Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – February 2, 2020

January 26, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord, February 2, 2020

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:21-28; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Also the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the readings center around Mary and Jesus and are out of order from the readings we’ve had thus far in Ordinary Time. It’s not considered a festival or feast Sunday. The Gospel reading focuses on the subject of Mary and Joseph bringing their month-old son to the Temple in Jerusalem – a reasonable feat since they have stayed in Bethlehem since his birth and the journey is not too great. There Jesus’ identity and purpose are further attested to by Simeon and Anna. This is linked with the Old Testament lesson of 1 Samuel and the birth of Samuel and his dedication to God’s service at the worship site at Shiloh (this is before the Temple was built). There is the emphasis on the faithfulness of God and our response to that faithfulness in praise and worship. Both Old Testament and Gospel emphasize being where the Lord is present (his house), and the psalm echoes this response as well. The Hebrews reading highlights the humanity of our Lord, his willing obedience to all the constraints of the Law, obedience that began with his parents’ obedience and faithfulness.

1 Samuel 1:21-28 – Samuel is a fascinating figure, standing at the changeover in Israel’s history from a theocracy to a monarchy, albeit a monarchy established in the context of a theocracy. Samuel appoints both Saul and David, but appoints them not as kings (melek in Hebrew) but as princes (nagid). He stands at the end of the period of the judges and the beginning of the kings. But he himself comes from miraculous background and beginning, his birth being God’s answer to a weary, barren wife’s prayer. We should refrain from assuming God answered her prayer because of her promise (that if God gave her a son she would dedicate him to God’s service). But rather because God answered her prayer, she could make good on her promise. Samuel is unexpected, but wanted, as opposed to Jesus who was unexpected at the very least, and perhaps not necessarily desired by either his father and mother, initially. Samuel comes as the replacement to the wicked priest Eli and his sons, while Jesus comes to replace the sinfulness in all of humanity with his own righteousness. Hannah offers sacrifice to God and dedicates Samuel to the Lord, while Mary and Joseph come to fulfill the commandment to redeem the firstborn son (Exodus 13:11-16). The faithfulness of the parents should be noted in both situations, as setting the stage for and therefore directly impacting and enabling the respective ministries of their sons.

Psalm 84 – In the context of the Old Testament and Gospel this is a beautiful psalm extolling the beauty of being in God’s house. Could there be any better place in all creation to be than where God is present? The psalm combines several different elements that may mean it was either partially a pilgrim psalm when journeying to Jerusalem (vs.5-7) or perhaps part of a more ritual rite within the city involving the king (vs. 8-9). Surely to be where God dwells is a blessing in and of itself, irrespective of other honors or worldy estimations (v. 10). So for Hannah to bring her beloved child to serve God at Shiloh was not simply to fulfill a vow but to give Samuel the best she could give him, even if it meant not having him grow up at her side. And for Mary and Joseph to bring Jesus to the Temple – where a few verses later in Luke 2 a young Jesus will be found studying the Word of God with the greatest minds in Judaism – it truly is appropriate for the Son of God to be in his Father’s house. Do we look to Sunday worship with the same anticipation? Is it the same source of joy to us? Do we trust the very presence of God through his Word and Sacraments? Certainly it should be that a day in God’s court is better than a thousand days elsewhere!

Hebrews 2:14-18 – Having elaborated on how Jesus as the Son of God is superior to angels, Paul goes on to detail the miracle that despite his divine identity, Jesus is also really and truly human, incarnate, a brother in our humanity. Now Paul describes how this was necessary that Jesus might destroy the power of Satan and death from the inside out, from within our flesh and blood, as one of us. And this was for us – for human beings, not for angels. Further evidence that Jesus is not just an angel (v.16), which perhaps was one alternative explanation for Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. No, this is not the case at all, Paul states. Jesus is above the angels yet a brother in our humanity. Only in having the fully human option to sin, but refusing to exercise it in rebellion against his heavenly Father could Jesus convey his perfect righteousness to us as though it were really ours. And moreover, Jesus now has an empathy with us that is unique within the Trinity. He knows what we face, how Satan tempts and tricks us. He knows the weakness of our flesh. He knows the bitter pain of having loved ones die. Jesus as our advocate and intercessor knows our needs and predicaments intimately, because He faced them himself. Could we have a more interested, compassionate, empathetic redeemer?!

