Friday, August 22, 2008

A Look at The Lessons for This Coming Sunday (August 24, 2008)

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday. For information on the Church Year and the plan of lessons called the lectionary, see here.]

The Bible Lessons for This Sunday (The 15th. Sunday after Pentecost):
Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

The Prayer of the Day:
O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

General Comments:
1. All the appointed lessons fit in with an overall theme which I've tried to summarize here:
Confession of faith in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the foundation on which Christ builds God's eternal community, the Church. The Church is essential for Christian Church, no faith. The Church is composed of those willing to stand under Christ even as we fail to fully understand Christ; we follow by faith. Faith, simply, is trust in God that God creates in those who are willing to believe.
If that's clear as mud, let me offer a few words on the lessons.

2. Isaiah 51:1-6: Most modern scholars believe that Isaiah 40-55 were written by a prophet from the Isaiah school of teaching during the Babylonian exile.

In Old Testament times, the Babylonian Empire swept into ancient Judea, the remnant of even more ancient Israel, and conquered God's people. They were utterly subjugated and many of their leaders were killed or exiled to Babylon, where they served as slaves of their Babylonian masters. The walls of Jerusalem, walls being the marks and the guarantors of safety for ancient cities, were brought down or allowed to crumble. More seriously, the Temple, where it was thought that the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies, was torn up and allowed to deteriorate.

The "Babylonian Captivity," this period of mass exile for many of Israel's people, created a massive crisis of faith:
If Yahweh, their God, was the Lord of all and omnipotent, how could this have happened?

If they were God's chosen people, how could this have befallen them?

Had God allowed them to suffer the consequences of their chronic reliance on themselves or on worldly power, leaving them naked and vulnerable before a superior army, a superior power in the world?

If God was only knowable in a Temple made with hands in Jerusalem, as many had thought, what happened to their God and to their faith when the Temple was no more and they were far from home?
Many Old Testament passages give voice to the anguish felt by God's people. But it was also in this time period that many were inspired by God to hope for the coming of a new anointed king, Messiah, who would put things right. The exile happened in the 6th.-century BC.

3. Read what Lutheran Old Testament scholar Ralph W. Klein has to say about the Isaiah text (note that he mentions the Gospel lesson as well):
The two paragraphs in this pericope, vv. 1-3 and 4-6, both begin with the word "Listen" and are followed by warm promises of God. The faithful audience is characterized as those who pursue righteousness and who seek Yahweh.

Israel's ancestors Abraham and Sarah are compared to a rock or a quarry, something solid in a time of great uncertainty. The gospel for the date, Matt 16:13-20 has the famous saying about Peter, You are the rock and on this rock I will build my church." Though they were originally one (or two if you want to be picky about it), they became under God's blessing a numerous people. Similarly the exiles, few in number, could look forward to a God-blessed population increase.

"Comfort" is a theme word in Second Isaiah, beginning with 40:1. Comfort means much more than sympathy; it means God-worked transformation. Zion's waste places and wilderness will become luxuriant like the Garden of Eden. The transformation will be marked by appropriate human rejoicing: joy, gladness, thanksgiving, and singing (v. 3).

The second paragraph, vv. 4-6, is written in the first person as the words of Yahweh. God's teaching that goes forth and God's justice recall the eschatological promise of Isa 2:2-5.

Verse 5 promises God's speedy intervention as a military liberator. Note the military images in Yahweh's arms/arm. The nations too will rejoice in this deliverance. Heaven and earth as we know them will vanish and wear out, while Yahweh's salvation and deliverance will last forever (cf. Isa 40:8, which states that grass withers and flowers fade, but that Yahweh's word or promise will stand forever).
4. Psalm 138: This hymn of praise, ascribed to David, expresses thanks to the God who preserves His people "against the wrath" of their enemies.

5. Romans 12:1-8: The opening verses of this passage are extraordinary! In it, God tells us to offer Him our bodies, which is acceptable spiritual worship. Once God has access to out bodies and our spirits, God will begin to transform our minds, beginning, as in the case of Peter in this Sunday's Gospel lesson, by creating faith.

The reason I find vv. 1-2 so extraordinary is that they convey a truth: Give your body over to something or someone and your mind and spirit have no choice but to follow. Don't believe me? Consider some examples.

Two people think that they might like to be friends, but are uncertain. Until they take the time to meet and talk--even if that meeting and talking take place in cyberspace, they won't be friends. No commitment will happen.

Or, in a negative vain, consider an addict. The addiction may be alcohol or drugs, whatever. If the person can physically avoid ingesting, inhaling, or exposure to the object of addiction, the mind and the spirit will become habituated away from the addiction.

This applies to faith as well. As this Romans passage reminds us, faith happens and grows in the Christian community of which each member is an irreplaceable part, the Church. We may come to worship feeling skeptical, indifferent, or rebellious, for example. But if we willing submit our bodies to the discipline of regular worship, it's likely that God can work on our spirits and minds to build faith.

We are wholistic beings--bodies, minds, spirits. Wherever we commit to take our bodies, our whole selves will follow. This is why those who stop worshiping regularly are in jeopardy. Just as our whole selves will wither and die if we don't show up for meals, our whole selves will wither and die if we aren't regularly in worship with the Body of Christ, the Church. As Rick Warren noted in his book, The Purpose Driven Life: "The problem with a living sacrifice is that it can crawl off the altar."

Warren also notes that people who tell us that they won't be somewhere--be it a party, concert, family gathering, or worship service--"in spirit," are telling us one simple thing: "I won't be there." But when we show up bodily, we are there. Knock on the door of the house where the party is happening at the designated time and you'll be at the party. Hand over your ticket to the teller and walk into the arena and you'll be at the concert. Put your backside in the pew of a faithful Christian community on a Sunday morning and you're bound to hear the faith-inciting Word of God. Offering our bodies to God can be as simple as showing up to help with a community service project, making it to a Bible study or prayer gathering. Offering our bodies to God means being there where God sends us.

For a brief discussion of Romans 12:1-8, go here.

6. Vv. 3-8 of the Romans passage deals with how believers in Christ are part of a single living organism, the Body of Christ. Each is gifted for service which builds up the whole Church and empowers the Church to fulfill its mission. For a survey of the spiritual gifts, see my series of Advent devotions from several years ago, links to all installments of which can be found here.

7. Matthew 16:13-20: As I've written many times before, context is important to appreciate for understanding a given passage of Scripture. Many scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew's structure is patterned after the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, always deemed by the ancient rabbis as the most important portion of the Scriptures. In this theory, which seems plausible to me the Gospel has five thematic sections, each built around a major speech.

By this reckoning, our lesson for Sunday is the climax of the third book of Matthew's Gospel. Its theme, Brian Stoffregen says, has a a central issue:
Have people been able to discern from Jesus' ministry that he is God's Christ, the one anointed to manifest God's salvation and empire (cf. 11:2-6)?
Discerning Jesus as the Christ had been difficult for the imprisoned John the Baptist to make at the beginning of the third section. But, through the power of God, the willing and finite Peter catches a glimpse of the truth about Jesus at its end. (But only a glimpse.)

8. Consider another context. The first person to fully and freely confess Jesus as the Messiah in this Gospel is a foreign woman, who appeared in last Sunday's Gospel lesson. Note that this woman's discernment of Jesus as God's Christ happens also in the theorized "third book" of Matthew's Gospel.

Within Matthew's narrative, the woman stands out because, by the time she makes her appearance, Jesus' fellow Jews--Pharisees, Saducees, and even disciples--still don't get Jesus. She does. She shows up after a confrontation Jesus has with both Pharisees and Saducees and shortly after the disciples, show, in Jesus' words "little faith" (contrasting with her "great faith") during a storm on the Sea of Galilee.

Our Gospel lesson finds Jesus and the disciples in a city known for its worship of foreign gods. Caesarea Philippi was originally a center of Baal worship, then of Pan worship. In Jesus' day, one of the Herods, Phillip, had named the place for both himself and the Roman emperor, who was also the object of idolatry.

9. Yet another context. Immediately following our Gospel lesson, Jesus has to upbraid Peter, the very one whose faith He applauds in this Sunday's Gospel lesson. Why? Because Peter refuses to accept that Jesus must be crucified. He calls Peter, "Satan," surely an indication that neither Peter or the Church is perfect. The Church is Christ's fellowship of recovering sinners.

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