Wednesday, November 28, 2007

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 2, 2007)

[Each week, I consider the assigned Bible lessons for the following Sunday in several "passes." These summarize some of what I'm thinking about and learning of the lessons. Hopefully, the posts help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation of which I'm pastor, to prepare for worship. But they may also help worshipers at other churches to do the same thing, as the lessons used almost always come from the lectionaries common to most churches in North America. At Saint Matthew, also, I'm currently using these posts for our adult Sunday School class.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

General Comments:
1. This weekend brings us to the first Sunday in Advent. For an explanation of Advent, go here.

2. You'll notice that these lessons for the beginning of the Church Year touch on similar themes to those assigned two Sundays ago, near the end of the preceding Church Year. (Go here.) The texts assigned two Sundays ago dealt with "the Day of the Lord," which in Old Testament times referred to when God would restore the faithful people in Israel and in the New Testament dealt with the risen and ascended Jesus' return to the earth in order to fully establish His eternal kingdom and to vindicate those who follow Him. These lessons deal with the same subjects. A similar continuity in themes always exist between the ends and beginnings of Church Years.

3. In fact, Advent, a word that means coming, refers to God's coming to us. Historically, the season has had more to do with the apocalyptic, God's revelation or self-disclosure at the end of time, with God coming into the world to render judgment against humanity's inhumanity, than with the anticipation of Christmas.

Of course, the anticipation of Christmas does fit in with the revelation or the coming of God to us, because Jesus is, as the Old Testament book of Isaiah tells us, Emmanuel, a Hebrew word meaning God with us.

(In the New Testament Gospels, Luke typically refers to the return of the risen, ascended Jesus to our world with derivatives of the Greek word, apocalypto, whereas Matthew, the Gospel around which our new church year is built, speaks in four places of the parousia (coming) of Christ. By the way, all four of those instances happen in Matthew 25, three of them in this Sunday's lesson.)

4. Isaiah was a prophet who lived in Judah (or Judea) during the eighth century BC. (For background information on Judah, the "southern kingdom," go here.)

The Archaeological Study Bible says:
Isaiah's primary ministry was to the people of Judah, who were failing to live according to the requirements of God's law. But he prophesied judgment not only upon Judah but also upon Israel [the Northern Kingdom, whose worship life centered on the city of Samaria] and the surrounding nations. On the other hand, Isaiah delivered a stirring message of repentance and salvation for any who would turn to God.
The authorship of Isaiah is debated by Biblical scholars. Traditionally, the entire book was attributed to Isaiah.

By contrast, some scholars think that Isaiah had very little to do with it, that the writings were produced by a group of prophets who operated in the original Isaiah's "school of thoughts."

A third group of scholars believe that chapters 1 to 39 were written by Isaiah, son of Amoz. They attribute chapters 40-55 to a second Isaian prophet they refer to as "Deutero-Isaiah" and chapters 56-66 to a third author, who they call "Trito-Isaiah." Whatever the truth about authorship, two things should be kept in mind:
  • Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Christians and Jews have always seen in Isaiah the Word of God.
  • Those in the ancient Near East didn't share our views regarding authorship. It was considered perfectly legitimate for an author operating within the tradition established by a prophet or a rabbi to write in the name and the voice of that person.
5. Isaiah wrote at a time when a great foreign power, Assyria, threatened Judah. Isaiah said that his homeland lacked the strength to withstand this threat because of its faithlessness toward God. He called Judah to repentance. Eventually, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, would fall to the Assyrians. Judah would eventually fall to the Babylonians some time later.

6. There's some question about whether chapter 2, the first five verses of which form our first Bible lesson, is an insertion, since it repeats the introduction of the prophet found at the beginning of chapter 1.

7. Like the Gospel lesson, which calls people to pay attention to Jesus, God-in-the-flesh and not to speculate about when the Day of the Lord will arrive, Isaiah calls the people of Judah to attend to God.

As in the Gospel lesson, the day isn't a fearsome prospect. In fact, it's to be anticipated by believers.

In Isaiah's prophecy, it will be a time when agricultural implements, often used in battle when farmers were called into battle to protect their invaded homelands, will be turned back to agricultural uses. It will also be a day when the faith of God's people will be vindicated as God puts things to right.

8. As in the Gospel lesson, Isaiah affirms that God is in control of the future. Our call isn't to be caught up in speculation about when the Day of the Lord will arrive, but to confidently be about God's business whatever the day.

What is that business? A few Biblical passages can answer that question:
  • He [God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
  • [Jesus said:] “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
  • [Jesus said:] "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
[More on the remaining lessons later in the week, I hope.]

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