Scripture Readings for February 2002
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These short readings from the Christian Bible are read daily at community prayer in Taizé, an ecumenical and international Christian community in France. The Bible reference indicates a slightly longer passage from scripture. You are encouraged to read the longer passage in the morning before you begin your daily activities, and then to ponder the reading, in silence and prayer, as it comes to mind during the day. For a brief explanation of how I am reading the Christian Bible, you are invited to go to Exegesis or to Witness.
God says: "I have put water in the desert for my people to drink. The people I have formed for myself will sing my praises."
This passage begins with a statement by the prophet, on behalf of God, that God is about to do "a new thing." The prophet tells us that God "will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" for the people God has chosen. Written in Babylon, this passage expresses the longing of the Israelites in exile to return to their own land. To go home, they must cross the desert. Without God's help, they have no hope of doing so.
Are we in exile from the life of God's promise? Are we caught up in the every day tasks of life? Have we stopped singing praise to God? God offers to guide us safely home. But what is "the desert" we have to cross? And do we have the faith to take this journey?
When he saw the child Jesus, Simeon praised God, saying: "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples - a light to enlighten the nations."
The gospel of Luke begins with stories of two women, Mary and Elizabeth, and the births of their special children, John the Baptist and Jesus. An old man and an old woman in the temple attest to the promise of Jesus, who will be a light not only for the Hebrews but for all the nations of the world. The author of the gospel of Luke is writing this story for a church already dominated by Gentiles. This church is growing within the Roman Empire beyond its Jewish roots in Palestine. Its offer of salvation is for all those who are faithful.
Simeon's prophecy links the beginnings of Jesus in Palestine with the growth of the church in the Roman Empire in the cities of Ephesus, Collossae, Corinth, Galatia, and Rome. The story points away from the past to the future. Our faith, too, looks ahead, drawing on the past for insight and strength, but embracing with hope what is to come.
Pray in the Spirit at all times. Never tire of praying for all God's people.
Paul assures the Christians in Ephesus that the Spirit dwelling within their congregation will keep them united in faith. They are to pray "in the Spirit" for the unity of their congregation and for the unity of the whole church.
The Spirit, Paul says, is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17) He is not referring to a written word but to the living word of God within the life of the church. This is the mystery of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Paul is writing before the gospels are written and long before the New Testament has been compiled. The church begins without the Bible as we know it. It is the work of the Spirit of God.
God says: "My home is a high and holy place, but I am with the humble and contrite to revive their spirit."
The prophet says that God will bring his chosen people home. But the God, the prophet reminds us, asks that those who are to be blessed be worthy. It is not fasting that God requires, however, but mercy and justice. God dwells in the lives of the righteous.
The people of Israel believed that God came to them on Zion, on the holy hill in Jerusalem where Solomon had built a temple for their God. But the prophet reminds the exiles from Jerusalem, who are captives in Babylon and thus far from their holy place, that God is nonetheless with them. The God who made the breath of life resides not only on a hill but in lives of those with faith. Can we come before God there? Can we find that holy place within our own lives?
Stand firm, let nothing shake you, be full of energy for the work of God, knowing that in the Lord nothing of your labor is wasted.
Paul is writing this letter from Ephesus, which is just across the Aegean Sea from Corinth. His letter is primarily concerned with ethical issues that are dividing the new congregation. Some of the Corinthians claim to follow the teaching of Paul, whereas others look to the teaching of Cephas (Peter). Another faction, Paul says, embraces the teaching of Apollos. (1 Cor. 1:12-13)
Paul's letter counsels the Corinthians, calls them to love one another, and assures them of the resurrection of Christ and their coming resurrection. The Christians at Corinth are encouraged to be steadfast in their faith, because through the victory of the Jesus Christ over death they are assured that, whatever may come, they will be with God.
God says to his people: "No longer will violence be heard of in your land. The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light, your God will be your glory."
To the exiles in Babylon the prophet proclaims in the words of God a coming time of glory for the city of Jerusalem. Six centuries after this prophecy was written, the Revelation to John would renew this vision for persecuted churches in the Roman Empire. (Rev. 21:4) The glory of God will guide all those with faith in the new city of Jerusalem.
Can we be guided by the glory of the Lord? Our world is racked by violence and injustice. Can we keep our "eyes on the prize" in faith? (Philippians 3:14)
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples: "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden."
This passage is from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It follows the beatitudes, which bless those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. A shorter version of the beatitudes appears in the gospel of Luke (6:17, 20-23), but only the gospel of Matthew contains the statement proclaiming the disciples as a light for the world.
This is a statement about the church. The author of the gospel of Matthew has attributed it to Jesus, but it comes from the time of the church and assures Christians of their mission. They, like the first disciples, are to take comfort from the beatitudes and to realize their calling to bring the good news to the world.
"The days are coming," says the LORD, "when I shall send hunger upon the land; not hunger for food or thirst for water, but a hunger to hear the word of God."
The prophet is writing about 750 BCE. A native of Judah, he has traveled to Bethel in the northern kingdom of Israel to condemn the government and its priests for relying on military alliances, rather than the power of God, and for supporting injustice. The prophet predicts punishment for Israel and a time of devastation, when the people will long to hear once again the word of the living God.
When we suffer, we long for God. Must we suffer, before we turn in faith to the One who offers salvation for all who repent?
As the earth sends up its shoots and a garden lets its seeds sprout, so God will cause justice and praise to spring up.
Written by the prophet near the time of liberation from Babylon, when the Persians conquered the city in 538 BCE, this passage affirms that the Judeans taken from Jerusalem will be restored to their home. This will be God's justice for the people who were exiled in Babylon. Their return, the prophet proclaims, is as certain as the rising of shoots from the earth in the spring.
Isaiah 61 begins with an announcement of good news for the poor and afflicted. Can we proclaim God's justice to them, too? Can we preach the year of the Lord's favor for those who mourn and for those who have been forced to leave their homes or have no home? Can we praise the God who will see that this is done, even if it means that we must give up our privileges?
Let no one seek their own interest, but rather the good of others. Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
The Christians in Corinth are divided over whether the Jewish dietary laws should be applied in their community of faith. Some Christians think so, and they seem to have support from leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Paul says that the Jewish law is not required of Christians, and this means that even an animal sacrificed to a pagan deity may be eaten by Christians. But, if eating non-kosher meat will offend another member of the church, then Paul urges restraint for the sake of the other and the good of the church.
There are no quarrels in the church today over keeping Jewish law, but there are many quarrels about what it means to be a good Christian. Paul reminds us that our freedom from the law should not be used justify our own choices but must be used for the good of the community of faith. What might that mean for us today?
God will guide the people in joy, with mercy and saving justice.
Baruch takes its name from the secretary of Jeremiah, who is said to be the author. It is part of the Apocrypha, a term used to designate books that were not included in the Hebrew Bible but were included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was used by Paul and the early Greek-speaking churches. The Latin Vulgate prepared in the fourth century excluded the Apocrypha from the canon, but included the Apocrypha in the Bible with a note about its use in the early church as part of the Septuagint. In the Middle Ages, however, this distinction was lost. In 1546 the Council of Trent decreed that the Old Testament included all the books of the Apocrypha, except the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras. Thereafter, the Latin Vulgate included the books of the Apocrypha among the other books of the Old Testament. When Protestants prepared Bibles in the languages of their communities, they included in the Old Testament only those books that were in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, Protestant Bibles do not include the Apocrypha, so Baruch is not found there.
Baruch offers consolation to the captives in Babylon from Israel and promises that God will return them to their home. The light of the glory of God will show them the way, and the mercy and righteousness of God will protect them.
We proclaim Christ crucified, which to the nations is foolishness, but to those whom God has called it is Christ, the strength and the wisdom of God.
Paul says that preaching Christ crucified is a stumbling to Jews, who cannot accept that the God of Israel would allow the Messiah of Israel to be killed, and folly to Gentiles, who cannot image that a God allowing his Savior to die is worth worshipping. But it is faith in Christ crucified that Paul believes will unite the Jews and Gentiles in the church. The Jewish law will divide them, but submitting in faith to the folly of the Cross will make them equal before God.
Why is this the strength and wisdom of God? Christ crucified reveals that God suffers with us rather than ruling over us. A divine Ruler, who allowed his son to be put to death, would be guilty of cruel neglect. In Christ, God suffers death, revealing a love that knows no bounds.
The LORD says through the prophet: "See, I am going to create new heavens and a new earth. Be filled with rejoicing for ever, for I am creating my people to be gladness."
Isaiah tells us that the suffering of the people of Jerusalem, who were taken into exile into Babylon, is soon to end. All of creation will be reordered. And God will come again to Jerusalem to enjoy the rejoicing of the people. Revelations 21 reaffirms this hope in a time of persecution for Christian: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . .." (21:1-2) The author of Revelations reports a voice telling him that now God will dwell among humanity and end their time of tears and death.
These passages suggest for many Christians an end of time itself and the second coming of Christ. They call for faith and hope in the God whose love is steadfast. However we understand these visions, can we be faithful to the God of our faithful ancestors?
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "If you are bringing your offering to the altar and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your offering before the altar, go and be reconciled with them, and then return and present your offering."
The gospel of Matthew presents a summary of the teaching of Jesus in what has become known as the Sermon on the Mount. In verse 17 Jesus says, "Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete." If we have read the letters of Paul, we will realize that this doesn't sound much like the gospel Paul preached. "Truly I tell you," Jesus adds in the gospel of Matthew, "so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a dot, will disappear from the law until all that must happen has happened." (Mt. 5:18)
Because the examples given in the Sermon on the Mount concern moral laws, the statement in verse 18 is not taken literally by Christians to include all Jewish law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus emphasizes the relationships among his followers. Keeping the law and the prophets mean living holy and loving lives. This is why asking forgiveness from those we have offended is our highest obligation and the core of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. (Mt. 6:9-13)
The LORD says, "I am going to send peace to my people like a river. When you see this, your heart will rejoice."
The prophecy attributed to Isaiah concludes with a vision of the prosperity of Jerusalem after Babylon is destroyed and the Judeans in exile are able to return to their homeland. The Bible is filled with images of water and rivers. In a land where water is precious, it is not hard to understand that the love of God is often illustrated with such images. The God who made heaven and earth and controls the rain and the seas, provides in this prophecy an overflowing river for the people of Jerusalem, so they may live without fear.
Spirituals like "Deep River" and "O Healing River" have sustained the hopes of African-American Christians in the United States for centuries. Can we, amidst the violence of our time, find in the scriptures the hope they found?
You are eagerly waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will continue to give you strength to the very end.
To a church filled with conflict, Paul preached that the grace of God is to be found through faith in Jesus Christ. The strength of the Lord, Paul proclaimed, would maintain the unity of the church. He told the Corinthians that the grace of God had already been given to them, and that they have been "sanctified in Christ Jesus" to be saints. Their spiritual gifts, Paul says, will sustain them, because the words and understanding they need have been given to them.
Do we embrace this faith? Do we accept that the grace of God is given to us through the witness in the Christian Bible? Do we trust that the words and understanding we need will be given to us through the work of the Spirit of God?
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "When you give, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your generosity is secret. And your Father, who sees all that is done in secret, will reward you."
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives instructions to his disciples for their ministry. He cautions them to avoid pride and urges them to give alms and pray in secret, as God will know what they have done and said even if others do not. The sixth chapter of the gospel of Matthew is the only place in the New Testament that contains this emphasis, but the gospels report that Jesus often criticizes hypocrisy. The more public our piety, of course, the greater the opportunity for hypocrisy.
The church urges private prayer for all Christians. Turning to God alone, in prayer, is a humbling experience, and it should be.
I think of all your deeds, LORD, and stretch out my hands to you; my soul is thirsting for you like a parched land.
This psalm is a prayer for personal deliverance from enemies. God's love is affirmed to be steadfast, and so the psalmist does not hesitate to put his trust in the LORD. The psalmist prays that his life might be preserved and that his enemies might be destroyed. This would demonstrate, the psalmist says, the righteousness of the LORD and preserve God's good name.
We may pray for deliverance from our enemies, but we must also pray for our enemies.
Paul writes: "I did not come among you with eloquence or wise arguments to announce the mystery of God. I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ crucified, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Eloquent arguments are dividing the church at Corinth, as the Corinthians debate the teachings of Apollos, Cehas, and Paul. Instead of asserting that he has greater wisdom than the others, Paul claims to preach nothing but Jesus Christ crucified. At issue is whether (or to what extent) the Jewish law is to be required of all Christians, Gentiles as well as Jews. Paul appeals to the authority of the Spirit and to the faith of the Christians in Corinth. He argues that unity in Christ is more important than keeping Jewish law. The success of his appeal enables the church to grow among the Gentiles and establish its independence from the church in Jerusalem, which continues to enforce Jewish law.
Jesus Christ crucified is the foundation of our faith. The gospel calls us to trust in God not to confess certain beliefs about Jesus. We are not saved by keeping the law or by affirming "correct beliefs," but by the love of God in Jesus Christ. This is the good news.
Paul writes: "All things are yours; but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God."
Paul tells the Corinthians that "the wisdom of this world is folly with God," for God promises what the world cannot offer. This is why Christ crucified is the touchstone of faith for Paul. From the point of view of the world, the death of the Son of God is folly. What kind of a God would allow it? The gospel proclaimed by Paul affirms a God who manifests love and forgiveness through Christ crucified. God chooses to suffer and die as an act of love for humanity. We know that God does not desire human suffering and death, because God dies for us in Christ Jesus.
This is the heart of our faith. Let the followers of Apollos, Cephas and Paul argue among themselves in the church all they want, as long as they affirm this faith.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to the tempter: "It is written, 'One does not live by bread along, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
The gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all record that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness before ginning his ministry. Although the gospel of Mark says nothing about fasting, the two later gospels tell us that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights before he faced the temptations of the devil. When the devil says to Jesus that, if he is the Son of God, all he need do is command the stones to become loaves of bread, Jesus answers by quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3.
The real issue, of course, is knowing what words come from the "mouth of God." If the church believed that all of Deuteronomy came from the mouth of God, it would impose on Christians the requirements of the law of Moses that Orthodox Jews find there. Christians in Jerusalem in the generation after the death of Jesus argued for that approach, but the church generally followed the lead of Paul away from a literal interpretation of scripture to a more symbolic reading. The New Testament is the word of God for us in so far as it leads us to live and proclaim the love of God we know in Christ crucified.
In the gospel of Matthew, Peter says to Jesus, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replies, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by any human, but by my Father in heaven."
This statement is not recorded in the gospel of Mark, but the gospel of Luke also reports the conversation. Only the gospel of Matthew, however, contains the assertion by Jesus that Peter is the rock on which the church will be built and the one to whom the keys to the kingdom of heaven will be given. The gospel of Matthew looks to Peter (his Greek name), also known as Simon (Hebrew) or Cephas (Aramaic), as the authority for the church.
The gospel of Mark looks beyond Peter and all the other disciples to Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. The gospel of Luke is the first volume of a narrative that tells the story of how the church that originated in Jerusalem under the leadership of Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, became through the ministry of Paul a movement of Greek-speaking Gentile churches within the Roman Empire.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says: "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant will also be."
The gospel of John tells us that Jesus said this to a few "Greeks" who were in Jerusalem to worship at the Passover feast and dropped by to visit him. Some translations indicate that these were Gentiles, but others suggest they were Greek-speaking Jews. In either case, the anecdote points beyond Jerusalem to the church that has already taken root in the Roman Empire at the time the gospel is written.
The gospel of John promises that Jesus will be with those who serve him, even after his death. It represents the faith of an early Christian community that sought to communicate this experience through a gospel account of the ministry of Jesus. Might it strengthen our faith today?
I cry out to you, LORD, set me free from prison that I may praise your name.
This psalm is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies. The psalmist says his persecutors are too strong for him and that he is brought very low.
The psalmist may literally mean prison, or the word may be a metaphor. We who read this psalm are invited by it to seek deliverance from whatever is imprisoning our souls, so that we may praise the God who frees all those with faith.
Paul writes: "Though there seemed to be no hope, Abraham hoped and believed, being fully convinced that God is able to do what he has promised."
Paul argues that Abraham had faith, which was "reckoned to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6), because Abraham trusted in God's promise of descendants even when this seemed impossible. Paul relies on Abraham as an example of faith, because Abraham lived before the law of the covenant was given to the Israelites through Moses. This proves, Paul says, that faith is the only requirement to receive God's promises.
The passage in Genesis, of course, has nothing to do with the argument in the early church about whether or not Jewish law is required of Christians. The gospel of Matthew is well aware of Genesis 15:6, but relates a saying by Jesus that he has come to fulfill the law of the covenant and not to abolish it. On this point, the church has followed Paul more than the teaching in the gospel of Matthew.
Many keep saying, "Who will give us happiness?" LORD, let the light of your face shine upon us.
The prayer for deliverance from personal enemies affirms that God will hear the cry of the psalmist. The light of the "face of the LORD," of course, is a metaphor. The psalmist is not seeking a ray of light from the forehead or eyes of God, but is praying in his distress for the presence of God to comfort him and to protect him from his enemies.
How are we to find happiness? By doing what is right and trusting in God.
The LORD says: "Come back to me with all your heart. Come back to the LORD your God who is tender and compassionate, and rich in faithful love."
It appears that this prophet lived in Jerusalem during the time Persia was the dominant power of the region (539-331 BCE). To make any sense of the prophet's name, which means "the Lord is God," we need to recall that in Old Testament translations "God" stands for the Hebrew word "El" and "Lord" translates into Hebrew the four-letter name "YHWH" that was not spoken in biblical times. This name, however, was written with vowels centuries later by Jewish scholars and became Yahweh (in German) or Jehovah (in English). The use of Lord and God together in the Old Testament most likely reflects a combining of faith traditions that originally concerned different deities.
The prophet promises that God is merciful to those who repent. The New Testament proclaims this gospel truth. The good news is that all those who repent of their sins and have faith will come to know the steadfast and forgiving love of God.
The gospel of Matthew reports that at the transfiguration of Jesus, the disciples fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid."
This story is also related in the gospels of Mark and Luke, and all three gospels report the fear of the disciples when a cloud came over and they heard a voice. However, only the gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus touched and comforted them. In all three accounts Elijah and Moses appear and the clothes of Jesus become intensely white, but the gospel of Matthew alone reports a light from the cloud.
If Moses represents the law of the covenant and Elijah the prophets, then this story presents Jesus as the fulfillment of both. The gospel does not require keeping the law of Moses, because Jesus is the new law of love. And the gospel is not prophecy, because Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecies of ancient Israel. The good news is that God offers salvation to all who repent and trust in the power of love.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer