Week 24 – No Ordinary Man

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 5-7, 9, 14; Mark 4-6; Luke 10, 15; John 6

Significant Moments in The Story

The healing of the Gerasene demoniac – Mark 5

The death of John the Baptist – Mark 6

The feeding of the 5000 – Mark 6, Matthew 14, Luke 9, John 6

The Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7

Jesus sends out 70 missionaries – Luke 10

The parable of the good Samaritan – Luke 10

The parable of the prodigal son – Luke 15

Key Themes

The miracles of Jesus

In this week’s readings, we encounter several different types of miracles that Jesus performs:  healings, exorcisms, and controlling forces of nature.  The miracles of Jesus have often been a source of contention for some because they defy laws of science of reason.  Thomas Jefferson even produced a copy of the Gospels in which he left out all the miracle stories in an effort to boil down the gospel to that which made sense to reason.  Others vehemently defend the veracity of the miracles, citing them as proof that Jesus is truly the Son of God.

In a sense, both sides of the argument are correct.  The miracles are proof that Jesus is the Son of God and they are challenging to our sense of how the world works.  Which is exactly the point that sometimes is missed about the miracles: Jesus’ miracles were intended to reveal the kingdom of God.  They challenge the way the world works because they are intended to reveal that God’s kingdom does not operate by the norms of this world, whether we are talking science, reason, or culture.  The miracles were not just Jesus showing off, which is why Jesus often told the sick that he healed to tell no one about what he had done.  He was not trying to prove he was better than anyone, he was trying to reveal that, in the kingdom of God, the powers of sickness and death have no control.  The exorcisms reveal that God does not allow the forces of evil to remain in His kingdom.  The control of nature reveals that God has the power to bring His kingdom into existence.

The parables of Jesus

We also this week encounter some of the parables of Jesus, including the two most well-known parables – the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  Parables were not told as events that actually took place; instead, they are made-up stories that Jesus used to convey truths.  We often think of parables like sermon illustrations, stories that are intended to make the speaker’s point clearer.  However, in Mark 4:11-12, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, telling his disciples that he teaches in parables to make it hard for “those outside” to understand.  Of course, the disciples themselves didn’t understand either, which is why they have come to Jesus in the first place!

Perhaps the best way to understand the use of the parables is that they were a teaching method that challenged Jesus’ audience to move from bystander to listener to follower to disciple.  The parables sometimes used difficult and challenging images to make a point.  For example, making a Samaritan a hero in a story told to a Jewish audience would have been shocking to the listeners.  Could the audience hear and accept the story even when their very assumptions about culture and society were being challenged?  Some probably walked away from the story angry that a Samaritan was the hero instead of the priest or Levite.  However, those that were able to really listen to Jesus understood that he was inviting them to a better understanding of how God understands community.

Living the kingdom of God

Ultimately, Jesus was announcing that the kingdom of God was breaking forth into existence in creation.  Rather than waiting for the kingdom to fully arrive, all of God’s people should begin to live life now as they will fully in the kingdom of God.  Thus, when we look at the moral and ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, they cannot be understood apart from the belief that God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ and will ultimately be the reality of all creation.

Background Information

Hypocrites – Matthew 6:2-18

The Greek word translated as “hypocrites” was originally the term used to refer to an actor.  Eventually, it referred to a person who sought public praise or was deceitful.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do …” – Matthew 6:7

It is not entirely clear what type of practice Jesus is referring to.  Though Jewish prayers were often filled with titles of honor for God, the rabbis did tend to encourage brevity in prayer.  The concern here is not to spend time in prayer as if one has to somehow get God’s attention.

“This man is blaspheming.” – Matthew 9:3

Blasphemy is the profaning of God.  In this particular instance, the charge of blasphemy is being leveled against Jesus based on the understanding that only God has the authority to forgive sins.  However, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, challenge the idea that this was really blasphemy, saying that Jewish sources indicate no problem with someone speaking on God’s behalf.

The woman suffering from hemorrhages – Matthew 9:20

The likelihood is that the woman suffered from some kind of abnormal menstrual bleeding.  The law indicated that such a woman was considered unclean, as was anything that she touched, until she has purified herself by a specific set of rituals laid out in Leviticus 15.  Thus, the image of her reaching out to touch Jesus is a shocking social and religious image.

“But the Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.'” – Matthew 9:34

The Pharisees are claiming that Jesus is able to cast out demons because he has demonic authority.

Herod – Matthew 14:1

This is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great (the king at the time of Jesus’ birth).

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” – Mark 6:3

The gospels don’t contain much personal information about Jesus besides passing references such as this one.

The term translated as “carpenter” is a word used to refer to anyone who works in wood or other materials.

It is interesting that Jesus is referred to as “son of Mary” and not “son of Joseph”, which would be expected.  Perhaps the crowd was trying to be derogatory, insinuating that Joseph was not his father.

The presence of those referred to as Jesus’ brothers and sisters has been a challenge for those who believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  Some argue that these are Joseph’s children by another woman.  The Greek words for brother and sister are general terms used to refer to relatives, not specifically siblings.  So it is possible that these men and women are members of the family, cousins perhaps, and not specifically brothers and sisters.  At the same time, there is no understanding present in the gospels that would argue against an understanding of these brothers and sisters being children of Joseph and Mary.

The parable of the Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37

Jesus tells this parable as part of a larger conversation with an expert in the Scriptures who comes to “test” Jesus.  The word for “test” is the same word used to describe what Satan does to Jesus in the wilderness. It is also the same word that we also translate as “tempt” in the Lord’s Prayer.  The sense is that the lawyer is asking this question to challenge Jesus.

In response, Jesus challenges the lawyer’s understanding of the Scripture.  In a sense, Jesus turns the table on the lawyer.  The lawyer asks the question to challenge Jesus, yet Jesus is the one who ends up affirming the correctness of the lawyer.

Trying to get back into the position of authority, the lawyer asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  The concept of showing kindness and hospitality to the stranger was well-established within the Jewish law and culture. The parable then is not a story about being kind to strangers.  Instead, we must pay attention to the fact that Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero of the story.

In the parable, Jesus describes three people walking by the man who has been robbed.  The first two are a priest and a Levite.  According to Levine and Brettler, the Jewish people were, and are, divided into three social groups:  the priests (descendants of Aaron), the Levites (descendants of other children of Levi) and Israelites (descendants of other children of Jacob).  Thus, when Jesus begins the story with a priest and a Levite coming down the road, the natural expectation of a Jewish audience is that the third person would be an Israelite.  Instead, Jesus makes the third person a Samaritan, the enemy of the Jews.  Though we often focus on the kindness of the Samaritan, the story itself brings an interesting challenge to the lawyer:  can you see your enemy as one who is deserving of welcoming and of hospitality?

Mary and Martha- Luke 10:38-42

Luke’s placing of the story of Mary and Martha after the account of Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer is perhaps more than a statement of order of events.  When Jesus asked the lawyer to tell him what the law said about inheriting eternal life, the lawyer quoted two laws:  love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.  The parable of the Good Samaritan exemplifies the law of loving your neighbor as yourself.  Now, in the story of Mary and Martha, we see Mary praised for putting the hearing and learning the word of God above everything else.

Disciples leave Jesus – John 6:66

After John’s account of the feeding of the 5000, he gives an account of a lengthy exchange between Jesus and the crowds who had followed him.  The crowd asks Jesus for a sign that will allow them to believe in him as the one sent by God.  They cite when God gave manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness as the type of sign that would prove Jesus is who he says he is.  In response, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. … I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”  Many in the crowd react with confusion and anger, claiming that Jesus is just a man like them and cannot be a divine being.  Jesus goes on to say that he is the sign of God’s work, that in order to receive eternal life, they must accept him.

I am the bread of life.  Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. … Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever.

As we read these words, we hear overtones of communion and a foreshadowing of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.  However, on a literal level, talk of eating flesh and drinking blood carried with it notes of cannibalism.  The Jewish law strictly forbade the ingestion of blood.  These words would cause many of the crowd to cease following after Jesus.

Additional Resources

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Week 23 – Jesus’ Ministry Begins

Scripture Readings:  Mark 1-3; John 2-4; Matthew 3-4, 11; Luke 8

Significant Moments in The Story

The ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus – Mark 1, Matthew 3

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness – Mark 1, Matthew 4

The sign at the wedding in Cana – John 2

The healing of the paralytic – Mark 2

The appointing of the apostles – Mark 3

Nicodemus’ night time visit – John 3

The Samaritan woman at the well – John 4

The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac – Luke 8

Key Themes

The ministry of John the Baptist

John the Baptist’s ministry is best summarized by his message as described in Matthew 3:2 – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – and by the act of baptism, described in Mark 1 as an act signifying the forgiveness of sins.  Though the Scriptures do indicate that there might have been some early tension between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus (Mark 2:18-20, John 3:25-36), it is clear that John understood his ministry as one of preparing the people to receive “he whom God has sent” (John 3:34).  John’s attitude regarding the relationship of his ministry to the ministry of Jesus is best summed up in John’s words in John 3:30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease”.  John was most concerned that the people welcome Jesus into their lives and live by the word that Jesus was bringing.

In Matthew 11, Jesus will associate John the Baptist with the coming of Elijah foretold by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5).  All of the gospel writers portray John’s ministry as part of the will of God that had been foretold by the prophets.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River and the declaration by the voice from heaven are vital moments for several reasons.  First, and foremost, the story affirms Jesus as the Son of God, establishing the identity and giving us a context to understand everything that he will say and do following this moment.  Second, the connection between the baptism event and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness should not be ignored.  Immediately after the voice from heaven affirms “this is my beloved Son”, Jesus faces Satan who challenges him three times, “If you are the Son of God …”.  Jesus’ ministry will be filled not only with miracles and conversions but also with controversy and conflict.  Early on, we are being told that the attacks on Jesus by various groups are a paralleled by a cosmic conflict that Jesus is fighting against the powers of Satan.  Perhaps the miracles of exorcism (Luke 8, for example) bring this most clearly into focus.  Jesus is not just a great teacher facing down those who disagree with him, he is the Son of God who is confronting the power of sin and evil itself.

God’s invitation to join in His work

Once again, as Jesus calls others to follow him and as he appoints twelve as his apostles, we see that God continues to invite humanity to join Him in the working out of His will in creation.  At this point, this should not be anything new or surprising to us.  However, it does remind us that our Christian faith is not just a matter of attendance in church.  As Christians, we are those who have heard the call of Christ and accepted the invitation to travel with him throughout this world and teach and heal in his name.

Born again

The phrase “born again” has become almost cliche in American Christianity.  Yet, as we look at the gospel accounts of Christ, we see that Jesus’ description of being “born again” or “born anew” or “born from above” is an apt description of the life that he is inviting people to live.  This “born again” life is indeed a complete transformation of the person – see the stories of the woman at the well in John 4 and the story of the paralyzed man in Mark 2.  We should open our eyes to read these gospel stories with fresh eyes and ears and allow ourselves to ask the question that Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  How can these things be?”

Background Information

Baptism of repentance – Mark 1:4

Though we often think of baptism as an act of New Testament Christianity, the concept of purification through water was not a new development.  In Leviticus, we see several instances where those who were dealing with various ailments that marked them as unclean were instructed to go and bathe as a sign of their purification.  The apocryphal book of Judith describes how the heroine went out each night to bathe and pray and returned “purified”.  Though a theology of baptism may not have been popularly in place, the use of water in acts of purification was a familiar concept.

Satan – Mark 1:13

The figure of Satan is not one we see specifically named in the Old Testament until much later writings.  The name means “adversary” or “accuser”.

Kingdom of God – Mark 1:15

Recent works by the noted New Testament scholar and historian N.T. Wright have brought back into focus the centrality of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, in Jesus’ message.  Wright points out that the primary thrust of Jesus’ message was not a proclamation of eternal life but the announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom, when the powers of sin and death are defeated and God is revealed as the ruler of all creation.  Wright’s point is to remind the church today that Christ is primarily concerned with this world, not the next.  He believes that his message and ministry has implications for the world in the here and now.  The invitation of John the Baptist and Jesus to repent is an invitation to return to the one true king, God.  This call would echo the call of the prophets, who implored Israel to turn from seeking after other earthly powers and false gods and return to the one and only God of Israel.

Synagogue – Mark 1:21

The synagogue was a house of prayer where Jews would come together to hear the Scripture read and interpreted and join in prayer and song.  The synagogue was a development of post-exilic Judaism as Israel sought to understand what it meant to be God’s people apart from the Temple.  This search led to increased emphasis on the people studying the Scripture and praying together.  Though the Temple is still important for the Jews in the time of Jesus, the presence of the synagogues reveals what the future of Judaism will look like after the final destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

Son of Man – Mark 2:10

Originally, the title of “son of man” was another way of saying “human being”.  However, in Daniel 7, we see the phrase used to describe one who was to come and have everlasting dominion over all peoples.  Thus, the term began to carry Messianic overtones.  Jesus’ use of the term perhaps draws on both meanings, shining light on both his humanity as well as his identification with the expectations of the Messiah as one who has been given authority over all mankind.  In the setting of this story in Mark 2, Jesus is asserting that he has the authority to forgive the sins of the paralyzed man.

Tax collectors and sinners – Mark 2:15

Nobody likes paying taxes, but the animosity with which tax collectors were viewed was about more than just a resentment of taxes.  The tax collectors collected tolls on goods coming across the borders.  As long as they had enough to pay the taxes promised in their contracts with the authorities, they were free to charge whatever rates they wanted and keep the excess for themselves.  Many tax collectors made themselves wealthy charging exorbitant fees, and thus they were despised by the people for their perceived dishonesty.  As far as the label of “sinners”, some wonder if this is a reference to Jews who did not strictly adhere to the dietary laws, especially since this is a story of Jesus and his dining companions.  What is clear is that the people that Jesus is dining with are not people that the scribes and Pharisees would have chosen to associate with.

“Stretch out your hand” – Mark 3:5

It is interesting to note that Jesus does nothing in this story other than speak.  Thus, even as he questions the meaning of the Sabbath laws, is he still abiding by the restriction against work?

“The first of his signs” – John 2:11

The gospel of John consistently refers to Jesus’ miracles as “signs”.  In other words, these events are not to be understood simply at the level of what takes place.  Instead, they should also be read and heard with an understanding that they are revealing something much deeper.  In other words, these signs are pointing us to a better understanding of who Jesus is and what he has come to teach us about the kingdom of God.  In that light, it is interesting to consider that the first sign Jesus performs in John’s gospel is not a healing or an exorcism but the transformation of water into wine to allow a wedding celebration to continue.  What might this sign be revealing about the nature of God and His kingdom?

Jesus in the Temple – John 2:13-16

The presence of merchants selling animals and changing money in the Temple was not simply a matter of commerce and economics.  Merchants sold unblemished animals in the Temple court so that people could make proper and acceptable sacrifices.  The money changers exchanged foreign currencies for currency that was acceptable to pay the Temple tax (Exodus 30:11-16).  Thus, Jesus’ actions, during the high point of Passover, severely disrupt the ability of the people to worship in the Temple.  And that may be exactly what Jesus was trying to do.  By challenging the very authority of the Temple and its administration, Jesus was inviting to see the presence of God in their midst through his words and actions.  Thus, the connection of this story to his resurrection (John 2:19-22).  The story presents a challenge to us, the reader, today:  can we get so locked into customs and rituals that we become more concerned with maintaining an institution than with the presence and Word of God in our midst?

Samaritans – John 4

The Samaritans were descendants of two groups:  remnants of the ten northern tribes of Israel who were not deported by Assyria and foreign colonists brought into the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian Empire.  In Ezra 4, it is these peoples who opposed the rebuilding of the Temple, thus setting the stage for the tension between Samaritans and Jews.

John the Baptist’s clothing – Matthew 3:4

“Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist …”.  This description of John echoes the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 – “… a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.”

The country of the Gerasenes – Luke 8:26

There is some discrepancy as to the exact area that this story takes place.  However, in general, it is believed that this is a Gentile region.  Thus, this story serves, in part, as a foreshadowing of the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles.

A Worship Service for an Icy Morning

I thought that, since we were not able to have worship service this morning, I thought I would send out an order of service for what was to have been our worship service this morning. Since we were starting the New Testament portion of The Story this morning and focusing on the accounts of the birth of Christ, we had planned a “Lessons and Carols” type service that was designed to help us tie together how the incarnation of Christ is part of the continuing story of God’s redemptive work in Creation. I hope that this order will provide a meaningful devotional tool for you and/or your family today. Please feel free to pass this along to whomever you like. And please excuse any ads in the links below – the downfall of YouTube!

Announcements
– Thanks to everyone for making our Pancake Lunch and Cake Walk a huge success last Sunday! It looks like our youth and children raised over $800 for their Summer Passport trips.

– I am going to say with confidence that we WILL have our Wednesday Night programs this week. The dinner is fried pork chops, stewed potatoes, broccoli and cheese, rolls, cherry cobbler, and tea and lemonade. If you would like to make a reservation for Wednesday Night Supper, please call the church office or email Melonie at melonie@tbcdurham.org by noon on Monday. You can also visit the following link to make your reservation for dinner from your home computer (you may need to copy and paste the link into your browser. It is a long one!):
https://secure.accessacs.com/access/eventlogin.aspx?id=yNV0CevFQ1a1sGoqJbIp9A==&site=94226&ReturnUrl=events%2fwz_people.aspx&ChurchID=6070&EventID=83468&sn=94226

– Church Council will meet Wednesday night at 7:30 PM in the Assembly Room

– The Adventurous Eaters will be going to Thai Cafe on Monday, March 9. They will meet at the church at 5:30 to carpool or you can meet them at the restaurant at 6 PM. You can reserve your spot using the following link:
https://secure.accessacs.com/access/eventlogin.aspx?id=iHpTbPztdYdUK+EjL7c5nQ==&site=94226&ReturnUrl=events%2fwz_people.aspx&ChurchID=6070&EventID=83125&sn=94226

The story of the birth of Jesus is often associated with a specific time of year. As a matter of fact, we often call these stories the “Christmas stories”. However, the incarnation is an event that has relevance and significance beyond the holiday we have associated with it. We hope this worship experience will help you reflect on what it means for us believe every day that “The Word became flesh and lived among us”.
Scripture Reading: Genesis 1:1-4 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292222699
Musical Reflection: “Morning Has Broken” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYcVGrSdmao

Scripture Reading: Genesis 12:1-3 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292222741
Choral Worship: “Pass It On” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTQAxgAJmpk

Scripture Reading: Genesis 28:10-17 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292222973
Hymn of Praise: “Great is the Lord” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdqfAkHCZnA

Scripture Reading: Exodus 3:1-10 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292223120
Prayers of the People – Take time to pray for those who you know are in need of God’s healing and salvation

Scripture Reading: 1 Chronicles 17:1-14 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292223217
Hymn of Praise: “Praise to the Lord the Almighty – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEh7Vt9sxmc

Offertory Prayer
God, we pray that you would use our gifts and talents for your glory. You have given all of yourself to us in Jesus Christ. May we give all of our bodies, souls and minds to you. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

Offertory: Thank You God for Saving Me – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pssz5HH7Cp8

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292223669
Choral Worship: “God of This City” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGkEE5dwmdY

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292223824
Choral Worship: “At the Name of Jesus” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO_R3U3TE6w

Scripture Reading: John 1:1-18 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292224097

Sermon

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us …”.
Perhaps no words of Scripture have been more defining or disturbing than these 9 words from John’s gospel. The belief that Jesus is God in human flesh has served as one of the foundational markers of apostolic Christianity. That is why the early creeds of the Christian church go to such lengths to affirm and shape our understanding of what these 9 words are saying. The Nicene-Constantinople Creed, adopted in 381 A.D., expands these 9 words of John into one of the longest run-on sentences in history. “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us men and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.”
Such a statement makes us appreciate the simplicity of John: And the Word became flesh and lived among us. Yet, the complexity of the creedal statement reveals to us a history of conflict and debate, violent even at times. John’s 9 simple words would become not only the foundation of Christian faith but also the spark of several heretical movements within the early church. The doctrine of the Trinity, our understanding of salvation, our interpretation of the entirety of Scripture – all of these things rest on these 9 words, which is why the Council of Constantinople went to such lengths to try to give definition to what John meant.
We are not here today to define a new creed. We are not an ecumenical church council charged with determining the theological foundations of Christianity. However, as disciples of Christ, charged with the task of preparing and presenting a testimony to the world, our challenge here this morning is no less daunting or significant. Just as the bishops gathered at Constantinople in 381, we here at Temple Baptist Church on Sunday, March 1, 2015 are confronted with the question of incarnation: What does it mean, what does it matter, that we proclaim of Jesus that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”? I would like to propose several answers for your prayerful consideration this morning.
Incarnation inspires awe and worship. By definition, incarnation confounds logic and reason. How can one be both at the same time fully human and fully divine? The Scriptures are not concerned with providing us the technical nuts and bolts of how incarnation works. For centuries, there are those who argued that such an existence is irrational. However, as one theologian has pointed out, the incarnation is irrational only if we assume that we have a full understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to be divine. Perhaps the incarnation of Jesus the Christ is, in part, a direct challenge to such assumptions, a reminder that there is much about God’s work in creation that we still don’t understand. That God can still stump and confound us is an invitation to consider God’s wonder and mystery and an invitation to worship rather than just understand God.
Incarnation brings unity to the story of God and man. It is tempting to sometimes think of the gospel message of Jesus as more than just a new chapter in the working out of God’s will. We are sometimes tempted to see, in Jesus, a whole new book with a completely different story from that of the “God of the Old Testament”. However, incarnation teaches us that, in Jesus, we meet the God of Creation, of Abraham and Moses and Elijah, the God of the Exodus and the exile. For centuries, Jesus’ entry into the world was understood as a sign of the new covenant that the prophet Jeremiah had talked about. Yet, even Jeremiah understood that this new covenant was a continuing revelation of God’s ongoing redeeming work in creation that had begun at the fall of mankind. Jesus himself says in Matthew that he is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, not the replacement. Incarnation teaches us that we are dealing with the one God of history.
Incarnation forces us to consider God in the now. It is easy sometimes to relegate God to his heavenly courts, looking down over the grand span of time and space from some space over and above everything that takes place. Yet, the incarnation of the Son of God teaches us that God is concerned about the immediate details of human life. Jesus not only taught about the kingdom of heaven and fought the powers of demons. He fed hungry people who hadn’t brought lunch to hear him speak. He showed fishermen where to cast their nets so they could catch fish. He changed water to wine so that the wedding reception didn’t end too early. We should remember such stories the next time we tell ourselves that God has more important problems to deal with than ours. The incarnation of Jesus is the reminder that God loves us enough to deal with the everyday stresses and struggles and joys of life. In the incarnation, we understand that God cares us as much about our immediate life as He does our eternal life.
Incarnation gives shape and depth to a righteous life. Yesterday I was back in my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia to attend a funeral officiated by Rev. Larry Sprouse, the senior pastor I served under right out of seminary. Being back in that church, listening to Larry celebrate the life of a friend and peer of ours, I realized what a gift I had been given in the four years I served alongside Larry. Seminary was where I attended the lectures and read the books about how to be a pastor. However, I don’t think I really understood what I heard until I had the chance to watch Larry be a pastor. In the same way, we have read so far numerous instructions and commandments and promises that God spoke to Israel and to Creation. However, in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we not only come to understand those words deeper but we are given the chance to see those words lived out.
Incarnation commissions us. John says of the incarnate Son of God, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” When we talk about Jesus, we are not talking about someone who is only a piece of God. We are not talking about someone who only possessed some of God’s attributes or character. In Jesus, God has held nothing of Himself back from us. The immediate follow up question is: what have we done with the abundance of grace we have received?
Earlier this week, I was talking with a man of Lebanese descent who my family and I have begun to build a relationship with. We were discussing a series of robberies that had taken place in our area in recent months. He asked me what my feelings are on carrying firearms. He showed me the pistol and magazine that he now kept with him. He said between the crime in his neighborhood and the number of recent attacks on Muslims and Arabs right in our own country, he felt he needed security. His words struck me hard. I had never considered that he might walk around every day looking over his shoulder, wondering if someone was hunting him. But then I remembered all the kindness he had extended to me and to my family, the graciousness with which he always welcomed us. I found myself telling him thank you for such kindness, that I hoped he knew that we appreciated him and I was sorry he had to live with such worry. He offered me his hand and said, “there are some people that you look at and you get around and you just know they have a good spirit.” I took his words as a compliment, but also a challenge. In the incarnation of Christ, God has given the fullness of His grace to me, therefore I must live out the fullness of his grace for others. That is the first step to breaking down the walls of fear and hatred that separates man from man and keeps us from working together for the kingdom will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This morning, we have heard the Word of God proclaimed. In Jesus, the Word became flesh and lived among us. As we prepare to go forth, what we will we do with this Word, this Jesus, we have received?

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:41-51 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=292224324

Hymn of Response: “O Word of God Incarnate” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fX7m8LiyI7w

Blessing on Grant Mangum
One of our own, Grant Mangum, will be leaving within the next week to travel to Turkey as a part of a mission team from NC State. As Grant prepares to leave, we want to place our blessing upon him and ask that God would use Grant as the rest of his team to share the love and grace of Jesus Christ with all they come in contact with. We also want to pray for Grant’s family as they support Grant in this mission. Perhaps this week you will want to reach out to Grant or his family and share your prayers of support.
May God bless you and make His face to shine upon you. Go in peace!

Week 22 – The Birth of the King

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2; John 1

Significant Moments in The Story

The announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary – Luke 1:26-38

The announcement of Jesus’ birth to Joseph – Matthew 1:18-25

The birth of John the Baptist – Luke 1:57-80

The birth of Jesus – Luke 2

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee from Herod – Matthew 2

Jesus calls the first disciples – John 1:35-51

Key Themes

Who is Jesus?

Again and again in the gospels, we will hear people ask this question.  It was the effort of each of the gospel writers to try to provide an answer to this question for various groups at various times.  At this point, we should take note of several of the ways that Jesus is identified in the earliest stages of the gospels.

Messiah (Matthew 1:1) – Hebrew word meaning “anointed one”.  The Greek word for Messiah is the word that we translate as “Christ”.  Christ is not Jesus’ last name; it is a title identifying him as the Messiah.  The understanding of the Messiah goes back to Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, who spoke of one who was to come, often one from the line of King David.  This one would be anointed as a ruler, just as David was.  This ruler would be the instrument of God’s restoration of Israel.

Jesus (Matthew 1:21) – Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, which means “he will save”.  Thus, the name that Joseph gives to the child that Mary bears identifies him as Savior.

Son of God (Luke 2:35, John 1:18) – In Daniel 3:25, King Nebuchadnezzar sees a fourth man in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that he describes as “a son of the gods”, indicating that this fourth person appeared to be a divine being.  “Son of God” was a common term to refer to such heavenly beings.  In Exodus 4:22-23, God calls Israel “my firstborn son”.  Other passages refer to a king in the line of David as a “son of God” (2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 89:26-27).  When we move into the gospels, the gospel writers are in uniformity in identifying Jesus as Son of God.  This identification seems to incorporate elements of previous uses of the title – divine nature, a Davidic king who will save Israel.  However, the gospel writers are also clear that the title of Son of God given to Jesus is a unique identity that elevates him above all others.

Word (John 1) – the translation of the Greek word logos.  The term is not only used to refer to the spoken word; it is also used to describe the action and the will.  John, in calling Jesus “the Word”, is saying that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s commands, God’s actions and God’s will.  He is, in fact, God – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Mark is the only gospel that does not contain some attempt to explain Jesus’ birth or origin.  However, he is united with the other gospels in his statement of who Jesus is.  Mark 1:1 reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Background Information

The gospels

Each of the gospels speaks with a unique voice and for a unique purpose, though they share some common stories.  Below, I will share briefly some of the distinguishing marks of Matthew, Luke, and John.  We will discuss Mark more next week.

Matthew

The gospel of Matthew seems to have a very clear structure that seeks to group together Jesus’ teachings around common themes.  If you looked at a red-letter version of the gospel (where the words of Jesus are printed in red) you would notice that there are large blocks of Jesus’ teaching, and each of these blocks has a common theme.  We believe that the gospel of Matthew was originally written to serve as a teaching instrument.  Matthew cites more prophetic texts as proof of Jesus’ identity and calling than any of the other gospels.  It would seem that the original audience of Matthew was primarily Jewish.

Luke

Luke’s audience would seem to have been primarily a Gentile audience.  In Luke 1:1-4, the author indicates he is writing this book for a certain “Theophilus”.  We are not told anything about Theophilus, and some suspect that he may have been a high-ranking Roman official.  Others, such as Luke Timothy Johnson, wonder if the name “Theophilus”, which in Greek means “God lover”, is an indication that the book is really intended for any believer.  In any case, Luke cites the fewest Old Testament passages in his gospel and seems much more concerned with capturing the universal mission of Christ, that his salvation is for all people.  Luke’s gospel seems to be organized around the city of Jerusalem – we are often told about Jesus’ spatial and spiritual relationship to the city of Jerusalem.

John

John is probably the latest of all of the gospels, likely written near the close of the first century A.D.  John’s gospel seems less concerned with providing a chronological account of Jesus’ ministry.  Instead, John seems much more interested in theologically reflecting on Jesus’ identity and mission.  John states the purpose of this reflection in John 20:31, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  John speaks of the miracles of Jesus as “signs”, markers that point to Jesus’ true identity and purpose.

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth – Matthew 1

It is interesting that three women are listed in the genealogy of Jesus.  Typically, a child’s lineage was concerned only with the father.  It is even more interesting that the three women who are listed are these three.

Tamar (Genesis 38) was a daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.  When Tamar’s husband, Judah’s son, dies without having produced an heir, the expectation is that Judah will give his next oldest son to Tamar as a husband to produce an heir.  Judah fails to carry out his responsibility, and Tamar is forced to disguise herself as a prostitute and lay with Judah to insure that there is an heir in her family.

Rahab (Joshua 2) was a Canaanite prostitute in the city of Jericho.  As the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land, they sent two spies to check out the defenses of Jericho.  Rahab hid the spies from city officials on the promise that she and her family would be spared.  She knew that Jericho stood no chance against Israel’s God.

Ruth (Ruth 1-4) was a Moabite woman who married a man from Israel during a time of great famine.  The Moabites were long-time enemies of Israel.  When her husband died, she journeyed with her mother-in-law back to Israel and did everything she could to take care of her new family.

Likely all three of these women were non-Israelites, and all three had backgrounds that would not have made them worthy of much note in Israel’s history.  Yet all three are specifically noted in the lineage of the Messiah.  Perhaps the intention was to address those who were concerned about the more controversial aspects of Jesus’ own birth.  By including these three women in the genealogy, it is a reminder that God has worked through unusual circumstances before.

Additional Resources

Week 21 – Rebuilding the Walls

Scripture Reading – Ezra 7; Nehemiah 1-2, 4, 6-8; Malachi 1-4

Significant Moments in The Story

The priest Ezra comes to Jerusalem to teach the Law – Ezra 7

Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem to help rebuild the wall – Nehemiah 2

The rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem is completed – Nehemiah 6

Ezra reads the law to all the people – Nehemiah 8

The following comes from The Story Small Group Discussion Guide

Chapter Summary

It’s no surprise that the Hebrew people were homesick after 70 years of foreign captivity. At this point, it had been 80 years since King Cyrus first gave the green light for the exiles to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Zerubbabel was among the first to go. Fifty thousand former slaves packed their bags and joined him on the trek back to the holy city in 537 B.C. But many remained beyond the borders of God’s promise.

Ezra had earned the favor of Persia’s King Artaxerxes during his time in Babylon. The king authorized Ezra to take a second contingent of Israelites back home. Ezra was a faithful scribe and teacher, and he was given permission not only to teach God’s law but also a mandate to appoint judges and a bottomless expense account to finance his journey.

Nehemiah remained in the palace of Susa as the favored cupbearer of the Persian king. He was dismayed to hear that the walls of Jerusalem remained in disrepair, for without walls, no city would be secure. The king gave Nehemiah a leave-of-absence so he could lead 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem. His first order of business was to assess the condition of the walls and the people. He quickly rallied the city leaders to rebuild.

Sanballat and Tobiah were none too pleased. As leaders of nearby nations, they were threatened by the prospect of Jerusalem’s comeback. They retaliated with intimidation and made repeated attempts to out-maneuver Nehemiah and his rebuilding project, but Nehemiah was undeterred. He encouraged his leaders and armed his people. Some worked while others stood guard. Some carried supplies with one hand and a weapon in the other, but the threats continued. Even when Israel’s enemies enlisted an Israelite as a false prophet to undermine the progress, Nehemiah was not shaken. He refused to entertain empty lies, and the wall was rebuilt in record time—only 52 days!

As Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, Ezra set out to rebuild God’s people. He began by teaching them the Scriptures for the next 13 years. The people gathered to hear Ezra read and other priests joined in to teach as well. At last, they got it! They grasped the reality of God’s great story and celebrated the Feasts of Booths as Moses had written of so long before. The people and the priests hungered to worship God and God’s people were restored in the Land of Promise.

Yet old habits die hard and the people’s fervor soon dwindled. The priests and the people became apathetic, so God commissioned the prophet, Malachi, to speak His words of divine warning. The priests had begun to dishonor God with sacrifices that were less than the best. They treated their wives poorly and wondered why God was not pleased with their worship. They withheld their offerings and the whole community began to again turn away from God.

Malachi prophesied the return of the prophet Elijah as sign of things to come. God had restored His people and protected His faithful remnant. He had protected Judah’s royal line in keeping with His promise to David. He spoke His final words of warning and promise through Malachi and then God was silent. God’s people would not hear from Him again until the promised Elijah would step forth as God’s new messenger. God’s redemptive story, for now, was quietly marching toward history’s climactic event.

Icebreaker Question: What’s the most extensive remodeling or construction project you have been involved in?

  1. List the three things to which Ezra devoted himself (Ezra 7, p. 292). What is significant about this order that also applies to the successful Christian life of every believer?
  2. Why is it important for teachers like to be like Ezra – “well versed” and “learned” (Ezra 7, p. 291) in God’s word? Share with your group who has been your most influential Bible teacher and why.
  3. Compare the “first exodus,” Exodus 11:1-3 and 12:35-36, with this second exodus. How can you tell that this was clearly God’s response to Ezra’s prayer (Ezra 7, p. 294)?
  4. Why do you suppose Nehemiah did not reveal to anyone the plan that God had put in his heart (Nehemiah 2, p. 295-296)?
  5. Nehemiah prayed for protection, but he also posted guards. Does this show a lack of faith on Nehemiah’s part? How should we “follow-up” after we pray for something?
  6. Nehemiah’s enemies tried to use the false prophet Shemaiah to distract him from the rebuilding project. How do you determine if a message from God or another source?
  7. What can you learn from Nehemiah about leadership?
  8. What does Nehemiah teach us about prayer? Do you notice any patterns in his prayer life?
  9. Years after the walls had been rebuilt, the prophet Malachi was sent to correct the priests and the people (Malachi 1-4, p. 302). What were they doing that dishonored God?
  10. According to the prophet Malachi, what is the correlation between one’s relationship with God and one’s treatment of their spouse?

Key Themes

What defines a Jew?

Up until this point, the Jewish people have been primarily defined by their nationality/tribal identity or by their connection with the territory of Judah/Israel.  During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, a shift will begin to take place.  Identification with the Jewish community will no longer be an issue of nationality or location but adherence to the Law.  Central to this week’s readings are Ezra’s calling to return to Jerusalem to teach the Law and the reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8.

This focus on the question of identity will also be key to one of the more controversial parts of the part of the Bible.  In Ezra 10, when it is discovered that a number of Jewish men have married non-Jewish women, Ezra orders that all who have married non-Jewish women should divorce their wives and send them away with their children.  This passage is troubling on several levels, and there are some who believe that stories such as Ruth may have been included in the Scripture, in part, as a counter-argument to this move.  In any case, it should be understood that the primary concern for Ezra was not so much idolatry as identity.  Ezra, and later Nehemiah in his concern for rebuilding the wall, intended to establish boundaries in which a clear Jewish identity could be maintained.

God is faithful

Once again, the theme of God’s faithfulness to His covenant and His people echoes throughout these passages.  The story of the provision of resources for the rebuilding of the wall, the royal permission given to Ezra to teach the Law, and the success of rebuilding the wall in the face of threats from surrounding peoples is all understood as the fruit of God’s work to bring restoration to His people.  Through every disaster and through ever moment of Israel’s rebellion against God, God has not given up on his promise to sustain his chosen people.  In light of God’s enduring faithfulness, His people are invited to turn to Him and renew a right relationship with God based on faithfulness to His covenant and commitment to relate only to Him.

Background Information

What happens between the time of Ezra & Nehemiah and the Gospels?

In October of 333 BC, Alexander the Great defeats the king of the Persian empire, establishing Alexander and the Greeks as the dominant power in the known world.  Ten years later, when Alexander dies, a great struggle for control of his expansive empire begins.  During this struggle, Judah is invaded numerous times by competing factions seeking to gain control of as much of Alexander’s realm as possible.  Eventually, the chaos will subside, and more positive aspects of the Greek empire – language, culture, philosophy – will begin to seep into the lands under Greek control, including Judah.  Many Jews will begin to focus on becoming citizens of a larger world, while others will find such efforts a threat to their identity as God’s people.  Judaism will enter into a time of struggle with forces without and within.  On one side, there will be those who argue that Judaism should adapt to a Hellenized world, while those on the other side will argue for rejecting such a world.  Those on this side of the argument will shift their focus to the Temple as a symbol of remaining distinct from the rest of the world.

In the 2nd century BC, the Hasmonean family will gain political and religious control of Judah, thanks in part to an alliance with the growing power that was Rome.  While the Hasmoneans will gain Judah independence from Greek political control, the substance of Greek influence will remain in place.  This will lead to the formation of three important groups in Judah that will become significant as we turn to the Gospels.

The first group was the Sadducees.  This group was made up of members of the priestly and wealthy class.  They supported the Hasmoneans and a more Hellenized culture.  At the same time, they were committed to the ancient symbols of the king and the Temple.  They compared the Hasmoneans to King David, and they looked to the Scriptures to root their new Greek experience.

The second group that formed during this time was the Essenes.  They were so horrified by the Hasmoneans and their Hellenistic influence that they withdrew completely from culture as a “new exodus.”  Living in their own communities like Qumram, the Essenes devoted themselves to the Scripture, looking forward to the renewal of a proper priestly order and the day when God would redeem Jerusalem and the Temple.

The third group that formed during this time was the Pharisees.  Like the Essenes, they devoted themselves to the Torah and to the strictest observance of the commandments.  The Pharisees were convinced that the Hasmoneans were bad and asked the Roman governor Pompey to remove the Hasmoneans from power.  They were certain that Judah was better off under the control of a foreign power than “bad Jews”.

In 63 BC, Pompey and the Romans entered Jerusalem and removed the last of the Hasmoneans from power.  Pompey and his troops entered the Temple, to the Holy of Holies.  However, they did not destroy or maim it in any way.  In 42 BC, after Augustus and Antony take control of the Roman empire, they place Herod in control of Judah.  Herod will undertake many building projects, including a complete renovation of the Temple.  It is this structure, far grander than the one Zerubbabel rebuilt in the book of Ezra, that we will encounter in the Gospels.

Week 20 – The Queen of Beauty and Courage

Scripture Reading:  Esther 1-9

Key Moments in The Story:

Esther chosen by King Ahasuerus to be the new queen – Esther 2

Haman hatches a plan to kill all the Jews – Esther 3

Mordecai warns Esther of Haman’s plan – Esther 4

Esther reveals Haman’s plot to the king – Esther 7

Inauguration of the Feast of Purim – Esther 9

Key Themes:

Providence (?)

Esther is unusual in the Bible because the name of God appears nowhere in the entire book.  As a matter of fact, there is little dealing directly with religion and faith in the entire book.  However, the entire story is centered around the theme that circumstances align to insure that the right people are in the right places at the right time to insure the well-being of the Jewish people.  One could argue that, though God is absent on the surface, the story details the working out of God’s covenant of blessing upon Israel in the face of a tremendous threat.

At the same time, though, we can also perhaps hear in the book of Esther a warning against reading the hand of God into every act.  Chapters 8-9 detail an almost farcical situation.  Even though Haman, the originator of the plot against the Jews, has been killed, the king’s order to all the cities in his kingdom to kill all the Jews is still out there.  However, a king’s edict cannot be revoked.  The solution?  The king allows Mordecai to issue an edict in the king’s name permitting the Jews in every city to take up arms and kill any who try to kill them, including their wives and children, and to plunder all of their goods.  Esther 9:16 says that the Jews killed 75,000 people on that day.

We return to the first statement in this section:  nowhere in this book does the name of God appear.  The question we are left to ask is:  is this really the only response that was available?  What does it say that an all-powerful king can’t change his own order?  Again, nowhere in the book is God given any credit for any of what takes place.  Perhaps, the story of Esther is a story of warning:  to believe in a God who can do anything does not mean that God does everything.  Perhaps we should be hesitant about reading God’s will and God’s action into every moment and event.

The Feast of Purim

There are many who believe that the story of Esther was originally told to explain the origins of the Feast of Purim, a Jewish festival which, though still celebrated today, has no root in the Mosaic law as the other feasts and celebrations do.  The festival, even as it is described in Esther 9, has no overt connection to the action or purposes of God.  Instead, it was intended to be a festival celebrating the Jews deliverance from Haman’s plot by the actions of Esther and Mordecai.  The term Purim comes from a Babylonian root word meaning “lot”, as in the lot of chance that Haman cast to determine what day would be the day when all the Jews would be slaughtered.  As in several cases in the book of Esther, there is an irony here – the day of the Jews’ destruction becomes the day of the Jews’ victory and deliverance.

Jews and Gentiles

The story of Esther is a very interesting story to read in light of the history of the Jewish people and the anti-Semitism that they would face throughout their history, even until today.  Though we most often think of the Holocaust in relation to anti-Semitism, history tells us that the Jewish people have been targeted for violence and persecution throughout the centuries. Esther’s story points to an ongoing historical reality, even though many believe that the story of Esther is more legendary than historical fact.  The question that Esther’s story raises is what relationship the Jews should have with Gentiles and, perhaps, a word of warning about future persecution by Gentiles.  Interestingly, the Apocrypha preserves a later Greek translation of the book of Esther which contains 107 additional verses.  In these additional texts, there is a very strong sentiment which some take to be a sense that God has chosen for Israel and against the nations.  The belief is that these later additions may represent a response to a particular time of persecution by neighboring Gentiles.  In any case, the story of Esther invites us to consider the often dark history of Jewish-Gentile relations and ask where we need to address misunderstandings and stereotypes that can lead to violence and hatred.

Irony and contrast

The book of Esther is ripe with all kinds of ironic and contrasting ideas.  For example, the king dismisses Queen Vashti as a warning that “every man should be master in his own house.”  However, the story of Esther is about the king gives in to the wishes of Haman, then Esther and Mordecai.  Vashti was to be an example of a woman’s “rightful place”, yet it is Haman’s wife who tells Haman to hang Mordecai from the gallows and it is Esther who is the lone spokesperson for her people.  Other such notable ironies will be pointed out in other places in this post.

Background Information

Ahasuerus – Esther 1:1

This is another name for King Xerxes I, who ruled a portion of the Persian Empire spanning from India to Ethiopia beginning in 485 B.C. until 464 B.C.

Susa – Esther 1:2

Susa was not the capital of Xerxes empire.  Instead, Susa was the king’s winter home, located about 200 miles northeast of Babylon.

Mordecai the Benjaminite and Haman the Agagite – Esther 2-3

It is not trivial information that we are told the tribal associations of Mordecai and Haman.  The term “Agagite” was probably a reference to King Agag, the Amalekite king that King Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, defeats in 1 Samuel 14:7-9.  The fact that Saul does not kill Agag after Samuel has told Saul that he must utterly destroy all of the Amalekites is one of the reasons why Saul ultimately loses the throne.  So perhaps the text is giving some justification why Mordecai will not honor Haman when he comes by.

Fasting – Esther 4:16

Fasting is the only seemingly religious activity mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther, though it was certainly not exclusive to the Jewish people.  In the story, the call to fasting provides an ironic counterpoint to the elaborate feasts of the Persians, who in some cases got drunk to make decisions because they believed drunkeness allowed them to connect with a higher spiritual state.  The call to fast also stands in contrast to Mordecai’s call to feast in Esther 9 when the pogrom, or program of persecution against the Jews, has been put down.  In the Old Testament, fasting is often associated with prayer, though no such obvious connection is made in this situation.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

Why could Esther be killed for going to see the king without being invited?

The answer is relatively simple:  security.  If someone came to see the king without being invited by the king, it was assumed they represented a risk to the king and intended to do him harm.

Additional Resources

 

 

“One Night with the King” – the movie based on the story of Esther

Week 19 – The Return Home

Scripture Reading: Ezra 1-6; Haggai 1-2; Zechariah 1,8

Significant Moments in The Story
King Cyrus of Persia decrees Israelites can return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple – Ezra 1
The altar and Temple foundations are rebuilt – Ezra 3
The rebuilding of the Temple ceases in face of opposition – Ezra 4
The rebuilding process is resumed and completed – Ezra 6

Key Themes

Living in a new reality

The end of the exile in Babylon and the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem was a moment of joy and celebration to be sure, one that some perhaps believed they would never see.  However, those who returned are faced with the harsh reality that life in Israel will not be easy.  There will be rivalries with those peoples that now live in the surrounding region.  They are charged with not only rebuilding buildings but a nation and all that entails.  In addition, they have to rebuild the religious life of Israel, which during the exile has taken on a different appearance from before the exile.  This is perhaps marked best by the account of the laying of the foundations of the new Temple in Ezra 3.  The new Temple will be a smaller and less ornate structure from the one Solomon built.  This is a combination of factors, including fewer resources and a greater emphasis on the Temple as a house of prayer.  Some would see the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple as a reason to celebrate, but some would see the outlines of what was to come as cause to lament what had been lost and what was different.  These accounts challenge us to consider how we confront theologically and faithfully those moments in life when we are forced to live by new realities that are not necessarily of our making or choosing.

Finish what you start

In Ezra 4, we are told that the rebuilding process of the Temple stops for a time due to pressure exerted on the Persian emperor by the neighboring peoples.  In response, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah rise up to encourage the people to take up the task of rebuilding the Temple.  Their messages shed light on another reality:  the struggle to run with perseverance the race that is before us until we reach its finish.  Challenges externally and internally rise up to pull the Israelites away from the task of rebuilding the Temple, just as we often are distracted from our work by external pressures and internal fears or desires.  The prophets encourage the people see to completion the work they had begun in God’s name.

 

Background Information

“… in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished …” – Ezra 1:1

In Jeremiah 29:10, as part of his letter to those who are already in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah says, “For thus says the LORD:  Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”

Cyrus orders the Temple to be rebuilt – Ezra 1:2-4

Cyrus was known to be interested in restoring local temples.  It should be noted that his understanding of God is that he is the God of Jerusalem (Ezra 1:3).

“Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do …” – Ezra 4:2

After the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and carried the people off into exile, they resettled the land with peoples from other conquered nations.  Eventually, these peoples began to worship Yahweh, but they also worshiped other gods that they brought with them.  This synthesis of religious beliefs and the mixing of other nations into the land of the north would lead those who had returned from exile in Babylon to identify themselves as the only true Israel.  They refuse the offer of help, believing that permission to rebuild the Temple was given exclusively to them by King Cyrus.  In response, the “people of the land” would seek to stop both the rebuilding of the Temple and the wall around Jerusalem to keep the returned exiles vulnerable.

This history is the root of the Jewish-Samaritan animosity that will be evident during the time of Jesus.

Haggai

The prophet Haggai’s career was relatively short, spanning from August to December of the year 520 B.C.  Haggai’s primary focus was to call the people to finish the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Haggai 2:10-19 is believed to be a speech that Haggai made on the day that the cornerstone of the foundation was laid.  In this speech, Haggai marks the importance of beginning the work of rebuilding the Temple.  Haggai explains that the beginning of the work marks a turn of Israel away from guilt and abandonment of God to a time of blessing and restored relationship.

As part of that time of blessing, Haggai envisions a restored monarchy with Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah who led the rebuilding effort, as God’s chosen one to be king (Haggai 2:20-23).  This passage reminds us that the returned exiles not only were struggling with rebuilding buildings but trying to determine what would be the best order of rule and governing themselves.  Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, will have a slightly different idea.

Zechariah

Zechariah’s prophetic ministry seems to have spanned about 2 years.  Like Haggai, Zechariah portrays the effort of rebuilding the Temple as a turn in Israel’s relationship with God (Zechariah 8:9-13).  However, though there is much that Zechariah and Haggai share in unison, Zechariah’s message does take a unique shape.

For one, Zechariah envisions that, in the new day of God’s blessing, the high priest will be the king of the people, specifically Joshua (Zechariah 6:9-13).  There seems to be some indication of two rulers sharing power (Zechariah 6:13), leading some to wonder if originally Zechariah envisioned Zerubbabel crowned king, sharing power with the high priest Joshua.  Whatever the case, Zechariah’s description of governance in the new day of blessing is different from the one described by Haggai.

Zechariah’s message also includes an atmosphere of welcoming of other nations (Zechariah 8:20-23).  This will present an interesting contrast to the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah that we will look at next week.