27 January 2010

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Saint Luke 4:21-30


We do some more studying today on what it means to be a prophet, by looking at who God chooses to be prophets, what their message might be, and what the reaction of the world is to prophets.  The more and more we delve into the Scriptures, the more and more we learn that God always operates with the ordinary.  It may be a continuing surprise to those, who like the Magi, seek God in great places, but find him well-nested with the marginalized and the ordinary.  Today we look at the call of Jeremiah, and take special interest in his objections to the call.  We listen to Paul spiritualize the ordinary life that exists between two people, and we are amazed at the reaction in Nazareth to Jesus’ prophetic words. 

Jeremiah 1:4-10



The word of the LORD came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the LORD."
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

Jeremiah had a remarkable career of announcing God’s good news, God’s word for that time – a word that we continue to find meaning in.  In this reading we find four separate ideas: a) God’s all-inclusive knowledge of those whom God calls, b) Excuses by those whom God calls never seem to make the grade, c) the extent and power of the call, and the power of the spirit that anoints, and d) the ambitious prophetic program that God proposes.  These are all cosmic relationships, universal in their extent and appeal.  That we are know before our birth is an amazing claim that God has on those whom are chosen.  Indeed, the claim does not suffer any week excuses, such as Jeremiah makes.  Here it is youth and not knowing what to say.  (I had a personal experience with these excuses as a young priest, and can attest to the power of the Spirit to work in spite of them).  What is really amazing, however, is Jeremiah’s understanding of the scope of God’s work: “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow…”.  This tugs at our institutionalism and our comfort with things the “way they are” -  for that too will be destroyed and overthrown. 

Breaking Open Nehemiah:

  1. When did you first realize that you had a relationship with God?
  2. Have you ever had to speak for God?  (Don’t say “no” too quickly, think hard and deep).
  3. Has God ever put words in your mouth?  What were the words – the issues – the message?
  4. What do you think Jeremiah meant in the last sentence?  What does it mean today?  What does it mean to you?

Psalm 19 In te, Domine, speravi

In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge; *
let me never be ashamed.

In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; *
incline your ear to me and save me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; *
you are my crag and my stronghold.

Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, *
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.

For you are my hope, O Lord GOD, *
my confidence since I was young.

I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother's womb you have been my strength; *
my praise shall be always of you.

In this individual psalm, which is a prayer of hope on the part of an individual, we have concluding verses that mirror the beginning verses in the call of Jeremiah (First Lesson), “from my mother’s womb you have been my strength.”  Such foreknowledge on the part of God seemed to be a common hope in the faith of Israel.  This is an unusual notion for a culture that put more emphasis on “tribe” and “family” than on the individual.  It is a cultural norm that exists even today in Near Eastern cultures.  This is an additional evidence of the theological upheaval that came with the prophetic work of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and that is mirrored here in this psalm.

Breaking open Psalm 19
  1. Do you every pray the psalms?
  2. How has God sustained you in your life?  Where you aware of it as a child?
  3. This psalm, along with many others, talks about “the wicked”.  What do you think the psalmist understood by that term?  What do you understand by it.

I Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
This is a difficult lesson to either read or hear these days in that it has been over sentimentalized through use in wedding ceremonies.  We have to remember the preceding verses in which Paul schools us about gifts of the spirit, and how those gifts are used in the community.  He closes that section and segues into this reading with this thought, “But strive for the greater gifts.”  It is this gift of love, along with faith and hope, that serves as a catalyst for the gifts he has already mentioned.  Ordinary life and skills is made extraordinary through love.  This is not the love of songs on the radio, or Danielle Steele.  It is not erotic love or even romantic love.  This is a hard-edged love (tough love?) that makes all the other gifts significant in their work in the community.  I wonder if people realize, when they have this read at weddings, that the intention is not to engender this love between the couple, but rather to drive them out in service to others – to be selfless? 

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What do you think of when you hear the word love?  What are all its meanings to you? 
  2. How does a love centered on the community change individual lives?
  3. How are faith, hope and love alike – how are they different?

Saint Luke 4:21-30

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

“Familiarity breeds contempt,” and attitudes about Jesus in Nazareth were no different.  “Just who does he think he is?” we can imagine the people saying.  There is an arrogance that accompanies the prophet, and we need to remember that Luke is portraying Jesus just as that – a prophet – arrogant and pronouncing God’s word for “the now”.  Our jealousy about our own status and well being can deafen us from hearing the Good News.  Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah that outlines just exactly what the Kingdom of God should look like, and when he pronounces that “this has been fulfilled in your hearing”, they cannot accept the Good News.

Perhaps one of the difficulties is that they, and we, have a predetermined notion of what that Good News needs to sound like.  The Nazarenes may have been thinking, “Roman oppression, poverty, grueling work – doesn’t sound like the messianic era to me!”  And we wonder why people don’t come into our churches.  Perhaps if we were more attuned to the message – and understood as well as articulated the message.  The anger that Jesus’ message arouses in his neighbors, does not stir in our hearts.  Our time doesn’t get angry about the audaciousness of what Jesus says.  Our time just ignores it – it is irrelevant. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What in the Gospel makes you uncomfortable?
  2. Reading the passage from Isaiah 61, (he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.") what might that compel you to do politically, or in your prayer life, or in your life of philanthropy.
  3. Is your religion a religion of tomorrow or of today.
  4. Now, what do you understand by the term, “The year of the Lord’s favor”?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

20 January 2010

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2010

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
I Corinthians 12:12-31a
Saint Luke 4:14-21


In these readings there are two ideas that capture our imagination – the notion of “beginning”, and the notion of  “the word.”  Both of these ideas are tied to the theology of Genesis, where it is indeed God’s word and breath that sets things into motion.  Thus we have this idea of beginning and word tied together.  A more proper notion for the first reading is the idea of “starting over” or the idea of a “new beginning”.  In the Gospel we have a picture of Jesus beginning ministry, starting something innovative and new.  The thing about newness, and especially prophetic novelty, is that it is usually grounded in or informed by what is ancient.  Here we have to think of those acts, ideas, motions, prayers, gestures, and rites that are made sacred by their use over time.  The prophets in the past always announced God’s word for the here and now, while keeping in mind what those before had believed, prayed, and done.  That tension of what was and what will be will serve us well as we talk about Jesus beginning ministry, and our continuing his ministry in our community.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10


All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Nehemiah was one of those Jews who entered the Persian Civil Service while Judah continued to be a province of the Persian Empire (Fifth Century BCE).  As a Jew he was concerned about his homeland, and the land of his ancestors.  His desire to return to Judah, and to restore his homeland was probably well matched with Persia’s concern to shore up the Levant (modern day Palestine) and thus to foil the threats of both Egypt and Greece.  So, this confidant of both King and Queen (if we are to trust the text) comes back as governor of the land.  There is a legend about Nehemiah that is probably worthy of consideration, namely that he was a eunuch (since he served in the Queens court as well).  As such he occupied a lessor status in Judaism, neither having children to care for him, nor family to remember him after his death.  Also, as a sexually maimed person, he was forbidden from entering the Temple.

These pages are not only about the renewal and rebuilding of Jerusalem, but of religious and cultural recovery as well.  We probably owe our present editions of the “Books of Moses” and the Torah, Prophets, and Psalms, as well to the “renewalists” who returned to Israel to re-establish the old religion.  That seems to be the point of today’s reading.  It was not the first time the Law had been recovered, as a similar “recovery” was made during the reign of Josiah (Eighth Century BCE).  The scene is a romantic one with “all the people” gathered in a large public place, anxious to hear the Law.  Idealized though it is, the notion was a necessary one in order to give the people a sense of not only who they were, but of what they could become as well. 

Breaking Open Nehemiah:

  1. What do you understand “the Law” to be?
  2. How would the Law, say the Ten Commandments, help order a society that was attempting a renewal?
  3. What values and principals do you honor that are based in the Ten Commandments?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

In Psalms 1, 19, and 119, we have psalms that are devoted to the Torah, or the teaching of God’s Law.  This psalm, 19, is actually in three sections.  The first section, verses 1 – 6, devotes itself to the witness of creations, with images and phrases that reflect the religious culture that surrounded ancient Israel.  Here heavens and earth are not made divine, but are rather part of the “divine witness” that proclaims the goodness of the Creator God.  The second section, verses 7 – 11, devotes itself to the delights of the Law, to its justice, its enlightening nature, its ability to order those who follow it, and its ability to reveal God’s will to humankind.  The final three verses is a prayer, perhaps from the author, asking for a faithfulness to the Law.

Breaking open Psalm 19
  1. How might the Law give “light to the eyes?”
  2. What does nature say to you about God?  How does the endless cycling of days and time speak about God?
  3. How does the Law reward you in life?

I Corinthians 12:12-31a

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Paul continues his discourse on the gifts of the Spirit, and works to develop a theology of the church – a sense of how the many who have been chosen can work together in spite of the many differing gifts of the Spirit.  In doing so, he begins to break new spiritual ground by talking about Jews and Greeks, slaves and free.  This is a new way of thinking, and it will put Paul on a collision course with the higher-ups in Jerusalem.  Paul’s message will win out in the end, and it is our heritage as Gentile Christians.  It does us well, however, to go back over this well-sown field, and to remember what might be if we take seriously Paul’s notion of the Body of Christ.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What does it mean for all of us, in our diversity, to “drink of one Spirit?” 
  2. What are the diversity of spiritual gifts in your own family?
  3. What are the diversity of spiritual gifts in your congregation?
  4. What are your gifts?
  5. How do you make use of them?

The Synagogue at Kefer Nahum (Capernaum)

Saint Luke 4:14-21

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Luke, introduces us to Jesus the Prophet, who speaks God’s word to the here and now.  We know that Jesus is the Prophet because he is introduced to us as “filled with the power of the Spirit.”  In this reading we also get a sense of the synagogue service that Jews from the first century participated in.  Like our Liturgy of the Word, the Synagogue Service had a component of readings from a cycle of scriptures, read over time.  So Jesus, the Rabbi/Prophet returns to his home-town, and is invited to read to the assembly.  His reading is from Isaiah 61, and in it, the latter Isaiah describes the Messianic Era during which captives are released, the blind see, and so on. 

Jesus’ sermon, or homily on the text is succinct and telling.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, is a startling claim – and thus we meet the Jesus, fresh from baptism and temptation, as the Prophet who announces God’s new word.  The messianic signs (good news to poor, etc.) will be a sign Jesus gives to others, such as the disciples of John the Baptist who ask, “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another.”  Jesus message is radical – it goes to the root (Latin – radix) of what business the messiah should be about.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are the signs of the messiah in Isaiah?  Write them down.
  2. Which of these signs have you seen in your own life or time?
  3. Compare the reaction of the members of the synagogue to the hearers of the Law in Nehemiah.  How are they different?
  4. What do you understand by the term, “The year of the Lord’s favor”?

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.

14 January 2010

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, 17 January 2010

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
I Corinthians 12:1-11
Saint John 2:1-11


For a brief period of time, five Sundays or so, we are back in what is called “Ordinary Time.”  Although we are in the festival half of the Church Year, we are in the midst of a brief pause between the Christmas Cycle and the Easter Cycle.  It is actually a beneficial period of reflection on the ministry of Jesus.  The Christmas festival is so layered over with cultural, religious, and personal stuff, that it serves us well to step back, look at the person of Jesus, and ask ourselves, “Why am I following this man?”  The Gospels during this period will help us with this task, as they reveal different aspects, not only of his teaching, but also of the reactions that people have to his ministry. 

Isaiah 62:1-5


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.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

The choice of this reading is directed by some casual comments at the end of Isaiah’s piece that link it thematically to the Gospel’s account of the Wedding at Cana.  Theologically, it makes no direct contribution to the Gospel’s message.  It does carry, however, some weight on its own.  This last of the Isaiahs (Chapters 56ff.) shares themes of deliverance and restoration with the others, and in this reading we see multiple images reflective of that theme.  Destroyed Jerusalem is “vindicated”, “glorified”, “saved”, and named something better than “desolate”, and “forsaken”.  The new name is “My-Delight-Is-in-Her”, and “Married”.  This is where the Isaiah reading approaches the theology of the Gospel, in commenting on the intimate relationship that God has with the people. 

