Third Sunday in Lent – March 4, 2018

Texts for the Day

The Mosaic Covenant

This is week three of the five-week series on covenants. This week we cover the covenant with Moses. This is a more complex covenant, in some ways encompassing most of the first five books of the Bible.  Spend some time this week reading Exodus 19-31.  This is a fairly big chunk of the book of Exodus.  It begins with the arrival at Sinai and continues with the Ten Commandments.  Moses ascends the mountain and receives the law.  The story ends as Moses comes back, right before the story of the golden calf.

Can you spot the five elements of a covenant?  There are few ways to do this, but here is what I came up with.

  • Suzerain: God
  • Vassal: Moses and all the Israelites
  • Provisions: Israel with be a holy nation (Exodus 19:1-6)
  • Stipulations: The law
  • Sign: The Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17)

Questions for reflection:

  • What is the relationship of Christians to the Mosaic covenant? Are we God’s chosen people?  If so, in what way?  Are we obligated to keep the law?
  • If we are not obligated to keep all of these laws, why are they in our Bible?  What can these laws teach us about our relationships to God and each other?

Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018

Texts for the Day

The Abrahamic Covenant

This is week two of the five-week series on covenants. This week we cover the covenant with Abraham. Read Genesis 17:1-14 (slightly different verses than the lection) and see if you can identify the five components of a convenient.

  • Suzerain: God
  • Vassal: Abraham and his descendants
  • Provisions: Abraham will be the ancestor of many nations.
  • Stipulations: None
  • Sign: Circumcision

There are many things that could be said about this covenant. This week, let us focus on the New Testament interpretation of this covenant. Read Romans 4. This is Paul’s commentary on the story of Abraham. There is a lot going on here, but focus on the following two points.

  • Abraham received God’s righteousness through his faith, not anything he did. Abraham received the covenant before he was circumcised, and the law was still centuries in the future.
  • Through Jesus, we share in the promise of God that was made through Abraham.

However, not all early Christians agreed with this view. Read James 2:20-24. This appears to be a direct rebuttal to Romans 4.

Questions for reflection:

  • What do you think of this? How would you interpret the Abrahamic covenant?
  • What does it mean to be the recipient of an unconditional promise of God? How should it affect the way you live your life?

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?