May 9, 2021

Isaiah 29

This week, we have a more familiar prophet (Isaiah), but from a less familiar part of his prophecies (so-called “First” Isaiah).  The period is pre-exilic (8th Century BCE).  The theme is judgment (with a back-handed kind of hope at the end).  This is not the soaring poetry of Handel’s Messiah, but the punch-to-the-gut preaching of Amos.  Let’s see how we can move through this passage from judgment toward hope.

A Change of Hearts.  Isaiah leads off with a deep contrast between the orations coming from these peoples’ mouths (especially in worship!) and the orientation of these peoples’ hearts (their hearts are “far from me,” verse 13).  How has our worship become “a human commandment learned by rote (same verse)?”

A Change of Habits.  As I said in my article on this week’s lesson, “trivial liturgy leads to trifling behaviors.”  Review the specific behaviors listed in verse 21, and then be ready to discuss the deep connections between insincere worship and unjust practices.

A Change of Hierarchies.  In verses 19-20, the prophet gives voice to what is sometimes called the “great reversal,” or the “turning upside down” or “right-side up” of God’s kingdom.  We’re perhaps more familiar with this in the Sermon on the Mount or Mary’s Magnificat (two powerfully “prophetic” pieces of prose and poetry).  How do we hear the good news in a prophecy like verse 20: “all those alert to do evil shall be cut off”?

The prophet Isaiah sees a way forward for God’s people, but it will require a change of heart and habits.  How do Jesus’ life and teachings change this, and how does his death and resurrection fulfill this?  See you Sunday.  Maybe “those who grumble will accept instruction (verse 24),” including yours truly!

May 2, 2021

1 Kings 22

Last fall, we met a less than familiar prophetess by the name of Huldah.  This week we meet a similarly obscure prophet by the name of Micaiah.  Here, the prophet is caught between two kings and their “yea-saying” advisors.  Let’s listen to this lesson as we think about those occasions when we’re invited to speak a word grounded in faith.

An Audience with the King.  I’ve spent a good deal of my life wishing I had more opportunities to speak in crowded assemblies; then almost as much time wishing I had less.  It’s an exciting, and a terrifying occasion to rise and attempt to speak a word from the Lord, especially when real lives are at stake.  What stories (of your own or others’) does Micaiah’s story bring to mind?

An Easy Word, and a Hard One.  At first, Micaiah seems to go along with the crowd, and urges Ahab to “go up (verse 15).”  But, when prodded, he reverses course and delivers a hard word to this gathered assembly.  What do you make of this shift, and why is it part of this story?

A Higher Court.  This passage begins with two kings “sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria (verse 10).”  A pretty impressive scene!  But, before this story ends, we are given a vision of another throne room far more impressive: “I saw the Lord sitting on this throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and the left of him (verse 19).”  How does this vision change the perspective of the hearers, then and now?

We have seen that prophets need faith, and wisdom, and compassion.  This week, we are reminded that prophets also need courage.  We learn this from Jesus, and we learn this from Micaiah.  How can we gain such courage ourselves?  See you Sunday.  No thrones or robes required!

April 25, 2021

Lamentations 5

We return this week to the theme of “disgrace,” as the prophet/poet laments the destruction of Jerusalem.  We don’t often think of the prophetic voice being one of lamentation, but prophets (from Moses to Jeremiah) have cried out to God on the peoples’ behalf.  Let’s come at this theme of lamentation from the following directions.

Remember.  It’s one to suffer.  It’s another thing to suffer when no one (including God!) seems to notice.  The primary message of the prophet/poet in Lamentations is the call to remember.  How do we ask God to “remember” in our prayers?

Restore.  At the very end, the prophet/poet moves past grief toward hope.  The call to “remember” shifts toward a plea to “restore.”  What do we yearn for God to “restore” in the life of the Church and the world today?

Lament.  We Presbyterians excel at praise, but are reluctant to lament.  Indeed, we seem to be reticent regarding emotions in general, and especially in worship.  Why do you think we have trained ourselves this way, in contrast to much of the material in scripture?

I’ve heard and read that those who have experienced “trauma” often feel out of place in mainline worship.  Would the prophet/poet of Lamentations feel the same?  There’s much to lament in our lives and in our world today.  Let’s practice asking God to remember and restore us this Sunday.  See, and hear you then.

April 18, 2021

Nehemiah 2

We go from casting out foreign wives and children (last week) to the surreptitious building of walls (this week); from Ezra to Nehemiah.  Once again we have the issue of application.  Is this just a one-off story from Israel’s past about the need for exterior walls in Jerusalem?  Or can it speak more broadly regarding our desire for honoring God and maintaining our identity as God’s people?  Here are some questions to get us thinking.

Read Psalm 84:1-2.  The beauty of Jerusalem is like the beauty of a well-loved sanctuary.  It reminds God’s people of God’s presence with them.  How does this help us understand Nehemiah’s charge that the ruins of Jerusalem are a “disgrace (verse 17)?”

Walls.  Defensive walls are a necessary part of urban architecture in our fallen world.  What “walls” are necessary in the Church today?

Gates.  In contrast to the walled city of Jerusalem planned by Nehemiah, scripture offers us John’s vision of the walled city come down from heaven (Revelation 21).  The gates of this city “will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there (verse 25).  Why must the Church have open gates in its walls at all times?

Our lesson this week is a real-life story about leadership at a precarious time in the history of God’s people.  How could Nehemiah build a wall without causing distrust on the part of the Persian king, Artaxerxes?  But surely we must read this story as something more than a lesson in artful diplomacy.  See you Sunday, as we think about the beauty, security, and accessibility of God’s presence at MPPC today.

April 11, 2021

Ezra 10

If you thought dealing with the Suffering Servant Song on Easter was tough, get ready for Ezra on the 2nd Sunday of Easter!  Ezra’s call for separation from “foreign” wives and children doesn’t go down easily in a faith community grounded in keeping promises.  So, let’s approach our passage this way, in three steps.

Second Chances.  The people of God had great hopes for the future if only they could get back to Jerusalem from exile.  Only, it didn’t turn out so well.  Once back, they intermarried with the peoples who had been left behind, and did even worse at maintaining their identity than they had in exile.  How can we understand judgement, in such circumstances, as an element of God’s grace?

Prophetic Witness.  Ezra didn’t just get up in a pulpit and deliver a blistering sermon.  He prayed and wept and fasted.  How does Ezra model “repentance” for God’s people?

The Call for Separation.  At its core, this is a passage about assimilation.  What happens when God’s people become so much like the surrounding culture that no one can tell any difference?  This is a hard and difficult issue for American Christianity, and one about which we may well disagree.  But what are some practices that you think need to be “left behind” in order for us to be seen as followers of Jesus Christ?

The prophetic material is not easy to digest, and it is dangerous to apply.  And yet, here we are as God’s people, trying to figure out how we live as Easter people in today’s world.  Of what do we need to repent, in order to witness to God’s love more effectively?  See you Sunday – even if it does rain!

April 4, 2021

Isaiah 53

This week we mark Easter with a shift to the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  While our past few lessons made the point that bad kings (like Ahab) suffered God’s punishment, and good kings (like Josiah) were spared the worst of God’s judgment, this passage celebrates a leader who suffers because he is good.  Indeed, this good leader suffers for the sake of others.  So we enter into the mystery of vicarious or redemptive suffering.  Let’s talk about it on three different levels.

The Suffering of Individuals.  Many scholars point toward particular individuals who may be the referent of the Servant Songs.  These are people like Moses and Miriam and Jeremiah, who suffer as they attempt to lead God’s people.  How are we called to participate in such suffering for others?

The Suffering of Communities.  Most scholars also point to Israel, and its suffering in exile, as a way to understand the Servant Songs.  How does Israel’s suffering, and the Church’s, participate in the love of God for the world?

The Suffering of God.  At the deepest level, the Servant Songs remind us of the suffering of God, who pays a price for the depth of God’s love for God’s people.  We see this most clearly in Jesus.  How does the Servant Song help us understand the redemptive work of Jesus, the Christ?

Not only does this Servant Song give us new insight into the redemptive possibilities of suffering, it opens the possibility for new life and hope on the other side of suffering, and maybe death: “out of his anguish he shall see light (verse 11).”  How does this Servant Song help us celebrate the mystery of Easter, in Jesus’ resurrection and our own?  Hope to see you Sunday!

