30 December 2016

The Baptism of Our Lord, 8 January 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Saint Matthew 3:13-17

Background: The Dove

The dove as a religious symbol appears in many of the religions of the Ancient Near East, signifying or associated with the various fertility goddesses Atargatis, Ishtar, Astarte, and Aphrodite. In the Gilgamesh Epic as in the Noah story of the Hebrew Scriptures, a dove is released to find land. It is in the Talmud that we first begin to see the association of the dove with the Spirit of God, although in subsequent Jewish literature the dove is associated with the human soul. In the Matthean baptismal account, Jesus is blessed through an appearance of a dove, which lights on his shoulder and is followed by the Voice, which announces Jesus as “beloved Son”. Mark and Luke also share the imagery of the dove, and also the connection with the Voice – an evocation of the connection of the mighty wind (ru’ah – spirit) in the Genesis first creation account. Later use of the dove in Christian literature takes the dove and olive branch of the Noah story and aligning it with the ideas of peace and amity.

First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

There are two “songs” here, the first (verses 1-4) from the author we have designated as Second Isaiah, and the second (verses 5-9) from Third Isaiah. They don’t date from the same period and have very different emphases. The first pericope is one of the so-called “Servant Songs” in which there is a royal designation of a servant who will “bring forth” justice (mišpāt) in the nations, in truth, and in the earth. These words of justice are all encompassing, in that it is available to those who are troubled in life, or as the commentator Claus Westermann says, “already under sentence of death.”[1] The servant does not dispense justice as a king or a judge would, but rather announces by word of mouth the justice of God.

The second pericope was written by another author, and comes from a different period in the history of the collection we know as Isaiah. The initial verse describes the attributes of the YHWH who then calls Israel to be a sign to the nations of the earth. The signs are the unmistakable signs of messianic presence: “to open eyes,” and “to bring out prisoners.” In verse 8 we have the reason that the framers of the Lectionary have used this passage on this day. The great Name is invoked, and it stands in contrast to others who would be gods, and distinguishes those that follow God. The previous verse describes the deeds that set both nation and God apart, and the final verse describes future action that will continue to make God known among the peoples. They are not a surprise, for the promise is that they will be announced – “I tell you of them.”

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          What does justice mean to you?
2.          How might a religious person “bring forth” justice?
3.         How do you promote justice?

Psalm 29 Afferte Domino

     Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, *
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2      Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; *
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3      The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4      The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
5      The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; *
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6      He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7      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.
8      The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
9      And in the temple of the Lord *
all are crying, "Glory!"
10    The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
11    The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Artur Weiser describes this psalm as a hymn of praise of the theophany of YHWH. Others see in it a reworking of a hymn in praise of the Canaanite thunder god. The first verse hints at a remembrance of a polytheistic practice in its, “Ascribe to the Lord, you gods”, which Alter translates as “Grant to the Lord, O sons of God,” and Weiser as “Ascribe to the Lord glory, ye sons of gods.” Whatever its provenance, this psalm glories in a cosmic God, who manifests power over who aspects of the creation. “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters,” recalls the primordial battle that brings chaos into order, and God’s power is seen as encompassing a wide area – from the forests of Lebanon to the wilderness of Kadesh (Sinai). The vision is of the God who is enthroned on the flood, once again an ancient image common in the Ancient Near East. But this is a God who is not separated or removed from the people, for the final verse describes the gifts that God does bring to them. From the Christian perspective the numerous references to water speak powerfully of the gift of baptism.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
1.     How do you image God’s power?
2.     Does God still “shake up” the world? How?
3.    What do the “waters” signify to you?

The Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

The context for Peter’s speech here is the conversion of Cornelius, and in it we see not only the conversion of Cornelius and his household, but of Peter as well. It is best summarized as, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives the forgiveness of sins through his name.” It is the “everyone” that interests Luke here, making his case for the inclusion of Gentiles in the Jesus movement. Peter’s sermon is redolent of both salvation history and creed. To that end he speaks of the authority in which he makes this pronouncement, “We are witnesses to all that he did.” With that history and with that authority, Peter reaches out to a new component of the church.

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What is Peter trying to prove in his sermon?
  2. How is Peter a witness?
  3. What is Cornelius’ response?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus models several behaviors for Matthew’s readers – humility and identification with everyman or woman. John understands what lies beneath Jesus’ humility and his divine mission, and he also understands his own unworthiness to honor Jesus’ request to be baptized. What follow after the baptism appears (at least in Matthew and in Mark) an interior theophany in which Jesus becomes aware of the heavens being opened and the voice announcing him as the beloved son.  Matthew’s rendition of the voice seems more like a pronouncement, however, while Mark’s seems more private. Both reflect the first verse of Isaiah 42:1.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Why does Jesus seek baptism?
2.     Why does John object?
3.    What does Jesus expect?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Westermann, C. (1969), Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 97.

22 December 2016

The Most Holy Name of Jesus, 1 January 2017

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11
Saint Luke 2:15-21

Background: The Name “Jesus”        

Not as familiar to Christians is the name “Yehoshua”, which me might recognize in its English transliteration as “Joshua”, which is the name from which the name “Jesus” is derived. This comes to us from the Greek and Latin forms of the name.  Another form of the name, “Yeshua” seems to have been used in Judea around the time of Jesus. The name seems to mean, “YHWH is salvation”, and like a great number of Hebrew names not only refers to God, but acts or attributes of God as well.

In daily life, Jesus would have normally been referred to in relationship to others or to places. Thus we hear of him as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” or even as “the carpenter’s son”. Larger family references are known as well, such as “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.”

First Reading: Numbers 6:22-27

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Our reading today comes in the midst of a series of chapters dealing with ritual purity, serving as instruction for the people, and especially the priests for the continuation or actually resumption of cultic life in Israel. Written by the priestly group, the earlier parts of the book serve as a continuation of the book of Leviticus, and serve to lay down for a people rediscovering the worship of YHWH the “how to” of it all. Here we are shown how to use the NAME, but not the real name, as Adonai is slipped into to preserve unpronounced the name of YHWH. 

The actual formula has some poetic aspects to it, and is powerful in its repetitive nature and in its rising drama of blessing. One commentator notes that there are increasing numbers of syllables in each of the three phrases, 12, 14, and 16. Thus the power of the blessing becomes increasingly intense as it invokes the NAME over the people.

Breaking open Numbers:
  1. What name do you give to God?
  2. How do use God’s name?
  3. What does it mean to bless?

Psalm 8 Domine, Dominus noster

     Lord our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!
2      Out of the mouths of infants and children *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
3      You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to quell the enemy and the avenger.
4      When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
5      What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?
6      You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;
7      You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet:
8      All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9      The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
10    Lord our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!

The first verse clues us into why this particular psalm was chosen for this feast day, “how majestic your name in all the earth!” In the immediate verses the phrases “out of the mouths”, and “your majesty is praised”, describes both a generational and spatial view of the power and praise associated with the name of God. The verses that follow carefully outline what is associated with the name: protection, creation, and the charter given to humankind. Finally all of this is linked again to the name, and to the role that God plays in the life of Israel. In order to avoid use of the word “master”, the Book of Common Prayer translation uses the word “governor”. It’s an unfortunate choice that has associations with lessor governments in the United States. “Ruler” would supply a necessary level of majesty implied in the psalm.

Breaking open Psalm 8:
  1. How do you talk about God?
  2. How do you like to praise God?
  3. For what do you praise God?

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Here the reading is concerned with multiple names.  We learn something fundamental about our relationship to God in the names “Abba” and “Father”. I know that this notion of mining the word “father” for meaning is problematic in so many ways. Might it serve, however, at least as a starting point for talking about relationships and how they are meted out amongst us as human beings, and in our relationship with God as well? There are other names as well – “children”, “slave”, “child” and “heir”. Here it is not names so much as status – our place in the household, in the relationship. The underlying implication is that baptism has given us a new name (status), and that we should now live from that point of view.

Breaking open Galatians:
  1. What is your status in the world?
  2. What is your status in the Church?
  3. What is your status as God sees you?


Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In the second and third chapters of Philippians, the author sets up a paradigm and then exhorts us in the following verses to live in congruence with that rule and direction. In one of the most eloquent and elegant passages in the New Testament, Paul may have quoted an early Christian hymn that describes the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. The final verse is the reason for its use here, “and that every tone should confess.” The poem progresses through a series of debasements (in spite of an inherent status of being “in the form of God”) – emptied, born, humbled, obedient, death. Each describes not only a changing condition and status but also a progress to a point in history at which point things change – “Therefore God…” The reversal begins with the giving of a name above all others. For a people who probably don’t know what the meaning of their own name is, this might not be understood. Here, Jesus is what his name describes, “God is salvation.”

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What does it mean that Jesus “emptied himself”?
  2. When have you been humiliated in life?
  3. How were you lifted up from it?

The Gospel: St. Luke 2:15-21

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

Again, we have to wait until the last line of the reading to understand its inclusion here. The audience for the words of salvation, however, is described immediately in the person of the shepherds who are the first to receive the news.  Or, given the hierarchical nature of things, perhaps it was the angels who heard it first. What is important here is that the shepherds have grasped the meaning of what they have heard, and understood what the next steps are – to go and to see. It is a behavior that the disciples will exhibit later in the gospels upon hearing the words of the women. They too will go and see, and they will repeat the word so that the hierarchy of hearing might continue. The reaction to the hearing is “amazement”, Luke’s code word for belief and acceptance.

There is another reaction and that is Mary’s response of contemplation. Here life following these events will be different, and perhaps Mary, as Luke structures this situation, has Mary model what every new believer must do having first heard the word. Having seen, they now need to think. Jesus life, however, will travel a conventional path, as Mary and Joseph have Jesus circumcised and named. Thus he follows all the conventions of the Law.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How are the shepherds the focus and heroes in this story?
  2. What about Mary’s behavior sets her apart?
  3. How do you contemplate about your faith?

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

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller