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Also see Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? (5 panel) Poster below.

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Advent: Beginning All Over Again

A Guide for Adult Bible Study of the Advent Texts

(Cycle A - Matthew)

By Walter Wink

These studies are conceived for leader-led group discussion, following an inductive or Socratic style. I have included far more questions than a leader would normally use, but these provide a basis for preparation. Each leader should, before looking at my questions, develop her or his own, and then only incorporate such of mine as seem pertinent. The method presupposed here is more fully elaborated in my book, Transforming Bible Study, A Leader's Guide (Abingdon Press, 1980), which will provide answers to many of the questions raised by this approach. For the theological and philosophical rationale for this method, see The Bible in Human Transformation (Fortress Press, 1973).

The Second Advent as Context for the First

The First Sunday in Advent

Matthew 24:36-44. Why does Advent always begin with texts concerned with the second Advent? If Christ is the risen sovereign of history and the ruler of the rulers of the Earth, why does he not know the day and the hour? Is this a secret the first person of the Trinity is keeping from the second? How is that possible? Or is the text intended simply to stop speculations that were tearing the early church into bickering factions of prognosticators who were ignoring the mission because they were too busy mining the Bible for clues about the end? Why should it be a secret though? Why doesn't God simply publish the date and let us all get ready for it?

Is the second Advent the end of history or a new beginning? Is it the cessation of chronological time and the opening of eternity, or is it, as in the prophets, the close of an epoch or age?

In vv. 37-39 the days of Noah are compared to the coming of the Son of Man (read: the Human Being). Were the things the people were doing in v. 38 evil? How could the people have been better prepared, since the warning was given only to Noah? There the Earth was destroyed for its wickedness. What is to happen at the coming of the Human Being?

VV. 40-41. These verses have given rise to various doctrines regarding the rapture. Where are those who are taken, taken to? "Taken" and "left" can also be translated "received" and "sent away." How might that change the interpretation? Or does "taken" refer to being killed, as in war? What is the nature of the "coming" being anticipated by the church here?

Why in v. 42 is the coming of Christ compared to being robbed by a thief? We obviously cannot literally stay awake all the time, watching. What kind of readiness is being spoken of then? In dreams, a house often symbolizes the self. What would it mean for the Human Being to come to transform my life, and I am unready? What would be required to be ready? When the process of transformation is straining to be born in us and we refuse it, what happens to us?

Elsewhere Jesus counsels a kind of care-free trust in God, with no thought for the morrow (Mt. 6:25-34). How do you square that with the care-full-ness of this passage? Has the church abandoned his basic attitude for an anxiety-ridden uptightness about the future?

We are but fractions of what it means to be human beings, Jesus living humanness fully and revealed what it will look like when it has become the norm for all human life (1 John 3:2). He is the "firstborn of many" brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:29). What does it mean for the way we life now that the whole human history is converging on this goal?

Why, once more, is the first word of Advent the message of the still future Advent of the Human Being? Why, according to the lectionary text of Is. 2:2-5, will the final emergence of God's will on Earth issue in, not just as new humanness, but the conversion and judgment of the "nations"? In the face of cold war politics today, is it possible to believe in the transformation, not just of people, but of their nations as well? What is the repentance required today of the Soviet Union? The United States?

W.H. Auden, in his poem "September 1, 1939," wrote:

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the connections conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Imagine that you are the judge at the last judgment. Make a list of the questions you would want to ask yourself about the way you have lived, spent your time and money, loved. Share in small groups.

On the Need for a Beginner's Mind

The Second Sunday in Advent

Matthew 3:1-12. What visual picture do you have of John the Baptist? What is the significance of his dress? (See Zech. 13:4; 2 Kings 1:8) His diet? His location in the wilderness? The settlers at Qumran had interpreted Is. 40:3 to mean that they should go out into the wilderness and called others to come out to them. Others urged military action in the wilderness. One such was Theudas, mentioned in Acts 5:36, whom a contemporary Jewish historian, Josephus, says, "persuaded the majority of the masses to take up their possessions and to follow him to the Jordan River. He stated that he was a prophet and that at this command the river would be parted and would provide them an easy passage" (Ant. 20.97). This event probably took place in 45-46 C.E., somewhat after John the Baptist's time (27 C.E.?), but as Matt 24:23-26 shows, many people expected the messiah to appear first in the wilderness. Apparently John did too. Why there? Why not at the Temple?

It was also at the ford of the Jordan, in the wilderness, that Joshua and the people of Israel had crossed into the promised land, placing twelve stones, one for each tribe, to commemorate the event (Joshua 4). Is John perhaps alluding to these stones when he says, "God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham" (Matt. 3:9)? There is a nice wordplay here in the Aramaic behind our Greek text: "God is able from these "abenaya" (stones) to raise up "benaya" (sons) to Abraham." What is symbolized by this restaging of the original entry into Israel and passing again through the waters, with the evocation of the waters of chaos at the Creation, Flood, and Red Sea (compare Isa. 51:9-10; Hos. 2:14; Ps. 42:7)? What is meant by the image of the axe at the root of the tree? Does this refer to individuals, or to Israel as a whole (compare the image of the vine in Ps. 80:8-19; Isa. 5:1-7)? Is John, through baptism, reconstituting a new Israel, made up, not of those born Jewish, but those who begin anew?

What is the presumption involved in the saying, "We have Abraham as our father?" How do we get caught in the same presumptions � presumptions of a genetically-determined salvation? What would it be like to stand before God stripped of all such presumptions? What are the things we have presumed on? On the basis of what generic givens or accidents of birth have we assumed we have a claim on God's grace or favor? Which have you presumed on, and what would be entailed in your letting it/them go? Share in pairs.

While many performed repeated ritual washings in that day, and Gentiles may have undergone once-and-for-all "proselyte baptism" upon converting to Judaism (though our earliest evidence for it is second century C.E.), a non-repeated immersion �bath for Jews was apparently unprecedented, and was so unique that John was named for it. What are all the things symbolized by being immersed under the waters? Water itself symbolizes what? Jesus himself later speaks of baptism as symbolizing what? (See Mark 10:38-39; Luke 12:50.) How does Paul further develop this symbolism in Rom. 6:1-11? A Jewish scholar, Richard Rubinstein, points out that no Jewish text within 500 years on either side of the New Testament speaks affirmatively of rebirth. A Jewish male was born into t eh covenant, the first time. There was no need for rebirth on that view (John 3:1-10). What is John trying to get his hearers to do in submitting to this simple but revolutionary act?

Rubinstein also argues that the flagrantly patriarchal men of first century Judaism had so suppressed females and their own inner feminine qualities that they feared the feminine above all else. What would it have meant to submit to the waters, to enter the "womb" to be reborn? What is John doing to their minds? What is the significance of the fact that women could participate in this rite (Matt. 21:32) in contrast to circumcision? What significance could this later have when the church made baptism its rite of entry and dropped circumstance?

Who was John expecting? What does he expect the coming on to do? Was it to be a divine or a human figure? What evidence is there that John was talking about Jesus? Did Jesus fulfill John's expectations? Why does John later question Jesus from prison (Matt. 11:2-6)?

Taking all these elements together: John's wild appearance and diet, his message of judgment and repentance, his attack on his hearers' presumptions, his demand that they submit to going under the waters � what is the total effect on the hearer? What is John's intent? Why, as part of Advent, are we called upon to renounce our certitudes and answers, and become little children, babes, be reborn? Apart from the commercialism and sentimentality involved with cr�che scenes, why do we naturally want to re-experience our childhood at Christmas, and what is the deeper longing beneath that? What does it take to acquire this "beginner's mind," that ever again can come freshly to what God has in store for us, now?

Is the judgment John describes an end or a beginning, a conclusion or a way of getting started? Why does he chastise his hearers (or the authorities, Matt. 3:7) for fleeing from the wrath to come? What does he want them to do rather than flee? How doe we flee it rather than facing it?

Why do all four Gospels begin with John the Baptist? (Only two begin with Jesus' birth.) What function does he play in the telling of the gospel story in every age? What is it that he brings that we must each pass through before we are ready to meet the Coming One he announced, who baptizes with Holy Spirit and with fire?

Draw a picture of the meaning baptism has for you as a result of this discussion. Share.

What Are We Waiting for?

The Third Sunday in Advent

Matthew 11:1-11. Why does John send this delegation to Jesus? Is he doubting an original belief, or just beginning to wonder if Jesus is the Coming One? Is he asking who Jesus is on the basis of what Jesus is already doing, or on the basis of what he yet hopes Jesus will do the future? How might Jesus have disappointed John? In what ways had their mission diverged?

Matthew removes the ambiguity of the narrative by inserting "the deeds of the Christ." In the narrative itself, how does 1esus answer John? Does he say Yes? Does he say No? Why does he not give and explicit answer? Why does he point to his works?

The deeds themselves point back to Scripture. Which items from the following Scriptures listed in Matthew : Isa. 35:5-6; Isa. 29:18-19; Isa. 61:1? What items in Matthew are not in these passages? Why does Jesus allude back to these texts? What are these deeds a sign of? Why does Jesus omit Isa. 61:1's "and the opening of the prison to those who are bound"?

Matthew has arranged his gospel so as to provide an example for most of these signs previous to John's inquiry: blind (9:27-31), lame (9:1-8), lepers (8:1-4; 10:8), the dead (9:18-26; 10:8), the poor (5:3-12), dumb (9:32-34, but oddly enough, omitted from his list). What do these signs mean? Was the Messiah expected to perform deeds such as these? In Isaiah, who is the initiator of these deeds? What new time is dawning, and what will have been Jesus � and John's � role in it?

Why does Jesus end with a warning to John not to "stumble" (Greek: be scandalized) or be offended by him? How are you scandalized by Jesus? How does he offend you? How do you think John responded to this message, if in deed he received it in time (Matt. 14:3-12)? Does Jesus' preferential treatment of the poor offend you?

Once more, why does Jesus not ease John's tortured mind, before his execution by giving him an unequivocal answer? How is Jesus related to the messianic? Could he have answered Yes or Not?

In Matt. 11:7-9, what is the tone in which you imagine Jesus uttered those words? What kind of person is a reed shaken by the wind? Why is he contrasting John with those who try to please everyone and with the aristocracy? What could possibly be more than a prophet? Elijah is the prophet alluded to in v. 10 who would be the forerunner of the end time � see Mal. 4:4-5. If Jesus identifies John with Elijah; does this add to your understanding of Matt. 11:2-6?

If no one is greater than John, does that include Jesus, who also was "born of woman"? If John is "more than a prophet" and so great, why is the least in the kingdom greater than he? Is this simply a put-down by the church, upset that Jesus seems to exalt John above himself? Or is there a sense in which it is true? We know that disciples of John later on rejected Jesus and declared John to be the messiah. Could this verse reflect that altercation? (See also John 1:6-8, 15, 19-23; 3:25-30; 5:33-36.)

What signs are we waiting for before we are willing to throw in everything we are and have for the coming reign of God? How do we use doubts as a cover, rationalization, delay, excuse? Is our congregation engaged in acts that manifest the breaking of God's active sovereignty in the world? Is healing taking placer among us? Are people at least figuratively, rising from the dead? Do poor people hear any good news from us?

This Advent, what is the tangible evidence that the Coming One is among us, working liberation and deliverance?

A Scandalizing God

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Matthew 1:18-25. This passage must be seen within the lager framework of Matthew's birth narrative.

Look first at Matthew's genealogy. Compare it with Luke's (Luke 3:23-38). How do you account for such wide-divergences? Why did the church feel it necessary to ground Jesus in the whole of Jewish (Matthew) or human (Luke) history? Both Matthew and Luke wrote at a time when the church was breaking away from Judaism. How might these genealogies have served to prevent the church from throwing aside the Jewish heritage altogether? Why, when any group (blacks, women) begins to seek its liberation, does it go back to its roots? What is the significance of the fact that the genealogy ends with Jesus, who had no children? What culminates in him? What has its beginning? How is the "new family" constituted by Jesus different from the old (Mark 3:31-35)? What makes it possible for the Gentiles to be grafted into this new family tree (Rom. 11:17-24; see also Matt. 8:11-12)? How does this genealogy help assist in the break with Judaism?

Make on newsprint a "spiritual genealogy" that begins wherever you want and ends with you. Who have been your spiritual fathers and mothers? Who has your midwife in coming to faith? Share.

Matthew's genealogy contains references to five women. What do they have in common? Why, with all the distinguished women in Scripture, are only these named? Tamar and Ruth played the harlot, Rahab was a harlot, the "wife of Uriah" (Bathsheba) committed adultery. Yet from Ruth came David, and from Bathsheba, Solomon. How could God work through such dubious, sinful people? Why would Matthew begin his gospel this way? How might these four allusions answer charges that Jesus was illegitimately conceived? Add to your spiritual genealogy the sins and sinners which have, through the redeeming grace of God, helped nudge you toward God.

Popular and legal opinion in Jesus' day was guided by Deut. 23:2, which specified that no bastard (child of fornication) is to be accepted into the holy community of God, nor that person's descendents for ten generations. If Jesus had been a bastard, would that have changed your attitude toward him? (That is, would you side with Deut. 23:2, or Matthew's attitude in his genealogy?)

The genealogy is traced through the father, yet in the section hat follows, Matthew indicates that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception. Does that invalidate the genealogy? In cases of levirate marriage, where a brother is required to inseminate his deceased kinsman's wife if he left no heir, the child is legally the deceased brother's. And had the child of adultery conceived by David and Bathsheba not died at birth, it would have been legally Uriah's. So who inseminates is not at issue, but only the legal relationship determines descent. "If a man said, 'this is my son,' he may be believed: (M. Baba Bathra 8:6).

Since Mary was only betrothed she would be exempt from stoning for adultery (M. Sotah 4:1), but she would be liable to ritual shaming (Matt. 1:19), where she would be publicly stripped of her garments to the waist so that her breasts were laid bare (M. Sotah 1:5). The later church developed a repugnance for sexuality (especially Augustine)> How did it understand the necessity of a virginal birth? What problems did that view leave unresolved? (That is, how far back does one have to go to rid the lien of pollution of concupiscence?) Matthew himself seems to have had no problem with sexuality as such (see his genealogy!). Hw might he have understood this marvelous birth? How did he relate it to his genealogy? To the Isaiah passage? What does the name Jesus means? Who bore it in the Old Testament? Why was Jesus not named Emmanuel, if Jesus' birth took place to fulfill Scripture? Was Jesus named and the Isaiah text later applied (loosely) to his birth, or was his birth and naming controlled by Scripture?

What did the word translated virgin in Greek originally mean in Hebrew? How might this Scripture passage have actually influenced the development of the narrative? How has this account been enriched by the archetype of the birth of the divine child within? Is Christmas conceivable without Easter? What is born in us at Christmas? Is Christmas finally the celebration of birth, or rebirth? With what are your pregnant of the Holy Spirit this Advent season? What does God want to birth in you? Share.

At the time of this writing, Walter Wink served as Professor of New Testament at Auburn Theological Seminary, New York, NY. He died in 2012.

Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?

(5 panel) Poster - GRAPHIC 3-A516


Preparing for the advent of Santa makes it hard to remember whose birthday we are supposed to be celebrating at Christmas, The one whose birthday it is should be first, not last, in our Christmas preparations. By giving to those Christ came to serve -- the poor, the homeless, the prisoner, the hungry, the oppressed, or the outcast -- we honor Christ's birth by continuing his work.

AS INDIVIDUALS: Volunteer your time and skills to help society's devalued people and secure their well-being. For example, help with a senior citizen's lunch program, visit people in prison, or work with an advocacy group.

AS HOUSEHOLDS: Consider diverting 25% of what you spent in time and money last Christmas to those who really need it. Discuss the possibility of changing gift giving practices with your family and friends, and decide if it is worth giving up some of what you did last year in order to offer a present that will continue Christ's work.

AS GROUPS: Form a covenant group and decide to commit a certain amount of time, energy and money to meet a need, such as providing food, shelter, reading lessons, transportation or community meals. Examine as a group the impact of life-style on larger issues such as global justice, environmental protection, and nuclear disarmament.

AS A CONGREGATION: Support those working in your denomination to combat hunger and poverty and promote social and, economic justice. Contact those agencies and find out how you can support. their work. Consider a year-long commitment as well as a special Christmas offering,

On birthdays, we find ways to honor the one whose birth we are celebrating. How will you celebrate Jesus' birth this year?

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