Breaking Open Isaiah:

  1. Have you ever felt deserted by God?
  2. Have you ever felt restored in your relationship with God?
  3. In what ways are your relationships with friends, husbands, wives, and partners similar to your relationship with God?  Dissimilar?

Psalm 36:5-10 Dixit injustus

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, *
and your faithfulness to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O LORD.

How priceless is your love, O God! *
your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the well of life, *
and in your light we see light.

Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, *
and your favor to those who are true of heart.

In Psalm 36, the author compares wickedness to the righteousness that is God.  The reading for today only includes those verses that talk about the nature of God, and not about the nature of the wicked.  The psalm has sense of dimensionality about it, “reaches to the heavens,” “like the great deep,” “both man and beast”.  It stretches the mind of the reader to see the full spectrum of God’s love and justice, unlike the love and justice of those who do evil, for whom there are limits to both love and justice.  The use of images is quite striking: God as a mountain, the sea, a bird, a household, light, all such images capture our imagination.

Breaking open Psalm 36
  1. What does it mean when the psalm says, “you save both man and beast, O Lord?”
  2. What do you understand by the words “faithfulness” and “righteousness”?
  3. What does it mean to “know God”?  Do you know God?
  4. Who or what are the “true of heart”?

I Corinthians 12:1-11

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

This passage immediately precedes the reading from I Corinthians that is a favorite at weddings, “love is patient…”.  Here we get at the unsentimental point that Paul really wants the people in Corinth to hear.  Last Sunday we heard how the fathers in Jerusalem journeyed north to bring the laying on of hands, and the anointing with the Holy Spirit to the people who had only been baptized in the “name of Jesus.”  Here Paul fleshes out what that anointing is.  What is interesting is that the gifts both unify and differentiate.  “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.”  All of these gifts, and he enumerates them, are given for the common good. 

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What are the gifts of the Spirit that Paul enumerates in the reading?
  2. With which of these do you identify?
  3. How do these gifts of the Spirit work in the context of our congregation?

Saint John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Now we get at the meat of the day.  This is a beginning to what is called the “Book of Signs”.  This hypothetical “book” is the remnant, some have supposed, of a book of miracles that preceded the final writing and editing of the Gospel of John.  These “signs” are unique to John, and are not shared with the Synoptic (with one eye) Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  They are also unique in that these signs call for faith from those who observe or perceive them.  These signs precede faith, and are not the result of faith.  They call to faith. Finally, we see the remains of a number system of this book, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs…”.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Who is present at this occasion?
  2. What is Jesus attitude toward Mary’s concern about the lack of wine?
  3. What does his answer, “My hour has not yet come.” mean?
  4. Who is called to faith in this reading?

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.

06 January 2010

The First Sunday after the Epiphany - The Baptism of Our Lord, 10 January 2010

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Saint Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


It is unfortunate that the Epiphany of Our Lord (6 January) is all but forgotten in many of the churches today.  It is valuable not only because of its message of inclusion (the Magi from the East) but also its use as a theological corrective to the excesses of Christmas in the Western Church.  Christmas in our culture is all about babies, and farm animals, simple shepherds, and angels – lots of angels.  Epiphany is about something entirely different.  It is about being made manifest.  In the Eastern Church (Orthodoxy) the word “Theophany” is often used to describe the day.  A theophany is the appearance or manifestation of a god.  In the Eastern Empire, when the emperor visited a city, it was an “epiphany” because now the rule of the realm was not just a name, an inscription, or at best an image, but was an epiphany (was made real, manifest) in their presence. 

The real message of Christmas is not that God was a cute little baby with a little drummer boy measuring out a beat – but rather that God is made manifest (real) in the person of Jesus.  In this humanity, Jesus will encounter many conditions and situations that are familiar to all of humanity.  In his realness, Jesus will confront life the same way we do.  The First Sunday after the Epiphany is a Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  In this observance we see a Jesus who does all the necessary things under the Law, including the Baptism of John.  This day celebrates his baptism, and by extension, our baptisms as well.  Each of the readings will comment on baptism, water, and life.

Isaiah 43:1-7


Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up,"
and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth--
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."

This Isaiah picks up a familiar theme, and for his readers, harks back to an event that every Jewish man or woman knew was integral to them as a people.  This event is the crossing of the Red Sea, and as Christians, we will read into these images notions of Baptism.  “I have called you by name.”  “When you pass through the waters.”  “When you walk through fire.”  All of these statements are evocative of the outpouring of both water and Spirit at Baptism.  The later verses of bringing sons and daughters from far away also brings to mind sponsors and parents bearing children to the font.  To all of us, this creating God says, “You are mine.”

Breaking Open Isaiah:

  1. What do you think this reading meant to the people of Isaiah’s time?
  2. What waters, fire, or rivers had these people crossed?
  3. Why is Isaiah so insistent that these readers are God’s and are precious in God’s sight?
  4. What does the mention of Egypt call to mind?

Psalm 29 Afferte Domino

Ascribe to the LORD, you gods, *
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his Name; *
worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the LORD is upon the mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedar trees; *
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.

The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; *
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.

And in the temple of the LORD *
all are crying, "Glory!"

The LORD sits enthroned above the flood; *
the LORD sits enthroned as King for evermore.

The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.

The Hebrews had a healthy respect for the Sea, and that respect and fear is reflected in the opening verses of this psalm.  Often the waters are used to portray death, or the threat of death.  These people did not see the sea as a friend. In this psalm, which parallels other Ancient Near Eastern hymns to deities, God appears as not only the cause but also as the continuing master of nature.  Following the Genesis image, the voice of God is not only thunderous and loud, but is also the creative voice that speaks things into being.  Thus, the voice upon the waters in verse 3 is mindful of the Spirit moving over the face of the deep in the first Creation Story in Genesis 1.  The use of the psalm here, on this particular Sunday, is to remind us not only of the power of water, but the power of water connected with God’s word.  Thus Christians can use that same image of water as both life and death, as we are “baptized into the death of Jesus.” 

Breaking open Psalm 29
  1. What waters might the psalmist have in mind in this psalm?  Can you think of various “water events” in the Old Testament?
  2. The psalm pictures God as enthroned – upon what is he enthroned?
  3. How do you understand this psalm?

Acts 8:14-17

When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

In Acts (the second volume of the Gospel of Luke) we follow an on-going development of the early Church, and in particular, the ministry of St Paul. As the Gospel of Jesus spreads across Palestine, and later into Asia Minor, the leaders in Jerusalem begin to react to the new demands. In this reading, however, we learn something about early Christian baptismal practice.  The Jerusalem party finds out that the Christians of Samaria had only been baptized in the “Name of Jesus”, and had not received an out-pouring of the Holy Spirit.  As the notion and doctrine of the Trinity develops during this time, the liturgical words that enclose Baptism will change so that all the persons of the Trinity are connected to this act. 

Breaking open Acts:
  1. Where were you baptized?  At what age?
  2. What do you think it means to “receive the Holy Spirit?”
  3. What does this reading say about the role of Peter and John?

Saint Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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."

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

The Baptism of Jesus in Luke is almost a non-event.  It is sandwiched in between the “the expectation of the people” and John’s preaching, and a rather long genealogy, explaining exactly who Jesus was in terms of his ancestry.  The placement of the Baptism at the beginning of the long list of ancestors, however, says more about who Jesus was.  John, like the prophet that he is, proclaims dire consequences that come with the Coming One, Jesus.  Jesus, however, simply acquiesces to John’s baptism, and then has two visions (do the people share them?)  The first is the descent of the Spirit, in the form of the dove.  The second is heard – a voice from heaven telling exactly who Jesus is. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What were the people expecting?
  2. What do you think that John was expecting?
  3. What was Jesus expecting?
  4. What do you expect from your own baptism?

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

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.