Saturday, January 27, 2024

Epiphany 4B

psalm 111:5
God is every mindful of the covenant.
Psalm 111:5

Overview of Mark's Gospel

First Acts of Public Ministry

Jesus' Initial Public Offering sets the theme and trajectory for the rest of each gospel. To get a full overview of the reign of heaven on earth we need to combine all four.

• Luke: Jesus reads a liberation-jubilee passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 and announces its fulfillment in him. That very day. Luke 4:16-21.

• Matthew: after calling disciples and then spending time healing and teaching, Jesus embodies the new Moses! Beginning with the beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12, his Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 through 7 explicates and interprets the ten commandments.

• John: Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast. A party! John 2:1-11

• In Mark we find Jesus in the synagogue on the sabbath and teaches. But then in a preview or foretaste of his finished work on Good Friday and Easter, he drives an "unclean spirit" out of a synagogue visitor.

Mark 1:21-28

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."

28 At once Jesus' fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Unclean Spirits

What was the "unclean spirit"? Scholars aren't sure, but in this particular situation it definitely could have been a psychotic mental illness. It could have been addiction or substance abuse. The unclean (demonic, unwelcome) spirit was inside the person, embodied and unwelcome. It possessed him.

Unclean also evokes the Levitical holiness codes along with the emphasis on ritual cleanness in Jesus' culture (remembering unclean is not sinful).

The phrase can be a stand-in for anything that disrupts the integrity and wholeness of an individual human, of a community, of an organization or an institution. In addition, this exorcism provides a glimpse of the cosmic Christ with authority over all the powers and principalities we especially read about in Colossians and Ephesians.


• ...he taught them as one having authority... 1:22

The assembly in the synagogue (gathering place) has just witnessed Jesus' words driving out the unclean spirit; despite the text telling us they were amazed, their asking if this is a new teaching seems tame, although they add "with authority." The word here is authority rather than "power."

• What is this? A new teaching … with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits…1:27
What do you think of this near-conflation of teaching and healing?

God gives all of us, baptized into Christ, authority over unclean spirits. A new teaching? From Jesus? To us? Now what?

• Textual note: the Greek uses the same word "spirit" for the Spirit of God and for the unclean spirit possessing the person in this story.

Recognizing Jesus

1:23 After Jesus had been teaching "just then" why do you think the man entered the synagogue? Because it was Shabbat and that was where you're supposed to be? Or maybe he wasn't devout, and had heard about Jesus?

1:24 "What have you to do with us? I know who you are?" How did the man recognize Jesus? What do you make of the plural "us"?

• How do we recognize Jesus?


I thought it was serendipitous that I discovered my notes from discussing this passage back in San Diego during 2015. I'd planned to rework, condense, and expand them some because they were in that "how did I ever do that?" category, but I had a couple of necessary and important interruptions as I tried to finish this. Maybe those ideas will filter into some of my reflections on Mark in the weeks to come.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Epiphany 3B

Psalm 62:8
Trust in God at all times, O people
Pour out your heart before God
God is a refuge for us. Selah.
Psalm 62:8

Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news the of (the gospel, of the kingdom / reign of) God 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news [gospel]."

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people."

18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As Jesus went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Overview of Mark's Gospel

Up to Now in Mark

• Mark announces the beginning of the Good News or gospel. People long have wondered is this first sentence the start of it all? Is the first chapter the beginning of the Good News? Or is the entire book of Mark the beginning, with the rest of us picking up and continuing the gospel? Could the beginning be all of those?
• Quotes Isaiah's prediction of John the Baptist in Isaiah 40:3 that's one of our primary Advent scriptures
• John proclaims (kerygma) repentance (metanoia, a literal change of mind) and offers baptism
• John foretells the arrival of his cousin Jesus'
• John baptizes Jesus
• Jesus' forty days of post-baptismal temptations

All that in only 13 verses!

Jesus Calls his First Disciples

• Last week we heard John's account of Jesus calling his first followers.

Preceding the call, we hear news of John's arrest—John was handed over or delivered up – followed by Jesus' first words in this gospel as he announces the fullness of time. This isn't linear time or chronos of calendars and clocks; it's kairos when all circumstances, all the moving parts have come together for God's reign right now and right here. It's in your face! It's in the person of Nazareth resident Jesus! Jesus has come back to his hometown from the Jordan; he's walking alongside the lake the gospels call the Sea of Galilee.

With Mark's startling changes of scene and his legendary brevity, we don't know if artisan-handyman-tekton Jesus and the fishers previously had been acquainted. This was not a major metropolitan statistical area, so they likely knew each other by sight. Verse 20 tells us Jesus saw them, immediately (Mark's characteristic connector) called them, and they followed him.

Following Jesus

It's little surprise that late Pastor Eugene Peterson brings us an exceptional verse 17: "Jesus said to them, 'Come with me. I'll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I'll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.'"

And immediately they left their nets and followed him. … James and John … left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. 1:18, 20

Mark reports they went with Jesus without looking back. In Mark and in Luke, the journey to Jerusalem and to the cross is especially incessant and relentless, but this first chapter says nothing about Jerusalem, arrest, trial, conviction or cross. However, as we move on in the chapter, Jesus exorcises and heals. How would those signs and wonders connect with Good Friday and Easter? How would they relate to subverting empire, with challenging – and changing – all the religious, economic, political, and social ways it always had been?

Although Mark opens his gospel by announcing, "The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," and close to the end, a Roman centurion declares Jesus "Son of God" [Mark 15:39], were there many or any clues along the way to suggest or affirm Jesus as God with them, God among us? Jesus called them and they followed.

We need to remember all the gospel accounts – even Mark, the earliest one – were written from scattered sources quite a while after Jesus' death and resurrection.

Jesus called them and they followed.

We think we know the rest of the story that includes death and resurrection. Jesus called them and they followed. If you were like the seaside fishers in this story with no clue about Jesus' future, what would you have done?
I will follow you wherever you go

Friday, January 12, 2024

Epiphany 2B

I saw you under the fig tree John 1L48
"I saw you under the fig tree!"

John 1:43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 46Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50Jesus answered, "Do you [singular] believe because I told you [singular] that I saw you [singular] under the fig tree? You [singular] will see greater things than these."

51And Jesus said to him, "Very truly, I tell you [plural], you [plural] will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

The Gospel According to Saint John

Because Mark is the shortest gospel, during Mark's lectionary year we'll hear quite a lot from John that doesn't have its own year. John is the rogue, outlier gospel that has a different perspective than the three synoptic gospels Mark, Luke, and Matthew.

Scholars believe the community gathered around John the Beloved Disciple that compiled this version of the Gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ had at least two written sources: the Signs source and the I Am source.

• John refers to Jesus' signs rather than to his "miracles."

• Jesus describes himself as"I Am," referring back to God's self-revelation to Israel as "I Am."

Time + Place

From now through the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Transfiguration for Western protestants), we get a segment of Ordinary Time with the season of Epiphany. This season draws upon the primary Epiphany symbols of stars and light, and focuses on the Holy Spirit shining forth within God's people.

Last Sunday for the day of Epiphany we read about the religious, ethnic, and geographic non-Jewish magi visiting Jesus. You may remember visitors from the East – from the other side of the world! – found Jesus by following sky signs and by reading their own scriptures. After interpreting their dreams, they took a different route home.

Recognition of God's embrace of all humanity beyond the Jewish people has made Epiphany a time for reaching out with the Good News of the Gospel. Call, vocation, and evangelism are closely linked and inextricably tied to the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. Like stars in the sky, our lives shine with the good news of God among us.

Call + Response

Nest Sunday we'll hear Mark's version of Jesus calling his first followers, but today Jesus calls his first disciples according to John. They include Simon-Peter, Andrew, James, and John. John includes Philip in this call story (the other gospels list him among the twelve), but only John includes Nathanael anywhere.

Our baptism initiates God's call to us! Whatever our place on planet earth, whatever communities we identify with, whatever our gifts, interests, and opportunities, baptism bathes us in grace and sends us into the world. People sometimes have an overall sense of God's calling to a certain activity, ministry, or occupation. (Maybe especially) people in direct service professions such as teacher, pastor, nurse, frequently have a strong sense of call, though that doesn't exclude people who absolutely delight to balance financial books or create a beautifully presented dinner.

But that's the bigger picture! We spend a lot of our time at the micro level, with one-on-one, face-to-face, five or ten minutes' worth, so our call and our immediate callings include smaller, shorter mini-ministries or micro-ministries.

How do we determine long-term or shorter term callings? As the Epiphany Magi did: read the signs (who where needs what and how soon) and within us (what are my skills, interests, aspirations); interpret scripture (love your neighbor, feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty); heed both waking and sleeping dreams.

Geography + Context

Today's gospel mentions Galilee, the larger geographic area of Jesus' hometown Nazareth. Andrew, Peter, and Philip were from Bethsaida; Nazareth was typical small-town. Nathanael's question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" reveals more than a little dismissive snark.

Having relocated to Los Angeles from San Diego, I can tell you San Diego has a small town feel, has an inferiority complex from being in the shadow of megalopolis LA, possesses a border town sensibility in both wonderfully positive and disparagingly negative ways. Philip's "Come and see!" reply is the kind of basic invitational evangelism that pervades the gospels, that extends to "Come and see the stone rolled away" of Easter dawn, into the Acts of the Apostles, and then into our own twenty-first century.

The gospel accounts, all of history, and our own lives take place in particular contexts or settings: geography; climate; time of year; time of day; biological and chosen family; religion or none; workplace; friends; class/ethnic culture… A website I follow observed how all of us now live on the worldwide continent of the internet.

Sign + Symbol + Interpretation + Figs

John's gospel refers to Jesus' actions as signs. We talked about sign, symbol, and meaning almost as much in design classes as we did in cultural anthropology! Maybe it's no surprise that linguistics is a branch of anthropology—the study of human culture, artifacts, habits, and communication. Whether words printed on a page, spoken out loud, or silently conveyed by signing with hands, arms, face, and body, languages symbolize realities beyond and other than themselves. I've heard that most interpreters don't wear masks (though at the height of Covid I noticed a few did) because facial expression is a critical aspect of interpreting the audible word.

A street sign or a product label isn't the actual object, but points beyond itself to something else. Signs and symbols lead to substance. We sometimes refer to Scriptures and Sacraments as the church's symbols; theological traditions that include Lutheran and Reformed sometimes refer to their Confessions (Catechisms, Creeds) as symbolic books. As interpretations of scripture, they point beyond themselves into scripture and finally to Jesus Christ.

Jesus told Nathanael he knew him because he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. I couldn't find a precise historical or scholarly consensus about the meaning of this phrase, but figs were one of the seven agricultural gifts of the promised land [Deuteronomy 8:7-10]; the sycamore fig was Israel's national tree, with fig fruit representing the people.

According to Micah 4:4, during the "days to come" or Messianic age, each person would sit under their fig tree without fear (this is the famous "swords into plowshare; spears into pruning hooks" promise); and especially there was a tradition of studying Torah underneath a fig tree. Jesus' cultural background would have told him someone reading underneath the fig was a son of Abraham and a follower of the Sinai Covenant.

Friday, January 05, 2024

Epiphany 2024

Isaiah 60:1
Arise, shine, for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord
has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

Matthew 2:1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 '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.'"
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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."

9 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.

10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Epiphany Day + Season

Combining the roots epi = "upon" and phan = "manifestation, revelation, illumination, uncovering," an epiphany is a shining out, showing forth.

Days after Christmas offer several possibilities. When January 6th doesn't fall on a Sunday, many churches celebrate Epiphany on the nearest Sunday. Last Sunday I wrote about Jesus' Presentation in the Temple; the Circumcision and Name of Jesus on January 1st would have worked well for this first Sunday of this new year. January 6th was Christ's birthday until the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine moved it to a few days after the solstice to correlate with the Feast of the Unvanquished Sun people already knew about. After that, January 6th became the baptism of Jesus, as it still is in Eastern expressions of Christianity. Some Western churches that follow the lectionary are observing Jesus' baptism today, January 7th.

The day of Epiphany initiates the variable length (because the date of Easter varies) season of Epiphany that extends until Ash Wednesday. Or Shrove Tuesday. Western protestant churches celebrate Transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, making the theophanies of Jesus' baptism and his transfiguration bookends. The entire season focuses on the light of Christ and his light reflected in us. In the global North, Epiphany arrives shortly after the winter solstice, making its symbolism of light especially full of meaning. Stars are the epiphany symbol.

From the East

Because Matthew is the only gospel with the visiting magi, the gospel reading for the day of Epiphany always comes from Matthew. We sing "We Three Kings of Orient Are," but scripture doesn't say the gift-bearing visitors were kings, and it doesn't say how many there were. In fact, the only kings in this story are the Roman puppet King Herod and King Jesus. However, the text mentions three gifts that symbolize Jesus' identity and ministry, which is the reason the Western Church says three (although the Eastern Church says twelve).

These three from the east along with their retinues probably were Zoroastrian priests, probably from Persia; they also were astrologers who studied and interpreted stars for signs and meanings. They may have been astronomers in our sense of people with expertise about the heavenly bodies. In any case, they belonged to a different culture, religion, and ethnicity than the Jews (Israelites, Hebrews), who were God's chosen, distinctive people. They were outsiders. They were not people of the covenant, bearers of God's promises. But a star led them to the Jewish baby Jesus who is savior of all, Lord of all, king and ruler for all cultures, social statuses, abilities, ethnicities, and religions.

Today's narrative closely relates to Matthew's genealogy with its many non-Jews and ethnic "others." Jesus' final charge to us in Matthew 28:18-20 tells us to make disciples of all nations—all people everywhere! By water and the word, make them insiders to God's covenants, sharers of God's promises.

Discernment + Direction

These persons who almost definitely were guys based their decision to set out for Bethlehem and later leave for home by a different route on:
• studying signs in the skies;
• reading their scriptures or holy book, or maybe the Hebrew scriptures, especially Micah 5:2 and its reference to Bethlehem;
• trusting and heeding messages they received in a dream.

God does whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace everyone: a star for people who knew the skies and who trusted sky signs; a scripture passage for people who were biblically literate and trusted those texts; dreams for those who relied on less conscious, rational, information. Skies and scriptures and dreams all point to the savior of all persons. The reconciler of all creation.

Light + Evangelism

God said, "Let there be light" and light became the first element of creation. Today's passages in Isaiah and Matthew both celebrate light.

Isaiah 60 announces our light is here! In 2:9 Matthew writes about a star at "the rising" of the sun, at daybreak, at dawning. Stars are scattered all over the Matthew reading with east, east, star, star (and magi in the room, not back in the stable). "From the east" is anatolia—the rising of the sun, and not Bruce Springsteen's 911 tribute song, The Rising. Latin words oriens and orient mean the same as Greek anatolia—the other side of the world from ours? Global East rather than *our* global West?

The season of Epiphany emphasizes evangelism—letting Jesus' light shine through us as individuals, and through the church as a whole. Knowing about revealing Jesus with a star, a scripture, and a dream, helps enlighten our imaginations.

This account of strangers from the East, from The Rising – where the sun opens wide a new day – opens up questions of inclusion, boundaries, people who are like us, people who are different from us. It begs binaries of us/them, insiders/outsiders, natives/immigrants. Even earlier than the three-part book of Isaiah, scripture reveals (provides an epiphany) of the God who fills heaven and earth as God for all, God with all.

God has created us to be and to act in the divine image, yet we still need bounded, contained places and relationships. We really cannot leave all doors unlocked for everyone to enter. As families, as individuals, as a church, it often can be difficult to know who to let in or keep out.

Star Words + Chalk House Blessings

Stars are the epiphany symbol! As an alternate or in addition to New Year's resolutions, there's a recent tradition of choosing a star word early in the new year as a guide for the upcoming year. You can ask someone else to suggest one, or in the Spirit claim a word. I missed the past couple of years, but this year I found my word Flourish on an internet list of about fifty suggestions.

Blessing your dwelling (house, apartment, office, workshop, studio, retail space, etc.) with chalk is an historical practice for New Year's Day, Epiphany, or any time. An internet search will provide resources to make the blessing short and simple or long and elaborate. The inscription for this year is 20+C+M+B+24—the calendar year with CMB sandwiched in the middle.

CMB can stand for traditional magi names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, or it can be initials for Christus Mansionem Benedicat / May Christ Bless this House. Although Latin "house" is similar to English mansion for a huge dwelling (or manse for the pastor's house that's not usually very big), it doesn't imply large. It's a home, a way station, a stayover place. You can bless the main entrance and/or separate rooms.

House Blessing Blue Door