Friday Facts: Lectionary A – The Third Sunday after Epiphany

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. 

Matthew 4.12-23

12 Having heard that John was arrested, he went up to Galilee. 13 And leaving behind Nazareth, he settled by the sea in Capernaum, in the region of Zebulon and Naphtali 14 in order to fulfill the saying of Isaiah, the prophet 15 “Land of Zebulon and land of Naphtali, way by the sea, on the other side of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 16 The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light and light shines on those who sit in a dark land of death.”

17 From then, Jesus began to preach, saying “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven draws near!”

18 Walking along the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon the one called Peter and Andrew, his brother, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” 20 And, leaving behind their nets, they immediately followed him. 21 Going forth from there, he saw two other brothers, Jacob the son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. And he called them. 22 And, leaving behind the boat and their father, they immediately followed him.

23 And he wandered in the countryside of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing all disease and all sickness among the people.

Rather than present the text all in one block, I’ve chosen to divide it up today, in order to illustrate an important principle of exegesis. Namely, that the first task of interpreting a lectionary text is to figure out whether you agree with the way that the editors have cut up the text. In this case, I think that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have lumped together four separate stories. From top to bottom, they’ve lumped 1) Jesus’ move to Capernaum, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2) the beginning of Jesus’ preaching and his first public sermon 3) the calling of Jesus’ first disciples, four fishermen 4) the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. Get four other students of the New Testament in the room and they’ll give you four other ways of dividing this text. All this is to point out that it’s important to remember that lectionary selections, titles of sections, even chapter and verse numbers are not Holy Writ. It’s good to be cognizant that organization of a text is itself an act of interpretation. Not only that, but I’ve found that thinking about the organization of the text is a helpful way to focus my own sermon preparation.

For example, in organizing the text as I’ve done, I’ve noticed something: leaving aside the last clause of verse 23 (which in my opinion properly belongs with verse 24 and 25), Matthew sets up the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as involving two things: moving and speaking: Jesus goes up to Galilee, leaves behind Nazareth, settles in Capernaum, walks by the seashore, and walks further by the seashore. When he’s not walking, Jesus preaches, talks, and calls. And it’s in the walking and the talking that the church begins. Jesus calls the first four disciples before he ever does a miracle. He selects the rocks that he builds his church on before he even the sermon on the mount. The disciples who carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth follow him when all that he’s said is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven draws near” and “Follow me.” And if you plaster verse 23 on to the end of this section, you might miss that.

 

 

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Christmas 1

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. 

Matthew 2.13-15

13 After they [the Magi] had gone away, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up, take the child and its mother and flee into Egypt and stay there until I speak to you. For Herod intends to seek the child in order to kill it.” 14 And getting up, he took the child and its mother and went away by night into Egypt, 15 and he was there until the death of Herod. This was in order to fulfill the utterance of the Lord through the prophet, which says “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Why into Egypt? Why not Syria or Asia Minor? Of course, first there are the religious reasons. As the quotation from the prophet Hosea (1.11) points out, the very core of God’s peoples identity is caught up in the exodus from Egypt. And so, Jesus, as the fulfillment of his people’s religious hopes was also brought up out of Egypt. There is an interesting resonance here with Luke’s account of the transfiguration. In Luke 9.31, Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about his “exodus” to Jerusalem to die on the cross.

In addition, it is important to remember that Joseph was not taking his family and fleeing into the unknown. In fact, the Jews had a long history of settlement in Egypt, beginning with the destruction of Judea in 597 BC (narrated in 2 Kings 25:22-24). According to tradition, the prophet Jeremiah was among those who fled. After Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in the 4th century BC, it became the center of Jewish civilization outside of Judea. It was there that Jewish scribes translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, the book that we now know as the Septuagint. And so, when Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus set out for Egypt, they set out for a community of fellow ex-pats, so to speak. They probably didn’t camp out in a tent in the desert for several years, but lived among a people familiar  to them. It took a round about way to get that Jewish community into Egypt in the first place, but the upshot of this history is the knowledge that God provided familiar faces for Jesus and his family in their flight from danger.

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 3

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. 

Isaiah 35.1-10

1 The wilderness and the desert will rejoice and the dry steppe will shout in exultation and they will blossom like the crocus. 2 They will blossom continuously and, indeed, they will rejoice continuously and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon will be given to them. They will see the glory of YHWH, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the hands of the weak and make firm stumbling knees. 4 Say to those with a fickle heart “Be strong, be not afraid! Behold your God. Vengeance is coming. The retribution of God will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be restored. 6 Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because water will break forth in the wilderness and torrents on the dry steppe. 7 The parched ground will become a reed encircled pool and the thirsty ground will become a spring. The jackals’ den will become a swamp and the dry grass will become reeds and rushes. 8 There will be a path there and it will be called the Holy Way. The unclean will not walk on it. It will be for God’s people. No traveler, not even fools, will get lost on it. 9 There will be no lion there, and predators will not be found there. The redeemed will walk there. 10 And the ransomed of YHWH will return, and come to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy will be on their heads; they will attain joy and gladness. Sorrow and sighing will flee.

For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in southern California, a land of dry scrub and chaparral. Every year, I went camping with my father and brother in the White Mountains, a mountain range in the desert that straddles Nevada and California. We camped next to a creek, less than three feet wide in most stretches, but large enough to transform the landscape. On the banks of the creek, green grass and willows flourished. Trout swam in it and voles scurried through the meadows that it watered. But walk 100 feet away, and you’d wander into a wilderness of sage brush and cactus and scrubby pine trees.

This passage from Isaiah makes me think back to those mountain camping trips, but even more so, it makes me reflect on the topography in Minnesota, where I live now. Here in Minnesota, I have to take care not to trip, otherwise I’ll end up in a lake or a river or some other body of water. It presents a question to the translator: where does translation end and interpretation begin? For instance, should I adapt Isaiah 35:6-7 for my Minnesota readers and render it: “Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because the sun will break forth on the prairie and summer on the frozen hills. The frozen pond will become a swimming hole and the dead grass will become a flowery meadow.” It may get the point across, but it definitely changes the metaphor. It’s a slippery slope that I’m not sure that I want to walk down. But as a preacher, I think it’s important to keep your climate in mind. If your congregants have never been to the desert, you may have to think about whether “jackals’ dens” becoming “swamps” is translating for them.

This is a slippery question, and one that I’ll continue to reflect upon throughout this feature. If you’re interested, I encourage you to take a look at my earlier post on a similar desert problem, translating the Hebrew word nachal (incidentally, the word nachal appears in Isaiah 35:6, where I’ve translated it ‘torrents’).

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.