Monday, December 21, 2020

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.  The first two sentences of Luke 2 are dripping with imperial power.

Second, challenge of history:  Luke's chronological placement of 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; same word).  One take is that Mary and Joseph were with distance family and because it was so crowded, they put the baby and pregnant woman in with the animals.  Even if you want to imagine Jesus as a middle class person with distant relatives surrounding him...Luke's poetry still maintains its force:  The world didn't have room for him and the prince of all creation was sleeping in a bed of hay.

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.

ημεραις  (days, 2:1; 2:6 and throughout Luke 1 and Luke 2) vs σημερον (today, 2:11)  Throughout the Gospel of Luke, but especially the early part, there are lots of things that are happening 'in those days'.  But Jesus birth happens today.  I wonder if there a sermon connection there, thinking about the pacing of life.  Women move slowly with a donkey; the shepherds are hurrying to see.  We have lots of days, but Christmas day is a different.  For me, Christmas Eve is one of the few times a year when I feel like I am not just living days, rushing from one activity to the next, but simply in the moment, dwelling in the proclamation.

To put it another way:  Christmas in America does everything is can to focus our attention on the past or the future.  The angels tell us to focus on the here and now, where God is!

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!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

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.  (Because the Bible characters, as it turns out, are 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 occurred 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 too 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 in John's Gospel 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.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

New Wine doesn't work in Old Wine Skins

New Wine doesn't work in Old Wine Skins

A vaccine will bring healing to many and a return to much of the old normal.  However, it will not undo the changes in our churches saw in 2020.  Some key questions for church leaders to wrestle with in 2021.

I realize that most of us congregational leaders are overwhelmed by the logistics and grief of re-orienting Christmas 2020.  However, recently we heard news of vaccines being distributed in the United Kingdom ...and soon coming into the United States.  This news has me thinking and dreaming of a day when life goes back to normal!!

What will this normal look like?  My sense is that the post-COVID normal for most congregations will look very different than life "B.C".  Too much has changed in our congregations simply to go back to the way it was.  On the one hand, COVID times have been a long season of pruning.  Some things -- ministries, relationships and most poignantly, people -- have died in this time.  Painfully, we must confess it cannot go back.  On the other hand, COVID times has been filled with new growth.  Countless churches have launched new ministries during this time or renewed exciting ministry partnerships; congregations have given leaders permission to grill the most sacred of cows!  It has been reminiscent of the book of Acts, when trials and tribulation gave room for the Spirit to drive the church forward.  There is new wine flowing that will burst the old wine skin!   

It is likely worth each church leadership team pausing, reflecting on 

What is your church grieving that has been temporarily or even permanently lost during this time? 

What is old wine skin, stuff where you just can't go back to it?

What has helped people be the church, as individual disciples, or collectively as a congregation during this time?  

What is new ministry -- new wine -- that is worthy of celebrating?

To be clear, what is old is not bad and what is new is not necessarily from God.  But these above questions might begin to get at the all important and deep question -- how is God calling us forward as a congregation? 

Furthermore, many of the changes that happened during COVID times were not entirely new developments, but amplifications of existing trends.  One local church I know of moved extremely well into live-streaming. As it turns out, they had designed their new sanctuary for live streaming.  COVID may have made their 'viewership' number skyrocket, but they had laid the groundwork for broadcasting worship years ago.  The trends in our culture:  the rise of virtual community; the tendency toward political polarization; and the hunger for intimacy all existed before COVID and will only continue.  

In short, so much has changed within our churches and within our culture, that we can't do church like 2019 and expect to thrive in 2021.  Here are what I see as some movements in our culture that exploded in 2020 that will continue to impact our churches in 2021 and beyond.  For each one, I boil it down to some key leadership questions.

Netflix effect:  Netflix created a whole new market place:  on-demand TV.  You could watch watch whatever you wanted, most importantly, whenever you wanted.  You could binge watch 18 episodes of West Wing.  You could stop a show in the middle if you felt it was too boring or too raunchy.  

In many ways, we've become church on-demand, with multiple ways of worshiping available at multiple times, if not all the time.  No longer is the church open for a few hours a week on Sunday morning and a few odd hours during the week, but the Word is going forth all the time as people follow and consume content online. People can engage at any time, which is good.  But...its a much different task to build a community around an a la carte menu.  Even if one can do this, sustaining it requires very different resources, volunteers and staff than before.

So it brings up a host of questions as in-person worship will resume in full force.  Will people have the desire to sit for a 60 minute worship service anymore, with lots of parts they don't necessarily enjoy?  Will churches stop their online worship?  Will churches really stop online communion they swore was temporary?  What do you do with the people who really loved zoom worship in their jammies?  How do we not burn our staff and volunteers who will be asked to do everything they did in 2019 and 2020 all at the same time?

What should AND can we sustain of our COVID-times virtual engagement? 

The quicker a church answers this question, likely the less helpful their answer will be.  Whom is the church truly trying to serve?  Why? and How?  The more clearly a church can define their sense of mission and vision likely the easier time they will have articulating to themselves and others why they are choosing to resume or not resume certain ministries. 

Trump effect:  Trump accelerated the polarization of American society.  When COVID happened, he took a tact of championing individual liberty over public health measures.  This created a situation in which everything about COVID, including wearing a mask, was seen as a political statement.  As churches made worship and ministry decisions, often based on particulars of their building; the age and health of their staff and congregation; the professions of their council; these were interpreted by many as political.  People began to vote with the feet, with strongly conservative folks often re-aligning themselves with no-mask churches (and to some extent, vice-versa).  Many leaders also felt the necessity to take stands this summer over issues of racial injustice in our country, further inflaming divisions. 

Truthfully, churches have faced increasing strain trying to hold people of differing political opinions in one church.  Like every other facet of society, we seek to congregate with folks that look, act and vote like ourselves.  Church has become no different.

Does your church feel mobilized by a political pruning to work more clearly for societal causes?  (Lean into the prophetic tradition of decrying injustice)  Or are you committed to being a church that holds diverse political views together? (Lean into the Pauline tradition of reconciliation in a multi-cultural context)  How can you live into this decision?

American Idol effect:  While there is a strong Christian music industry with ties to mega-churches, an open secret is that most mega churches haven't had deep congregational singing for sometime.  Wonderful musicians lead generally passive or gently singing crowds.  The same is generally true for Roman Catholic churches and also in many mainline protestant churches.  Choirs used to lead the congregation; then choirs started doing the singing for the congregation; then choirs were replaced by cantors.  Its okay if you want to protest this sweeping generalization, but I think its fairly straight forward to argue that our culture doesn't do collective singing as well as we did two generations ago.  This has been translating into church culture for some time. 

Regardless, COVID times increased this trend as congregational singing has often been discouraged, done with masks or not happened at all.  Many musicians in churches are no longer leading congregations or large ensembles, but recording tracks of two or three musicians, designed for listening rather than collective singing.  

More deeply, I am getting at the way in which COVID often forced a professionalization of church.  Doing a good video takes paid staff or very committed lay people.  It often is harder to get people involved and during COVID times in worship; most churches either restricted volunteers or the volunteer base (often retirees) took a big step back out of virus concerns.  I assume that for most churches this not the long-term hope, although perhaps some are happy to become professional worship broadcasters

How do we make worship truly a work of the people, especially when it comes to singing?

The Bowling Alone effect:  Back in 2000, a book called Bowling Alone was written.  It spoke about the fragmentation of American society and how our individualism had undermined our ability to form community.  I've often wondered if the breakdown of church attendance has as much to do with this trend as anything the church has or has not done. It is not simply about the rises of "nones" (no religion) but "no ones" folks who are isolated and alone.

COVID created a tremendous amount of loneliness. We all learned we can't live so isolated from each other.  The church has sought to step into this gap and provide authentic virtual, hybrid and in-person connection.  Many churches have discovered they were not, after all, a building, but truly a people, animated by the Spirit who trust in Jesus Christ.  The people that have come along often will feel more bound to their church than ever before.

At the same time as pockets of intimacy were being deepened within the church, many have trailed away.  A zoom room likely doesn't work for people totally new to each other.  Some churches may have added virtual listeners, but how might they move from passive consumers to active parts of the life-giving community?  How much energy are you going to put seeking the sheep you lost in 2020?  How can you make pathways for new people to integrate into a very "dense" community in terms of relationships?

How is your church intentionally building community for both active participants but also those not currently engaged?

Some of the above questions might avail themselves to simple or quick answers.  My intention in offering them is not to provide an easy checklist for folks.  I sense that both in and outside of the church life will have profoundly changed by summer 2021, when life in church could go back to normal.  Churches will need to have a strong sense of mission.  If not, I believe they will exhaust themselves in conflict and unrealistic expectations of staff, volunteer leaders and general membership.  My hope is that the above questions might help a church get at, again, that key question -- how is God moving in our midst and how are we called forward?  How can we as a people of the cross and resurrection speak and live into a world that endured its greatest crisis in a generation, if not longer?

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Mark 1:1-8

This passage occurs in the RCL during Advent (year 2, week 2; most recently Dec. 6, 2020)
 
Summary:
The Greek in this passage is not complex, but it is riddled with problems.  How do we read Mark's rough Greek and sloppy use of the Old Testament?  Perhaps the hermenuetic offered by Mark about Isaiah is the proper one for us today.  Mark rips Isaiah out of his historical context and reestablishes the passage's meaning christologically.  In the same way, let's rip John the Baptist out of his context and interpret him christologically:  You need more than confessing your sins.  You need the son of God to send out the Spirit to forgive your sins in your Baptism!  Sure, that adds a bit of theology to the whole thing, but as Mark shows, that is the job of a proclaimer :-)

->  My added insight for 2014:  Mark's Gospel begins, it seems, with the theology of the cross.  Where do we find God?  In the wilderness, on the edge, in a stinky socially unacceptable man.  Jesus will keep showing up in the wrong places in the Gospel of Mark (and all the Gospels).  Jesus will keep showing up in our lives in the wrong places too.

Here are some problems:
Citation problem:  Isaiah in verse 1:2 and v 3
Mark says "Just as it is written in the prophet Isaiah" and then goes to quote Malachi.  He doesn't get to Isaiah until verse 3.  (My guess is that Malachi wouldn't be known to his audience but Isaiah perhaps would have been).  Even if you ignore this problem, Mark is clearly a bad student of the OT because he takes the verse out of context.  Clearly Isaiah was not talking about John the Baptist!  But wait a minute.  If Mark takes Isaiah out of its historical context and reinterprets the passage in light of Christ...then cannot we do the same??

Word problem:  John the Baptist/baptizing in verse 1:4
Literally the text reads "John the one who baptizes" or even "John, while baptizing."  However, I do not think calling him "John the Baptist" is an unfair translation.  In fact, Mark will call John the Baptist elsewhere, 6:25; 8:28.  Here Mark is emphasizing his activity of baptizing.  The most complex thing however is simply the word "baptism."  We have 2,000 years+ of interpretation of this word.  In this pre-theological usage it simply means, "to dip in water to wash."  It came to mean, according to the Freiberg dictionary, "of Jewish ritual washings wash, cleanse, purify by washing."  The point of all this is that John's Baptism is not necessarily what we think of as our baptisms.  This is not a baptism of grace; it is not a baptism of binding oneself to Jesus ministry, much less his death and resurrection.  John was telling people to commit themselves to God and signify their repentance with Baptism.

Textual problems:  "Of God" in verse 1:1
The phrase "of God" (tou theou) is not found in all the manuscripts. It is pretty debatable from a textual point, although I think Nestle Aland 27's double brackets are a bit strong.  Some significant manuscripts have it.  The NET Bible notes offer a really fascinating hypothesis as to why the "son of God" is dropped from various manuscripts (based on the particular letters that are used).  However, this is kind of a moot point for the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus clearly is the son of God in the book; the question is when and how do we learn this. From the first line of the book?  No.  From the cross.  From a centurion nonetheless.  Perhaps it simply adds to the great mystery novel that Mark wrote...

Punctuation problem:  "In the wilderness" in 1:3
The position of the phrase "in the wilderness" is arbitrary.  We do not have the original punctuation is either Hebrew or Greek.  Later Jewish monks added the punctuation (suggested by the original likely meaning of the verse), "A voice cries out, 'In the wilderness prepare the way'" but the writer of Mark moves the break and makes it "A voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way."  Admittedly, we really don't know Mark's original punctuation (this was not passed on for the first four centuries at least) but Mark definitely seems to suggest a change from the Hebrew.

Participle problem:  "confessing" in 1:5
The tenses of the Greek participles fight against an "Ordo Salutis" in this passage. Baptizing and confessing occur at the SAME time CONTINUALLY. Not one after the other (imperfect active verb with a present participle == concurrent, on-going action).  The people do not confess and then get baptized or the other-way around.  They are doing both of them.

Isaiah 40:1-11

The passage is found in the Narrative Lectionary, Advent 2, Year 2 (Most recently Dec 6, 2020).

Summary:  This passage is almost impossible to translate because one has Handel's Messiah in the background!  One possible direction:  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!

יד ("yad", meaning "hand", vs 2)  It is strange and disconcerting that the same God who offers comfort is also the same God, from whose hand the people have taken punishment.  It is a reminder that God has two hands -- one to punish and one to build up. (An article by David Lose talks about these two hands) in Luther's writings. 

 
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
 

מסלה ("mislah" meaning "highway", vs 3)  The word highway is a fairly modern word!!  The point here is that this is not a city street, but a royal road that would have been constructed.  As NET Bible offers:  "typically refers to a main road, possibly paved with stones or made level with fill (see HALOT 606 s.v. and The Concise DCH 230 s.v.)."  The point is that there is a royal entourage coming into town!


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"

ישא עלית ינהל ("raise up those who are giving suck and lead them", 11)  This verse can fairly be translated as "He will gently lead the mother sheep."  But I see it a bit different:  He will raise up and lead those who are nursing, those who are feeding.  This is a little word of hope for those involved in ministry -- who are feeding other sheep.  God will raise you up and lead you.  The word lead here is also used in Psalm 23 -- lead us besides still waters.  The leading is not into a hard place, but a place of rest.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Luke 1:1-25

I have not been able to find this passage in the 3 year lectionary cycle.  However, I think it is a great passage for Advent.  In fact, it even has the word prepare in it!!  I am working through Luke 1 this Advent season.

Summary:  This passage has some great theological nuggets around theodicy:  Even though Elizabeth and Zachariah are declared righteous, they still struggle with infertility and later disbelief of God's messengers!  

It is also interesting that Zachariah's disbelief is that God could be so good and powerful.  We can serve in the temple, we can do godly things, but do we really trust God!?  Zachariah would trust the casting of lots but not the word of the angel!!


Key Words:
διηγησις ('diagesis', meaning narrative, Luke 1:1)  Sometimes we speak of exegesis -- drawing things out of a Bible passage through analysis and hopefully prayer.  We are warned against inegesis -- putting ourselves in the story.  Luke commends us to something different here -- diagesis -- in which we walk alongside of the text, in conversation, putting in and pulling out from it.

κατηχηθης  (from κατηχεω, which sounded out is 'catechethes', Luke 1:4)  Luke reminds us that the early church took seriously the task of catechesis, of passing on the story of Jesus to the next generation.
 

Side note:  It is for this reason that I no longer right people who want to have Christmas songs and stories before Dec 24 or Dec 25.  I take seriously my job to pass along the story.
 
δικαιοι (meaning righteous, Luke 1:6)  She is righteous, yet barren, after what we can assume were years of prayers.

ελαχε (from λαγχανω, meaning lots, Luke 1:9)  In the ancient temple they drew lots.  A reminder that it is often hard to discern the will of God and perhaps leaving something to chance is okay!  This story starts to get at the ways in which we trust and don't trust God!
Ιωαννης  ("John", Luke 1:13)  John is the English form of Iohannes, the Latin form of the Greek name Ιωαννης (Ioannes), itself derived from the Hebrew name יוֹחָנָן (Yochanan) meaning "YAHWEH is gracious", from the roots יוֹ (yo) referring to the Hebrew God and חָנַן (chanan) meaning "to be gracious".  https://www.behindthename.com/name/john

This is an Old Testament name, found in the later parts.

It is interesting than that the pregnancy, Elizabeth claims, has taken away her disgrace (ονειδος, 1:25)


χαρα and χαηρσονται (χαιρω) (meaning "joy" and "rejoicing", Luke 1:14)  The word joy will reappear throughout the Gospel, including with Mary, the 'lost and found' parables and then the resurrection!

Side note:  Luke 1:17 and Elijah turning the hearts is a reference to Malachi 4:6

κατεσκευασμενον (from κατασκευαζω, meaning "prepare, build, construct, furnish, equip", Luke 1:17)  This is the question -- how do we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ.  Or more basically, which coming do you want to emphasize in our church this Christmas?  The old lectionary focused on the coming of Jesus in Jerusalem, the coming of Jesus in glory and the coming of Jesus in his ministry in middle age.  I am willing to focus on the coming of Jesus as a baby because I feel our cultural patterns mean we miss out on the season of incarnation.  But maybe this is a mistake!

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Matthew 25:31-46

This passage occurs on Christ the King Sunday, Year A, most recently November 2020.
 
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 connected with Jesus second coming and judgment (see 16:27; 19:28; 24:30).  Perhaps it is worth reflecting on -- what is so glorious about judging?  Perhaps it is the purification of the people?  Of creation?  While we obsess over the potentially painful and violent cleansing, it seems that for Jesus this is the means, not the end.  Jesus cleanses the temple; in Matthew's Gospel he restores it to a place of healing.  This is a reminder that there is not a linear path to healing; that it will take judgment and "birth pains." (Matthew 24:8)

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. 

εμοι εποισητε ("You did to me", 25:40)  Jesus begins his teaching ministry with the beatitudes, a declaration that God doesn't operate like the world.  Here Jesus ends his teaching ministry by affirming that indeed, God doesn't operate like the world.  Jesus, as God, doesn't simply bless the weak and infirm from afar, but stands with us.  This helps us see what is truly happening in the cross, where God stands with the weak, with the condemned, with the one suffering, with the sinner.

It is interesting that the word δοξα can mean "reputation" or even "honor."  What is the honor of God?  To be with those whom the world has forgotten.  What is God's reputation?  To be with those whom the world doesn't care about.

κολασι(ς) (translated as "punishment", 25:46)  A quick look in almost Greek dictionary reveals this word has many shades of meaning and a fascinating entomology. David Bentley Hart, in his translation of the New Testament, offers the following footnote that helpfully summarizes what the Lexicons offer:  

"The word κολασις originally meant 'pruning' or 'docking' or 'obviating the growth' of trees or other plants, and then came to mean 'confinement', 'being held in check', 'punishment' or 'chastisement' chiefly in connection with correction.  Classically, the word is distinguished (by Aristotle, for instance) from τιμωρια which means retributive punishment only.  Whether such a distinction holds here is difficult to say, since by late antiquity kolasis seems to have been used by many to describe punishment of any kind.  But the only other use of the noun in the New Testament is in 1 John 4:18, where it refers not to retributive punishment, but to the the suffering experienced by someone who is subject to fear because not yet perfected in charity.  The verbal form (κολαζω) appears twice: in Acts 4:21, where is clearly references only to disciplinary punishment, and in 2 Peter 2:9 in reference to fallen angles and unrighteous men, where it probably means 'being held in check' or 'penned in' [until the day of judgment].

Grammar:  Unclear antecedents
Like in English, Greek uses pronouns.  Sometimes it is unclear what "it" is referring 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).

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently November 2020.
 
Summary:
Alas, another Matthew Parable that seems to preach the Law and not the Gospel.  As a person and as a congregational leader, this passage troubles me.  Yet there is a bit of Gospel is we pay close attention here.  The master gives talents to his slaves.  Talents are huge sums of money.  What kind of person gives someone 1 or even 2 or even 5 to 10 million dollars??  What kind of person gives slaves this kind of money?  Sure, this parable may serve as warning not to hide our gifts.  Law, law and more law.  But the good news is this:  God gives us his assets in a way that in unimaginable in the real world of money.  (You might also say that God blesses his slaves' investments in a way unimaginable in this real world of money...)

Lastly, I wonder if the real question is:  What do we view as our talents?  Our gifts and skills?  More and more I am coming to the conclusion that the people in our lives are the talents we have been given and how we treated them will be our judgement. 

Key words:

ταλαντον ("talent", a measure of gold weight worth roughly a million dollars or 20 years worth of a standard persons wages, 25:15).  While this parable may produce guilt and anxiety in us that we don't do enough, it is worth remembering that anyone who gives away 5 talents to his slaves (not friends, slaves) doesn't value money they way the rest of us do.  5 talents would be 5-10 million dollars; 100 years worth of human labor entrusted!

I think a sermon nugget here is realizing how much is entrusted to even the person with one talent.  Sometimes we compare ourselves to others and then convince ourselves that either we a) don't have responsibility to make an impact in the world or b) we have no capacity to do good.  We hide our talent.  Even when we are not given the "most" we still have more than we need and can work in the Kingdom with our gifts.

τα υπαρχοντα ("possessions", 25:16)  see below for a grammatical explanation of this word.  This word does mean possessions, but it comes from the verb for "to be" an does not simply mean goods, but really the entirety of one's resources and means.  For instance, in Genesis 12:5, Abraham and his family take τα υπαρχοντα of theirs when they are moving countries.  Second Peter 1:8 actually describes personality traits as υπαρχοντα.  This word is probably better translated as "assets."

εκερδησεν ("gain" from κερδαινω, 25:16)  Worth remembering that Paul said that all of his achievements were "dung" in order that he might gain Christ.  Also worth noting is that Jesus, in all three synoptics, warns of "gaining" the world (same word) but losing the soul.  Jesus is not simply teaching financial advice, but conveying a deeper meaning about the Kingdom of God.

εκρυψεν ("hide", κρυπτω, 25:18)  The word here literally means "encrypt."  The sin here is not having enough gifts, but hiding that which we have.  I wonder too if it is worth playing with this word "hide" and how people hide their gifts.

Grammar Review:  I thought substantive participles were easy!
Generally, one of the easiest participles to translate are a group called "substantive."  Basically, the form is 'the word the'+'participle' and it is translated the 'one(s)/thing(s) that do this verb'.  So in verse 14, you have τα υπαρχοντα.  The second word is a verb meaning "to be" so this substantive participle is translated, "the things that are."  In this case, this is an idiom which means something akin to "possessions" or "assets" but at its core, it is a participle made into a 'substance' by the word 'the'.

However, Greek can get pretty fancy with the substantive participle.  They can stick words in between the 'the' and the partciple.  For example, in 25:18
ο δε το εν λαβων means "But the one having one (talent)."  First, it is tricky because you have to figure out that the words το εν refer to "the one talent" but it is especially tricky because you have to realize that ο goes with λαβων and becomes "the one who has."  Lastly, you have to unpack the middle and put it on the end to translate it because in English you cannot have, outside of poetry, "the one one talent having." 

The nice thing about such participles is that they allow Greek to build some monster phrases, which ultimately are not that hard to translate.  You just have to identify the participle pieces (in this case the 'the' and the participle), translate them and then go after the middle.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

This passage occurs during year A in the Revised Common Lectionary season, most recently November 8, 2020.

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!

I would offer, not so much a great point, but a basic exegetical point.  Matthew 25 has three parables.  Each point toward the reality of judgment.  But each successive parable gives us a sense of what is important.  Focus on Christ (1st parable); by using the gifts you have (2nd parable); for the sake of the least (3rd parable).  They need each other in many ways.

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)

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently November 15, 2020.

Summary:  Hard words about the end times. Some nuggets below, although I doubt most of you will preach on this, although there is some really good material, especially about building up the Kingdom one person at a time.

Key Words/Constructions

ειρηνη και ασφαλεια (meaning 'peace and safety', 5:3)  These words are heard in every political cycle -- it is the basic promise of government, to provide us peace and safety.  Can it ever be delivered?  I wonder also, at whose cost do we accept peace and safety?  

ολεθρος (meaning "destruction", 5.3)  It is fairly rare in the NT (4x; only in Paul). This word only occurs, it seems, in connection with the destruction that God brings in judgment.

ενδυσαμενοι (aorist participle meaning "put on", 5:3).  This verb is not in the imperative.  It should be translated "let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love."  (θωρακα πιστεως και αγαπης)  Calm and collect thinking grows out of faith and love!   More technical grammar note:  The verb is in the aorist tense.  the actions of aorist participles precede the other verbs in the sentence). 

περιποιησις (meaning "preserve", 5:9).  This is really interesting.  This word can mean "obtain" but also "preserve."  In this case, the idea is that God's wrath will come upon all, but we will be protected -- our souls will be preserved.  The image almost seems to me akin to the angel of death in Revelation.

εις τον ενα (meaning one on one, 5:11).  Paul commends people to comfort one another (παρακαλεω) and then build each other up (οικοδομεω) one on one.  This is a week in which I feel a call to change the world.  Paul reminds us that this happens as the community builds each other up, one by one. 

Grammar review

5.3-5.6 have four different types of subjunctive clauses.  In Greek, you cannot simply say, oh, subjunctive means probable.  Each type of subjunctive clause and construction must be mapped into its English tranlation.

a) οταν:  An "hotan" clause = whenever 

b) ου μη:  A "ou mh" clause with the verb εκφευγω (flee), which suggests that they will NEVER flee. 

c) ινα:  A "hena" clause which suggests result or purpose (in order that the day might be a surprise). 

d) -ω-: An "horatory subjunctive" in 5.6 "Let us not sleep." 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Revelation 7:9-17

This is the Gospel passage for All Saint's Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A.  Most recently Nov 1, 2020.

Some words/language constructions I found interesting 

αριθμησαι (form of αριθμεω, meaning "to count", 7:9)  This word has a clear English cognate:  arithmetic! The point here is that the writer records carefully how many people from each tribe will be in heaven.  Then the seer says, wait, no, they can't be counted!!  A lot of people make it to heaven :)  For a funny view of what heaven with many cultures might look like, you can see the cartoon Simpson's Heaven.   Laughing aside, this verse is a powerful reminder that early on the church understood its mission to exist far beyond its own culture and time.

λευκος (meaning "white", 7:9, 7:13).  There is an increasing discomfort with the use of "white" to describe things that are pure.  This is because of how we have often divided the world into skin-tone groups -- races -- with "white" being on the top of the pecking order.  Thus, when churches use "white" albs, use white lilies and associate white with holiness, this could potentially communicates that white skin tones are likewise more holy.  A few thoughts on this:

  • White never refers to a skin-tone in the Bible.  In fact, if skin is white, it is diseased.  (See Leviticus 13).  Most of the characters in the bible have far more olive toned than white toned skin
  • The image in revelation is for people from every nation and language; it is not a forced mono-culture
  • People in the bible almost never would have anything pure white for clothing.  It would be been incredibly expensive to produce and keep clean.  "Such as no one on earth could bleach them" is how Jesus' transfiguration clothing was described in Mark's Gospel.  Bright white clothing would not be reserved for undergarments like in today's America, but would have been spectacular to behold.
  • The whiteness is often associated with incredible brightness - like a star!
In short, there is no sense that the Biblical writers are trying to reinforce a notion of hierarchy based on skin-tones.  This is not to say we should not be aware of the "world in front of the text" and how people hear the constant association of white with holy.  But the Bible itself is not communicating any superiority based on white skin tones.

φοινικες (φοινιξ, meaning "palm branch", 7:9) The word for palm branch here is literally "phoenix"!  Now, in John 12:13, the people wave these before Jesus, so translating it as "palm branch" seems fair, especially within the biblical context of triumphal celebrations for a king.  However, I find it very amusing and poetic to imagine that in heaven we each get our own phoenix in celebration of the resurrection!

φωνη μεγαλη (meaning "loud voice", 7:10) The words for loud voice is literally "mega phone."  It is interesting to consider, in an era of protests and megaphone, what words are we putting through our megaphones?

σκηνωσαι (aorist form of σκηνοω, meaning "to shelter", 7:15).  The word for "shelter/spread tent" is "skeno-oo" which is from the Greek for tent. In the beginning of John's Gospel (1.14), Jesus is said to have "dwelt" or "tented" among us, drawing on the OT idea of God's tabernacle presence. Now however, the dwelling is not among them, but upon them.  The movement of Revelation is not God away from the earth, but of heaven toward earth, ultimately culminating in the presence of God being with the people.

εξαλειψει (meaning "wipe away", 7.17)  The word "wipe away" or "destroy" (εξαλειψω) is also found in Acts 3:19 and Col 2:14, where Jesus wipes away our sins.  Jesus comes to wipe away both our sin and sorrow.  It is not an either/or.

Grammar note

περιβεβλημενους (περιβαλλω, meaning "robe", 7:9)

The participle for "robed" is in the perfect. It happened in the past but still effects the present states, namely, that they are robed. Here it is used as a circumstantial participle; in 7.13 it will be used as a substantive.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently October 2020.

Summary:  I have never preached on this passage before, but I wonder if it should be read at every ordination, for it lays out two fundamental challenges of ministry

First, to minister only for God's approval:  "But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts."  (1 Thessalonians 2:4)

Second, to minister by giving not only our words, but ourselves.  "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us."  (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

This is such a challenge -- to give our hearts, but not let those to whom we give our hearts be judge of us!

Some Greek that is interesting in both verses:

δεδοκιμασμεθα (passive perfect form of δομιμαζω, here translated as both "approved" but also "tested")  This verb appears twice in verse 4 -- We have been tested (passive) and later God tests (active) us.  The testing it seems, is for a purpose -- God wants to entrust us with the Gospel. It is also interesting that the word test is in the perfect tense, which is Greek means that a new state has arisen as a result of the verb.  The clothes have been put on, the stone has been rolled away, etc.  We have been transformed and changed by the act of God testing and approving us.  But God's approval is not done in an "alien" or "distant" way, but is involved in a process of testing us.

πιστευθηναι (passive from πιστευω, here translated as "entrusted).  First, it is interesting that the word in the active means trust, but is also translated as believe.  It is a reminder that this verb is not about intellectual cognition but trust!  They have been entrusted to pass on the Good News)

αρεσκοντες (form of αρεσκω, here translated as "please")  Liddell Scott offers this definition: " to strive to please; to accommodate oneself to the opinions, desires, interests of others."  This is a great reminder for us during COVID that we cannot minister seeking to please everyone!  We seek to please the Lord.

ονειρομενοι  (form of ονειρομαι, translated here as "long for")  This word is a super rare word, likely a form of another word slightly more common.  Regardless -- it means long for.  Couldn't find sexual connotations, but it is about desire.  This is true in ministry as well -- a deep desire for the community (and their approval)!

ευδοκουμεν (form of ευδοκεω, translated here as "please") and αγαπητοι (beloved).  You may have seen these words together, for God declares of Jesus:  This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  Paul uses this language to talk about his care for the people!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Matthew 22:34-46

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.
 
Summary:  I suppose one could go to great lengths to parse out the Greek meaning of the words, "heart", καρδια, "soul," ψυχη, and "mind," διανοια.  After discovering that they mean different things in Greek than in English you learn that Jesus wants us to...drum roll...Love God and love our neighbor with everything we've got.  This is probably not much for a sermon, but I find it comforting that Jesus wants us to love God with our minds.  In my formation and candidacy, I was often made to feel guilty about my intelligence as if somehow, I just needed to be a big ball of emotions to serve God.  One of my professors, Dr. Henrich, pointed out that in this passage, we are called to love God with our mind.  This was an incredible word of Gospel to me.  Intellectual exploration of God's Word is okay too!  Funny how law can be heard as Gospel sometimes...

Key words:
διδασκαλε ("Teacher", 22:36)  Thanks be to God Jesus wasn't simply a teacher, but also the savior.  However, let us not dismiss the idea of Jesus as teacher.  The word teacher appears throughout each Gospel a total of 48 times.  What can we learn from Jesus this week?  One might understand Jesus' teaching role as salvific (if we just followed Jesus' teachings, healing and life would follow); but I would like to understand it in more dialectical and unsolved relationship.  Jesus is the world's greatest teacher of human wisdom and law.  Jesus also teaches though that finally the law is not enough to save us.  However, we cannot avoid the teachings of Jesus, including when it comes to ethics.  

αγαπαω ("Love" 22:37)  One can parse the word love a number of ways.  What is interesting here is that αγαπη, which is often thought to refer to divine love, here refers to neighborly love.  A reminder that in the kingdom of God, love doesn't remain on heaven, but comes to earth.

καρδια ("heart", 22:37)  In Greek, the heart is NOT the center of emotions, but of will.   

ψυχη ("soul", 22:37)  BDAG points to the broad nature of this word.  The soul is, perhaps best said, that which makes flesh alive.  The Bible will use the word ψυχη to mean more than simply "the ghostly blue vapor" of our existence.  Perhaps another way:  our essence?  Hard to nail down...

