Tuesday, January 30, 2024

February 4, 2024 -- 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

                              Biblical Words                            [866] 

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

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

Isaiah 40:21-31 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c.  

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

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

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

I Corinthians 9:16-23.  

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:29-39 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 22, 2024

January 28, 2024 -- 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

                            Biblical Words                                                                 [865]  

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

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

Deuteronomy 18:15-20.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 111.  

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

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

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

I Corinthians 8:1-13.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:21-28.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 18, 2024

January 21st, 2024 -- 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

                                   Biblical Words                                                  [864] 

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

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

Jonah 3:1-5, 10.  

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 62:5-12.  

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

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

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

While a human proposes, it is God who disposes.

I Corinthians 7:29-31.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:14-20.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 8, 2024

January 14, 2024 -- 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

                                         Biblical Words                                                [863]  

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

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

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

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

I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20).  

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18.  

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

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

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

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

God knows the innermost truth about the speaker. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Corinthians 6:12-20.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 1:43-51.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

January 7, 2024 -- Epiphany of the Lord

                                     Biblical Words                                                               [862] 

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

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

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

Isaiah 60:1-6.  

Epiphany is about light shining. 

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

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

The script of verses 1-3 would read: 

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

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

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14.  

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 3:1-12.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 2:1-12.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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