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Month: December 2016

Bible Tuesday for Christmas Day 2016

Bible Tuesday for Christmas Day, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10

7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the victory of our God.

This passage is a summary of the previous chapter, where God responds to the pleading prayer of Israel to rescue them from captivity. When Israel and Judah were taken into captivity by Assyria and then Babylonia, they believed that God had either abandoned them or was weaker than the gods of their captors. The prophets in the Hebrew scriptures all ascribe the Jewish losses to their unfaithfulness to God, but the Jewish people were not so sure. This passage of Isaiah addresses those doubts. Note that verse 7 ends in “Your God reigns!” and verse 10 ends with “All the ends of the earth shall see the victory of our God.”

This passage reflects the history of the time. The Persians had already defeated Babylonia when this was written and some Jews had already returned to Jerusalem. This is made plain in verse 8, where sentinels who rejoice at the sight of God are mentioned.

Psalm 98

1 O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gained him victory.
2 The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.

4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
8 Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
9 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

While many verses in the Hebrew Scriptures speak of what God will do, this psalm describes the rejoicing of what God has already done. All of creation, both animate and inanimate, praise God.

The marvels that God has enacted are so wondrous that already known praise songs are inadequate. New music, new lyrics, groundbreaking style must be imagined to mark the marvel of God beheld by God’s people.

Not only has God done wonders, but God will continue to act marvelously in pure righteousness and equity. No good lawyers, no bribes, no legal technicalities will help or harm any who stand before God.

Hebrews 1:1-12

11Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,*whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains* all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you’?
Or again,
‘I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son’?
6And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’
7Of the angels he says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’
8But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is* for ever and ever,
and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your* kingdom.
9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’
‘In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;
12 like a cloak you will roll them up,
and like clothing* they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end.’

Whether the author of Hebrews was able to read the gospel of John, or the author of John was able to read the book of Hebrews, they open their books with very similar ideas. Jesus is no ordinary son. The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as God, and dives right into the confusing concept of God, the intangible, works through Jesus, the tangible yet God, in order to create and sustain tangible things, that being all that is. Not only is Jesus the means through which God creates, Jesus is also the heir of all creation.

The idea, the systematic, the theology, is this: God is perfection and because of sin, humans are not. Because humans live in creation and sin in creation, creation is no longer perfect either. God tries and tries and tries to have relationship with humanity, as the Hebrew scriptures attest, but humans misinterpret, ignore, and reject God. Humans find God too high, too far away, too fearful and wonderful to relate to. So, in some mystery beyond human comprehension, God who is one being but somehow three persons, separates one of the persons who is, by pure miracle, born to a human mother (no sexual intercourse involved) thus human, but also God. God, Mary, and Joseph name this human/God Iesua, or Jesus, which means “God saves”. Jesus/God does exactly what his name means. Jesus lives the perfect human life, models how humans can be in relationship with God, models how God is in relationship with humans and all creation, and then is innocent yet executed by the very humans he taught. Because Jesus accomplished all this, God not only created all through him but now makes him heir of all that is.

The author of Hebrews expresses this idea of Jesus by quoting scriptures which refute incorrect ideas of who Jesus is that were in circulation at the time. Some thought Jesus was some kind of angel but the scriptures quoted in the above passage of Hebrews establishes that angels are in fact inferior of and servants to Jesus.

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth.

Logos- “The Word” in this passage is the English translation of the Greek word “logos”. As with “word”, “logos” has many meanings and shades thereof. “Logos” in its most basic sense means to reckon or to explain, as in to give an accounting of. It can also refer to lists of items or people. The “logos” is always spoken; with no hearer there is no “logos”. In this sense “logos” also means to gather or to assemble, as in “The people gather in assembly.” “Logos” means promise as in, “I give you my word”. “Logos” means will as in “Gramma’s will is that you come home for Christmas” and “last will and testimony” which is a list of what the author desires after his/her death.

The above passage of John’s gospel identifies Jesus as the “Logos” of God made flesh. Jesus is an explanation of God. Jesus also gathers and assembles people to teach them about and show them God. Jesus is the sower of God’s “logos”, only some of which falls on good soil. Jesus is and does God’s will. Jesus is the fullest expression of God that humans can comprehend.

Jesus/God- The four gospels present Jesus in three different ways by answering the question, “When did Jesus become God?” Mark skips any information about Jesus until Jesus is baptized and God’s voice is heard saying “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Mark seems to be presenting Jesus as becoming God’s son at baptism, as sort of adoption. Matthew and Luke both tell stories of Jesus’ conception, whether Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary or Joseph’s dreams of guidance to marriage. Through these events, Matthew and Luke present Jesus as God’s son at conception. In the above passage, it is the writer of John who presents Jesus as God’s son and God for all eternity.

As Jesus is born of God, so are the faithful – Jewish tradition states that one becomes a child of God by becoming Jewish. In the above passage, John states things quite differently. “To all who receive him, he gives the power to become children of God…” One becomes a child of God, not by being born Jewish, or by converting to Judaism, but by receiving Jesus as God’s word in the flesh. It is God who does this, not inheritance or blood lines.

Lived among us – This is an English translation of the Jewish idiom “pitched his tent among all of ours”. A modern translation of this would be “The word became a human who moved in next door.” Indeed! Alleluia!

Bible Tuesday for Advent IV, 2016

Bible Tuesday for Advent IV, 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah* said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman* is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.* 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

King Ahaz, one of the most wicked kings over either Israel. He thought so little of God that he allowed his non-Jewish wife, Jezebel, to erect an altar to her gods in the Temple in Jerusalem. King Ahaz was pressured by kings of neighboring enemies to ally with them against Assyria. However, Ahaz chose to fight the pressure rather than the foe and allied with Assyria against the neighbors. Assyria defeated all of them and took much of the land of Israel including Galilee, Naphtali, and Hazor. This passage of Isaiah is written about the time when Ahaz was considering these alliances. Ahaz truly did not believe in God and so the above passage, “Ask a sign of the Lord, your God” is an invitation for Ahaz to test the waters of relationship with God. Ahaz declines because he just plain doesn’t believe in God. In addition, Ahaz is relying on his alliances over God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf!

So, instead of a test, God, through the prophet Isaiah, gives Ahaz a sign. A young woman is pregnant. The prophet declares that the child will be a son and should be named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us”. It was traditional not to completely ween children until they were between three and four years of age. Round about age three, children started eating curds and honey in addition to mother’s milk. So, the sign God gives through Isaiah is that God is indeed with Israel and will clear out the warring neighbors from their lands (using Assyria as His tool to do so) by the time this pregnant woman’s children is 3 or 4 years old. That is what the passage meant at the time it was given to Ahaz.

This passage takes on different meaning in later years, as Jews watched for their messiah. The Hebrew word, “Young woman” took on new meaning in this messianic tradition. “Young woman” came to mean, “young maiden”, that is “young virgin”. It is to this passage, among others, that the gospel writers point when they identify Jesus as messiah.

Psalm 80 1-7, 17-19

To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!

3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us the scorn* of our neighbours;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.

14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.*
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;*
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

While the Revised Common Lectionary omits verses 8-16, I have included them to give context to the whole psalm. This is a psalm of lament from which the Advent phrase, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and come” is taken. This psalm is written of Israel when it was suffering at the hands of enemies, possibly even during various sieges laid against various cities of Israel and Judah over its history.

“You who are enthroned upon the Cherabim” refers to the Ark of the Covenant which had two cherubim on the top of it and was to serve as God’s footstool, a reminder of God’s constant presence with Israel.

“You make us the scorn of our neighbors” – in this lectionary selection, this phrase fits well with Ahaz’s enemies trying to force Israel into alliance against Assyria and then Assyria’s double cross.

Verses 8 – 16 utilize a common metaphor found in Hebrew scriptures: Israel is a vine which God planted and nurtures. It is on this metaphor that Jesus builds which he says, “I AM the vine, and you are the branches…”

Romans 1:1-7

Paul, a servant* of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit* of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Here, in the first verses of St. Paul’s theological treatise, is a complete explanation of the Trinity, Christianity, and the task of the baptized. Note that Paul’s theology as stated here (he seems to state other things in other places) is that Jesus is declared to be the Son of God, not born that way. This is in keeping with Mark’s gospel. Matthew, and Luke present the idea that Jesus was God’s son at conception, while the gospel of John states that Jesus is God, and then is born of a human and is fully human/fully God, and then returns to being fully God.

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

In older translations of this text, the word “engaged” was replaced with the word “betrothed”. I appreciate that difference. In Jesus day, betrothal is an agreement between bride and groom, bride’s family and groom’s family. The couple are not cohabitating yet, nor has the ceremony been presided over by a rabbi nor witnessed by family and friends, but the couple and their families are bonded together on the road to marriage. The bond is broken by a certificate of divorce. If the groom gets a certificate of divorce due to infidelity and there is proof (pregnant belly), the bride is to be stoned to death.

Note the usage of the Isaiah passage from above in this passage from Matthew. Here the term “young woman” means “young virgin maiden”.

Joseph has no marital relations with Mary until after Jesus is born. In Catholic and Orthodox tradition, Joseph and Mary never have marital relations. The gospels and Matthew and Luke specifically mention Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which Catholic and Orthodox traditions say can be translated as relatives, such as cousins.

The name “Jesus” is an anglicized version of the Hebrew “Ieshua” which means

Bible Tuesday for Advent III, 2016

Bible Tuesday for Advent III, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,*
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

8 A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,*
but it shall be for God’s people;*
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9 No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

In the previous chapters of Isaiah, the prophet described the lands of Israel and Judah as being wastelands, ravaged by Babylonia due to Israel and Judah’s sins against God. In the above chapter, the prophet describes the beginning of the Israelite exiles journey back from Babylonia to Mt. Zion in Jerusalem when their captivity is over.

The normal route from Babylonia to Jerusalem follows the Euphrates River north and then southwest, around the desert. But in this passage, the prophet states that God will cause the desert to bloom with crocuses, and plenty of water so that the exiles do not waste time traveling up and around but take the direct route through the desert back to God’s Holy Mountain, Zion.

Verse 8 of this chapter tells us that “the unclean shall not travel on it”. This is because God, himself, will travel with the returning exiles, reflecting God’s leading of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Since God will be personally present, all must be ritually clean.

God’s presence among these sorrowing exiles will expel grief and exhaustion, blindness and lameness, deafness and loss of speech. It is the personal presence of God which causes colorless deserts of mourning to break forth into lush colors of life and healing.

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’

It is profound that an unwed pregnant teenager would wax so eloquently and gratefully as this, the Magnificat. Pregnancy outside of marriage in Biblical times did not just get a teen girl into great grief with her parents, her family, her friends, and church, but with the whole people of Israel, who would stone her to death. Yet here Mary is singing about how grateful she is that God was working this wonder in her life, and through her life for all Israel.

James 5:7-10

7 Be patient, therefore, beloved,* until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.* 9Beloved,* do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved,* take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

The writer of James first wrote these words within 50 years of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. He wrote them to people who expected to see Jesus return with all the angels any day now. I am sure both the writer and his audience would have their minds blown that 2000 years later we are reading their correspondence while still waiting for the return of Jesus.

James invokes Jesus’ “Judge not or else you will be judged.” In this case, the judge described as standing at the door is Jesus. Instead of judging, the writer follows in the tradition of the book of Hebrews and calls the reader/listener to follow the path of the faithful in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah* was doing, he sent word by his* disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone* dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet?* Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

As I stated a couple weeks ago, the gospel of Matthew makes a strong point on numerous occasions to point out how Jesus fulfills the prophecies in the Old Testament. Verses 2-6 is one such occasion.

In verses 7-11, Jesus addresses the crowds about John the Baptist. John was an anomaly to which many gawkers flocked. When Jesus asks the crowds why they went to see John the Baptist, there are some idioms in his questions which are puzzling to the modern reader.

“A reed shaken by the wind?” – John the Baptist railed against the then King of the Jews, Herod the Great. First, Herod was actually Jewish but was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau, not Jacob. Second, Herod had his brother assassinated in order to stead his wife. Third, Herod the Great was in Rome’s pocket. A lot of grist for John’s mill! The currency Herod the Great had minted for use by the Jews and in the Temple in Jerusalem did not have his face on it, as that would be a violation of the second commandment “You shall not make for yourselves graven images…” Instead, that coinage bore Herod’s sign, two reeds, or two palm fronts, the long skinny kind. “A reed shaken by the wind” is Herod bristling at John’s accusations.

“Someone dressed in soft robes?” – Soft robes were worn by a person of power who didn’t have to labor all day for a meal. While John the Baptist lived a unique lifestyle, he was certainly not pampered.

“A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet…Yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” – John the Baptist was the harbinger of the covenant come to life, the Messiah as God intended messiah to be. John spoke “truth to power” in the tradition of the great prophets: Jeremiah, Elijah, Hosea, Isaiah. But, John is also the last of his kind because he is announcing the dawning of a new era when prophets are not necessary because God in the flesh speaks for himself. Those who believe the words that Jesus speaks dwell in the Kingdom of God.