Everything Happens for a reason, or does it?

Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders. He had a key role in the story of the arrest and eventual crucifixion of Christ. Was Judas a pawn in this event? Was it free will or predestination? What if he had made a different choice? We dive into these questions and more in this podcast.

Scripture Readings: John 13:21-30 and 17:6-19 (focus v12)

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think everything happens for a reason? What situation could arise where this idea may be damaging to a person?
  • How do we answer that same question from the framework of our faith?
  • In the gospels, there is some suggestion that Judas was “used” in order to accomplish a greater purpose. What is your reaction to that?
  • Do you think God uses people to accomplish certain purposes?
  • How do we understand the relationship between free will and God’s will?
  • Can you think of other stories in the Bible in which it seems that people do/don’t have free will?
  • How does this help/change your perspective on your own life?
  • Or in your life decisions?

Podcast:

Luke: A Story for Everyone

The Gospel of Luke was written for ALL people. As we look at the parables and stories shared, we see that no matter who you are, Jew, Gentile, poor, man, woman, child, diseased and ill, Jesus came with a message for EVERYONE. This message is still very relevant to us today.

Scripture Reading: Luke 6:17-26, Luke 10:25-37, Luke 15:11-32

Teaching Points:

  • First of all, I need to fess up that I am NOT an expert on Acts, so we’re going to be heavy on Luke and weaker on Acts. However, we are treating these two books together because they share a common author.
  • Luke is written to a Greek-speaking audience, most likely educated. Though he was most likely well-to-do himself, the text shows consideration for those who are manual laborers (“workers”), which is notable.
  • Luke dates from 80-110 CE, and there is reason to believe it was still being edited well into the 2nd century.
  • While we sometimes think of Luke as more “earthy” in focus (we’ll discuss this later), his command of Greek is still more refined that what we see in Mark. He also omits some lengthy passages that either show the disciples in an overly negative light and/or make Jesus seem too “magical”.
  • Luke-Acts does not claim a particular author. For a long time, it was believed that Luke (gospel author) was the same Luke who was a companion to Paul (mentioned in some of Paul’s letters). However, scholars point out many contradictions between the Luke-Acts account of Paul’s activities and that given by Paul himself in his own writings. They also point out that Luke-Acts does not accurately reflect Paul’s theology. For that reason, authorship (from an academic standpoint) is unknown.
  • In our last two podcasts, we discussed that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke. Luke is the longest of the four gospels and introduces the most original material, but he still draws heavily from both Mark and from the Q source. (Incidentally, Luke-Acts makes up over a quarter of the New Testament!)

Discussion Questions:

  • One suggested scripture reading for this podcast is Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” this author’s version of what we call the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s gospel. Other than the assignation of different venue, it is interesting to compare the two for content. What is notable about Luke’s version when compared to Matthew’s version? What might this tell us about Luke’s perspective and his authorial intent?
  • In a previous podcast, we also talked about Luke’s birth narrative and compared it to Matthew. Do we see any trends in the themes Luke emphasizes compared to those Matthew draws out?
  • The other two recommended readings for today are two parables that are told only in the gospel according to Luke? Is it surprising that these bedrock stories (The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son) appear in only one gospel? What does it say about Luke’s understanding of Jesus that he includes these stories?
  • As time allows, we can draw out some neat themes in both The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son.

Podcast:

Matthew: A Gospel for the Jewish Community

This gospel is the first in the new testament but is actually written a generation after Mark. Remember, these stories were not written down in journals while the disciples were with Jesus. The stories were shared verbally for a couple of generations before they were actually written. Take a listen to this podcast to find out some more interesting truths about this book of the Bible.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-20, Matthew 11:7-19, Matthew 13

Teaching Points:

  • The gospel of Matthew was written in a formal, polished Greek that would have been used in synagogues at the time Matthew was writing. This helps us understand his identity and his audience.
  • Matthew probably dates from 80-90CE. A few scholars suggest as early as 70CE and a few as late as 110CE.
  • As with Mark, the author of Matthew is unknown and the name was likely assigned for symbolic reasons. The author of Matthew may have been someone named Matthew (we don’t know), but it was almost certainly not the apostle of the same name. (It would have been the wrong time frame, just for starters.)
  • In our last podcast, we shared that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke. This is affirmed by the fact that about 91% of Mark’s content shows up in Matthew (600 of 661 verses). [Note: There is probably a tendency amongst literal readers of scripture to use this similarity as an argument for both gospel authors having been present and rendered Jesus’ words verbatim. We may want to decide if we want to address that or not.]
  • It might be helpful to suggest the idea that gospel writers were more compilers and editors (storytellers, in a sense) than they were creators of original material. This makes sense when we consider the time frame and that stories had been being passed down for some time. Matthew draws on at least three sources: Mark, material that is common to Luke (“Q”), and material unique to his community and tradition.
  • The Christian community to which Matthew belonged was still part of the larger Jewish community, but to some degree, they were beginning to be cut off from their Jewish roots. Recall that the Jesus movement began as a movement WITHIN Judaism and only later became a distinct religion. There was undoubtedly conflict between Matthew’s community and other Jewish communities as they began to diverge in their understanding of Jesus.
  • The gospel of Matthew has its own unique attributes: for example, it identifies Jesus as the “new Moses” (liberator) by telling the story of his family’s flight to Egypt (unique to this gospel). It doesn’t bother to explain Jewish traditions, since its audience was Jewish themselves. It includes a birth narrative that expresses a particular view of Jesus’ kingship.