Luke 2:22-40 – The Temple is the center of Jewish life, but it is the background here. While Joseph brings Mary here for purification and to redeem their firstborn son as required by Law, Jesus quickly becomes the focus of the Holy Spirit’s inspired revelations. It is not the Temple here who brings sanctification and redemption to God’s people through sacrifices, but rather this baby is the salvation of God intended not just for the Jewish people but for all people. Simeon and Anna both speak prophetically not just to Mary and Joseph but to anyone who will listen. This child is special – this child is the long-awaited redeemer. Joseph and Mary and Jesus fulfill all the requirements of the Law. It is not just Simeon who can depart in peace but they do as well, obedient to the Word and will of God as it applies to their young family and infant son. Luke declares the child grows in strength and wisdom as well as in the favor of God. While we don’t know very many details of Jesus’ youth we can trust Luke’s assessment – based on his discussions with those who knew Jesus then, and most likely including Mary his mother – that even then the presence and favor of God was palpable with Jesus. This boy was destined to accomplish all that had been spoken of him, whether by Gabriel or Mary or Simeon or Anna. He would replace the Temple itself as the only source of sanctification and redemption through the final, perfect sacrifice of his own sinless self on our behalves as the means of defeating death and Satan and restoring all of creation to the glory God had always intended for it.

God Is Good

January 24, 2020

After writing about being tired of casting seed without seeing much growth behind me, God reminded me last night of his love and mercy and grace.  Reminded me that it is not for me to demand or predict the growth, but simply to rejoice when it appears, and for however long it lasts.  Trusting him in this as in all things.

Thursday evenings for the last year and a half have  consisted of a family outreach of ours.  I go to pick up three ladies from the local women’s residential addiction recovery program and bring them over for dinner at our house. No agendas.  No expectations.  I know they are often guests at one function or another where they represent the house and the program.  They’re on display, ambassadors to future and current donors and those who pray for them that the program is working and is worthy and worth supporting.  But that’s not what we want from them.  It’s just a chance to be in a home with a family.  Something some of them have never had, or haven’t had in a long, long time.

Last night we had three women who were relatively new in the program, but something clicked with them.  They talked.  And talked. And talked.  Honestly.  Candidly.  About themselves and how hard it is to step away from the crutches of a bottle or pills you’ve relied on all your life to cope  with things.  How hard it is to live in a house with 20 other women.  Not being negative, but just honest.  Sensing as we sat around the table laughing or  in the living room after that this was a safe place.  A place where they could be honest without being worried about it being used against them in an environment full of people – including themselves – with a lifetime of experience in manipulation.

It was amazing to listen to them, to watch our kids listening, affirming them, reassuring them, encouraging them.  Recovery is a long, hard road, and the odds are stacked against them.  I don’t know what will happen to these three women.  Will they survive the year in the program and graduate?  Will they leave or get kicked out before then?  I don’t know.  I don’t know whether the seed cast in classrooms or in our home will get choked with weeds or snatched by birds or bear a crop 30, 60, or 100-fold.

But for the span of a couple of hours, my family and I got to see God the Holy Spirit at work, and nothing can take that experience away from us or those ladies.  Tangible, audible hope.  A reminder that it’s worth casting the seed.  Worth flinging it far and wide rather than trying to aim it for the ideal demographic or market segment.  Worth being reckless with, because the seed will never run out and never lose the potency of the Word of God that it is.  There is always reason to hope, to look anxiously and expectantly for the growth.  And always reasons to give thanks in those rare moments when we see it.


Apocrypha: Bel and the Dragon

January 22, 2020

Another writing associated with the Biblical Daniel’s life, but deemed non-canonical by Jews as well as modern Protestants.  It does not exist in Hebrew and was most likely composed in Greek.  It is considered canonical by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  It sometimes appears as Chapter 14 in the book of Daniel, though does not make sense there in terms of the overall flow of the book of Daniel.

The story itself involves Daniel’s interactions with the Persian King Cyrus over the matter of two revered idols – the first a statue named Bel and the second what was probably a very large snake.  The King inquires why Daniel does not worship Bel, and Daniel responds that Bel is simply a statue, not a god.  The King protests that Bel devours a great deal of food every single day – 12 bushels of wheat, 40 sheep and six measures of wine.  Daniel counters that it is the priests who attend to Bel along with their wives and children who are eating the provisions – the  statue does not eat them.

When interrogated the priests of Bel swear the statue is the only one consuming the provisions and offer for the King himself to set up the provisions and then lock and seal the temple with the priests outside of it.  Daniel agrees with this but secretly also has the king strew the temple floor with ash.  In the morning the food is gone as usual, despite the temple still being sealed.  However there are footprints everywhere from the priests and their children, proving they had a secret way into the temple and were themselves consuming the provisions.

The second event is very similar but apparently involves a large snake.  Daniel feeds this snake cakes made out of boiled fat, hair, and pitch.  These apparently clog the snake to the  point that it bursts open and dies.  This angers the people and the King, so Daniel is placed into a lion’s den with seven lions for six days.  At the end of that time, sustained in part by a visit from the prophet Habakkuk, Daniel is alive and vindicated.

This seems to best fit as a work of religious fiction.  It doesn’t necessarily contradict anything Scriptural but doesn’t  fit  well with the canonical accounts of Daniel.  Rather, it seems to exaggerate the existing account of Daniel in the lion’s den, something that certainly could be true but doesn’t seem to serve any great purpose.


Apocrypha: Susanna

January 21, 2020

This is a brief work intended as part of the canonical Hebrew book of Daniel, but it appears in none of the Hebrew copies of Daniel and is presumed to have been authored much later and in Greek.   It was contained in both the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) as well as the Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments (the Vulgate).  In some traditions this apocryphal  work is included as the last chapter of Daniel (Chapter 13), although in others it appears before the canonical material as Chapter 1.  It deals with themes of justice, righteousness, and the figure of a young Daniel emerging as wise beyond his years.

Susanna is relegated to apocryphal writings because it contradicts certain aspects of the canonical work of Daniel (such as portraying an already well-established Jewish community in exile, whereas the canonical Daniel begins with Babylon’s conquering of Jerusalem and taking people into exile, including Daniel) and because there are no examples  of it in any Hebrew Old Testament copies.

The story briefly is that a virtuous young wife is wrongly accused of adultery by two Jewish elders who are angry she rebuffed their demands that she sleep with them.  In a he-said-she-said situation, Susanna gets the worst of it and is sentenced to death based on the accusations of the elders. Enter young Daniel who suspects foul play and exposes the lies of the elders, leading to Susanna’s exoneration and their execution.

It would primarily seem to serve as a story introducing or further elaborating on the life of Daniel.  It demonstrates the very real dangers of misuse of power as well as God’s attention to his people.  It elevates the use of wisdom and our intellects in being able to discern truth, rather than relying exclusively or unhealthily on spiritual insight.

Apocrypha: Old Greek Esther

January 20, 2020

Likely compiled in the 2nd century BC, this is an expanded version of the Hebrew book of Esther found  in the Old Testament.  A total of 107 verses were added to the Hebrew version, most likely in an attempt to make it more theologically acceptable.  It  isn’t that the Hebrew Esther is not acceptable, but it  is curious with it’s lack of any direct mention of God.  Events are described almost entirely in terms of human efforts, though of course the clear understanding and context is that these efforts are carried out within an overall creation sustained and governed by God himself.  But Old Greek Esther attempts to make these links explicit, sprinkling prayers and other references directly to God throughout the work.

This work is understood by most  to  not be authentic nor appropriately referred to as canonical.  The King James Bible included the Greek additions as an appendix to the nine canonical Hebrew chapters of  the book of Esther.  These additions were never originally written in Hebrew, occasionally contradict the details of the canonical chapters.  In actuality, there are several versions of these Greek additions to the book of Esther, falling into two major categories.  Historians are unsure of the relationship – if any  – to these varying versions of the Greek additions.  Finally, references to Macedonians in the Greek additions reflect a later date of composition than the original Hebrew chapters,  reflecting a historical period in which Macedonians played  a larger role in Persian affairs.

The additions don’t add anything beneficial, in my estimation, but rather bog down a rather tightly wound story with unnecessary elaboration and  lengthy prayers.  I have no doubt there were many prayers offered by Mordecai and Esther which the author  of the Hebrew book either was unaware of or felt unnecessary to include.  Trying to make explicit the theology in which these people lived and breathed more often than not makes the overall work clumsier.

Reading Ramblings – January 26, 2020

January 19, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 26, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25

Context: The season of Ordinary Time begins this year with the start of Jesus’ public ministry and the calling of his first disciples. In these simple acts, Jesus continues to fulfill Old Testament prophecies. The location of his birth, the virgin birth, his sojourn as a toddler in Egypt, and now where He begins his ministry, in the regions of the original tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, now known as Galilee – Matthew sees it all as fulfiling words spoken centuries earlier.

Isaiah 9:1-4 – The end of Isaiah 8 pictures God’s unfaithful people wandering in the wilderness, blinded by the spiritual darkness they walk in. They seek out wisdom and insights from mediums and conjurers – forbidden to God’s people but now his people are desperate for guidance. They do not turn to God, but to those He has forbidden them. They find nothing. They hunger and receive nothing, and as they hunger they curse God and look everywhere while seeing nothing. Powerful words in light of the Gospel reading that follows Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Zebulun and Naphtali were tribes, descendants of the sons of Jacob, and this region stretched to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee. These regions ceased to be known by their tribal names in the days of Solomon. Now the area is known as Galilee. Once this area was cursed, destroyed by the Assyrians with the rest of the northern kingdom of Israel. But this ignomy will be done away with, and this region will again be called blessed. Those who struggled in darkness will receive a light, the light of God. Jesus is the light, as John’s gospel testified. Jesus who hungered in the wilderness after his baptism did not despise God and did not grow angry and bitter but remained obedient, so that He might start his formal ministry and be the light in the darkness of our sinful world.

Psalm 27:1-9 – The light imagery continues in the psalm selection. The Lord is the source of light; no one can extinguish this light nor can any other light eclipse it or displace it. The Lord’s light is steadfast and constant and reliable, the only true light to trust in. Satan lines up his forces against God’s faithful, but Satan has no power over us. He can kill and destroy but God can make alive again! He can afflict our lives for a limited span of time but God will summon us forth from death to life for eternity! The work of the enemy against us will fail. God alone can be trusted in all situations – not necessarily to do what we want him to do, but to save us from our sins and eternal separation from him. Jesus chose obedience even after 40 days without food. Jesus continued his faithful obedience in calling disciples to listen to his teaching and bear witness to what He would do during his short three years of public ministry. In all things, Jesus trusted the light of God rather than the boasts and temptations of Satan.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 – We continue from the thanksgiving portion of the letter into Paul’s broad summary of the problems plaguing the church in Corinth. The root problem is division. That division takes a lot of forms – disagreements about food, about what to wear to church or what is appropriate sexual behavior or whether believers in Jesus should divorce their unbelieving spouse, or even disagreements about whose teaching is best or most authoritative or impressive. Paul, having moved on from Corinth, is given report of dissension. Paul may have founded the congregation but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone there prefers his teaching. Some may have heard other preachers and teachers and now elevate them to a preferred status to Paul. Paul is not interested in arguing to defend his preeminence. Only Jesus matters – a theme he stressed in the opening of his letter as we read last week. Jesus must be the focus or else we inevitably will begin to fight amongst ourselves for that priority and importance. Instead of divisiveness Paul stresses unity – a unity that comes not simply from the exercise of our will (though that of course is involved) but from God the Holy Spirit’s presence and work. The word of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascending and coming again is the centralizing message of the Christian faith, and all Christians should consider ourselves and one another in the light of this message. Why worry about elegance or personal prestige? Jesus alone is worthy of our consideration. Our unity derives from Jesus only!

Matthew 4:12-25 – Continuing to be led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus moves from the waters of the Jordan to the wilderness and now back to his home turf of Galilee. Ah yes, here He is calling the disciples, like Andrew-wait a minute – John said in his Gospel last week that Andrew began following Jesus in Bethany Beyond the Jordan, not Galilee! What’s going on here?!?

The scene in John 1 is indeed by the Jordan River, far from Galilee. Likely at the end of a major festival in Jerusalem, when all of these natives of Galilee – far to the north of Jerusalem – would have been in the area. It’s possible they came specifically – and separately – to see John the Baptist and hear what he was saying but that seems more problematic for working men to take additional time off for such an excursion. Then again, the fact they are willing to follow John the Baptist and then Jesus may indicate an extreme personal interest in God and theology that would make such a sacrifice of time and money understandable.

In any event, it is here, far to the south of Galilee, where Andrew and Peter and James and John first meet Jesus and express a desire and willingness to become his disciples. This would be understood to mean giving up their current vocations (fishermen) and dedicating themselves to formal study with Jesus. This rather unexpected change in their life work would necessitate some level of coordination with family back home. The disciples and Jesus return to Galilee shortly after the account in John 1. John 1 details four days – the day of John the Baptists’ initial interrogation by religious leaders from Jerusalem (1:19-28), the following day when John begins to proclaim Jesus as the Lamb of God(1:29-34), the next day when John proclaims Jesus as such a second time (1:35-42) and a final day when Jesus begins the return trip to Galilee (1:43-51). By this point Jesus has at least six disciples – Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathanel, and by tradition, James and John (John not bothering to name himself in 1:37-40, as is his habit in his gospel). The return trek to Galilee likely could have taken six days or more, or might have been accomplished in one or two long days of travel depending on the starting and ending points. Whenever Jesus returned, He and his disciples on the third day (2:1) attended a wedding in Cana which is about a half-day journey from Nazareth, presuming this is where Jesus returns to. John’s gospel could mean that three days after returning to Galilee, Jesus now has his disciples and they head to Cana.

Jesus may have returned to Galilee separately from his disciples (likely with his brothers and mother), and so once Jesus has concluded his personal affairs in Nazareth He sets out in search of the men who committed themselves to be his disciples. They likely told him where they worked as fishermen so He could find them. Upon finding them He calls them, indicating it is time to follow. Having already made their own arrangements, they now do so. John and Matthew’s accounts are not contradictory, but together describe a reasonable transition for at least some of Jesus’ disciples from other vocations to that of being rabbinical students.

Apocrypha: 2 Maccabees

January 18, 2020

This is a much shorter historical document than 1 Maccabees, and by most accounts a less reliable one.  It was likely authored in the late second century BC.  It covers details not found in 1 Maccabees and contradicts some details provided in 1 Maccabees.  It only covers material up through Judas Maccabee and his exploits – roughly chapter 7 of 1 Maccabees,  so may have been composed earlier than 1 Maccabees.  The author of  this document himself describes his work as a compilation of a much larger work by a relatively unknown 2nd century BCE Jewish historian by the name of Jason of Cyrene.  The original 5-volume work has been lost to history and would  otherwise be unknown save for the reference in 2 Maccabees 2:23.

Whoever (whether one author or several) composed 2 Maccabees, their language and style differs markedly from 1 Maccabees.  The author freely offers judgmental statements regarding the events he is relating, and overall works to include a far more theological tone to his writing.   There is a far more supernatural tone to this book, with several angelic visitations and visions reported.  It seems to me  a level of creative license has been employed to render the events more exciting and personal to the reader.

On a problematic  note, chapter 14 describes  in honorable terms death by suicide, something forbidden to God’s people (Exodus 20:13).   There is also a passage in chapter 12 promoting prayers for the dead as atonement for likely idolatry on the part of the deceased.  On the positive side, throughout there is a strong emphasis on the resurrection of the dead as a theological reality to be anticipated.

The usefulness of this book seems to lie in careful parsing and evaluation of the historical data presented.  I don’t have a problem with the supernatural elements in this book but also find them far less than compelling, feeling more like an afterthought  than a relating of actual events.

Cheap Peace

January 14, 2020

A great little read here on a critic of how the mindfulness movement has been co-opted by corporate interests.  I find it interesting how mindfulness is always introduced as an alternative.  But an alternative for what?  I’m sure drugs and other chemical therapies are here meant, but I’d also argue prayer and Christian faith being displaced as other means for dealing with difficult things in life.

This article also helps highlight a confusion many  Christians (and non-Christians) likely have – which is that meditation and mindfulness are essentially Christian ideals and practices as well.  I maintain they aren’t.  There are similarities  of course, but the practice of meditation and mindfulness comes from Buddhism, which has a very different understanding of the individual in the context of larger reality than Christianity.

Christians pray.  Meditation in the Christian faith is not understood (historically) as an emptying of the self but rather as focused on some specific thing – Scripture, for instance.  And of course Buddhism centers around a non-personal ultimate power or force as opposed to Christianity’s very, very personal Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Mindfulness and meditation is not neutral, as the article makes clear.  In order to try and present it as such it was necessary to try and blur, obscure, or remove these connections, but at that point it begins to become something very different, something which can be manipulated by large interests.

The article points to mindfulness’ entry into therapeutic treatment at the end of the 70’s and early 80’s, but it entered our cultural awareness almost 20 years earlier through the missionary work of celebrities and artists like the Beatles.  It took time to erase or hide those explicit, religious, Eastern connections for adoption by doctors and therapists and educators, but that was always the goal.

The reality is that what we believe about ourselves and reality matters.  After 30+ years of therapeutic mindfulness, studies as a whole continue to show us ever more increasingly woefully unable to deal with reality.  Moments of silence in schools are not a sense of one’s place in the cosmos as the creation of a loving God with not just a past and a present but a very long and bright future.

As a therapy, mindfulness seems to be failing.  And until our culture is able to see this and accept it and look further back for a reason why things are so different today than they were 70 years ago, we aren’t going to start healing.  If we are indeed creatures – creations rather than accidents of chance – we need a proper grounding in a relationship with our Creator, and nothing short of this can provide the healing our culture is so desperately crying out for.

Jesus & Me – or Me & Jesus?

January 13, 2020

Here’s a short article referring to a new book by a French photographer chronicling unusual expressions of Christianity in America  (Be warned, if you scroll through the photos associated with this article #7 contains nudity).  The premise is these are all examples of niche-marketing the Christian faith to the increasing number of  self-described unaffiliated Christians – those without attachment to any particular Christian denomination, group or sect but who still describe themselves as Christian.

I’d argue that including the Ark Encounter seems misplaced here, but perhaps from someone outside of our culture the distinction is harder to recognize (or perhaps it’s a distinction less pronounced than I think it is or should be?).  The other examples seem to be another demonstration of personal lifestyle preferences driving theology, rather than the other way around.  Rather than being conformed to Christ, we are instead encouraged to conform to nobody other than ourselves, and Christ, we are assured, will be happy to conform to us.

Problematic, to say the least.  But hardly surprising.  Traditional denominations and Christian groups have fostered this for some time, emphasizing services or programs for various different population segments or demographics rather than teaching that we are all together the body of Christ and warning against narrow association with only people like yourself.  With attendance levels falling across the country (and world) and across the Christian spectrum, an aura of desperation begins to settle in some places.  Why not try clever advertising gimmicks?  After all, the important thing is people hear the Gospel, right?

Yes, as long as they’re hearing the Gospel in the proper context, which is first hearing the Law and receiving a proper assessment of their current condition.  If that condition is happy in their nudity or comfortable in their cars, there’s a distinct possibility they won’t hear the Gospel fully, or the Law at all.  If you aren’t willing to leave your car, chances are you probably aren’t really all that worried about the problem of sin and evil in your heart.

I’m all for taking the Gospel to people, but skeptical of these sorts of gimmicks that easily  confuse the Gospel with other things.


Reading Ramblings – January 19, 2020

January 12, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 19, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42a

Context: Although designated as the Sundays after Epiphany, we begin Ordinary Time this week, similarly to how we are in Ordinary Time during those Sundays also designated as being after Pentecost. As such, today the Epistle lesson departs thematically from the Old Testament and Gospel readings. Those readings (along with the psalm) continue to highlight to divine nature of Jesus, as is fitting to the season of Epiphany, drawing on various witnesses to this divine nature. The Epistle lesson continues the lectio selecta route by starting with 1 Corinthians. Unfortunately, we aren’t going to get very far into this book this year, which is tragic considering how crucial Paul’s words to the church in Corinth are for the church in America today.

Isaiah 49:1-7 – Who is this anointed Messiah, this servant of God, and what will this person do? Isaiah’s words (inspired by the Holy Spirit) are beautifully descriptive, making it clear this is no ordinary leader or prophet. The relationship of this servant to God begins before his birth (v.1) with particular intent to his purpose. Everything about him – including the details of his entry to this world – are coordinated by God according to his perfect plan, concealing him until the perfect moment. Yet he remains human, not above emotions and feelings of failure. Yet these won’t consume or derail him, rather he will continue to trust in God (v.4). In response to these struggles, God the Father affirms his purpose in his servant, a purpose that far exceeds human expectations, extending to the salvation of all peoples rather than just God’s chosen people Israel. All of creation, including those most powerful, will eventually bow in acknowledgment that the servant of God is the expression of God the Father’s willl and plan.

Psalm 40:1-11 – We can read this as a psalm of David, who authored it. We can think back on his turbulent life and how God indeed was his rock and salvation through many difficult and trying times. But it’s also interesting to imagine the opening verses of this psalm ultimately not just being about David or you and I, but something Jesus himself would say. God delivers his suffering servant and Son from the very grip of death, raising him to life so that many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord (v.3). Jesus himself knows full well the blessedness of obedience. Not the ease of obedience, but the blessedness of it. He knows full well that obedience to God is always best because He lives this perfect obedience himself and can speak from firsthand knowledge. Jesus is the fullest expression of human obedience to God, and He calls us to participate in this through him. While our obedience will be imperfect, we are still blessed as we follow God’s will and Word in our lives because it leads us ultimately to eternal life and freedom not just from sin but from the death that sin brings.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – What strikes me first about these opening verses is what I know about the rest of 1 Corinthians. Paul is writing to a congregation he founded, but a congregation with some serious problems. Most of this letter to them will be spent in trying to correct errors in doctrine and practice. Yet Paul asserts here that despite their many and major problems, they are still the church, they are still the sanctified, and they are still saints. Their sins are many, but the grace of God in Jesus Christ is greater still. We can be recalled from our sins to repentance, and so our sins themselves are never adequate evidence we are not saints in Christ! Despite their sins, Paul can assert they still have received enrichment by God in every way regarding speech and knowledge. Those are strong things to affirm, knowing what he’s going to have to chastise them for shortly!

Sosthenes is mentioned in Acts 18, which has to do with Paul’s time in Corinth. When Paul first comes to Corinth the leader of the synagogue, Crispus, converts to Christianity along with his entire family. Paul stayed for 18 months there teaching and preaching. After his departure, Crispus is replaced with Sosthenes as the ruler of the synagogue. Whether this was a political move by the Jews because of Crispus’ conversion isn’t stated in the text, but Sosthenes apparently also becomes a believer and a fellow-traveler with Paul as he is named here. He is held by some to be an early Christian Bishop, though others are uncertain whether these traditions can be trusted.

John 1:29-42a – I’m not sure why John’s gospel is brought in at this point, though it follows on the theme of last Sunday (the Baptism of our Lord). And it certainly fits the Epiphany theme of the revelation of the divinity of Jesus, with John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament-style prophets pointing directly at Jesus and proclaiming him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John is apparently the first prophet or other person to use this term. But of course the first time a sacrificial lamb is mentioned is in Genesis 22 and the account of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac to God as a test. Abraham assures Isaac that God will provide the necessary lamb for the sacrifice. God does in that case, and God does through Jesus as well. Likewise, the passover lamb is the next type of lamb specifically described for sacrifice in Exodus 12, and it has to be a young lamb but perfect and without blemish. This sacrificial lamb saves the household from the angel of death, but Jesus offers his life on behalf of the ends of the earth (Isiaah 49:6).

John the Baptist thus begins his ministry as the last Old Testament-style prophet, telling people about the coming Messiah (John 1:26-27), and ends his ministry as the first evangelist, the first one to point others to Jesus as the source of salvation.