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Wrestling with the Word, episode 54: Second Sunday of Christmas, Year C (January 3, 2010) December 28, 2009

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Second Sunday of Christmas

The early church worked earnestly at many issues regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ, struggling at times to explain his unique person as both human and divine. The struggle is evident in the way the four Gospels describe when Jesus’ divinity began. The earliest Gospel, Mark, tells us nothing about Jesus as Son of God until his baptism as an adult by John the Baptizer. The next Gospels to appear, Matthew and Luke, announce that his conception in Mary’s womb marked the beginning of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. The fourth Gospel, the last to be written, gives us a completely new perspective. The Gospel from John announces that the Word that became flesh existed from all eternity as the Son of God. The connection between God’s “son” and salvation has its background in the first lesson from Jeremiah 31, and the eternal existence of the Word has its background in the alternate lesson from Sirach 24. The psalm for the day, Psalm 147, praises God for the sending the word to the earth, and the second lesson, a hymn in Ephesians 1:3-14, announces that the coming of Christ was God’s plan from the beginning of time.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 54: Second Sunday of Christmas, Year C.

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Jeremiah 31:7-14
Just as the Lord sent Israel into exile, so will the Lord bring back his first-born with singing, reversing their fortunes that they know shalom.

Context
At his call to be a prophet (1:4-10) God told Jeremiah that his role would be not only to pluck up and break down but also to build and to plant.  While most of the preceding oracles are ones of judgment, in chap. 30 is a series of good news promises regarding restoration begins.

Key Words
V. 10.  šim‘û debar YHWH = “hear the word of the Lord”:  the precise expression occurs 33 times in the OT, but only here and in Ezek. 20:47; 25:3 as an address to anyone other than Israelites.

V. 10.  wehaggîdû ba’’iyyîm = “declare in the coastlands”:  often used as a synonym for “nations” or “earth” to focus on God’s reach beyond the confines of Israel:  Ps. 97:1; Isa. 24:15 (where people in the coastlands give glory to the Lord); 41:1; 42:4, 10, 12 (universal praise of God); 49:1.

V. 13.  wenichamtîm = “and I will comfort them”:  the expression is common in regard to the exiles in Second Isaiah:  40:1; 51:3, 12; 52:9 (// “redeemed”).

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Sirach 24:1-12 (alternate)
Like the word of God, the wisdom of God came forth from God’s mouth to cover the earth but eventually pitched a tent in Jerusalem to be present in a special way as God’s torah.

The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (alias Ecclesiasticus) is one of the key books included in the Old Testament Apocrypha. The 15 books in this collection did not fit the criteria of the Jewish community at the end of first century for inclusion into its approved writings (or canon).  The Hebrew Bible comprised basically the 39 books many Christians know as the Old Testament. Other books that were not written in Hebrew but in Greek and other languages and were not believed to have been written between the time of Moses and that of Ezra made up the separate collection of “hidden books” (the meaning of Apocrypha). These books were included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and were used by early Christian writers.

The work of Jesus ben Sirach was produced in Hebrew in the early decades of the second century B.C.E , but his grandson’s translation of the work into Greek at least 5o years later is the only manuscript available.

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Psalm 147:12-20
The psalm of praise extols the power and the grace of God. The portion assigned here looks to the word of God that both controls nature and instructs Israel in a unique way because of its election.

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Ephesians 1:3-14
Having adopted us as children through the forgiveness of our sins in Christ’s death, God calls the church and each of us to live out our future inheritance by glorifying God here and now.

Context
The Epistle to the Ephesians is not in the strictest sense an epistle, and it might not have been addressed to the Ephesians. Furthermore, in spite of its first word, it was probably not written by Paul. Written sometime before A.D. 95, this essay by an admirer of Paul was apparently intended as a theological teaching about the unity of the church under the leadership of Christ, its head. That unity was emphasized because of the growth of the church in Gentile circles and the apparent difficulty of remembering the church’s origin among Jewish people and Jewish traditions. The piece selected as our pericope is a hymn about God’s blessedness and how that blessing affects the life of the baptized.

