27 November 2015

The Second Sunday of Advent, 7 December 2015

Canticle 16: Benedictus Dominus Deus
Philippians 1:3-11
St. Luke 3:1-6

Background: The Gospel of Luke II

In the Acts of the Apostles, the author meticulously allows for Peter and then Paul to replicate the miracles and ministry of Jesus. The following schedule allows us to see how meticulous this approach is, as the structure of Luke is then applied in Acts as well.

Acts of Jesus
Acts of the Apostles
- Presentation in the Temple
- Jerusalem
- Forty Days in the Desert
- Forty Days before the Ascension
- Jesus in Samaria/Judea
- Samaria
- Jesus in the Decapolis
- Asia Minor
- Jesus receives the Holy Spirit
- Pentecost
- Jesus preaches
- The Apostles preach
- Jesus heals
- The Apostles heal
- Jesus dies.
- Stephen is stoned
- The Apostles are sent
- Paul is sent to Rome

In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, John Carroll talks about the temporal and spatial relationships in Luke – an arrangement that points to a central theme. “With regard to space, the story begins and ends in the temple at Jerusalem (1: 8– 23 and 2: 22– 38, 41– 50; 24: 50– 53), by way of a period of mission in Galilee (4: 14– 9: 50) and a long journey back to the temple (9: 51– 19: 27). And the narrative sequel moves from Jerusalem (Acts 1– 7) to Rome (28: 16– 31), a core foundational narrative of a global mission that embraces the activity of Luke’s audience.”[1]

These are helpful comments for those of us so wedded to the thematic ministry of Luke to the anawim, the little ones and the poor in his Gospel. Here a much wider scope is seen, and the mission to the Gentiles is in sharp focus. That Paul and Luke should be constantly truing their ministry to that of Jesus proves a good example for any who would follow Jesus.

Baruch 5:1-9

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
"Righteous Peace, Godly Glory."
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look toward the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God's command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

Although the book is ascribed to Baruch, it was most likely not written by him. The text of Jeremiah sees Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary, accompanying him to an exile in Egypt. The Book of Baruch, however, assigns him to a place amongst the Babylonian exiles. This pericope is found in a section that deals with Jerusalem’s Consolation (4:5-5:9) and thus comprises the last pericope in the book. Here it is not the prophet or any prophetic figure that speaks, but rather a comforting personification of Zion who comforts Jerusalem. There is a transformation that hopefully takes place, with the formerly grieving Jerusalem now putting on a robe of righteousness. In some sense the vision here bears some resemblance to Isaiah 60:1-6, where the figure of Israel is glorified by the rising sun. This theme of the return of the people, and their being shown in glory is evident here as well, “but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.” Here it is not only an individual prophet who shows the way, but also an entire nation that points to themselves as the coming ones (out of bondage into freedom). It is God who leads them and provides a model of faithfulness and grace. This is more than a commentary on John the Baptist who begins his appearances in this season, but also a lesson for anyone who would point out the way of the Lord.

Breaking open Baruch:
  1. In what ways has God brought you to happiness in the midst of trouble?
  2. What freedoms do you enjoy in your life?
  3. How do you use them for the sake of others?

Malachi 3:1-4

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Matching the themes that we have been studying since the last Sundays of the Church’s year, namely themes borne in the Persian experience, and roughly apocalyptic, here we see described for us the true prophet. Malachi’s oracles follow on the material that precedes it in the Book of Zechariah, and we are bidden to see “The great and terrible day of the Lord.” Unlike Zechariah, this prophet (Malachi “my messenger,” may not be a name but more like a title) comes at his oracles from a priestly viewpoint, with a focus on the covenant of Sinai. Thus he is our mentor on the covenantal tradition. Stephen L. Cook, in his article in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary provides rough outline of the work points out this task and point of view: a) The Covenant and God’s Love, b) Against the Faithless Priesthood, c) Examples of Covenantal Faithlessness, d) The Day of the Lord (from which our pericope comes), e) Repent! f) Judgment and Absolution, and g) Moses and Elijah as Mediators.[2] 

Malachi sees real prophecy as in a message or more specifically a messenger that prepares and makes ready for the coming Day of the Lord. The getting ready may be difficult stuff. The refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap may give us pause – for the vindication of the people is preceded by a difficult period of refinement. This grants to Advent a more foreboding aspect.

Breaking open Malachi:
  1. When you think about the end of time, what do you think of?
  2. Who has been God’s messenger to you?
  3. Who are the prophets of our time?

Canticle 16 Benedictus Dominus Deus

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

In Mary’s song, the Magnificat, we meet Luke’s theology of ministry to the poor, and God’s upholding of the widow and the orphan. In the Benedictus as well (Zechariah’s sung prayer) we also see glimmers of Luke’s hopes for the poor and the nation. It matches the covenantal fidelity that we saw in the reading from Malachi, “He promised to show mercy to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant.” The picture here is a complete realignment of the society that lives within the provisions of the covenant. Although Zechariah mentions the Davidic hopes, “He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David” it is neither that dynasty nor its monarchical system that will bring salvation. Obliquely it points to Jesus, and in a more pointed manner to Jesus’ message of forgiveness and of the new order in the Kingdom of Heaven.  This is a poignant message in the time of a powerful and elite priestly caste, and the elites who used the Temple system to keep the lowly in their place. Thus the closing statement is quite powerful, “To shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Breaking open the Benedictus:
  1. What is your understanding of our covenant with God?
  2. What promises have you made with God?
  3. What do you expect from God?

Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

After Paul has greeted the Philippian congregation he offers a prayer of thanksgiving that forms our pericope for this morning.  In spite of Paul’s condition (he is writing from Rome, in chains) he evidences pure joy at greeting these people. He sees in them the promises fulfilled by a God faithful to the covenant (Malachi again) and sees them as being faithful and expectant for the “day of Jesus Christ”. There is a unity here a koinonia that is shared between the pastor and the people as both look forward to a coming time. In this prayer Paul outlines his themes for the remainder of the letter. If you have the time, it would serve you well to read how these themes pay out in the remaining verses.

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What kinds of relationships does your congregation have one with the other?
  2. Are you partnered together in the proclamation of the Gospel?
  3. How?

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

John the Baptist enjoys a focus in the central two Sundays of Advent. This Sunday introduces us to the character of the prophet in general, and John the Baptist in specifics.  In Luke’s attention to both space and time, he is very clear about the when of this ministry, outlining the ruling class from Emperor on down. Then we are shot out of capitals into places of desolation and loneliness, the place of ministry and proclamation for the Baptist. This specificity as to the elites gives us a clue as to time for Caiaphas was high priest form 18-36 CE. It is this nexus of rulers and hierarchy that will become so important in the Passion Narrative.

Luke will make great efforts to link the ministry of Jesus to the history of Israel and to their journey in the wilderness. Thus we meet John in the same place and condition. As Israel was prepared to enter the new land by years of wandering and penitence, so John bids his audience to do the same. The quotation from Isaiah 40:4-5, more expansive than either Mark or Matthew, concludes with this passage, that falls well into Luke’s theological program, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Here the focus is not only on all Israel, but also on the prophet’s task of preparation and proclamation to more than just Israel.  The content of Mary’s song in the Magnificat will further describe the intent.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How does John the Baptist repeat the history of the Israelites?
  2. What do we expect of him on the basis of the quotation from Isaiah?
  3. To whom is John called to speak?
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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1] Caroll, J. (2012), St. Luke – A Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, page 15.
[2] Gaventa, B. (2010), The New Interpreter’s® Bible One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Kindle Edition, location 20840

21 November 2015

The First Sunday in Advent, 29 November 2015

Jeremiah 23:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
I Thessalonians 3:9-13
St. Mark 13:1-8

Background: The Gospel of Luke, Part I

Greater than a fourth of the New Testament is contained in this Gospel, written by an anonymous gentile in the latter part of the first century, or shortly thereafter.  It is written in a very good Greek and is cognizant of the Hebrew Scriptures and uses them frequently. Tradition holds that Luke was an “inseparable companion to Paul” (Irenaeus), and that he was from Antioch. The tradition may or may not be correct. The intent of the gospel, however, is quite telling,

I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”

The work is contained in two volumes, that of the Gospel According to Luke and its companion volume, The Acts of the Apostles. The author uses several forms in which to tell his story, some appearing in historical forms and narrative, and others as biography or life story. His approach is one of “Salvation history”, describing God’s plan for the salvation of humankind as evidenced in the Hebrew Scriptures, and then in the life of Jesus. One commentator divides the work into three sections: a) Jesus among humankind from his birth until his encounter with John the Baptist, b) Jesus ministry and passion, and c) the work of the apostles, most especially Paul. The sources for this work are materials from the Gospel of Mark, quotations from the Sayings Collection known as “Q”, and material unique to Luke.

Next Week: Structure of the Gospel.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Some call this section of Jeremiah a message of comfort due to its oracles that announce God’s intention to see to the fortunes of Judah, and to look after a weakened Jerusalem.  Our pericope is from the fourth promissory oracle. It is related to the material in Jeremiah 23:5-6, and you may want to look at that pericope while studying or reading this one. You might also look at the material in II Samuel 7:8.  These both represent prior statements of the promises made in this oracle to Judah. If we read Jeremiah carefully, we may find these promises a bit surprising in that Jeremiah is not all that sanguine about the Davidid kings. Perhaps Jeremiah did not want to kick against the overwhelming tradition both in the Torah and psalter regarding the house of David, and includes it here as a best hope in a dire situation. The key word is righteousness, and it is here that we need to begin to make connections, as Jeremiah hoped the monarchy and the whole of the society would do The question is, then, what is righteousness and what is expected of and from it. The whole prophetic message then follows, and expectation of justice and the care of those who are both poor and lowly. This is a future hope, one to be realized in a yet to be Jerusalem, made new in the promises of God.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. What comforts do you find in these words of Jeremiah?
  2. What promises do you hear God making to you?
  3. How do you exhibit your own righrteousness?

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.

This is an acrostic poem based on the alphabet. It follows well upon the oracle of Jeremiah. One can imagine it as the response of those who might take Jeremiah’s words to heart, for the subject of the psalm wishes to be instructed and led by God. There is an initial and essential understanding in the first verse, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul”. The Hebrew word here is nefesh, in other words “the essence of my life, my very breath.” There is an understanding that what is to be learned is to be made a part of the essence of the subject’s life. A doublet of versets diverts from that essential thought to pray for survival and protection, an ironic projection of what Jeremiah only implies in his words. Here they are quite clear.

What follows is instruction, a process of mentoring that proceeds on the basis of forgiveness and trust. The subject knows that he has not been righteous in the past (hence the passage, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions.”), but asks God to remember a status of forgiveness and uprightness. God is expected to guide and lead in spite of the subject’s humility and lowliness. 

Breaking open Psalm 25:
  1. How essential is God in your life?
  2. What have you learned from God?
  3. What have you learned from the creation God placed you in?

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

This pericope comes from an initial “Thanksgiving” section of the epistle that serves as an introduction to the main points of the letter. In earlier parts, Paul expresses his desire to visit the Thessalonians, and offers a thanksgiving for the work that they have done for the sake of the Gospel. In a sense Paul prepares a bridge of blessing between himself and this congregation that he longs to see. The language is familial and fatherly, an initial blessing to them. Paul seems to model his own love for them, on the love that God bears toward them. There is a yearning for holiness and blamelessness so that both Paul and the Thessalonians can be caught up in the faithful to greet the coming Jesus. This is a great Advent text.

Breaking open I Thessalonians:
  1. What binds the lives of Paul and the Thessalonians together?
  2. What makes your congregation a family?
  3. How will you wait with others for the coming Christ?

St. Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

These teachings precede the passion of Jesus, and serve as a Lucan apocalypse much like the Marcan one that we read a couple of Sundays ago. Luke’s view of these has greater scope than the view in Mark. Luke’s view is much more cosmic and universal, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” In Mark the disciples are amazed at the local magnificence that Jesus quickly and easily dismisses. Here, however, the whole earth is at risk and in danger. What follows is the promise of the coming. To gain a fuller grasp of the imagery here, you may want to look at Daniel 7:13-14. Jesus appears as the victor over all the powers of the earth. It is an important perspective to maintain as Luke then leads us into the passion events. The disciples, and we, are given something that we can understand and perceive. Jesus uses the metaphor of the fig three, a reference that Luke’s initial readers would have well understood. For a people connected to the agriculture and nature about them – the signs of the seasons would have been obvious and known to all. This removes the eschatology of Luke from a position as an esoteric knowledge to something that might be perceived by anyone. Therefore the closing instruction, “Be on guard, so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation,” becomes not an impossible task – tied to difficult observations and discernment, but an approachable part of daily life. Jesus hopes for salvation for his hearers, and bids them be ready for his return.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you observe going on in our own times?
  2. Is it the end time?
  3. If so, why or why not? 
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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller