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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Who live in a HOUSE in Bethlehem?

Kings seemed conspicuous by their absence in that last study, but  we usually find them somewhere in our manger scenes, so here's their story...

(5) The First Two Years

Lots of manger scenes (and Christmas carols) include three kings. Before reading this study, what do you believe about the wise men? Read Matthew 2:1-16
1.       Let’s look at the men first:
a.       Are they wise men, astrologers, or kings? How many are there of them? And why does tradition say  3?
b.      If the men are astrologers, they’re probably Babylonian. Why might they be interested in Judaism?
c.       Do they find the baby in a stable?
d.      Does it worry you that there might be differences between interpretation, tradition and what the Bible says? How would you try to resolve these differences?
2.       Now let’s look at the star:
a.       Why did the wise men go West when they saw a star in the East?
                                                                                       i.       Some people say that’s okay because the star moved (verse 9).
                                                                                     ii.       Others point out that the words translated “in the East” can also be translated “as it arose” (like the sun rising in the East).
                                                                                    iii.      Others say the words refer to a star that’s only visible briefly just before the sun rises. Do you have a problem with any of these explanations?
b.      Did the star guide the direction the wise men traveled, or did it tell them when to travel?
c.       What explanations have you heard for the star? If someone were to discover a definitive answer, would that enhance or inhibit faith? Here are some reasonably familiar conjectures:
                                                                                       i.       It’s a shooting star (because it moved). But it also stayed still.
                                                                                     ii.       It’s a planetary conjunction (because it didn’t move). These happen about every 140 years and result in very bright stars, of significance to ancient astronomers. In 6BC there would be been conjunctions in May (time for the wise men to set off West), September (time to arrive at Herod’s palace) and December (time to visit Bethlehem). These wouldn’t have all been in the same part of the sky. (Why are they delighted in v10?)
                                                                                    iii.       It’s a supernova. One is mentioned in Chinese records occurring around 5BC, but if it was really so bright, why wasn’t Herod’s court aware of it? (A well-known author wrote a science fiction story where a spaceman finds the distant civilization destroyed by the Bethlehem supernova. In his story, the spaceman loses his faith.)
                                                                                   iv.       It’s Halley’s Comet (because it points, like a comet with a tail), but that would date Christ’s birth at around 12BC. Another comet would have been visible around 5BC, but wouldn’t have been very spectacular or rare, suggesting Babylonian astrologers wouldn’t have been very interested.
d.      The wise men stop at Herod’s palace. Why? Does this scene remind you of any Old Testament scenes?
e.      What kind of position did priests and scribes hold at Herod’s court? What scriptures are they searching? Read Micah 5:2. What kind of position might the wise men have held in their home countries?
f.        How long might the wise men have taken to reach Jerusalem?
g.       Why does Herod kill two-year-olds?
3.       Now we get to the “stable scene.”  How old do you suppose Jesus was at this point? And was he still in a stable?

Were there any surprises for you in rereading the Christmas story? If the Christmas story covers two years instead of one night, will that change how we imagine the events? Have you ever tried imagining Jesus as a two-year-old?

Monday, December 4, 2017

What's in your manger scene?

It's December (HELP!), and we're continuing our New Testament study. At this rate, we'll still be looking at Christmas at Christmas, but that's okay... though today's study is technically about that period just a few days after Christmas. Eight day? Maybe, or maybe a few more... See what you think.

(4) The First Eight Days

We’re all familiar with the Christmas story. We’ve all seen manger scenes in churches, sometimes even in public places.
1.       Which manger scenes have impressed you the most? Why?
2.       What would you expect to see in a conventional manger scene? Why?
3.       Have you ever seen a really unconventional manger scene? Maybe on a TV show? How did it affect you?
4.       How important is tradition? And how important is it to make sure our traditions agree with the Bible?
Read Luke 2:1-7
1.       Censusses weren’t so uncommon, but Israel is a long way from the center of power. How would people have felt about being ordered around by the Romans?
2.       Do you suppose the Romans understood what chaos might be caused by telling everyone to go to their “own town” to be registered? How would you interpret such a command?
3.       Did they have roadside inns and motels in those days? If not, where might Joseph and Mary have hoped to stay, given that Bethlehem is Joseph’s “home town”?
4.       What else might be meant by the words translated “inn,” “swaddling clothes” and “manger”? Do we have to interpret this story as saying Jesus was born in a hillside cave and wrapped in discarded rags?
5.       Who might we alienate by saying Jesus was born in a hillside cave? Does Luke want us to alienate anyone?
Luke introduces whole hosts of angels now, singing to hillside shepherds. Read Luke 2:8-14
1.       By now Luke’s readers, even those unfamiliar with Biblical angels, had an idea of who Luke meant. What idea of angels did you grow up? How are angels viewed today in our culture/in Christian missionary culture? How do they fit with 2 Kings 6:17?
2.       Shepherds were looked down upon. They even worked on the Sabbath! And they were poor. If we believe that both shepherds and kings visited Mary and Jesus, why does Luke, writing for Gentiles, pick this story to include?
3.       Read Luke 2:17-20. How did neighbors find out who Jesus was?
4.       Why might Mary be less vocal?
Luke tells the story of Jesus’ circumcision and naming on the 8th day, just as he told of John in chapter 1.
1.       The name Jesus means “God saves,” but why doesn’t Luke tell us that?
2.       Read Luke 2:21-24. Does the sacrifice in the Temple take place the same day as the circumcision and naming? (Read Leviticus 12:1-5, Exodus 13:12-15)
3.       Read Luke 2:25-26. What was Simeon hoping for? How would Gentile readers have understood this?
4.       Read Luke 2:29-32. How might Gentile readers have felt reading this? (Read Isaiah 42:6)
5.       Read Luke 2:33-34. What surprised Joseph and Mary?
6.       Read Luke 2:35. Do you suppose Mary imagined this would be easier? How do we feel when we think we’re doing God’s will and it turns out really difficult?
7.       Read Luke 2: 36-38 Simeon is not the only prophet, and prophets aren’t always men. What does this short piece add to the story for us? What might it have added for early readers?

Modern manger scenes often include shepherds and kings visiting the baby. Luke, writing for Gentiles, mentions the Hebrew shepherds, while Matthew, writing for Jews, mentions Gentile wise men. Who were least likely to believe Jesus came to save them in these two societies? Why might Matthew and Luke have made these choices?

Monday, November 6, 2017

Birth of a King?

So, after last week's study, you might or might not start the Jesus story with Christmas. Matthew and Luke do though, and if we're going to go through the gospels chronologically, we'll probably have to start with them.

(3) Miracle Births

As we saw last week, Mark starts his story with the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. John the Evangelist starts his story with creation and the position of Jesus in the story of God and man. Both gospels leave off the details of Jesus’ birth.
1.       Why might details of Jesus birth not seem relevant to Mark?
2.       Why might they not seem relevant to John?
Which begs the question, why do they matter to Matthew and Luke? Let's start with Matthew.
1.       Read Matthew 1:18-25
1.       Betrothal was a legal agreement, and families would generally keep the betrothed couple apart.  Matthew has already started with genealogies. Why does he go on to legalities?
2.       How well do you suppose Joseph knew Mary at this point?
3.       What might Joseph lose by not publically denouncing Mary? What does this tell us about the man who would stand in as Jesus’ father?
4.       Was it normal to see and believe angels? Why is Joseph so “easily” persuaded?What persuades us that we are hearing the truth about God?
5.       Why isn't Jesus called Immanuel? Read Isaiah 7:14,9:6
2.      Luke starts in rather a different place. Read Luke 1:5-11.
a.       Luke starts his story with John the Baptizer, and details of Temple rules and worship. What does this tell us about his intended audience?
b.      Why might he have chosen these particular details?
3.       Zechariah learns his wife will be pregnant, says no way, and is rendered dumb. Then... read Luke 1:26-35.
a.       Would Luke’s audience be familiar with angels?
b.      Are we familiar with angels? What do we imagine when we read this? (Has anyone read how Madeleine L’Engle imagined it?)
4.       Read Luke 1:39-42
a.       Luke is believed to have been a physician. What significance does that give to this passage?
b.      The Catholic church uses Luke 1:28,42 in a prayer known as the “Hail Mary.” In what sense do you view Mary as blessed among women? In what sense is Luke 1:48 fulfilled in our generations?
5.       Luke goes on to describe the birth of John the Baptist, which would have occurred a few months before the birth of Christ. He mentions circumcision on the eight day (Luke 1:59-65) and the unexpected choice of John’s name.
a.       John’s name comes from Yochanan meaning God is gracious. How is this meaning important to the story?
b.      Zechariah goes on to prophesy who John will be. Read Luke 1:76-79, Malachi 3:1,4:2 Jeremiah 31:34, Isaiah 9:2. Do you think Luke is familiar with older prophecies, or is he quoting a new one?
6.       Read Luke 2:1-3 Augustus is the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. He was emperor from 27BC to AD14. Quirinius didn’t have the title Governor until around 6AD, when he held a census. Luke’s mention of the first census suggests there was more than one, so this one could easily occur at the time of Christ’s birth (around 5BC)
a.       How do Luke’s historical references help us?
b.      How do they hinder us?
c.       How would they have seemed to his first readers?

Before moving on beyond the birth, can you come up with one word to sum up who each of the Gospel writers says Jesus is?