Backstory is becoming Passage Primer!

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Beginning next week Backstory will be ‘Passage Primer’ with the goal of providing you with context before you journey into the weekly readings.  Passage Primer will also be located at a different site (check your email next week).

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for 01.05.20


Jeremiah 31:7-14  •  Psalm 147:12-20  •  Ephesians 1:3-14  •  John 1:(1-18

Passage Primer

Jeremiah 31:7-14

This passage most likely takes place about six centuries before the birth of Christ.  It was a time of severe doom and gloom.  Jeremiah, and Isaiah before him, had each spent most of their lives calling on the people to return to God, warning them of the oncoming disaster if they failed to do so.  They did not return to God and those warnings have came to pass.  The city of Jerusalem, the country of Judah, and even the temple of God had been conquered, defeated,  and destroyed.  Most of the people had been exiled and were now living in Babylon or in refugee and migrant camps.  The people were now slaves.  They had been scattered, the world as they knew it had come to an end, and there seemed to be no hope in sight.  In this prophesy from Jeremiah bringing the people back to hope.  His message promises a light in the midst of their darkness, that they will return home, be reunited with each other, and will permit God to be their shepherd.

Psalm 147:12-20 (responsive reading)

The final five Psalms in the book of Psalms are frequently called the ‘Praise the Lord’ psalms as they each begin and end with the words ‘Praise the Lord’. This particular passage in the Psalms, verses 12-20 in chapter 147, bring the connection of creation and salvation into focus.  The psalmist uses many aspects of God’s creation to point to God’s creation through Jesus.  Later, in another of our readings for this week, we see the writer of the gospel of John also use the thread between creation and salvation.

Ephesians 1:3-14

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he emphasizes the oneness that exists between all believers, Jews and Gentiles.  The focus is on the adoption of believers as children of God instead of a person’s human nationality or and aspect of our human birth.  The walls that divided the Jews and the Gentiles have been torn down and no longer exist.  The message is of unity rather than division, the accomplishment of Christ rather that the works of man, the commonality of believers rather than the elements of division rather than the grace of God.

John 1:1-18

In the accounts of Jesus birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke we are given a chronological account from the message to Mary to the escape to Egypt.  The account in Matthew actually goes further back by beginning with the lineage of Joseph that dates back to Abraham.  The account in the gospel of John, however, does not use places or dates, it is actually presents the gift of Jesus in a very timeless manner.  John shares a great deal of theology as he details God’s gift to mankind of grace.  The existence of Jesus at creation, the fact that he is God’s truth, and the existence of a darkness that only Jesus can penetrate is all part of this ‘birth’ account.  Although the entirety of the book of John is not written in this literary manner the set up of darkness and truth is a thread that lays a foundation for the message of Christ’s life.



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For Sunday, 12.22.19


Isaiah 7:10-16  •  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19  •  Romans 1:1-7  •  Matthew 1:18-25


Isaiah 7:10-16

Before the Israelites ever entered the Promised Land they were human; when the Israelites received their label of ‘Israelite’ – as their ancestor Jacob was renamed Israel – they were human; when the ‘father of the faith’ of the Israelites, Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, found out that he was going to have the label of ‘father’, Abraham, the ‘father of the faith’, was human. Humans disagree, they argue, they fight, they split and separate….they are human just like us.  So, it should be no surprise that the Israelites, in very human fashion, demanded that God let them have a king and then eventually argued, fought, and eventually split over who should be the King (the split was after just three Kings of the united Israel).  This typical, and expected, human behavior brings us to the backstory of our Isaiah passage.  The Israelites had split into two different nations, the kingdom of Israel was the northern consisting of ten of the tribes and the southern kingdom, Judah, consisted of two tribes. Isaiah is talking to the twelfth king of Judah, a guy named Ahaz, who was also very human, actually an extraordinarily bad human.  Ahaz, along with all of Judah, ad just been attacked by Israel and their temporary ally – Syria.  The attack and consequences of the attack were devastating and Ahaz knew that they were facing further aggression from the north.  The prophet Isaiah goes to Ahaz and suggests that the King ask God for a sign as to what steps he should take to avoid another loss.  Ahaz refuses to ask God for a sign because he has already made up his mind without God, he has decided that he will also recruit an ally, he joins forces with Assyria (also a group of very bad humans, led by another bad human). Ahaz does not want to wait for God’s answer, and does not want to trust God. Even though Ahaz refuses to seek God, God speaks to him anyway.  God tells Ahaz that the next King has already been born (which is the next King, Hezekiah, a much better human).  Even though Ahaz finds immediate victory in his unwise alliance with Assyria, two years later, after defiling the temple and debasing himself, he is no longer King and Hezekiah is. Echoes of this story, the story of a child savior already being born for those who would wait, abound in the angel’s message to Mary in the gospel of Luke as well as the message to Joseph in the gospel of Matthew.  Echoes of ‘Peace’, ’wait’ and ‘trust God’ are the beginning of the encouragement to Mary and Joseph as they choose to accept God’s path laid out before them.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (responsive reading)

