Helena Nazarene Church
Friday, May 25, 2018
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This Week's Full Commentary Notes

All the Commentaries are from aplainaccount.org - This is great resource for anyone wanting different perspectives on the scripture readings.

 

John 3:1-17

Commentary by Rhonda Crutcher

What makes us human?  I don’t propose this as a philosophical question, or one that seeks to explore the depth of meaning in human existence. Rather, on the most basic of levels, what makes us human as opposed to, say, a cat or an elephant? Most fundamentally we are human because we were conceived of a human father and mother, and birthed by that human mother. If we had been birthed by an elephant or a cat, we would be an elephant or a cat respectively, because like gives birth to like. It’s an elemental law of nature.

 

In John 3:1-17, Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling council who comes to see Jesus at night, starts with this assumption, but reverses it: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (v. 2). It appears he has witnessed or heard about some of Jesus’ “signs” (perhaps the one at the Wedding at Cana in the previous chapter) and wants to know what Jesus’ “secret” is. He thinks he knows, but wants to hear it from Jesus himself because it is such an unusual, even unbelievable, prospect. 

 

His logic goes like this: if someone looks like (or acts like) someone else, they must naturally be “born of” or “come from” that person. Jesus is doing “God-like” things, and therefore Jesus must have come from God. But Nicodemus is puzzled about about how this could be. A humble itinerant rabbi was hardly the form that Jewish teachers and scholars expected Yahweh to take when he came.

 

Jesus instantly grasps the underlying assumption of Nicodemus’ statement and indirectly affirms his belief that he has come from God by using a human metaphor: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [or “from above”]” (v. 3).

In other words, Nicodemus is correct in assuming that Jesus comes from the Father. Just as the child in a physical birth resembles his or her parents, Jesus resembles his Father (who is “above”).

 

Note that Nicodemus doesn’t initially ask Jesus anything. I think we often assume that he did--that he asked how he could become born of God, or how Jesus could do such signs. But no. He makes a simple statement of faith in WHO JESUS IS, that is, one who has come from (or is “born of”) the Father. And that sets Jesus off on a discourse about Spiritual birth, comparing it with human or physical birth.

 

But what does being “born of the Spirit” mean exactly? It means those born by the Spirit are one with the Spirit in the same way all humans are one together. All children of human parents are humans, and all children of the Spirit have the characteristics of the Spirit--they “look” like the Spirit, just as human children look like their parents. This is what Jesus means by being “born from above” (or “born again”; the word can be translated either way). The ideas are parallel, not contrasting, as interpreters often suggest. One need not choose one of these meanings over the other. Rather John intends them to be understood together: Being born of the Spirit IS being born “from above,” and being “born from above” is best understood through the metaphor of human birth.

 

But, when Nicodemus fails to catch all of this (v. 4), Jesus takes things a step further: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5). There has been much commentary through the centuries on this verse, discussing the exact meaning of being born of “water and the Spirit.” But the best way to understand this phrase is within the context of this passage itself. Jesus here is engaging in a standard Jewish literary and rhetorical technique: parallelism--or repetition designed for emphasis. He’s not saying two different things in these verses, but rather he says the same thing in two different ways, in an attempt to help Nicodemus understand. 

 

Therefore, being born “again” or “from above” in v. 3 is equated somehow to the idea of being born of water and Spirit in v. 5. Centuries of interpreters have seen in v. 5 a reference to baptism. This makes sense as in John 1 we saw the Spirit descend as a dove on Jesus at the moment of his water baptism by John (vv. 32-34). This use of a human metaphor to explain something about Jesus, God or the kingdom is a very typical Johannine device, one that replaces parables in the Gospel (e.g., 6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 11; 15:1). But, why does Jesus (and John) choose the metaphor of birth to describe this dynamic? Why didn’t he say you must be “cleansed” by water and the Spirit, or just outright say “you must be baptized in water through the Spirit”? Jesus partly answers this question for us in his later statement to Nicodemus: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (v. 12). Jesus knows that the way to human understanding of heavenly realities is by relationship with a tangible earthly reality that humans can wrap their heads around.

 

But even more to the point, I believe Jesus specifically chooses the verb “born” to describe this new reality because this metaphor best captures the NATURE of life in the Spirit--it is a restart, everything is made new again, and as a result people become “like” their parent (God) and one with him in nature. I think we so often focus on the being born “again” part of this passage, or on the meaning of “water and the Spirit,” that we miss this bigger point: being born of the Spirit means becoming LIKE the Spirit, in the same way that Jesus has demonstrated he is LIKE his Father Yahweh.

 

I think it is not coincidental that Nicodemus is said to be a Pharisee (v. 1), someone whose entire existence was bound up in strict faithful obedience to the word of the law. Jesus is not addressing an unreligious pagan who is in need of conversion; Nicodemus already believes in the way of Yahweh. What Jesus wants him to understand is that true religion goes far beyond the keeping or rules or devout practices. It is not just a new start (which I think is what we often mean by being “born again”). Rather, it demands a complete change of nature and orientation towards life so that we become one in nature with the Spirit, and, like Jesus, born “from above,” a participant in the heavenly reality even while still here on earth.

 

Isaiah 6:1-8

Commentary by Levi Jones - Co-Lead Pastor

“The year King Uzziah died” is more than a marker of time. It is the end of an era. Uzziah was a formidable king and leader. He ruled for fifty-two years and helped Judah flourish economically, agriculturally, and politically. Early on, Uzziah had helpful counselors around him, including Zechariah, who helped the king maintain focus on God. However, Uzziah soon began moving away from this first love. Uzziah was not only able to defeat some perennial enemies, such as the Philistines, but began expanding his territory through military conquest – moving beyond boundaries God had set for Israel and Judah. Uzziah’s vision moves from serving God and the people to serving his own expanding interests to conquer and subdue other territory and acquire its resources. The culminating violation of Uzziah’s reign occurs when Uzziah tries to assume priestly duties, as all demagogues tend to do. Like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road, Uzziah is struck by light and is blighted by leprosy, which slowly eats away at his body for eleven years until his death. 

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Uzziah’s body isn’t the only thing that is diseased. Judah has also moved away from its first love. They linger still but rot away. Although religious fervor is still present, embodied in worship festivals, high holy days, offerings, and sacrifices, the worshiping community has been caught up in the national drive toward opulence, domination, and competition. In fact, God brings a lawsuit against Judah laying out their dirty laundry for all to see. They are referred to as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Their worship does not translate into righteousness or justice. Yahweh has been replaced by the gods of militarism, commerce, and pleasure. God measures the economy, not by its Gross Domestic Product, by its trampling the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner under foot. The faith community uses its worship to validate its oppression and anesthetize the voices of the oppressed. When the voices of the powerful are aligned for unjust purposes and the marginalized are silenced, one must ask: “Who then will speak?”

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Isaiah is praying in the Temple when he receives a vision. Yahweh is sitting on the throne; the hem of this King’s robe fills the temple. Angelic beings cry out: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The voices shake the foundations and cause the thresholds to tremble. Smoke fills the space. Like God’s appearance on Mount Sinai before Israel and Moses, fire and smoke and shaking foundations erupt in the silence. This is the living God ruling over all Creation from everlasting to everlasting. This King outlasts all kings and their empires, including Uzziah. Uzziah’s reign of acquisitiveness and turning the blind eye will be confronted by the God who sees all and emancipated the enslaved people brought out during the exodus from Egypt. Yahweh, the holy God of all glory, won’t be party to this religious parody and has grown tired of Judah’s continuous question: “Am I my brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?”  

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Isaiah is confronted by the God of Mount Sinai, the God of liberation who pays heed to the cries of the outcast and oppressed. Collapsing to the floor, Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the lord of hosts!” Encountering this holy God has forced Isaiah to take a deep look at himself and his community and to see the disparity between God’s holiness and their failure to reflect that same holiness in worship and public policy. Isaiah is brought to confession, lament, and repentance. The can be no separation between the spiritual and the material. The Temple leadership’s silence on these matters of injustice is no small matter in God’s eyes. Isaiah’s confession breaks the silence of complicity and opens space for God to do something radically different. 

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Just then a seraph takes a flaming, live coal and presses it against Isaiah’s lips. The searing truth of confession may not be preached in solidarity with the marginalized of society. The bright light of God’s cleansing power burns through Isaiah and elicits the call to speak “truth to power.” Who then can speak? The one God has cleansed and burned through their guilt by the searing truth of confession and repentance, those who see society’s injustice and say, “Woe is me!” But, still God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Having been cleansed by a holy fire, Isaiah is left with no response but “Here am I; send me!” Not only is this a prophetic call for Isaiah, but it is the call for the birth of a prophetic community. While we may want to say that politics is a different sphere than the religious arena, God continues asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Who will speak out for the marginalized in society? Who will stand in neighborly compassion with those facing injustice? Who will speak when the voices of the powerful are used to consolidate their power and the voices of the most vulnerable in society are silenced to sobs of resignation and defeat?

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Perhaps it is in our own silence in the face of injustice which we must confess, lament, and repent. Worship that ordains and blesses agendas of exploitive expansion, violence, and greed is worship that shapes us into the image of “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Do we raise our voices for compassion or does our silence fail to confront corruption? Do we speak out in the face of racism or does our silence only confirm our deepest privileges and prejudices? Do we voice the needs of the impoverished or glad-hand those who benefit from their lack of resources? Do we speak up for the underserved in our communities or see their situation as results due those who are the undeserved? What violences have we permitted, participated in, or promoted by our silences? What impoverished worship we must have if we have attained all wealth and yet deny the needs of our vulnerable neighbor. If the Church will not speak out in its worship, who then will speak?

 

Romans 8:12-17

Commentary by Andy McGee, Pastor @ Trinity Midtown Church of the Nazarene

This week our TV screens have been filled with images of Britain’s Royal Family as they’ve been preparing for the marriage of Prince Harry to the American-born actress Meghan Markle.

 

Everywhere you looked on every imaginable channel has been every explanation possible of all the events that were to take place leading up to the day of the wedding.

 

We’ve learned about Dukes and Duchesses, Kings and Queens, and about the histories of castles and palaces. We’ve seen again the history of Harry and have been enlightened with the details of His Bride, Meghan’s, past as we’ve learned about their childhoods and how they grew up differently. We’ve learned about their paths to one another and finally we’ve learned every imaginable detail about the day that was to be the Royal Wedding.

 

Saturday morning all around the globe, people tuned their TVs to see this unlikely marriage happen. We saw Megan Markle walk in as a mere commoner from across the pond and walk out as the newest member of the Royal Family.

 

As I sat there watching all of this unfold, the imagery and the words of this week’s passage from Romans came to mind.

 

I specifically was drawn in the midst of this week’s activities to the imagery found within this passage of the followers of Christ being heirs to God‘s kingdom.

 

During the Royal Wedding coverage, there appeared a picture of a young Meghan Markle standing outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. The twist was this was not a current picture. No, this picture was a picture of Miss Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, standing in front of Buckingham Palace when she was a teenager and merely visiting Great Britain on a school trip.

 

Little did she know that she would one day be a member of the family that lived within.

 

But now here she stood no longer an outsider to the activities within instead she was being so eloquently escorted in to the midst of the life of the Royal Family.

 

I think this is the same way with us when it comes to God‘s Kingdom as we have a grown in our faith along the way. On our journey we have learned about this great Kingdom of God. We have learned about the saints. We have learned about those that have gone before us, those that have laid down their lives for the Kingdom.

 

We’ve studied the Scriptures and we’ve seen how the story of God has been woven through the lives of every day ordinary people. We’ve seen two in the garden who were able to spend their afternoons walking around the garden with God himself. We’ve seen a faithful servant called to build a boat to be safe when the waters rushed in and destroyed everything. We’ve seen a small shepherd boy become king. In this Kingdom we’ve seen the outsiders become insiders. We’ve heard that the last shall be first. We’ve even seen a God who wrapped himself in humanity and became our sacrifice which opened the gates and provided a way for us to also be shuffled from a mere outsider standing as a spectator at the gates to a participant and Heir of God’s Kingdom. 

 

What has been presented for us in Romans is not only a picture painted for those citizens and heirs of the kingdom then but also for us today.

 

Paul paints a reminder that we are joint heirs with Jesus. We are the church. We are the Bride of Christ, the unlikely Royal who has been shuffled down the aisle, past the saints of old, seated at the table and given a room at the Palace.  

 

Our partnership with Jesus invites us into the very courts of the Kingdom we were once denied access to but as we are on our way we are reminded all of this came at a price.

 

This price was paid for us by Jesus the first and original heir.

And just like him we will endure suffering but hold on for what we’re going through right now is not in vain. 

 

This journey has some painful and awkward moments as we are in the growing pains of who we are to become but one day, when the already but the not yet becomes the now, this part of the story that we are living in will be the part of the story where the commentators reflect on our journey to this moment and we will finally reach that moment where we look back down the aisle and remember that the journey we went through to get here was worth it all.

 

Psalm 29

Commentary by Rhonda, Associate Professor of Practical Theology

The Big Picture

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Many scholars regard Psalm 29 as one of the oldest psalms. On the one hand, some claim it is an Israelite adaptation of an old Canaanite hymn exalting Baal, god of the storm (weather) and fertility. However, the imagery could just as easily be a polemic against Canaanite religion. On the other hand, similarities with the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) could indicate that Psalm 29 was originally a victory song following defeat of a Canaanite army.[1] Not exclusive of either view, the psalm is often classified as an “enthronement psalm” celebrating the reign of Yahweh (and perhaps by extension the coronation of an earthly king who will serve as Yahweh’s regent). Regardless of the hymn’s origin, the message is clear: Yahweh is sovereign of the universe; therefore, all in heaven and on earth are invited to worship King Yahweh!

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Giving attention to repetition is a basic rule of interpretation and the rule certainly applies to Psalm 29. The divine name, Yahweh (Lord), appears 18 times in the 11 verses. This may be compared to a memory trigger suggested for those of us who have difficulty remembering the names of persons we meet: following the initial introduction, address the person by name in each volley of conversation. Hopefully, repeating the person’s name a few times at the outset will help us remember their name when we next meet. As simplistic as this might sound, repetition does serve the purpose of reinforcement – if not consciously then subconsciously. Repetition of the divine name in this psalm further highlights the sovereignty of Yahweh.

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One other repetition is noteworthy: seven times the psalmist refers to “the voice of the Lord” (vv. 3, 4 [2x], 5, 7, 8, 9). This may be a direct allusion to God speaking the created world into existence (Gen. 1), a view which the first line of v. 3 seems to support: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters.” Or, perhaps the intent was to remind worshippers of the totality and completeness of God’s reign. In light of the psalm’s overall message, choosing one view over the other is unnecessary. Yahweh is Creator and Sovereign over all.

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Glory to God in the Highest!

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The psalm begins with a call to “heavenly beings”[2] (literally “sons of gods”) to ascribe glory and strength to Yahweh. Several interpretations are possible depending on one’s perspective of the psalm’s background and purpose. These “heavenly beings” could refer to the deposed gods of the Canaanites; defeated, they must acknowledge Yahweh as Sovereign. Alternatively, this could be an allusion to the heavenly council (e.g., Gen. 1:26; 1 Kings 22:19). Or, corresponding to Isaiah 6:1-8, the first reading for Trinity Sunday, these may be the angelic beings who surround God’s throne crying, “Holy, holy, holy!” 

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Regardless of the precise identity, these heavenly beings are exhorted to give Yahweh “the glory due his name” (v. 2).

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Lord over Creation

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Verses 3-9 provide the basis for claiming this psalm as a polemic against, or a plundering of, Canaanite poetry. Baal, often depicted as god of the storm with lightning in his hand, was believed to have become king of the gods by defeating Yam, the chaotic god of the waters. But Yahweh “thunders over the mighty waters” (v. 3). God, not Baal, controls the waters, and thunder is no deity but a manifestation (theophany) of Yahweh.

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The psalm continues to demonstrate Yahweh’s sovereignty by describing Canaanite – and natural – symbols of stability and strength as completely subject to Yahweh. The cedars (v. 5) and mountains of Lebanon (v. 6) respond to the voice of the Lord in stunning, awe-inspiring ways. Even though translation is uncertain in places (e.g., v. 9 – oaks or deer?), the message is clear: all creation is subject to “the voice of the Lord.”

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Peace on Earth

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The only fitting response to such a display of Yahweh’s glory, strength and holiness is worship: “And in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” (v. 9c). Given the heavenly audience addressed in v. 1, this could refer to the temple of heaven. However, the closing verse draws in God’s people on earth. Thus, all in heaven and earth are called to worship the God who is eternally sovereign over the universe (v. 10b).

Only in the final verse are people of earth specifically referenced. But the last word of this psalm indicates that the Sovereign of the universe is also personal and caring. Yahweh’s strength is passed on to Yahweh’s people who are blessed with shalom. As such, God’s power, which may be at once awe-inspiring and destructive, seeks the well-being of God’s people.[3]