Friday, January 28, 2022

February 13, 2022 - 6th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [757]

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

The wisdom of God presents people with two Ways, fruitful or barren,  blessed or woeful, with faith or without.

Jeremiah 17:5-10. 

This passage in Jeremiah deals with the human heart. 

However, it takes a dim view of that organ of thought and volition.  The human heart is mostly devious, devoted to accumulating wealth, and naturally tends to trust human goods rather than divine guidance.  This tendency of the heart repeatedly leads people to a choice between two ways of living. 

The main part of our reading (verses 5-8) is a typical wisdom pronouncement, contrasting  a cursed one with a blessed one.  (The Hebrew is singular, which most English translations keep; NRSV makes it plural, for gender-sensitive reasons.) 

The curse is pronounced on the one “who relies on human strength / whose heart turns from Yahweh” (verse 5, New Jerusalem Bible).  Such a one becomes like a twisted and dry desert shrub.  The blessing is pronounced on the one who trusts in the Lord.  Such a one “is like a tree planted by water,  …in the year of drought it is not anxious, / and it does not cease to bear fruit” (verse 8, NRSV).  This contrast between the curse and the blessing sets out two ways for the human pilgrimage. 

The wisdom saying in verse 9 declares pessimistically that the human heart is a very treacherous thing, perverse beyond all understanding.  In Hebrew these words remind the hearer of the trickery of the ancestor Jacob, for the word for “devious” or treacherous is ‘aqob, root of the name ya‘aqob, Jacob. 

In our total passage, these wisdom teachings have been given a new context.  At the beginning stands the formula for a prophetic oracle:  “Thus said the Lord,”  making God (instead of a sage) the declarer of the wisdom presented here.  And even more importantly, at the end God declares God’s own activity as the only hope for humans caught in the perversity of their hearts:  “I the Lord test the mind / and search the heart, / to give to all according to their ways, / according to the fruit of their doings” (verse 10, NRSV).   

There are two ways:  to trust in human things or to trust in God, and God knows the innermost ways of the heart that chooses between them. 

Psalm 1. 

The Psalm reading is, if anything, a more profound statement of the wisdom taken up in the prophetic passage. 

Here also there are two ways.  One is the way of the person who avoids the walkings, standings, and sittings of wicked and scoffing folks, for this “happy” one’s life is saturated in torah meditation.  The other is the way of those wicked ones and sinners who have no roots, are blown around like chaff in the wind, and who end up wandering lost in the desert (the meaning of “perish” in verse 6, NRSV). 

Whereas the prophetic passage talked generally of the blessed as those who “trust in” the Lord, the psalm identifies specifically how one accomplishes this trust, namely, by constant meditation on the Lord’s torah (or Torah).  The repetition of the torah day and night shapes the human heart, directs its thought and volition. 

Happy are those who have the torah as the way of their life! 

I Corinthians 15:12-20. 

The Epistle reading continues in First Corinthians 15, where Paul elaborates the Christian affirmation of the resurrection.  He has just reviewed the core of the gospel message about the death and resurrection of Jesus and those who were granted appearances of the risen Jesus.  Now he puts the great either-or of Christian faith in terms of the resurrection of Jesus. 

The argument of the passage is not very difficult.  Those who think there is no resurrection in general are proven wrong by the resurrection of Jesus.  The resurrection of Jesus – the content of the gospel and the personal experience of the leading apostles – is the given fact.  Without the resurrection there would be nothing.  “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. If for this life only [with no expectation of our own resurrection] we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”  (verses 17 and 19, NRSV). 

Having pursued this negative hypothesis, he returns to the faith:  “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (verse 20). 

The proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus opens two ways for the hearers:  a new life of forgiveness and empowerment with spiritual gifts, or a continuance of futility and condemnation. 

Luke 6:17-26. 

In the Gospel reading Jesus presents two ways now at work in the world of his hearers. 

This is Luke’s account of the opening of the great sermon Jesus delivered early in his Galilee ministry – the sermon which is more famous in its Matthew version as the Sermon on the Mount.  In Luke’s version it is a Sermon on the Plain, delivered on “a level place” (verse 17, NRSV).   

In both Gospels this sermon begins with a set of pronouncements concerning the “blessed,” which later tradition has called the Beatitudes (from the Latin word for blessings).  

Matthew has nine “blessings,” all except the last expressed in the third person:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit … Blessed are those who mourn…”  Luke has only four blessings, but these are followed by four “woes,” each of which is the opposite of one of the blessings.  Also, Luke’s blessings and woes are addressed directly to the hearers in the second person:  “Blessed are you poor, … woe to you who are rich …” 

In both versions of the Sermon these beatitudes (and woes) stand at the beginning of a much longer presentation of the new way of life taught by the Lord.  The beatitudes stand to Jesus’ teaching as the Ten Commandments stand to Moses’ teaching at Sinai.  (This is particularly clear in Matthew, where Jesus is presented as a new Moses and the Sermon on the Mount is the beginning of his work for the new Israel.)  These beatitudes, like the ten commandments, are the first, most fundamental bullet-point statements of God’s will for the people, and their meanings are developed further in the rest of the Sermon(s) and Jesus’ other teaching. 

It should be clear that the Sermon announces a revolution in the human condition, and this revolution is the basic content of Jesus’ proclamation of the Reign of God. 

The people are told that, given the crisis of the time, the fortunate people are the poor, the hungry, those who have cause to weep, and those righteous ones who are hounded and harassed by the mighty.  These are fortunate because everything is about to be turned over, revolved from top to bottom. 

Which means that the folks who are fortunate in the present world are in trouble.  Woe is in store for the rich, for the full, for those who laugh, and for those who have prestige and status.  They have already had their rewards, and they are about to experience first-hand what others have been going through all this time:  poverty, hunger, sadness, and persecution. 

This is the Jesus-reign Manifesto, the good news prepared for by the prophetic promises to Israel, by the reforming work of John the Baptist, and by the empowerment of God’s Spirit to launch Jesus’ mission to the people who have waited – both Judean people and the peoples of the nations. 

Jesus proclaims that people have two ways available to them, but the two are about to be radically interchanged. 


February 6, 2022 - 5th Sunday after Epiphany

Biblical Words

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13);  Psalm 138;  I Corinthians 15:1-11;  Luke 5:1-11.

When humans encounter God’s revelation, there is danger, great awe, and a reversal in the direction of their lives.   

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13). 

The reading from the prophets continues the call narratives of the Israelite prophets, this time with Isaiah’s vision of God in overwhelming power in the Jerusalem temple.  The optional verses also give Isaiah’s own commission to deliver a message of judgment to his people. 

This passage has long been one of the traditional readings for Trinity Sunday, where the heavenly chant of the triple “Holy, Holy, Holy” is understood to express a threefold mystery in the Most High.  Here, however, our text is used in Epiphany season because it is a great account of the revelation of God.  “Epiphany” technically means “appearance,” but for practical purposes it means revelation

The common thread of the lectionary readings for this Sunday emphasizes, not only the awesomeness of the revelation, but also the response to revelation by the people who are called. 

In Isaiah’s case, the prophet is overwhelmed by the revelation, confessing, “Woe is me!  I am lost …”  The revelation forces the human to see that there is a great chasm between one’s current world and the holy realm of God’s activity. 

The action that follows, however, moves the prophet from the side of the unholy people over to the ranks of those who carry God’s messages and do God’s will (the members of the heavenly council).  That is, after the seraph has touched his lips with an incense coal, Isaiah is purified, and now he can hear what is said in the council of God’s servants and is even able to present himself for duty when he is needed. 

The result of Isaiah’s going over to the other side is that he has a message for his people that, at first sight, is devastating and demoralizing.  He is to say to them, “Hear, indeed, but do not understand; / See, indeed, but do not grasp” (Isaiah 6:9, New Jewish Publication Society translation).  In practical terms, this means, “Keep looking in the wrong places, keep doing what you are doing, because that is guaranteed to lead you to disastrous results.” 

Part of the privilege of being included in God’s council of servants is that divine strategies may be explained to you.  (For an intriguing comic-tragic illustration of this, see I Kings 22:1-23, especially verses 19-23.)  God gives further instructions to Isaiah that explain why this misguided people is to be encouraged in their ways: 

            Dull that people’s mind,
                  Stop its ears,
                  And seal its eyes –
            Lest, seeing with its eyes
                  And hearing with its ears,
                  It also grasp with its mind,
            And repent and save itself.  (Verse 10, NJPS)

The message in the heavenly council is finally a word of salvation – when it provokes a true repentance and reversal of direction by the prophet’s people. 

Psalm 138.  

The Psalm reading has pale echoes of the God who called Isaiah.  The speaker of the psalm has experienced deliverance by God:  “On the day I called, you answered me, / you increased my strength of soul” (verse 3, NRSV). 

The speaker’s response is to sing thanks and praise before heavenly beings (“gods,” like Isaiah’s seraphs) and to bow down toward the temple, where God’s name is exalted on high (verses 1-2).  A dimension of world sovereignty is revealed when the speaker expects “all the kings of the earth” to sing of the Lord’s “glory,” which in the Isaiah reading fills all the earth. 

This singer (perhaps a female voice, a Zion voice) knows that the lofty God pays attention to the lowly folk (verse 6), and she herself speaks more on the side of the people than of the heavenly council when she says, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, / you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; / you stretch out your hand, / and your right hand delivers me” (verse 7). 

God’s deliverance from distress IS this psalmist’s revelation, and she expects her song of response to be shared even by the world’s kings. 

I Corinthians 15:1-11.  

The Epistle reading is one of the most revealing passages about earliest Christianity in the New Testament.  It is about the supreme revelation of God to the followers of Jesus – the gospel of the Risen Jesus

Paul reminds the Corinthians of the radical core of that gospel as proclaimed by the earliest disciples as well as himself.  That core gospel is:  “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,…and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…” (verses 3 and 4, NRSV).  

The first syllable of the gospel message is the forgiveness of sins – but the basis for believing that our sins are forgiven is the message of the resurrection, which Paul goes on to recite. 

Paul’s statement here is the earliest direct testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.  

All the narratives of the empty tomb in the Gospels are from second generation Jesus followers, later than 70 CE.  Paul is writing around 55 CE and reporting commonly known traditions from much earlier (“I handed on to you…what I in turn had received,” verse 3).  Paul reminds the Corinthians of what they had heard before, about how the risen Jesus had appeared to certain of his followers proving to them that he was risen and exercising power at the right hand of God (compare Romans 1:3-5). 

In this passage Paul gives three lines of personal experience of the risen Jesus (verses 5-8).  He is not describing empty tomb events, as the women of Galilee reported in the later Gospels.  He is attributing to Peter and James the kind of vision of the heavenly Jesus that he, Paul, had experienced.  (According to Galatians, Paul had talked with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, a few years after Paul’s revelation experience, Galatians 1:18-19.) 

Paul’s review for the Corinthians groups the appearances of Jesus into three revelations, each originating with one of the major figures: 

·        Peter, and associated with him “the twelve” as well as a mass vision by five hundred folks, many still alive (verses 5-6; the last item an early version of a Pentecost tradition). 

·        James, the brother of Jesus, and associated with him “all the apostles” (verse 7; these are envoys sent out by James the brother from Jerusalem, see Acts 15:19-20, 25-27, not the same as “the twelve”). 

·        And finally Paul himself, who knew only the risen Jesus and not the Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom in Galilee, but whose experience of Jesus was preached powerfully to numerous assemblies (churches) in Galatia, Greece, and Asia (see especially Galatians 1:11-17 and 3:1).   

Thus, the revelation experiences of the key figures – Peter, James, and Paul – came to authorize the main lines of early Christian tradition.  Experiencing the risen Jesus was the foundation revelation for the gospel as it was common to all Jesus’ followers. 

Luke 5:1-11.  

The Gospel reading is Luke’s version of how Peter was called to be a disciple. 

Like the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), Luke’s account is different from the one in Mark.  Mark (1:16-19) told how Jesus, before he had started his healing and teaching in Galilee, walked along the shore of the lake and called two pairs of fishermen – simply said the word and they came. 

Luke tells a more extended story about fishing.  (A variation on this story appears in John 21:4-14.)  Jesus is already teaching and healing the people with such success that people crowd him by the lake shore.  He gets in a boat in order to speak to them on the shore.  Then he tells the boat’s owner, Simon (Peter is his Greek name), to put out into the lake and drop the nets in the deep water.  Peter is tired and explains that they have fished all night and caught nothing.  Nevertheless, he does what Jesus asks and gobs and gobs of fish are caught so that they need help from a second boat because their nets are about to split. 

This amazing catch of fish – in extremely unlikely circumstances – is the revelation to Peter.  He responds in the manner of Isaiah:  “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (verse 8). 

An awesome event has occurred, and – like the Isaiah revelation – it creates two sides; the Lord is on one side and sinful people on the other.  Peter’s instinct tells him this is an overwhelming force, frightening and condemning.  Jesus’ response to Peter’s outcry is, “Do not be afraid,” even though this is a scary thing, “from now on you will be catching people [instead of fish]” (verse 10, NRSV). 

The revelation anticipates what lies in the future:  after long periods of unfruitful labor in the old places, the word of the Lord leads the fishermen into deep water and to enormous catches. 

Simon Peter’s response to the revelation and its call was, “when they brought their boats ashore, they left everything and followed him” (verse 11). 


Sunday, January 23, 2022

January 30, 2022 - 4th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                         Biblical Words                                             [755]

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

God calls prophets to deliver news both bad and good, but even good news can be a threat to privileged home folks. 

Jeremiah 1:4-10.  

The prophetic reading is the report, in the first person, of Jeremiah’s appointment as a prophet.  The readings of the lectionary for this period are still concerned with beginnings, beginning assignments for God’s work in both judgment and salvation. 

Jeremiah experienced God’s call as something he was fated to before he was even a glint in the priest Hilkiah’s eye (see 1:1).  The language is impressive: 

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (verse 5, NRSV). 

The mystery of his own personal being – which Jeremiah will discover God treats as his own property, whatever Jeremiah may want – is part of a larger plan that is working out the destinies of peoples and nations. 

Thus, Jeremiah has been consecrated, set aside for a holy use, before he even appeared on the human scene.  Which, translated into career terms, means Jeremiah has been appointed “a prophet to the nations” (verse 5). 

His – as it turns out – very long career of delivering hard messages and living through the consequences has to do with the nations.  That is, it has to do with world history, the great powers on the horizon as well as the pesky and competing small-power neighbors all around the kingdom of Judah.  Jeremiah’s mission is for the nations – what in Latin will be called the Gentiles. 

As Jeremiah recalled his experience by hindsight, he had tried hard to avoid that call.  “I’m a mere adolescent,” he pleaded!  In his memory, there was also some concrete act (probably an induction ritual of some kind) by which God transmitted the power of speech to him (verse 9).  This power would tyrannize over, as well as empower, Jeremiah.  (He complains of the tyranny in 20:7-10.)  Jeremiah is also repeatedly assured that he should not fear, because God will be with him – and that will be enough. 

So what is all this for?  What is the prophetic office to do? 

God provides a prophet and repeatedly gives oracles because the looming disaster and doom is not meaningless – it is not random and senseless destruction and disaster.  It is the judgment of God, with a will and even a compassion behind it. 

These things, both the judgment and the compassion, are pointed to by the statement of Jeremiah’s assignment: 

Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,

to pluck up and to pull down,

to destroy and to overthrow,

to build and to plant (verse 10). 

Four out of six verbs refer to coming destruction; two – the last two – refer to restoration and renewal.  The heavy message is up front, but there is some hope for those who survive the deluge.  

Psalm 71:1-6.  

This Psalm reading looks to many commentators like something Jeremiah would have composed. 

The speaker prays for protection from adversaries.  Part of the appeal for help is based on the speaker’s attachment to the Lord since before birth – through pre-natal dedication, as in the case of Hannah’s consecration of Samuel (I Samuel 1)?  Both the language and the thoughts of this reading recur often in the book of Jeremiah, for example, in Jeremiah 11:18-20 and 17:14-18. 

This reading, echoing Jeremiah, shows that God’s call may lead to opposition, to dangerous adversaries.  God’s servant prays for deliverance, though knowing that suffering and trouble come with the job – sometimes even unto death. 

I Corinthians 13:1-13.  

The Epistle reading continues the discussion of charismatic gifts and the Body of Christ. 

The previous discussion has included prominently the gift of prophecy, but there is something greater than prophecy. This passage, which treats this “more excellent way” in the loftiest and most eloquent language, is devoted to the supreme gift of the Spirit, agape, translated in older times as “charity,” in more modern idiom as “love.” 

This is the gift of the Spirit that makes possible the harmony of all the other functions and offices within the Body of Christ.  (See especially verses 4-7.)  This amazing poem to love is nested between long discussions of prophetic powers and speaking in tongues, but it is itself the simplest and most profound statement of the secret of life in Christ. 

Luke 4:21-30.  

The Gospel reading continues Luke’s story of Jesus inaugurating his mission in Nazareth.  The people have heard the reading from the prophetic scroll and Jesus’ declaration that the prophecy about the Anointed One is “today” fulfilled before them.   Jesus now goes on with the sermon, based on Isaiah’s prophetic text. 

Quickly the reaction sets in.  These folks in the Nazareth synagogue do not act as if they are in great distress themselves; their response is not joy at the healing and relief for themselves, which the prophetic reading suggests.  Rather, their thought seems to be more status-conscious than oppression-conscious. 

Their considered response is, Who is this?  And they think they know the answer:  it is Joseph’s son, the familiar young man about their town who recently went off and got too large a dose of religion from that wild man on the Jordan River in Judah.  If they believe that God has a messianic program in store for Israel, they certainly do not think it can start in their town!  Or in any case, that Jesus could be such an Anointed One. 

Actually most of the people’s response is learned from what Jesus says about it.  “You will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” (verse 23).  He tells them that they will expect him to do miracles like those rumored in other towns, and in general he points out to them that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (verse 24, NRSV). 

The most far-reaching criticism contained in Jesus’ sermon, however, has to do with the nations.  Jesus cites from the scriptures cases of God’s mercy shown to foreigners rather than self-righteous Israelites.  “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, … but Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” (verse 25).  Further, there were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s time, but only Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.  These examples make clear that God’s new dispensation, through the Anointed One, is not confined to Israel. 

The reaction of the people of Nazareth is taken by Jesus to stand for the whole rejection of his message by Israel.  Israel will be left waiting while unlikely people like Sidonian widows and Syrian generals are taken into God’s realm. 

This denial of Israelite privilege and status precipitates a riot.  The mob drags Jesus out to a cliff – Nazareth has rather steep hills around it.  It looks like lynch time is at hand, but Luke presents us with a mysterious conclusion.  “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (verse 30). 

Since my adolescent Bible reading I have been intrigued with this statement.  It has such simplicity and, on consideration, is so appropriate to conclude the scene.  The violence has come to the surface, it has brimmed over, but the Anointed One passes through and gets on with his prophetic mission to the poor and the oppressed.  


Thursday, January 13, 2022

January 23, 2022 - 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

                                                        Biblical Words                                             [754]

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

The reading of the scriptures gathers God’s people – and sometimes they are read by an Anointed One. 

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10.  

The readings from the Hebrew scriptures for the next few Sundays will lift up the calls and messages of Israel’s prophets.  (In the same period the Gospel readings present the early ministry of Jesus in Galilee.) 

However, before the Prophets there was the Torah (the Law), and the first of these readings from the Hebrew scriptures presents the reading of the Torah – an act creating the Assembly of God’s people. 

The work of Ezra and Nehemiah was to re-create a community of Israel after the great watershed of the Exile.  (It is the time of the Persian Empire, the fifth century before the Christian Era.) 

For hundreds of years, the Israelite people had experienced prosperity and disaster while they lived as kingdoms among the nations, and finally, through their failure to heed the prophetic demands, their independent political life was ended and they were called to carry “a light to the nations” in other than political forms.  Finding new forms for this mission in service of the One God of all peoples was the challenge of the age of Ezra and Nehemiah. 

In the passage from Nehemiah 8, we behold the emergence of the Great Synagogue, the gathering of the worshipping community founded by the hearing of God’s word, the Torah (Law) and the Prophets. 

In our reading the people have the initiative:  “All the people” assembled in the city and called upon Ezra the scribe to read to them from the scroll of the Torah of Moses.  

For a gathering reported in the Hebrew scriptures, this is a very inclusive group:  “both men and women and all who could hear with understanding” (verse 2, NRSV), probably meaning that young people were included who had reached the age of discretion, later known as the time of their bar mitzvah or bath mitzvah (son or daughter of the Commandment). 

The reading is a solemn affair:  “Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up” (verse 5, New Jewish Publication Society Version, to avoid the term “book” used in the NRSV).  And as in all subsequent worship services in Judaism and Christianity, the service begins by blessing the Lord.  “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ with hands upraised” (verse 6, NJPS version).   

The passage emphasizes that care was taken that the people understand the scripture reading.  “They read from the scroll of the Teaching [Torah] of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading” (verse 8).  And after the reading, the leaders proclaimed, “This day is holy to the Lord your God… Do not be sad [remembering old days of glory], for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength” (verses 9-10). 

The essentials of later worship in synagogues and churches are presented here.  The people are gathered around the scriptures. 

And to be noted here:  the service of the word is conducted by people meeting out in one of the city plazas rather than at the place of sacrifices in the Temple.  Though the service of the Word is here predominant, the service of the sacrifices and the altar would continue:  in Judaism as long as the Temple existed, in Christianity in the Mass and holy communion.  

Psalm 19.  

Psalm 19 comes up quite often in the lectionary cycles.  It is a striking combination of heavenly breadth and soul probing.  It presents an awesome sweep from the glory of God proclaimed in the heavens, and especially in the sees-all sun, through a poetic clustering of terms praising God’s torah, on to the depths of the human self which are vulnerable to error and alienation from God. 

It is the praise of God’s law or instruction (torah) that makes this psalm an appropriate response to the previous reading.  The psalm presents (verses 7-10) six synonymous terms or phrases to describe God’s guidance.  In the terminology of the NRSV, these are the law, the decrees, the precepts, the commandments, the fear (read “reverence”), and the ordinances, all modified by the phrase “of the Lord.” 

When the psalm was composed these terms may not have referred to a specific set of writings, of the kind read by Ezra to the people.  There were sources of God’s instruction down through the ages besides the written Torah of Moses – from judges, sages, and prophets and prophetesses.  However, our psalm is on its way toward Psalm 1, where the righteous person lives day and night by meditating on a written Torah – which meditation in later generations was heard on Sabbaths in the synagogues. 

I Corinthians 12:12-31a.  

The Epistle reading continues selections from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.  

(The Corinthian correspondence is read on the Sundays after Epiphany in all three years of the lectionary cycle.  In Year C, I Corinthians 12-15 are read during the Epiphany season.) 

This passage is one of the great meditations in Christian history on unity and diversity in the Body of Christ.  Paul applies his model to the church, which lives by the variety of its charismatic gifts (verses 4-11).  The basic model of one body with many members, all of which are functionally differentiated but sensitive to each other, is profound, though capable of many varieties of application. 

In the context of this Sunday’s readings, the emphasis may be on the unity of the people of God produced by the gift of one Spirit and the hearing of God’s word.  The unity of the church has its source in the Spirit’s confession that Jesus is Lord (12:3); its diversified work is tested by whether it builds up the common good (12:7). 

Not all can be apostles, not all can be prophets, not all can be teachers or healers (verses 28-29).  But SOME functions are essential.  In Paul’s context this probably includes that of apostles (see 15:1-2); in a larger context, also essential would be the hearing and responding to the scriptures, which contain “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4, NRSV). 

In some respects, Paul tends to speak of the Holy Spirit as if it provides all the instruction believers need, thus replacing the Torah.  In the broader view, however, the Spirit works by gathering the people around the scriptures – to hear Jesus as well as the psalms, prophets, and Moses. 

Luke 4:14-21

Hearing Jesus through the scriptures brings us to the Gospel reading, which is Luke’s view of Jesus’ first proclamation of the gospel 

This beginning of Jesus’ ministry is so loaded with implications that it is spread over two Sunday readings.  The first big impact of his announcement at Nazareth is today’s portion; the reaction of the home folks to this novelty is next week’s prophetic conclusion. 

Luke tells the story of Jesus’ return to Nazareth almost immediately after his encounter with the lures of agri-technology, international mover and shaker, and world-class superhero (the temptations).  The placement of the return to Nazareth story is uniquely Luke’s own.  In Mark and Matthew the Nazareth visit comes much later.  

And Luke presents Jesus here as fulfilling all righteousness, as it were:  he goes to synagogue on Sabbath, “as was his custom,” and is sufficiently esteemed by the prominent people that he is given the place of second reader in the service.  (The first reading was from the Torah; Jesus will do the reading from the Prophets.) 

What prophet Jesus will read from is determined for him:  the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him.  The passage within that scroll was apparently up to him.  He unrolled the scroll to near the end – a long process for a scroll perhaps thirty feet long.  However, as Luke presents it, Jesus had his passage in mind.  It is what we call Isaiah 61:1-2, though the quotation given by Luke does not agree exactly with either the Hebrew or the Greek versions of the passage.  It is closest to the Greek, which includes the reference to restoring sight to the blind. 

The main point, however, is in the first verse, which is the same in Hebrew, Greek, and Luke: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
      because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
      (Verse 18, NRSV). 

Most of all, the people are hearing about one anointed with the Spirit.  (The Hebrew verb for anoint is māšach, from which comes “messiah”; the Greek verb is chrisein, from which comes “christ”.)  This anointing makes him the Anointed One, and the Anointed One comes to restore God’s intended way among the people. 

The rest of the quoted scripture spells out what is that way of God – to be realized in “the year of the Lord’s favor” (verse 19).  It is release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind (spiritually as well as physically), and freedom for the oppressed.  To proclaim these things is to proclaim jubilee, the restoration of the original rightness of the human community (the language is from Leviticus 25, see especially verses 8-12). 

Having read this passage as his text, Jesus continued:  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). 

Undoubtedly an astonishing message!  

And – if the folks of Nazareth believe this, they are probably candidates for some South Florida (or southern Dead Sea) real estate deals.  Luke is fully aware of this – and will relate the sequel in next week’s reading. 

For now, the gospel has been proclaimed from the scriptures; Jesus’ identity as Anointed One has been declared; and (!) the people have the opportunity to unite around a new reading of the Law and the Prophets. 


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

January 16, 2022 - 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Biblical Words                                     [753]

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; I Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11.

The joy of Epiphany season is that of extravagant weddings!    

Isaiah 62:1-5.  

The reading from the Prophets continues the visions of Zion’s restoration that began in Isaiah 60, the reading for Epiphany.  Today’s reading provides a climax for the dawning light on Zion that the previous passage proclaimed (Isaiah 60:1-6).  Our passage essentially summarizes the gospel of light for Zion, but proceeds to play on new names to correspond to the new realities that are projected for Zion. 

After God’s judgment, the devastated city was known as Azubah, “Forsaken”; and its surrounding suburbs as Shemamah, “Desolate.”  But Zion’s “vindication” has been announced in verse 1, and that vindication will include the return of lost and dispersed populations.  Those peoples who will be brought back by the nations and their kings (see 60:1-5) will fill up the “forsaken” places and restore prosperity to the “desolate” places. 

The new names that will be given to Zion by people who marvel at her change in fortune ring with the sounds of weddings.  The bride-city’s new name will be Hephzi-bah, “My Delight Is In Her” – a declaration by a thoroughly pleased groom!  Her “land” – that is, the suburbs of the metropolis –  will be called be‘ulah, “Married” (perhaps more literally, “husband-ed”).  Both names, Hephzibah and Beulah, have rung down through the centuries in Christian hymns. 

The prophecy declares that the names will be appropriate, because Yahweh now delights in wife Zion, and Beulah-land will indeed be productive of Yahweh’s blessings.  For “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, / so shall your God rejoice over you” (verse 5, NRSV). 

See below for a Special Note on Zion the Holy City. 

Psalm 36:5-10.  

The Psalm reading is the “good” part of a psalm that is a mixture of indictment of the wicked and praise of God’s hesed, “steadfast love,” or “loyalty.” 

Our reading opens with a set of God’s qualities paired up with parts of the universe: 

God’s “steadfast love” with the “heavens”;

God’s “faithfulness” with the “clouds”;
God’s “righteousness” with “mighty mountains”;
God’s “judgments” with “the great deep.” 

All of these terms have connotations of prosperity, of well-being from nature.  Thus, the single conclusion that flows from these connotations:  “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (verse 6, NRSV). 

The rest of the reading elaborates the blessings that flow from this steadfast love of God.  Because of it, “all people” can find safety “in the shadow of your wings” (verse 7).  People can “feast” and “drink” from the cosmic depths of God’s house (verse 8), “for with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (verse 9). 

The last thought (of our reading, not of the psalm) is a prayer that such blessings from God may continue. 

I Corinthians 12:1-11.  

The divine gifts of grace, hesed, praised in the psalm, become, in the Epistle reading, the charismatic gifts that sustain the community of faith. 

The gifts referred to here are the powers bestowed by the Spirit of God; they consist of the list given in verses 8 through 10:  wisdom speech, knowledge speech, faith (enacted more than spoken), healing gifts, power to work miracles, ability to prophesy, discerners of spirits (who provide some check on the prophecies), the gift of tongues, and the gift of interpreting the tongues. 

The strong emphasis throughout the passage is on the harmony of all these gifts for the good of the community, guaranteed by the fact that it is one and the same Spirit of God that works through all these gifts.  “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (verse 7, NRSV).  (The “common good” translates sympheron, what is [commonly] profitable or beneficial.) 

The test for determining the authentic work of the Spirit is given at the beginning of the passage:  “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (verse 3).  There is an affirmation in this passage of the diversity of gifts and ministries, but an insistence upon a confessional unity that consists at least of kurios iēsus, “Jesus is Lord.” 

John 2:1-11.  

To match the new bride-hood of Zion and the general marriage associations of the prophetic readings, the Gospel reading is the wedding in Cana.  This is a rich passage with many facets that could be pursued, but let’s confine our focus to the joyousness of a wedding feast that is, at least for the moment, in the house of the Lord. 

There is a delightful exchange between Jesus and his mother, when she tells him – why does she do this? – that they are out of wine.  Her statement is obviously not just a piece of information; it carries some appeal in it, namely, won’t you do something about it?  So understanding the statement, Jesus replies somewhat grumpily, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come” (verse 4, NRSV). 

His mother seems to think the hour has come, and ignores his complaint.  She goes to the maitre d’ of the banquet and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”  This is an adroit way of handling the issue of Jesus’ authority:  just take it for granted and act on that basis. 

The next highlight, after the details of the water jars are seen to, is the steward’s response to tasting this newly provided wine:  All smart hosts serve the best wine first, because as people get more and more tipsy the quality is less important.  Here, however, this Jesus has kept the best wine to the last.  After shortages and deficiencies, the best is yet to come!  And the Gospel tells us that this was the first of the signs that Jesus did.  (In John, as usually counted, he will do seven signs.)

The Gospel According to John is unique in beginning Jesus’ ministry with a feast.  It is certainly intended to pick up all the images and models of marriages and feasts from the Judean scriptures, which are also carried on in many of the Synoptic parables.  The message is that Jesus’ coming is good news, is joyful news fit to be feasted and toasted in a grand manner. 

Even at celebrations in high society there is good news, as well as among the needy of Galilee – and perhaps especially in those more distant suburbs that used to be called “Desolate” (Isaiah 62: 4). 

Special Note on Zion the Holy City

Isaiah 60-62 is a remarkable expression of a much older city tradition.  Zion is often called a “mountain” in scripture, but its real importance is as a city – a metropolis, a “mother” city. 

Great cities of the ancient Near East were complex sacred entities upon which the fates of their regions were concentrated by the actions of their gods.  The Zion tradition, as reflected in the psalms and Jerusalem prophets, is a remarkable survival of such older holy-city mythologies. 

The city is personified as the wife of the high god and mother of its population.  The fate of its realm is acted out as events in the lives of the deities.  The Zion tradition contains a major theme about the city being unfaithful to its first spouse.  The bride turns to other lovers – that is, to other gods – from whom it expects the benefits of nature to flow abundantly.  (That the lovers are expected to provide abundance is seen clearest in Hosea 2:5 [Hebrew 2:7].  This passage is, indeed, not about Zion, but the same traditional language is used about the great Israelite city of Jezreel, see Hosea 2:21-22 [Heb. 23-24]. 

The Older Language about the Unfaithful City

(In the following texts, the 2nd person verbs and pronouns are feminine singular in Hebrew, addressed to a woman.) 

How the faithful city

      has become a whore! 
      She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her –
      but now murderers! …
Your princes are rebels
      and companions of thieves. 
Everyone loves a bribe
      and runs after gifts. 
They do not defend the orphan,
      and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
            (Isaiah 1:21-23, NRSV) 

Jeremiah used this conventional language to speak of God’s judgment on the city in the last decades of the monarchy. 

O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness

      so that you may be saved. 
How long shall your evil schemes
      lodge within you? 
For a voice declares from Dan
      and proclaims disaster from Mount Ephraim. 
Tell the nations, “Here [she is]!”
      Proclaim against Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
      they shout against the cities of Judah. 
They have closed in around her like watchers of a field,
      because she has rebelled against me,” says the Lord. 

Your ways and your doings
      have brought this upon you. 
This is your doom; how bitter it is! 
      It has reached your very heart.   
            (Jeremiah 4:14-18, NRSV) 

The city as the unfaithful spouse is elaborated at great length by the prophet Ezekiel, applied only to Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16, and to both Jerusalem and her older sister Samaria – equally adulterous – in Ezekiel 23.  In his harangues Ezekiel presses the language of illicit sexuality to the verge of obscenity. 

And after the punishment, the desolate city confesses her own guilt and deserved punishment. 

The Lord is in the right,

      for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
      and behold my suffering;
my young women and young men
      have gone into captivity. 
            (Lamentations 1:18) 

The Language of the City Restored

Right from the earlier versions of this city language, the tradition projected a return from punishment to restoration.  (“You” and “your” are feminine singulars.)

I will turn my hand against you;

      I will smelt away your dross as with lye
      and remove all your alloy. 
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
      and your counselors as at the beginning. 
Afterwards you shall be called the city of righteousness,
      the faithful city. 
Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
      and those in her who repent, by righteousness. 
            (Isaiah 1:25-27, NRSV) 

For thus says the Lord: 
Your hurt is incurable,
      your wound is grievous. 
There is no one to uphold your cause,
      no medicine for your wound,
      no healing for you. 
All your lovers have forgotten you;
      they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
      the punishment of a merciless foe …

[But now her fate will be reversed.] 
Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
      and all your foes, everyone of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
      and all who prey on you I will make a prey. 
For I will restore health to you,
      and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord… 
            (Jeremiah 30:12-17)

And the most spectacular versions of the city beloved again and restored in wealth and population are given in the later chapters of Isaiah, the exilic and post-exilic proclaimers of a new gospel.  

The famous opening words of the Second Isaiah’s message, “Comfort, O comfort my people, … speak tenderly to Jerusalem… that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:1-2) set the theme, but fuller statements come later, such as this: 

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,

      my Lord has forgotten me.” 
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
      or show no compassion for the child of her womb? 
Even these may forget,
      yet I will not forget you. 
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
      your walls are continually before me. …
Lift up your eyes all around and see;
      they [her children] all gather, they come to you. 
As I live, says the Lord,
      you shall put all of them on like an ornament,
      and like a bride you shall bind them on. 
            (Isaiah 49:14-18) 

Zion as the World Sanctuary

And the fullest expectation of the glory of Zion’s restoration comes in the great texts of the Epiphany season, Isaiah 60 to 62. 

Here there is repeated (from the ancient liturgies of the old city tradition) a vision of Zion as the World’s primary Holy Place, as the main place in the world of the nations at which the glory, wisdom, and righteous judgment of the only True God can be found (see Isaiah 2:2-4). 

The peoples of the nations will recognize that something of incomparable value is now radiating from Zion, and they will come to revere and serve the God whose benefits for all peoples flow from Jerusalem. 

The newly-restored population of Jerusalem will benefit from all this, for they will be the intermediaries, the go-betweens, at this great sanctuary of the True God.  They will be the “priests” and “ministers.” 

Strangers shall stand and feed your [masc. plural] flocks,

      foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
      you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
      and in their riches you shall glory.
            (Isaiah 61:5-6.)

[The assumption is that the nations will bring their wealth
      as tithes and offerings to the sanctuary and the people
      will live off them as the priests do at all sanctuaries.] 

Historically the great sanctuary city was tied closely to the great king.  The sanctuary of Yahweh was in the City of David – and all the nations would be ruled by Yahweh’s anointed from there, to their own benefit.  (This is the view reflected in Psalms 2, 20, and 72 among others.) 

In the post-Exilic time, however, the little province of Yehud was not allowed even a dependent king, much less one with serious royal ambitions.  Therefore, the royal theme is muted, in the great Isaiah visions of the coming glory of Zion.  

Muted, but not entirely absent.  The “anointed” one of Isaiah 61:1-3, which Jesus cites as his own authorization (Luke 4:21), is a royal figure, one who can “proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (61:1).  In the old traditions of the great City of God, city and king were bound up together; their destinies fell and rose in the same divinely directed judgments and salvations. 

Later Developments

In Persian times, the great Sanctuary city gradually went its own way.  

The Persians allowed Nehemiah to refortify Jerusalem (perhaps as a buffer between Persian governors and tribes to the south and east), but the effect was to greatly enhance the reputation of the city that was becoming increasingly famous as the single sanctuary (place of sacrifice) to the God of the Judeans. 

The sanctuary city would thus become great without the entanglements of independent political power – without a king!  This is clearly the accommodation assumed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in another way behind the stories and visions of the book of Daniel.  The vision of a great deliverer king did not disappear; it only went underground, to reappear from time to time in messianic movements. 

The great vision of Lady Zion restored in wealth and population had grown into the charter for a world-famous sanctuary city.  This sanctuary achieved its last earthly glory in the restored temple that Herod the Great built beginning in 20 BCE.  That Jerusalem temple was the largest and most gloriously ornamented temple complex in the whole Greek and Roman world.  It was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE, requiring the Judeans in all subsequent centuries to live without animal sacrifice. 

In much later times, the vision of the restored Zion became a prophecy of the new Jerusalem of the end times.  Interpreters of “Bible Prophecy” have come to see in the Zion of Isaiah’s visions the events that will lead up to the Millennium.  After the “rapture” of Christians out of the violence of the “Tribulation,” Israel (Zion) will be restored to great power and the people of the nations will be attracted to it.  Then will follow the final battle of Armageddon.   (For one among hundreds of such readings, see Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible, AMG Publishers, 2000, comments and chart at Isaiah 61, page 746.)

The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 gave great reinforcement to this way of reading Bible prophecy, which is often called “Christian Zionism.”  The political consequences of such readings have been very large.  (See Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon:  How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, Baker Academic, 2004.)