Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Luke 1:57-80

This passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary, Advent 4, Year B (Most recently: Dec 20, 2015)

Summary:  As I reflected on Zechariah's words, I asked myself -- why does Luke give him so much time?  Most of us could have gone from the Magnificat right to the birth!  (And liturgically we normally do!)  I wrestled with answers having to do with John the Baptist, but then I realized the reason Luke spends so much time on Zechariah has nothing to do, really, with John the Baptist, and everything to do with Jesus.  Zechariah's song is Luke's way of proclaiming to us the key mission of Jesus Christ:  To be our Lord and Savior.  Why else would Luke exhaust so much ink between the Magnificat and the birth?  In this blog post, I look at the connection between Zechariah's words and the words of Christ from the cross and resurrection scenes of Luke's Gospel.

Where to go for a sermon:  A reminder of what this whole thing Christmas is all about -- the salvation that comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Key words (unrelated to my bigger point):
πνευματου αγιου  (form of πνευμα αγιος, meaning "Holy Spirit" 1:67).  The Holy Spirit makes frequent appearances in Luke's Gospel!  (In fact, this is the fourth appearance in Luke 1 - vss 15, 35 & 41).  The Holy Spirit's work here is in conjunction with prophesy, specifically the work of pointing the world toward Jesus Christ.

αφοβως ("without fear" 1:74) The prefix "α" in Greek means "without"; φοβος means "fear."  What a beautiful reminder, in our world of fear, that Jesus has come that we might worship without fear!  Paul, in Philippians 1:14, talks about how in prison he still worships without fear.

Key words (related to my bigger point)
ευλογητος ("blessed" 1:68)  Zechariah begins his song with a word of blessing to the Lord.  The last activity in Luke's Gospel (really the last word) is also blessed (24:53; as a participle), when the disciples praise the risen and ascended Christ.

προφηταις ("prophet", 1:70; 24:25,27,44) Zechariah proclaims that God has brought about the promised salvation, promised through the prophets.  At the end of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus will explain how he is the fulfillment of the prophets.

εν τω ιερω ("in the temple"; 24:53)  Although it does not use the same word in chapter 1 as chapter 24, the Gospel of Luke begins with Zechariah in the temple; and the circumcision, I assume, also happens at the temple.  In short, the Gospel (and the declaration of Jesus' mission through Zechariah) begins and ends in the temple.

διαθηκης ("covenant" 1:72)  Zechariah confirms that God has remembered his covenant.  During the Last Supper, Jesus promises a new covenant (22:20); more powerfully, Jesus tells them to remember this new covenant. (22:19)

αφεσιν αμαρτιων ("forgiveness" 1:77; 24:47)  Zechariah proclaims that John will bring knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins  (I am fighting every bit of my Lutheran fingers to write more about this).  For now though, recall, the first words of Christ from the cross are "Father, forgive them... (23:34) and then after the resurrection, he tells them that forgiveness is to be proclaimed in all the world.

εν τω παραδεις ("in paradise" 23:43)  Zechariah speaks of the one coming to be a light in the darkness and shadow of death (1:79).  From the cross, the tender mercy of God will break from on high and Jesus will be a light to the penitent thief!

ειρηνη ("peace" 1:79; 24:36)  Zechariah promises that the one coming will guide us in peace.  What are the first words of the resurrected Christ to the gathered disciples?  Peace.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13

These passages are found in the Narrative Lectionary, Advent 3, Year 2. (Most recently Dec 13, 2015)

Summary:  Ezra is a complex story about the relationship between the church and state; between religious freedom and persecution; between civic religion and cult.  Given what is happening in our country, this seems like a profoundly relevant passage.  Challenge -- making it connection to Christmas and Advent?  I think one can find this in chapter 3:10-13 and the idea that the foundation has been laid, but the building is not yet there.  We praise God for the foundation, but wait for the fullness of the temple.
Key words: 

רוח ("rauch" meaning "spirit"; 1:1) The NIV translates this as "heart."  It is literally "spirit."  The imagery is that God awoke the spirit of Cyrus.  This is an interestingly reflection on how God interacts with the powerful in the world.  Oh, Lord, send again your spirit to awaken our leaders!

נדבה ("nedabah" meaning "freewill offering";1:4)  This can refer to a specific type of offering, see here for info on this.  What is significant is that the people would be under no royal edict to offer this worship.  It seems strange that, first, Cyrus would allow people to go home, second, that he would allow people to rebuild the temple, and then third, would not compel people to worship there.  (Later in 3:4, there will be mandatory offerings too, but this time imposed by the Jewish religious leaders, not the Persian king.)

כאיש אחד  (a preposition, a noun and an adjective meaning "as one man" translated "together"; 3:1)  The NRSV translates this as "together" but I don't think that this gives a the sense of unity here full justice!  Perhaps this is the unity we experience as we worship on Christmas Eve!

הוסד ("whosed" from a verb meaning "to establish or found";3:11)  What I want to point out here is that though foundation is laid, it will be years before the temple is built.  Numerous obstacles will occur including a seemingly friendly offer from Samaritans that turns into a total road block.  (This is a reminder that religious freedom and worship are not always easy!) 
Perhaps in this we can connect to Advent -- we give thanks to the Lord, like the ancient Jews, because the foundation of the new world of Jesus Christ has been laid, but we have not yet seen the full tabernacle.  Just the foundation is good enough though, for praise!

Luke 3:7-18

This passage is found in the RCL, Advent 3, Year C (Most recently Dec 13, 2015).

Summary:  It almost seems ironic to the Lutheran preacher that Luke refers to John "evangelizing"; here for it seems all law.  However, this is a great Lutheran sermon.  It fully offers the listener God's law, both instrumentally (vocation) but also theologically (terror that leads us to Christ).  Furthermore, it defines the role of the church:  God's gathering of baptized sinners, where he justifies them (cleanses) and sanctifies them (puts them to use).  Basically, Martin Luther must have written this chapter.  Haha!!

Okay, a more subtle commentary -- sanctification requires sifting.  Does the church sift us or has life already sifted us?!

Key words:
προσδοκαω ("wait" or "expect"; 3:15)  A great Advent words!  Interestingly, Luke uses this word a whole bunch (6x in Luke; 4x in Acts), far more often than anyone else. In this case though, the people are not waiting for Jesus, per se, but rather the Messiah, and wondering whether John would be it. Perhaps a reminder and a challenge -- what are we waiting for?

καρδιας ("heart"; 3:15)  The people wondered "in their hearts."  In Luke's Gospel, the hearts is the place where thought occurs, much like Hebrew!

ειη ("to be"; 3:15) The word here for "is" is in the optative mood, a rare usage indeed. Gotta give it to Luke -- using Hebrew thought with advanced Greek!

αλων ("threshing floor") and συναγω ("gather"; 3:17)  God gathers in the wheat to do something good with it.  It was beaten, yes, but this had a purpose -- make the grain productive for wheat.  This is sanctification.  God taking away our crap so that we can be useful for our neighbor.

διακαθαιρω ("cleanse"; 3:17).  This word's cousin καθαιρω is more familiar -- Catherize!  The job of the church is to cleanse us.

Grammar Review:  Super easy participle:
μελλοθσηας:   The "coming" wrath.  This is a verb function as an adjective.  Easy as pie.  Remember, not all participles are hard!  Many have direct and easy ways to translate them into English.  In this case, you just have to identify it as an adjectival participle (how?  It has the word "the" in front of it and it describes the word immediately following it).

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Isaiah 40:1-11

The passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary, Advent 2, Year 2 (Most recently Dec 6, 2015).

Summary:  This passage is almost impossible to translate because one has Handel's Messiah in the background!  If I were not preaching during Advent, I would use this passage to highlight the work of the Holy Spirit, as that which kills but also creates through compassion and comfort.  But I am preaching in Advent so I will focus, most likely, on preparing the way.  In what way do we need a wilderness, a time of disconnecting, to connect to God?  In what way is God's Holy Spirit present to us in the wilderness?  I would argue that the wilderness is not a time of listening to inner voices, but a time of being comforted by the communion of saints and hearing the Word of God.

Key words:
נחם ("nakham" meaning "comfort, repent or compassion", vs 1)  This word appears in all sorts of amazing and significant passages.  It can mean a range of things -- comfort, repent or have compassion.  The idea is someone taking a deep breath.  In this case, the translators of every language, whether Greek speaking Jews in the 4th century BC, or Jerome in the 4th century AD, to modern English translators, have translated this word to mean "comfort."  I agree!  The question remains linguistically in the passage -- who is doing the comforting?  The ancient Israelites to each other?  God?  The pastoral question for us is -- who comforts us?  How is do we experience God's comfort?
Lastly, it is interesting that the Greek translation of this word παρακαλεω (parakaleo) will also be used as a title for the Holy Spirit in John's Gospel!

מדבר ("midbar", meaning "wilderness", vs 3)  Wilderness does not mean "place where God is not."  The book of Numbers records God's faithful presence in the wilderness.  Wilderness can mean a time of reflection and examination, comfort and repentance, but certainly not banishment from God. 
Final note:  If you are curious about the position of the comma in the sentence:
A voice cries out in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord...see this week's post on Luke 3

רוח ("ruach" meaning "spirit, voice or breath", vs 7)  The "literal" translation could be "the spirit of God blows upon it."  I find it quite strange that anyone would want to translate this as breath.  What is God's breath if not God's spirit?  This is important because it helps us recognize that the Spirit's work specifically in this passage but also more generally in the work of putting to death.  It is also worth noting that the Spirit is connected here to the Word of God (vs 8) and finally proclamation of the good news (9)

רעה ("rahah" meaning "shepherd", vs 11) It is striking that the glory of the Lord is revelaed not simply in power, but in merciful compassion.  God's alien work may be bringing about death and destruction, but the proper and crowning work of God is exhibiting mercy.
Side grammar note:  the is technically a verbal noun, like "the one who shepherds" or more literally "shepherder"

Luke 3:1-6

This passage is found in the RCL, Advent 2, Year C (Most recently Dec 6, 2015).

Summary:  A familiar text with many preaching paths. Once again we need the wilderness, the familiar cry of John the Baptist, to restore our sights.  To put it another way, Advent remains a reason of repentance (whatever color we now use), but one where repentance isn't simply about personal sins, but a reorientation of our whole mind away from the crap out there about Christmas and toward the salvation of God unfolding in Jesus Christ.

Key words:
τετρααρχουντες ("rule as tetra-arch"; 3:1)  The word tetra-arch means rule as a piddly regional governor.  Luke includes a number of historical details in his Gospel, especially early on; Luke clearly wants to show that Jesus birth and life are actual events.

βαπτισμα ("baptism"; 3:3). Originally, this word did not have religious meaning. It simply meant to dip. For your enjoyment, here are the Liddell-Scott Hellenistic meanings of the word. Wow!

I. trans. to dip in water
2. to dip in poison
3. to dip in dye, to dye
4. to draw water
II. intransitive the ship dipped, ie, sank

Try preaching that: Baptism as a dip in poison; as a dip in dye; as a drawing of water from God; as finally, a sinking ship!
***Warning on the next word:  The first four sentences are stuff you all know.  But read on...

μετανοεω ("repent"; 3:3) The Greek meaning of the word is "new mind." Stories later in the Gospel -- Bartimaus or the woman anointing Jesus -- show someone whose life is transformed by Jesus. So it may not be explicit (in that the word repentance may not be used), but the repentance continues. In Lidell-Scott's ancient (and secular) Greek lexicon, repent means to change one's mind or purpose. We often put repentance together with sin, a fine thing, but perhaps we need to consider that repentance means often more than simply a struggle against temptation, but a paradigm shift, a transformation of our whole outlook, if not way of life and even being. In this case, there is a shift into the forgiveness of sins. Perhaps that is what Jesus ministry is really about, not simply our own forgiveness, but inculcating a world view that finally includes forgiveness.  Perhaps this is σωτηριον (salvation): when the world finally embraces forgiveness as the path.  Overarching point:  μετανοεω in Greek and in the New Testament means far more than forgiveness of sins.  (Or forgiveness of sins means far more than we think it does).

πληρωθησται (πληροω, fill or fulfill, 3:5) and ταπεινωθησται (ταπεινω, fulfill, 3:5):  The English renders these words as "raised up" and "made low."  Yet Luke (and Isaiah) use the words here for fill and humble.  These then echo other parts of Luke's Gospel (the Magnificat; Jesus words on the road to Emmaus).  These represent key features of Jesus mission:  To fulfill and to humble.

Grammar note:  Lack of punctation in ancient languages
Original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts lack punctuation; it was added later by monks.  So we really don't know if Isaiah meant, "A voice cries out, 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord'" or "A voice cries out in the Wilderness, 'prepare the way of the Lord'."  The monks thought the former...probably good to go with their instinct.
In that case, it seems that the Gospel writers change the punctuation to fit their own program of matching John's work with the description in Isaiah. 
A few options:  The scholarly one: Preach or teach, in a despising fashion, about how the NT abuses the OT
The Christological one:  Preach and teach about how the NT rightfully abuses the OT to make it fit with Christ!
Or the pastoral one:  Say, in this case, both are valid.  John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness.  Yet he speaks to each of us to get into the wilderness, away from all the chaos of the world, to focus on God and God alone.