First Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2018

Texts for the Day

Covenant

This week, we will begin a five-week series on covenants in the Bible. With one exception, the studies will follow the Old Testament readings from Year B of the lectionary. This week, we will learn about the covenant God made with Noah after the flood.

Covenant is a term that comes from the ancient Near Eastern cultural tradition in which the Bible developed. It refers to what our society would refer to as a treaty or a contract. The most similar pattern to the Biblical covenants is a treaty in which a vassal pledges fealty to a more powerful ruler. The nation of Israel was a party on both sides to several such covenants over the course of its history. This would have been a familiar pattern and have several features that are usually present.

  • Suzerain – The more powerful party to the covenant.
  • Vassal – The lesser party who is pledging fealty to the suzerain.
  • Provisions – What the suzerain will provide to the vassal (e.g. military protection)
  • Stipulations – What the vassal will provide to the suzerain (e.g. tribute)
  • Sign – What the parties will do to ratify and remember the covenant (e.g. copies deposited into the temples of both parties)

In the Noah story, the suzerain is God. The vassal is all of creation. The provision is God’s continued providence. There are no stipulations. The sign is the rainbow.

What do you think of the fact that there are no stipulations in the covenant with Noah?  What does this say about God’s relationship to creation?  What hints does it give about the meaning of the flood story?

Transfiguration Sunday – February 11, 2018

Texts for the Day

Moses and Elijah

For the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the lectionary includes the story of the Transfiguration.  In this familiar yet mysterious story, Jesus is seen with Moses and Elijah.  Why is it that those two particular figures from Israel’s past appear with Jesus?  Why not Abraham and David, or Isaiah and Ezekiel?  This week, we will take a look a few texts to understand what the appearance of Moses and Elijah says about Jesus.

Moses – Read Deuteronomy 34:1-12.  The important part for this study is the final three verses beginning, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, who the Lord knew face to face.”  Israel had many prophets, but Moses was viewed as the greatest of them all, the one who received the Law directly from God.

What does this say about Jesus?  The Gospels present Jesus as a new Moses.  Jesus teaches with authority, not as the scribes, who were the keepers of the tradition that was attributed to Moses.

Elijah – Read Malachi 4:1-6.  This passage mentions Moses the lawgiver, but it also mentions Elijah.  Elijah was a prophet from the northern Kingdom of Israel during the time of Ahab.  You can read his story in 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 2.  At the end, the prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.  But the Malachi text above reveals another tradition about Elijah.  Elijah will return before the end of time.

What does this say about Jesus?  Jesus himself answers this question in the verses immediately after today’s reading (Mark 9:11-13), where Mark identifies John the Baptist as the returned Elijah. (This is made explicit in Matthew’s version of the story, Matthew 16:11-13).  In this way, the Transfiguration makes a strong connection to two key Old Testament figures.

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany – February 4, 2018

Texts for the Day

Apocalypse!

The word apocalypse is usually associated in our culture with the end of the world, but that is not the whole story. The word apocalypse literally means revelation. Apocalyptic thought and storytelling relates to any time God is directly revealed and intervenes in the history of the world.  The Gospel of Mark is full of apocalyptic thinking.

Re-read Mark 1. The story begins with the heavens being torn apart and a voice speaking, “You are my Son.” (verse 10) Apparently, the tear stays open, because immediately (a favorite word of Mark’s) strange things begin to happen.

Questions for reflection:

  • Think about the apocalyptic in your own life. Where do you want God’s intervention, for the heavens to be torn open and the lines between heaven and earth to be blurred? Where would such intervention be unwelcome?
  • Where else in Mark to you see apocalyptic language and imagery? Keep this question in mind this year as we continue reading through Mark.

For those interested in learning more about this Gospel, we will be doing a four-part evening series on the Gospel of Mark. It begins February 11 and continuing the second Sunday of each month. All meetings are at St. James and begin at 6pm.

  • February 11: What is a Gospel?
  • March 11: Sayings and Parables
  • April 8: Journey and Passion
  • May 6: A Gospel for Times of Strife

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany – January 28, 2018

Texts for the Day

Contemplation

This week offers something a little different. The Gospel readings the first few weeks after Epiphany are particularly suitable for a spiritual practice known as Gospel Contemplation. This is a form of imaginative prayer that has been helpful to many people. Although it has its roots in Ignatian Spirituality and the Roman Catholic Church, there is nothing particularly sectarian about the practice itself and it can be used by Christians across diverse denominations.

This form of prayer can be done with any narrative passage of scripture. Scenes from the Gospels work particularly well. After reading the passage, try to place yourself in the scene. Who are you? What do you see? Use all of your senses. Are there sounds or smells that you notice? After spending a few minutes doing this, read the passage again. See how the experience is different.

If you are interested, the articles and resources below have more details on how to do contemplation and incorporate it into your prayer life.

Articles on imaginative prayer and Gospel Contemplation

A daily devotion based on Ignatian Spirituality. Many of these use the contemplation technique.

Third Sunday After Epiphany – January 21, 2018

Texts for the Day

Jonah

This week, spend some time reading the book of Jonah.  It is not long, but it is surprisingly complex, with some interesting themes for our time.  The book is traditionally divided into four chapters.  Chapters 1 and 3 tell stories of episodes in the life of Jonah, while Chapters 2 and 4 give Jonah’s reaction and response to each of the episodes.  As you read the story, think about Jonah’s responses and how you think you would react.

Chapter 1: This is the familiar story of Jonah and the fish. Here is a little bit of background. Jonah probably lived sometime around the year 750 BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel. There is a prophet of the same name in the court of Jeroboam II at that time who could be the same person. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, an empire much larger and stronger than Israel and its main enemy. Tarshish is probably in Spain, but the main point is that it is as far as Jonah can go in the opposite direction.

Chapter 2: Jonah says a prayer of thanksgiving from inside the fish. Here is something to think about. Why was this a prayer of thanksgiving, rather than a “get me out of this fish” prayer? What has been you “in the fish” moment? What were your prayers like?

Chapter 3: Jonah goes to Nineveh and the people repent. This is wildly implausible and these events have no analogue in the historical record. In fact, certain details such as the exaggerated extent of the city and the animals in sackcloth indicate that perhaps this is not to be taken literally. Israel was destroyed by Assyria mere decades after the time in which this story is set.

Chapter 4: Jonah is angry that God has mercy on the Ninevites.  In part, this is because he cannot comprehend that God can show mercy to Jonah’s enemies. He also feels that he has been made a fool and a false prophet. When have you had this conversation with God? When have self-centered attitudes or hatred for enemies blinded you to God’s merciful work in the world?

Second Sunday After Epiphany- January 14, 2018

Texts for the Day

Dialogue

It is commonplace to hear assertions of the sort, “The Bible says…” followed by the quotation of a single verse. It’s a compelling way to use the Bible, one that puts full trust in it as the word of God. However, it has its limits. If we widen the lens beyond the quotation of single verses, we discover a landscape that reveals an ongoing dialogue regarding the nature of God’s promises. Parts of the Bible talk to each other, and they don’t always agree. We have one such example this week.

Read Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Fear not. This is not the reading for next Sunday, or any Sunday. It’s a strange text, outlining communities of people who are excluded from full participation in the community. Were there good reasons for this? Perhaps there were. Perhaps there weren’t. We don’t really know.

Now read Isaiah 56:1-8. This is a description of the restored community returning from exile. Notice how the invitation is widened to all people willing to participate. The prohibitions against eunuchs and foreigners in Deuteronomy 23 are explicitly contradicted. Here we have a record of a community grappling with questions of who is in and who is out, in ways not dissimilar from our own.

Questions for reflection:

  • How do you respond to the ways in which the Bible dialogues and disagrees with itself? Do you need to harmonize it into a single message? Or can we pick and choose which verses to believe in? Or is there a middle way that respects the complexity of the debate?
  • How would you continue the dialogue? What modern questions are left unanswered? What would you like to add? Here are two examples:
    • Many people these days recoil from the exclusive claims of Christianity, believing that the magnitude of God’s love for the whole world makes it impossible for only Christians to be saved. In what ways does Isaiah 56 reflect this view? In what ways does it differ or fall short?
    • Do you see this text as a prophecy about Jesus? Why or why not? If so, was the author aware of this or was the connection only clear in hindsight?

Baptism of the Lord – January 7, 2018

Texts for the Day

Baptism

This week we will focus on baptism. Read the section on Baptism in the Small Catechism.  Here is a short quote to give you the idea.

[Baptism] works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

The New Testament refers repeatedly to the practice of baptism, which has been a part of the church’s practice from the very beginning. See, for instance, the reading this week in Acts. There are two primary symbol sets that are used to describe what happens when we are baptized.

Washing away of sins – One way of viewing baptism is the washing away of our sins. Read Titus 3:1-8. The word translated “water” in the NRSV is literally “washing.”  It is not the water itself that washes away our sins. It is God’s action. Notice how all three persons of the Trinity are depicted as active in the work of salvation.

Death and rebirth – The other primary way the New Testament sees baptism is as a death to sin and a rebirth into Christ. Read Romans 6:1-4. Here, amid his densely packed theology on justification by faith, Paul makes room for a mention of baptism. Through baptism we share in the resurrection by dying and rising to new life.

Which of these explanations speaks to you?  Do you see baptism as a metaphorical washing or as a metaphorical drowning?  Which other symbols or metaphors have you heard or can come up with would you like to add?

First Sunday After Christmas – December 31, 2017

Texts for the Day

Alleluia

The psalm this week is a hymn of praise. Continuing the discussion last week on the Magnificat, let us consider this psalm in more detail.

  • This psalm is part of a group of psalms that comes at the end of the book. Read Psalms 146-150. All of these are songs of praise. What do you notice is similar about them? What differences do you notice?
  • Psalm 148 depicts all of creation singing praise to God. Read the creation account in Genesis 1. Notice how all of the created beings in that narrative are praising God in this psalm. What does it mean for creation to praise God? In what ways have you witnessed this praise?
  • When we think of prayer, prayers of petition are what most frequently come to mind. We tell each other, “I will pray for you,” and ask, “What are you praying for?” Yet this psalm is pure praise. Nothing is asked of God. There isn’t even thanksgiving for the answering of other prayers. What could we learn from this? Could there be a place for pure praise in your prayer life?

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 24, 2017

Texts for the Day

The Transformation of the World

This is the fourth of our Advent series on what we are waiting for. In previous weeks we have talked about the end of the world. We have talked about Jesus and his identity as Messiah and Son of God. We have not, however, talked about what we are waiting for in this world, in the here and now. The selection of the Mary’s song, the Magnificat, gives us an opportunity to do just that.

Singing and praising God is a common motif in Luke. For examples, read Luke 2:20, Luke 17:15, or Luke 24:53. See if you can find more of your own. Several of these songs are even written down.

  • The first of these is Mary’s song which is in the lectionary this week. Mary sings this song when she visits Elizabeth.
  • The second song is sung by Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, after the birth of their son John. Read this song in Luke 1:68-79.
  • A third song is sung by Simeon, a man Mary and Joseph meet when they present Jesus in the temple. Read this song in Luke 2:29-32.

All of these songs praise God for what God has done in the singers’ lives. What other themes do you notice in these songs? How are they similar? How are they different?

Questions for reflection:

  • In what ways do you sing this song? What great deeds has God performed for you? For what do you still wait?
  • In what ways do you see this song as a call to action? How are you called to be God’s hands in performing great deeds and fulfilling God’s promise?
  • In what ways do you see this song as a challenge? Are you among the rulers who will be brought down or the rich who will be sent away empty? How do you respond to this?

Third Sunday of Advent – December 17, 2017

Texts for the Day

The Son of God

This week, we turn to the second of the titles of Jesus given in Mark 1:1, the Son of God. What exactly is meant by this? This is not a simple question, as the conversation over Jesus’s identity has gone on for the entire history of Christianity. Compare the following two characterizations of Jesus. First, we read from the prologue to John’s Gospel, verses that immediately precede the selection for this week.

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

This proclaims the divine identity of Jesus, but does not spell out the dual human and divine nature of Jesus that is professed by nearly all Christians today. Compare this to the words of the Nicene Creed, which are more explicit.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.

Questions for reflection:

  • Who do you think Jesus is? How do these Scriptural and credal statements inform your views?
  • How are God’s promises reflected in Jesus’s identity? You may want to reread the Isaiah 61 reading for clues?
  • So what? What is the connection between the identity of Jesus and how we conduct our lives?