Sunday, January 12, 2014

May We Come In?

(The study is a bit of a mess, but it really engendered a good discussion. People were interested in the wise men and all the extra layers we have put on top of the story of the first Epiphany.)

Epiphany is Greek for Revelation, and is usually taken to refer to the arrival of the wise men to worship Jesus. As a Church feast day, it is the celebration of Jesus coming to the gentiles as well as the Jews.

Long before Christ, Jewish prophecy held that the Messiah was not going to be for the Chosen people alone.  Read Psalm 68:28-35, a psalm of David.
1)    Suddenly David shifts in this psalm from describing what God will do to addressing ‘you’. Who is you? Why do you think so?

2)    Is there anything here to make this be the Lord is for those other nations instead of just dominating or conquering them?

3)    This psalm is probably partly responsible for people describing the Magi as three kings.  Do you think of the Magi as kings? Does it make a difference in understanding the story if they aren’t?

Psalm 72 is commonly included in Epiphany liturgies. Tradition holds that king and king’s son refer to the Messiah. Let’s read it now.
4)    The psalm clearly says by Solomon, but also by David.  What do you think might be the case?

5)    What characteristics do you see that we usually associate with Jesus?

6)    Are there any characteristics that are different from how we usually see Jesus?

7)    With this as one of the main messianic texts, what would you have been expecting in the Messiah?

A lot of messianic prophecy is found in Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy begins during the reign of King Uzziah, around 750 BC. Uzziah (along with Jehosophat) was one of the two most successful kings after Solomon. The first mention of other countries worshipping the Lord is in Isaiah 19. Read vv 18-25.
8)    What makes this sound like Egypt joining in instead of being ruled over? What else do you notice?

Isaiah 60 is another passage strongly associated with Epiphany liturgies. Let’s read the whole chapter.
9)    What connections do you see between this and Epiphany?

10)    What makes this sound like a prophecy about the messiah to you? What do we learn about the messiah from it?

Image: Jones_04 @ Flickr

The story of the magi only appears in the gospel of Matthew. There are only 6 other unique passages of Matthew, including three parables (vineyard workers, ten virgins and the sheep and goats) and the Roman guards reporting the empty tomb. Let’s read Matthew 2:1-18.
11)    One thing to notice is what’s not in this story. What has been added to it in the way we usually imagine it?

The word used for Jesus in v. 8 and 9 here is not used for an infant, but for a weaned child.
12)    If it was a significant time after the shepherds, what might that have meant to Mary? (Is it significant that Joseph is not mentioned here?)

The word used for the Magi is, well, magi. At that time, it seems like it was used in Greek to describe priests of Zorastrianism. That’s a Persian religion that worships a good god who is in opposition to an evil god; they were very involved in astrology. 
13)    Whether Zoroastrians or not, what does it mean for acolytes of another religion to come worship the Jewish messiah?

Balaam (of donkey fame) prophesies in Numbers 24:17
“I see someone who is not here now. I look at someone who is not nearby. A star will come from Jacob. A scepter will rise from Israel. He will crush the heads of the Moabites and destroy all the people of Sheth.” 
Early church fathers believed that was a reference to the Star of Bethlehem. Interestingly Balaam was a rarity – a gentile prophet.  Was the star mystical? It rises (v.2) – normal star behavior – but then points them to a specific location (v.9) – that’s unusual.
14)    Is there anything for us to learn from this stellar detail?

The three gifts are probably responsible for thinking of three magi.  Gold you know about. Frankincense is a tree resin that is used in perfumes, incense (including use in both the 1st and 2nd temples), and a medicine. Myrrh is the odd duck here – though it is also a tree resin, used in perfume, incense and medicine and quite valuable. (At times worth more than gold!) But it has strong connotation with embalming rituals. One reflection on this passage reminds us of the fourth gift: worship.
15)    What meaning do the gifts have for you? Can we use this as a model for what we can give to Jesus?

For me personally, some of these details take me away from what I love about the story of the Magi. God coming for those we wouldn’t expect, and surprising people coming to Christ.
16)    Who has surprised you in your faith walk?

Overtime: if we have more time, it would be worth looking at the “apostle to the gentiles.” Paul wrote powerfully about Jesus coming for the whole world.
17)    Read Ephesians 3:1-12. What do you notice? What connections can you make with the magi?


Rose window on south end of transpet arm,
St. Denis Cathedral, St. Denis, France.
The stained glass depicts the Tree of Jesse.
(Behind on posting again! Sorry! This was a good Christmastime study based on the genealogy of Jesus given in Matthew. Inspired more than a little by a Richard Beck post at his Experimental Theology blog.)

Matthew’s (MT 1:1-17) and Luke’s (LK 3:23-38) gospels both offer a genealogy for Jesus.  They differ – a lot. Luke’s is backwards from Joseph (Jesus’ dad) to Adam, Matthew’s is forwards from Abraham. There’s a small difference from Judah to Amminadab. But then the lines from David to Jesus are completely different, including different fathers for Joseph!

One explanation for this is that Jewish law at the time encouraged brothers to marry their widowed sister-in-law if they had no children (or sons), called Levirate marriage. Any children from the new marriage were referred to as children of the deceased brother. Another possibility is that Joseph and Mary moved into Mary’s house, making her father a father to Joseph, meaning one of the genealogies could be Mary’s.

1)    What do these kind of seeming conflicts mean to you? Are they worth much attention or emphasis?

Another real oddity for the time period is that Matthew explicitly mentions women in his genealogy. And these are interesting people to include.

“Judah and Tamar were the father and mother of Perez and Zerah.” (MT 1:3) Tamar’s story is not one of the most retold of the bible. Just after chapter 37’s attack on Joseph, son of Jacob, by his brothers, (where Judah says “What will we gain by killing our brother and covering up his death? 27 Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites. Let’s not hurt him, because he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.”) is the story of Tamar. Read Genesis 38.

2)    In some bibles this is titled Judah’s sin. What was Judah’s sin?

3)    What do you think of Tamar and her actions?

4)    Other ideas or questions? (What is the red yarn about?)

“Salmon and Rahab were the father and mother of Boaz.” (MT 1:5) Rahab might be more familiar. Read Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:22-25. Salmon is five or six generations descended from Perez, son of Judah.

5)    Why did Rahab do as she did?

6)    Anything else you noticed or wondered about in the story?

“Boaz and Ruth were the father and mother of Obed.” (MT 1:5) Ruth, of course, has her own book of the bible. Ruth is the answer to trivia questions, since hers is one of only two books named for women, and the only name-book whose protagonist is not a Jew. In chapter 1 we hear how Naomi went to Moab, married a Moabite, had two sons who married – and then all three men died. The daughters-in-law wanted to stay with Naomi as she returned to Israel, but Naomi told them not to. Ruth did anyway. In chapter 2, they have returned but things are hard. It’s harvest time, so Naomi sends Ruth out to the fields to pick up the scraps missed by the harvesters. Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi’s, without knowing who Ruth was, instructs his people to be kind to her.  Read Ruth 3 and 4. (The genealogy in Ruth 4, by the way, agrees with Matthew’s, not Luke’s.)

7)    Uncovering the feet is thought by most analysts to be a way of referring to sex. Is there anything in the text to support that idea?

8)    What do you think of Ruth and Naomi’s plan?

9)    Anything else you noticed or wondered about in this story?

“David and Uriah’s wife Bathsheba were the father and mother of Solomon.” (MT 1:6) Here’s where the gospel genealogy makes a difference. Luke’s history goes through David’s son Nathan (mentioned in 2 Sam 5:14 as one older than Solomon).  Bathsheba’s more familiar story is in 2 Samuel 11:1-17, and 2 Samuel 12:13-25. (Read if time.) But she finally has a speaking part in 1 Kings 1:1-40.
10)    what do you think of Bathsheba’s actions?

11)    Anything else you noticed or wondered about in this story?

So those are Jesus’ named female ancestors.
12)    What do they have in common?

13)    Why might Matthew have included them specifically in the genealogy?

In the Richard Beck article that inspired this study, he writes:
“But I think a more interesting way to read the genealogy is that Matthew is trying to highlight the scandal. Presumably, God could have entered the world in a variety of fashions. We know Jesus enters the world under humble circumstances (peasant parents, occupied outpost of the Roman world, born in a stable, refugees in Egypt, raised in a backwater town, etc.). But what does it mean that God enters the world under the cloud of moral scandal? God chooses to enter the world in the middle of small town gossip. (And if you've ever lived in a small town you know exactly what that is like.) What does it say about God in this choosing to enter the world under these particular circumstances? I think it is a hint about where and how God begins God's work in the world. Then, as now, God doesn't start in churches. Nor does God start in world capitals or with superpowers. God doesn't start with the talented, powerful, rich, or famous. Rather, God starts with the poor, the alien, the immigrant, the person on the street out in the cold. And God starts in the midst of moral scandal and gossip. God starts in the place of social shame and moral blame. God starts with an unmarried pregnant teenager. A human being--along with her embarrassing "situation"--still shunned, shamed and shut away in our churches.
Where does God begin? Here, in the place the religious and the powerful least expect it.”

14)    Whether that was Matthew’s intent or not, what does that mean for us today, this Christmas?

Of course, I had to try to make a visual comparison of the geneaologies.  So...