Lectionary Commentaries for December 29, 2019
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 2:13-23

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder

Egypt is a place of refuge. This African country is a safe haven.

As the Gospel of Matthew is fertile with fulfillment language, the insertion of Egypt here is a reminder of its historical significance. Egypt was a land of security for Joseph then (Genesis 50:20). It is a land of security for another Joseph centuries later (Matthew 2:19). A pharaoh in Egypt feared Hebrew children then (Exodus 1-2). Another imperial ruler’s fear forces a child into Egypt later (Matthew 2:16). Matthew’s post-birth narrative runs through Egypt. It is likely that by Matthew’s time there was a large Jewish community living in Egypt, particularly in Alexandria and Leontopolis.

Not only does the story after the birth of Jesus wind through Egypt, it is rooted in evil. How ironic that a narrative about redemption, salvation, and reconciliation must first wade through the abyss of egomaniacal behavior. Jesus coming into the world is bracketed with Herod who fakes worship on one end while instituting infanticide on the other.

History repeats itself. Such atrocity had happened in Egypt before the Exodus. It happened on the way to Egypt a millennium later. Its perpetual lesson reminds us that the most vulnerable suffer when the most powerful are irresponsible.

Here the most vulnerable, the most at risk are the children. Matthew interjects Jeremiah 31:15 to connect the pain from children lost in wars with Assyria and Babylon to a similar anguish in the writer’s Bethlehem. Matthew’s war is not nation against nation. It is internal strife between a despot and those desiring political and spiritual release and relief. A mother’s cry, a father’s scream come at the hands of imperial demand and demonic activity. It was heartbreak from the Hebrews and Moses reaching to Matthew’s primarily Jewish audience in the first century.

Fulfillment language can point to painful moments in a people’s history. It is wording that joins one period of time to another. It offers a continuum between the past and the present. For Matthew the use of such linguistic cues helps to show Jesus, even as a baby, as the culmination of what was promised. He was the foretold Savior of the World. Emmanuel—God is with us—sojourns from time through time and in time. Navigating Egypt, evil, and egos this is the Messiah—the Anointed One.

Matthew makes one more fulfillment linguistic move in rendering accounts post the birth of Jesus. Just as the interpretation of dreams provided a means of redemption for the ancestor Joseph, dreams also save Matthew’s Joseph and his family.

Three times a messenger from God, an angel, converses with a sleeping Joseph. The first subconscious dialogue proclaims the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:20). The second provides a way of escape (2:13). The third dream posits the all-clear signal (2:19). Joseph is to leave Egypt because the security and refuge that it offers is no longer needed.

A fourth and final sleeping encounter portends the perpetual presence of danger (Matthew 2:22). The last dream is different from first three in that Matthew does not state who warns Joseph not to return to Judea. The inference is that based on verse 22, Joseph himself surmises danger and acts accordingly. It is as if this time, the dream, instead of revealing something new, confirms what Joseph already knew.

What did Joseph know? Herod the Great ruled from 40-4 BCE. He died soon after Jesus was born. The emperor Augustus honored Herod’s wishes making his son, Archelaus, ruler of Judea. Although Herod was dead, his lethal residue remained (Matthew 2:22). Archelaus was a rotten apple from the Herodian bad tree. As Matthew notes, Joseph sensed foul play and took Mary and Jesus to Nazareth. Yet, nothing is purely informational in Matthew. Jesus had to dwell in Nazareth so that “what had been spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled” (2:23). Nazirites such as Samson served and saved by sacrificing their lives. Jesus would also serve and save in Nazorean lineage.

So much of the tenor in the public square portrays places where Black and brown bodies reside negatively. Locales where the citizens are primarily of non-European descent are subject to pejorative mischaracterizations. Although there are many hues of Egyptians and African people in general, Egypt is still in Africa—always has been. It is the continent of the melanin-kissed people. It is the birthplace of civilization.

While there is no description of their complexion, we know that the feet of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus touch Africa. Matthew goes so far as to suggest that had they not gone to Egypt, they might have been killed. A country in a continent that today faces hyperbolic misconstructions provided shelter for the Savior. Before Jesus could reside in Nazareth, he takes refuge in Egypt.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 63:7-9

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

“It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.”

Isaiah seeks to get his community in formation by remembering YHWH’s actions in the age of salvation, the age of Moses and the Exodus, of exile and return.

Celebrating God in the midst of us

Long before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah shared this good news with a people losing memory of how YHWH works in the world—in our midst.

Not from afar. Not sending a herald to come down while YHWH remains at a distance. The prophet is performing a profoundly liturgical act in this moment, using words to cause the people to remember how YHWH stood with them in seasons of crisis and eventually saved them.1

Remembering is the heart of worship for Israel. Amnesia leads to all sorts of spiritual and political crises. Psalms are liturgical songs remembering YHWH’s saving acts, for both the people to hear and even for YHWH to hear, when it seems as if either party is at risk of forgetting the covenant that binds people and Creator together. And so, the prophet calls out in verse 7: “I will bring to remembrance the loving kindness of YHWH!”

YHWH’s hesed must be imaged by the preacher. To tell people “God’s love is steadfast and enduring” won’t move the congregation in the same way that a story about how God persistently went after someone in the midst of crisis would. Again, as you preach from Isaiah, the prophet who shared not simply sayings, but a vision, do your best to add flesh, color, and vitality to your words.

Why does the prophet need to bring this to remembrance after the people have arrived at home?

Spiritual homelessness

Over the last few weeks in the lectionary we have shifted from first Isaiah now to third Isaiah, a timeline of roughly two centuries. And contexts have shifted along with us. Those who were in exile have now returned to a spiritual home that was never physically a home, only known through stories and songs. The people are unsure of who and how to be in Zion. How can they reclaim their identity? Through worship, through remembering, the prophet seeks to reorganize a people seeking reconnection to their physical/spiritual homes. For all of us, remembering and repenting in light of that memory of God’s hesed paves the path for our wandering souls to journey home.

But who are YHWH’s people, really?

In these three verses, and throughout the “sermon-prayer” in this chapter of Isaiah, the theological message that is meant to draw the people to worship YHWH is that YHWH saves the people by being present with them.2

But who are “the people” YHWH saves?

This is what the series of interruptions addresses, in the genre of lamentations, in the remaining verses of this chapter. Perspectives shift with each line: Nationalists, Zionists, Israelites, Jerusalemites, and other people of the land seek to secure YHWH’s favor and action for their own sectarian interests rather than for the sake of “all.”3 As Watts summarizes it in the World Biblical Commentary:

There are those who would pray exclusively for Jerusalem. There are others that would pray for redemption for all twelve tribes of Israel. There are others who feel that only descendants of the original covenant community should receive God’s attention and blessing. There are activists that demand a return to political power and military strength that will win the respect of the nations.4

This is spiritual amnesia in action. Each party forgets the earlier visions of Isaiah, which paint a portrait of shalom. Wholeness and holiness in the land that radiates out to other lands and draws all nations near.

This portion of the chapter is not included in the pericope. But it may be important in your preaching and in your context. How do we still limit the vision of prophets with sectarian prayers?

Sermon image

In this image of Carl Miles’s sculpture, “God’s hand,” there is promise and challenge.5 The promise is that God is a God in our midst, that we are creatures held in the Creator’s hand. But there is a challenge as well. If we only see ourselves in that hand, if we only see people who look like and think like and vote like and speak like us in that hand, then we miss out on the vision of Isaiah and the vision of Christ as well.

Remembering the Christmas story

Do not rush to the Christmas Story and the way in which it makes flesh and brings vitality to the sermon-prayer of Isaiah. But, after giving Isaiah’s concerns attention, do eventually tell the story—of how God’s very presence inhabited the vulnerable, fragile body of a newborn. Tell the story of how the salvation offered for this Messiah was truly for all people, challenging notions of us vs. them and sibling rivalry.

But let us not make the mistake of Isaiah’s audience, as they thought “only in terms of what God did once long ago,” and so they only “pray for a return to that kind of action” as they can easily imagine it.6 Consider how the story of Christmas continues today in ways beyond our imagination: through every disciple who seeks to bear Christ out into the world and through ordinary theotokos, God-bearers, who bring the words “justice” and “righteousness” to action in the world.

Remember the story of Jesus—not for the sake of comforting nostalgia only, but for the sake of a world still searching for home, wholeness, and holiness and a people still needing to get in formation.


Notes:

  1. John D. W. Watts. World Biblical Commentary, Volume 25: Isaiah 34-66, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2005), 329.
  2. Watts, 328.
  3. Watts, 330.
  4. Watts, 337.
  5. Carl Miles. “God’s Hand,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55402.
  6. Watts, 337.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 148

Courtney Pace

Psalm 148 is third in a set of five hymns bounded by “hallelujah” concluding the psalter.

This hymn focuses on creation and God’s sovereignty, particularly God’s design for creation to harmoniously coexist and praise God.

Whereas other hymns, like Psalm 146, vividly recall Israel’s experiences of marginality, oppression, and suffering, Psalm 148 reflects a transition to summons for praise, or rather, an entirely positive view of creation disconnected from the lived reality of suffering. This shift away from human pain and injustice toward idyllic order might function as a proclamation of God’s intent for creation, or it may be an intentional forgetting of their pain following the exile. Either way, this praise of God separated from human passion shapes the people who rely on its formula for worship, ushering status quo and complacency rather than transfigured renewal.

The first section of Psalm148, verses 1-6, focuses on praise from heavenly beings and from the heavens themselves. Reminiscent of Genesis 1-2, this psalm celebrates God’s nature and purposes, revealed in creation. Can you imagine if when congregations read Genesis 1-2, rather than falling into scientific skepticism or prooftexting battles, they burst into songs of praise for how God created all that is? How does the season of Advent potentially change our perspective on collective praise?

The second section, Psalm 138:7-14, focuses on praise from earthly creatures and objects, both animate and inanimate. Stars best serve God by shining brightly, and the wind by blowing. Everything best serves God simply by being what it was created to be. Creation exists symbiotically, under the sovereignty of God.

Just as each element of creation honors God best by existing as created, so humankind can best fulfill God’s command by living as God created us to live. Our purpose in life is to praise God alongside of and as part of God’s creation. From animals to the natural elements, from the sun and the moon, and from the most powerful leaders to the youngest child playing outside, this psalm calls creation to join together in praise of God. Humans might be tasked with stewardship of creation, but as servants rather than as having dominion. Humanity best honors God when it serves creation. As commentator James Limburg paraphrased, “Praise is the business of all that exists.”

Psalm 148 models a fully inclusive invitation to praise God. Israel will be one of many participants in praising God. Humans are partners with multitudes of others, including creation itself, in praise. This recalls Genesis 1 and Genesis 9, where all living things and the earth itself praise God and exist in relationship with God. In the New Testament, Jesus teaches that if humanity ceased to praise God, the very rocks would cry out in praise. Being the people of God has never been an exclusive opportunity, but rather, God has always invited all of creation to live in sacred, covenant relationship with God.

The placement of this psalm near the end of the psalter is critical for orienting readers. Life will continue to have ups and downs, ecstasy and tragedy, harmony and division, and yet, God calls us to live in praise. Holiday seasons will usher in a mixture of celebration and mourning. By orienting and reorienting ourselves to praising God’s creation, we not only remember God’s promises, but we literally re-member ourselves according to God’s design of harmonious creation of loving community.

How does God’s creation guide us in how we are to relate to each other and to creation itself? What is the role of prayer in reorienting ourselves toward God’s plan for creation and our part within that larger pageant? As we enter the season of Advent, what does it mean to join with all creation in praise of God? How does anticipation of Jesus’s birth unite creation and reorient us to God’s design?

Are there times when harmony interferes with justice? Can disharmony at times be pleasing to God? If so, what does authentic praise look like in moments of justice-centered disharmony? What does reconciliation look like, and how can prayer and praise be part of reaching and achieving reconciliation? How do our commitments to justice and community influence our decisions about how we spend our holidays?

The Christmas holidays are especially difficult for many believers. What grief are you and your congregation bringing into worship during Advent? How does this grief isolate you from others, and how can it bring you together with others? How do experiences of trauma and suffering shape us theologically, psychologically, and physically, and can our answer to this question different at this time of year? How might traumatic experiences and suffering influence the way we worship? As we praise God for all that God has done and is doing, how do we hold our experiences in tension with God’s promises, and to which promises in particular?

Are there “good” and “bad” ways to praise (or to celebrate the holidays), or can God be glorified in all forms of praise/celebration? Are there particular songs, movements, or postures to which you repeatedly turn for spiritual formation and comfort during Advent, or throughout the year? What traditions have been most meaningful to you?


References:

Brueggemann, Walter, Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

Cotter, Jim, Psalms for a Pilgrim People (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1998).

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy, Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2004).

Mays, James L., Preaching and Teaching the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

Mays, James L. Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994).

Limburg, James, Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

McCann, J. Clinton, “Psalms,” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 4, ed. by Leander E. Keck, et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

Reid, Stephen Breck, Listening In: A Multicultural Reading of the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).


Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 2:10-18

Jennifer V. Pietz

Hebrews 2:10-18 paints a powerful picture of the significance of Jesus’ incarnation that highlights the reality of suffering on the journey of faithfulness to God.

The passage is framed by reference to Jesus’ sufferings as a human being (Hebrews 2:10, 18). This image of Jesus is a striking shift from the descriptions of the divine, exalted Jesus that dominate Hebrews until 2:9, when the author clarifies that Jesus has been crowned with divine glory and honor precisely because he suffered death. This sets the stage for Hebrews 2:10-18, which shows how Jesus’ incarnation makes it possible for other human beings to share in divine glory.

Hebrews 2:10 presents the key claim of the passage: that the sovereign, Creator God brings human beings to salvation through the suffering of the divine Son who became incarnate in Jesus. The idea that it is fitting for God to accomplish the divine purposes for the world by becoming a human being and suffering death (verse 14) would seem outrageous to some audiences, both ancient and modern. But it is at the heart of the Christian gospel, which is expressed in condensed form in this passage.

The word pioneer (archegos) used of Jesus in verse 10 is significant. It can refer both to someone in a preeminent position, such as a leader or ruler, and to a founder or originator of something. Both meanings apply to Jesus as the pioneer of human salvation, and they certainly overlap.

Verse 17 picks up on the first meaning by depicting Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest (archiereus) who makes atonement for human sin, thus removing a major obstacle to people living in faithful relationship with God (see also verse 11).

Verses 14-15 reflect the second meaning of “pioneer” in that through his own death, Jesus disarms the power of death and thus becomes the “source” of human salvation (see also Hebrews 12:2). Jesus thereby removes another obstacle to people living in trusting relationship with God by liberating them from the bondage that fear of death brings (verse 15).

Both the removal of sin and the defeat of death are necessary to human salvation, which finds its fulfillment in entering eternally into God’s glorious presence (verse 10), as the exalted Jesus has already done.

These understandings of Jesus as pioneer of salvation make his incarnation necessary. A high priest must be human in order to truly represent the people, and only a real human being can die a human death that destroys the power of death (verse 14; see also verse 9). Jesus, the one who sanctifies, is a true brother to people who are being sanctified (verses 11-13). Even so, Jesus retains his unique status as Son (see also Hebrews 1:2) that makes his priestly activity and death decisive in bringing salvation (Hebrews 9:26; 10:11-14).

This points to another nuance of Jesus’ role as pioneer of our salvation and to the importance of his incarnation. By his earthly life of perfect obedience to the Father that opened salvation to others, Jesus serves as forerunner and example of what an unwavering life of faithfulness to God looks like. The entire book of Hebrews, in fact, presents an exhortation to persevere in faith on the long earthly journey toward experiencing the fullness of God’s salvation.

This brings us back to the theme of suffering and raises the question of why is it appropriate for God to make the pioneer of our salvation “perfect” or “complete” (teleioo) through suffering (Hebrews 2:10)?

Suffering is an inevitable part of human life, so it should be no surprise that as a real human being, Jesus suffered. But Hebrews 2:18 speaks of Jesus being “tested” or “tempted” (peirazo) by what he suffered, so that he can help other people who are being tested (see also verse 16). Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness as he was tempted by the devil comes to mind (for example, Luke 4:1-13), as does Jesus’ horrific death on the cross, which both his disciples and his hecklers tempted him to avoid (for example, Mark 8:31-33; 15:29-32).

In this context, we can understand suffering not as something glorious or redemptive in itself, but as something that is to be expected when one follows God and seeks to fulfill God’s purposes in a world that is hostile to God. It provides the opportunity to develop and affirm one’s trust in God.

Hebrews 3 and following uses the example of the Israelites who had been liberated from Egyptian bondage, only to lose faith/trust in God while wandering in the wilderness, as a warning to its audience not to do the same. The life of faith is often more like the desert than the mountaintop.

In the midst of suffering, fatigue, or feeling lost, Hebrews 2:10-18 exhorts us to cling to Jesus as the one who persevered in faith through unthinkable suffering and is sustaining us on the journey. Hebrews 5:8-9 affirms that Jesus’ obedience—even when it meant suffering—is what makes his death salvific and his life exemplary. Jesus is the “pioneer [archegos] and perfecter [teleiotes] of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) because his own faithfulness brought God’s redemptive purposes for humanity to fulfillment, even though people are still moving toward entering the fullness of salvation.

The idea that God achieves divine purposes through suffering can be taken in directions that are both theologically and pastorally problematic, so caution is in order when preaching on this topic. Although the Bible affirms that God works in suffering and trials, we should not presume to know exactly how God does this or try to draw clear causal connections between particular instances of suffering and God’s activity. The promise of Hebrews 2:10-18 is that the incarnate, crucified, and glorified Jesus is with us and can help us in everything that we go through, even when it makes no sense to us.