Key Words
V. 5.  en agapē  proorisas hēmas eis huiothesian dia ’Iēsou Christou = “in love having destined us for adoption through Jesus Christ”:  The term huiothesia = “adoption” is used at Rom. 9:5 for the relationship of Israel to God and also at Gal. 4:5 for the relationship of Christians to God through baptism.

V. 7.  en hō  echomen tēn apoltrōsin dia tou haimatos autou, tēn aphesin tōn paraptōmatōn = “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins”:  These expressions in the hymn indicate that by the time of the writing of this epistle, they had become common liturgical expressions and are quoted without explanation. Interestingly, while Paul used the word apoltrosis = “redemption” in the sense of freedom from the power of sin and death (slave market imagery), the apposition here appears to define  ”redemption” as God’s pardoning of our sins.

V. 10. eis oikonomian tou plērōmatos tōn kairōn = “as a management of the fullness of time”: Mark summarizes the beginning of Jesus’ preaching in terms of “the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul writes of the “fullness of time” as the incarnation of God’s Son in the world to redeem those under the law in order that our adoption might occur (Gal. 5:4-5). Here, the words point to the grand purpose of God, namely, to “manage” the promise of a new order for the entire universe over which Christ will rule.

V. 12. eis to einai hēmas eis epainon doxēs autou = “for us to exist for the praise of his glory”: The hymn defines Christian responsibility to be and do what God created humanity for: the glory of God. Note the climax to the hymn Paul quotes at Phil. 2:5-11.

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John 1: (1-9) 10-18
The eternal Word of God who existed alongside God from all eternity and who was God has become one of us to share in our lives, our sufferings, and in all the conditions known to humanity.

Context
Some NT scholars regard the background of the piece in an ancient wisdom hymn or at least from ancient wisdom themes. In the OT and in the Apocrypha “wisdom” seems to have been personified in several ways (Prov. 8:22-31; 9:1-6; Sirach 24:1-12). Verses 9-15 might be interpreted in light of these wisdom traditions, particularly in light of Sir. 24:  “light … in the world … came to his own home … children of God.”  On the other hand, other scholars see the outline as a historical reflection of Israel’s past and the coming of Christ:  “in the world … yet the world did not known him” (the period from Adam to Moses), “came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him” (the Sinai law), “children of God” (the faithful remnant of Israel), “the Word became flesh” (Incarnation), “and we have seen his glory” (the Transfiguration). Whether or not either of those backgrounds provides wording and imagery for this hymn, the content describes the story of Jesus quite well.

Key Words
V. 1. en archē = “in (the) beginning”: The same words the LXX uses at Gen. 1:1. Note that Mark’s Gospel also starts with “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” (1:1). The Gen. 1 themes of darkness and light follow here in John 1.

V. 14. kai eskēnōsen en hēmin = “and pitched a tent among us”: Compare Sirach 24 where the Creator assigned for Wisdom “the tent” (skēnēn, v. 8), ordered Wisdom to “tent (kataskēnōson, v. 9); “in the holy tent” (skēnē) Wisdom ministered before the Creator (v. 10).

V. 14. plērēs charitas kai alētheias = “full of grace and truth”: For the intimate relationship between  Jesus and “truth” in John, see 8:32, 36; 14:6; 19:37-38.

Wrestling with the Word, episode 53: Christmas Eve, Year C (December 24, 2009) December 14, 2009

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Christmas Eve

It is small wonder that the celebration of Christ’s birthday always includes the heartiest and most joyous singing of the year. In fact, the wonder is that God delivers this precious gift to the world in a small package. A baby born in especially humble surroundings in an insignificant town (Micah 5:2) is the focus of the party. The first ones invited to the party are some local shepherds, but the baby’s birth is “good news” for the world. “Joy to the world” indeed! It’s an especially critical message when the world, longing for joyful news, receives it in a package that hardly seems worth wrapping.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 53: Christmas Eve, Year C.

