Monday, January 8, 2018

John 1:43-51

This passage is found in Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 2, Year B (Most recently, Jan 14, 2018).  It also occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 4 (Most recently Jan 14, 2018).
 
Summary:   This is a great passage, as are all passages from John's Gospel.  I want to play around with the OT imagery found in John and go out on a limb, a fig limb that is.  The first time we hear of figs is in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve adorn themselves, out of shame, with fig leaves.  The fig tree reminds us of human shame but also God's abundance.  It is fitting that Jesus finds a new disciple underneath a fig tree because this is where we find ourselves.  At the crossroads of sin and mercy.  It also reminds us of Jesus' purpose as the gardener:  To usher us into a new garden brought about by the cross of sin and mercy.

Key words:
ακολουθει  ("follow"; vs. 43)  This means follow.  Jesus here puts his invitation so gently.  Most times "follow me" texts are associated with the cross and temptation.  Here we simply have a friendly "come and stop by my house if you get a chance" kind of invitation!

ερχομαι & οραω (1:39; 1:46; 4:29; 11:34, 19:33; 20:8 "Come and see").  These two verbs come together a number of times in John's Gospel. A quite impressive list actually:
A) When Jesus begins his ministry
B) When the woman at the well returns to her hometown to invite others (different cognate for "come");
C) When they bring Jesus to Lazarus' tomb
D) When they find Jesus on the cross
E) When they come to the empty tomb.

John's Gospel invites us to come and see, even Jesus on the cross and finally the empty tomb.  The result of coming and seeing is believing.

συκη ("fig tree"; vs 1.48 and 50).  The Bible contains numerous references to fig trees.  Jesus preaches parables on them.  Metaphors about the end times allude to the both the weakness of the fig leaves but also the bounty of figs.  As the NET Bible notes:  "Many have speculated about what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree. Meditating on the Messiah who was to come? A good possibility, since the fig tree was used as shade for teaching or studying by the later rabbis (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:11). Also, the fig tree was symbolic for messianic peace and plenty (Mic 4:4, Zech 3:10; You shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.)"

I have a more "out there" connection.  It is clear that John 1 drips with OT references.  Nathaniel calls Jesus the king of Israel.  Alone in this pericope, Jesus declares himself to the be son of Man with angels descending on him.  This calls to mind all sorts of OT passages, including Jacob's ladder.  So I venture that the fig tree here is a reference to figs in the garden of Eden.  Where do we find ourselves?  In a broken world covered by fragments of God's mercy.  God intends better than fragments; indeed, heaven's gate is reopened in Jesus Christ; the Garden's door is no longer barred by a flaming sword.

Grammar concept:  Present tense in John's Gospel.

The present tense often signifies repeated action, in contrast to the aorist tense.  The produces some very nice theological conclusions.  For example, "follow me" is in the present tense in vs 43, ακολουθω.  The idea is that we are to keep following Jesus.  It doesn't work as well in vs 43, however, with the verb "find", ευρισκω.  This is also in the present tense. Does Jesus keep finding Philipp?  It seems unlikely within the context of the story, although it makes for a very nice sermon point ;-)  Sometimes it is hard to know, when John is simply being poetic and when he is deeply theological. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Matthew 2:1-12

This passage occurs in both the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary during the Christmas season.
 
Summary:  Don't get hung up on the meaning of the word magi and who they were.  The issue at stake is:  Who is Jesus?  The epiphany of our Lord has begun.  He is Messiah, King, and Shepherd.  Deconstruct the titles and gifts as you will; a good sermon on this text should focus on Christ's identity.  Especially interesting are the parallels between this passage of Matthew 2 and the later scenes with Herod, the chief priests, the scribes and Pilate.

Key words:
μαγοι ("magoi", meaning "magi", 2:1)  as Liddell Scott puts it:  "one of the wise men in Persia who interpreted dreams."  They were probably not kings...but they do bring royal gifts and are granted a royal audience.  They were almost certainly not Jews.  Rather than fixate on their wealth or non-wealth, I think their gentile status is a powerful point, especially in Matthew's Gospel, which spent chapter 1 in a Jewish genealogy.  Jesus is for everyone.

χριστος ("Christ", meaning "anointed", 2:4)  This is a crucial term in Matthew's Gospel.  Jesus is the anointed one, prophesied about for centuries in Judaism.  Matthew uses the term three times in chapter 1.  It will be featured in Peter's confession of faith (16:16) and will later be used in Jesus' suffering and trial (various points in 26 and 27).  In fact, almost all of these titles here for Jesus show up again in Jesus passion:

King of the Jews:  βασιλευς των Ιουδαίων (2:2)  Later in Jesus's life, this will be the accusation made against him, that he claims this (Matthew 27:11); finally, this will be put on Jesus cross (27:37).  It is worth asking -- should only Herod be scared?  No.  All of Jerusalem.  Why?  There is a political-historical reason, but I think a spiritual reason we can all connect with -- what does it actually mean if Christ is king of our life?

Leader:  ηγούμενος (2:6) who shepherds (ποιμαινω, 2:6)  Jesus will tell the people that the Shepherd is going to be struck down (26:31)

In some ways, you could probably match up the gifts of the magi with these various offices (gold for the king; incense for the Messiah; myrrh for the shepherd-leader.)  My point is not to pin down a one-to-one comparison, but rather to say that the text invites one to think about WHO is Jesus Christ.  Hence this is an epiphany text, a revelation of who Christ is.  Like all good texts about Christ's identity, it points toward his suffering and death as well.  A good sermon on this passage invites the reader to consider who Christ is as well.

Two little morsels:
θησαυρος ("thesaurus" meaning treasure, 2:11)  No great analysis, just a lovely word to know in Greek/English.
λιβανον ("Lebanon" meaning incense, 2:11)  The word for incense comes from cedar, because its bark provided the incense.  This is especially funny to me because I lived in Lebanon County where people refer to Lebanon as a type of bologna made here.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Luke 2:1-20

This passage occurs as the Gospel for Christmas Eve in all three lectionary cycles.

Summary:  I have no desire to summarize the meaning of the incarnation in Luke's Gospel.  This passage has layers and layers of meaning for us to draw on this year and every year.  I offer this as a way to hopefully point toward something in the passage that can help launch your reflection and preaching.

Words I found interesting:
οικουμενη(ν) ("world", 2.1)  The word for "all the world" here really means civilized world, coming from the Greek work οικος.  It is a reminder that for those in the Roman empire, this meant the ENTIRE world.

δογμα (literally dogma, meaning "decree", 2.1)  No important theological consideration.  Just that Rome has always been interested in promulgating dogma ;-)

απογραφη ("registration" 2.2)  A few directions one can go with this word. 
First, power of Rome:  Liddell Scott refers to this as "a register of persons liable to taxation."  Rome wanted a census because they wanted to tax and conscript people.
Second, challenge of history:  Quirinius doesn't add up in terms of a chronology.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius. (Other scholars are more generous.)
Third, sin of a census:  In 2 Samuel 24:10, David confesses to sinning as he has engaged in a census.  Why is this a sin?  Because the idea was not to count your troops but to trust the Lord in battle.  In fact, it may be that the zealots (mentioned in the New Testament) arose out of anger of this census being taken. 

Can we put this altogether:  Even if you cannot accept as historical fact the coincidence of Jesus birth with the census, Jesus would have been a young child during a census, a brutal reminder of the power of Rome, a foreign and pagan power.  Quirinius' biography is a great story of the "Roman dream" where someone rose through military victory and shifting political allegiances.  In short, Luke's setting the stage is correct:  The Jews existed under an imperial power, hostile to their faith.  Jesus was born in an empire that cared not for him.  This imperial power was and remains the envy of all other empires in its military and administrative might.

To drive this point home, the angle proclaims, "who is Christ, the Lord."  In Greek, this is spelled Χριστος κυριος, which is the basic confession of faith (Christ is Lord) that ran contrary to the Roman confession of faith (Caesar Kurios).  The angle here offers a subversive confession of faith!

καταλυματι  ("inn", 2:7)  There was no room for them in the inn.  Later Jesus will make room for himself in another inn -- the upper room (22:11)

μεγαλην (literally "great", 2:9 and 2:10).  Two things are great in this passage -- there is a great fear and then a great joy.  This sets up, in many ways, the background for the whole of Luke's Gospel:  Jesus will cause great fear, but also great joy.  It is a backdrop for any good Christmas sermon too -- there is great fear in our world, but because of Jesus, we have reason for great joy.

ευδοκιας ("pleasure", 2:14)  I often wondered about this word -- did God intend peace for all people or just those whom he liked?  First, the Greek has a textual problem.  The manuscripts seem divided (and even in manuscripts there are edits) whether this should be read as a nominative or genitive.

If we read it as a nominative:
N) glory to God; peace on earth; good will among humans (i.e. three items distributed in three realms)
If we read it as a genitive
G)  glory to God; peace on earth among humans of (his) pleasure.
If we go with option N) it seems that good will is toward all people, unambiguously.  Unfortunately, the evidence textually, even though divided, favors option G).
So, if we go with option G) we encounter a bit more ambiguity.  If this is the case (okay, bad pun there), Luke writes "upon the earth peace among people of pleasure/desire."  The Greek leaves out the phrase, "of him."  It simply states, "among people of desire."  I am not sure if we can, on the basis of grammar, solve this case (again, bad pun).  What is unambiguous is that God intends for peace on earth!  What is ambiguous grammatically and historically is how we humans live into this peace.

ρημα (literally "herema" meaning "word", 2:15)  This word is like logos, and it can mean thing or matter or word.  That I want to point out is that the shepherds literally say, "Let us behold the word."  John's Gospel is famous for such a construction (John 1:14), Luke has the same concept embedded here.

Ιωσηφ (literally "Joseph", 2:16) Just a reminder that Joseph isn't left out of the picture!

συμβαλλουσα (literally "symballoo", meaning "ponder", 2:19)  Mary "pondered these things in her heart."  The word for ponder is symbol -- to draw meaning, to pull together or literally to throw together.  This is fascinating that Mary is gathering together the images and thoughts of the angels in her mind.

Grammar Review:  Cognate Accusative
It is considered poor English to write a sentence in which the verb and object share the same word root.  For example:  I climbed a climb or I rode a ride.  We are trained to make the object and verb different words:  "I climbed a mountain" or "I rode a bike." 
Because of Hebrew's limited vocabulary as well as the importance of simplifying stories for oral transmission, cognate accusatives are very common.  Not so much in Greek, however.  Which is strange then that Luke uses two of them in this passage:
φυλασσοντεσ φυλακας (literally "guarded their guard," or "tended their flocks," 2.8)
εφοβηθησαν φοβου (literally "feared a great fear," 2.9)
Not sure why Luke does this other than to speculate he was reading a lot of the Old Testament as he wrote the Christmas narrative!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Luke 1:26-38 (Annunication)

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary during Advent.
Summary:

Many commentaries reading this passage display a hermeneutic of suspicion.  For example, the anchor Bible commentary was lamenting that Luke put everything in an OT style.  Strangely enough, this was proof that he was making this stuff up.  (Imagine, God works in a consistent manner over time).  The virgin birth becomes highly problematic within this hermeneutic of suspicion! 

I do not think Luke wants us to read with such cynical eyes.  First, Luke goes to great lengths here to give us names and dates, indicating he intends to write history, not fiction.  He even has the angel offer Mary a sign (the pregnancy of Elizabeth), reminding us of Mary's human need for proof.  While his characters may follow patterns of other Biblical characters, they seem to me to be real people with hopes and fears.

I think Luke offers us another hermeneutic:  belief in God's word to do miracles.  I use the word hermeneutic because Luke plays on the word herma in this passage; the word for "thing" in verse in 37 is "rema", but because of the heavy breathing on the "r", this comes into English"herma"; the word for "word" in verse 38 is also "rema" (herma).  We should read the Bible, not ready to doubt, but ready to be amazed at what God has done.  This hermeneutic, I believe, is what Luke intends that we might echo the angel and Mary in declaring that “All things (hermas) are possible through God”  and “Let it be done according to your word (herma).”

Key Words:
οηομα ("name"; appears throughout the section)  It is curious that the word name appears four times in this section.  In addition, every character has a name; even people not part of the immediate story, David and Elizabeth, are named.

καλεω ("call"/"invite"; appears throughout the section)  It is also curious that the word "call" appear four times in this section.  Clearly calling things a name is a vital part of this pericope.

παρθενου ("virgin" or "young woman"; 1:27)  Let's settle this debate.  Linguistically it is possible to imagine that Mary is simply referred to hear as a young woman and not a "virgin."  However, the word for virgin is parthenos (like the Parthenon building, to the virgin Athena).  Furthermore, Mary's very objection to the pregnancy is the fact that she has never known a man.

χαρις ("grace"; 1:28; 1:30)  In 1:28 this appears as a verb in the perfect passive form:  "Having been graced." It is interesting that the grace is in the perfect, in that the graceful event occured previous to the angel's announcement.  What was the event that already gave her this grace? Perhaps her own immaculate conception?!  Another tough thing about this idea of Mary's grace is found in the NET's translation notes.  They lament the vulgate translation, "full of grace" because it presents the idea that Mary has grace to bestow on others.  While it is true that Mary's grace comes from God, it is hard to make the argument that Mary does not bestow grace on the rest of us through her role in the birth.  Catholics go to far, but we protestants have never quite done Mary justice!

Grammar Review:  Missing words
The phrase the "The Lord be with you" is not really what the Greek says. It simply reads "The Lord with you." (ο κυριος μετα σου)  This can be read as an imperative, as in it expresses a wish, "The Lord be or will be with you." Or as an indicative: "The Lord is with you." Interestingly, most translators translate a similar construction at the end of the Gospel of John (Peace to you) with an imperative/wish "Peace be with you." Using the same translation method they use here, that phrase should read there "Peace is with you."  In this case, I would probably argue for the translation, "The Lord is with you" because a) the angel is standing right there and b) the angel says she is graced.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

This passage is for the Narrative Lectionary for March 13, 2016 (along with Mark 13:1-8)
It is also for Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 1, Year B, most recently Dec 3, 2017

Summary:  Check your 2nd coming baggage at the ticket counter and preach the text!

For those preaching on those during Advent:  This passage is a great passage for a culture swamped with Christmas chores.  Our focus should not be on to-do lists that come and go, but on Jesus Christ and his Word!

Otherwise:  I also think you can play around with the word authority and derive the mission of the church from Mark's Gospel:  While we await the coming of Christ in an age of idolatry masked as piety, we are to pray and teach prayer; cast out unclean spirits and heal people; we are to spread the Good News of repentance and forgiveness.

Key words:
γρηγορειτε ("watch out". 13:34, 35 and 37)  This word comes into English as "Gregory".  To note:  in the very next chapter the disciples will not be able to stay awake...

θλιψις ("suffering", "distress" or "tribulation";  13:24 and also 13:19)  This is hard word to translate.  "Suffering" has all sorts of baggage, both in the Bible and in our culture.  "Tribulation" can mean a particular thing to certain people.  As Wikipedia helpfully summaries:

In the futurist view of Christian eschatology, the Tribulation is a relatively short period of time where anyone who chose not to follow God before the Rapture and was left behind (according to Pre-Tribulation doctrine, not Mid- or Post-Tribulation teaching) will experience worldwide hardships, disasters, famine, war, pain, and suffering, which will wipe out more than 75% of all life on the earth before the Second Coming takes place.

I would translate it "distress" here.  But I want to focus on why.  Normally I believe in "canonical" translation, that is, help people see connections within the larger context of Scripture.  However, suffering and tribulation are such buzzwords that they distract from the immediate point of Jesus:  There will be an age of false messiahs and prophets who will claim to be saviors.  The great distress is living in an age where people turn away from the true worship to idolatry, the worst kind, where people call it Jesus but it is not.

Power:  There are three different words in this passage that relate to power.
αι δυναμεις (25):  When this word (coming directly into English as "dynamite") is in the plural, it means miracles or deeds of power.  In this case, it is translated "the powers," a logical translation, but strange use of the word!

δυναμεως (26):  Here the word is an adverb meaning powerfully

εξουσιαν (34):  Here the word means authority.  The man in the passage has conferred authority on his people.  It is worth noting that in spite of the fact that the end is coming, Jesus has still given us authority to do works.  In chapter 6 of Mark's Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples authority.  In that case, they were called to cast out unclean spirits, heal, evangelize and preach repentance.  In chapter 11 you might also argue that Jesus gives his disciples authority to pray, to teach and to forgive.  If you put these together, you come up with the mission of the church in Mark's Gospel:
While we await the coming of Christ in an age of idolatry masked as piety, we are to pray and teach prayer; cast out unclean spirits and heal people; we are to spread the Good News of repentance and forgiveness.

Grammar note one:  Why learning future participles is a waste of time
The construction of 13.25 is so odd.  The word for 'fall' here (from pimp-oo; πιμπω) is a present tense participle used with the a "to be" verb in the future tense. This construction (instead of a future participle) is a good lesson of why you should not waste any time learning future participles. They are so rare and even Greek speakers avoided them with other constructions, using the familiar English construction of:  "They will be falling"

Grammar note two:  Strong future denials
In 13.31 the promise of Jesus that his Words will never pass away is a ου μη construction, ie, a STRONG future denial. Also interesting is that this word (parercho-mai; παρερχομαι) appears in 2 Cor 5:17, Behold, Everything has passed away.  This could effectively be translated, "no way, never gonna happen."

Monday, November 13, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

This passage occurs on Christ the King Sunday, Year A, most recently November 2017.
 
Summary
Much like the beatitudes, it is hard to preach this text without steering off the cliff of works righteousness.  A few thoughts.  First, a goat and sheep are born that way; the sheep did not become sheep by their actions; neither for the goats.  They are declared righteous, but the text never declares them righteous because of their action.  It simply says they are righteous.  They did X, Y and Z good things.  Lutherans believe the righteous do good things.  Second, the sheep are not endeavoring to save their hides but they are simply helping people.  The goats were perfectly willing to help Jesus to help themselves, but they weren't interested if it didn't get them points.  The whole freedom in faith righteousness is that we no longer have to work about our own reputation (glory) or status before God but instead can worry about our neighbor.  The goats never got that far.  Lastly, for Matthew glory is found in judgment.  For Lutherans we believe that judgment comes on the cross, which points toward the cross being the center of glory.  Even if this seems stretching it the basic point of this text is a theology of the cross:  Jesus's glory is revealed, yet still somewhat hidden, in the brokenness of the world.

Key words:
δοξα ("glory"; 25.31)  It is interesting to note that in the Gospel of Matthew the word δοξα is almost always connected with Jesus second coming and judgment.  Perhaps it is worth reflecting on -- what is so glorious about judging?

εθνος ("gentiles" or "nations"; 25.32). When used in the plural it normally means "gentiles" ie, non-Jews.  Jesus will finally tell us to go to all the nations. 

κληρονομήσατε (from "κληρονομεω" meaning "inherit"; 25.34)  This word can mean receive, but it really involves inherit.  An inheritance means two things:  First, that someone died.  Second, that there is a gift.  The kingdom given to us is a gift in Jesus Christ and his death.

ξενος ("stranger"; 25.35) The phrase, 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me' actually has the word: "xenos" as in xenophobia.  Furthermore, the verb is "synagagete," from which we get synagogue.  To translate a different way: "I was an outsider and you gathered me to worship." "Synag-oo" as a verb does not mean invite to church, but the word underneath means gather.  I think Jesus is implying something stronger than simply welcoming strangers but more like:  ushering in freaks.

Grammar:  Unclear antecedents
Like in English, Greek uses pronouns.  Sometimes it is unclear what "it" is refering to.  For example, the Greek says, "throne of glory of his."  Is the throne his or the glory?  Probably doesn't matter in this case, but worth reminding ourselves that Greek does have ambiguities.
In 25.32 the object of the word "divide" is interesting.  Jesus has just finished talking about the εθνος (gentiles), which is a neuter noun.  The pronoun object of the word divide is a masculine plural, suggesting the nations are not what are divided, but the individuals in the nations (masculine plural pronouns can refer to a group that has both men and women).

Matthew 25:1-13

This passage occurs during year A in the Revised Common Lectionary season, most recently November 12, 2017

Summary:  This is a tough passage to preach on!  I am still wrestling with this passage so I offer you some Greek insights that hopefully allow you to build a message!

Note:  Because this parable involves a group of women (a bit unusual), the endings on words might be a bit unfamiliar!

παρθενοις (plural of parthenos, "virgin" or "young (unmarried)" woman; 25.1)  In our culture we hear the word virgin with all sorts of other connotations, related to sexual purity, as opposed to unmarried state.  Furthermore, I wonder if translating this as bridesmaids (see NRSV) makes the most sense.   First, there is no ceremony that includes the bridegroom marrying these women.  Second, Jesus doesn't advocate/project/encourage for polygamy anywhere else.  Third, the new testament presents the whole church as the bride collectively, not individually.  Finally, there is an alternate reading, "Bridegroom and bride."  The textual evidence is much stronger for "bridegroom" alone, but significant (western) manuscripts have both included.  In this case, I do not think one should add back in the words; they don't seem in the original.  But I think this textual problem, along with the other problems, suggests this word should be translated at least as maidens, if not bridesmaids, instead of the loaded term virgin. 

μωραι ("mooria" meaning "fool"; 25.2) The word for fool is "mooria"...like moron, or like "foolishness to Greeks."

φρονιμοι ("phronimoi" meaning "wise"; 25.2)  Again, a huge connection here with Paul's letters to the Corinthians.  Furthermore, this word will be turned upside down by Paul in many ways, as he fights against the notion that wisdom/wise thinking was being unmoved (ie, stoic), but instead argues that wisdom is about taking on the Christian character of being moved to suffer for others (Philippians 2).

ηγερθησαν (from εγειρω meaning "arise"; 25.2)  This is from the word stand/raise up that also means resurrected.

εκοσμησαν (from κοσμεω, like cosmos, meaning "trim"; 25:7)  The word for "trimmed" lamps here is actually "adorned" perhaps recalling for you the hymn: Soul adorn yourself in gladness.  To trim the lamp is to adorn the lamp, the light of Christ!; to adorn the soul!

εκλεισθη (from κλειω, meaning "close"; 25.10)  I don't like this image.  It suggests people that want to get into the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot.  A silver lining?  Jesus is the one who opens up the doors (the word for the tomb's entrance is also "door" in Matthew 27:60).  The only one with the power to open the door is Christ, not us with our lamps.

γρηγορειτε (from γρηγορε, like the name gregory!, meaning "watch out"; 25:13)  This verb is in the present tense, suggesting this is to be an on-going activity.  My sense is that we have lost this sense of watching out for the coming of Christ in our churches today.  If we are to regain this though, we must offer people what the Bible offers them about Christ's return:  both fear and hope.

For those reading this with the Thessalonians text:
25:1 The word 'meet' in Matthew is similiar to the word meet that is found in the Thess. text for this week (απαντησις vs. υπαντησις). What a contrast of the meetings -- one of a king in power and the other of bridegroom.

25:5 The words here for 'sleep' are different from those in 1 Thess. (This does not mean one can/should not make a comparision; just pointing it out)