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?

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?