Second Sunday of Advent – December 10, 2017

Texts for the Day

The Messiah

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

These are the opening words of the Gospel of Mark, from which we will be reading all year.  This verse introduces the two titles for Jesus that will appear throughout this Gospel, Christ and Son of God.  This week, we will examine the first of these titles, Christ.  This Greek word can also be translated Messiah.

What is the Messiah?  Literally, the term means “Anointed One,” referring to the practice of anointing kings with oil.  Read 2 Samuel 7:1-17.  In this passage, promises are made that the kingdom and dynasty of David will last forever.  And yet we know from history that the kingdom came to an end with the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC.

So how can it be that God still keeps God’s promises?  The subsequent history of Israel has investigated this question.  The reading from Isaiah 40 this week is one such exploration.  By introducing his account with the word Messiah, Mark is making the claim that this promise is going to fulfilled in Jesus.  As we read Mark through the year, see if you can identify where Mark is showing this to be the case.

Questions for reflection:

  • You are not an Israelite in ancient Palestine, but the hope for an Anointed One is a nearly universal feeling. For what in your life are you waiting for a Messiah?
  • Does God keep God’s promises? What do you think of the words in 2 Peter, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
  • In light of your answer, how do you see God’s promises revealed in Jesus?

First Sunday of Advent – December 3, 2017

Texts for the Day

The End of the World

The Gospel reading this week describes the second coming of Christ at the end of time. As Christians, this is something we look forward to (in the Apostles’ Creed, for instance) and there are several depictions of it in the New Testament.

Read Revelation 20:1-6 for one of these different depictions. This passage refers to the banishment of the devil and a thousand-year reign of Christ. Among American Protestants (and some others), views on the end times can be categorized into three categories, based on where this thousand years fits into history.  These categories are about more than this single interpretational point and reflect broader considerations.

  • Premillenialism – The return of Jesus will come at the beginning of the thousand years, over which he will personally reign on earth. This option has a generally negative view of the current state of the world, seeing it as hopelessly lost.
  • Postmillenialism – The thousand years began in the past with Jesus’s resurrection and his reign continues as King of Heaven. There are variations of this that preserve a literal thousand years. This option has a generally positive view of the current state of the world, where the activity of the saints will be perfected at Christ’s return.
  • Amillenialism – The thousand years is figurative and does not refer to a literal period in the history of the world.

Broadly speaking, the predominant view among American Protestants was postmillenialism until the early twentieth century. These days, most conservatives would identify with the premillennial view and liberals with the amillenial one. There are, of course, many nuances and exceptions to this generalization. As far as I know, there is no formal teaching by the ELCA on which view is correct or best.

Questions for reflection:

  • How do you feel about the end of the world? Is the anticipation of the second coming of Christ a part of your spiritual life?
  • Do you identify with any of the three positions outlined above? If so, why? If not, is there another you find better?
  • How does thinking about the end times inform our life here and now? Is it informative or is it a distraction? Would it be better to not think about end times at all?

Christ the King – November 26, 2017

Texts for the Day

Year B Preview

Christ the King is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, with 2018 beginning the following week with the first Sunday of Advent. We will be in Year B. Instead of offering a study on the readings for the day, here is a preview of the year. The selections for the Revised Common Lectionary, the lectionary we use at St. James, can be found online at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu.

Old Testament – Usually the Old Testament reading is thematically chosen to match the Gospel reading. The exception is the alternate first reading during the season of Pentecost is a semi-continuous series. Over three years it covers selections from the entire Old Testament. This summer and fall, we will be starting with the books of Samuel and the first part of 1 Kings. Then we will read from Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Esther, Job, and Ruth. It’s not quite in order, but they put the wisdom books near the story of Solomon, as much of the wisdom literature is popularly attributed to him.

Epistle – The epistle readings for Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost follow series, reading selections from each letter more or less in order. Epiphany will feature 1 Corinthians. Easter will be 1 John. In Pentecost we will hear from 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, James, and Hebrews.

Gospel – Year B focuses on the Gospel of Mark. During Advent, Epiphany, and Pentecost, most of the readings will be from that Gospel, often simply working their way through the book chapter by chapter.  The Christmas season will feature Luke, as Mark has no infancy narrative. In Lent and Easter we will hear mostly from John. Mark is the shortest gospel and John does not have its own year, so here is where we make up some of that difference.

Bible reading plans – If you have a regular practice of Bible reading, one way to organize it would be to try to cover in their entirety several of the books from which we will be reading snippets on Sunday.  My suggestions to start would be Mark, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 2 Corinthians.

Pentecost 23 – November 12, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

Wisdom Personified – There are two choices given for the thematic Old Testament reading this week.  The Amos reading is the well-known “Let justice roll down like waters” passage, but you may never have even heard of the book of Wisdom.  This book is one of the Apocrypha.  These are Old Testament books that are used by some Christian denominations and not others.  While they are not considered inspired Scripture by Protestants, they are certainly worth reading.

Read Wisdom 6:12-25 this week.  Wisdom is personified and imagined as a woman in this passage.  For an instance of this image in our own canon, read Proverbs 8.  What do you think about this?  Have you thought of Wisdom as a woman before?

Resurrection of the Dead – While we all know about Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, we pay less attention to our own.  The New Testament writers looked forward to a bodily resurrection of believers, where we will have a new physical body, the same as Jesus did.  We proclaim it in the Apostles’ Creed when we say, “We believe in…the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” Besides the reading from 1 Thessalonians, here are a few other places to look.

Questions for reflection:

  • What do you think of this? How does this fit in with other ideas you may have heard about the afterlife?
  • If our bodies are going to be raised, how does this change our relationships with our bodies in this life?

All Saints Day – November 5, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

Let’s read Revelation! – Given its prominence in the popular imagination, the book of Revelation receives very little attention from the lectionary.  Spend some time this week putting the Revelation 7 text we read on All Saints’ Day back into its original context.  Read Revelation 4-10.  This section of the book is a series of alternating visions, switching between heaven and earth.  The sequence is as follows.

It is generally believed that the original audience of the book of Revelation was suffering from persecution.  Although highly symbolic in nature, these chapters appear to be making a connection between suffering for the faith (down on earth) and the eventual victory of God (up in heaven).  What do you think of this?  Do you find it helpful?  What bothers about this imagery and language?

Children of God – The epistle reading from 1 John declares, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” The idea that thorough the work of Christ we are children of God is a recurring idea in the New Testament. Here two more places to look. One is also in the Johannine literature (i.e. the Gospel of John and the three letters of John) and the other is from Paul.

Last week, in John 8:31-36, we read similar language about how we are no longer slaves to sin.  Such talk is rooted in the Greco-Roman social structure, but it is fairly easy to grasp what is happening here.  The needs for freedom and belonging never go out of style.  Questions for reflection:

  • Which do you find more useful, begin seen as no longer slaves or being seen as children? Why?  If you find both inaccessible, what would you prefer?
  • What about people who are not Christian? Are they children of God as well?

Reformation Sunday – October 29, 2017

Texts for the Day

This week, we will be using the readings from Reformation Sunday rather than from the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost.

Commentary and Reflection

The commentary this week will focus on the Gospel reading.  This is a short passage, but there is a lot going on and it takes some time to unpack it all.  Before reading this study, spend some time on your own reading the passage several times.  Note the words and ideas that move you or perplex you.  Here are some that I noticed.

Commitment – Read John 8:12-59.  The setting for this story is the temple in Jerusalem during the festival of booths (September-October).

In verses 31-36, Jesus is addressing a group of Jews who have recently come to believe in him.  Jesus appears to questioning their sincerity.  This is not an unfamiliar idea.  What is holding you back from full commitment?

Truth – “The truth will make you free.”  The idea of truth here seems to mean something more than just general knowledge.  See John 14:6 where Jesus declares himself to be, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

What do you think Jesus means by truth?  Is there a type of truth that is deeper than merely facts and history?

Freedom – The freedom that Jesus refers to is not a freedom to do as we please, in the way we understand freedom in our culture.  Jesus is referring to a literal freedom from slavery.  We are slaves to sin in the same way that many people in Jesus’s time were slaves to human masters.

While the idea of slavery can be intimidating, spend some time with it.  Read John 15:12-17, where Jesus returns to the same theme (servants = slaves in the Greek).  Is there anything to which you are a slave?  How can faith and commitment to Jesus be a source of freedom for you?

 

What else do you notice in this passage that have not been mentioned?  Why do you think this is the Gospel selection for Reformation Sunday?

Pentecost 20 – October 22, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

God in History – “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” This verse, from the end of the Isaiah reading, depicts God as the architect of history.  The first verse even refers to Cyrus, emperor of the Persians, as the Messiah (i.e. anointed), for his role in ending the Babylonian exile.

How do you feel about this?  If God causes history, how should we respond to tragedies?  What does this do to the idea of free will?

Thessalonians – This week begins another series of readings from the epistles. This time, we spend five weeks in 1 Thessalonians. A usual, this first week would be a good time to read the epistle in its entirety. The first letter to the Thessalonians is regarded by most scholars as the first letter from Paul that we have and the oldest book of the New Testament. (Some others give that distinction to the letter to Galatians.) It is a letter of encouragement to a community Paul has founded. When you read it, what do you notice that you might have missed hearing it piece by piece on Sunday morning?

Church and State – It is often claimed that because church and state are separate in our government, that politics and religion should not be mixed. Whatever the truth of that claim, it is not possible this week. Jesus is asked a question which demands a political answer. Questions for reflection:

  • What contemporary issues in our country require both religious and political answers? As with paying taxes in first century Palestine, are there places where we simply can’t ignore the religious implications of political questions?
  • What can we learn from Jesus’s answer to address these situations? Is he simply being evasive or does his answer reveal a deeper truth about how we should live in the world?
  • What do you think about religion and politics? In what ways should religious leaders be involved in the way our government makes decisions? What should they not do?

