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January 29, 2017 is Epiphany 4A

This post focuses on a study of the Beatitudes. Here is a bird’s eye view of the Beatitudes in English, Spanish, and Koine Greek on this 11×17 placemat.

Micah 6:1-8 – He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalm 15 – Blamelessness defined as doing no slander or evil, not lending money at interest, not taking bribes: O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 – Repeats verse 18 from last week and continues: …Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God… God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which will continue for the next five weeks.

The Beatitudes: Jesus’ First Sermon

Many of the ideas here come from Mark Allen Powell in God With Us, Kingsbury in Matthew as Story, and Marty Stortz and Ralph Klein in lectures given to the Lutheran bishops from Canada and the U.S. a few years ago.

The placemat mentioned above compares the Beatitudes in three languages: English, Spanish, and the original Greek. Feel free to use this for your own study or to share with a study group. Even though most people can’t read the Greek alphabet, it reminds them that these words were originally written in another language. If not during worship, this tool might be a handy piece for Bible study.

There are two hymns to consider on this Sunday. Both are by a Roman Catholic musician named David Haas, who has written some incredibly soulful hymns for the church. The first is based on the text of the Beatitudes: Blessed Are They, ELW 728. The second is based on the first reading. Micah 6:8: We Are Called, ELW 720.

The text is Matthew 5, The Beatitudes, or what Robert Schuller called “The Be-Happy Attitudes.” Now before you make fun of that, I would point out that while this smacks of self-help gospel, as if Jesus and the Beatitudes were really all about making ME happy, rather than calling me to die to myself and live sacrificially, I have to admit his title has stuck with me for 20 years. There is something to be said for speaking and crafting sermons in memorable ways – ways that stick with people, using hooks, alliteration, simile, and mind-capturing images.

For me however, “happy” does not capture the sense of makarios. After years of mulling this over and reading dozens of interpretations, for me it comes down to this: Jesus is saying to those who are hurting and those who side with them, God loves you too. Although it seems like God sides with the rich and powerful, Jesus has good news: God cares for those who feel like they have lost in the game of life. So, good news, you who are hungry. God is with you.

Furthermore, this is the first of five sermons in Matthew. So I chose a different title. I’m calling it Jesus’ First Sermon. Now, I know the Sermon on the Mount is likely an amalgamation of Jesus’ various sayings, but I like Jesus’ First Sermon. I don’t know if you remember your first sermon or not. I have mine, and trust me, it isn’t this good.

In the lectionary we are about to spend 4-5 weeks in Sermon on the Mount, most of February, so we’ll also look ahead a little bit this morning, to the rest of Jesus’ First Sermon.

The Matthean Beatitudes appear twice in this year’s lectionary: this Sunday and then again this Fall, on All Saints’ Sunday, November 5, 2017. These Beatitudes are the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and some believe the moral foundation for all of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew.

Would you like them to really sink in? Consider having the congregation read them a couple different times, a couple different ways. Invite those on the left side to read the boldface print and those on the right side to read the regular print. If you don’t want to use the placemat, consider printing them in the bulletin with paragraphs and boldface in the places I’ve laid out.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven .
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Question: Are the beatitudes…

  1. Eschatological rewards for the virtuous? Peacemakers, merciful, pure? In other words, do this and you will be rewarded in heaven. Be a peacemaker, work for righteousness, and you’ll be rewarded.
  1. Eschatological reversal for those who are suffering? Poor, mourning, meek, hungry? In other words, if you’re poor now, you’ll be rich in heaven. If you’re mourning now, you’ll be dancing in heaven. If you’re hungry now, you’ll be full in heaven.

What do you think?

It’s a bit of a trick question. Mark Allan Powell (God With Us) points out that if we look carefully, neither interpretation really fits all of these. Being poor, hungry, or mourning is unfortunate, but these don’t sound like virtues to which we are to aspire. Being a peacemaker is a virtue, but it is not an unfortunate circumstance of suffering that needs to be reversed in the eschaton.

Let’s dig. A closer look reveals the first eight beatitudes (vv. 3-10) are written in the third person (“Blest are they…”), while vv. 11-12, the ninth beatitude, is written in the second person (“Blest are you…”).

Notice also, both the first and the eighth beatitude end with “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” underlined for you above, creating a rhetorical inclusio. Verses 11-12 are also different in meter, style, and imperative mood.

Look at the placemat. Verses 3-10 can be divided into two sections that have exactly 36 words each in the Greek:

  • The four beatitudes in verses 3-6 (in the yellow) have exactly 36 words,
  • the second four beatitudes in verses 7-10 have exactly 36 words, and
  • the last beatitude, verses 11-12 have 35 words.

So, let’s call

  • vv. 3-6 in yellow Stanza 1
  • vv. 7-10 in turquoise Stanza 2
  • vv. 11-12 in pink the Conclusion

Matthew has carefully crafted this, quite differently than how Luke’s version is crafted. Immediately you’ll notice both stanza one and stanza two end with the word δικαιοσύνην (dikaiosyne). I have put in a white box for you on the placemat. This word means justice or righteousness. Notice the NRSV translates it righteousness here, but the Spanish translates it “justicia.”

The symmetry, poetry, and parallelism are artistic and clearly intentional. Obviously Robert Schuller is not the only one who can craft memorable sermons. Could this have been an early hymn? Don’t miss the chance to sing this sermon.

Also note the alliteration of 3-6, each verse starting with a “p” word, which I have circled for you on the placemat.

πτωχοὶ            Ptochoi (poor)

πενθοuντες     Penthountes (mourners)

πραεiς                         Praes (meek)

πεινωντες        Peinontes (hungry)

Blessed are the pathetic, poor, parched people, to use an alliteration.

Read stanza one, in yellow. If you use this in worship, invite the men to read the bold and the women to read the regular print.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

Stanza one are those who are suffering.

  1. Blessed are the poor. Ptochoi are the dispossessed, abandoned people of Israel and the world (Isaiah 11:4; 29:19; 32:7; 61:1; Amos 2:7; 8:4; Zephaniah 2:3). Poor in spirit signifies that they are despondent. They are not just poor; they have lost hope. Powell: One might translate this, “Blessed are the hopeless poor.”
  1. The “mourners” in verse four are the miserable and unhappy people because of the losses they have experienced. They have no cause for joy.
  1. The “meek” could be humble, non-violent, gentle or kind. Some versions translate this “homeless.” Praeis is the word the Greek Septuatint uses to translate the Hebrew word anawim, who are the homeless poor (Psalm 36:11). They are the humiliated and powerless of this world. They have been denied basic human needs.
  1. Those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosyne (righteousness or justice), are those who seek vindication. They have been denied justice.

So, if we put together this dizzying array of adjectives, in the first four verses Jesus says, “Blessed are the dispossessed, abandoned, poor, homeless – those who have lost so much, mourning, who have no reason for joy – the meek, gentle, humble, kind, non-violent, humiliated, powerless, who have been denied basic human needs and human rights, who long for God’s righteousness, justice, and vindication. Heaven and earth belong to them. They will be satisfied and comforted in the eschaton.” God loves them. Can you feel Jesus’ focus?

It would be a shame to not sing this passage, on Sunday, one of the most poetic, yearning and soulful in Scripture.

There is no virtue, Powell says, in being hungry or denied justice. These are not “entrance requirements” for getting into heaven. Jesus is not idealizing poverty. Indeed, he later encourages his disciples to fight it. Also, Jesus is not necessarily describing those who are listening to his sermon on the mount. This portion is in the third person.

In Matthew the Kingdom of Heaven (not the Kingdom of God) comes to us, not vice-versa. This is the Good News both Jesus and John preach: The Kingdom of Heaven has come near you. When God reigns, the poor get a better deal.

In verses 7-10 this shifts. If the first four beatitudes are those who are suffering, the second four are those who help them.

Let’s read this section together. This time the congregation could read the bold face, and you could read the regular print. Starting with verse 7. Ready?

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  1. Beatitude #5: Blessed are the merciful. Jesus says mercy is one of the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23). Mercy is more important than sacrifice (9:13, 12:7). Jesus carries this forward in 7:1, “Do not judge, lest you be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get. Why do you worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye? First focus on the log in your own…”

Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders is that they are too quick to judge and too slow to mercy (18:23-34). God does not like religion that is so moralistic, it keeps people from eating with outcasts.

Note that all these meanings of mercy represent actions that are not carried out in the religious community, but rather out in the world. The reward? They will receive mercy. All boats rise with the tide.

  1. Blessed are the pure in heart. The heart is the source of outward speech (12:34, 15:18) and behavior (15:18) and introspection (9:4, 24:48). People lust and love in their hearts. Remember Jesus says if you look at someone with lust you commit adultery in your heart. Your heart is your innermost being. In Matthew, to forgive from the heart is to forgive truly. To understand from the heart is to understand fully.

Katharos doesn’t just mean pure. It can also mean clean. A clean dish is one that is not contaminated. People can worship with their lips, while their hearts are far from God (v. 15). Perhaps a pure or clean heart is one that is turned to God and God’s wishes. Perhaps it means words and thoughts are congruent. That’s the definition of integrity. The pure in heart will “see God.” Since even Moses didn’t get to see God, this reward is probably eschatological.

  1. Peacemakers: Are the blessed peacemakers to make peace within the Christian community or out in the world? Some have ventured the former. In Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says to leave your gift at the altar and make peace with your brother or sister. Is this just within the community of faith? The injunction to love your enemies seems to suggest a larger context. Love those out there.

Eirenopoioi (peacemakers) is not used anywhere else in the New Testament, but in other literature it refers to rulers who establish security and socioeconomic well-being for the people. Eirene is the word the Septuagint uses for shalom (the Hebrew word for peace). Blessed are the shalom-makers. The Semitic community of Matthew would certainly lean towards shalom’s broader sense: wholeness and well-being. Peacemakers are those who work for the well-being and wholeness of all people (Kingbury, Matthew as Story). They shall be called children of God. You are a child of God when you act like God (5:48).

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Those who hunger and thirst for dikaiosyne (righteousness or justice) were blessed earlier. Dikaiosyne is also used in 6:33, when Jesus teaches people to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s dikaiosyne, rather than worrying about food, clothing and the like. The sense is to seek what is right in God’s eyes. This, of course, runs the risk of being interpreted individualistically in Puritan U.S. America. What does God want? For us to not drink, dance, or play cards? Or is God more concerned with justice for the orphan, widow, alien, hungry, and homeless? The call seems to be: seek the wellbeing of others, and let God take care of you. Test this: serve others and give generously, and see what happens. Blessed are those who hunger for the well-being of others, justice for all.

Can you feel the rhythm of the Beatitudes coming to a climax? In this passage, blessing comes to those who are persecuted for dikaiosyne. Participation in peace-making and justice-making brings with it persecution. In fact, if you aren’t being persecuted for righteousness sake, you might need to ask why? Those who suffer persecution are commended, as opposed to those who fall away (13:20-21). This beatitude ends the second verse of four, completing the thought.

The first and last beatitudes end with the same words (apodosis): “The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” Them.

So, the first four blessings go to those who suffer. The second four blessings go to those who help the suffering and are even willing to take a few blows to do so. They are blessed for voluntary identification with the suffering of this world. Perhaps this is the most Christian action one can undertake: voluntary identification with the suffering, the underdog. Even at personal risk.

And then the ninth beatitude socks us in the eyes. It shifts from the third person to the second person. “Blessed are YOU.” Oh, I thought we were talking about someone else. A good sermon brings it home to roost. It gets personal now. Now we’re meddlin’.

Read verses 11-12 together, in unison. Reading interactively with the congregation engages them in the text and keeps them focused.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This is pure theology of the cross. Heidelburg Disputation. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. This world is suffering. Open your eyes. Look around. A lot of people are suffering. God cares about suffering. And if we’re the people of God, the body of Christ, guess what?

It should come as no surprise that the first lesson is Micah 6:8. “He has shown you o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Justice and mercy factor considerably in the Sermon on the Mount.

And it should come as no surprise that we have a theology of the cross in the second reading again this Sunday. Jews seek signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… foolishness to the world, but to those of us who are called, the power and wisdom of God… For God chose what is foolish… weak… low and despised in the world to shame the wise and reduce to nothing the powers that be…

Well, Jesus, it’s a pretty good sermon so far. Could use a few more illustrations. Needs more grace, less law, but not bad for a first sermon, fresh out of the waters of his baptism. We’ll give it a B+.

After the beatitudes I would have just sat down, but Jesus goes on. You are salt. You are light. This is what baptism delivers. Jesus names the new creation. He describes it using vivid images. Finally, illustrations.

And then Jesus goes into the law. You have heard it said… But I say to you… Sometimes he intensifies the law. Other times he negates it. You have heard it said love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Jesus invites us to do impossible things!

Then Jesus gives us food for the journey. He goes on to talk about what we will need to do these impossible things:

  • He talks about the practice of prayer. When you pray… Ask for what you need…
  • Then he talks about the practice of generosity. When you give alms… Don’t store up treasures.
  • The practice of self-denial. When you fast…
  • The practice of forgiveness.

These are the very kinds of practices that those who seek a deeper spiritual life are searching for.

Then Jesus spends considerable time talking about anxiety. Isn’t that interesting? Don’t worry about your life. Don’t worry about having enough. Stuff… On fact, share with lavish, prodigal generosity (This is what Christianity IS). Consider the lilies of the field… the birds of the air.

How do we preach this stuff? I think we cast an enticing vision of the new world and offer an imaginative glimpse of how people might live into it, here and now.

Ralph Klein pointed out it takes 18 minutes to read the entire Sermon on the Mount aloud (Matthew, chapters 5-7). That would be a short sermon for a bishop. I got to thinking, why not have the congregation read the Sermon on the Mount together for the sermon one week in February? Take the day that you would have spent preparing a sermon, go to a quiet, soulful place and spend the day reading and praying.

For your reading, consider Luther’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, based on a sermon series he preached. The translator’s introduction reads as follows: “During Bugenhagen’s absence Luther preached a long while for him, regularly, on the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew, beginning Nov. 9, 1530. These sermons were then published, first in 1532, at Wittenberg, under Joseph Klug, in quarto; in 1533 at Marburg, in octavo; and in 1539, again in Wittenberg, in quarto, under Johann Weiss. In 1533 they were also translated into Latin by Vincent Ohsopoeus.” So, sermon series are no new idea. Luther himself did them regularly. Consider announcing this Sunday a five-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, the Be-happy Attitudes if you like, or Jesus’ First Sermon, or whatever will capture the hearts and minds of the people in your community.

Questions for discussion

  1. Share
  • What is the best sermon you ever heard? What made it stick? What was the message?
  • Tell a story about a time in your life when you stood up for someone who was persecuted or you were persecuted for doing the right thing.
  • Can you, off the top of your head, name any parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?
  • Would it surprise you to know that the Lord’s prayer is in the Sermon on the Mount? Passage about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air? Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness? Love your enemies? Do not judge?
  1. Study
  • Print out the Beatitudes placemat from the link above. Let the group study it for a few minutes. What do you notice about this passage?
  • Read Matthew 5:1-12 responsively. What jumps out at you?
  • How many Beatitudes are there?
  • In what ways of the first four Beatitudes different than the second four Beatitudes?
  • Consider each of these first four Beatitudes separately. What does it mean to be poor in spirit, meek, morning, and hungry for justice?
  • Consider each of the second four beatitudes separately. What does it mean to be merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, and persecuted for doing what is right?
  • Why do you think the voice changes in the ninth beatitude from “Blessed are they,” to “Blessed are you.”
  1. Apply
  • How could you show mercy to someone this week?
  • What would you need to do this week to cup ultimate within yourself purity of heart?
  • In what situations is God calling you to be a peacemaker?
  • Are there situations in which you need to speak up or act up, even if it means someone doesn’t like you, or you could get persecuted?
  • Take a moment as a group and pray for people who are poor, low in spirit, morning, persecuted, hungry, or in need of any kind.

St. Paul in Brenham, Texas

Good morning St. Paul…







The Isenheim Altarpiece

January 22, 2017 is Epiphany 3A

Isaiah 9:1-4 – The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9 – The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 – Let there be no divisions among you… For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Matthew 4:12-23 – Matthew’s version of the call of the disciples. Light shines on those in darkness: Jesus preaches ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,’ teaches ‘the good news of the kingdom,” and ministers, healing every disease and sickness.

The Time After Epiphany

In last week’s gospel text, John identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. This week we have the call of the disciples. Then we launch into the Beatitudes, the first part of the Sermon on the Mount on January 29.

There is a logical progression to the season of Epiphany. Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism by John in the Jordan. Then he is driven into the wilderness to be tempted. We will have this text at the beginning of Lent. Then Jesus comes out of the wilderness, chooses his disciples, and begins his preaching ministry.

In Matthew’s Gospel there are five great sermons. Each sermon is preceded by a narrative and concluded with the words, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” (Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους…), as B. W. Bacon pointed out many years ago. Read more about the structure of Matthew.

Matthew 1 is an introduction. Matthew 2-4 is the first Narrative. Matthew 5-7 is the first sermon: the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount

  • January 29 – Matthew 5:1-12. Opening of the Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes.
  • February 5 – Matthew 5:13-20. Salt and Light. Your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees.
  • February 12 – Matthew 5:21-37. The 1st 4 of the 6 Antitheses, “You have heard… But I say to you…” Anger. Adultery. Divorce. Oaths.
  • February 19 – Matthew 5:38-48, The 5th and 6th of the 6 Antitheses. Retaliation. Enemies.
  • February 26 – Matthew 6:24-34. You can’t serve God and money. Don’t worry about your life.

February 26, however, is Transfiguration Sunday, so most will go with the Transfiguration texts. On March 1, Ash Wednesday ushers us into an early Lent. (For those who want to take a look into Lent, I put Lent-at-a-glance at the bottom of this post.)

So buckle up. This week we have the call of the disciples. Then we are in the Sermon on the Mount for the rest of the Epiphany all the way up to March.

The Call of the Disciples

Here’s our text, Matthew 4:12-23:

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

fishing

At a continuing education event for bishops, I was introduced to a reflective method of looking at Scripture in a group. Apparently this is familiar to some of you in youth ministry, but it was new to me. It is called “I notice. I wonder.” What do you notice about this text? What do you wonder?

The presenter was Dr. Shauna K. Hannan, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, SC. The event was on ministry with the “Nones,” those who select “no religious preference,” on surveys. Most presenters agreed that the largest group of “Nones” was in the 18–35 age range. These folks feel that if church isn’t about relationships; it’s probably not worth the time of day. I could not agree more: our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. I think Jesus may have said something to that effect as well.

Leonard Sweet reminds us that millennials and many other folks in this postmodern age are looking for worship to be EPIC: experiential, participatory, image-driven, and conversational. Rich Melheim once posted some densely-packed ideas about this. I’ll post it below. Ask yourself: Are we perpetuating what was, or am I building a community of Christ-followers for this new age? Are our congregation working for butts in pews or making disciples?

What if the sermon provided not simply the content of the biblical narrative as a source for religious identity, either in the ‘strict’ prescriptive form of conservative preaching or in the ‘lenient’ suggestive form of mainline preaching, but also promoted lively interaction with that story? To put it another way, is there room in our homiletical imagination for an interactive sermon?”
—David Lose “Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World—and Our Preaching—Is Changing

With this in mind, consider reading a text like this in an adult class, small group, or even in a sermon (if there aren’t a bazillion people in that particular service), asking them to interrupt and comment as you read with, “I wonder…” Or “I notice.” Let them interact with the text. Resist the need to argue or disagree, so people aren’t afraid to participate. See what happens.

What do you wonder or notice about this text? My post today will simply be a series of questions. You could use these simply to prepare. Or you could actually ask some of these questions in a small congregation, inviting responses. Or, and I have done this, have an entire sermon of just questions. You should try this sometime. If you ask good questions, with the tempo increases, reaching an apex, and then settling on reflective questions, it can really work. It also positions you as the question-raiser, rather than always the answer-person.

Verse 12

  • I notice that John is arrested fairly early in Matthew’s Gospel. This drives Jesus to Galilee where his ministry begins.
  • I wonder if John’s arrest was the spark that set Jesus’ ministry on fire.
  • I notice Jesus went all the way down to Judea to be baptized by John.
  • I notice he went all the way back up to Galilee after John was arrested.

Verse 13

  • I notice it says “he left Nazareth.” So when he returned to Galilee, at first he went back to Nazareth.
  • I wonder why Jesus chose to begin his ministry in Capernaum, rather than starting in his hometown of Nazareth.

Verses 14-16

  • I notice Matthew interprets Jesus’ start in Capernaum in light of Isaiah’s prophecy.
  • I notice that Matthew edits Isaiah 9:1–2 and reinterprets it.

Verse 17

  • I notice in that Jesus’ message is exactly the same as John’s (Mt. 3:2): “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Verse 18

  • I notice Jesus walks by the sea. I like to walk by the sea as well.
  • I wonder if Peter and Andrew enjoyed working together as brothers.
  • I wonder if they made a decent living, or if Roman and Temple taxes kept them in poverty.
  • I wonder if they actually enjoyed being fisherman, or if they were looking for a way out.

Verse 19

  • Since they were casting a net into the sea (v. 18), I wonder how far from the shore they were and if Jesus had to yell from the shore, so they could hear him.
  • I wonder if they understood the implications of Jesus’ invitation to, “follow me.”
  • I wonder what this meant for them economically, and for their families.
  • I wonder how their spouses and families reacted when Peter and Andrew told them they were going to abandon the family business and follow a rabbi around the countryside on his itinerant preaching and healing ministry.
  • I wonder how Andrew and Peter interpreted Jesus’ invitation to “fish for people.”
  • I wonder how people hear the phrase, “fish for people” today.
  • How might the church heed Jesus’ call to fish for people in a way that does not objectify them or manipulate them?

Verse 20

  • I wonder why they left their nets “immediately.”
  • I wonder if this was easy for them to do. 

Verse 21

  • I wonder if James and John Zebedee knew Peter and Andrew as colleagues, fellow fishermen on the sea of Galilee, working close enough together that Jesus could bump into them on his walk.
  • I wonder if these events happened on the same walk and on the same day, or whether Matthew has condensed the narrative to make it flow more easily.
  • I wonder if Matthew intends any significance to the phrase, “mending their nets.”
  • I notice it says “and he called them.” Call language is present from the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.

Verse 22

  • I notice they also left the boat “immediately.”
  • Since father Zebedee is in the boat, I wonder how he felt being abandoned by his two sons who went off to follow this rabbi.
  • I wonder if the families of these fishermen harbored hostile feelings towards Jesus, for stealing their fathers, brothers, breadwinners.
  • I wonder if, when Jesus came around, they expressed anger toward him, or whether they accepted and embraced what was happening.

Verse 23

  • I notice that Jesus is teaching in synagogues.
  • I notice that at least at this point in Matthew, the good news is not the life death resurrection of Jesus here, but rather the “good news of the kingdom,” which I take to be the content of Jesus proclamation as in verse 17, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
  • I wonder how people heard this preaching in their day and context. What would it have meant to them to hear that the kingdom of heaven has come near?
  • I wonder why Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” 32 times, which is found nowhere else in Scripture, when in so many other ways he is tracking Isaiah’s language and when the other Gospel writers use “kingdom of God.”
  • I notice that the heart of Jesus’ ministry in this verse is three verbs: preaching, teaching and healing.
  • I wonder what it would be like to have a church that focused its ministry on these three things: preaching, teaching, and healing.

Questions for discussion:

1.Share

  • How did you decide to do what you’re now doing? How did you discern?
  • Has anyone ever “called” you to do something?
  • Have you ever sensed God calling you to do something? What was that like?

2.Study

  • Read through Matthew 2:12-23 verse by verse inviting people to respond to each verse using phrases beginning with “I wonder…” and “I notice.”
  • Read Isaiah 9:1-2 and compare it to Matthew 4:15-16. How closely does Matthew track Isaiah?
  • Read Matthew 3:2 and 4:17. How does John’s message differ from Jesus message?
  • Get a map and locate the wilderness of Judea, imagining where Jesus may have been baptized by John. Now locate Galilee, Nazareth and Capernaum. How far was Jesus traveling? What do you suppose drew him to travel all the way down to Judea for John’s baptism? How far is it? How long might that take on foot? Why do you suppose he returned to Galilee?
  • Why do you suppose Peter, Andrew, James and John responded so quickly (“immediately”) to Jesus’ invitation to follow him on his itinerant ministry and to fish for people?
  • How do you think their families felt about it?
  • Read verse 23. What three verbs make up the content of Jesus’ ministry? How does that different from your church’s ministry?

3.Apply

  • How might we be more open to hearing God’s call in our lives?
  • To what new ministry might God be calling you now?
  • To what new ministry might God be calling your church?
  • What sacrifices might need to be made?
  • How is your congregation preaching and teaching the good news of the kingdom and bringing healing to your community?

Lent A at-a-glance

  • Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6 – Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving
  • Lent 1: Matthew 4: The Temptation in the Wilderness
  • Lent 2: John 3 (Nicodemus) or Matthew 17
  • Lent 3: John 4 (Woman at the Well)
  • Lent 4: John 9 (Healing of the Man Born Blind)
  • Lent 5: John 11 (The Raising of Lazarus)
  • Palm/Passion Sunday: Matthew 21 and 26 or 27

Rich Melheim’s comment in the ELCA Clergy Facebook Group (1.7.14):

Start with Leonard Sweet’s EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, conversational). Go to Bill Glasser’s “In a quality school, everyone is the teacher” and change it to “in the quality church, everyone is the preacher.” Add a little Quaker/George Fox inner life “truth can come to anyone.” Mix in Luther’s “The priesthood of all believers.” Create together with Ani Patel’s OPERA (overlap, precision, emotion, repetition, attention). Consider the attention span of the television era (7 1/2 seconds) versus the fact that people won’t wait 7 1/2 seconds for a download today. Mix in the multitasking grazing mentality of netizens vs the channel changing behavior of the television generation. Consider the fact that you never really pay attention to where you are going in a car unless you are driving. Consider the fact that females are born with 11% more brain tissue dedicated to speaking and listening than men, and males are born with 2 1/2 times more tissue dedicated to sex, action and aggression. (If you don’t turn what you’re doing into action, they’ll turn it into aggression. Consider the needs of the human brain for oxygen, glucose and BDNF (brain fertilizer) in order to pay attention… none of which you get when you’re sitting in a chair or pew. Consider the fact that most of the people in your church hold access to more information in their purse or pocket than 99.85% of the human race has had access to for 99.85% of human history. Add the old “they’ll never care how much you know until they know how much you care” to the mix. And remember “you gotta open the kid before you open the book.”

Now, tell me, what does worship look like? Worship comes from the Old English woerth+scippe (the ship/vehicle that brings worth to God).

Now, tell me, what does liturgy look like? Liturgy is the work of the people. If you’re feeding them all the words, the images, the prayers, it’s not their work. It’s yours. (My son doesn’t even like printed word on a powerpoint screen. “Why should I pray that prayer? It’s not my prayer.”)

Now, tell me, what does preaching look like? Is it a kerygma – proclamation? If so, is it only yours? Are you the only one qualified to proclaim? To tell a story? To tell what God has done? To interpret what the text means to every context of every person sitting in your pews? Is it apostellein? If so, are you the only one sent out? Is it evangelion? If so, are you the only one with a good message? Is it prophetes? If so, are you the only one through whom God can speak forth this week?  

If you are preaching a one-way story to people who are surrounded with hundreds, nay, thousands of stories every week, will your story be as compelling every single week as what they’re watching on netflix and youtube and HBO? Week after week after week, are you going to try to compete?

If it is only your story, you’re going to have to be better than anything out there. Nay, than everything out there. 

If it is not only YOUR story, but also THEIR story, you will not need to compete. Netflix and YouTube and HBO can’t compete with their story. There’s nothing more real, more intimate, more personal, more interesting than their story… 

And if you become the one who proclaims God’s story… and shows them how to connect their story with God’s story… and gives them the intentional place and sacred space to connect the two, speak forth (prophetes) bring good news (euangellion) and get sent out (apostallein), you’ll be equipping, training, recruiting, and motivating prophets, evangelists and apostles every week in every church.

Add FAITH5 (share, read, talk, pray, bless) and make it the expectation to connect your Sunday text with their highs and lows (context) “every night in every home” and you just might have a Sunday that spills over into Monday. And you may create a post-televison EPIC Sunday that gives them their new story for the week – a frame of reference and frame of reverence – that lives with them when they lie down and when they rise in the post-television world.

January 15, 2017 is Epiphany 2A

Isaiah 49:1-7 – And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him… “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Psalm 40:1-11 – I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God…

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth… I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ…

John 1:29-42 – John the Baptist encounters Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Then, John’s version of the call of Andrew and Peter, in Bethany.

January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

¿Qué buscas?

As noted above, January 18 begins the week of prayer for Christian unity. Take some time to reach out to Christian leaders of other denominations. Take a priest pastor out to lunch. Look for events in your community scheduled for this week.

Here’s the text, John 1:29-42:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Every time we read a text, we hear something new. Also when we read it with others, they see and hear things that we don’t. This is because we each hear the text from our current context, time, and place. We don’t hear these texts as a tabula rasa (Latin: “blank slate”). They come to us in the midst of our joys, challenges, work life, family life, wealth, poverty, race, creed, and so forth. This is why it is so important to read Scripture in community, a small group community that can discuss the meaning and implications of the words we hear.

Today, this is what jumped out at me, as a pastor and bishop:

I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.

Usually I hear the “come and see” portion of the text, as one who is passionate about evangelism. Today, however, I heard “that Christ might be revealed.” I would like to be remembered and be able to say of all my calls as a parish pastor, “I came baptizing for this reason: That Christ might be revealed.

The church is a community gathered around Jesus of Nazareth. There is no getting around it. Christ is at the center of the Christian faith – not the law, not the church, but Christ. If we are obsessed about anything, it is this: The way of Jesus of Nazareth is the only hope for the world in which we live. Everything else we do revolves around making Christ known. Our sermons, our congregations’ public ministries, our blog posts, our tweets, our newsletter articles – everything revolves around making Christ known. Or at least it should. I confess, too often things revolved around congregational survival. Sometimes things revolved around me winning a battle. I ask God’s forgiveness. On my best days, I want every sermon, every deed to be revealing the Christ, the hope of the world. That’s what I heard today.

That’s just me. I’m sure you heard other nuances to the text. And, more importantly, your people will hear something else altogether. A midweek Bible study, the smaller the better is an excellent tool for pastors, if for no other reason than this: You will hear what your people hear in the text. Don’t ignore what you hear, but be sure to be aware of and responsive to the things that your people hear.

Elizabeth Gareca Gareca, Profesora de Biblia at ISEAT (Instituto Superior Ecuménico Andino de Teología) in La Paz, Bolivia hears other things in this text. She points out the two-day division in John’s text. Above, I divided the text accordingly. The first day is John’s proclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Garcea reminds us that John 1:29 ultimately became a beloved hymn, and a permanent part of the liturgy, the Agnus Dei, sung after the Words of Institution and the Lord’s Prayer, during the fraction of the host: “Cordero de Dios, que quita el pecado del mundo.” “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John says he does not know Jesus; this is revealed to him when he sees the Holy Spirit coming down upon him. This is one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

On day two, “the next day,” in the second paragraph of this text, we have the call of the disciples. Richard Swanson, Professor of Religion/Philosophy/Classics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. agonizes over some of the complexities in this text. Whence cometh the symbolism of the lamb? The lion and the lamb? Isaac? Passover?

the-isenheim-altarpieceFor my money, John the Baptist is alluding to Genesis 22, the lamb that God provides to Abraham for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. Not the Passover lamb. Abraham says to Isaac, “God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8) Swanson helpfully channels Everett Fox: “…a translator might choose to use a dash rather than a comma at this point (‘God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering – my son’) to capture in English the irony of the Hebrew sentence.”

Abraham and Isaac no doubt eat the sacrificial lamb. Preachers of the three-year lectionary are all too aware of how many times Jesus tells his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John chapter 6 (a very un-Jewish image by the way, as drinking blood is unclean in the Torah). Every three years these “bread texts” take up to five weeks at the end of the summer. (Don’t worry, not this year. Next year: Year B.) In any case, it seems that from the very first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion is referenced, front and center, and understood sacrificially. John’s Jesus gives his life for the world.

crucifixion

crucifixion-ii

Literalistic readers will struggle with the marked differences between John’s story and the synoptic accounts. For example, John the Baptist claims to not know Jesus in John’s gospel, whereas Luke says they are cousins. Another example: John has Jesus meeting Andrew and Peter down south in Bethany in Judea, and later taking them up north to Galilee. Matthew, however, has Jesus returning to Galilee after his baptism and encountering Peter and Andrew with their boat up north in the Sea of Galilee. These anomalies won’t bother those who understand the gospels as proclamation of the good news and not history books, but many modern readers jump to one of two poles. Some demand on inerrant literal reading and thus try to absurdly harmonize the accounts. Others will discount the gospels as fables. Hopefully, the deft preacher can enjoy the middle of the road, seeing the texts as stories about Jesus of Nazareth, revealing actual events from different perspectives.

So what is your preaching angle? Audrey West, Associate Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago likes John’s “It’s not about me” approach. “It’s not about me; it’s about him,” John says. John points to Jesus, like Matthias Grünewald’s altar piece in Isenheim. John’s oversized finger points to Jesus. The same can be seen in Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Luther preaching and pointing to the cross. It’s about him. I came to make Christ known.

It’s not about you. In an egocentric age, this is a counter-cultural message. It’s not about you. People often don’t get this until they’re on their deathbed. It is only then that many struggle with meaning. When we are stripped of our mortality, then we can wrestle with what life ultimately means. West says something to the effect of this.

If John the Baptist had a Facebook page, it would have pictures of Jesus, not selfies. I’m paraphrasing. “What’s On Your Facebook Page?” could be an awesome sermon title. You may have to interpret this for folks who are not on Facebook.

Or, here’s another preaching hook: I’m intrigued by Jesus’ question in 1:38: “¿Qué buscas? [What are you looking for?]” This is a fundamental question. What are you looking for in life? What are you going for? Where is your life headed? What is your fundamental orientation? What are your goals? What are your hopes and dreams? What do you really want in life?

So much of our lives seems to be about either survival or acquisition of wealth – extensions of our survival instinct. My seminary professor of systematic theology, Walt Bouman said, “Sin is about mortality not morality.” Life becomes about saving our skin. When life is about saving your skin, meaning gets lost. This is why Jesus calls us to come and die. Emptying ourselves, dying to ourselves, are the ways to find Life. The resurrection is not about pie in the sky when you die. It’s a window into the world beyond the narrow confines of our lives. It’s the big picture. “Now that you know that death is not final,” says Bouman, “there’s more to do with your life than try to preserve it.” (Quoted from Dr. Anna Madsen, at the 1/14 Bishops’ Academy).

So what are you looking for? ¿Qué buscas?

Jesus invites you to join him in the adventure of your life. Gareca points us to Jesus’ invitation in 1:39: “Venid y ved.” [Come and see]. Jump in. Brian Stoffregen notices we hear these words twice: 1:39, and just after our text in 1:46. We cannot stand on the sidelines and understand what this is about. The only way to know is to jump in.

The preacher can help people imagine what jumping in means. Give them some ways to jump in this week. Then give them some ways to jump in this month, by sharing some things your congregation is doing to be Christ in your community. Things that will help your people find joy and life by giving it away. Lead the way. Invite people to encounter Christ by encountering the other. In so doing, they will encounter the God who gives life, raises the dead, orders the cosmos, and lifts us up out of the miry clay, to set our feet on solid ground. Invite them into something exciting: to be a part of what this God is doing in the world.

So, what is God up to?

January 8, 2017 is Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism, & the Church Year

January 6, 2017 or January 8, 2017 is Epiphany of Our Lord
Jesus frees us to be wise. (Satterlee). The gospel is for all.

Isaiah 60:1-6 – Arise, shine, for your light has come… Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn… They shall bring gold and frankincense…

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 – 1 Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness… The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The Gentiles become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in God’s promises.

Matthew 2:1-12 – The visit of the Magi.

OR

January 8, 2017 is The Baptism of Our Lord
Prayer of the Day
O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Isaiah 42:1-9 – Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Psalm 29 – The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.

Acts 10:34-43 – You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Matthew 3:13-17 – The Baptism of Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism, & the Church Year

Bear with me. This Sunday you can either use the texts for Epiphany or for the Baptism of our Lord. I am going to expound on both. This first section, however, is simply on the history of Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord. The non-liturgical-geeks may want to skip down to the section on Epiphany

There is no evidence that Christmas was celebrated for the first 300 years of Christianity. Birthdays simply weren’t that important. Death days were. So the baptism of Jesus was probably the bigger festival for a long time.

The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably celebrated on January 6. Because of the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Ethiopians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar). A few years ago, when the bishops went to the Holy Land at the request of Bishop Younan, it was a delight to celebrate Christmas here on December 25, then go to the Holy Land and celebrate it again on January 6.

Some early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit on the same day he was resurrected. Since they set that day around March 25, it was easy to count forward nine months of gestation to December 25, which was the date set for Christmas in the Western calendar. Others may have set the date to coincide with the pagan celebration of winter solstice, around December 21. When Christianity moved into German and Scandinavian areas, this coincided with Yule-time, a pagan festival which ran from late December into early January. The historian Bede said December 25 was the first day of the pagan year.

For Western Christians, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi. For Eastern Christians, Epiphany is about the Baptism of Jesus. In the Eastern Church the historical theme was the mystery of the incarnation. It included Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, some of his childhood events, and even the wedding at Cana. The earliest reference to Epiphany is in 361 A.D.

For a while Christ’s Epiphany and his birthday were used interchangeably. In 385 Epiphany still commemorated the birth of Christ. It was also called the Day of Theophany. Even into the 5th century, John Cassian tells us that the Egyptian monasteries were celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism on the same day, but other churches had begun to separate the festivals.

For us in the West, Epiphany is the culmination of the 12-day Christmas season. Some Latino cultures have a 40-day Christmas, which extends to Candlemas on February 2. I could spend a lot of time going into the developments of the calendar and the religious festivals because it fascinates me. However, I’ve discovered that while I and a few of you are interested by this stuff, the majority of our people aren’t, so I would digest this for your own information only. The preacher might dare a short paragraph on the development of the holiday for the erudite who bask in the esoteric, but the bulk of the faithful are less interested in history and more interested in “what does all this mean for us today?”

Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity. All six feasts fall in six months of the year, followed by six months of “green Sundays,” sometimes referred to as “ordinary time” with no major feasts.

Because Epiphany is always on January 6, 12 days after Christmas, it rarely falls on a Sunday. This year, January 6 is a Friday. Since it is a major feast, many churches will celebrate it on Sunday morning, January 8. Others will celebrate it on a Friday and then have The Baptism of Our Lord on Sunday.

epiphany

Epiphany

Here’s the Matthew 2 text:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The Visit of the Magicians

ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολwν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα. “Behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem.” The word μάγοι (magoi) is the plural of μάγος (magos), a word used for a hundred years before Jesus to refer to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) lived at least 6,000 years before Jesus. He was probably Persian by birth, but no one knows for sure. Most agree Eastern Iran, probably.

Zoroaster founded a religion now known as Zoroastrianism, Mazdaism, or Magianism, through the writing of hymns and liturgical pieces. Zoroastrianism focused on the worship of Ahura Mazda, a transcendent, benevolent deity. Zoroastrianism was at some point in the two millennia before Christ, the largest religion in the world.

Magi were Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity. The oldest surviving reference to a μάγος is in Heraclitus (6th century B.C.), who does not give them a good review. A century later (5th C. B.C.), Heroditus uses “magi” a couple of times while commenting on Iranian expats living in Asia Minor. He calls them interpreters of omens and dreams. Xenophon (4th C. B.C.) refers to magi as experts in all matters of religion.

The Hellenistic world came to view Zoroaster as the father of magic and astrology. Later these priests came to be seen as tricksters, charlatans, and cheats. Magi became associated with magic. Zoroaster was the figurehead for the magi. Some believe we have seven days in the week today because Zoroastrians believed there were seven planets. The Suda (an ancient encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world) claims that the Babylonians learned astronomy from Zoroaster. There is archeological evidence that the Chinese character/word Wu (shaman/witch/wizard/magician),was a loan from the old Persian word magus.

Sadaam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party often pejoratively called Iranians “majus,” indicating that they were not true Muslims, but captive to older pre-Muslim religion based on magic and paganism.

In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament (the Septuagint of Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15), magus is typically translated magician. This is pejorative as well, since Jewish law forbade sorcery of any kind.

The New Testament (Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6, 8) also translates magus as “magician,” except Matthew, where it is translated Magi or often “wise men.” Interesting though: Justin, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome all translated it “magician,” even in Matthew. Consider how that changes the feel of the text:

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magicians from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

What does it mean that magicians visited Jesus? What does it mean that this is important in Matthew’s narrative (And only in Matthew’s narrative. Mark, Luke, and John never mention them). It might be interesting to read it this way and see what it does to the way we hear and interpret the text. “The visit of the Magicians.” Raise a few eyebrows?

What is the point of this story in Matthew’s telling of the Jesus event? There are, of course, many points, but here’s one. I sense Matthew is saying this Jesus represents a new universal religion that will encompass and draw in all faiths. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people unto myself…” Jews, Romans, and even those pagan magician-folk to the East. This Jesus-stuff is big, really big. It will change the game. Matthew punctuates this at the end with the Great Commission: “Make disciples of all nations.” There is big vision in Matthew’s gospel. Although Christianity is spreading quickly, Christians still only make up a small minority of the Roman Empire at the time Matthew is writing.

The history of Christianity in Western civilization did not warmly embrace all faiths as one under the One who ate with outcasts and sinners, who healed lepers, and lived among the poor. We can only grieve this. Sadly, conversions were forced, heretics and infidels executed, and Christianity became a power religion. But the core of the original vision still lies within Matthew’s carefully chosen words, and the potential for reformation is always before us.

There is also in this text a power theme. Herod is afraid to lose his tenuous grasp on power, a power he has only at the will of the Empire. He will stop at nothing to keep that power.

We have here a continuation of our story of paradoxes, opposites: angels vs. shepherds, the mighty vs. the humble, the first vs. the least city of Judah, kings vs. animals, an inn vs. a stable, and mortality vs. the infinite. Here we have the ruthless power and scheming of a king who will stop at nothing, versus the innocence, vulnerability, and faith of a child who welcomes all, even magicians. “The difference between Herod’s rule and the one to be born in Bethlehem could not be more stark,” says Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

If you go with this approach, consider substituting Revelation 12:1-6 as the epistle reading. Some associate Herod with this text.

“A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.”
-Rev. 12:1-4

A woman, clothed with the sun, moon under her feet, crown of stars, bears a child to rule the nations. Gee, who could that be? Then a red, seven-headed dragon wants to devour the child. Some associate Herod with the seven-headed dragon. I interpret it as Rome (city of seven hills), but Herod is certainly Rome’s functionary. Sadly, this text never gets read in Lutheran churches. Using it allows you to use an unused text, gives you an opportunity to teach people how to read John’s Revelation and helps you clarify the power dynamics in this text.

[Factoid: In 1529, Johann Cochlaeus used this text to disparage Luther. His treatise has a woodcarving of a seven-headed Luther on the cover.]

Perhaps this is a time to talk about our relationship to civil authority or to the power structures of the day. It could be a time to talk about outreach to those of different religious traditions. Without constantly having to tear down others’ systems, can we talk about what Jesus means for the world, in broader terms, as the fulfillment of all human religion and aspirations? Can we teach what he taught and live what he lived, not reducing faith to a philosophy or zero-sum mind game? What is the kernel of the gospel that is so compelling that even pagans, new-agers, and seekers will want to come and behold, maybe even worship? 

Jesus’ Baptism

This week we have John’s baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17. The question that often comes up in churches is, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all?” Church people are most likely to ask this question, since they will be familiar with the idea that Jesus was sinless and John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “Why does someone who is sinless need repentance and forgiveness?” they will ask. Newcomers to the church may not come with this burning question on their minds. In either case, the story gives the preacher an opportunity to talk about the meaning of baptism, the kickoff of Jesus’ public ministry or both.

We read the first twelve verses of Matthew 3 five weeks ago on December 8, Advent 2. We learned that John appeared preaching in the wilderness. That alone tells us something. He’s ascetic, perhaps monastic, seeking a purer spirituality apart from the corrupt religious system and leaders of his day. Reform often begins from the fringes. John does not start in Jerusalem or in the temple, but instead across the Jordan.

Though scholars debate this, John was likely an Essene, one of the three major sects of Second Temple Judaism (There were, however, dozens). The Essenes were based in the wilderness of Judea. Matthew tells us that this is precisely where John appeared 3:1. Not as numerous as either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Essenes rejected those more institutionalized sects in favor of asceticism. They also felt the mediation of priests and sacrifices was unnecessary and inevitably tainted by love of money. Pliny said the Essenes did not marry, possessed no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. The Wikipedia article on Essenes says they, “congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) celibacy.” The gospel writers’ description of John leads us to this conclusion.

N. T. Wright draws a different conclusion. He points out that the Essenes practiced frequent (some daily) ritual washing/baptism, but John’s appeared to be a “one off” as he says, a one-time conversion of repentance. This makes Jesus’ baptism even more curious. Is this a conversion? John may be close to, but not formally aligned with the Essenes. Here’s a short video clip of an interview with Wright on the topic.

Contrary to Wright, Aslan points out that not all Essenes had the same practices. Some lived in cities and villages, while others lived in a more monastic community. Both kinds were ascetic. The only items of personal property an Essene at Qumran would be allowed were a cloak, a linen cloth, and a hatchet for digging a latrine in the wilderness. In addition to their numerous ritual washings by immersion, some Essenes also practiced a one time baptism for ritual conversion into the sect. The Essenes rejected temple authority, which put them at odds with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They opposed animal sacrifice and observed strict dietary restrictions. They actively prepared for the end times.

We also learned back in Advent the core of John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”. (Matthew 3:2)

Get used to this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew uses it 32 times. It is found nowhere else in Scripture. It is probably interchangeable with “kingdom of God,” which Matthew uses four times, compared to 14x in Mark, 31x in Luke, and 2x in John (John only uses the word “kingdom” five times). In the Markan parallel for this passage (Mark 1:15), John says, “… the kingdom of God is at hand.” Some have suggested that Matthew substitutes “heaven” for “God” so as not to offend his Jewish readers, who have a prohibition against speaking the name of God. This suggests Matthew has a significantly Jewish-Christian community.

Note that John says the kingdom is coming. We’re not going to it. It’s coming to us. And it is close. Jesus will teach his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come… On earth…”

The way to prepare for the kingdom of heaven coming is to repent. Baptism is a sign of that repentance. This message must have had incredible traction in its day, and in its context (Rome brutally occupying Israel), because Matthew says “all Judea went out to see him.” He is drawing a crowd, and even the attention of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and finally Jesus himself.

Consider this passage from Ezekiel 36:25-27:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

This sprinkling/washing is the cleanse Israel from there idolatry and other uncleannesses. It replaces their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and puts God’s Spirit in them.

John is in line with the prophetic voices of the Old Testament:

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. (Ezekiel 18:30)

What transgressions? Ezekiel leaves no room for doubt. Idolatry, adultery, and usury. Neglecting the hungry and naked. Robbing the poor through predatory lending.

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right, if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully, such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.
(Ezekiel 18:5-9)

What helps with Jesus’ baptism is to move beyond an individualistic interpretation. Stanley Hauerwas says John is calling Israel to repentance as a nation. It’s not just about the individual turning. Those who submit to this baptism, therefore, are saying, “Yes. I’m in.” Certainly Jesus was all about Israel turning to God because the kingdom of God where the poor are blessed is coming. Repent or else all hell will break loose and all calamity will rain down. Indeed it did, in 70 A.D.,  with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus, in his baptism, repents on behalf of Israel.

It’s interesting that when Jesus begins his ministry later, he carries on John’s exact message, word for word:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

Even John protests to baptizing Jesus.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)

Jesus says it is proper “to fulfill all righteousness.” Eric Barreto (Working Preacher) points out that “righteousness” is a difficult term. It means: justice, uprightness, correctness, innocence, and redemption. He suggests it means something they are doing in obedience to God. Perhaps it’s even simpler than that. Perhaps Jesus is just saying, “Relax, John, and roll with it. It’s the right thing to do.” John finally relents and Jesus is baptized. John sees the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Then there is a voice from heaven.

Luther understands that Epiphany is the launch of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is 30 he posits. He also understands that the coming of the Magi is a foreshadowing of a theme that will slowly develop in Matthew: the gospel for the Gentiles. Jesus’ baptism is the christening of his earthly ministry. Luther says he wishes Epiphany was called, “The Baptism of Christ.” He would be delighted to know we now have a Sunday called just that. Today. This is most certainly true.

Jesus need not submit to baptism, Luther says, but he does anyway. He does more than what is required. The gospel frees us from the law, but it invites us to do more than what is required, not less.

Jesus’ vocation and calling are confirmed by the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Luther points out God’s voice comes with nothing but kindness, grace, and mercy. If you want a gracious, loving God, cling to Christ, Luther tells us.

When we submit to baptism as Jesus did, we too are embraced by the loving grace of God. We too are called into ministry. Make no mistake, baptism is a call to repentance, a call to grace, and a call to ministry. We emerge from the waters of baptism as beloved children, called to carriers of God’s grace to the world. We are cleansed of our sin and filled with the Spirit.

Everyone needs to hear that they are God’s beloved child, loved unconditionally and precious. We also need to hear the call to share that with others, to be a part of what God is doing in the world, and saying in the world.

It seems to me we must do affirmation of baptism on this day. We must sprinkle the people with water calling to remembrance their baptism and inciting them to reflect on the ministry to which God has called them. Perhaps as a preacher or Bible study leader, it would be good for you to reflect on the ministry to which God has called you, and share some of that with your people, reminding them that all the baptized are called into ministry, not just pastors.

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