διανοια ("Thoughts" or mind, 22:37):  As I stated in my summary, I want to point out that Jesus wants us to love God with our mind.  Also interesting is that God admits fulfilling this is impossible.  In Genesis 8:21 God says that all our thoughts (διανοια) are bent on evil.  Eph 2:3 and 4:18 are similiar.  Interestingly, in Jeremiah 31:33, God says he will put the law into our minds.  All this points out that not simply our "hearts," but our minds, are also a battle ground for God, a place that needs rebirth.  (In fact, this word is often translated from the Hebrew word that means "heart" because the ancient Jewish thought located thoughts in the heart).

χριστος ("annointed" 22:42).  This is a very common word in the NT.  The reason why I bring it up here is because most of our thoughts about the word "Christ" are not what the listener's in the OT would have heard.  

What I wrote in the blog shortly after seminary:  They would have expected someone to replace David as a true king over Israel.  The spiritualization of his role was a NT development.

What I would write in now (2020):  The word Messiah was a loaded term that encompassed the deepest hopes of ancient Israel for the one through whom God would bring fulfillment of long-standing promises.  The challenge is that people living in Jesus' day understood differently how God would do this (although there was probably less disagreement about the end result).  There was certainly a faction that believed the Messiah would be a military leader who would overthrow Herod.  But this was not universally understood in this way.  Regardless, no one was articulating the idea that the Messiah would be a crucified rebel.

The spiritualization of this role is not  New Testament development.  That Jesus came to "take us to heaven" is a much later development.  All first century Jews, including Paul and Jesus, would have understood the Kingdom of God as heaven breaking into earth, rather than us escaping earth to get to heaven.

Grammatical review:  "Hendiadys"
A Hendiadys is a very fancy way of saying "using two words to mean one thing."  Literally from the Greek:  "One through two."  An example of this might be from Genesis 1:  "Formless and void."  They both essentially mean the same thing.  Put them together and you get:  "A whole lot of nothing." 
In this particular passage, we have a hendiadys typical of the New Testament: 
ο νομος και οι προφηται (22:40)

The law and the prophets.  This is the NT way of referring to the Old Testament.  Sometimes they will include the Psalms, but more often, just these two sections.  So Jesus isn't simply saying, "All of the commands and words of the prophets hang on these two commandments" he is saying, "the whole Bible that you know of depends on this."

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Matthew 22:15-22

This passage occurs in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.

Summary:  One does not find the Greek words for church and state in this passage, even though this passage is used to justify all sorts of behavior and relationships between church and state.  What is mentioned though is the word "εικον" meaning icon, or image.  The tempters of Jesus, forgetting Genesis 1, say that the coin bears the image of Caesar.  They answer the truth, but not the whole truth.  An image of man is still an image of God.  Money, whether it says, "In God We Trust" or "Caesar" or anything, isn't exempt from God's creation.  It still has to do with humans and how we live in this creation, and thus it still belongs under God's dominion.

Freedom note:  I am using this passage to launch a Reformation 500 series on the Freedom of a Christian.  I pick this passage because Jesus discusses that even those of us free in Christ still have responsibilities before other people.

Key words: 
παγις ("hunter's trap", used as a verb, 22.15) The word for ensnare comes from the root for trap. What a cruel image of the pharisees trying with metal jaws, to trap Jesus. 

Interestingly, by possessing a coin with the image of Caesar on them, one could argue the Jewish leaders here are already worshiping an idol.  This is especially true given the cult of the Emperor and the fact he was viewed as a god.  They were carrying around images of a foreign god!!  Furthermore, they set up a bogus system whereby you had to trade you Roman money for Jewish money to buy sacrifices.  Thus the temple profited from this exchange.  Jesus traps them as he reveals their sin and their entanglement with the Emperor.  Herod was a puppet king of Rome...but even the Pharisees benefit from the Roman tyranny because so often they are in places of power.   So Jesus is showing that they play in the Emperor's sandbox all the time. They want to trap him and in the end, they lay a trap for themselves.

αποστελλω ("send" 22.16).  The literal phrase here is that his enemies "apostled their disciples," a reminder that Jesus is not the only one with apostles and disciples...

υποκριτης ("actor/hypocrite", 22.18) The word for hypocrite means actor, or one who plays a part.  (He answered above the others from stage.)  This is not necessarily a negative word, but in the NT it is used exclusively that way.  Jesus isn't interested in actors, but real people with real sins that need real forgiveness.

εικον (image/icon, 22.20) The word here for "head" or "portrait" here is literally "eikon," (icon!) which means image. So the question is whose image? If it is a human head, the answer could just as easily have been "God." (See Genesis 1!)  As Christians we must always seek to serve the creator behind the created governments of this world...yet while still acknowledging the reality of human government and laws!

τα του θεου (the things of God).  The word 'things' is implied here, for it literally reads, "the(se) of God."  While this is straight-forward Greek grammar that we don't have in English -- where we would need to include the word "things", there is something a bit trickier going on here.  Grammatically, it is worth asking -- what is the connection between "the(se) things" and "God"?  "God" is in the genitive case and this opens up many possibilities.  Do we give God back the things that come from God? The things that belong to God?  The things in this world which are for God?  The grammatical possibilities seem endless, underlying the more theological question:  What belongs to God? 

The best answer it seems, is from the Psalms:

The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it  Psalm 24:1

Translation/Grammar review:  Idioms
"The things of God" is not the only idiomatic construction in this passage!

Some things in a language are simply impossible to translate literally.  This week Jesus is told, "You do not look into the face of people."  This doesn't sound so nice.  It simply means, "You don't look at exterior things."  (Which is a positive assessment).  He is also told he doesn't care about nothing.  Missing from this idiom is the word "opinion."  Jesus doesn't care about the opinions of others, in the sense that he acts free from petty judgments of others.  You could take them literally, and perhaps derive some meaning; that said, with idioms, it is often best to let professional translators do the work...

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

 This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently Oct 18, 2020.

Summary:  Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians with a strong note of Thanksgiving.  It is interesting to note that Paul gives thanks for the people in Thessaloniki and how God is at work among them.  We are used to giving God thanks for nature or perhaps things, but here Paul practices gratitude for other humans!  God is alive, Paul radically claims, and lives through, in, with and under the people.

Key Word

ευχαριστουμεν ("give thanks", 1.2)  Paul begins his letter as he begins and ends so many letters -- in thanksgiving to God!  It is a helpful and humbling reminder that even in times of trial, we are called and inspired to give thanks!

εργο(ν) της πιστεως (work of faith, 1.3)
κοπο(ς) της αγαπης (labor of love, 1.3)
υπομονη της ελπιδος (endurance of hope, 1.3)

A couple of notes.  First, the trifecta of faith, hope and love is also famously part of 1 Corinthians 13.  Second, all of these examples are in the genitive, meaning that the relationship between the two words must be interpreted by the reader.  I would argue for a subjective genitive, where the thing in the genitive is the subject:  faith's work, love's labor, hope's endurance.  Or perhaps more of a source genitive -- work from faith, labor from love, endurance from hope.

εκλογνη ("elect", 1.4)  What is translated as a verb "elect"  is actually a noun. It simply reads, "knowing, under the circumstance that you are loved by God, your election." The election here is not about politics, but about God's choice to love us and work through us.

δυναμει ("power", 1.5)  The word "power" here is "dynamis." This word comes into English as dynamite!  It can mean miracles when used in the plural, but in the singular it means power.  Power for Paul, especially in Corinthians and Philippians relates to the power of the resurrection and faith working in us to endure difficult times. The power is displayed in the basic miracle that we believe! (1 Cor 2:5) 

εξηχηται ("go forth", 1.8)  The word for sound forth is "ex-echeo-mai"  Notice the word echo in the middle! Their faith is echoing all over Europe, both the Northern part (Macedonia) and the Southern part (Achaia)

θε(ος) ζωντι (living God, 1.9)  This is a nice participle in Greek -- living! It is in the dative because it describes the word "God" which in this case is also in the dative.  

But the significant thing is that God is alive.  We do not worship a historical fact, we worship and serve the living Lord!

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Philippians 4:1-9

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.
 
Summary:  As I have stated previously, I view Paul's letter to the Philippians as a small treatise on sanctification.  You can find beautiful fruit in these passages, beloved words that evidence the Spirit's work in Paul to make him a little Christ for all of us.  What struck me this time around though was the profound way in which the community in Christ takes precedence in this passage.  Paul continues to offer many images of working together and community love, even calling his fellow Christian his "desired."  Paul doesn't conclude with his love of Christ, but the love Christ has given him for his fellow believers.  Our sanctification is precisely this:  OUR sanctification as the Holy Spirit moves us closer together in love and hope.

αγαπητοι and επιποθητοι ("beloved" and "desired" 4:1)  αγαπητοι is probably familiar enough to most Christians, especially those who work with Greek.  Paul calls his brothers and sisters in Christ who beloved.  Wow!  Yet, επιποθητοι is more startling.  This word comes from desire.  While we have seen the root verb elsewhere in Philippians (1:8; 2:26), no where else in the Bible do we find this term επιποθητοι!  This sense of desire can be positive, for example, the deer pants for the water like the soul desires God (see Psalm 84:3/Psalm 41:2).  However, Paul here is claiming the other Christians are his desired.  This truly is taking the mind of Christ -- when we love each so deeply that we can talk about a deep love for one another.  What does the mind of Christ and sanctification mean?  It means loving your neighbor, so much, that you desire to be with them like Christ desires to be with them, like their soul desires to be reunited with God.

και σε ("even you", 4:3)  Paul generally speaks in the second person plural throughout the letter.  Perhaps he is writing to someone specific; maybe he wants to drive home that these words are for each person.  Maybe its ambiguous so we all think, well, its my job to help those two women who are fighting.

συζυγε; συνηθλσαν; συνεργων ("yoked", "co-striving" and "co-worker", 4:3; the second is a verb, the other two adjectives)  Paul here presents us with a few images of the Christian life.  The first is from the idea of a yoke and can actually refer even to marriage.  The image of oxen plowing the field.  The next is to athletes in contest with one another.  The last is co-worker, perhaps the least descriptive, but you put the three of them together and Paul profoundly gives us some images of our life together!

γνωσθητω ("let it be"; imperative (command), 4:5 and 4:6).  There first time Paul uses this verb, it is telling us to let our gentleness be known to all people; the second time it is Paul telling us to let our prayers be known to God.  In this context though, I wonder if they are so exclusive.  I wonder if we read this through a western-post-enlightenment idea of worship that would have our prayers of thanks be those in private.  Part of our joy and duty, as Psalm 66 suggests, is not simply praising God in private but offering thanks in front of the congregation.

νοματα (from νοημα, meaning "mind", 4:7)  Paul has continually pointed toward the mind as a place of Christian activity -- to be of the same mind with each other and of Christ.  We often think of the heart as the place of God's work, but for Paul, the mind is also a place where discipleship happens!


Grammatical review:  "αυτο"
The word αυτο and its various conjugated forms (αυτου for example) can be a bit tricky for the reader.  First because another set of words, meaning this and that, looks very similiar but have different accents.  But it is also tricky because the word αυτο can mean three different things, even if it looks the same. 

It can function like a pronoun: αυτου for example, almost always means "him."  In this case, the pronoun is in the genitive, so it fully means "of him." It functions this way 95% of the time.
It can also mean "very."  This is when it stands alone (predicate position).  This is fairly rare.  An example of this is in Philippians 1:6 πεποιθως αυτο τουτο: "I am convinced of this very thing."
It can also mean "same."  It behaves like this when it follows an article.  Hence, in Philippians 4:2 you get:  το αυτο φρονειν: "The same thinking."  Paul actually uses this also in 2:2 and 2:18. 

Again, for 90-95% of translation, the word functions as a pronoun, but it can be helpful to remember these other uses.

Matthew 22:1-14

This passage occurs in both the Narrative Lectionary (Year 1) and the Revised Common Lectionary (Most recently October 11, 2020).

Summary:  It is all about the right clothing.  The only clothing that can work at the heavenly wedding banquet is our Baptism.  While historical context might help make sense of this parable, I am not sure if that makes a good sermon.

Apologetic note:  Just because someone is thrown out doesn't mean they can't be invited a second time; or that we have permission not to care for them.

Key Words/Grammar insights:
καλεω (kaleo, "call" or "invite"; 22:3, 4, 8, 9 (14 as adjective)).  The word here for invited is simply the perfect of καλεω which means to call/invite. This word is used in various forms throughout the passage.  Jesus calls us to invite those willing to come because many of those invited were not interested.  A reminder that in all Gospels, but truly in Matthew, Jesus cares for people the world does not; the b-list people, so to speak.  The b-list people, you know, the beatitudes people!

τεθυμενα (tethymena, perfect participle of θυω, "slaughter" or "kill", 22:4).  This word can mean sacrificed.  If one were to go this route, then this parable could be interpreted within the paradigm of the conflict between Jews and early Jewish converts to Christianity:  Jesus has died (been sacrificed); many early Jews are not accepting him.  The temple is destroyed and that nation has fallen, perhaps as punishment for lack of conversion. This may be way to explain the passage, but I am not sure if this insight makes for a good sermon.  If one wants to go this route, one can also look at
εφιμωθη (aorist passive form of φιμοω, phimo-oo, "silence"; 22:12) Jesus will silence the Sadducees later this chapter (22:34).  This parable is not intended simply as a myth, but as a description, I would argue, of how Jesus' was and is being received.