Pentecost 19 – October 15, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

The Isaiah Apocalypse – The thematic connection of Isaiah 25 to the Gospel text is a bit tenuous, with the feast imagery being almost the only thing that connects them.  This week, put this passage back in its original context by reading Isaiah 24-27 in its entirety.

This section is commonly referred to as the “Isaiah Apocalypse.”  These four chapters are dated by modern scholars to the fifth century BCE, more than two hundred years after the historical Isaiah, the author of most of chapters 1-39.  While it lacks the highly structured visions and timelines of later works such as Daniel and Revelation, many of the elements of apocalyptic literature are present.  These include a focus on the end times, divine judgment, the destruction of the earth, and the dramatic victory of God on a “day of the Lord” in the near future.

Questions to think about:

  • What do you like about these chapters? What do you find disturbing or challenging?
  • Where does Isaiah 25:1-9 fit into this section? How does it work differently when read with Matthew 22?

Judgement – “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  The theme of judgment figures prominently in this section of Matthew.  These and similar harsh words are hard to interpret.  As we enter deeper into the Jerusalem ministry, culminating in the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-46) on Christ the King Sunday, take some time to think about this theme.  What are your feelings about it?  What is the place for God’s judgment in the life of faithful Christians?

Comfort – In times of national tragedy, it is common to turn to the Bible for comfort.  Psalm 23, the Psalm for today, is one text that is widely used and important for this purpose.  Here are some other places in the Bible to look.

I composed this list by looking up the word “comfort” in the concordance in the back of my study Bible.  Some editions of the Bible also have lists of texts for particular situations that can be useful.  Another possibility is to simply browse the Psalms until you find something that moves you.

Pentecost 18 – October 8, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

The Ten Commandments – Spend some time this week reading about the Ten Commandments in Luther’s catechisms.  The first section of the Small Catechism offers some basic instruction.  The Large Catechism section on the Ten Commandments is quite lengthy, so perhaps pick and choose one or more commandments that you find particularly interesting and skim the rest.

Notice at the end the way Luther concludes the discussion.

Therefore it is not in vain that it is commanded in the Old Testament to write the Ten Commandments on all walls and corners, yes, even on the garments, not for the sake of merely having them written in these places and making a show of them, as did the Jews, but that we might have our eyes constantly fixed upon them, and have them always in our memory, and that we might practice them in all our actions and ways, and every one make them his daily exercise in all cases, in every business and transaction, as though they were written in every place wherever he would look, yea, wherever he walks or stands. Thus there would be occasion enough, both at home in our own house and abroad with our neighbors, to practice the Ten Commandments, that no one need run far from them.

Do you agree with this sentiment?  How does this reflect upon or inform the current controversies centered around public display of the Ten Commandments?

More Skipped Text – The lectionary has been moving through Matthew more or less in order.  However, before last Sunday’s text, there was an important transition that went unmentioned.  Jesus is now in Jerusalem.  Read Matthew 21:1-17.  This is the story of the entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple.

Our readings last week and this week are events that happened the next day.  Jesus and the chief priests are not getting along.  But instead of apologizing or even attempting to negotiate, Jesus tells this strongly worded parable.  Why do you think he did this?

Pentecost 17 – October 1, 2017

Texts for the Day

Commentary and Reflection

Psalm 78 – Take a look at Psalm 78 this week. This is a so-called “historical litany” psalm that tells an extended story about the history of Israel. This Psalm tells the story of the Exodus. A portion of it is the psalm this week because it contains the story of the water from the rock, the reading from Exodus in the semi-continuous series.

The attribution, “A maskil of Asaph,” at the beginning of the psalm gives some additional information. Asaph was a singer in the courts of King David and Solomon who is mentioned several other places in the Old Testament. Read 1 Chronicles 16:1-36 for a depiction of Asaph singing for David.

This week, read the psalm in its entirety, not just the short selection for Sunday. If convenient, read it aloud, to partially recapture its original identity as a song. Questions for reflection:

  • How is it different to hear this story in poetry form, rather than the more familiar narrative of Exodus 17? What do you notice? What themes or details do you miss?
  • What does the psalmist think is the meaning of the story? Do you agree with this interpretation? How does the literary setting of Asaph singing in David’s court inform your answer to these questions?

Retributive Justice – “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.”

The last few weeks have brought us numerous natural disasters in several parts of the world.  In light of texts like the one we see this week from Ezekiel, in such times there are always public voices proclaiming that the victims of these disasters must have done something wrong that displeased God.  This assumption is known as retributive justice, the idea that God rewards the good and punishes sinners in this life.

While reward and punishment are key themes of both Old and New Testaments, the Bible does not speak with a unified voice about whether God’s justice works this way.  Here are a few texts that challenge, qualify, or contradict the idea of retributive justice and can be useful at times like these.

What do you think?  Does God reward the good and punish the evil?  Can natural disasters be supernatural or are they always just that, natural?