Thursday, January 10, 2008

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (January 13, 2008)

[Each week, I try to publish a few looks at the appointed lessons for the following Sunday. They're written, mostly, to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, to prepare for worship. But since we follow the lectionary associated with the Church Year, like most Christians around the world, others may find it helpful too.]

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

General Comments:
1. January 6, Epiphany Day, kicks off the season of the Church Year called Epiphany. As pointed out before, the word epiphany literally means to shine upon. It has the idea of making something clear.

The theme of the Gospel lessons appointed for the Epiphany season is the many ways in which Jesus was revealed to be not only fully human, but also fully God. The other lessons, including those drawn from the Old Testament, also help us more fully see Christ as "the Word made flesh."

2. Light is often associated with the Epiphany season. This is related to more than the star which led the magi to the baby Jesus. It also relates to how Jesus reveals the nature, character, will, presence, and intent of God, among other things. In Jesus, we see God.

3. Another theme of the Epiphany season is the call to be witnesses who point to Jesus as God, Lord, and Savior. This is precisely what Peter, a devout Jew who comes to see that through Christ, God is reaching out the entire world, does in our second lesson. Followers of Jesus are called to reveal the truth about Jesus, so that the whole world can come to be His followers and so, live with God forever.

4. This Sunday's Gospel lesson, as is always the case on this Sunday of the Church Year, is about the Baptism of the Lord. Unlike the birth of Jesus or even the Last Supper, the baptism of Jesus is recounted in all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). This underscores its importance. We'll talk about that a bit more in the next pass at these lessons.

5. Isaiah 42:1-9: As we've pointed out before, Isaiah may have been written by three different authors in three different eras of Old Testament history. (This shouldn't be bothersome to us, as it was legitimate in ancient Israel and even in the first and second-century AD world for persons who considered themselves students of great teachers or adherents to those teachers schools of thought to write in the teacher's name.) Many scholars believe that chapters 1 to 39 were written by the original prophet sometime between 740 and 687 BC; that chapters 40 to 60, so-called Second or Deutero-Isaiah were written about 537 BC; and that chapters 61 to 66 were written by Third or Trito-Isaiah. The first set of chapters, it's thought, were written in an era when the Assyrian Empire was on the rise and God's people felt menaced. The second set of chapters, some scholars believe, were written while anticipating the return of Judah's exiles from captivity in Babylon. The last group of chapters, these scholars believe, were written after the return from exile, when hope in and devotion to God were waning.

6. Chris Haslam's comments on this passage are helpful and to the point:
In 41:1, God speaks to Israelites scattered around the Mediterranean (“coastlands”, also in 42:4) in courtroom language, calling them together “for judgement”. God has “roused a victor from the east” (41:2, Cyrus) to serve him by conquering nations. God has acted in the past (“first”, 41:4) and will prophesy a coming revelation of himself (“last”). Other nations, and the gods they choose, are powerless, for they seek “courage” in what humans make (41:5-7). God demands: “set forth your case” (41:21): prove that you can foretell the future based on the past (“former things”, 41:22)! They cannot, but God can.

42:1-4 is one of four Servant Songs, poems about God’s special agent who will fulfill his purpose for the faithful community; though innocent, he will suffer for his people. People of other nations choose their gods, but God will select his “servant”, his “chosen”; he has anointed this person (or Israel) with his “spirit”. When the agent comes, he will be unobtrusive and quiet (42:2, unlike Cyrus), gentle, respectful of others, and patient (v. 3). He will “bring forth justice”, i.e. take legal decisions ratifying and executing God’s will. He will not fail (“faint”, 42:4) nor be discouraged (“crushed”) until he has achieved God’s purposes; he will win over people to God’s ways (“teaching”). He will continue to do what God did in the past (42:5): he, the creator, is the source of life for his people (as he was in Adam); he will give his “spirit” to those who follow him. God called Israel as his people, led and “kept” (42:6, Revised English Bible: “formed”, as he formed Adam) them, and swore a pact with them. They are to bring enlightenment to others (“a light to the nations”, 42:6), to set them free. 42:8-9 returns to the courtroom: God’s name is Yahweh (“the L ORD”); he alone is God. Having seen his integrity in his acts in the past, his people can be sure that the “new things” he announces will indeed happen. He will bring his integrity to all (42:1).
7. Psalm 29: I enjoy Sarah Hinlicky Wilson's comments on this psalm:
The voice of the Lord is heard seven times in Psalm 29: it is over d the waters, powerful and full of majesty; it breaks the cedars; flashes forth flames of fire; shakes the wilder-ness; makes the hinds to calve (or shakes the oaks – the Hebrew is ambiguous) and strips the forests bare. The glory of God thunders. The Lord makes Lebanon to skip like a calf and Sirion (Mt. Hermon) like a young wild ox, or, as the King James Version more charmingly puts it, "like a young unicorn." Is this really the God you want to encounter on the Appalachian Trail?

The cedars stand as warning enough on their own. The famous cedars of Lebanon were Solomon’s choice for building the first temple, and were selected specially by King Hiram of Tyre. They can grow over 100 feet tall, their circumference exceeding 50 feet, with wood that is perfumed, resinous evergreen and both rot- and knot-free. Such was their grip on the Israelite imagination that these trees are mentioned everywhere, from levitical codes of purification to prophetic analogies in Isaiah and Ezekiel. The latter compare the once-mighty, soon-to-fall Assyria with a cedar so splendid that "all the trees of Eden envied it."

But like sinful humans, these fabulous cedars are not permitted to remain in their pride. They are paired with lowly hyssop, a small and straggling foil to the cedars’ magnitude. In the Torah, cedar and hyssop work together to cleanse from leprosy. Solomon speaks of cedar and hyssop in one breath. Midrashic commentator Rabbi Isaac bar Tanlai chastises a former great: "You were proud like the cedar … but the Holy One humbled you like the hyssop that is crushed by everyone." In the end, it is hyssop that quenches the thirst of the dying Messiah. Lowliness serves the lowly, but when might matches might, the voice of the Lord triumphs, breaking the cedars.

And all this is to say nothing of the Lord over the waters. This God has proved himself before in the aqueous arena. There God’s Spirit was hovering and brooding, preparing to speak the first word that would bring something out of nothing. When that something turned to evil, and the one remaining righteous man built a little boat out of gopher wood, the waters came again to speak the Lord’s word of judgment against his people. Much later, the waters split in half to pave an escape route for enslaved Israelites, and folded shut to swallow up the pursuing Egyptians. And once a storm was conjured just to grip the attention of runaway Jonah out at sea, terrifying untold numbers of sailors in its wake.

The God who commands the waters commands everything else. So this psalm isn’t just an utterance of awe at the power wielded in and over nature. It’s also a polemic directed against confused pagans (and probably not a few confused Israelites) who mistakenly gave credit to idols. It’s no accident that Psalm 29 sounds so much like its Canaanite predecessors, observes scholar Peter C. Craigie. If anything, it’s deliberate, co-opting "the general storm image of battle . . . into a tauntlike psalm; the praise of the Lord, by virtue of being expressed in language and imagery associated with the Canaanite weather-god, Baal, taunts the weak deity of the defeated foes, namely the Canaanites." Anything the heathen thought belonged to Baal really belongs to the Lord, and there’s no better way to show it than by stealing the adjectives of one "god" and applying them to the other.

But still: even if this God is the creator and righteous judge, not the pseudo-divinity and pretender Baal, would you really want to meet him without a sturdy raincoat, a pair of galoshes and a friend with an SUV who could pick you up and bail you out? It is an act of extraordinary faith on the psalmist’s part to conclude with the encouraging words, "May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!" For whatever the voice of the Lord is saying under the circumstances detailed in the psalm, no one can hear it and live. If this is the voice that produced the succession of devastating hurricanes in the Gulf last fall, the only sensible solution is not to worship, but to evacuate. You can’t ride this storm. You must, as Luther said, "flee from God to God," from the God who drives you out to the same God who welcomes you home.

This God, who is over many waters and sits enthroned over the flood, has himself been swept overboard, immersed and engulfed in the river Jordan. Baptism with water is not enough, for God also flashes forth flames of fire: he baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. Water and fire on their own are words of God that are encoded and indecipherable. To worship God in unmediated nature is to risk ruination. But to drown in the waters of baptism in which the Lord himself was drowned, to receive the pentecostal fire of the Spirit which the Lord himself sent -- in this way we creatures of nature can worship our God in nature, and live.
[More tomorrow, I hope.]

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