18 January 2018

The Third Sunday after The Epiphany, 21 January 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
I Corinthians 7:29-31
St. Mark 1:14-20

Background: Nineveh

Nineveh serves as a good representative “foreign” city in the universalistic sermon we know as the Book of Jonah. Ancient Nineveh was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire sitting on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. It’s reputation as being the largest city in the world lasted until 612 BCE when it was destroyed by the Babylonians and Medes. The name seems, from its cuneiform symbols, to indicate a “Place of Fish”. It was an important cross road weaving commercial routes coming from the east and going on to the Mediterranean basin. It was originally settled around 6000 BCE and had become a cult center for Ishtar around 3000 BCE. It was built on a fault line and suffered numerous earthquakes. It plays a significant role in the Bible, both in the patriarchal stories and as a political rival in the period of the kings of Israel and Judah.

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

This section follows significant portions of the story in which Jonah attempts to avoid God’s call to him to specifically go to Nineveh. At this point, with our reading, Jonah receives a second call to go to Nineveh, ‘The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” The message is brief (in the Hebrew only five words) and dire, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” This rather direct sermon seems to be more complex than the words might suggest. One commentator suggests that the verbal ought to be translated “shall overturn.” Is the suggestion made that the great city might change its mind? The result is that it does repent. Here we learn the real import of repentance for it is not only the people of Nineveh who repent – who turn around, but God also repents, and changes God’s mind about what to do with them – a double reversal. This sermon about Nineveh stakes an additional place in the Hebrew Scriptures that begins to allow for the participation of non-Jewish peoples in the acknowledgement and worship of YHWH.

Breaking open Jonah:
1.      When have you used words effectively?
2.      What was the result?
3.      When have you been moved by a sermon?

Psalm 62:6-14 Nonne Deo?

     For God alone my soul in silence waits; *
truly, my hope is in him.
7      He alone is my rock and my salvation, *
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.
8      In God is my safety and my honor; *
God is my strong rock and my refuge.
9      Put your trust in him always, O people, *
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.
10    Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath, *
even those of low estate cannot be trusted.
11    On the scales they are lighter than a breath, *
all of them together.
12    Put no trust in extortion;
in robbery take no empty pride; *
though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.
13    God has spoken once, twice have I heard it, *
that power belongs to God.
14    Steadfast love is yours, O Lord, *
for you repay everyone according to his deeds.

The first verse sets the theme that runs through the entire psalm, a theme that is important in understanding our own reading for this day, “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” The use of the word “only” (which does not appear in our translation) provides for points of focus within the poem[1]: “Only is God is my being quiet” (v.2), “Only He us my rock and rescue” (v.3), “Only from his high place” (v. 5), “Only in God be quiet” (v. 6), “Only he is my rock and rescue” (v. 7), and “Only breath – humankind, the sons of man are a lie” (v. 10). It is the last of these that points to a contrast to the psalmist’s focus on God. Our translation points to the contrast, “Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath.” Against them God gives us confidence and a standing. The emphasis that is inherent in the word of God is pointed out in verse 13, where God’s one word is heard by the psalmist twice. Such is the reality of trust in God.

Breaking open Psalm 62:
1.     What does it mean to wait for God in silence?
2.     Where do you find silence in your life?
3.     What do you hear in your silence?

Second Reading: I Corinthians 7:29-31

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

We are in a bit of a lectio continua in the First Letter to the Corinthians and continue Paul’s teaching about Christ in the body, and discerning immoral behavior. These readings conclude with comments about “the end times.” Today Paul notes that the “appointed time has grown short.” What is coming is salvation – salvation that is intended for the believers in Corinth, especially. In the surrounding material the notion “remain as you are,” is repeated several times. In other words, continue the good works and mind that you already have and wait for what is to come. In waiting for the Lord, we are often distracted by other things, here marriage, death, and wealth. Paul sees all of this “passing away.” The key word is “focus”.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
1.     What do you understand by Paul’s “the appointed time has grown short”?
2.     What do you need to do in what is left of your life?
3.     How can you “remain as you are” in Christ?

The Gospel: St. Mark 1:14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

This reading lies on the cusp between the Temptation of Jesus and the Ministry in Galilee. The story of John the Baptist is quickly summarized for us, and now we meet not only Jesus, who follows after, but hear his message as well, “repent and believe.” The cusp and division are made clear in Jesus’ proclamation that “the time is fulfilled.” It is also clear that this ministry is not going to be done alone. The bulk of the reading introduces us to Simon and Andrew, and James and John. Jesus riffs on their vocation as fishermen and sees it as a foreshadowing of their apostleship. The model is set, there is the call and the immediately following of those who have been called. The boat which once was a sign of their profession now becomes a sign of their confession, the leaving to follow another wind and breath of God.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        How is your profession a part of your ministry?
2.        What is your Christian message?
3.        What have you left behind to follow Jesus?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     The Translation in from Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.

09 January 2018

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 14 January 2018

I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
I Corinthians 6:12-20
St. John 1:43-51

Background: The Prophetic Office

Certainly, evident in Judaism and thus in Christianity as well, the prophetic office was known in other religions as well. Greeks Philosophy, Zoroastrianism (Persia), and Manichaeism recognized prophecy as a divine call. Current views of the prophetic office confuse the divine messages rendered with soothsaying and fortunetelling, but that was not what prophets were all about. There’s was a mandate to deliver a message, and often a judgement from God, and issue a call for repentance. They spoke to the current situation, rather than some future idea. Thus, the Hebrew word navi is translated more perfectly as “spokesperson”. The call itself involved an anointing by the spirit, or the word or ru’ah of God. The call may have been met by disbelief or misunderstanding, for the life itself was difficult and full of dangers. It was not occupied only by men but was given to female prophets as well. Indeed one did not need to be Jewish, as there are evidences of non-Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

First Reading: I Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” [Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.]

The initial lines of this story set up a situation which will soon be rectified by the remainder. The word of the prophet was “rare”, and “the vision was not spread about. Indeed Eli is pictured as nearly blind, perhaps spiritually as well as physically. There is initial hope as well, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out.” Samuel when called by the voice of God, does not recognize it as such, and was probably unfamiliar with the whole business, for the voice of the Lord was “rare.” When Samuel does answer the voice that calls, he eliminates one word from Eli’s recommended response. The word LORD is eliminated, out of deference to the divine Name. Thus, Samuel only says, “Speak for your servant is listening.”

In a pattern that will become familiar in prophetic writing and messages, we learn from God how Eli and his sons have forgotten God’s call, duty, and responsibility. They seem to have lost their way. Although Samuel is disturbed by the message, he is encouraged in his prophetic role to relay it to Eli. In this call narrative we are given the scope of Samuel’s leadership and territory – “All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba.”

Breaking open I Samuel:
1.      When and where have you heard the voice of God?
2.      What was communicated to you?
3.      What did you do about it?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 Domine, probasti

     Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
2      You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3      Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4      You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
5      Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
12    For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
13    I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14    My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
15    Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.
16    How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *
how great is the sum of them!
17    If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; *
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

We are reminded in this psalm of other prophetic calls wherein the prophet recognizes God’s knowledge of the individual before birth, so here, the psalmist recognizes a similar spirit. The beauty of this introspective psalm explores all the places where God is to be met, from the exigencies of everyday life to the innermost parts of living, and the context of life. The elided verses 6-11, complete the notion, and might be helpful in understanding the psalm’s inclusion here. The real theme, as it relates to its liturgical use here, is in verse 16, “How deep I find your thoughts, O God.” The prophet’s job was to know such thoughts, and the psalmist rejoices in their accessibility.

Breaking open Psalm 139:
1.     How does God surround your life?
2.     Where in your life do you see God?
3.     What does God see in you?

The Second Reading: I Corinthians 6:12-20

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Paul wishes to explore the problem of the moral life – how does one live a moral life? The problem is the role of the law in such a life, and Paul introduces a central idea that becomes part of the argument for such a life, “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” And there we have it. We live life not just in our own circuit, but we live life and we influence and have effect on others. Thus, Paul’s concern about the effect of living. For Paul the answer lies in the belief that his body, his creaturlieness is a part of the divine image and reality. So he then struggles with fornication, marriage, and sexuality in general. If we are Christ’s body, and Christ is God made manifest in the flesh, then we as well must manifest God in our bodies. A difficult task.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
1.     What is unlawful for you to do?
2.     What is lawful for you to do?
3.     How do you see the difference?

The Gospel: St. John 1:43-51

Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Having dwelt with the Prologue for several Sundays, we are now in the Book of Signs, specifically in the Ministry of Jesus, and the call of those who would follow. Four days of revelation move from John the Baptist (1:19-28), to the Baptist’s testimony (29-34), to the call of the first disciples (35-42), and finally to our pericope (43-51), The Disciples in Galilee. So we center on the call of the prophets for the new age. They will follow Jesus in order to understand the Spirit that will be given them – it will take time, not unlike the time Samuel spent in the Tabernacle learning the ways of the Lord. Jesus hints at the end game when he looks forward to a vision of the Son of Man. In the meanwhile, the learning will be slow and arduous. It will not always be obvious, “Do you believe because…”

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        What do you think of the simplicity of Mark’s account:
2.        What is the story of your own baptism?
3.        How do you remember and celebrate it?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller