18 November 2013

The Second Sunday of Advent, 8 December 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7,18-19
Romans 15:4-13
St. Matthew 3:1-12

Background:  The Gospel of St. Matthew – Audience and Setting
Traditionally the audience for Matthew was thought to be a people speaking either Aramaic, or Hebrew, living in Palestine.  The vocabulary and structure of the book seemed to lead scholars in that direction.  Some even envisaged that the book had been originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic.  Now there is some evidence that the audience intended may have lived outside of Palestine, perhaps in Alexandria, Egypt, the home to a large population of Jews, or perhaps in Phoenician areas of the Levant, or Caesarea.  There has been some consensus that the actual audience was a community of Christians and Jews living in Antioch (Syria).  As Matthew begins to speak of the ministry of Jesus, in 4:24, we read of the spread of the Gospel to “all of Syria.”  If we look in the book of Acts (11:19-26), we can read of the evangelization of Gentiles in Antioch.  Other arguments in favor of Antioch look to the primacy of Peter, to which the Gospel of Matthew pays a great deal of attention.  In the next century, St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch will quote directly from Matthew.  Finally, the Didache, which some scholars have seen as being composed in Antioch, has ample connections with the Gospel of Matthew, quoting passages and making allusions to other passages.

Next week: The Composition of Matthew

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

This reading comes out of a section of Isaiah called The Book of Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:1 – 12:6), which is composed of several oracles against the policies of King Ahaz of Judah, and the a review of the fall of the North (The Kingdom of Israel) and the fault of the Assyrian Empire.  In this latter section, Isaiah writes about what an ideal king, in the line of David, might contribute to the difficult situation in Judah.  In the “Rule of Emmanuel”, Isaiah looks forward to a period of peace and prosperity.  Of interest in the first verse is the image of “the stump of Jesse”.  Jesse, David’s father, would have symbolized the whole Davidic Dynasty.  The stump, however is troublesome, and leads us to ask whether the line had been destroyed?  The shoot coming from the branch seems to form an answer that calls for an end to the old behaviors of these kings (the stump) and something new and faithful to YHWH (the shoot).  

So what are the qualities of this new scion of the Davidic line?  Isaiah outlines the qualities, which begin with a healthy dose of the Spirit (or read here, “the breath of God”), which is followed by a series of gifts that are obtained from such an endowment.  We know this list well from its inclusion in Handle’s Messiah: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of YHWH.  Such are the gifts that will enable the righteous deeds that will flow from this king.  They are the signs of the messianic kingdom.  Such behaviors that are described in the conduct of animals in nature are also found in other ancient near eastern (Sumerian) texts.  Thus such allusions would have been familiar to the hearers.  The final verses show how kingship is ideally a shadow of the Creator’s protective stance.  The kingdom is a holy place, really a holy mountain, (Zion or Sinai?) which is the source of a river that will fill the earth with the knowledge of God.  That knowledge will allow the earth to understand the rule of God in the king, Emmanuel, God with us.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Have you had shoots spring out of the stump of your faith?  What are they like?
  2. How does Jesus meet Isaiah’s expectations?
  3. In what way is our world evidence of Emmanuel – God with us?

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Deus, judicium

Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;

That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;

That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.

He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

Blessed be the Lord GOD, the God of Israel, *
who alone does wondrous deeds!

And blessed be his glorious Name for ever! *
and may all the earth be filled with his glory.
Amen. Amen.

Quite properly Psalm 72 offers commentary and prayer that the King might participate in a vision of peace similar to Isaiah’s vision. The dedication of the psalm is to Solomon, and the closing lines of the psalm (not included in the liturgical text) ascribe the psalm to David.  Thus, the early commentary on this text saw David as writing this about his son, Solomon.  Some see this psalm as a “messianic psalm”, while others see it as typical court poetry, exaggerating the effect and rule of the King.  Indeed, the psalm may be a prayer that hopes such messianic behaviors might be seen in the king and his rule.

The missing verses (8-17) continue the description of the beauty and prosperity of the king’s rule.  The final verses in the liturgical reading seem to be an addition to the psalm, a doxology to the God whose creative and protective powers have been showered on this king.  The final verses of thanksgiving center on the God who does these things.  A similar device is used at the end of Psalm 41, where a similar thanksgiving is made.

Breaking open Psalm 72:
  1. How does God “defend the needy” in our day?
  2. Are you involved in such a defense?
  3. Does your church help the “righteous to flourish”?  How?
Romans 15:4-13

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

"Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,

and sing praises to your name";

and again he says,

"Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";

and again,

"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,

and let all the peoples praise him";

and again Isaiah says,

"The root of Jesse shall come,

the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;

in him the Gentiles shall hope."

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The first section of Romans is an extensive theological review written for the benefit of the Church in Rome.  What follows that in the second section is a smaller section devoted to the demands of this new life in Christ.  Indeed, the first verse of our pericope for today states its intentions perfectly, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.”  Having looked at what was written in former days and interpreting it in the light of Jesus, Paul wants his readers to realize that it is not only the mind that needs to be transformed, but also life itself.  And what are the hallmarks of this new life to be? – Nothing more than humility and charity.  There is a third, however, that is highlighted in these verses and that is hope.  Paul sees it as the whole purpose of our knowledge of Scripture. 

Paul sets up the Christ as an example of living – “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”  This is a sign pointing to the ongoing ministry and mission to the Gentiles.  Paul underscores this mission in the quotations that follow one upon the other: II Samuel 22:50, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117, and Isaiah 11:10.  It is hope, in Paul’s estimation, that will be the convincing message for the Gentiles, and it will be Jesus who is the embodiment of that hope. 

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Who would you describe as the “false teachers” of our time?
  2. Who is telling truth in our time?
  3. What are your thoughts about God as judge?
St. Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
` Prepare the way of the Lord,
 make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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.
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

This Sunday we meet John the Baptist, and on the following Sunday we shall hear his words in a different guise.  Today we meet John in his preaching.  Of equal importance is the setting of this preaching, at the Jordan River.  This small river was of great significance to the Jews.  It was the site of a reenactment of the crossing of the Reed Sea (Joshua 3), it was where Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:1-11), and it was there that Naaman was sent for a cure to his skin disease (II Kings 5:1-14).  Thus it was a place of covenant, prophecy, and healing.  The desert that surrounded it was a place of purgation and journey as well.  These elements represented all that had come before, and that set the stage for John’s message.  Indeed, he clothed himself, both body and mind, fully aware of the Nazirites and the prophets, so that those who came there from Jerusalem would understand his purpose.

What does he have to say in his preaching?  He argues for repentance, that act of turning away from what ever it is that separates us from God.  John is aware that something new is about to happen – the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  John does not greet all who come there with the soft voice of welcome.  He recognizes the Pharisees and Sadducees for what they are, a people so bound up in the old ways (the Sadducees) or those bound up in Rabbinic arguments (the Pharisees) so as not to see the new thing that God was doing.  There is a bit of Jeremiah in this preaching (see Jeremiah 1:10).  Things are going to be rooted up and something new planted.  As Matthew presents John’s preaching, the reader is aware that others, in addition to the children of Abraham and Sarah, are to be invited into the fold – “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham”.  John has high expectations about the one who is to follow, “the one who is more powerful than I.”  These expectations will meet their test in next Sunday’s Gospel, but for today we have an image of a Christ who labors at the threshing floor.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      Have you repented in your life?  Of what?
2.      What have you turned away from that has separated you from God?
3.      What are John’s expectations about Jesus?

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

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller

13 November 2013

The First Sunday of Advent, 1 December 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
St. Matthew 24:36-44

Background:  A Year of Matthew
With this First Sunday of Advent, we enter Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  The predominant Gospel during this cycle will be the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.  Here are some background materials on this Gospel.  Until the nineteenth century, the Gospel of Matthew enjoyed a primacy of quotation and usage in the Church.  However, with the rediscovery of the importance of Mark to both Matthew and Luke, Matthew has enjoyed the same critical examination that has been afforded the other Gospels.  The authorship of Matthew, once acknowledged as Matthew – one of the Twelve – is now not so certain.  These aspects, however are recognized:  1) The Gospel was written by a Jewish Christian, who knew Hebrew.  Matthew makes deep connections between the Hebrew Scriptures and the life of Jesus.  When the author quotes the Hebrew Scriptures the Hebrew original is quoted rather than the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.   2) The author is interested in the prophetic background that is, in his estimation, fulfilled in the life of Jesus.  3) The author was quite familiar with Jewish custom, law, and cultus. 

The Gospel was probably composed sometime in the late first century CE, between 89 and 90.  Thus the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, and perhaps the events leading up to the Council of Jamnia (although this event is largely discredited now) would have set a different kind of backdrop to the evangelist’s telling of the life of Jesus.  His reliance on Mark, and on the sayings from Q would have balanced this point of view with the realities of Jesus’ time.  There is material that is unique to Matthew, and during the course of this coming year, we will discover and discuss these materials.

Next Week:  The Audience and the Setting.

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come

the mountain of the LORD's house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains, 

and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say,

"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,

to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways 
that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks; 

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,

come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD!

This pericope comes from a series of sayings and oracles that were made during the time of Ahaz (1:1-12:6), ca. 740 BCE.  In this reading Isaiah looks to what Jerusalem will or perhaps should be in the times to come.  It is interesting that these verses are stated in a different manner in Micah 4:1-5.  You might want to read them for the comparison.  It is here that we begin to see what will develop in Isaiah as a universalism that will lift its gaze from the people of Israel and Judah to a larger theater that would include all the nations of the earth.  We also begin to see characters develop that will be important to the rib pattern, in which Israel/Judah, God, and Earth and Sky are seated in a courtroom to hear testimony about the people and their behavior and faithfulness.  Here God is set us as Judge (and as Instructor as well.)  It is the Law that shall teach and guide, and it is God who will see whether or not his ways are being followed.  The final lines describe the messianic reality that Isaiah foresees, a realm of peace and security.  The invitation to walk in the ways of the Lord is an invitation to live under the rule and teaching of the Law. 

Why was this reading chosen for the first Sunday of Advent? The Gospel for the day seems to provide a bit of a paradox to this reading.  Isaiah describes what good might be, and Jesus describes what difficulties are to come.  Here is the nexus on which this Sunday is formed.  What kind of times can we expect before the coming of Jesus?

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Do you have dreams about what your community or country might become?  What are they?
  2. By what means does God teach you about life?
  3. How do you feel about the image of God as a judge?

Psalm 122 Laetatus sum

I was glad when they said to me, *
"Let us go to the house of the LORD."

Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is built as a city *
that is at unity with itself;

To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD, *
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the LORD.

For there are the thrones of judgment, *
the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
"May they prosper who love you.

Peace be within your walls *
and quietness within your towers.

For my brethren and companions' sake, *
I pray for your prosperity

Because of the house of the LORD our God, *
I will seek to do you good."

If Isaiah is entertaining notions of a more universal Yahwism, then the psalmist is clearly focused on Jerusalem as the center of the cultus, the place of divine worship and rule.  The first line (not included in the liturgical psalter) is a description of the psalm as a “song of ascents for David.” This, however, is not Jerusalem seen from afar, a goal for the end of the journey, but rather as a present reality – “our feet were standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.”  The psalmist has arrived within the sacred precinct, but is aware of the constant stream of pilgrims who move up to the city.  (Since Jerusalem sits on a north-south ridge that divides the coastal lowlands, from the deserts that surround the Jordan River valley, people would naturally have to come up to the city.) It is here that not only the Temple sits, but the thrones of judgment as well.  Thus the psalm reflects not only Jerusalem as a spiritual center, but as a political center as well.  The line “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” plays on the Hebrew word shalom, which forms part of the name of the city as well.  The defensive towers mentioned earlier in the poem now become ramparts and palaces that are governed by peace.  Again, the forecast of a messianic kingdom finds its place here as well as in the vision of Isaiah.

Breaking open Psalm 122:
  1. Is there a physical central point to your faith?  If so, where is that?
  2. Is there a spiritual capital of America?  Where?
  3. How do the spiritual and the political relate for you?

Romans 13:11-14

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

In the material leading up to this reading, Paul has asked his readers to look beyond the behavior and life of the present age.  His encouragement is to anticipate living into the great Day of the Lord.  In the past prophetic tradition, this Day of the Lord was depicted with dark colors and dismal promises.  Now it becomes, under Paul, a day to be anticipated – with joy.  The dark night of the past fear of God’s judgment is past – the reader is protected by an “armor of light.”  These are not spiritual and theological distinctions, however.  Paul sees them (that past darkness) in a very real light, and lists them out for us: reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy.  Instead of providing a list of alternatives, Paul supplies only one thing, one aspect with which to live in this world – the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is that anticipation that forms the theme for this day.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What might you dread about the Great Day of the Lord?
  2. What might you anticipate with joy about the Great Day of the Lord?
  3. What do you anticipate in this season?

St. Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus said to the disciples, "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

In the preceding verses and chapter, Jesus has riveted his gaze and teaching on the difficult times that are to come.  The evangelist may have known them well, as a probable witness to the fall of Jerusalem and the crushing of the Jewish revolt.  Jesus, however, does not know of these things as things in and of themselves, but rather as signs pointing to a new era for the earth – the coming of the Son of Man.  Here is some biblical material that can help you with the vision that Jesus gives – Daniel 7:13, Genesis 6-8. The immediacy of this visitation is underscored by Jesus’ examples: Noah, those taken, and those left behind.  Such randomness had been experienced by Israel in the past, during the wars and invasions from the east and the south, which were indiscriminate in the terror that they dispensed.  Another theme that resonates here is that of the remnant – those left behind (or taken up, depending on your point of view) who remain faithful.  The point is not on the realities of what this might be like but rather on an attitude of watchfulness and waiting.  It will be difficult to cut through the sugary sweet anticipation of Christmas in our culture to arrive at the resolute and bare bones attitude that Jesus seems to desire. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      What about life in Christ do you hope to be surprised by?
2.      How do you understand the idea of “one being taken and one being left behind”?
3.      What about the current culture’s depiction of Christmas do you need to leave behind?

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

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller