Monday, November 28, 2016

Second Sunday of Advent (Year A)

The Collect of the Day
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The First Reading:  Isaiah 11:1-10
“The stump of Jesse” refers to the dynastic line of David (Jesse was David’s father).  It has become a stump, of little worth, bordering on death.  The prophet sees a shoot from the stump, however, and, perhaps more importantly, the spirit of the Lord.  They indicate a new possibility.  The shoot will yield a new king who will be an advocate of justice and a bringer of peace, even to enemies within the creation.  The new king will restore and reconcile creation itself.  Can we still trust this promise, this spirit, this vision of a new creation?  It is a significant question on our Advent journey.  Verses 2 & 3 include the traditional sevenfold gifts of the Spirit, still used in our liturgy of Baptism in the prayer over the newly baptized (BCP. P. 308).

11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Psalm 72 is royal psalm ascribed to Solomon (one of only two psalms ascribed to him, the other being Psalm 127). It places the Davidic line of kings firmly into both the theology and socio-economic life of Israel. The first portion of the psalm (vv. 1-7) lays out the covenant demands of the king. The portion we do not read today lays out the divine promises to a just ruler. Verses 18 & 19 are actually an ending to the second book of the psalms (Psalms 42-72), and indeed in Hebrew the text goes on to a “verse 20”:  “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.”

1 Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
2 That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
3 That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
4 He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
5 He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
7 In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall
be no more.
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, *
who alone does wondrous deeds!
19 And blessed be his glorious Name for ever! *
and may all the earth be filled with his glory. Amen. Amen.

The Second Reading:  Romans 15:4-13
At the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul gives a word of encouragement, but also an exhortation to radical welcome in the community of faith.  The welcome includes the Gentiles (non-Jews), who are now fellow heirs of God’s promises with the Jews.  All have cause to “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  This is the good news we have to proclaim. The Scripture quotations are, in order, from Psalm 18:49, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10.

15:4 Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; 10 and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; 11 and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; 12 and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Gospel:  Matthew 3:1-12
On the 2nd & 3rd Sundays of Advent in each year of our three-year cycle of readings, we read about John the Baptist. Who was John and what was his role in the unfolding drama? John prepares the way, and it is a radical way. Everything about John is radical—his dress, his diet, his message. It is a dangerous message as well, challenging the religious elite not to be presumptuous about their relationship with God. Claiming relationship with Abraham is not enough. They (and we) must “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  Advent suggests to us that there may be some way in which we need to “turn around” (the literal meaning of repentance) so that we can see the child in the manger for what he truly is. The Scripture quotation in verse 3 is Isaiah 40:3.

3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 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. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The Scripture quotations (except for the canticle) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved. The Collect and the translation of the Psalm are from The Book of Common Prayer. Commentaries are copyright © 2016, Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY  14843. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Matthew’s Gospel: A Brief Introduction

Readings from the Gospel according to Matthew are the great majority of our Gospel readings in Year A of our lectionary (cycle of readings). The exception to this is during most of Lent and Easter, when John’s Gospel is traditionally read. So what do we know about Matthew’s Gospel as a whole?

Most scholars date Matthew from the closing decades of the 1st century c.e. (certainly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 c.e.) and written somewhere in Palestine or Syria where there was a significant Jewish population.

Whether the apostle Matthew wrote this Gospel is a mystery. The Gospel itself does not name its writer, and none of the earliest manuscripts has a title mentioning Matthew. We can say with some certainty that the writer is himself a Jew who did not understand his following of Christ to be anything but a movement within Judaism.

Matthew’s primary purpose is to argue that after the destruction of the Temple, which had been the heart of Judaism, something else had to become central. That something for mainstream Judaism came to be the Law, study of which was led by rabbis. For Matthew, however, that something was actually someone, Jesus of Nazareth. This means Matthew’s original audience was Israel, though an Israel which had become expansive. It seems clear from the Gospel that Gentiles were becoming part of Matthew’s community, which would have been a point of great contention with their fellow Jews.

The heart of Matthew’s Gospel may be found in three places. First, at 13:52:

Every scribe who has become a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure new things and old things.

This verse is unique to Matthew, and neatly sums up his commitment to Judaism, although in a new form as a disciple of Jesus. Another is at 5:17, in the Sermon on the Mount, again unique to Matthew:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

Jesus is the correct interpreter and enactor of the Law.

As another sign of his Jewish heritage, Matthew loves quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, often with the phrase, “this was to fulfill what had been spoken…” Matthew quotes Scripture at least 13 times. It is essential for him that Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism.

There are two difficult characteristics of Matthew’s Gospel. First of all, he is very hard on the Jews who opposed Jesus, and continue to oppose his community. The words at Jesus’ trial, “his blood be on us and upon are children” are uniquely his. Second, Matthew’s Jesus has a distinctly apocalyptic worldview, one in which the community lives always under the threat of judgment.  “Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” is, again, a saying from the lips of Jesus only in this Gospel.

Yet there is also incredible welcome in Matthew, both for Jew and Gentile, from the magi at Jesus’ birth (2:1) to the Canaanite woman (15:22) and the Roman centurions (27:54) and Joseph of Arimathea at his death (27:57). And there is the well-known saying of Jesus, which is the third heart of this Gospel (11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who are weary or carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Jesus is also revealed in Matthew as “Emmanuel,” “God with us” (1:23), and it is with the implications of this truth that Matthew most wants us to wrestle. The culmination of this new reality (prior to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection) is the great parable of the Sheep and the Goats (unique to Matthew) with its ringing, “As you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”

One other unique feature of Matthew is that he is the only Gospel writer to use the word ecclesia which we translate as “church,’ a term that will become vitally important in the non-Gospel portion of the Christian Testament. This use comes with some explicit instructions on how to live together in this ecclesia.  Its first use is at 16:18, in regards to Peter, “the rock on whom I will build my church,” and then in 18:15-21. It is possible that, at least among the synoptic Gospels, Matthew uniquely comes out of the experience of a community rather than a particular person.

Select Bibliography

These are commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew that I have found helpful. They do not all share the same perspective, but each has opened the Gospel up for me in a different way. I begin with what I believe to be the best commentary currently on the market and then the rest in alphabetical order by author.

Harrington, Daniel J., S.J. The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina series).  Liturgical Press, 1991.

Byrne, Brendan.  Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today. Liturgical Press, 2004.

Card, Michael. Matthew: The Gospel of Identity (Biblical Imagination Series). IVP Books, 2013.

Jarvis, Cynthia A. and Johnson, E. Elizabeth, eds. Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew (2 vols).  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.

Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone (2 vols).  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Yieh, John Y.H.  Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel according to Matthew (Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars series).  Morehouse Publishing, 2012.

Helpful Remembrances in Reading the Gospels

  1. Each of the Gospels is “according to” meaning they came from a particular author writing out of a particular context using sayings and stories he collected, that were mostly oral in transmission. In other words, they are interpretation to begin with.
  2. The various English translations are just that, translations from the original Greek text, although “texts” would be a better word, since all the earliest manuscripts are fragments. Translation is a very tricky business, and if you are studying a book or particular passage, it is helpful to have a couple (at least) different translations around.

    The difference between a translation and a paraphrase should be noted. Translations are done from the original language, using the multiplicity of sources available by a team of scholars. Paraphrases generally take the English text and make it more colloquial, involving a great deal more interpretation than translations. The English translation most in use is the New Revised Standard. Other good English translations are The New Jerusalem Bible, The Revised English Bible, and the New American Bible. The New International Version is popular but is more interpretive than the others mentioned. The best paraphrase is probably The Message, which is the work of a single person, Eugene Peterson.
  3. The chapter and verse numbers are not original. Various schemes have been used through the centuries. The current divisions date from the 13th century from Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, although they did not appear in print until 1560 in an English version, The Geneva Bible.
  4. The predominate opinion among biblical scholars is that Mark’s of the oldest of the Gospels. Matthew and Luke clearly both use Mark as their primary sources, but also have some other common source (usually referred to as “Q”), and some unique material. John is an entirely different way of telling the story with very little in common with the others.

Copyright © 2016 Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY  14843,  All rights reserved. Permission is given to re-print for study use.

Monday, November 21, 2016

First Sunday of Advent (Year A)

It’s Advent and a new Church Year begins. Today in our lectionary (cycle of readings) we begin “Year A,” the year of Matthew’s Gospel.  The First Sunday of Advent always focuses on Jesus’ sayings about the end times. This is the Sunday when that line from the Creed “and he will come again” comes to the fore.  Most often this has been understood as a scary time, even as a time to be dreaded: the Great Judgment Day. And yet there has always been a minority voice, often the voice of the oppressed, that has declared in word and song that this day is to be welcomed, because the Day of Judgment is also the Day of Justice, for which, in the meantime, we dream and act.

The Collect of the Day
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The First Reading:  Isaiah 2:1-5
All four Sundays of Advent in this Year A of our lectionary we find Isaiah as our first reading. Each one is from the first portion of the book (chs. 1-39) commonly attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem, a prophet of Judah prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire. Our reading this week is a vision of Jerusalem beyond its present dismay (spelled out in chapter one). It shall be a city of peace to which people will stream from all the nations. This passage may have been a popular poem or hymn, as it also appears in Micah 4:2-4. Our Advent begins with a hopeful vision of peace, and an invitation, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Psalm 122
Psalm 122 is one of the “songs of ascent,” which are thought to have been pilgrim songs, sung on the road to Jerusalem for one of the great festivals. This particular song shares the same spirit as our first reading in that it sees Jerusalem (“the city of peace”) at the center of the world.

1 I was glad when they said to me, *
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
2 Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is built as a city *
that is at unity with itself;
4 To which the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, *
the assembly of Israel, to praise the Name of the Lord.
5 For there are the thrones of judgment, *
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls *
and quietness within your towers.
8 For my brethren and companions’ sake, *
I pray for your prosperity.
9 Because of the house of the Lord our God, *
I will seek to do you good.”

The Second Reading:  Romans 13:11-14
Our second reading this morning comes from a section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he has been exhorting his readers to right ethical behavior. “Now,” he says is the time to seize God’s call.  Salvation, the day the Lord, is at hand. Right action is an urgent imperative for us. In Paul’s writing “flesh” can never simply be equated with the physical body.  It is a metaphor for anything that would draw us from the love of God. Verse 12 was an inspiration for today’s Collect of the Day (a prayer written for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer).

13:11 You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

The Holy Gospel:  Matthew 24:36-44
In the New Testament, apocalyptic imagery is present in each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) as well as in the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic writing is about the end of time. It is usually heavily symbolic and even coded, and it often depicts a very simplistic picture of good vs. evil.  It typically comes out of communities that are under great stress, whose identity and existence is uncertain.  Its ultimate intention is to give such communities hope.  Given all these things, its interpretation is complex and it is easy simply to dismiss it.  In our passage this morning Jesus speaks about the return of “the Son of Man.” He emphasizes the suddenness of this return. No one will know when it is to happen except the Father (an admonition many Christians even today ignore as they try to predict when Jesus will return).  They only thing we can do is be ready.

24:36 Jesus said to the disciples, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

The Scripture quotations (except for the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission.  All rights reserved.  The Collect and Psalm translations are from The Book of Common Prayer.  Commentaries are by Epiphany ESources, E. Main St., Hornell, NY 14843, , copyright © 2016.  All rights reserved.