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Lecture Syllabus - RL-02 Lent: Dying, Rising, and Living Anew

by Dr. Richard Lowery, Ph.D.
With addition discussion with Pastor Linda McCrae.

About the Course

This course explores the Hebrew Bible lections for Lent in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, beginning with the alternate suggested reading for Ash Wednesday (Isaiah 58) and ending with the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Though the Sixth Sunday in Lent offers a thematic choice (Palm or Passion), most churches celebrate the Palm Sunday, triumphal entry theme. The lectionary offers no Palm Sunday reading from the Hebrew Bible, so we won’t have a session about that week’s texts. Brief video lectures will reflect on each week’s text from the Hebrew Bible, placing it in its broader historical, social, political, and theological context. Lectures for the Sundays in Lent will be followed by a brief conversation between Rick and the Rev. Linda McRae, senior pastor of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indianapolis. These conversations will explore connections between the Hebrew Bible lection and the gospel reading and begin to think about how these texts might be preached.

Session 1: Introduction, Ash Wednesday

Video duration: 52:17 (mm:ss)

Lent, from an old English word for “spring” (the root of our word, “length,” referring to the longer days of spring in the Northern hemisphere), has its origin in the period of study and spiritual preparation for new Christian converts before baptism on Easter eve. Over time, the entire Christian community came to express its solidarity with the new converts by joining them in prayer and fasting during this time. Lent lasts a little over six weeks -- 40 days, plus six “feast days” on Sundays -- starting on “Ash Wednesday” and ending during Holy Week, originally at midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter. As preparation for baptism, the ritual “dying” to this world and rebirth into new, eternal life in Christ, Lent is a time of reflection, repentance, and release of those things in life that hinder our full commitment to the way of compassion and mercy taught and modeled by Jesus. Today’s session focuses on the alternate reading for Ash Wednesday in the Revised Common Lectionary, Isaiah 58. From an anonymous post-exilic Jerusalem disciple of the eighth century prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, today’s Hebrew Bible lection reminds us that the purpose of prayer and fasting is to strengthen our commitment to justice and our compassion for all people, especially the vulnerable.

Session 2: First Sunday in Lent, Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Video duration: 42:17 (mm:ss)

Today’s lection reminds the people of God that they owe their very existence to the gracious mercy of God, who is revealed to the world in the exodus, the liberation of slaves from their imperial oppressor. Because they have been released from bondage and allowed to live as free people in a “land flowing with milk and honey,” the people must take the first portion of each harvest and share it with the whole community, especially with those who are most economically vulnerable -- priests and immigrants living among them -- to celebrate the gracious mercy of God, the true source of the nation’s prosperity. The gospel lection, Luke 4:1-13, describes Jesus’s 40-day fast in the wilderness, a time of preparation before he begins his public ministry. During his long fast, Jesus resists the temptations of the devil, asserting his total reliance on the grace of God for life and sustenance.

Session 3: Second Sunday in Lent, Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Video duration: 44:44 (mm:ss) 

The Genesis story describes an ancient ritual often performed when individuals, families, or nations completed a treaty. It was an ancient version of a “signing ceremony.” The story begins with God’s promise to reward Abram and be his “shield.” In the ancient world, the ultimate and most important reward was to have children. Later biblical writers would believe that people may be resurrected at some point after they die and given spiritual bodies that last forever. For the writers of Genesis, however, there was no possibility of meaningful individual life beyond the grave. You lived on through your children. So it’s not surprising that Abram wonders how his promised reward would be “very great,” since Abram and his wife are old and childless. God points Abram toward the nighttime sky and says he’ll have descendants as numerous as the stars. Abram trusts this seemingly impossible promise, and God considers Abram to be in right relationship to God. God appears to Abram in a dream in the form of a fire-pot and torch, moving between the pieces of the sacrificed animals, symbolically “signing” the astonishing promise that countless descendents of Abram and Sarai will be citizens of the land they currently wander as immigrants.

Session 4: Third Sunday in Lent, Isaiah 55:1-9

Video duration: 43:01 (mm:ss) 

These are the final words of an anonymous sixth-century disciple of the eighth-century Jerusalem prophet Isaiah ben Amoz. Scholars call this anonymous writer, “Second Isaiah.” Second Isaiah collected oracles and narratives about Isaiah and supplemented the Isaiah material with oracles, poems, and prayers from the perspective of Babylonian exile. Second Isaiah saw the hand of God in current political events, especially in the coming invasion of Babylon by the Persian emperor Cyrus, and believed (correctly) that Cyrus would allow the descendants of Jewish exiles to go to their ancestral homeland and rebuild. YHWH, the God of Israel, had been revealed in the act of liberating Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Second Isaiah believed that YHWH was acting through Cyrus to liberate Jewish exiles and to reveal that YHWH, the God of tiny, defeated Israel is, in fact, the one universal God. In this final exhortation, Second Isaiah urges the exiles to trust the seemingly impossible promise of God, to have faith that freedom and security surely are coming, that God will provide more than enough for the people to survive and thrive. It seems absurd, but, God says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”

Session 5: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Joshua 5:9-12

Video duration: 33:58 (mm:ss) 

Today’s reading from Joshua represents a milestone in Israel’s process of liberation. After leaving bondage in Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, fed by miraculous manna that appeared . Just before today’s passage, the people crossed the Jordan River on dry land (cf. their crossing at the Sea as they escaped bondage in Egypt, Exodus 15). Now in the “promised land,” Israel camps at “Gilgal” (literally, “rolling”), and Joshua issues an order that all males be circumcised. This episode ends where today’s passage begins (verse 9), with a pun relating the place to the ritual practice of “rolling back” the foreskin and then tying the ritual and place to the story of Israel’s freedom: “Today, I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt. So the place is called Gilgal (“rolling”) to this very day.” A new episode begins in verse 10 when the people observe passover, the “independence day” celebration of Israel’s emancipation. As soon as passover ends, the people eat the produce of the promised land for the first time. The process of liberation is complete. The manna that fed them in the wilderness stopped appearing, because the people could now farm the promised homeland. The gospel lection (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), the “parable of the prodigal son” or perhaps, “the parable of the elder son,” picks up the themes of the Joshua lection. The “disgrace” of an irresponsible son who has hit rock bottom is rolled away by the grace of a loving father who welcomes him home to a lavish banquet. The story ends with the son’s responsible elder brother complaining about the father’s mercy toward his brother. The father explains that a celebration is in order because the younger son was “dead” to the family, but now, through repentance “has come to life.”

Session 6: Fifth Sunday in Lent, Isaiah 43:16-21

Video duration: 34:01 (mm:ss)

Today’s Isaiah lection speaks from the perspective of Babylonian exile around the time the Persian empire was set to invade Babylon (ca. 540-538 BCE). The work of an anonymous disciple of the eighth century Jerusalem prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, this oracle draws on the ancient tradition of the exodus to announce a radical new intervention by Israel’s God YHWH. The verses that introduce our passage (verses 16-17) make explicit reference to the story of Israel escaping the imperial army by crossing the Sea on dry land (see two versions of the story in Exodus 14 and 15 -- chapter 14 explicitly mentions a crossing on dry land. Chapter 15 does not.). For Second Isaiah the invasion of Babylonia by the Persian emperor Cyrus opened up the possibility that Jewish exiles, whose parents and grandparents had been deported from Jerusalem when the Babylonians destroyed it (586 BCE), would now experience a “new exodus.” Jerusalem is roughly west of Babylonia, with a huge and harsh desert in between. Normally, the exiles would have to head northwest, following roads through the irrigated land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, then turn southwest and cross the Euphrates closer to the hilly, more rain-soaked corridor along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea where Judah and Israel were. But just as YHWH parted the waters of the Sea to allow Hebrew slaves to escape their masters, so too YHWH now will open a way of liberation where no such route of escape seemed possible. God will pave a superhighway in the wilderness, with miraculous oases planted all the way from Babylonia to Jerusalem. The prophet calls the exiles to open their eyes and their hearts to see God’s new and utterly surprising act of liberation springing forth in the world at this very moment.