Galilee before he appears to any of his followers.  It is in Galilee that the heavenly Jesus has already been seen in glory by three disciples. 

This is also how Matthew’s community understood Mark a decade or two after Mark was written.  Matthew retains Mark’s references to Galilee in the Passion and the Tomb narratives, and locates Jesus’ final commissioning revelation in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).

Saturday, January 23, 2021

February 7, 2021 - 5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                 Biblical Words                        [700] 

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39. 

The vast distance between God in heaven and those who wait for healing is bridged by the labor of the servant of the Lord.

Isaiah 40:21-31.  

The prophetic reading is a colossal hymn to covenantal monotheism, to an almighty and universal God who nevertheless cares about the neglected ones who wait. 

The doubting and long-suffering human partners in the covenant groan, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God” (verse 27, NRSV). 

This is the sort of despairing that Elijah expressed on his trip through the wilderness to encounter God at the holy mountain (I Kings 19:4).  The poor harassed servant of God in the desert, or the discouraged exile in a distant land (as in our passage), takes little comfort from the vastness of the skies and their innumerable stars.  That servant feels abandoned and of no value. 

But if the prophetic passage proclaims covenantal monotheism, it declares a powerful God who in good time attends the neglected, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (verse 29).  As Elijah was urged by the heavenly messenger to renew his strength and complete his journey, so the prophet urges the discouraged folk to “lift up your eyes on high and see.” 

Look at the stars!  Consider that even those distant emblems of secret destinies are shepherded—counted with a staff, and called each by its name (verse 26).  The stars can give assurance that when God shepherds a flock, “not one is missing” (verse 26)! 

The cosmos itself speaks of hesed, “steadfast love,” that will in time reach the faithful ones who wait for the Lord to renew their strength. 

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c.  

The Psalm selection is a hallelujah response to the prophetic message, repeating in hymnic phrases the caring aspects of God’s power for the human world. 

The psalm makes more explicit than the prophetic passage the interest in Jerusalem, which God is building up by bringing back the “outcasts of Israel (verse 2, NRSV).  It is also interested in God as one who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (verse 3).  Here, God not only shepherds the stars and counts them (verse 4), he waters the hills and feeds “the young ravens when they cry” (verse 9)! 

A final assurance to the outcasts is that God is not intimidated by human appearances of strength and power:  God has no regard for the fierceness of the war horse or the speed of the runner (verse 10).  Therefore, we need not be surprised if God’s shepherding of human events runs contrary to conventional human expectations. 

I Corinthians 9:16-23.  

The Epistle reading is, on one level, about pastoral salaries.  

After arguing earlier that he and other apostles have the “right” to a decent salary (9:3-14), Paul here elaborates on why he in fact takes no support from the Corinthian Christians.  This leads him on to affirm that he has no choice in the matter.  He is compelled to do the work of the gospel, not by some human arrangements, but by his assignment from God.  He is an extension of God’s work, not of a board who pays him. 

It is this unqualified commitment to winning people to the gospel that makes Paul a “slave to all” (verse 19).  He must go to where people are, become one with them as he finds them.  That is, to the Judean he becomes as a Judean; to those outside the law he becomes as one not bound by legal practices, and to the weak he becomes weak himself, that he may show them the power of God (verse 22). 

The mighty God of the universe sends God’s worker to meet people as they are found in God’s world and bring them the true good news, news of healing and covenant love. 

For the called servant of God, such labor is its own reward. 

Mark 1:29-39.  

The Gospel reading continues the long day of works of power by Jesus. 

It is the day in Capernaum that was begun in last week’s Gospel reading.  Having expelled a rowdy unclean spirit in the synagogue service, Jesus and his four fisher disciples go to Peter’s home.  There Jesus is informed that the lady of the house is ill.  He goes to her, takes her hand, and thus brings her healing.  She immediately rises and prepares the evening meal for them. 

When the sabbath ends at sundown and people are free to move about the town again, many folks gather at the door bringing their needy ones, and the caring and healing go on into the night.  We are given no details here, only the impression of continuous consultings, healings, and exorcisms taking place on behalf of the awestruck, humble, but urgent petitioners who come because they have heard some good news.  Power is exercised over the demons who are expelled, preventing them from revealing who Jesus really is—keeping the vast power of the Spirit of God a secret while the humane works are being done by the modest man from Nazareth. 

The passage gives a sense of urgency, of mission and labor to be persistently carried on.  This atmosphere is reinforced by Jesus’ early morning devotions out in the wilds (verse 35).  When the disciples find him, presumably to bring him back to continue in Capernaum, Jesus sketches for them a sweeping mission through the other towns of Galilee.  “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (verse 38, NRSV). 

Jesus “came out” to carry on a work that is urgent.  It needs doing before it is too late.  Thus Mark is constantly saying everything happens “immediately” (e.g., in the Greek of 1:21, 23, 29, omitted or phrased more smoothly in NRSV). 

The first day in Capernaum, showing the power of God’s Son to heal the possessed and the sick, is only the first stage in bridging the gap between the neglected outcasts of Israel and the power of God’s heavenly reign.  As the work goes forward, it will gradually evoke resistance and opposition from established religious authorities, who here serve masters they know not of (from Mark’s viewpoint). 

January 31, 2021 - 4th Sunday after Epiphany

                            Biblical Words                             [699]  

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

God provides prophetic leadership to overthrow the powers of evil and bring healing. 

Deuteronomy 18:15-20.  

The Lectionary reading from the Hebrew scriptures presents one of the rare occasions when a text from the book of Deuteronomy is given as the primary option for the reading. 

In the whole three-year cycle of the Lectionary, Deuteronomy is listed only ten times.  Five of those are optional readings, secondary to other readings.  Two other listings of Deuteronomy are for Thanksgiving Day readings, leaving only three Deuteronomy texts as the primary readings on Sundays over a period of three years.  This fourth Sunday of Epiphany is one of those three Sundays. 

By contrast, the Lectionary has 72 readings from the book of Isaiah, including all optional texts and special days as well as Sundays.  It is, of course, a Christian Lectionary, but its selections make clear that Isaiah is much more critical for Christian hearing than is Deuteronomy. 

For Jewish hearing, the relationship would be reversed.  Deuteronomy is the heart of what Israel needs to hear from the Torah.  It is Deuteronomy that gives Jewish people the opening words of their most basic credo, the shema:  “Hear, O Israel!  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone….” (Deuteronomy 6:4, Tanak translation), a text never listed in the Christian Lectionary (though it is quoted by Jesus in Mark 12:29). 

Deuteronomy as a whole is the constitution of a theocracy—of a commonwealth in which only God’s law is the law of the land, in which apostasy from God equals treason. 

The part of Deuteronomy from which our reading comes deals with the offices and institutions of the theocracy.  This part of the constitution provides for the administration of justice through local judges and higher courts, including prosecuting the crime of treason (16:18-17:13).  This section of the constitution also provides for a modest and puritan-style kingship in Israel (17:14-20), and it establishes certain privileges and limitations for the Levitical priesthood (18:1-8).  The remaining important topic in this treatment of leaders and institutions is prophets. 

The surprise here is that Deuteronomy seems to take a dim view of prophets. 

The statement on prophecy is preceded by a full and rigorous condemnation of all diviners, soothsayers, augurs, and sorcerers (18:9-14).  These practices by people who claim to tinker with supernatural knowledge and occult secrets are condemned as the arts of the people who lived in the land before Israel, people who were abominable to the Lord (18:12).  From the viewpoint of Deuteronomy, there was only one real communication of divine knowledge from heaven, and that happened at Mount Horeb – and its only mediator is Moses. 

Thus, the ordinary prophets, like those who shared their ecstasy with Saul (I Samuel 10:10-12) and those who lived on the fringes of Elisha’s fame (II Kings 6:1-7), were not provided for in Deuteronomy’s constitution.  Only one prophet was worthy of the name, and he remained with God (Deuteronomy 34:6, 10-12). 

That one prophet (Moses) was, however, the archetype of a future prophet, one that God would provide when Israel truly needed this Moses-scale work again. 

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (verse 15, NRSV). 

God will put God’s words in the mouth of that prophet, and all Israelites must obey him (verses 18-19).  Any other prophets, especially any who prophesy in a different divine name (treason), must be condemned to death (verse 20).  (In the age when Deuteronomy was being shaped as a reform constitution for the kingdom of Judah, 720 to 622 BCE, the prophet predicted by Moses was probably Elijah, who in his time would set Israel back on its Yahwéh-only path, I Kings 17-19, 21.)

This is a curious passage to be in a constitution.  It is itself a prophecy.  It created the expectation that God still has a great prophet in reserve, one to send in the time of the people’s greatest need.  When John the Baptist appeared in Judea, people wondered if he was “the prophet” promised in Deuteronomy (John 1:21).  And among some early Christians, the prophet was identified with the Messiah and the prophecy seen as fulfilled in the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:19-23, quoting the Deuteronomy passage). 

For such Christians, the prophecy in Deuteronomy was an invitation to ponder a theocracy in which the Christ (messiah) would assume the kind of powers exercised by Moses.  Among much later Christians, however, many who listened more to Isaiah than Deuteronomy wondered whether any theocracy at all should be associated with the Suffering Servant. 

Psalm 111.  

The Psalm for this Sunday is a kind of “Hallelujah” sung in the background by a learned soloist in the temple.  

There are twenty-two lines of rounded praise of God’s works and character.  The psalm is an artistic accomplishment, known as an alphabetic acrostic.  Each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from aleph to taw.  The challenge is to make each line a smooth and pleasing sentence of praise, and if possible to get some continuity of thought from the successive lines chosen because of their position in the alphabet. 

An acrostic hymn is an offering of praise by a learned person, someone who early on memorized the letters of the alphabet, and someone for whom that sequence of letters has taken on overtones of love as well as power.  This Hallelujah is from one who, working as a scribe, serves as a mediator of God’s word to the people.  The singer knows and cherishes the authority and potential of the written word on behalf of “the company of the upright,” before whom this solo is now sung. 

I Corinthians 8:1-13.  

The Epistle reading is about an aspect of Christian freedom that results from liberation from idolatrous powers.  

Many in the Corinthian churches were very conscious of their religious “knowledge,” including an awareness that the many “gods” and “lords” of the Greco-Roman world are not real.  These supposed divinities need not be feared, because there is only one God and only one Lord who has the power to save and transform the lives of followers. 

This knowledge means that sacrifices left from the services of these other “gods” are harmless for Christians.  The large quantities of meat available in the markets or offered at the free banquets of the  various temples may be enjoyed by followers of Christ.  (For poor people this was often their only opportunity to have meat in their diet.)  That is the background to Paul’s discussion in I Corinthians 8.  (The whole discussion continues until 11:1.) 

Paul argues that there are some Christians for whom these idolatrous powers are not in fact that dead.  

Having lived all their lives in the presence of such “gods,” the possibility of again falling into awe at them was apparently quite real.  In order to not tempt or weaken the faith (“consciences”) of these new followers, Paul urges that the course of love for knowledgeable Christians is to abstain from the meat of idol sacrifices.  (Paul insists that love is more fundamental than knowledge in the Christian life.) The overcoming of the power of idols and demons by Christ was absolutely real, but the living of new life must still take into consideration those not yet fully liberated in their minds and souls. 

(Is there some advice here for Christian Progressives in their views toward Biblical literalists?) 

Mark 1:21-28.  

The Gospel reading is the beginning of the overthrow of the powers of evil by the Spirit-empowered Son of God.  The Gospel has brought Jesus through the baptism with the Spirit, the wilderness testing by Satan, and the calling of followers.  These actions are presented as the work of the Holy Spirit in mobilizing a campaign against the evil powers that prevail in the human world. 

The evil powers.  The exorcising of the unclean spirit in verses 23-28 is the first front-line engagement of the two realms of power, Holy Spirit against Satan.  This perspective is made very clear in the complaint by the unclean spirit:  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are.  You are the holy one from God” (verse 24, CEB [Common English Bible]). 

This confession by the unclean spirit states the meaning of the early work of Jesus in Galilee. 

The spirit speaks in the plural:  “what have you to do with us?”  There is a multiplicity of powers holding the human world in bondage, and these powers are aware of their solidarity.  A serious threat to one of them is a threat to all.  The Reign of God, which is “at hand” or “has come near,” is the breaking of the hold of evil structures on human lives.  That Reign begins here.  This incident, the first of the mighty deeds of Jesus the Anointed One, stands as the model of what liberation by the gospel means for those under Jesus’ authority. 

Jesus’ Authority.  Even before the encounter of Jesus with the unclean spirit, the Gospel reports that the people could tell a difference in Jesus’ teaching:  “for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts [scribes]” (verse 22, CEB). 

The people in this narrative probably do not hear and understand the whole exchange between Jesus and the unclean spirit; only those in the know (the hearers of the story) understand the full drama.  The people see only a powerful teacher from Nazareth healing a poor possessed soul.  This is clearly good and powerful, but it is far from the full meaning of Jesus’ coming, and even of his triumph over this particular demonic power.  The whole struggle against the Satanic dominion in the world will have much greater costs and effects as the campaign goes forward. 

That the campaign has begun, and has liberated some chosen ones, is the Good News. 

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.