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Bible Study: Epiphany 3 (A) – 2014

January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4

The Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, including the regions of Zebulon and Naphtali. As God’s covenant people and recipients of his special favor and protection, there could be no explanation for this utter catastrophe except that God was punishing them for their lack of faithfulness to him and his covenant.

In the previous passage, the writer describes the anguish that the conquered were suffering. The chapter that follows abruptly changes its tone to one of hope. It describes the ascent of a king, likely Hezekiah, who had introduced reforms to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Verses 9:1-4 describe how Judah, reformed by Hezekiah, shines out as an example to Israel of obedience to Torah and faithfulness to God. This will bring hope to Israel. They need no longer live in darkness and despair because if they repent and return to the pious observance of Torah as Judah had, God would one day throw off their Assyrian oppressors.

Isaiah believed that Hezekiah would “save” Judah with his reforms and “deliver” Israel by encouraging it to repent. We can see the “messianic seed” being planted by Isaiah. Although he is not prophesizing the coming of Jesus, but describing the ruler of an earthly kingdom, the concept is there. By the time Jesus begins his ministry, people will immediately make the connection between Isaiah’s words and the Messiah.

  • What does it mean for us to be God’s covenant people? If God does not protect us from all the calamities of life, what benefits do we derive from this relationship? What are our responsibilities?
  • Judah was an example of faithfulness to the covenant, a light of hope for fallen Israel. In what ways is the church a light of hope? How does it sometimes fail to give hope?
  • Who are the oppressed in our society? How might Christians be a light to them and offer them hope?

Psalm 27:1, 5-13

The psalmist describes to us the steadfast love that the Lord has shown him, to which he has responded with unwavering trust and faith in God. He fears no one, because the Lord is ever faithful and has never failed to come to his aid. The psalmist has only one prayer, which is that he be allowed to make a pilgrimage to the temple where he might experience God in a deeper and more profound way. There, in the presence of the Lord he will be at peace, he will feel safe and give thanks and rejoice in the Lord. The psalmist feels the Lord tugging at his heart; it is his heart’s only desire to be closer to the Lord, to see him face to face. The psalmist asks to be kept safe from his enemies until this, his greatest hope, is fulfilled. Although making a religious pilgrimage is not as common today as it was for Christians in the past, it is still something many feel a strong desire to experience. The Holy Land, Iona and other holy places are still visited by pilgrims. Retreats have replaced pilgrimages for many, however; in this case, the “event” becomes holy whereas the location has little or no significance.

  • The psalmist feels God speaking to, or tugging at his heart and drawing him into a “face to face” relationship with him. Have you ever felt God tugging at your heart in this way? How did it feel? How have you responded to this “tugging”?
  • What does it mean to meet someone face to face? In what ways would this change your relationship with someone you had spoken with but had never seen? How might we meet God “face to face”?
  • The psalmist’s faith seems unshakable. Have there been times in your life when your faith faltered? Looking back, do you believe God had remained faithful in his care of you although it may not have been apparent at the time? In what ways do you believe he cared for you?

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Paul receives news that the community of Jesus followers he had established in Corinth is in trouble. It appears divisions are forming on the basis of who had baptized different individuals. There is the “Paul” group, the “Apollos” group, the “Cephas” group and the “Christ” group. This is, of course, an attempt by each group to gain influence over the others.

Paul insists that regardless of who performed the ritual, it is Christ in whom they are all baptized and therefore united as one body of believers. Paul implores them to be of one understanding regarding this so that they may be united in their purpose. Paul has convinced most Christians that there is only one baptism and that it is in Christ that we are baptized; however, we have since come to align ourselves denominationally. Instead of saying, “I belong to Apollos,” we say “I belong to the Episcopal Church,” or “I belong to the Methodist Church.”

Paul claims that the straightforward way in which he proclaims the gospel is the most effective and will endure the test of time, while the “eloquent” rhetoric used by others, presumably Apollos and Cephas, although perhaps not invalid, prevents people from fully appreciating the power of Christ’s message in the cross. We do not know the content of Apollos’ or Cephas’ preaching, or Paul’s for that matter. I believe the message here is that we must carefully consider what we hear from the pulpit, “measuring” it against the cannon of scripture while considering our traditions and engaging our reason.

  • There are many issues that divide Christians today. In what way does baptism in Christ unite us? Is it possible for Christians to be of “one mind” and yet disagree on certain matters?
  • Paul suggests that some others may be presenting the gospel in a way that limits the power of the “cross of Christ” to truly change people’s lives. Reflect on our tendency to “water down” the gospel. What aspects of Christian discipleship make you most uncomfortable? Why?
  • How does reducing expectations minimize the cost or sacrifice of discipleship? How would raising expectation increase the power of the cross of Christ to change lives in a more profound way?

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus, having retreated into the wilderness after his baptism, receives word that his cousin John has been arrested. Jesus knows it is time for him to begin his ministry and decides to leave his home in Nazareth for Capernaum in Galilee. Galilee is in the area that was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been overthrown by the Assyrians. In Hebrew scripture, Isaiah spoke of Israel’s fall as the result of its lack of faithfulness to God and Torah, its disregard for its covenant responsibilities.

Matthew draws an analogy between Jesus and the pious King Hezekiah whom Isaiah prophesized would restore the Kingdom of Judah to righteousness and bring the fallen Kingdom of Israel to repentance. Hezekiah was unable to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, and eventually Judah was conquered as well. Matthew suggests that Jesus will achieve what Hezekiah could not; however, the kingdom Jesus will restore is not an earthly realm, but God’s Kingdom of Heaven.

In Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes upon Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, who are fishing. He calls to them to leave their present way of life behind to follow him and promises to make them fishers of people. He later calls James and his brother John as well, who drop everything to follow Jesus. He then travels throughout Galilee, teaching and healing and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.

Jesus is sometimes described as not being a “family man.” On the surface, it appears that Jesus is calling the disciples to leave behind their livelihoods and their families. I believe we need to understand passages such as these figuratively. Jesus calls us to leave behind our “old way of life,” our former way of understanding and participating in the world. Our lives, as well as our everyday tasks will take on new meaning.

  • In what things, people or ideas do we tend to put our faith, believing they will somehow “save” us? What are the dangers in doing so?
  • Jesus tells his disciples that they will “fish” for the citizens of his kingdom. Evaluate the many kinds of “nets” we use in which to “catch” people for the Kingdom of heaven.
  • Jesus “cures every disease and sickness among the people.” What do you believe sickens our society today? How do the teachings of Jesus address these diseases?

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Christopher Sikkema


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