March 28, 2021

1 Kings 18

This week we study a second story of a king and a prophet.  This time the king is Ahab (one of the worst of Israel’s kings) and Elijah (who becomes the model for the messenger of a new age).  Let’s structure our discussion around the three major characters: Ahab, Elijah, and Obadiah.

Ahab.  Ahab (and his wife Jezebel) excel at the two primary, biblical sins: injustice and idolatry.  How can we see ourselves in Ahab?

Elijah.  Though Elijah has his moments of doubt (read 1 Kings 19), here he is the model of courage.  What can we learn from Elijah “for the facing of this hour”?

Obadiah.  Obadiah is the classic character who is caught in the middle.  When have we found ourselves in the middle of a fight (in our family, our congregation, or our community), and what can Obadiah teach us?

This story precedes the story of the showdown on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (read the rest of the chapter).  Palm/Passion Sunday precedes the showdown between Jesus and the Jerusalem authorities later this coming Holy Week.  What can both these stories teach us about courage, and persistence, and sacrifice as disciples of God in a broken world?  Hope to see you Sunday.

March 21, 2021

2 Kings 22

When we began our study of the prophets, we mentioned other offices necessary for the life of God’s people in the Promised Land.  One of those was the king.  Now, we encounter our first story of the two offices interacting.  On the one side, King Josiah (one of the few “good” kings in the Deuteronomistic History).  On the other, Huldah, a little known, much less well-recognized “prophetess.”  Some guiding questions.

Why do you think that the office of the king is necessarily paired with the office of the prophet?

What is it important that Huldah “prophesies” through the interpretation of scripture, versus visions and dreams?

How do we understand the work of God’s judgment/discipline today?

While we’ve spent the end of last quarter discussing the role of women in the early church, this week’s lesson continues that theme.  I believe there are some “prophetesses of wisdom” in the RJB Class.  Let’s see what they have to teach us about God’s judgment and grace.  See you Sunday.

March 14, 2021

Joshua 5 and 6

We seem to have left lots hanging last week: how do we recognize a prophet; how do we test the prophet’s words; who decides whether the prophet is trustworthy or not?  I’m not sure how much clarity this week’s lesson will provide us on these topics.  It’s an unfamiliar prelude to a very familiar story – where “the walls come a tumblin’ down.”  Let’s try approaching this passage with three leading questions.

Who’s the prophet in this passage?

How do God’s people test the prophet’s words?

Where have we experienced such wondrous “victories” in our lives?

Make no mistake.  There are deep problems with this passage, beyond the appearance of a mysterious man with a drawn sword.  What do we do with stories of conquest and holy war in a world still prone to violence?  However, the main topic for our discussion might be: what do we do when we receive strange instructions from God (like knocking down walls with trumpets, or overcoming hatred with love)?  If following God was easy, who needs a prophet?  See you Sunday, and let’s see what walls “come a tumblin’ down”!

March 7, 2021

Deuteronomy 18

We begin this week a thirteen-week series on “Prophets Faithful to God’s Covenant.”  Many today claim to speak with a “prophetic voice,” but how do we discern the voices that are faithful to God’s covenant, both personally and communally?  As we practiced this during the last series with the “call,” so we shall do so together with the theme of “prophecy.”  This week, we start with Deuteronomy, and the first detailed reference to this office in scripture.

God will raise up.  The culture round about Israel (and us!) was full of “soothsayers and diviners” ready to predict the future for a fee (we call them “futurists” today).  Note that God raises up prophets, not we ourselves.  How do we discern those whom God has “raised”?

I will put my words in her mouth.  What’s the difference between an “opinion” and a “prophetic word”?  Congregations don’t come to hear a preacher’s opinions.  We come to hear a “word from the Lord.”  Again, how do we discern when the words we hear are “inspired”?

Words that are true.  I don’t know about you, but I find Moses’ method of distinguishing the true prophet from the false prophet problematic:  if the words come true, they’re true; if not, they’re false.  Where does that leave us in the present

We ended our last series with a brief discussion regarding the interpretation of scripture.  How do we “apply” scripture faithfully in our context?  All through this series, we’ll be testing out a related question.  How do we distinguish the “true” from the “false” regarding prophetic utterances?  I can’t wait to hear whose voice/voices God “raises up” in our discussions.  See, and hear you Sunday.