In this small collection of verses, the phrase ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved,’ is seen three times.  The phrase is a key to the state of mind of the targeted readers of the verses.  It is a key to our frequent cries out to God as we are confronted with the misery of our own humanity.  As we saw the Israelites, during the exile, come to a realization that their actions had brought about their misery – they then were faced with the reality of waiting on God instead of making their own rash and unwise decisions.  Turning back to God was the right choice but it was not an immediate solution to their misery, they still faced waiting on, and trusting in, God.  The honesty of their wait is dialogue of Psalm 80; a dialogue that always takes them back to ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.’

Romans 1:1-7

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be boiled down to a primary address/confrontation of the issues that divided the church at Rome.  These issues were social, economic, and religious dividing the rich and the poor, the Jews and the non-Jews, and basically every social grouping of the believes.  We will be reading through the letter to the Romans over the coming weeks to see how Paul uses these elements of division to teach us many basics of our beliefs.

Matthew 1:18-25

It is in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that we find the birth story of Jesus Christ.  While Luke takes one and a half chapters – one hundred and eighteen verses – to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew takes two chapters – but only a total of forty-eight verses – of which, seventeen verses are a genealogy of the lineage of Abraham to Joseph. In Luke we see the story mostly from the experience of Mary, while in Matthew we see the story more through the experience of Joseph.  Matthew was written with a Jewish readership in mind wishing to prove the the lineage of Abraham to Joseph (the Davidic lineage), while Luke was written more to the Gentiles with the intention of proving the humanity of Jesus Christ.  In this reading, Joseph, defined as a good human with the best of intentions, finds that his reality and future are taking a very unexpected and inexplainable turn into the weird and onto an unprecedented path.  Both stories (Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts) of the radical news delivered by an angel bear the common refrain – ‘do not be afraid’ and ‘peace’.


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For Sunday, 12.15.19


Isaiah 35:1-10  •  Psalm 146:5-10  •  Luke 1:46b-55  •  James 5:7-10  •  Matthew 11:2-11


Psalm 146:5-10 (Responsive Reading)

Psalm 146 has been called a summary of the entire Bible.  If you back up to the beginning of the chapter you see a call to worship God followed by an explanation why we worship the unseen God instead of a King, Prince, or any Person – because those humans are just like us….we/they all come from the dust and will return to the dust. Then we have an explanation what it means to us when our trust is in God and our praise is to God.  A preparatory statement about the coming Messiah (Jesus) rounds out the Psalm which ends where it starts – Praising God.

Isaiah 35:1-10

While most of Isaiah is a call to the people to turn back to God, chapter 35 seems to give them a glimpse of what is waiting when they return. Their eventual is described as a desert blooming after a long drought which will back every element of life that has been absent.  The prophet speaks of the return involving a ‘highway’ which is a holy path where there is no wickedness – a highway that will be clear and understandable for those who choose to travel on it.  While the ‘highway’ was a description of what was awaiting the people after their time of correction and return, it is an equally a portrayal of our salvation journey.

Luke 1:46b-55

Our Luke passage is a song penned, and sung, by the young teenager – Mary, as she settled into the reality of God’s radical plan for her life.  While this is often portrayed, and sung, in a very passive and sweet tone, it is actually very bold and a defiant message of a young girl as she sits at the intersection of God’s plan and the expectations of her world.  Mary, singing or voicing, her inward submission and acceptance of God’s will, is following a long tradition of defiant speaking/singing (see Exodus 15:1bc; 13, 1 Samuel 2:4-5, 7; and verses 7-9 of our Psalm for this week). In voicing her acceptance of God’s plan, Mary says that ‘God has done’ great things for me’ – a statement that is surely bizarre for a young teenager who is about to see her life turned upside down.  Facing rejection, isolation, loneliness, humiliation, judgement, condemnation, and hatred, Mary’s faith and acceptance of God’s path is based on what she knows of God and her trust in him.  Mary has an amazing grasp on God’s love and is able to surrender the entirety of her life to his will.

James 5:7-10

This passage from James may seem oddly placed in the middle of the Advent season.  James is calling the readers, a people who were clearly facing their own times of difficulty and trials, to wait patiently for the return of Christ.  While it may be odd, the message is very clearly a call to believers from the time of creation.  The question ‘where is my hope, where is by strength, where is my rescue?’ is the question of humanity.  It was the quest of the Israelites as they waited for God’s rescue from the exile and slavery, it was the quest as the faithful looked forward to the coming Messiah, and it is our quest as we await the return of Christ.  James’ call to the people is to be patient while they continue on with life, treat others with love and respect, and to trust God throughout their trials, victories, and life.

Matthew 11:2-11

Our gospel passage takes us over three decades beyond the nativity to John the  Baptist who is at an extreme low point.  A ruler (Herod) has imprisoned John and, unbeknown to John, will soon have him beheaded.  John is wondering about everything, doubt and desperation are present as he is asks if he was right to trust that Jesus was, and is, the promised Messiah.  In his own reality of exhaustion and fear, John, understandably, needs affirmation that he has not followed the wrong path; he needs to know that he has been on the correct highway (see our Isaiah passage).  The interesting response of Jesus Christ is not to proclaim the miracles he has performed, he does not point to the attention of powerful and rich people he has received, nor does he list the ways in which he has fulfilled the prophecies – instead, Jesus says ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’  Jesus proves himself by reminding John of the life and acts of love, mercy, compassion, and grace.  Jesus then gives John a gentle affirmation in reminding him of God’s love that has been, in particular, directed at John throughout, and even before, his life, and in no lesser way; Jesus reveals to John that this love is even more at work during this time of isolation.  Sometimes we need a reminder of love when hope and peace seems fleeting.


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posted 11.27.19


Isaiah 2:1-5  •  Psalm 122  •  Romans 13:11-14  •  Matthew 24:36-44


Isaiah 2:1-5

In the first and second chapter of Isaiah, the prophet ‘sees’ God’s word concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  In chapter one, what Isaiah ‘sees’ is the wickedness of Judah, and in Jerusalem, he ‘sees’ the degenerate nature of the city and the inhabitants.  Statements such as ‘Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire’, [you are a] ’sinful nation’, [you are a] ‘people laden with iniquity’ and [have] ‘offspring who do evil’, on top of this, the city of Jerusalem is called a ‘whore’ who was once ‘filled with justice.’  God’s response  is to hide his eyes and cover his ears.  The call is for the people is to ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’  Then, in chapter two following our focus passage, Isaiah ‘sees’ a condemnation on the arrogance of those who reject God’s truth yet maintain an image of religiousity.  Squeezed in between these two messages of warning and condemnation God tells, and shows, the prophet what Jerusalem will be.  The prophesy of a city where truth will be learned and go out to other cities and nations.  A place where ‘peoples’ of all nations and backgrounds will gather and a time where peace will be sought and taught.  Isaiah is planting the seeds of a personal relationship with God, a non-geographical personal faith founded on God’s work and grace that will spring forth from within each follower, regardless of location, heritage or background.

Psalm 122 (Responsive Reading)

Psalm 122, said to be written by King David, is one of fifteen Psalms called the Songs of Ascent.  The songs are thought to have been sung by the worshippers or or priestly singers on their way up to Jerusalem.  Psalms such as this were a special treat centuries later to the Israelites who were in exile in Bablylon as they remembered the city of Jerusalem and the constant hope for joy and peace.

Romans 13:11-14

Romans is Paul’s instruction to the church teaching faith and, therefore, how to live life as faithful followers of Christ.  In this passage, Paul is urging the followers to ‘get to it,’ to jump with both feet in and start living what they believe.  The telling factor in the passage is not so much what is in it but, instead, what precedes it.  After you read verses 11-14 go back and read verses 6-10 to see what Paul is telling the followers of Christ to start doing in their lives.  Paul is telling the Christians to start loving each other which is the sum of all he has taught – ‘Love,’ Paul says, ‘is the fulfillment of the law.’

Matthew 24:36-44

The gospel of Matthew, which gives the most extensive account of Jesus’ life and teachings, was written around eighty years after the birth of Jesus.  Matthew was written about a decade after the gospel of Mark. As the two books were being written every aspect of life, religion, and faith was in different stages of turmoil.  When the gospel of Mark was shared the Jews were in a brutal revolt against the Romans; Matthew was written after the revolt had been defeated by the Romans and the temple had been destroyed.  Mark was written to Christ followers who were living with an earthly hope for change while still having the intuition of their Jewish existence still a reality; Matthew was written to Christ followers who had seen much of the foundational Jewish religious practices, and leaders, gone and now the hopes for a return of Christ seemed a futile fantasy.  God’s leading in the writing of Matthew was to give a broader big picture look which included the Old Testament, a larger look at the life and teachings of Jesus, the return of Christ, and eternity all tied together.  Our passage for this week is preceded by an emphasis on the return of Jesus – in their current state of increased oppression by the Romans, the followers of Christ are becoming increasingly skeptical of such a victorious event as Jesus’ return.  While our small passage has an undeniable eschatological (end times, Jesus’ return, ‘Parousia’) emphasis, there is much more applicable truth to this teaching from Christ than the mere message of rapture theology (the interpretation that followers of Christ will be mysteriously taken to heaven prior to the difficult events of Jesus’ return). This passage is a strong encouragement to believers to live now and to not stop living their lives in the midst of their faith.


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posted 11.20.19


Jeremiah 23:1-6 •  Psalm 46  •  Colossians 1:11-20  •  Luke 23:33-43


Jeremiah 23:1-6

Jeremiah had spent the entirety of his life as a prophet calling the people back to God.  His passion was not only rooted in his understanding of the consequences of their actions (defeat and exile) but also in his own recognition of God existing in every facet of his life.  Jeremiah, a man who had given up every earthly standard of life and success, desired that the people would know a life that transcended the expectations of the low bar set by his fellow human beings.  In this passage, Jeremiah is pronouncing the guilt of the political and religious leaders.  Although he does not remove the blame on the people for their coming misery, he is also proclaiming that the leaders share equal responsibility.  The leaders’ refusal to turn back to God and, instead, pursuit of please the earthly leaders over them, has led to their abandonment of their obligations to shepherd their people.

Psalm 46 (responsive reading)

The Israelites were facing an unkind and possibly unfamiliar situation in the developments of natural upheavals (earthquakes, storms, etc.) along with political surprises (invasions, attacks, etc.).  This Psalm addresses both of these new realities in the lives of the people and recognizes this new normal. The people are called back to a focus and hope on God, along with a recognition of God as their leader and King.  The Psalmist brings this calling to an undeniable close with the words, “Be still, and know that I am God!” and “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Colossians 1:11-20

The group of Christian believers at Colossae, much like others churches we have seen addressed in the letters of Paul, were highly susceptible to false teachings.  Problematic elements of their faith included Jewish legalism, Greek philosophies, mysticism, the worship of angels, and deep an extreme belief that their bodies were evil (meaning that their focus was to conquer and discipline their own bodies).  Paul’s call to the Colossians was to understand the divine and human reality of Jesus along with his exalted status.  To see the amazing fact that Jesus was, and is, God and that he also lived as a human accomplishing, for us, what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves.

Luke 23:33-43

We end our journey to Jerusalem with Jesus at the cross just a week before we begin Advent and the time of expectation of the newborn Christ (we will see the resurrection following lent and before Pentecost in a couple of months).  This is where Jesus has been headed and we see what is a true King is as Jesus accepts and hangs on the cross.  There is no pride, no pleas for rescue, no venomous spewing of hostilities and hatred, there is no attempt to secure a favorable heritage in the eyes of those watching him die in agony and pain – we only see forgiveness and, oddly, peace.  Jesus death gives us life.


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Psalm 98  •  Isaiah 65:17-25  •  Malachi 4:1-2a5  •  2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  •  Luke 21:5-19


Psalm 98 (Responsive Reading)

Once again we are reminded that only God is truly God.  Last week we saw King David himself proclaim that an earthly King is not, and never will be, God. Psalm 98 takes that acknowledgement a bit further by proclaiming the fact that God is God is enough to call us to a joyful praise in the midst of every circumstance and situation.  Not only does our recognition of God bring us to praise but it also brings us to a joy filled trust in God as the one that judges each of us. A true knowledge of God brings us to a expectation of the new and renewed he brings to us.

Isaiah 65:17-25

In this third part of the book of Isaiah, the prophet begins to tell the people what God will do after the exile.  During the time in Babylon, the exiled Jews had been slaves, building houses for others to live in and basically never seeing the fruits of their labors.  In this look at the future, Isaiah tells the people that God is creating something new where they will see the fruits, experience health, and know freedom.  More importantly, the people will not remember the pain of their path and will experience forgiveness of their sin.  While this prophesy is often used by Christian eschatologist, it is directly written to the exiled Israelites to grab hold and prepare to be a part of this new work that God is doing.  It is a call to watch and work, mostly, however, it is a call to trust God.

Malachi 4:1-2a5

Malachi is the final book of the Old Testament addressing the people after the exile and after temple is rebuilt.  While being a prophesy of certain hope, Malachi is primarily pronouncing the sinful nature of the priests and people.  In the short time since the exiles have returned, rebuilt the temple and restored Jerusalem and Judah, they have also turned their backs on God once again. This short passage from Malachi confronts the sin of the people while reminding them, once again, of the healing and restoration that awaits at their return to God.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The church at Thessalonica was a community of believers that truly needed each other.  They were considered an enigmatic group to the non-believers of the city and a threat to the political and religious leaders.  Most in the church at Thessalonica did not have a Jewish past and were susceptible to the false teachers traveling through the area.  They also were faced actual persecution and, sometimes, were not allowed the basic freedoms of purchasing food and needed goods for their own survival.  They needed each other to help navigate life and faith.  There were those in their midst who had a very questionable faith combined with a draining one sided manner of relating.  They were not really functioning members of the Christian community but rather were selfishly using the other believers.  Paul tells the church to treat these questionable believers with the love of a brother while, at the same time, not permitting them to cause an undue burden on, or a distraction to, the church.

Luke 21:5-19

Jesus is now in the temple at Jerusalem with his disciples during the week leading up to his crucifixion.  As they stand in the temple an elderly widow give all that she has in the offering but the followers of Christ only seem to notice the man-made beauty of the building and ornaments. Jesus confronts their inability to see the sacrifice of the widow and instead focusing on things that will soon be torn down and destroyed.  As Christ points out their failure to see God’s work he addresses their priorities and faith knowing that they are soon to face a loss that will challenge everything they see as valuable.


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Sunday, November 10, 2019

Lectionary Readings

Haggai 1:14-2:9  •  Psalm 145  •  Job 19:23-27a  •  2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17  •  Luke 20:27-38


Haggai 1:14-2:9 (it may help to also read Ezra 3:8-13)

The exiled Israelites are now back in Jerusalem, and Judah, after seventy plus years in exile and slavery.  They are rebuilding from the damage created by their own disobedience before the exile as well as the destruction of the invading Babylonian forces.  There is a great deal of vision, excitement, and exhaustion but also, among the elder returnees,  there is much disappointment.  The older generation, while excited to be home, remembers the beauty and grandeur of the past.  They watch the foundation laid for the new temple and see that it is smaller and in no way compares to the past glory of their memories.  While others cheer, this generation weeps.  The prophets remind them of God’s outpouring in their release from captivity and that he has much more to bless and give – but also caution that God’s new work may not look the same or live up to what they think was superiority of the past.

Psalm 145 (responsive reading)

The Psalm, written by King David, is a personal, and national, recognition that God is God and a King is not God.  Following slavery, the people who are still discovering themselves as well as well as grasping who God is, are now free but under the thumb of the Persian Empire who conquered the Babylonians.  They have demanded of God, and received, their own King, but now are having to learn that a King is not God – and, it is their own King who is making this proclamation.  This moment is emphasized through a recognition of who God is and all that he has done.

Job 19:23-27a

Job is struggling.  His life has been turn upside down and now he is thought to hold the blame for his own suffering.  A great deal of the book of Job is an account of his quest, and demand, for vindication of this perceived guilt.  In chapter 19 he is now vacillating between receiving this vindication post mortem via a relative who can attest to his innocence or, his true desire, to hear and see God proclaim Job’s innocence.  His desire for an earthly, and eternal, vindication comes at the end of the book of Job as God meets him – then, Job is satisfied.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-17

Someone, or some group, has stirred up the church at Thessalonia teaching that the end days, the time of judgement (the Day of the Lord), are upon them. While many, even today, mistake this passage as being fully apocalyptic (end times teaching), it is actually a message of comfort and peace.  Paul reminds the church of what God has done while encouraging them to keep holding tight to God and what they have already been doing.  Paul tells the church to not be deceived by these false teachers of division and fear and, instead, to let the God of love and grace comfort and strengthen their hearts so they can do the same in the midst of their community.

Luke 20:27-38

The Sadducees were a community of priests who did not believe in the afterlife or resurrection.  They were, as a rule, more legalistic than the other primary priests community, the Pharisees.  In Luke 20 we see Jesus, now in Jerusalem and in the temple, facing an onslaught of religiously motivated intellectual attacks by the different religious leaders.  Our focus passage involves a group of Sadducees who attempt to engage Jesus in a debate about the reality of resurrection and life after death. They do this through a less than subtle legalistic approach revealing their attitudes towards women.  As the Sadducees think they have a fool proof plan to ‘win’ intellectually against Jesus, they instead, have many of their own faulty beliefs destroyed. Jesus not only presents proof of the resurrection, from the sadducees’ own accepted source, he also discredits their non-belief about angels. In the end, all the different religious leaders give up their effort to defeat Jesus on an intellectual and religious front choosing to walk away for the moment.