ενδυω/ενδυμα ("clothe" as verb; "clothing" as noun; 22:11, 12).  Matthew's Gospel talks about clothing a few times (more than any other Gospel, incidentally).  We learn that John the Baptist is clothed in Camel's hair (3:4); we learn not to worry about our clothing (6:25-28); we meet the angels wearing white (28:3).  Which leads to the question -- what should one wear to the heavenly banquet?

To get at this, I did a word search on ενδυω ("clothe/wear" to find examples of people wearing stuff in the New Testament, especially as it would relate to the heavenly banquet.  I've included them and underlined the word as the NRSV translates as ενδυω:
1 Corinthians 15:54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
Romans 13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Luke 24:49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Matthew 27:31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Ephesians 4:24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 6:14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
1 Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
Revelation 19:14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.
Galatians 3:27    As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

To me, the only thing that can meet all of these criterion:  the gift of Jesus Christ in faith, love and righteousness, eternally pure and immortal yet also ready to die to the world, is our Baptism.

υβριζω (hubrizoo (rough breathing over υ), meaning "mistreat"; 22:6)  The word for mistreat here is "hubriz-oo," literally, have hubris.

Most haunting:

διακονοις (-ος, diakonos, meaning "deacon" or "attendant")  I find it haunting that the deacons are sent into bind and cast out the wicket.  Typically we associate diaconal or deacon work with humble service to the poor.  Perhaps it is a reminder that purging the world of evil is a deacon's work too.  But very disturbing!

Grammar note with some theological reflection, verse 22:5
22:5 shows two ways that Greek can show possessive; 

εις τον ιδιον αργον   his field (literally, the field of his own)

επι την εμποριαν αυτου    and his business (genitive αυτου signifying 'his')

It is interesting that those who don't want to come are into their own thing!  This is our problem today in the American church -- those we think should come seem plenty busy and satisfied with their life.  Yet eventually folks do come -- interestingly those originally not invited.   Perhaps a challenge to most American 'mission' efforts, which are designed around getting the busy to pay more attention to the church instead of inviting those in need -- those by the wayside.  Sure this type of ministry might welcome in lots of people who aren't ready for the Gospel.  But to whom are we not reaching out?

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Philippians 3:3b-14

This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently October 2020.

Summary:  In certain theological circles I often find that justification is the aim; yet for Paul in this passage justification has a purpose.  As the Greek indicates, it has a purpose, namely that we would know Christ, his resurrection and his suffering.  Rather than claim this is something other than good Lutheran doctrine, Luther and countless other Lutherans have seen justification has the key to the kingdom, but not the kingdom itself, which is Christ.

Key Words
σαρξ ("flesh" 3:4 and elsewhere)  Normally we think that Paul sees the flesh as an entirely evil entity.  In this case Paul talks about his righteousness in the law (and therefore the flesh).  He never says that his Jewish upbringing was evil.  In fact, Paul's whole take on flesh and law provides more a productive evangelical tact than the normal torpedo attack on human sinfulness.  Simply acknowledge that people have seen and accomplished great things, yet they still often sense a worthlessness about themselves and are haunted by a sense that something greater exists.  To reiterate, Paul is not claiming the flesh is evil, but he is clearly affirming its limits.

ζημια ("loss" or "damage"; found as noun and verb 3:7 and 3:8)  Interestingly, Paul calls his accomplishments a loss.  The Greek here is a bit stronger in that it can also mean "damage" or "penalty."  Paul here lays the groundwork for a later group of Lutheran orthodox thinkers who argued that good works are damaging to salvation.  While I don't like admitting this, I can see both Paul's and the orthodox thinker's point here that human achievement can cloud our vision from seeing Christ's blessings.
side note:  Paul here echoes back to 2:5 and 2:6 in the Christ hymn; Christ did not regard (ηγεομαι) equality with God as something to be exploited. Here Paul is saying he regards all of his benefits as loss through Christ.

συμμορφιζομενος ("together-shaped", 3:10; noun form in 3:21).  I believe this is a crucial word to understanding Paul's letter to the Philippians.  Paul writes that Jesus was in the shape (μορφη) as God, but chooses a different shape, one of a slave, for our sake.  However, for Paul this does not mean the Christian can avoid death  No, Paul believes that we to will be transformed by Christ, in that we will receive the same shape as him -- a crucified slave, so that ultimately, we might receive a resurrected body like his.  This is also found in Romans 3:17 - co-inheritors, co-sufferers, co-will be glorified-ers.  I would argue that chapter 3 of Paul's letter to the Philippians is applying the Christ him of suffering and glory to the Christian.  

διωκω ("pursue"; 3.6, 3.12 and 3.14):   Paul's bragging here has a double rhetorical effect -- he will return to the words "pursue" (διωκω) and "righteousness" (δικαιοσυνη) later in this section (3.9, 12 and 14).

σκυβαλα ("crap"; 3:8)  Rubbish is about as nice as you can translate this.  Paul wants a rhetorical effect here. 

καταλαμβανω ("receive, obtain, overcome"; 3:12,13)  This verb presents a problem in most cases for the translator because it has a broad array of meanings.  In this case, the challenge is in the tenses.  In verse 12 Paul claims that he has been obtained (aorist passive) by Christ; yet he also says in the aorist subjunctive that might obtain it; finally, in the perfect active he says he has not obtained it.  Here is Paul at his grammatical worst and perhaps theological best: The event of Christ's death and resurrection obtained Paul for Christ, but this process is not finished!

επιλανθανομαι ("forget"; in participle form in 3:13).  Most important is not the participle form, but the present tense.  Both verbs in the second half (forgetting and looking ahead) in the present tense, suggesting this is an on-going process of doing this. We cannot simply forget once, but must continually forget.

Grammar review & theological commentary on verses 3:9-10
Infinitive purpose clauses  In Greek, the infinitive can be used to express purpose, especially when it is an "articular infinitive."  (ie, article + infinitive)  In verse 9 Paul discusses justification by faith.  He begins verse 10 (which the Greek scribes connect with a comma to the previous verse, not a period) with the "articular infinitive":  του γνωναι (the knowing).  Paul's use of an infinitive here suggests that justification's purpose is to know God, the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of suffering. In other words, 9 and 10 are linguistically linked by Paul and a strong possible reading is purpose...vs 9 (justification) is for the purpose of vs 10 (resurrection).  To build on last's weeks passage about μορφη (shape), justification leads to transformation as our "morph" becomes like Christ.