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Psalm 96
Like Psalms 47, 95, and 98, this song calls the assembly of worshipers to sing their acclamation and praise to God who reigns over the universe because God is its Creator. The summons to sing actually delivers the message about “the good news” of God’s victory (v. 2) that brings a reign of order versus the chaos that threatens the world. The psalm invites worshipers from all nations (v. 7) to participate in the joyous song that will include as well the choir of God’s creatures of the sea and the fields and even the trees of the woods. Their universal joy results from the confidence that the Lord comes to bring justice to the whole creation (vss. 10-13).

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Isaiah 9:2-7
Over against the gloom of the present time, God conquers the forces of chaos and crowns as king a Davidic ruler who will reign will justice and righteousness.

Context
Following the Isaiah memoirs of chapters 6-8, this hymn celebrating either the birth of a royal child or the coronation of a Davidic king appears as an appropriate addendum, for it gives the impression that the turmoil of the Syro-Ephraimite alliance (or Aramean-Israelite Coalition; see 7:1-9) has ended by God’s hand. The Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom has taken place, and the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali have been devastated (9:1).

Key Words
V. 3.  hirbîtā haggôy lô’ higdaltā_ hassimchâ = “you have increased the nation; you have not magnified the joy”:  The Hebrew words were probably hirbîtā haggîlâ higdaltā hassimchâ = you have increased the joy; you have magnified the rejoicing,” thus establishing a parallelism in the verse (cf. Ps. 45:16; Isa. 16:10; Jer. 48:33; Joel 1:16).

V. 4.  “the day of Midian”:  The words refer to the battle described in Judg. 6:33–7:25 in which the judge Gideon summoned Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali to join him against the Midianites and Amalekites. In the battle, the Lord caused self-destructive panic among the enemy and so they fled—characteristics of a War of YHWH.

V. 6.  kî-yeled yullad-lānû bēn nittan-lānû = “for a child is born to us, a son is given to us”:  The allusion raises two possibilities:  (1) the physical birth of a royal child; (2) the coronation of a king who becomes “son of God” (cf. Ps. 2:7).

V. 6.  Like many kings of the ancient world, this ruler will bear many throne names:  pele’ yô’ēts = “wonder of a counselor” (cf. Isa. 29:14; Ps. 77:12; 88:13; 89:6); ’ēl gibbôr = “mighty God” (usually used of YHWH; cf. Isa. 10:21; Ps. 24:8; Deut. 10:17; Jer. 32:18; Neh. 9:32; however used of Davidic king at Ps. 45:6); abî-‘ad = “father of eternity” (used only here in OT); sar-šālôm = “prince of peace” (cf. Judg. 6:24 where “YHWH is peace” in the story of Gideon).

V. 7.  bemišpāt ûbitsedāqâ = “in justice and in righteousness”:  The pair of words appear often, several times as marks of the Davidic reign (Ps. 72:2; Isa. 11:4-5) as of YHWH’s reign (Ps. 96:13; 97:2; 99:4). In fact, YHWH owns the pair of words and bestows them on the Davidic rulers (Ps. 72:1-2).

V. 7.  qin’at YHWH tsebā’ôt ta`aseh-zō’t = “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this”:  The entire event takes place at divine initiative, not human, and as God’s promise, the people can count on its fulfillment.

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Titus 2:11-14
The incarnation of the grace of God that brings salvation to all people calls us to live faithful and serving lives as we wait for the return of our Lord.

Context
The Pastoral Epistles–1 and 2 Timothy and Titus–are pseudonymous. Pauline authorship has been questioned since the early days of the church. Probably written in the first half of the second century, they reflect an ambivalent attitude toward the world. On the one hand, it is the enemy (1 Tim. 5:14), not to be loved (see 2 Tim. 4:10, and it stands in sharp contrast to the people of God (Titus 2:14). On the other hand, the author takes seriously the incarnation and instructs his readers in faithfulness while they live in this world (Tit. 2:9-10; 3:1).

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Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Within the context of human history and against all human claims to be the good news for the world, God causes Jesus Christ to be born in humble surroundings as the beginning of a new time for all people.

Context
The precise historical context is difficult to determine.  Quirinius began his position about A.D. 6-7, and the first census taken in the Roman Empire after that date occurred in A.D. 14. In this period, the Caesar was Augustus whose birthday on September 23 was celebrated as “the beginning of the good news through him for the world.”

Key Words
V. 4.  “the city of David called Bethlehem“:  Luke rewrites the tradition here because in the OT, the city of David is Jerusalem. Bethlehem, the home of Jesse and his family, enters into messianic prophecy at Micah 5:2-4.

V. 10.  euaggelizomai = “I bring you good tidings”:  The non-theological use of the verb in the LXX is either the act of a herald in announcing victory in battle (see 2 Sam. 18:19-33) or that of a messenger announcing to a father the birth of a son (Jer. 20:15). In either case, it is the beginning of a new time. Apart from Matt. 11:5, the verb form appears only in Luke-Acts among the four gospels. In the epistles that are genuinely Pauline, the verb form appears almost twenty times. Note that the verb appears in the LXX at Psalm 96:2 where it announces the victory and subsequent glory of God over the whole creation.

V. 11.  sēmeron = “today”: In Luke the word marks the beginning of the new time, the eschatological moment:  see 4:21; 5:26; 19:5, 9; 22:43. The word serves the same purpose as “on that day,” i.e., the Day of the Lord.

V. 11.  hoti etechthē hymin = “for to you is born”:  While Luke normally follows the LXX in phraseology, the Greek text of Isa. 9:5 reads hoti paidion egennēthē hēmin, huois kai edothē hēmin = “for a child has been born for us, and a son has been given to us.”

Wrestling with the Word, episode 52: Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C (December 20, 2009) December 10, 2009

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Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Advent season draws toward its close. Its departure deprives us of the reminder that the present is not simply what awaits us under the tree but the time in which we wait in hope for God’s future gifts. It is no secret that the present time is not always filled with the presence of God, and so we would do well to join those of the biblical days in their hopeful petition that God will intervene. According to the laments in the Book of Psalms, God’s absence sometimes seems interminable, and so the question “how long?” occurred repeatedly. Deprived of God’s presence, the poor and oppressed—individuals and community–called on God in laments to “remember” the promises about being with them in difficult times to come. Losing the identification with those of ancient times who offered their laments can separate us as well from the poor and oppressed in our present time to whom God promises a full stocking.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 52: Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C.

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Psalm 80:1-7
The psalm begins by acknowledging the Lord as the Shepherd of Israel. The title is common in the ancient world for those who “are enthroned,” that is, kings. The confession provides the basis for the lament that follows immediately. “How long” will YHWH be angry with their prayers? Only God’s anger at them could explain why they eat and drink tears and have become a laughingstock to the other nations. The people languished over the destruction of their walls. The refrain “Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we might be saved” occurs three times in the psalm (vss. 3, 7, and 19). Their call upon God their Shepherd to “shine forth” is the same as their plea to “save us” from their distress.

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Micah 5:2-4
Out of the judgment of exile, the Lord will provide a Davidic ruler who will feed the returned exiles as a capable shepherd and establish shalom.

Context
The superscription of the book provides all the information we have regarding the prophet Micah. His home town was Moresheth, located about 25 miles south of Jerusalem, and his prophetic ministry occurred during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. This dating would place him in the final decades of the 8th century B.C. and mark him as a contemporary of Isaiah. Strikingly, both those prophets did most of their preaching in Jerusalem, not always with the same message regarding the city.

The book contains material that seems to belong to someone other than our 8th century Micah. Both style and content demonstrate another hand or two at work, particularly hands from the Babylonian or even the Persian periods (6th cent. B.C.). In regard to our pericope, the mention “the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel” might refer to the exile of the northern kingdom Israel by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C. or to the Babylonian exile of the 6th century B.C. If there is any connection between our pericope and the previous chapter, Babylon might be the choice since exile to Babylon is specifically mentioned in 4:10. “You shall go to Babylon.” However, it is possible that those words are an addition. Even without those words, however, the repeated mention of the “daughter of Zion” and to “Zion in 4:10, 11, 13 place the context of the section in Jerusalem.

Key Words
V. 2.  tsā‘îr lihyôt bealphê yehûdâ = “little to be among the clans of Judah”:  A similar expression is used by Gideon to describe his own clan as “the weakest in Manasseh” and himself as the “least” (tsā‘îr; Judg. 6:15). Likewise Saul says of himself that he is of the smallest of the tribes of Israel and his family is the “least significant (tsā‘îr) of the tribe of Benjamin” (1 Sam. 19:21). The expressions in these two passages occur as part of an objection to a call from God.

V. 2.  mimmekâ lî yētsē’ = “from you shall come forth for me”:  The verb “come forth” is used of a Davidic descendant also at Isa. 11:1.

V. 3.  yôlēdâ yālādâ = “she who is bearing will bear”:  In 4:9-10 the daughter of Zion who will go to Babylon is compared to “a woman in travail”; perhaps the labor pains of exile are now over and so the mother can bear the child.

V. 4.  we‘ā_mad werā‘â = “and he shall stand and shepherd”:  A common image of a king in the ancient world was that of shepherd, that is, nurturing and protecting the flock. Note  the synonymous parallelism in v. 5.

V. 4.  yigdal ‘ad-’asphê-’ārets = he shall be great to the ends of the earth”:  The same universal reign is used of the Davidic ruler at Ps. 2:8 and 72:8 (= Zech. 9:10). In addition, the expression describes the limitless reign of God at 1 Sam. 2:10; Ps. 59:13; 67:7; Isa. 45:22; 52:10 (= Ps. 98:3). The use of the expression means the Davidic ruler reigns on God’s behalf.

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Hebrews 10:5-10
The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ eliminates the need for the sacrifice of animals that the Jewish law prescribed, and in so doing establishes a new order, that of God’s promised and expected Reign.

Context
All but the final verse is a quotation from Psalm 40:6-8. The original meaning is obscured somewhat because of the author’s message that the sacrifice of Christ renders obsolete the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The verses quoted here are part of the thanksgiving the psalmist uttered after the Lord had responded to a cry for help in the past. The psalmist learned that the God does not desire sacrifice and offering but a penitent petitioner who commits to the Torah of God. As the psalm continues, the psalmist seems once again to be in a lamentable situation and uses what he learned the last time around.

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Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
Having heard and believed the word of the Lord, Mary receives God’s blessing that she will experience what the Lord has promised.

Context
After an introduction that describes the gospel as a letter Luke is writing to a certain Theophilus, the Gospel proper begins with an announcement from the angel Gabriel to a priest named Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son in their old age, and his name would be John. As Gabriel had said, Elizabeth conceived and was pregnant for six months when the same angel returned to a young woman named Mary. He announced to her the birth of a baby. The miracle is that he will be born of the Holy Spirit. He “will be holy ; he will be called Son of God.” Mary believed the announcement and declared her openness to the angel’s word that, though she was a virgin, she would bear a child and call him Jesus.

Key Words
V. 41.  kai eplēsthē  pneumatos hagiou hē Elisabet = “and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit”:  The author of Luke-Acts writes frequently that various persons received and were filled with the Spirit:  see also 1:15 (John), 67 (Zechariah); Acts 2:2; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9.  For the similar expression “full of the Holy Spirit” see 4:1 (Jesus); Acts 7:55; 11:24.

V. 45.  kai makaria hē pisteusasa hoti … = “and blessed is she who believed that/because …”:  The Greek words can read either way, and so the question remains for the interpreter:  Is she blessed because she believed “that” the promise from God is true? Or is she blessed “because” the word of promise from God would be accomplished? Note the similar expression attributed to the widow of Zarephath at 1 Kings 17:24: “Now I know that you are man of God and that the word of the Lord is your mouth I truth.”

Vv. 46-55.  The song called the Magnificat is similar to the Song of Hannah at 1 Samuel 2:1-10 because of its celebration of a miraculous conception and birth and because of the content. Of particular interest about the content of both is the reversal of fortunes for the poor. The author of Luke-Acts sets as opposites the poor and the rich (like the Epistle of James) and describes their eschatological futures in a way similar to Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-26) and his Parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31). The entire salvation event to come derives from the promise of God to Israel’s ancestors (v. 55) and serves as God’s response to the laments of Israel like the one at Psalm 80.