Monday, January 30, 2023

February 5, 2023 -- 5th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                Biblical Words                                                 [811]

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20. 

God seeks authentic devotion and life, from God’s Spirit as well as from God’s Law. 
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12).  
The prophetic text speaks of a people who appear to know the Lord and delight in God’s instruction (verses 1-2).  They have fasted, they have performed rituals of contriteness, but in their view God has not responded as God should!  
Perhaps the deficiency is on God’s side rather than their own?  
The divine reply indicts them for hypocrisy – “you serve your own interest on your fast day” (verse 3, NRSV).  
On their holy days they pursue quarrels.  That is, they pursue court cases that can be processed only when all the clans are gathered at a religious assembly, mixing greed and party conflict with days of devotion and divine service. 
God contrasts such deceitful conduct with a true service of the Lord:  
Is not this the fast that I choose:  
      to loose the bonds of injustice, 
      to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, 
      and to break every yoke?  
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, 
      and bring the homeless poor into your house; 
when you see the naked, to cover them, 
      and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (verses 6-7)
So, after three generations of Babylonian exile, when the religious assemblies in backwater Judah became rowdy and unseemly, the prophet heard God requiring something different of the people.  The prophet heard God requiring a truer reflection of the divine model. 
A truer expression of the divine image would be compassion for the downtrodden and abandoned.  
Psalm 112:1-9 (10).  
The psalm reading is one of two little alphabetic acrostic poems spun out by the devotion of the teachers and students of a Jerusalem school (the other is Psalm 111).  
The ten verses of this poem, after the opening Hallelujah, contain one line for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Mostly, the poem is a devotional arrangement of twenty-two clichés memorized in school exercises.  
The thought achieved in this arrangement of the letters is a contrast between the righteous person (the ṣaddîq, verses 4b and 6b) and the guilty (traditionally “the wicked,” the rāshā‘, verse 10).  (NRSV, for gender reasons, uses plurals in place of the Hebrew singulars throughout.)  
The righteous one will prosper:  be a hero (gibbôr, verse 2a) and have wealth – and therefore be in a position to help others through lending (without interest) and enforcing justice (verse 5).  Such a person will have longevity, be reliable, be well remembered, and “will look in triumph on their foes” (verse 8b).  
Our reading focuses almost exclusively on this character and destiny of the righteous one.   We could almost omit the succinct statement about the opposite number, the guilty (or “wicked”) described in verse 10.  
The fate of the guilty is there to complete the contrast between the true and the inauthentic among the religious folks.  
I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16).  
This reading has two parts:  
Verses 1-5 reviews how Paul conducted his preaching when he first came to evangelize the Corinthians.  
“I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  (This refers back to the “Logos of the Cross” which he has just recited in 1:18-31.)  “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.  (Emphasis added.)  This is a transition to another of Paul’s “topics,” another speech Paul needed to give, in various settings and at various lengths, in his preaching and teaching.  
           On "topics" (topoi in Greek rhetoric), see Introduction to Romans,, 2019, April.
Verses 6-16 are a version of the topos of Charismatic Wisdom, that is of wisdom given only by the Spirit.  
Paul came without flowery speech of worldly wisdom, but now he wants to insist that there IS also a “mature” teaching about the gospel.  “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age…” (verse 6).  The true wisdom of God is hidden, except from those to whom the Spirit of God reveals it.  
This topos also begins and ends with quotations from scripture.  Verse 9 is Paul’s variation on Isaiah 64:4, and the concluding verse 16 is a variation on Isaiah 40:13.  Both quotations refer to “what no eye has seen …” and to “the mind of the Lord,” which no human knows. 
In this Topic Paul insists that the divine spirit reveals to God’s chosen ones the mysteries of creation, election, and the present work of salvation.  
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.  And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (verses 12-13, NRSV).  
This is an audacious claim for the charismatic revelations that came to the early followers of the Jesus movement!  (This topic is pursued at length in chapters 12-14.)  But in this passage, it is clear that Paul was sure they had unqualified inside knowledge about God’s own mysterious being and the course of salvation that was unfolding among the Corinthian believers. 
And they had this knowledge because the Spirit had spoken such things to them.  This charismatic knowledge was not subject to criticism by ordinary human reason.  Only God could judge the charismatic revelation:  
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them…  Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.  (2:14-15.)  
The “mature” teaching of the believers was accessible only as a gift of the Spirit, which the Corinthians had to grow up to – to finish their diet of milk before they went on the solid food (3:1-3). 
The Spirit finally distinguishes between the authentic gospel and its fancy, if not deceptive, imitations. 
Matthew 5:13-20.  
The Gospel reading is the passage in which Jesus insists more strenuously than anywhere else that he stands in unbreakable continuity with the Law of Moses.  The only contrast is that Jesus’ righteousness goes even further than that of the custodians of the Law.  
The whole passage begins with two famous contrasts about the presence of good in the world:  
·        Salt enhances food, unless it is diluted and has lost its savor.  
·        A lamp is useless in a hidden place; it is to be out in the open and held up high, so “it gives light to all in the house” (verse 15, NRSV).  
The implications of these two sayings is that Jesus followers have to be conspicuous, they have to get up and out, on the move.  They have to speak up, make a public appearance, taking whatever consequences may follow (see 5:11).  
The Law.  
The rest of our reading is Jesus’ affirmation of the endurance of the Judean Law.  “This is perhaps the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in the Gospel” (Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 1993, p. 46).  The difficulty is that, in the long run, the Judean Law cannot be binding on Jesus’ followers. 
There are three statements, each apparently very emphatic – yet each with an ambiguous loop-hole.  
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (verse 17, NRSV). 
The loop-hole here is, What does it mean to “fulfill” the law?  
I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (verse 18).  
The loop-hole here is what does “until all is accomplished” mean? 
Whoever annuls [NRSV margin] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (verse 19).  
The loop-hole here is how one can be least or greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  
If the apparent meaning of these sayings had been strictly adhered to by subsequent Christians, it could only have produced a Christian pharisaism in competition with the Rabbinic kind – which would have guaranteed that Christianity would never have conquered the Roman empire.  
Nevertheless, the rhetorical effect of this very Judean-oriented passage insists that Jesus followers do not reject the Law.  And the last verse of the passage (verse 20) goes even further:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 
What a heavy challenge, aiming the new faith toward a religious elitism that would have guaranteed its remaining a Judean sect.  
Somewhere between this extreme statement on one end and the “great commission” (“teaching the nations to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Matthew 28:20) on the other end, a new Christian reading of the Torah came into being.  
The many contrasts that Jesus presented to the disciples began with the sharp one between the righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of the Messiah (the Christ).  
The Christians resolved this tension by living it out in their everyday lives!  

Saturday, January 28, 2023

January 29, 2023 -- 4th Sunday after Epiphany

                                                          Biblical Words                                                [810]

Micah 6:1-8Psalm 15;  I Corinthians 1:18-31Matthew 5:1-12. 
God requires a reversal of human goals, so the poor and the meek will inherit the ultimate blessings.  
Micah 6:1-8.  
This prophetic reading presents Israel, the favored people of the Lord, challenged to remember God’s past salvation and to become absolutely clear about God’s bottom-line requirement of the people.  
Recent scholars have called the scene presented in this passage a "covenant lawsuit."  God the superior partner, who has given protection, lands, and benefits, has expectations of the dependent partner.  If these expectations are not met, God summons a hearing to indict the guilty partner, and argues his case (through the prophet). 
While such a lawsuit is not complete here, we do have the following:  
·        a summons on a cosmic level to hear God’s charge against the people (verses 1-2), 
·        a speech of God to the people reminding them of the saving deeds from exodus to conquest of the land, for which they are expected to be grateful (verses 3-5),  
·        and – not an obvious part of a covenant lawsuit – a speculative inquiry about what one should present to God as a pleasing offering (verses 6-7).  
The answer to this speculative inquiry is the punch line of the passage, if not of the entire book.  What does the Lord require of you?  
The answer:  to do justice (mishpāt), to love kindness (hesed), and to walk very carefully with one’s God.  
(The word usually translated “(walk) humbly” occurs only here, and its meaning is not clear.  Recent proposals for translating it include “cautiously,” “carefully,” “wisely,” and “reasonably.”  The Greek translation gives, “…be prepared to walk with your God.”)  
Noteworthy here is that the recitation of God’s saving actions comes before the question of God’s requirements.  That is, salvation precedes God’s requirements, grace precedes works.  
Originally there was the exodus, out of which came the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (verse 4); then there was the enemy king Balak of Moab, who tried to destroy Israel in the wilderness (verse 5a); and then there was the progression from Shittim to Gilgal (verse 5b), which is the entry into the promised land (related at length in Joshua 1-6).  There is no mention of the sacred mountain, of God’s giving the law or making a covenant.  After the saving acts have established the favored people in the land comes the question of what such a people should present to God.  
It might be expected that such a fortunate people, settled in a prosperous land, should present generous gifts from their possessions.  Animals from their flocks, oil from their olive groves, even firstborn children to be dedicated to the Lord (verses 6-7) – such would be acceptable gifts to return to God.  
But the punch line here is a sweeping declaration that no amount of sacrifices and produce from the land will satisfy what God requires.  One cannot buy acceptance before God.  
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; 
      and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, 
      and to walk humbly with your God? (verse 8, NRSV).
God’s requirement is for justice, kindness (mercy), and readiness to walk with God.  What God requires of the people is not wealth, or status, or power, but a shaping of one’s attitude and behavior within one’s community – toward the common good.  
Psalm 15.  
The Psalm reading also tells what the Lord requires of faithful followers.  
The opening cry is a question to God.  “Who may abide in your tent?”  That is, who may have access to the Lord’s palace – the temple – to plead a case or present gifts of gratitude?  The answer is a succinct list of the qualities and actions of the acceptable person.  Such a list is what scholars call an entrance liturgy.  
It is striking how many of the qualities of the acceptable person have to do with speech.  As described in verses 2-4 (NRSV), this person will 
1.      “speak the truth from their heart”; 
2.      will not “slander with their tongue;” 
3.      will not “take up a reproach against their neighbors;”  
4.      will “stand by their oath even to their hurt;”  
5.      will not take interest on loans, and especially ,
6.      will not take a bribe to influence their verdict given in a court.  
Such honest and truth-telling people will be a firm foundation; they “shall never be moved” (verse 5).    
I Corinthians 1:18-31.  
In our previous reading from this letter, Paul raised the issue of divisions within the Corinthian congregation(s).  There is a Paul group, an Apollos group, and a Cephas (Peter) group, maybe even a Christ group (I Corinthians 1:11-12).  Paul will discuss this issue throughout the first four chapters of this letter. 
In our passage, Paul switches from the local details to a general discussion of status consciousness and the gospel of the Cross.  
This passage is a topos, a topic Paul had to discuss again and again, to different audiences and at different lengths, in his preaching and teaching.  The title of this topic is given at the top:  The Logos of the Cross.  
The thesis of the topos is:  “The message (Greek is “logos”) about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (verse 18, NRSV).  The topos begins and ends with scripture quotations, verse 19, quoting Isaiah 29:14, and verse 31, which is Paul’s variation on Jeremiah 9:24, both passages about God overriding human wisdom.  
There is rhetorical skill in Paul’s development of this topic.  Observe the patterns:  

Verse 20. 
Where is the wise one?  [modified]
Where is the scribe? 
Where is the debater of this age? 
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 

Verses 26-28.
Not many of you were wise by human standards; 
not many were powerful, 
not many were of noble birth.  

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; 
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 
God chose what is low and despised in the world, 
things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are. 
The major alternatives in the religious world of the Corinthians stand in opposition to the gospel message, and that means believers must discover that the gospel makes entirely new expectations of them.  They will appear to be the “nothings” of the society.  But in their believing and living by the cross they will become the wisdom of God and reveal God’s expectations for all people.  
This reversal of the ways of the world, this paradoxical change in the meaning of wisdom, stands in line with the requirements of God as Jesus taught them anew in the Sermon on the Mount.  
Matthew 5:1-12. 
The Gospel reading is the opening of what is probably the most famous extended Christian statement of what God requires, the Sermon on the Mount.  This opening of the Sermon is the Beatitudes (from the Latin for “blessings”).  
In the Gospel According to Matthew Jesus is presented as re-enacting some of the critical events of the beginning of Israel.  
·        Jesus was taken to Egypt so that he could fulfill the prophecy, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2:15, NRSV).  
·        Jesus escaped the slaughter of the infants by Herod as Moses had escaped the killing of Israelite children by Pharaoh.  
·        Jesus passed through the waters of baptism (the exodus) and was subjected to temptations in the wilderness – temptations which the Israelites always fell for but which Jesus resists (Matthew 4:1-11).  
·        Jesus goes to Galilee, calls disciples, and ascends a mountain to deliver God’s word to the people, as Moses had done on Mount Sinai.  
On Mount Sinai, God’s own words gave the ten commandments, and then went on (through Moses) to further laws and requirements for the people.  The Sermon on the Mount begins with the “beatitudes.”  These are not commandments, and they are not exactly ten in number, but they stand at the beginning of all else as the Lord’s proclamation of who is truly blessed.  
The beatitudes are the statement of the behavior of those included in this new covenant community.  We may presume that these “blessed ones” are the models of Christian behavior in the churches of Syria, and perhaps especially Antioch, in the second generation of the Jesus followers.  
Who are the blessed?  
·        The poor (in spirit) – also in Luke (6:20-23).  
·        Those mourning – Luke has “those who weep.” 
·        The meek.  
·        Those hungry and thirsty (for righteousness) – the hungry in Luke.  
·        The merciful.  
·        The pure in heart. 
·        The peacemakers. 
·        Those persecuted (for righteousness).  
·        Those reviled and persecuted for the Lord’s sake – also in Luke.  
All these gentle and modest people are blessed because a great reversal is coming in their favor. 
The poor and persecuted will receive the kingdom of heaven.  The mourners and the hungry will have their conditions reversed.  The meek will inherit the land, the pure in heart will see God, and the peacemakers will be called God’s children.  
The last in the list is probably a late emphasis addressed to a seriously persecuted church.  “Rejoice and be glad, …for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (verse 12)  
These beatitudes are only the preface to the Sermon on the Mount.  That Sermon will go on to lay out at length the behavior prescribed for the people of the new community.  The blessed ones at the beginning have a head start; they already show in the world the ways of God’s people.  The rest of the nations will learn from them and in time enter into the blessings of the kingdom that is already at work in the world.  
Such was the view of Jesus’ work shaped by the Gospel writer, expressing the faith of the people of Galilee and Syria in the days of the Roman emperors.  

Sunday, January 15, 2023

January 22, 2023 -- Third Sunday after Epiphany

                                               Biblical Words                                         [809]

Isaiah 9:1-4Psalm 27:1, 4-9; I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23.  

To whom does the Servant come?  The light begins in Galilee of the nations.  
Isaiah 9:1-4.  
As the Sundays of Epiphany move on, the preparation for the mission to the nations is complete and the work begins.  The prophetic reading identifies the geography of the people to whom the Servant brings good news.  
In the Isaiah passage the nature of the good news is clearer than the geography, so we will start with that message.  
The people who walked in darkness
      have seen a great light; 
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
      on them light has shined.  
You [O God] have multiplied the nation, 
      you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you 
      as with joy at the harvest, 
      as people exult when dividing plunder.  
For the yoke of their burden, 
      and the bar across their shoulders, 
      the rod of their oppressor
you have broken as on the day of Midian.  
                                    Isaiah 9:2-4 [Heb. 9:1-3], NRSV
This is a message of release from occupation by foreign troops.  
“The yoke of their [the subject people’s] burden” has been removed.  “The rod of their oppressor [slave-driver]” has been broken.  The population has increased, they are joyful, exulting as in a time of bountiful harvest or a day of great victory.  (The “Day of Midian” [verse 4] refers to Gideon’s overthrow of the Midianites who had occupied and terrified Manasseh in old frontier days – Judges 7:15-25.)  The people who lived in the dark gloom of occupation and oppression have been freed, have been enlarged and restored to well being.  
Who are the people to whom this message was addressed?  
The verse giving the geographical references (9:1 [Heb. 8:23]) has some complications in it, as different translations show.  However, the place names are relatively clear.  What they show is that we have references to lands of the northern kingdom of Israel that were conquered and occupied by the Assyrians in 733 BCE.  
The Assyrians defeated Israel and turned much of its land into Assyrian provinces named Dor, Megiddo, and Gilead.  Samaria was left in the hill country farther south as the capital of a now rump kingdom of Israel, vassal of Assyria.  The geographical references in Isaiah 9:1 – Zebulun, Naphtali, “the way of the sea,” “the land beyond the Jordan,” and “Galilee of the nations” – these places made up the three new Assyrian provinces that replaced much of the old northern kingdom of Israel.  These were the lands occupied and exploited by the Assyrian conquerors in the earlier years of Isaiah of Jerusalem.  
The language about the child born and the son given (verses 6-7) is thought by many interpreters to have referred originally to the birth or accession of Hezekiah, the son of that king (Ahaz) to whom the Emmanuel prophecy was given (Isaiah 7:11-17).  
The language imitates the oratorical and declamatory style of the court and corresponds to aspiration rather than political and military reality.... Though full of vivid imagery, the language is unspecific enough to have permitted the poem to be recycled on successive occasions.  
(Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, The Anchor Bible, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 249 and 248.)  
There is one historical occasion when the “child” part of our passage could have been “recycled” and included in an announcement of joy to the subject peoples of those occupied Assyrian provinces.  In 705 BCE the Assyrian emperor Sargon II (who had destroyed Samaria, the northern capital) died and rebellions broke out throughout the empire.  King Hezekiah of Jerusalem also rebelled, and for at least three years he enjoyed an independent hand in Judah before the new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, came down on him (in the year 701).  
Our passage could have been uttered in that period of freedom and independence, anticipating a new age of prosperity and stable rule under a divinely blessed ruler (a “wonderful counselor…prince of peace,” verse 6).  The old northern kingdom, including “Galilee of the nations,” could be freed from Assyrian rule and reunited with Judah in a new age of Solomon, whom King Hezekiah emulated (see Proverbs 25:1).  
With such a vision, the prophet sent forth a word of hope to the people who had been living for thirty years in the gloom and darkness of occupation and subjection.  
Psalm 27:1, 4-9.  
The prophecy of the light to shine out of darkness for Galilee of the nations includes the expectation of a divinely guided leader from the house of David (Isaiah 9:7).  In the Psalm reading we hear such a leader expressing his total trust in the Lord.  
The Lord is my light and my salvation; 
      whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; 
      of whom shall I be afraid?   (verse 1, NRSV) 
There will be times of threat and doubt, times when the servant will appear to be lost, but the psalmist is confident of God’s deliverance and will seek God only.  
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, 
      be gracious to me and answer me; 
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”  
      Your face, Lord, do I seek.  
      Do not hide your face from me.  
Do not turn your servant away in anger, 
      you who have been my help.  
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, 
      O God of my salvation.  (verses 7-9) 
The speaker seems aware that the servant of the Lord may appear to be abandoned, even despised and God-forsaken.  Such a destiny was anticipated for the Servant who was sent as a light to the nations (see Isaiah 49:7).  
I Corinthians 1:10-18.  
The second reading from First Corinthians in the current season speaks to a group of Jesus followers who have recently come out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge of their Lord.  
Paul has spoken of “the church” that was gathered in the metropolitan city of Corinth (I Corinthians 1:2), but that community of faith is now a few years old and contains several subgroups with varied backgrounds and experiences.  The problem of factions and divided loyalties has appeared.  Different groups identify themselves by different leaders of the new Christian movement.  “I am Paul’s,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” and “I am Christ’s” – such are the various claims Paul has heard (verse 12).  
Paul was the first missionary preacher in Corinth and could claim to be the founder of the church there.  Apollos was a popular preacher (described in Acts 18:24-28) who served the Corinthian community for some time after Paul had gone on to Ephesus for his three years of work there.  “Cephas” is the Aramaic name of Peter, who was probably not himself at Corinth, but who was famous for his leadership at Antioch and who was probably a symbol of continuity from Jesus to the Greek-speaking Jewish world in Asia and Greece.  (Those claiming that they belong to Christ may have gotten the message right – from Paul’s viewpoint.)  
Paul’s most telling comment in this passage may be his statement that “I thank God that I baptized none of you … so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name” (verse 14, NRSV).  Baptized in the name of Paul!  Hardly.  The relationships must be kept straight.  Leaders, however popular or symbolic, must be appreciated only as servants, servants of that one message about the cross, which is “the power of God” for those who are being saved (verse 18).  
Matthew 4:12-23.  
The Gospel reading presents Jesus advancing into the land where the people dwell in darkness but are about to see a great light.  
The Gospel of Mark, which Matthew is following in broad outline, mentioned only that Jesus went to Galilee and began preaching.  Matthew elaborates by adding that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in “Capernaum by the sea in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (verse 13, NRSV).  
Using these tribal terms is old fashioned, a little like referring to upstate New York as Iroquois country.  Politically, this area hadn’t had such names in eight hundred years.  (The romance of Tobit, written around the third or second century BCE, sets its hero in Naphtali in the days of the Assyrian conquest, Tobit 1:1-9.  The story emphasizes, following the viewpoint of the book of Kings, that Naphtali in that era was a land of apostasy and unfaithfulness.) 
Matthew presents this place where Jesus’ ministry began as fulfilling the prophesy that some Jesus followers had found as they searched the scriptures for signs of Jesus.  They found the Isaiah passage about Galilee of the nations, and this prophecy became part of their message of salvation addressed to Israel and the nations. 
In this land of darkness Matthew has Jesus declare his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (verse 17).  This summary statement of Jesus’ message will shortly be expanded enormously in the Sermon on the Mount.  
But first Jesus will call some disciples as the nucleus of the new people to be gathered at the mountain.  Matthew repeats Mark’s version of calling the two sets of brothers who worked in the fishing industry (verses 18-22).  He promises to teach them to fish for people!  
Then Matthew provides a summary of all Jesus’ work in Galilee (verse 23), the work that attracted the attention of so many people, and caused the huge turnout at the Sermon on the Mount.  (In the Gospel reading next Sunday we will hear the Beatitudes, that astonishing opening of the Sermon delivered to the new people of God at the mountain.)  
But for Matthew, the key point is that Jesus brings a renewed word of God to a renewed people of God – spoken from a mountain in Galilee of the nations. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

January 15, 2023 -- 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

                                                        Biblical Words                                          [808] 

Isaiah 49:1-7Psalm 40:1-11;  I Corinthians 1:1-9John 1:29-42. 
 The Servant of the Lord – on a mission to bring light to the nations.  

Isaiah 49:1-7.  

The prophetic reading for this Sunday continues the Isaiah passages about the Servant of the Lord.  
Here the Servant himself speaks.  He has now served for some time at his mission, but a crisis has been reached and he has received a new word from God, widening his mission.  
The Servant has lived through the struggle to keep Israel on the righteous way, but has failed.  “I have labored in vain, / I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity …” (verse 4, NRSV).  Israel has persisted in stubbornness and received the devastating judgment upon faithlessness.  The exile has happened.  The Servant, therefore, relies on God for the future of this lost cause (verse 4b).  
However, a new word has come to the Servant from God.  The Servant is going to quote this new word, but first he recites his own résumé as determined by past relations with God.  God “formed me in the womb to be his servant, / to bring Jacob back to him, / and that Israel might be gathered to him, … my God has become my strength” (verse 5).  
The new word from God is a new assignment for the Servant.  
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant 
      to raise up the tribes of Jacob 
      and to restore the survivors of Israel
I will give you as a light to the nations, 
      that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.  (Verse 6.) 
What came out of the long struggle of Israel for faith and righteousness is now to be the basis for an enlightening of the nations.  
Israel has proven by its experience that waywardness from God leads only to disaster.  The way of truth about the one creator God and faith in God as the only source of salvation has been learned through Israel’s experience – with its prophets – and is now the message for all humankind.  
The Servant is the personal embodiment of that experience and that truth to the nations.  
There is one final note.  Israel’s earlier story led to disaster.  Israel is scattered, imprisoned, despised.  The Servant will also embody that experience.  Precisely in that despised state, however, God has a word of assurance for his Servant.  
Thus says the Lord, 
      the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, 
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, 
      the slave [servant] of rulers, 
“Kings shall see and stand up, 
      princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, 
because of the Lord, who is faithful, 
      the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.  (Verse 7.)  
The Servant will be despised and will suffer terribly before the nations, but there will be a vindication, a manifestation that God is true to the Servant, even beyond death.  The last of the Servant passages (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) presents the completion of that personal drama for the Servant.  (He is restored to life, and glory among the kings of the nations.)  

Psalm 40:1-11.  

The Psalm reading is the Servant’s response to God’s mission.  
First, he has experienced personal delivery from distress.  
I waited patiently for the Lord; 
      he inclined to me and heard my cry.  
He drew me up from the desolate pit, 
      out of the miry bog, 
and set my feet upon a rock, 
      making my steps secure (verses 1-2, NRSV).  
Then he proclaims what was learned by Israel’s experience with God.  
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, 
who do not turn to the proud, 
      to those who go astray after false gods (verse 4).  
And especially, the servant commits himself to the mission God has assigned him.  
Then I said, “Here I am; 
      in the scroll of the book it is written of me. 
I delight to do your will, O my God; 
      your law is within my heart (verses 7-8).  

I Corinthians 1:1-9.  

The Epistle reading presents another kind of beginning.  It is the beginning of Paul’s First Letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth.  Before this letter is finished Paul will have covered many aspects of the life of a new servant people, a people with a lively sense of the power and diversity of the gifts of the Spirit.  
             (Every year, the Lectionary assigns readings from I Corinthians to the Sundays
              after Epiphany, in year A selections from I Corinthians 1-4, later chapters in other years.) 
In his opening thanksgiving for the Corinthian believers, Paul strikes certain overall themes.  
“…In every way you have been enriched by him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (verse 5, NRSV).  These Greeks and Romans of Corinth are fond of their wisdom (played upon by Paul in chapters 1-4). 
They also esteemed themselves for their charismatic gifts (addressed by Paul in chapters 12-14). 
They enjoy these gifts, however, in an atmosphere of expectation, expectation of a consummation:  “…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 7).  
The now-revealed Servant of the Lord, spoken of in Paul’s gospel message, has brought spiritual powers to his servants, and these gifts witness to the faithfulness of God the Lord.  “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son…” (verse 9).  
The work of the Servant is spreading through the nations.  

John 1:29-42.  

(On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, every year of the Lectionary cycle, the Gospel selection is taken from the Gospel according to John, chapter 1 or the beginning of chapter 2.  These readings are testimonies to the beginning of Jesus’ mission.)  
The Gospel reading brings further testimony concerning John the Witness (he is never called “the Baptist” in this Gospel) and his relation to Jesus (continuing last Sunday’s topic).  In this theologically driven account we hear John speaking very plainly – in the hearing of his disciples apparently.  He declares Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” a distinctive phrasing, used only by John.  (The background of the title, “the Lamb of God,” is not clear.) 
John (the Witness) further reports that he did not know Jesus’ real identity before, when he was baptizing in anticipation of the coming of the Lord.  But now he has witnessed the descent of the Spirit as a dove upon Jesus – a feature upon which all the Gospels agree.  For John, this coming of the Spirit indicates conclusively that Jesus is the Son of God (verses 32-34).  

John is here a Witness to what in other Gospels is spoken directly by the Voice of the Lord.  
The second part of the reading (verses 35-42) moves from John to some of his disciples, who literally become followers of Jesus.  
John repeats his affirmation about "the Lamb of God" in the hearing of two disciples, who then take off and go after Jesus.  One of these disciples we soon learn is Andrew, Simon’s brother.  The other disciple remains unnamed, which is a very loud and meaningful silence in this Gospel.  (He is often thought to be “the one whom Jesus loved,” see 13:2319:26; 20:2; 21:7 and 20.)  
There is a striking pattern of details-with-mysterious-overtones in this passage.  Various circumstances are mentioned in the narrative which seem trivial but which may be loaded with hidden meanings.  
For example, the disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying,” which sounds like a loaded question if one recalls that other loaded question much later in the Gospel, Where are you going? (see chapters 14 and 16).  Then, to keep the story down to earth, “they came and saw where he was staying,” though we are told nothing of where that was or even what kind of place is meant.  If nothing is made of “where” Jesus “stayed,” why include this kind of detail?  As before, the seemingly simple statement invites further meditation.  
We are also told, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon [literally, “the tenth hour” of daylight].”  This time-reference seems to play no part in the narrative – it is not getting especially late for travel, for example.  Why is the time-reference worth mentioning?  
One suspects that there are several such “plants” in the story line which a skilled teacher would unpack with mysterious lore for the initiated – in private, not in the public recitation of the Gospel.  (That is how the “Eucharistic” references are treated in 6:48-58, clear references to the Lord’s Supper for those who “know,” but bafflingly opaque for the uninitiated.  The bread and wine elements of the Lord’s Supper are never described in the Gospel of John, and therefore the details of the meal had to be explained, or demonstrated, in non-public sessions.)  
The passage concludes with Jesus’ ordination of Peter.  
In the course of his mission the Servant of the Lord will create many servants of the Lord to bear further powers of the Spirit of God.  When this man – known elsewhere as a fisherman – comes into Jesus’ circuit, he gets a new name.  He was known as Simon, an ordinary given name in the family.  He will now be known as Cephas, the Aramaic word for Rock, and our writer explains that Rock, translated into Greek, is Peter.  
The servants of the Lord are being recruited for the mission of one who is the light to the nations. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

January 8, 2023 -- Baptism of the Lord

                                        Biblical Words                                            [807] 

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17.  
 God’s Servant is empowered by the Spirit for a mission to the nations. 
The first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the Baptism of the Lord.  In all the Gospels, the baptism of Jesus is the time when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Anointed One with power.  This event inaugurates Jesus’ mission of preaching, healing, and combating the destructive powers that afflict the people.  
Isaiah 42:1-9.  
The prophetic reading is one of the most important passages of the Hebrew scriptures for the development of Christianity.  It is the first of four passages in Isaiah 42 through 53 that present the “Servant of the Lord” as the key figure in God’s plan for bringing justice to all peoples.  (The other passages are 49:1-6 [next Sunday’s prophetic reading]; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12, the four often called the Servant Songs.)  
In this first passage, God speaks to the heavenly powers and through them to the kings of the earth.  God introduces the servant.  
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, 
      my chosen, in whom my soul delights; 
I have put my spirit upon him; 
      he will bring forth justice to the nations.  (Verse 1, NRSV.)
The larger context of the passage, as well as the Greek translation, make clear that the servant is Israel.  The servant is Israel in a complicated way, however.  The servant is an individual, and when the servant passages are complete it is clear that the individual is a royal figure, a king.  
For some ceremonial and symbolic purposes, the king embodied Israel and its destiny before God and the nations.  For example, in Psalm 2 the king is declared to be Yahweh’s son, an identity occasionally assigned also to Israel (Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9).  Also, the “one like a son of man” is installed as a royal figure embodying the destiny of the people in Daniel 7:13-14, 22 and 27.  Such a representative figure lies behind God’s presentation of the servant.  
There is some strange language used to describe the servant’s character.  
He will not cry or lift up his voice, 
      or make it heard in the street; 
a bruised reed he will not break,
      and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.  (Verses 2-3.) 
The probable meaning is that as one who brings justice, this powerful figure will be very gentle.  He will not resort to violent behavior in the streets.  Rather, he will be very sensitive to the most delicate and damaged needy ones who depend on him for support and the protection of their rights.  
The presentation of the servant concludes with a firm declaration that the servant will persist in his mission “until he has established justice in the earth” (verse 4).  For guidance toward such an outcome, “the coastlands” – all that later became the Greek and Roman worlds – “wait for his teaching [torah].”  (See the same idea in Isaiah 2:3.).  
Our passage has a second part.  A prophetic voice declares that God the Creator speaks, and what God says is addressed to the servant.  
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, 
      I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people, 
      a light to the nations.  (Verse 6.) 
The mission of the servant in Isaiah is to carry Israel’s experience of God’s salvation to all the nations.  For early Christians this mission was carried forward through the Servant Jesus, a mission gradually expanding from an abandoned Jerusalem to the many nations (see Matthew 28:18-20).  
Psalm 29.  
This Psalm is always used on the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord (as well as on Trinity Sunday in year B).  On other occasions we will comment on this psalm as a hymn to the Storm God manifested as an awesome electrical storm sweeping eastward from the Mediterranean Sea to the desert beyond Damascus (Year B, 1st Sunday after Epiphany), and also as an Ugaritic-Canaanite contribution to the glory of Yahweh, the God of Zion (Year C, 1st Sunday after Epiphany).  
This psalm is appropriate for Jesus’ baptism because of its emphasis on the Voice of the Lord.  
“The voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh) occurs seven times in verses 3 through 9.  In so far as this phrase has one meaning, it means the sound of thunder, and the psalm portrays it as wondrous, violent, and astonishing in its power over many grandiose and lofty things in the world.  
However, the wild sweep of roaring and flashing across the Syrian heavens culminates in a reverent and liturgical response from the assembled people in the temple – “and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV).  The worshiping community thus speaks its awed Amen! as the conclusion of the earthly sweep of God’s Voice.  
In the baptism narratives, of course, there is a Voice of God – one that speaks as Jesus emerges from the waters of the river.  There, however, the Voice accompanies a peaceful dove and solemnly declares that the Son of God has come into the world. 
The psalm affirms for Christian believers that the mighty sweep of the heavenly powers has also spoken quietly through the dove that brings the Spirit to Jesus. 
Acts 10:34-43.  
In place of an Epistle reading, the lection for the Baptism of the Lord is from the book of Acts.  The season of Epiphany represents the movement of God’s power into the human world – into the world of Jesus’ people in the Gospels, into the world of the nations in the book of Acts.  
The reading is the sermon that Peter began to preach when God had shown him that the people of the nations – the non-Judeans – were to be accepted into the Spirit-filled life of the Jesus followers.  The household of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, listens to Peter summarize the story of Jesus – from baptism by John through resurrection (verses 36-41).  
The culmination of the sermon – before the Holy spirit broke in and disrupted the service – was the declaration, “[Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (verses 42-43, NRSV).  
Peter proclaims a historic movement that had its beginning in the baptism offered by John the Baptist. 
Matthew 3:13-17.  
The Gospel reading is the Jesus baptism as given in the Gospel According to Matthew, the Gospel for year A of the Lectionary.  All four Gospels begin Jesus’ mission in the world with the baptism by John, though each treats it a little differently.  
Historically, Jesus became a follower of the Baptist, and therefore shared the view that the eschatological judgment was at hand.  In Matthew their messages of the coming kingdom are identical (3:2 and 4:17).  Jesus, however, came to realize that he was himself a channel of power from that coming realm on behalf of the afflicted people among John’s audiences.  John does not seem to have been a healer or one who ministered directly to the injured and broken among the sinners.  It was just such healing of needy ones to which Jesus pointed when John later asked who Jesus really was (Matthew 11:2-6).  The healing had become the difference between Jesus and John.  (See below the Special Note on John the Baptist and Jesus.
Theologically, the early followers of Jesus recognized some important link between Jesus and John the Baptist, but were compelled by their later insights about Jesus to interpret John as only “preparatory” in some way.  This apparently remained an important issue for some time, and evolved in the directions we see taken by the four different Gospels.  David hill comments, “The place of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus must have been one of the most discussed topics in the church of the 1st century.”  (The Gospel of Matthew, “New Century Bible,” Attic Press, 1977, p. 95.)  
The distinctive feature of the Matthew version of the baptism is the discussion of who is worthy to be baptized by whom.  Here, the Jesus tradition assumes that John knows who Jesus really is, that he is the “one more powerful” whose coming John is proclaiming as the judgment of God at hand.  Therefore, John objects to his baptizing Jesus and says, “I need to be baptized by you …” (verse 14, NRSV).  Jesus’ answer is:  we should do this now, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 15, NRSV).  
There is a divine sequence to these things, according to which John is the last of the prophets (11:10-14), and in that divine sequence Jesus begins as subordinate to John.  The later issue, about whether a sinless Messiah should submit to a baptism for the repentance of sins, is not yet an important question in the stage of the tradition preserved in Matthew.  
The baptism itself is quickly told, and when Jesus emerges from the water the Spirit of God descends upon him in the shape of a dove.  The Voice of the Lord then speaks from heaven, introducing the Servant, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (verse 17).  
After the proper order has been followed – all righteousness fulfilled – the Savior, Yeshua, receives the divine power that will heal and restore the many.  
Special Note on John the Baptist and Jesus 
This note is about an item concerning the historical Jesus, not just Jesus as presented in one or more of the Gospels.  That is unusual for me.  I mostly treat Jesus as an unknown entity, because we can only see him through several layers of lenses which have shaped him in their own imaginations before telling us what they remembered.  
First a few words about the historical John the Baptist.  
Two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent.  They bracket the three years for which Jesus is most remembered, his life’s work, his mission.  One is Jesus’ baptism by John.  The other is his death by crucifixion.  Because they rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical ‘facts,’ they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus’ mission.  (J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 339.)  
For Herod [Antipas] had put [John the Baptist] to death, even though he was a good man and had encouraged the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards one another and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism…. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were roused to fever pitch by his words, Herod became alarmed.  He feared that John’s ability to sway people might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would act on John’s advice in everything that they did.  Herod therefore decided that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising … And so John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus…and there put to death.  (Josephus, Antiquities 18.115-119, as quoted in Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, p. 184.)  
So it is historically clear that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – something he would only have submitted to if he shared John’s basic belief that God’s power was about to break forth in judgment and radical rearrangement of the human realm.  However, we cannot accept the Gospels’ view that John recognized Jesus as the “one mightier than himself” in those early days of Jesus’ baptism.  This is clear from the fact that John later, while he was in prison, sends other disciples to ask a now-independent Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3 = Luke 7:19).  John, while he was living, did not know Jesus as having any special status in the divine plan.  (And perhaps his disciples, those who did not join the Jesus movement in the early years, did not know much of Jesus’ special status even many years later; see Acts 18:24-25, and 19:1-7.)  
Jesus the healer.  Several years ago, studying the miracle stories in Matthew’s Gospel, I was struck by an implication of the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.  Historically speaking – no way around it – Jesus was a healer, big time!  That sets him off from his mentor, John the Baptist, of whom no one, Gospels or Josephus, suggests he had any healing powers.  

The implication of this, projected back into some real Jesus’ early life, is that discovering this power to heal was the beginning of Jesus’ own route beyond where the Baptist had brought him. 
One may suppose that as the weeks and months of John’s ministry went on, his disciples (like other assistants at great revivals) worked with the people who came as candidates for the great moment of the dunking.  Worked with people who came with disabilities and psycho-somatic disorders (possessed ones).  In an excited atmosphere, permeated with expectations of divine relief near at hand (such as those predicted in Isaiah 35), a compassionate and spiritually acute believer (Jesus) might come to realize that healing could come through him – that the power of God’s reign was not only ahead, but for some suffering few could happen NOW.  That a pronouncement or a laying on of hands could bring God’s own power into the present moment.  
And, if so, a new page of God’s good news would be opened for those seized by the spirit of that place, time – and that special person.  Jesus clearly became a widely-known healer.  He had to have started at some time – and he probably did not get it directly from John the Baptist.  (In a later view, of course, it came with the Holy Spirit that descended on him at the baptism.)  
I have now learned that other Gospel readers, reflecting on the historical Jesus, have come to the same conclusion.  (The reflections on Matthew 3:13-17 given above were originally written in 2004.) 
How are these differences [between Jesus and John the Baptist] to be accounted for?  Paul Hollenbach (1982) discerns a shift in Jesus’ ministry from baptizer to healer, and accounts for the change by referring to Jesus’ experience of the kingdom of God in his power to heal and exorcize.  Robert Webb (1994, pp. 225-6) accepts this explanation and adds a further observation:  as a prophet, Jesus experienced God’s call at the time of his baptism by John, and only gradually understood the full significance of that call.  “Jesus’ shift from baptizer to healer and exorcist implies a shift to an increased experience and intimacy with the divine realm.”  (Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., p. 188.)  
[The cited works are:  Paul Hollenbach, “The Conversion of Jesus:  From Jesus the Baptizer to Jesus the Healer,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.25.1 (Berlin:  de Gruyter, 1982), pp. 196-219.  
Robert Webb, “John the Baptist and his Relationship to Jesus,” in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus (Leiden:  Brill, 1994), pp. 179-230.]  
In the context of the Baptist’s highly public ministry, Jesus shared the apocalyptic framework of John’s work, but gradually realized that the power of God’s reign was already available for the suffering ones, through his own compassionate voice and touch.  Long after both men were dead, and probably toward the second generation of Jesus followers, Christians had developed a view of John’s subordination to Jesus the Messiah, and that is made clear – though with somewhat inconsistent variations in detail – at the beginnings of all the mainline Gospels.  
Graham Stanton concludes his discussion of John the Baptist with an observation about the greatest difference between Jesus and John.  Unlike Jesus, John was not acclaimed by his disciples as raised from the dead (though Herod heard rumors of such a thing, Matthew 14:1-2).  Thus John gradually became only a page in history while Jesus became the “one more powerful than” he – and much more!  Stanton, p. 189.