Tuesday, March 13, 2018

2 Samuel 12 and Psalm 51

This passage occurs in the Narrative Lectionary, Year 1 (most recently Oct 19, 2014); it also occurs many years in the Revised Common Lectionary during Lent.

Summary:  There are rich theological themes in this Psalm 51.  For my blog this week, I try to get into some the words, which are rich in imagery in the Hebrew.  Hopefully these descriptive words can be a means to get into the Psalm (and accompanying story of David, Bathsheba and Nathan).   As a side note, I've always seen the fullest expression of Gospel in this passage in the existence of the Psalm 51.  God turned David's sin into something that was enduring and lasting.  His child died, but his words of lament have comforted people for centuries.

Key Words:
נביא  ("Nivea" meaning "prophet", 51:1 (intro to Psalm):  The word prophecy often means prediction in modern popular imagination and film (Harry Potter/Star Wars).  The prophets in the Bible did not predict the future.  Rather, they spoke the word of God, which often included future possibilities for judgment or promises of blessing.  But the main job of the prophet was to speak the Word of the Lord to the present situation, in this case, a king who had sinned badly.  Very badly.

נתן  ("Nathan", name of the prophet, 51:1 (intro to Psalm):  The prophet's name "Nathan" means gift.  Even the harsh words of God are a gift to David here in that he calls David to repent, to have a restored relationship with God.  When we deny calling 'sin' 'sin' we deprive people of the gift of forgiveness and repentance.

רחמים ("rakamim" meaning "compassion", 51:2) The origin of this word רחם meaning is womb.  In the plural it means compassion; this is clearly feminine way of thinking about God's love; it is like a woman's care born in her womb. 

מחא ("makha" meaning "wipe", 51:2;9):  As the TWOT points out, almost every time this verb shows up in the Hebrew Bible, it is significant.  For example, God will wipe out the earth with a flood; God will wipe away every tear in the eschaton (Isaiah 25:8).  The literal action means:  "Erasures in ancient leather scrolls were made by washing or sponging off the ink rather than blotting. "  Literally erase away, expunge!  So that when God reads the book of life, he reads them no more.

כבס  ("kabas" meaning "launder", 51:3;7)  TWOT:  "to make stuffs clean and soft by treading, kneading and beating them in cold water...it is used always for clothing, 'to launder'"

טהר ("tahar" meaning "cleanse, purify", 51:3;7)  In Hebrew, this word is associated with pure metals (especially gold); it is often associated with ritual and ceremonial cleansing and furthermore, cleansed items used in worship.   You could go a couple of ways here:  First, that God's cleansing is like removal of dross from metal -- getting rid of the crap in our lives that we might be pure.  Second, you could argue that the cleansing has a purpose (to be used in worship and service to God).  Third, you could argue that ultimately forgiveness neats a ritual cleansing, including through washing with water or blood.

חול  ("khul" meaning "twirl" translated here as "born", 51:5) from the moment the person begins writhing, twirling, dancing, moving, even in pain, they are born with sin.

אמת  ("amat" meaning "faithfulness" or "truth", 51:6) What is it that God desires?  It is not simply truth as in a true statement, but faithfulness.  Something beyond propsitional truth is desired here.  We could do a lot more here, but the NET translates this nicely with integrity.

ברה  ("barah" meaning "create" 51:10)  Just a reminder that this verb is only associated with God as the subject.  Humans can fairly be described as co-creators in the sense of we can imagine, build, make, name...but we cannot create life; nor can we create a new heart.

קדש ("kadesh" meaning "Holy" 51:11)  This is the only time in the Old Testament we have an unambiguous reference to the Holy Spirit.  The NRSV does not do Christians justice when they translate the words with lower case holy spirit.

John 12:20-33

This passage occurs in the RCL Lent Season, Year B, most recently March of 2018.

This pericope highlights the engagement and even confrontation between Jesus and the world.  It looks like this:
1)  world hungers for Jesus, meets him in community
2)  call to discipleship -- which is service
3)  call to suffering -- which is glory
4)  call to judgement -- which is resurrection
I think this does model how people actually encounter Jesus and the church.  People find a community that has something to do with Jesus, they hear about serving others, but finally they encounter Jesus Christ crucified.  This in turns sheds light on all other things, including evil, judgment and resurrection.  I hesitate to make some nice ordo salutis here, but I wonder if one could play around here with this passage and how people actually experience Jesus, especially for the first time.
I'd go further to say that this passage highlights three ways in which we are to act as the church:  worship, service and finally suffering.

αναβαινω vs. προσκυνεω ("go up" and "worship" 12:20):  John puts a little play on words here; a funny juxtaposition.  The word for "go up" means literally this "go" and "up"; the word for worship means "fall down at one's knees to kiss the ground."  They went up to kneel.  Worship involves getting out of bed, moving around and then finally being humble, even still, in the presence of God.

διακονος ("servant"; 12:26):  The word here for servant comes from table-waiter.  It will come into English with the whole slew of church related "diakon/deacon/diaconal" words.  Here Jesus says that if they want to see Jesus, they must see the servant, because he identifies himself not simply as but with the servant.  It is striking that in the next chapter Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.  This dialogue in chapter 12 offers us the suggestion that Jesus' washing of the feet was not simply an internal community action, but a reminder to the disciples of their posture in the world.

ψυχη ("soul" or "life";12:25; 27)  The word for life here is "psyche," which can also mean soul. It comes into English as psychology, etc.   The same word comes into play in verse 25 and 27, both when Jesus is talking about his disciples, but also himself.  (why the translators hide this, I'll never know...)  While he does not make the same crucifixion promise as he does in the synoptics, here he connects the cost of discipleship with his death on the cross. 

εκλω ("drag"; 12:32) The word for "draw" here means to forcibly draw, as in draw ships out to see; drag in oar in water, drag to court. It can mean draw as in attract, but it seems to have a more forceful image. This word will come back at the end when Peter casts out his nets at Jesus' command and he draws in the fish. Interestingly, Peter will also draw his sword in the Garden. Jesus will drag us up to him.  I guess here is the question:  Is this a word of universal salvation or universal judgment.  If you continue the argument to 12:48, you've got to wonder, does Jesus draw men up to judge them??

Grammar:  Greek subjunctive:  εαν
Greek has all sorts of subjunctive (ie, not 100 percent going to happen) possibilities, as most languages do.  The most "maybe yes, maybe no" form is simply: εαν, which we find repeatedly in this section.  This means things are really up in the air...in this case, our willingness to serve others as Christ served us.  What also seems up in the air is whether Jesus will come back.  But we know that to be true, so relax.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

John 2:13-22

This passage occurs in the RCL Lent Season, Year B, most recently March of 2018.  It also occurs in the Narrative Lectionary Year 4 Epiphany season.
There is a great play on words in this section that our English translators (perhaps through no fault of their own!) cover up.  Jesus uses five different terms to describe the temple complex.  The most challenging distinction is between house of market and a house of God.  I do not think our churches are in danger of becoming marketplaces, even those with starbucks in their lobbies.  I still think when it comes to Sunday morning, these are the two options, two alternative worlds we live in:  a house of market, where we have to work, pay bills and shop or a house of God, where we can rest, receive God's grace and give thanks.

Key words - two small ones and then a big one!
φραγελλιον ("whip", 2.15) The word here for whip will be used against Jesus in Matthew and Mark.
λυω ("free"; "destroy", 2:19)  The word here for destroy actually means to loosen (remember the basic verb conjugation charts?). It also means to destroy, but an interesting idea.  How does Jesus death set him free?

Temple:  Five for one!
There are five words used here for temple:
ιερον (2:15):  The word hieron (rough breathing mark means its English equivalent starts with an "h")is essentially the same word as a word for sacrifice. This word comes into English as hierarchy.  It refers to the whole temple complex.  It is interesting to note that all the animals being purchased were for sacrifices.  Any system of sacrifice inevitably leads to priestly power, abuse and money; in short, hierarchy.

οικος του πατρος μου (house of my father; 2:16)  Jesus here identifies his relationship to God and the temple.  If it belongs to his father, it belongs to him too.  What does it mean for something to be God's house?  How might we look at church differently if we saw it as God's house?

οικος του εμποριον (house of market; 2:16)  German has a nice word:  Kaufhaus, in which the word for shopping center contains the word house.  Since we don't in English, the writers drop it and say, "market" instead of the literal "house of market."  While our churches today may not be a house of market, I wonder if this really is the alternative to church:  a few more hours to purchase things on TV, at the mall or on the internet; a few more hours to work; a few more hours to pay bills.

ναον (temple; 2:19)  This word properly refers to the actual sanctuary, as opposed to the entire court.  (Ie the place where the people worshiped and the priest made sacrifices).

σωματος (body; in nominative:  σωμα; 2:21)  In the Gospel of John, in spite of how "spiritual" everything seems, there is no escaping the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus!  Finally, the place of sacrifice, the place of worship, the dwelling of God is in Jesus body.  Jesus had already alluded to this at the end of chapter 1 when he said that angels would descend on him, referring to Jacob, and calling himself, indirectly, bethel, the house of God, the earthly portal to heaven.

2.16 Jesus switches words here from the narrators "temple (hieron)" to "oikos (house).

2.20 Jesus now switches to the word "naos" (temple) which means building that is a dwelling place of the holy; Paul tells us in 1 Cor that we are a "naos." Then John inserts that Jesus is talking about the temple of his body (somatos). In short, Jesus is shifting away from talking about a place of worship to a house of God to a dwelling place of God to finally himself.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary (Year A), most recently in January 2017; then a portion of it during Year B (Lent 2018).

Rather than review this whole passage, I just want to offer an in-depth commentary on this one crucial verse:

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."  1 Corinthians 1:18

...foolishness to those who are perishing
            Although the NIV, NRSV, NAU and NET translate απολλυμι as “perishing” it should not be understood as merely physical death.   The middle voice of this verb (it cannot be determined if the verb is middle or passive) means “ruin."  Looking at how Paul uses this verb throughout his letters to the Corinthians suggest Paul employs a metaphorical, or perhaps better said, theological layer when he uses the word "perish." 

            When Paul later uses the verb in the present tense in chapter 8:11, “So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed (απολλυται),” Paul does not mean that weak believers are immediately undergoing physical death.  Instead, Paul is trying to talk about the process of dying; or being captive to sin, the law and the flesh.  Paul will use this verb to refer to physical death (10:9, 10:10, and 15:18) but in these cases, the verb tense is aorist.  15:18 even refers to the physical death of Christians.  In short, all humans perish (aorist tense), but non-believers are perishing (present tense).

            This pattern of Paul using απολλυμι in the present tense to signify not an ultimate death, but the process of perishing, matches with 2 Corinthians and Romans.  These passages also continue the pattern of contrasting those being saved and those being ruined.
  • For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing;  2 Corinthians 2:15
  • And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  2 Corinthians 4:3
  • If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.  Romans 14:15
            This point is most saliently brought home by contrasting 1 Cor 15:18 which talks about the reality that Christians will die (aorist tense) with 2 Cor 4:9, that even through Christians are “struck down” they are not “απολλυμενοι.” 

What does this mean for a sermon:  Consider the ways in which life outside of Christ consists of perishing each and every day.

...power of God to those who are being saved
            Paul uses the word power in a variety of ways.  One of the most important, however, is that God’s power will bring about resurrection:  Both Jesus and ours.  (And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power, 1 Cor 6:14), It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (15:43). 
The final word in the section "σωζω" is also a loaded theological term.  Although BDAG indicates this word can mean “heal”, Paul normally employs it to mean “save/preserve from eternal death.”  In America today, people often think about “being saved” as an event-triggered state which allows for a reality in heaven.  There are some verses in 1 Corinthians that could perhaps suggest this (1:21,7:16, 9:22,10:33).  However, for Paul, salvation seems to work in the opposite direction: the age-to-come reality breaks into our own present state.  For, in both 1:18 and 15:2, "σωζω" is in the present passive, indicating that salvation is not a one-time event, but an on-going process.  The consummation of our salvation comes on the final day of judgment (3:15,5:5), which Paul likens to a fire.  All that remains of the present age of darkness will be burned away.  Therefore, being saved means not only existing in, but being transformed by, this future reality.
            The most saliently comes across in verse 1:18.  The cross does not simply trigger a salvation event.  The wording is not:  The words of the cross is the power of God for salvation to those believing, as it is in Romans 1:16.  Rather it is the power of God to those being saved.  What is amazing is that the power of God is not simply the saving, but rather, to those being saved, the cross is the power of God.  At the very least the power of God entails something more dynamic than ultimate salvation; it may even include something more than being saved.
            2nd Corinthians gives an image of how the power of God becomes that which allows Christians to endure hardship. 
  • But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)
  • We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed (u`pe.r du,namin) ‘beyond our strength’ that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
  • but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,  7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; (2 Corinthians 6:4-7)
  • but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
            This is an amazing revelation of the power of God.  The power of God does not glorify the Christians, but propels them through suffering.  Paul even takes it a step further in Philippians: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, Philippians 3:10
To conclude with another quote from Corinithians around power:
For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 2 Corinthians 13:4

What does this mean for a sermon:  Well, everything.  But I think the notion of dynamic salvation is crucial (pun intended); I also think clarifying the power of God is really important for people.  (This links up well with the connected Gospel passage on Matthew 5!)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mark 8:27-38 (Confession of Faith)

Over time I've worked on three posts related to this passage.
- First, a smattering of Greek tid-bits that will one day become a more coherent post
- Second, an investigation into the brilliance of Mark's Greek tenses
- Third, a Tour de Force (if I do say so myself) on Mark's Greek to highlight the nature our confession

 (This post is the third option!)

Summary:  Mark masterfully uses Greek to emphasize the dramatic nature of our confession of Christ.  Our confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, will consume our life and finally consume us.

The Greek behind Jesus' question:
* Use of tenses: Mark carefully selects his tenses in this passage. When Jesus asks the question, he is using the imperfect tense, which implies repeated action.  Jesus repeatedly asks them:  "Who are people saying that am?" and "Who do you say that I am?"  In our life, we will repeatedly be asked who Jesus is.
* Use of pronouns:  In Greek, the verb conjugation contains the subject pronoun.  Thus, it is not necessary and it used primarily for emphasis.  Here Jesus adds in the pronoun "You"; as if to say, "You - I mean you -- who do you say that I am?"  In our life, we cannot simply say, "Christianity teaches XYZ" but each will have to say, "I believe..."
* Use of a town name:  Mark could have just told us about this confession, but he adds in the detail of its location.  Casearea Philippi was a major center of pagan worship:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Philippi

To put all these together, Mark lets us know about the confession of faith:  Where it will be done (in the face of paganism), when it will be done (again and again), and who will do it, we the disciples of Christ.

The Greek of Jesus demand:
* Play on words: οπισω ("after", verses 33 and 34).  Jesus has just told Peter to get behind him.  Now he commands Peter once again to get behind him.  Earlier Peter was told to get behind Jesus and become a fisher of men (8:33).  The invitation to get out of the boat (kind of fun and scary) leads to the invitation to die (very scary).
* Use of tenses:  The verb tenses are helpful here -- deny (απαρνησασθω) and carry (αρατω) are in the aorist tense, but follow (ακολουθειτω) is in the present tense.  Following Jesus is an on-going task.  So, to the Greek it probably sounded like: "If any of you want to follow after me, let him deny himself, pick up his cross and day-after-day follow me," (Okay day-after-day is a bit of a Lutheranism...)
* Use of verbs:  To translate απολλυμι in verse 35 as "lose" is perhaps one of the most watered down translations possible. The verb can mean lose but more likely it means destroy (as in Herod wanted to destroy the child). Something more active is called for here than simply misplacing our life.

Grammar: Accusative cases in the infinitive
8:27 and 8:31 contain infinitive clauses.  Notice how the subject is in the accusative?  This is especially complex in 8:27

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

This passage occurs in the RCL Epiphany Season, Year B, most recently February of 2018.
Summary:  Wow.  What an amazing passage.  When I first learned about Saint Anthony and the monastic movement, I thought it involved leaving this world for our own spiritual gain.  Then I read that actually Saint Anthony was going into the wilderness to purge it from evil, not to get away from it.  In the same way, I wonder if Jesus' prayer is about purging the wilderness from the demons.  Everything else in this passage, even proclamation, is portrayed in the light of spiritual conflict.

To put it in a more catchy way:  When you go to proclaim, do you expect to see the minions of the devil fleeing and fighting?

Note from 2018:  When I read this passage in 2018, what struck me is that after Jesus prays, he is able to say no to the disciples and focus on the broader mission.  As a leader, I often feel tugged and pulled.  Only through prayer and conversation with God can we stay focused on the mission of our congregation as well as articulate this with passion and without fatigue and rudeness.

Struggle against evil:
κρατεω ("hold"; 1.31) The word here for hold is "krate-oo" which is not hold hand in a sentimental way. This is the word for power, as in democracy. This is the word for sieze. This is what Herod will do to John the Baptist (arrest) and what the Chief Priests want to do to Jesus. Jesus in Mark 1 is wrestling the demons, not smiling for the home video cameras.
ερημος ("wilderness"; 1:35) and εκβαλλω ("cast out"; 1:35-1:39):  Jesus had been cast out into the wilderness (herehmos).  Now after he casts out demons, he goes there to pray.  Often times we think of monasticism as a wimpy and academic escape from the world, but for Jesus (and many of the first desert fathers and mothers) the movement into the wilderness means cleansing out the forces of evil.

Nature and purpose of the church:
διακονεω ("serve"; 1 31)  Peter's mother in law has been freed to serve others, suggesting that our freedom comes with an opportunity to serve others too.  It comes into English (and the ELCA) as Deaconness, Diaconal ministers and deacons.

This word comes into play three times in Mark's Gospel.  Here and again in Mark 15, when Mark points out that the women were attending Jesus during his ministry.  Finally, it comes in during Mark 10, when Jesus says he came to serve, not to be served.  Interesting is that when this verb is in conjunction with Jesus it is in the aorist case, suggesting a one time event.  In Mark and specifically in Mark 10, I would argue, the service of Jesus is to die on the cross.

επισυναγω ("gather"; 1 33) In this passage begins with Jesus leaving the synagogue. Now the people are gathering around him (syn-ago-ing!) Where is church? Where Jesus is...duh...anyone 2nd grader who has read AC VII knows that.  Where Jesus is meeting humans in need.
κηρυξω ("proclaim"; 1:38)  Proclaim is a great Lutheran word.  But in this case it is not connected with the forgiveness of sins, but the expulsion of demons.  I would offer that three key elements of the church:  prayer, proclamation and service, all involve the conflict against evil rather than simply an academic escape or comfort and safety!
θεραπευω ("heal"; 1:34)  Jesus' therapy session is on!  Again here even healing is seen within the context of a struggle against evil.

Foreshadowing of Resurrection:
ηγειρεν ("raise up"; 1.31) and αναστας ("resurrect"; 1.35):  These verbs both mean to raise up or resurrect.
λιαν πρωι (1.35; these words together mean early morning):  They don't come back into Mark until chapter 16 when we get to the resurrection
θυρα ("gate"; 1.33) The word for "door" here is also gate, as in Jesus is the gate from John's Gospel.  Or as in, there was a stone at the gate of the tomb (see Mark 15 and 16!).

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Mark 1:21-28

This passage occurs in the RCL Epiphany Season, Year B, most recently January of 2018.
Summary:  The Greek highlights Mark's excellent dramatic skills.  He uses tight language and subtle details to present the conflict of Jesus against the mysterious and powerful forces of evil.  Evil is quite powerful here:  It has invaded the synagogue; it knows more than the crowd; it is vulgar and disobedient to Jesus; its number is unknown.  Yet Jesus will vanquish it and affirm the claim of the crowd, that he is one with authority.  As Staupitz declared to Luther in the movie:  "You are too hard on yourself; the devil has been around for thousands of years.  Cling to Christ and his mercy."

Alternate thought:  I am coming back to this passage nearly a decade after I first did a Greek post on this passage.  What stood out to me this time was:  What does it mean that Jesus interprets Scripture with authority?  My sense is that we are moving away from an academic sense of authoritative interpretation of Scripture -- but what replaces it?  In our 2018 American context, do we ascribe authority to someone when they confirm our previous held biases?  How is authority related to authenticity?  Must authority be proved?  Perhaps the test of Scripture interpretation should be this passage:  If it does not drive demons out of the congregation, it has no authority.

How Mark employs Greek to add drama to the story:
1:21 and 1:22 All of the verbs in this sentence have verbs in the present or imperfect, suggesting a lot
of movement and continuous action.  The story continues the whirlwind pace of Mark 1.

1:23 Mark puts the word "unclean" last in this clause, so it reads "there was in the synagogue a man in spirit unclean." A bit of suspense because as a reader it would not be entirely surprising to find a spirit in a synagogue.  It is worth noting that the unclean spirit is not found outside the house of God, but inside the house of God! 

1:23 The first aorist verb is ανεκραξεν ("cry out") suggesting an abrupt change in the action after all the other present/imperfect verbs.

1.24 The phrase here in Greek that the unclean spirit uses is "What to you and to me." This is essentially what Jesus to his mother at Cana: "What to me and to you." In other words, this is not a very kind way to talk!   A sort of "What the hell do you want?"

1.24  The spirit switches back and forth between the singular and the plural, presenting an uncomfortable ambiguity:  How many are there?

1.26   Interesting that even though the unclean Spirit obeys Jesus, it still gives off a μεγαλη (large) scream. This is the first use of mega in Mark.  Furthermore, Jesus had commanded the spirit to be silenced; this shows its disobedience!

All of this drama and even highlighting of evil's power is designed to affirm the original claim of the people, namely, that Jesus is one with εξουσια (1:22), that is power!

Also, a side note, 1:23/26  the word for unclean is "ακαθαρτος" as in the man needs a cathartic experience...