30 December 2009

The Second Sunday after Christmas, 3 January 2010

The Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 84

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Saint Matthew 2:1-12


On a Sunday such as this one doesn’t know whether to look backward or forward. Backward, since this is still Christmas, we recall the readings of Christmas Day and Eve, and the three holy days that follow – St. Stephen, Holy Innocents, and Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist. These we discussed in the Christmas edition of this blog. Immediately preceding this Sunday is 1 January, which the church knows as The Holy Name, whose readings expound on the name of Jesus. Looking forward to the coming Wednesday, we encounter The Epiphany of our Lord, which is the principal Nativity feast in the Eastern Church, and which marks the close of the “Twelve Days”. The lectionary does not make this day easy, providing for three choices of a Gospel: 1) Joseph’s Dream, and the flight into Egypt (Matthew), 2) the visit to the Temple by Jesus and his parents at the age of 12 (Luke – which moves us quite quickly into his life), and 3) the story of the Magi (Matthew). Since there will be no service on Epiphany we will use the Magi text so that we can encounter that story. The ramifications of the birth of Jesus continue on.

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Thus says the LORD:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
"Save, O LORD, your people,
the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,

and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."
For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the LORD.

Written late in the ministry of Jeremiah, this text brings a message of hope to Israel. There fate, as predicted both by Isaiah, and by Jeremiah, is a theme with which we have become engaged over the past weeks. Now, however, it is not threats or wrath that are held up, but rather hope. There are three principal ideas in the reading: a) the people will return, b) they will be a remnant, and c) there will be abundance. In this way Jeremiah points toward the future Messianic era in which Israel hopes. It is an era, however, that comes with some cost. The people return from the exile in which they were held. There is the reality of the deportation of some of the population to Babylon, leaving the remainder leaderless in their own land. Thus the return that Jeremiah writes about is both real and psychological; real for those who come back to Palestine from Mesopotamia (not all did – thus beginning “the diaspora”) and psychological for those who toughed it out, remaining in the land, soon to be joined by former countrymen and women. It was not an easy thing. To them the notion of “the remnant” must have been a heady idea, one that takes “left behind” and begins to transform it into “chosen”.

The final theme of abundance is startling since these people returned to a land that was nothing – all had been stripped from it. Jeremiah’s abundance is both in the mode of return (the straight way, the watered garden) and in what awaits them (mourning turned into joy, comfort, and satisfaction with God’s bounty. What does this have to do with Christmas? It features for the reader a land, society, and religion that is turned up-side-down, that is made totally new and different. A preacher might find it interesting to take the notions of return, remnant, and refreshment and apply them to the Christmas story and what follow from following Jesus. We will be interested to see what our preacher does with this.

Breaking Open Jeremiah:

1. In what way is Trinity a “remnant”? What is good about that?

2. Did you ever leave religion for a while, and then come back? What was it like to return? What was missed? What was new?

3. What abundance do you have in your life? How do you share it?

Psalm 84 Quam dilecta

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.
Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;
No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.
O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!

Psalm 84 is one of four psalms (84, 85, 87, and 88) addressed to “the Korahites” that sit on either side of a single Davidic pslam, 86. The Korahites were either singers in the temple or were porters there. Psalm 86 is a lament in which David wonders about the meaning of his life. The psalms that surround it (84, 85, and 87) all consider the return of Israel to Jerusalem, and a love of the temple. The final psalm, 88, mirrors David’s lament in Psalm 86. Several commentators have done exhaustive numerical studies of Psalm 84, all of which underscore a love of the temple. These emotions seem to follow the emotions of Jeremiah in the first reading.

Breaking open Psalm 84

1. What happy memories do you have of “church”?

2. What unhappy memories doe you have of “church”?

3. Who are the pilgrims in this psalm?

4. Who is welcome in the Lord’s house?

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

In these opening verses of his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul continues a line of thought that we first saw in his Letter to the Galatians, and that is his notion of adoption. Those who stood at the periphery of belief are now fully welcomed in to become sons and daughters of God, through Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Paul also presages John by talking about how God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. All of this inclusionary language is an invitation to the polyglot, and polytheism of cosmopolitan Ephesus. The Paul who made obeisance to Jerusalem in Galatians, is now open in his invitation to both Jew and Gentile to follow Jesus – the Lord of Creation.

Breaking open Ephesians:

1. To what hope do you think you have been called?

2. What would you be like if you were given a “spirit of wisdom”?

Saint Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew bases his birth narrative largely on the story of Moses. We see this clearly in the reading, which immediately follows this, the murder of the innocents. In that story, Herod plays Pharaoh, and the innocents of Bethlehem play the innocents of Goshen. What is more amazing about this story is that it opens up the story to the non-Jewish hearer. Both nature, science, and other lands understand the wisdom that draws the Magi to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem. Matthew also goes to great lengths to connect the Hebrew Testament to the quest of the Magi. In Herod’s request to find out “where the Messiah was to be born” we hear the chief priests and scribes readily supply the answer, “Bethlehem”, and then quoting the prophet Micah. Like Joseph, the Magi are warned in a dream (the Joseph story) to go back by another way.

The reading that follows this one has Joseph (Mary’s husband) as the dreamer, who understands the evil king’s intents and who takes Jesus and Mary to Egypt. It is a reversal of the Moses story.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1. How is this the gospel of the gentiles?

2. Why do you think that Matthew inserts the story of the Magi

3. What role does Joseph play in Matthew’s story

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

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

26 December 2009

The First Sunday after Christmas, 27 December 2009

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Saint Luke 1:1-18

The Book of Common Prayer has rules of precedence that provide for the proper readings of this Sunday to override the holy days that immediately follow upon Christmas.  The first of these holy days is Saint Stephen’s Day.  Stephen was the first martyr of the church, and was also one of the first deacons appointed by the apostles.  Stoned by none other than the Saul who was soon to become Saint Paul, Stephen was a martyr in will and in deed.  The next day, the 27th, is the Day of the Holy Innocents.  In Matthew, who bases his Birth Narrative on the life of Moses, we read how King Herod (in the role of Pharaoh) sent soldiers to murder the infants of Bethlehem.  These young ones were then martyrs not by will but by deed.  Finally, on 28 December, we celebrate Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist.  Never martyred, John was a martyr in will, but not in deed.  These three stories provide a context to the birth of the child who overturns all of creation, and creates a new order of life. 

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This last of the Isaiahs lived to see the dreams of the others writing in the name Isaiah come true.  The people had returned from their deportations to Babylon.  They had returned to a land that had been despoiled, to a temple that had been destroyed, and to a Jerusalem that was less than royal.  They returned to the drudgery of restoring their culture, and to the back-breaking work of rebuilding their city.  They returned to poverty and difficulty.  To these people, Isaiah offers another image – the image of people dressed in robes (of righteousness) and glittering in the jewels (of salvation).  Such a viewpoint was not intended to be taken literally, but rather spiritually, that God would vindicate Israel.  This restored Israel would serve as a witness to a God who redeems and who makes new.  This was the vision of this Isaiah.

Breaking Open Isaiah:

1. What does Isaiah mean by a “garment of salvation” or a “robe of righteousness”?
2. What other images does the prophet use to get the reader to see the renewal of Israel?
3, Why might Christians see these images as an embodiment of their theology.
4, Are any of these images baptismal?

Psalm 147:13-21 Laudate Dominum

Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

He sends out his command to the earth, *
and his word runs very swiftly.

He gives snow like wool; *
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.

He scatters his hail like bread crumbs; *
who can stand against his cold?

He sends forth his word and melts them; *
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.

He declares his word to Jacob, *
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.

He has not done so to any other nation; *
to them he has not revealed his judgments.

This psalm, written after the restoration of Jerusalem (see the notes about Isaiah, above) celebrates God as “the rebuilder of Jerusalem”.  The opening verse of our reading extols Jerusalem to honor the One who is the reason for its existence. Many of the verses not only represent God’s commands to Jerusalem, and to Israel, but to nature as well.  There are some amazing images that the reader would immediately recognize, such as the image of winter in the hill country of Judea, “he scatters hoarfrost like ashes”.  In one verse, God’s word and wind call to mind his breath and word that creates the world.

Breaking open Psalm 147

1, Why is it important for us to think about the restoration of Jerusalem?
2, What kind of nature images do you encounter in this psalm?

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Galatia was a province in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), that had been settled by Celtic peoples around 270 BCE.  The letter is held to be really from Paul, and in it he wrestles with one of the most perplexing problems of an emerging Christianity.  The problem was what to do with the requirement of the Mosaic law, especially as the church moved away from its Jewish core to a more gentile base.  In the reading for today, Paul differentiates between the law (which he calls ‘our disciplinarian’, and faith.  The second paragraph would have been especially good news to those Celts, Greeks, or Romans who heard it.  There situation over against the Jewish core, was not second class.  Paul recognizes the special status that Jews enjoy with God, but goes on to show that others had received “adoption as children”.  So as we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, we also celebrate our adoption as sons, daughters, and heirs.

Breaking open Galatians:

1. What does Paul mean by “the Law?” 
2. What do you understand in the word “faith?”  How does it relate to the Law?
3. What does Paul mean when he talks about the “fullness of time.”
4. What words does Paul use to describe our status?

St. John 1:1-18

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.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

Unlike Luke and Matthew, neither Mark nor John has a birth narrative.  Mark’s Gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus, but John’s begins with a remarkable retelling of the creation story.  It’s initial words clue us in, “In the beginning…”  The actors are the same: The Ancient of Days (see Blake’s drawing above), and the breath (read “word”, “wind”, or “spirit”) that is the creative force that creates all things.  In this logos (Greek for “word”) St. John saw Jesus, pre-existing from the beginning of time, and participating in the work of Creation.  This is a nativity on a cosmic scale – not homey and individual like the scene in the cave in Bethlehem, with its strawy manger, shepherds and animals.  This is the lord of all creation who deigns to visit us.  In the central domes of many orthodox churches appears an icon of the pantocrator, the “creator of all.” 

John wants to convince us of the divinity of Jesus, and the visitation of God amongst humankind.  He draws a comparison to John the Baptist, and then gently puts John into his place, “He himself was not the light.”  For John, Jesus is the light and the Word.  But above all, Jesus is “the word made flesh”, living and breathing among us.  God-with-us, is the Gospel for this day.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1. Why does John want to put John the Baptist into his place?
2. In what other ways is Jesus “the Word”?
3, How is Jesus “the Light”
4. What else does John say about the Baptist in the last paragraph of this reading?

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

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Christmas, 25 December 2009

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Saint Luke 2:1-20


It isn’t until the fourth century that a day celebrating the Nativity of Jesus begins to be celebrated.  The days of such celebrations ranged from March to May to December.  It may be that the celebration of two Roman feasts influenced the selection of 25 December as the day.  The first was the Winter Solstice (21 December), and a related Feast of Sol Invictus (The Feast of the Conquering Son) which celebrated the resurgence of the sun at the Winter Solstice, and was very popular among the Roman military, many of whom were devotes of Mithras.  The development in the west was different than that in the East, where the day chosen was 6 or 7 January, known in the West as The Epiphany (Manifestation) of our Lord.  In the west there developed a whole cycle of events that centered on the birth of Christ.  There was the preparatory season of Advent, the day(s) of the Nativity, and the twelve days that stretched to the Epiphany.  Some thought the season to have lasted until 2 February, when the Church celebrated The Presentation of Our Lord, and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Candlemas.  The notion of celebrating the Eve of a feast day comes from the configuration of the Jewish Day, which began at sundown.  Hence the celebration of the Eve is really the first mass of the feast day.

Isaiah 9:2-7


The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

This first of the Isaiahs flourished around 740 BCE, and witnessed during the lifetimes of the influential kings, Uzziah, Josiah, and Hezekiah.  He was a prophet of the old school, who delivered difficult and poignant messages to the leaders of his time.  He was probably most influenced by the conquering of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pilesar III (II Kings 15:19), who deported large sections of the population to other areas of his realm, giving rise to the notion of the “lost ten tribes of Israel.”  Seen through this lens we can begin to understand the hopes he writes about in the reading for this evening.  Isaiah looks beyond the threats of the Assyrians to a time when “the people who walked in darkness” (Israel – walking in the threat of Assyria) will walk in light and in hope.  A new anointed one (Messiah) will lead the people, and his names will signal the qualities of his reign – Counselor, Prince of Peace.  The hope is for the continuation of the kings who spring from David’s line – and in Jesus, Christians see that continuation and hope.

Breaking Open Isaiah:

  1. Read the reading from the viewpoint of a contemporary of Isaiah.  What do you think it meant to them?
  2. Now read it from an early Christian viewpoint.  Does this bring a different understanding or emphasis?
  3. What are the hallmarks of David’s rule, according to Isaiah?
  4. How do these hallmarks match with Jesus’ preaching.
  5. Micah hopes for a “secure” Judah – what kind of security do you hope for, or already enjoy?

Psalm 96 Cantate domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.

Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.

As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the LORD who made the heavens.

Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!

Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the LORD honor and power.

Ascribe to the LORD the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.

Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.

Tell it out among the nations: "The LORD is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the LORD when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.

In the Ancient Near East almost every culture had a “enthronement ceremony” in which the king/god/priest was honored.  Psalm 96 is a variation on that theme, but signals at the very beginning that it is substantially different than the practice of the peoples that surrounded Israel.  The Psalm begins, as does Psalm 98, “Sing to (the Lord) a new song!”.  Psalm 96 sits in a set of four psalms, all of which celebrate the enthronement of “the Lord”, (and here the Hebrew text would have placed the unpronounceable name of God).  This, however, is not just the God of Israel – certain claims are a made, inviting all the nations of the earth to celebrate the “kingship” of God.  Indeed, all of creation is invited to sing the song.

Breaking open Psalm 96
  1. Why is this psalm appropriate at Christmas?
  2. How is honoring “the God of Israel” different from honoring “the God of all the nations?”
  3. What images come to your mind as you read the psalm?
  4. How might Christians read the final verse?


Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

The Epistle of Titus may or may not have been written by Paul.  In general it does not share his vocabulary or literary style; nor does it seem to fit into Paul’s life, as we know it.  Thematically, it shares some notions with I Timothy, but seems to speak to an emerging Christianity rather than an apostolic Christianity. 

Breaking open Titus:
  1. What claims does the text make about Jesus of Nazareth, what titles are used?
  2. How has “the grace of God appeared”?
  3. What are the readers of this letter asked to renounce?
  4. Why do you think this reading was chosen for Christmas?

St. Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Here we have the heart of Christmas belief for most Christians in probably what is the most memorable of biblical verses.  Luke wants us to understand that God gives us the gift of a son, Jesus, in time.  This is a prophetic writing – that God’s good news of redemption should be now, in our time, for our benefit.  The rehearsal is quite simple: the time at which it happened, why Mary and Joseph were traveling, and the event of the birth.  The embellishment comes when Luke begins to talk about what comes of this story – so quickly rehearsed.  It is here that we turn to the shepherds, not the highest on the social totem pole in ancient Israel.  Yet, it was to such as these that the angels sing a song of praise and invitation, and it is such as these who understand the message and go to Bethlehem.  This is consistent with Luke’s social program, in which the kingdom of God is most present amongst the poor and marginalized.  So the shepherds are given the divine presence, song, and invitation.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why does Luke talk about how was in power at the beginning of the reading?
  2. What is the shepherds’ response to the angelic song?
  3. How does Mary respond?
  4. What claims do the angels make about Jesus in their song?

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

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

18 December 2009

Advent IV, 20 December 2009

The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a

Saint Luke 1:46-55 Magnificat

Hebrews 10:5-10

Saint Luke 1:39-45


If there is a focus for the readings for this Sunday, it is on Mary’s response and thoughts about the task to which she has been called. The themes from her story are actually celebrated on two other holy days in the year, The Annunciation, 25 March, and The Visitation, 31 May. Mary’s story is the center of today’s Gospel and of the Responsorial Psalm which used her song, The Magnificat, rather than an Hebrew Psalm. The first reading is from the prophet Micah who flourished around 721 BCE. As a contemporary of Jeremiah, he mirrors, at least in his initial five chapters, Jeremiah’s thought. The final chapters reflect a later point of view. The second reading is from Hebrews, a letter which uses a great deal of Hebrew and Old Testament imagery to explain the character of Jesus. The Gospel is from Luke’s Birth Narrative.

Micah 5:2-5a
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

Micah sees the handwriting on the wall. He is working in southern Judah during that period of time when the Assyrians invade the so-called “Northern Kingdom” (Israel) and deport the majority of the population, and resettle the land with other captured peoples. This is why the Samaritans are despised during the time of Jesus in that they were of “mixed blood”. Micah sees first hand what devastations can be had upon those, who in his opinion, don’t follow the covenant with God. As a prophet, and like his colleague Jeremiah, he warns King Hezekiah of the difficulties that might descend upon them if they ignore their relationship with the God of Israel.

The reading, which is naturally picked up by Christians for use as an Advent/Christmas reading, calls forth the hope that a new leader will come out of Bethlehem, which is incidentally and most importantly the birthplace of David. Micah is looking forward to a time when God’s wrath will have already been served on Judah, and the people are returned from captivity, to live again in the land ruled by an heir of David.

Breaking Open Micah:

1. What does David do before he becomes king of Israel? Which of those images are reflected in the reading?

2. Is this passage heavy on the destruction, or heavy on the hope?

3. What do you hope for at this point in your life?

4. Micah hopes for a “secure” Judah – what kind of security do you hope for, or already enjoy?

The Magnificat, Saint Luke 1:46-55
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

The Birth Narrative in Luke uses older imagery to tell its story. In the case of the reading this morning, we have a story of the visit of two cousins, both extraordinarily pregnant. Mary bursts forth in song, in verses that are modeled on the “Song of Hannah” (the mother of the prophet Samuel) in I Samuel 2:1-10. What is remarkable about this song is that it telegraphs several of Luke’s themes, namely, his attention to women (here Mary), and his concern for the poor, and his disparagement of the rich. A good comparison of this attitude is to read Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) with Luke’s (6:17-49). The God of the Magnificat is a God of mercy, a God who remembers promises made to generations.

Breaking open the Magnificat

1. Which verses talk about the fate of the poor?

2. Which verses talk about the fate of the rich?

3. What are words and terms that are used to depict these classes of people?

4. Mary says that all generations will call her “blessed”. What does that mean to you? What place does Mary hold in your own personal piety?

5. Does this song have anything to say to you about your attitudes to either the rich or the poor?

Hebrews 10:5-17

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God'  (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."

When he said above,

"You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will."

He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes on the notion of sacrifice, and in his thinking has Jesus mirror the theology of Amos and Hosea. These older prophets felt that the whole institution of sacrifice was wrong-headed, that it did not get at the importance of the covenant, the working agreement between God and humankind. So, likewise, Jesus, sets aside the idea of animal sacrifice, and begins to talk about his own body. In this, Hebrews takes on a Pauline notion that the church, we, are the body of Christ. That is were offering must happen. The ideal model of this, then, is the sacrifice on the cross – a sacrifice in which we all participate.

Breaking open Hebrews:

1. What do you think that the phrase “the body of Christ means?”

2. What sacrifices have you made?

3. When you think about the offering of Jesus on the cross, does this become an example for your own living and offering, or is it a background to your own sense of value and self worth?

St. Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

This reading connects the story of John the Baptist with the story of the Birth of Christ. Luke quickly clues us into the fact that both of these women are in unusual circumstances. Elizabeth, married to a high priest of Israel, connects Jesus to the priestly traditions of the Old Testament, as Mary connects him to the Davidic kingship. Both Luke and Matthew provide extensive genealogies that make certain we know who Jesus was by looking at from whom he came. Luke is clear in his intent to inform his readers who Jesus is, for even the not-yet-born John the Baptist “leaps in the womb” in recognition of the Messiah. Elizabeth utters the phrases that become enshrined in the Ave Maria. This is all a theology of status – the priest/king who will come to redeem us. It is in the Magnificat that follow immediately upon this text (see notes above) that outline Luke’s theology of the kingdom of God.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1. Why is the connection with John the Baptist important for Luke?

2. How are the roles of women of faith either enhanced or diminished by this story?

3. What are Luke’s feelings about Mary? About Elizabeth?

4. What special anointing comes upon Elizabeth? Why?

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

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

11 December 2009

Advent III, 13 December 2009

This is a series that appears in the weekly Newsletter of Trinity Church; designed to get you ready to hear the lessons at next Sunday’s liturgy. Your suggestions and comments are most welcome.

- Fr. Michael T. Hiller

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6, The First Song of Isaiah Ecce Deus

Philippians 4:4-7

Saint Luke 3:7-18


The name for this Sunday used to be “Gaudete”, the first word in the Introit Psalm for the Day, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” The color for the day is rose, and in some churches rose vestments and paraments are used. This is the reason for the rose candle in the Advent Wreath. In the readings, see if you can detect this theme of joyfulness.

There is a parallel Sunday in Lent, “Laetare”, which is also a rose Sunday. The were meant to give relief to the austerities of Advent and Lent. This might seem strange to us now, in that Advent is not as sparse or penitential as it was in the old lectionary.

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the LORD.

Zephaniah was either written during or just prior to the reign of King Josiah (640 – 609 BCE), or in the post-monarchial period following the Babylonian Captivity (530, or perhaps even later, ca. 200 BCE). The themes are common to Jeremiah and I Isaiah, who may have been contemporaries, or to the themes of later prophets. Zephaniah sees a coming God, who is wreaking vengeance for the sins of Jerusalem, calling it the “Great Day of the Lord”. He urges the King, Josiah, to initiate repentance and reform – which the Josiah of history does. It may well be that many of the recensions of the first books of the Bible, the so-called “Books of Moses” date from this period. Zephaniah either serves during this period, or speaks through the mouth of a prophet during this period.

Subsequent sections speak of the “sins of Jerusalem,” and “the sins of the nations,” and concludes with a “song of joy” from which our reading is taken.

Breaking Open Zephaniah:

1. Which verses speak to the theme of “joy” on this Sunday?

2. Which verses have the expectation of a “coming one”?

3. What are the reasons that you think this reading was chosen for Advent, and particular this Sunday?

The First Song of Isaiah, Ecce Deus, Isaiah 12:2-6

Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *
and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

Unlike the later prophets writing under the name of Isaiah, this “first” Isaiah writes in the period prior to the Babylonian Captivity during the period stretching from King Uzziah through the reign of Hezekiah (ca. 680 BCE). His call as a prophet, recorded in the sixth chapter, includes a vision of the Most High that is quite spectacular, and that has served as a source for hymnody and choral works. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are thought to be his, and in the twelfth chapter we have this “song” in which he rejoices in the salvation that comes in spite of the warnings made earlier. In this song, the prophet declares his trust in the God of Israel, using some compellingly beautiful language.

Breaking open the Isaiah

1. Who are the “inhabitants of Zion”?

2. When the prophet talks about “mak(ing) his deeds known”, what are those deeds?

3. Why do you think this reading was chosen for this Sunday?

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

As we mentioned last Sunday, these are a people that are dear to the apostle, and his affection for them is clearly evident in the reading for today. The theme of rejoicing is the center of this reading, along with that of prayer. The true center of the reading, however, is a terse assertion that “the Lord is near.” Were we the audience of Zephaniah, or Isaiah, such an assertion might be a cause for fear and trembling. Paul does not expect this of the Philippians, however, for he immediately talks about lack of “worry”, the continuation of prayer, and the granting of “peace.”

Breaking open Philippians:

1. How does this reading fit into our theme of rejoicing?

2. What are the elements of prayer, according to Saint Paul?

3. Is the “peace of God” knowable, or does it go beyond our ability to perceive it? What does the text say, and what do you understand about that?

St. Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This morning we meet John the Baptist in earnest – no holds barred. The reading is in two sections, with the first giving us a sample of John’s preaching, and the second his foretelling of the coming Christ. In the first section we see a John who is more than a “fire and brimstone” preacher, but who has an almost rabbinic aspect to his message. He does have a terse message, that is unashamed of its message of repentance. In addition to that, we see a sample of people (the “crowds”, the tax collectors, and the soldiers) each of whom asks, “what shall we do?” These are the questions asked of a teacher, a rabbi. The sample of people asking the question is interesting as well, representing a descending cross section of Jerusalem: the generalized crowd, the traitorous and collaborating tax collectors, and finally the oppressors themselves, the soldiers. To each is given a message of repentance.

The context that John frames for us, forms the hope of Israel – a messiah who would redeem the crowds from both tax collector and soldier. But John moves them beyond such hopes and begins to talk about baptism, no of water, but of the “Holy Spirit and fire.” In other words, the expectations may far exceed the wishes of the ones drawn out to the wilderness to hear his message. It is a perfect Advent sermon.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1. What do you understand by the word “repent?”

2. Repent means “turn away from.” Of what ought you repent?

3. If you were John the Baptist, which groups of people (like the crowds, soldiers, and tax collectors) would you direct your sermon?

4. How is John’s sermon “good news?” (See the last verse of the reading)

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

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.