Discussion Questions:

  • Plagiarism is a HUGE issue in schools these days. What is the difference between just copying someone else’s story and using it as a source to tell your own story? What are some examples in our world? Song remix, updated movie, etc.
  • How do we understand the fact that Matthew was using the Gospel of Mark as source material? Is that surprising? Unsettling?
  • One source calls Matthew a “creative reinterpretation” of Mark’s gospel. What do you think about that?
  • Matthew stresses the divinity of Jesus, often by making small changes to the narrative. Why do we suppose this was important to
  • Matthew at the time he was writing? Can we identify how this is a little different than Mark? Is it ok that one gospel writer might stress Jesus’ divinity a little more while another might focus more on his humanity? How might this be helpful for us as readers of scripture?
  • Matthew often uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” (29 times!) because of a Jewish tradition of not speaking (or writing) the name of God. How might this change our understanding of passages that appear to be referring to heaven but actually refer to the “kingdom of God”? [See, for example, the passages in Matthew 11 and 13.]

Podcast:

Isaiah & Advent: How Do YOU Fit Into the Story?

This is the third week of Advent, and we continue on in our readings in Isaiah. We have to ask ourselves as we read about Isaiah’s prophecies what is the message God was sending and how is it relevant to us today? Be sure to read the scripture, listen to the podcast and ask yourself, or your small group these important questions as we wait and anticipate the celebration of the Birth of Christ.

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10 (Advent lectionary) and Isaiah 53

Teaching Points:

  • The book of Isaiah has been (and is) tremendously influential in terms of our thinking about prophecy, about Jesus, about the Exilic period, and just in terms of scripture with which we are very familiar. We can start with some basic scholarly information. For example, most scholars understand Isaiah in two (or even three) parts: chapters 1-39 and 40-66 (or 40-55 and 56-66). While there are some unified ideas across the book, there are also distinct “voices” and themes.
  • Isaiah is one of the books most often used to illustrate sort of “magical predictions” about the coming of Jesus. We need to acknowledge that passages in Isaiah referred to more contemporary events and figures, and it has been in retrospect that we have chosen to interpret certain passages as predicting attributes of Jesus. (This does not deny that many of the attributes described are wonderful and certainly turned out to be aspects of Jesus’ character.) Isaiah 53 is a familiar passage, read often and rendered in many other forms (ie. Handel’s Messiah). This is a great passage with which to talk about who was originally being discussed in the passage, in what ways we can see parallels to Jesus, and in what ways the passage might be problematic when applied directly to Jesus.

Discussion Questions:

  • Where have we seen/heard the use of Isaiah in classical music, art, poetry and pop culture? What are the positives and negatives of using Biblical imagery in these different contexts (think about other pop culture ways we use Biblical references…music, plays, TV shows)? Does it ever send unintended messages? Or, might it suggest new ways of approaching contemporary issues or problems?
  • One of the common themes we hear during the Advent season is the notion that God sent Jesus specifically to die for our sins. How do passages like Isaiah 53 seem to support this thinking? Is there anything of concern about this way of thinking (like the notion that God needs sacrifice or violence in order to forgive people)? Are there other, equally valid ways to talk about Jesus coming into the world?
  • We have looked at the Isaiah’s prophecy and images the last two weeks. What is added to those here in these passages? Is there a new or different type of message he is sending here?
  • The Third Sunday of Advent is a day on which we typically talk about joy. The lectionary passage imagines a very idealistic future in which certain forms of suffering and opposition are eliminated. How do we hold onto this kind of joyful outlook in the midst of a world that clearly still contains both suffering and oppression?
  • “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.” ~Saint Augustine. In your own words, what do you think this quote means?
  • As we talk about joy this week in advent, how can you play a part in God’s intent to spread joy to the world today? How can your family?How can we as a small group? How can our church? Do you think it is our “job” to be a part of God’s story?

Podcast

Are Prophets for Real?

It is important to begin this lesson by asking students, “What/who are prophets?” Young people and adults alike tend to restrict their thinking about prophets to people who were long dead and who are specially Christian. They also tend to see the role of prophet much like that of a fortune teller…predicting future events. We need to help them adopt a broader perspective around the concept of prophetic witness. There are powerful prophets who are living and who belong to diverse faith traditions. Even more important, the role of prophets is not to predict the future, but to speak truth to power and invite people to reconsider their own role in bringing about God’s vision.

We have tended to fall into the trap of “predictive thinking” during the season of Advent. We take a lot of biblical stories (Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament), and we weave them together to create a story that is easy and uplifting to tell at this time of year. We can preserve what is precious and touching our Advent stories while also taking care to share accurate information about prophetic witness, when it was written, what is actually pertained to, and to whom it is really making reference.

It may make sense for your group to talk about “modern day prophets” (real and fake), famous or those who we know. What message(s) have they sent/shared? What have you learned from them?

Prophets are not fortune tellers, and their primary purpose is not to predict the future. Their primary purpose is to speak and bring messages of truth to those who have gone astray, lost their vision, or grown weary in doing good.

Judgement (The Former Prophets)

Scripture Readings: Judges 6-8 (the story of Gideon) & Isaiah 2:1-5 (Advent lectionary)

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will understand what a prophet is and what a prophet does.
  • Students will make the connection between prophets of the Old Testament and those prophet voices today.
  • Students will explore what God’s vision is for us today.

Teaching Points:

We tend to be aware of the “major” and “minor” prophets, but most people don’t realize that the prophetic corpus is actually larger even than those volumes. In this podcast, we will introduce people to the concept of the “former prophets” and revisit the reality that a great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures date from the period of exile or after (even stories that seem to be about much earlier times/events).

The former prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Please note that the delineations (i.e. I&II Samuel) are not original to the writings.

Looking at the book of Judges can help us redefine the concept of prophecy and the role of prophets. In it, we see Israel go through times of being unfaithful, season of repentance, and times of liberation/peace in a cycle that plays out several times. The “judges” who participate in their liberation/return to peace play a prophetic role: hearing God’s voice, calling out the sin of the people and inviting them to turn around (“repent”) and return to embracing God’s intention for them (which tends to play out in military terms).

The Book of Samuel tells stories of Saul and David, ultimately describing the period we call the United Monarchy, a time when Israel was said to be unified under a single king. There is some question around whether Israel was ever truly united under a single king, but that is probably beyond the purview of today’s discussion.

The Book of Kings tells stories of Solomon’s accession to the throne, his reign, his death, and the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel when his son, Rehoboam, becomes king. It goes on to describe the kings of both Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Judah (Southern Kingdom) during the period we call the Divided Kingdom.

Discussion Questions:

  • When you hear the word “prophet” what comes to mind?
  • Who is a modern day prophet? Can an everyday individual be a prophet?
  • What do you know about Isaiah, a prophet in the Bible?
  • What were messages the prophets were sending during this time?
  • The lectionary reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a familiar passage from Isaiah in which the prophetic voice speaks of a future in which the weapons of are very deliberately fashioned into tools for cultivation and growth. Is it accurate to see this prophetic vision as a prediction of the future? What other understanding might we have of such a passage? How do we embrace this vision of a peaceful and growth-oriented world amidst so many stories of violence, death and conquest?
  • What do you think Isaiah would have to say to our world today?
  • What vision do you have for the future? (of the church, youth group, community, world, etc.) How does having a hopeful vision change the way you live daily? Or does it?
  • What is it that we are waiting for/hoping for during the season of Advent? How might that change/grow if we place it against the backdrop of the prophetic witness of the Hebrew Scriptures?

Resources: (Podcast)

Moses and the Exodus

Scripture: Exodus 1-12, specifically Exodus 2:1-10 and 7-12

Intro: As we continue on through this Bible exploration, we will explore Moses and be reminded of the story of his extraordinary life and how his experiences are meaningful even for us today.

Teaching Points

  • These chapters in Exodus very quickly transition from a scenario in which the tribes of Israel (all of Jacob’s progeny) are rich and powerful and possess huge territory and assets to a situation in which they are subjugated under the rules of Egypt and subjected to hard labor and slave-like conditions. Even so, we see that certain strengths are attributed to the Hebrew people: strength in childbirth, cleverness, and resourcefulness.
  • The exodus becomes one of the great liberation narratives of the Jewish tradition and remains powerful today. However, most scholars accept that it is not anchored in history, primarily because we have substantial historical records from Egypt at this time and there is no record that makes reference to these events or people. There is also a lack of archaeological evidence that such a huge group of people actually traveled this part of the world during this period. We might consider that the events of the exodus may have happened in some way but on a much smaller scale than is described.

Discussion Questions

  • Start the lesson time with this question: Have you ever been talked into something that at first you didn’t want to do, but in the end you were happy you were talked into it? (assuming it was a positive thing)
  • Before you begin to read the scripture, ask students what they remember about Moses’ life.
  • As a legendary story, what is cool (or beautiful) about the story of Moses’ birth and upbringing?
  • When the time comes for Moses to return to Egypt and free the people, it takes about three chapters (Exodus 4-6) for God to convince Moses that he possesses the gifts and speaking ability to be the agent of liberation. What might we make of the fact that Moses is an unwilling participant in the story?
  • Have you ever been hesitant to follow God’s call on your life? (This may simply be someone asking you to serve in some way.)
  • In what ways do we experience God’s “persistence
    in inviting us (repeatedly) to answer our call?
  • Exodus 7-12 is one of the great showdowns of the biblical narrative. What do you think about the repeated times that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart”?
  • You may have learned about the 10 plagues as children. Is there anything that troubles you now about this story? If you had the opportunity to teach this story to children or new/non-believers, how would you do it?
  • There is enduring internationalist theology anchored in this story. Who needs liberating today? What does it (or would it) look like to be Moses in our own time? Who have been Moses figures in the liberation movements of our more recent history? How were their stories similar (or different) to this legendary story?

Isaac and His Sons

Introduction: This is the 6th blog/podcast in this series where we dive into the Bible to open up conversation around the idea of Fact vs. Truth. I want to remind everyone that we started by discussing that the truth of the message of the Bible continues to be alive today. It is important to always ask, how does this relate to our world today.

Also, it would be a good idea to start a list, if you are doing this on your own or as a group, of characteristics we are learning about God and humans. This helps us keep our focus on the message and not the minute details.

Student Outcomes:

Students will discuss the factors that play out when there is favoritism.

Students will understand the story of Isaac, Rebekah and their sons

Students will discuss the meaning of covenant and how we may all be called

Scripture: Genesis 25:19-34 & Genesis 27:1-40

Teaching Points:

In order to make sense of these stories, we must first understand that they were written well after the events they purport to describe. By the time these stories were committed to writing, Israel had already experienced several significant events that shaped their desire to tell a coherent narrative about their origins.

Helpful dates:

  • 1050 BCE to 930 BCE – dates during which Israel is believed to have been a united monarchy, although many scholars question whether this ever actually occurred
  • Around 930 BCE – Israel splits into the Northern Kingdom (capital: Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom (capital: Jerusalem) with different kings and different social structures.
  • Around 740 BCE – The Northern Kingdom falls to Assyria. This profoundly shapes the way that they are viewed by their counterparts in the Southern Kingdom and, over time, changes their culture.
  • Around 587/586 BCE – the Southern Kingdom falls to the Babylonians, the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, and many of the people are exiled from the land
  • Around 539 BCE – the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, allows many Israelites to return to their homeland and return to some measure of their own cultural and religious practice
  • The stories we find in the book Genesis were most likely edited and compiled in the 6th and 5th century BCE (that’s the 500’s and 400’s) which means that the people were telling retrospective stories about their tribes, unification, later division, exile and return
  • While leading a high school SS class on this, I found it helpful to talk about our own country’s history as it has been passed down in just a few hundred years. How is the facts that are learned about Christopher Columbus and the early pilgrims taught? While students learn some facts, it is filtered. This will help them understand how these stories, too were passed down filtered by human experiences.

Discussion Questions:

  • Opening Question: Do you ever think that your parent(s) have a favorite? Why? How does it make you feel?
  • Understanding when these stories were written and all that had transpired, what sense can we make of the narrative in which two twin boys are battling in the womb of their mother, Rebekah?
  • Throughout the story, Rebekah and Isaac have clear favorites and deal rather unfairly with their children. Is this to be taken literally? What might the authors be telling us about their understanding of these two men (representing the “chosen” people and the “others”)? Who did they see as superior or more enduring?
  • As Christians, what do we make of this notion of a “chosen” people? How does that affect our present-day relationship with our Jewish siblings?
  • Do we still feel we are a “chosen” people? How might the way we interact with other people are the measures we are willing to take to ensure our own advantage and success?
  • Is it possible that this ethos pops up for us in our sense of being American and the way we relate to other nations? Where can we see that in politics, social media and public rhetoric?
  • How is the promise God made to Abraham still playing out in this story?

Resources: