23 February 2015

The Second Sunday in Lent, 1 March 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
St. Mark 8:31-38

Background: Covenant
This is one of those terms that we assume that people know and understand. However, with the lack of biblical studies in general, such an assumption is probably wrong, and people need to be reminded of the import of such a concept. The notion of covenant appears in several aspects in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. The first of the covenants to be described in the Bible is the covenant with Noah (last Sunday’s first reading.) In the story of the flood, God reveals his covenant with Noah not only with words, but also with the sign of the Rainbow. Other covenants follow, with Abraham, Moses, “the new covenant” of Jeremiah, the so-called “Priestly Covenant” made with Aaron and his descendants, the Davidic covenant, and finally the covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven, described by Jesus. All of these agreements have deep roots in the legal systems of the ancient near east, most especially with the legal form of Hittite treaties. Other ideas and actions flow from the covenant: a) The sacrifice that sealed the covenant (see Genesis 15) b) the witnessing of the covenant by heaven and earth (see Deuteronomy 30:19), c) or the trial that comes when the covenant is not kept. These promises and their consequences become an important part of Christian theology, and are best seen at work in the readings for the Easter Vigil, and in the Christian Scriptures that follow in the Mass after the Baptisms. From here we could go on to discuss the Baptismal Covenant, but will save that for a time closer to the Great Vigil.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."

God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."

On one level this reading is about names. We are introduced to an archaic name for God, “El Shaddai”, and learn that Abram and Sarai’s names will be changed to Abraham and Sarah. The latter may be the tying together two ancient Abrahamic traditions, or in the style of kings, one may be a common name, and the other a “throne name”. This is not the Abraham who argues with God over the fate of Sodom, but rather a quiet individual who falls on his face in the presence of God. The covenant that God proposes has two aspects: a) the promise of a multitude of descendants some of whom will be “nations”, and “kings”, and b) that Sarah will become a mother. Verses omitted from the reading (verses 8-14) include the provision for the circumcision of males, which was not unique to Israel, but also to other Semitic peoples in the western part of the Fertile Crescent, and especially amongst the priestly castes of Egypt. The cutting of flesh (see the reference to the Abrahamic Covenant in the background above) involved both animals and humans in making the covenant incarnate.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. What promises has God made to you?
  2. Have you believed in them? Why or why not?
  3. How is Abraham a symbol of faith?

Psalm 22:22-30 Deus, Deus meus

Praise the LORD, you that fear him; *
stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;
all you of Jacob's line, give glory.

For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them; *
but when they cry to him he hears them.

My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

For kingship belongs to the LORD; *
he rules over the nations.

To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.

My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the LORD'S for ever.

They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.

We know this psalm from the liturgies of Holy Week, where the initial verses of the psalm connect with the suffering of Jesus. Our usage this morning is limited to the latter verses of the psalm. Here the author gives thanks for preservation from the difficulties outlined in the first half of the psalm, and begins with a shout of thanksgiving. Now we are in the Temple, in the “great assembly” that has gathered there to honor the God who “does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty.”  The extent of God’s grace extends from the Temple to include not only the poor, but also “all the ends of the earth”, including the dead as well, “all who sleep in the earth bow down.” This is very unusual, for the psalter usually does not entertain the notion that the dead can praise God. Indeed it is the opposite – the dead cannot praise God. Here, however, the author expands on the extent of the praise, and exaggerates the number of those who are praising God. The author does not stop there, but includes those yet to come, “a people yet unborn” who will know the love and grace of God, and “the saving deeds that he has done.”

Breaking open Psalm 22:
  1. Are you included in the psalmist’s list of those for whom God is concerned?
  2. Who is on your list of concern?
  3. How wide is God’s mercy for you?

Romans 4:13-25

The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Here we have Paul’s excursus on the first reading (see above). Abraham and Sarah are used as examples in Paul’s argument about the Law and Faith. Paul sees these ancients as primary examples of faith. He observes that the promise given to Abraham and Sarah extends beyond them and their age, to be delivered “also to those who share the faith of Abraham.” What follows then is a midrash on the new recipients of God’s promise and covenant.  The argument is succinct: “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours as well.”  The task of the Letter to the Romans: to recognize the gifts of Israel in her relationship with God, and the extension of those gifts to the gentiles.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What was the faith of Abraham?
  2. In what or whom do you trust?
  3. In what ways was Israel blessed?

St. Mark 8:31-38

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Again, I offer the suggestion that you read the entirety of the pericope, for the initial verses have been lopped off by the lectionary. They describe an important context for the reading. The answer of the disciples to Jesus’ question, “Who are the people saying that I am?” is made more poignant by a further question to them, “who do you say that I am?” The answer that is forthcoming is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one, just as priests, prophets, and kings in Israel were anointed. From that confession follows a further examining of what those words of faith are really all about. Jesus wants to press deeper, and with this we join our lectionary reading again. What Jesus teaches now is not about the correctness of Peter or their observations, but of what needs to happen next – a prediction of the Passion. Peter finds this odious, and says as much. Suddenly we are back in the wilderness of temptation, but now it is Peter who is playing the role of Satan, and who must know step behind.

The teaching that follows is what any disciple should know – the cost of the cross not only to Jesus, but also really to all of us. There is here language of denial – Lenten language. It is not denial of trivial things, such as we might suggest in our Lenten disciple, chocolate, meat, movies, etc., but rather the essential thing, life itself.  The author of Psalm 22 (see above) gets at the same thing with his phrase, “my soul (better translated ‘my seed’) shall live for him.” The seed of psalm 22 is the essence of the future and the descendants of Abraham that Paul argues for. What do we give up for Jesus? Ourselves! If we are not ashamed of the Christ (using Peter’s confession) then God will not be ashamed of us.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why does Jesus call Peter “Satan”?
  2. What does Jesus mean about “giving up ourselves”?
  3. Are you ever ashamed of your faith?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

17 February 2015

The First Sunday in Lent, 22 February 2015

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
I Peter 3:18-22
St. Mark 1:9-15

Background: 40
The number 40 appears both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures several times, and it is not unknown in Islamic writings, or other writings of the ancient near east. Like most numbers in the Bible it is of a symbolic character rather than being an exact number. One commentator said that you could loosely translate the number as “umpteen.” In other words, the number represents a large number of significance. That aside, the number is assigned to significant events in both of the testaments: The Rain at the time of the flood (40 days and 40 nights), The Wanderings of Israel in the Wilderness (40 years), The Exploration of Canaan by the Spies (40 days), Moses’ life is divided into 3 forty year segments, Moses on Mount Sinai (40 days and 40 nights), Jesus in the Wilderness after his Baptism (40 days and 40 nights), Days from the Resurrection to the Ascension (40 days), and finally, The Forty Days of Lent. The number in Lent seems to participate in the stories of the Flood, and the Wanderings, along with Jesus’ time in the wilderness. It is a way of entering into sacred time and to identify with the actions of Israel and of our Lord.

Genesis 9:8-17

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."

The narrative is introduced by the formula, “God said” and then again later, it is interrupted by the same formula.  In the first instance God speaks about the establishment of a covenant between God and Noah and Noah’s descendants. Indeed it is more than that, for the text includes, “and will every living creature that is with you,” and then goes on to indicate all sorts and conditions of life. And what is the promise? “That never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.” And here God’s comments end, without any response from Noah, to whom these comments were addressed. Such a silence begs for further comment on God’s part – and God obliges. Now the comments are about a sign of the promise and the covenant – the rainbow. This will be the sign of God’s intentions toward humankind. 

The characteristics of this story are shared with other flood stories, especially the Gilgamesh Epic, where the survivors of the flood are given assurances. In the Gilgamesh Epic, Utnapishtim is granted immortality. Here the Noah story differs in that Noah only resumes his normal mortality and the trials and tasks of life – namely food gathering. The rainbow story may be an added etiology that strives to describe the natural phenomenon, and as being linked to this important story and event in God’s relationship to humankind.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. What promises has God made to you?
  2. Have you believed in them? Why or why not?
  3. What is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to you?

Psalm 25:1-9 Ad te, Domine, levavi

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O LORD, *
and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

With the exception of two letters (waw and qof) each verse of the psalm is introduced by a letter of the alphabet. There are nine such acrostic psalms in the Bible. In the initial verse the psalmist lifts up the essence of his existence (here his soul, or heart). He lays the entirety of his self as a place from which his prayer ascends. Our translation blunts the Hebrew structure in the third verse. The psalmist asks God that no shame come to the psalmist, Let none who look to you be put to shame.” The following half is translated as, let the treacherous be disappointed,” while the Hebrew again suggests the idea of shame by saying, “let my enemy be shamed. The supplication here is not a specific request, but rather a seeking after wisdom, “Show me your ways, O Lord.” What the psalmist does request is a share of God’s mind. Having asked for God’s wisdom, the psalmist wants to be remembered and to be recalled by God. Remembrance, however, can be a dangerous thing, for God may well remember “the sins of my youth and my transgressions.” Thus the psalmist reminds God of God’s graciousness and uprightness. It is God that guides even the humble, and all of God’s ways, and those who follow God, are informed by God’s covenant.

Breaking open Psalm 25:
  1. Are you ashamed of anything in your life? What?
  2. How do you get rid of that shame?
  3. Have you been able to live in forgiveness?  How?

I Peter 3:18-22

Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

I Peter desires to teach us nothing else than the whole scope of the Christian story. In this story we meet God in the person of Jesus Christ, whom the author sets up as the primary example of hope and life in a difficult world.  How are we to live in this world? This is the central question that is addressed in the reading for today. Jesus, the example, survives the suffering of his time and passion. The logical conclusion is that we who are in Christ will survive our own sufferings as well. The author uses the Noah story as an example of Baptism, the sacrament that brings us out of an old life into a new one. This is a rich and complex world that the author offers to those who already live in a rich and complex world. The new world, however, is fulfilled in and ordered by Christ, so that even a minority, the survivors (the Christians) are lead into a fulfilled life.

Breaking open I Peter:
  1. How is Jesus an example to you?
  2. How are you an example to others?
  3. Whom do you really admire?

St. Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

It is surprising to be projected back to the baptism of Jesus and the internal vision that he perceives, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending,” following last Sunday’s readings regarding the Transfiguration. Like the disciples who are led down from the mount following the beatific vision, so is Jesus led away from the vision that transfigures his life. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  What follows this vision is a period of temptation and recovery – an intense learning about what life and ministry must be like.

As we enter into Lent, perhaps we also ought to pray that the Spirit drive us into our own personal wilderness of temptation and learning. The lesson to be learned is about the Kingdom of God coming near – the proclamation that Jesus makes upon his initial ministry in Galilee. Mark isn’t interested in the specifics of Jesus’ temptation, but is more interested in the results, the proclaiming of the “good news of God.” All is expressed with a certain sense of urgency and is concisely proclaimed. What is the urgency of our life and proclamation?

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think about when you wake up in the morning?
  2. Does it have anything to do with the promises of your baptism? Why or why not?
  3. Where is your wilderness of refreshment? 
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller