Friday Facts: Lectionary A – The Baptism of our Lord

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Acts 10.34-43

34 And having opened his mouth, Peter said, “Truly, I realize that God is not someone who shows partiality, 35 but in all nations, the one who fears Him and does righteousness is acceptable to Him. 36 This is the word that He sent to the children of Israel, proclaiming peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know the things that happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee with baptism that John proclaimed, 38 when God anointed Jesus from Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, who went throughout the land, doing good works and healing everyone who was dominated by the devil, because God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of everything which he did in the Judean countryside and Jerusalem, he, whom they murdered, having him hung on a cross. 40 This man, God raised on the third day and allowed him to become visible, 41 not to all people, but to the witnesses who were hand-picked by God, us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to proclaim to the people and to witness that he is the one who God appointed to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets witness to this man, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

In the first half of the Acts of the Apostles, before the spotlight turns to Paul, Peter preaches a handful of sermons, of which this is the next to last. This particular sermon, preached by Peter to the household of Cornelius, contains a number of potential starting points. For example, the Apostles Creed echoes several verses in Peter’s sermon. Peter’s use of the word “witness,” which in Greek is the same word as “martyr,” also deserves further study. But tonight, the most interest for me lies the word at the end of verse 39. In describing the Jesus’ death, Peter reminds Cornelius’ household that he died having been “hung on a cross.” The word in Greek is ξύλον and it holds a double meaning. On the on hand, as I’ve translated it, it can refer to the cross on which the Romans crucified criminals. On the other hand, it’s basic semantic sense is simply “tree.” And by choosing to talk about a tree, Peter draws together the entire story of redemption. You see, Peter could have chosen the other Koine Greek word for cross, σταυρός, as used in the Gospels. But, instead, by choosing ξύλον, Peter ties the crucifixion of Jesus to the beginning and the end of human history. At the beginning of the Bible, in the Greek translation of Genesis chapter three, the serpent entices the man and woman to eat from a tree (ξύλον). In the very last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, the tree (ξύλον) of life stands in the middle of the New Jerusalem, and the “leaves of the tree (ξύλον) are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22.2). At the beginning, at the end, and in the middle stands of human history stands a ξύλον. And that ξύλον is the cross of Jesus Christ that takes away the sins of the world.

Friday Facts: Christmas Edition!

Friday Facts is a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Luke 2.7

And she gave birth to her son, her firstborn, and she swaddled him and she laid him down in a feeding-trough, because there was not a place for them in the guest room.

Because this Sunday is Christmas, and we all have many things to do, I’ll try to keep it short today. I like concordance studies, i.e. looking up a word in the Bible and seeing where else in the Bible it appears. They certainly can be done in English, but I appreciate them most in Greek because they often throw light on nuances of translation. The Christmas story is a great example, because the translation of one word in the text changes our idea of what’s actually going on. That word is καταλύματι, and it comes at the end of verse 7. For those of us who do the majority of our reading from translations heavily influenced by the King James Version (the NRSV included), the standard rendering of καταλύματι has been “inn.” And this translation conjures up images of “No Vacancy” signs, callous inn-keepers turning the young couple away, and a remarkable lack of hospitality on the part of the city of Bethlehem.

Image my surprise when I looked up where else καταλύματι occurs in Luke and found it in Luke 22.10-12: And [Jesus] said to them, “Behold, when you go into the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house into which he goes. And you will say to the master of the house, ‘Our teacher says to you, ‘Where is the κατάλυμα where I can eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And that one will show you a large, furnished upstairs room. Prepare there.” Here, the κατάλυμα is clearly not an “inn,” but a specific room inside of a house. Moreover, Luke has another word he uses when he clearly means ‘inn.’ In the parable of the Good Samaritan, he writes “And going to him, he bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine [on them]. And having placed the man on his own donkey, he led him into an inn (Gk. πανδοχεῖον).”

So what’s going on here? It seems that instead of looking for a Motel 6, Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives in Bethlehem. And it just so happened that their house was stuffed with all the relatives who had arrived in town for the census. Because there was no room in the upstairs guest bedroom, Mary and Joseph had to stay in another room in the house, which, as was common in ancient Palestine, was the room that also housed the animals.

Does this radically change the Christmas story? No. The central fact is the same: Our Lord was born into humble circumstances in the midst of beasts of burden. But, Jesus was also born into a house overwhelmed by out-of-town relatives, which just goes to show that He really does know all of our hopes and cares. Merry Christmas indeed!

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 1

With the start of a new church year and with the Revised Common Lectionary coming back to Year A, I’m starting a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. I kick off the inaugural post with a reading from the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah 2.1-5

1 The word that Isaiah, son of Amos, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.2 And at the end of days, it will happen that the mountain of the house of YHWH will be established as the highest of all mountains, and it will rise above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3 And because the Torah will go out from Zion and the word of YHWH will go out from Jerusalem, many peoples will come and they will say, “Let us go up to the mountain of YHWH, to the house of the God of Jacob. And He will teach us His way and we will walk in His way.” 4 And he will judge between nations and he will maintain justice for many peoples and they will hammer their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning knives and nation will not lift up sword against nation and they will not learn war again. 5 O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of YHWH.

Those of you familiar with New Orleans jazz may recognize Isaiah 2.4 as the source of the famous song, Down by the Riverside, whose lyrics proclaim that “I ain’t gonna study war no more.” Of further preaching interest, verses 2-4 occur verbatim in Micah 4.1-3. And of the most preaching interest, the words from verse 4, “they will hammer their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning knives” appear Joel 3.10, but with two important differences. The first difference is that in Joel, the verb “hammer” is an imperative. Rather than predict the change, the prophet Joel commands. The second difference is in the objects being hammered. Rather than hammering “swords” into “mattocks” and “spears” into “pruning knives,” the prophet Joel commands the nations to blacksmith their gardening implements into weapons!

The upshot of looking at Isaiah’s words in light of their two prophetic parallels is manifold, and if nothing else, it teaches that preaching on prophecy requires an eye for context. To tell a congregation that Isaiah requires them to change their warlike ways into gardening is no less misleading than telling them that Joel requires them to sharpen their gardening tools for battle.

To the end of contextualizing Isaiah 2.1-5, the beginning of verse 2 looms large. As Isaiah says, all of the future verbs in 2-4, all of the rising and flowing and coming and hammering, take place “at the end of days.” Placing the prophet’s words in their eschatological context transforms them from an ethical program into gospel promise. Through the prophet Isaiah (and the prophet Micah and even the prophet Joel), God promises that our present tendency to turn even the most benign tools into weapons will be undone.