Lectionary Commentaries for December 30, 2018
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:41-52

Niveen Sarras

We come to the conclusion of Jesus’ birth narrative in the gospel of Luke.

Jesus became strong and filled with heavenly wisdom. The narrative of the boy Jesus visiting the temple at the age of twelve is often interpreted in the light of first-century Jewish context. While we need to take the Jewish context into our consideration, the Gentile context is important, too. The evangelist Luke writes his gospel to the Gentiles living in Asia Minor. Their context influences the narrative of Luke 2:41-52. “Luke seeks to present Jesus as a significant figure in history in accordance with the conventions of contemporary Greco-Roman biography.”1

Luke introduces Jesus as a young scholar engaging in theological discussion with the teachers in the temple. Jesus’ age is very significant in this narrative. The twelve-year old boy impresses skillful teachers with his knowledge; this is a symbolic story of a young prophet and future leader. This story echoes Roman heroic leaders like Augustus. Emperor Julius adopted his nephew Augustus, who received an exceptional education at early age. At the age of 12, Augustus gave the funeral oration for his grandmother Julia Caesaris, the sister of Julius Caesar. 2

Luke demonstrates that Jesus carries the qualities that will make him an extraordinary leader, just as Augustus became an exceptional leader. Luke is interested in introducing Jesus as superior to Augustus. Jesus is the new promised Caesar appointed, not by the Roman Senate, but by God. Luke wants his Gentile audience to believe that Jesus is the true Son of God and successor to Augustus.

Mary and Joseph, as faithful Jews, make sure to fulfill their duties as parents toward their son Jesus. When Jesus was eight days old, Mary and Joseph went to the temple to name and to circumcise him. They also offered the Lord the appropriate offering. Now, they need to introduce Jesus to the Passover in Jerusalem. According to the Jewish tradition at that time, Joseph is obligated to teach Jesus the Torah. The rabbis agreed that a boy can start learning the Torah no later than puberty, which is about age twelve.3

Jerusalem was packed with Jewish worshipers from all over the world to celebrate the Passover. Usually this celebration takes about one week. The Jews also traveled in groups to avoid danger on the road, such as thieves. The entire group had to watch over each other — particularly the kids.

Mary and Joseph had relatives and friends in Jerusalem. They might stay with them during the festival week. At the end of the celebration, Mary and Joseph started to return. They went a day’s journey without checking on their son assuming he was in the group of travelers. Were Joseph and Mary irresponsible parents? Was there a reason they could not check on Jesus to make sure he was doing okay? This is weird. However, Luke’s focus is not on Mary and Joseph, but on the boy Jesus Christ who demonstrates intellectual ability.

Finally, they found him in the temple. Mary said to him “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety,” (verse 48 NRSV). I think that Mary reproached Jesus with an angry voice and face. I do not think that she was talking to him with a calm and soft voice.

Mary and Joseph surprised Jesus with their reproach; Jesus assumed that they knew where to find him. He was, of course, supposed to be in his Father’s house. He was supposed to be busy fulfilling God the Father’s salvation plan. Jesus declares his divinity at the temple by assuring his parents “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (verse 49 NRSV). “My father’s house …” does not only refer to a specific location, but the understanding of “household” in Greco-Roman context means authority.4

Jesus was in the temple and under divine compulsion engaging in teaching. It seems that he was aware of his identity and aligns himself with God’s purpose. So, he could not compromise God’s purpose for the sake of his parents.

Luke concludes this story with the family journey back to Nazareth and Jesus’ obedience to his parents. I think he became obedient after Mary gave him a harsh timeout to discipline him. Jesus grew in wisdom, as well as divine and human favor. Luke ends the infancy narratives with assurance of Jesus’ extraordinary and outstanding character to prepare him to be the expected Savior.


  1. Bradly S. Billings, “At the Age of 12’: The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41–52), The Emperor Augustus, and the Social Setting of the Third Gospel,” The Journal of Theological Studies 60, no. 1 (April 2009): 75.
  2. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, revised ed., trans. Robert Graves Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 48.
  3. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 2015), 92.
  4. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1997), 157.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Samuel Giere

It is likely that this text shows up on the First Sunday after Christmas in the Year of Luke (Year C) because of its typological-ish resonances with the childhood story of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, which is this Sunday’s gospel text.1

Both are stories of young persons in the Temple. While the similarity could appear as mere superficial background, there is a deeper connection worth exploring on what tends to be one of the mellower Sundays in the church year.

Textual horizon

What we have here is a fragment of the beginning of Samuel’s story, which is intimately entwined with the stories of his mother Hannah, the priest Eli, and the story of the Lord’s relationship with the people of Israel.

The latter we are entering as the era of the judges is about to fade into the past, making way for the reign of kings. The centering shift of cult and state to Jerusalem has yet to happen. There is no temple in Jerusalem, and, as yet, there is no king over the whole of Israel. The sanctuary where the story is set is at Shiloh, a long day’s walk north of Jerusalem. The sanctuary at Shiloh houses the Ark, and it is there that Eli serves as priest of the Lord.

Eli’s story is far from being one of puppies and sunshine. His sons were both wicked asshats.2 The bright spot in his life is the dedication of young Samuel to the service of the Lord.

Hannah’s story is one that plays on with the themes of barrenness and blessedness. Hannah is the second wife of Elkanah, the Ephraimite. Hannah giving birth to Samuel, like many other biblical characters, bears marks of the miraculous. Elkanah’s first wife, Peniniah, was blessed with a number of children; Hannah was not.3 Given that children serve as a trope for blessing and blessedness, barrenness bore the opposite.

The extra-ordinary reversal of barrenness marked a reversal of fortune. Such a reversal of barrenness marks the beginning of Samuel’s story, as he is the result of Hannah’s prayer to the Lord. Hannah requests a son and accompanies this ask with a promise to set the child apart for service of the Lord.4 The Lord hears Hannah’s prayer and answers it with a son, who she prayerfully5 dedicates to the service of Lord.

We pick-up the story with the boy Samuel ministering before the Lord. The heart of the pericope is dedicated to Samuel’s clothing. The storyteller makes a point of sharing that Samuel wore a linen ephod,6 an odd little detail to which we shall return. We are also told that Hannah (and presumably Elkanah) would visit their son yearly, at which point she would bring him a robe that she had made, and at which point Eli would bless Hannah and Elkanah that they might bear more children.7

By this point, one could preach a memorable and no doubt welcome sermon about the benefits of parents sending care packages to their children … or Christmas presents. While Hannah’s care for her son by making him a new robe each year is touching, it probably not the best homiletical trajectory. Consider that something far more cosmic is going on.

Before moving to the cosmic trajectory of this pericope, a word of caution. Be mindful about how you speak of barrenness and blessing. Many have been confronted with this biblical dynamic with little nuance about its cultural, narrative, and theological purpose. It is not directly applicable to today. The struggle to have children and the struggle with whether or not to have children are not directly addressed by Hannah’s story. Note that Hannah’s prayer accompanies her “anxiety and vexation.”8 If there is an analogy to human experience, it might well be Hannah’s despair as she is weighed down by the cultural and theological interpretations of her inability (real or perceived) to bear children.

Homiletical horizons

In terms of homiletical trajectories, consider the linen ephod.9 While this quirky detail about Samuel’s attire might seem like a storyteller’s technique of inserting seemingly useless details to give a tale visual pop, it might also be significant.

The mention of the ephod, a garment of linen, perhaps an apron, pulls the mention of this first episode of Samuel’s service in the sanctuary into the realm of priestly and temple symbolism. While the high priest’s ephod was more ornate than the ordinary priest’s, they are both linen vestments bearing the same name. An important kicker here is that the priest’s ephod and the veil that separated and concealed the Holy of Holies are made of the same stuff — the same cloth.10 There is no accident here. The question is: what is the symbolism? 

Admittedly, I may be inviting you to wander into a forest of detail that seems insurmountable for the First Sunday after Christmas but hold on for a few more sentences. 

Margaret Barker in her book, The Great Hight Priest,11 draws out the symbolism of the Temple. The Temple was understood to be a microcosmic representation of the cosmos. The veil that conceals the Holy of Holies represents the work of the second day of creation.12 In particular it represents the firmament that separates earth and heaven,13 what is holy from the most holy.14

Given that the Holy of Holies was associated with the very presence of God — the shekinah — concealed by the veil, movement through the veil, then, was associated by early Christians with the incarnation.15 The author of Hebrews makes the connection: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), … ”16

Similarly, in the ancient Liturgy of St James we find the Prayer of the Veil, which is said over the eucharistic gifts — the bread and wine — after the gifts have been presented but while they are still covered by the veil upon the altar:

We thank Thee, O Lord our God, that Thou hast given us boldness for the entrance of Thy holy places, which Thou hast renewed to us as a new and living way through the veil of the flesh of Thy Christ. We therefore, being counted worthy to enter into the place of the tabernacle of Thy glory, and to be within the veil, and to behold the Holy of Holies, cast ourselves down before Thy goodness:

Lord, have mercy on us: since we are full of fear and trembling, when about to stand at Thy holy altar, and to offer this dread and bloodless sacrifice for our own sins and for the errors of the people: send forth, O God, Thy good grace, and sanctify our souls, and bodies, and spirits; and turn our thoughts to holiness, that with a pure conscience we may bring to Thee a peace-offering, the sacrifice of praise … 17

The point here is that the symbolism of the temple veil was interpreted in association with the priestly vestment, the ephod. As the architecture of the temple was a representation of the whole of creation, so the priest’s vestments were as well. From at least the time of the writing of Hebrews, there is this association of the veil/ephod with the flesh of Christ — with the incarnation. 

Back to the boy Samuel. What does it mean that the child Samuel was wearing this ephod? Samuel’s dedication to the service of the Lord is in one way the Lord’s corrective to the problem of Eli’s wicked sons, who had corrupted the priesthood. We also see here in this detail, which could be missed by the blink of an eye, a figuration of the incarnation of the Son — Emmanuel.


  1. Luke 2:41-52
  2. 1 Samuel 2:12. The donut hole in this pericope (1 Samuel 2:21-25) primarily concerns Eli’s sons, whom it is Lord’s will to slay (verse 25b). What a breath of fresh air Samuel must have been!
  3. 1 Samuel 1:2
  4. 1 Samuel 1:11
  5. 1 Samuel 2:1-10
  6. 1 Samuel 2:18
  7. Eli’s blessing seems to be effective, see 1 Samuel 2:21
  8. 1 Samuel 1:16 (RSV); alternatively, “great anguish and grief” (NIV)
  9. 1 Samuel 2:18
  10. See also Exodus 26:31f for the description of the veil, and Exodus 28:6f for the description of the ephod.
  11. There is far more substance to Margaret Barker’s argument than can be included here. (Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003)).
  12. Genesis 1:6-8
  13. See Barker, 207-210.
  14. Exodus 26:33b
  15. Working from early Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus, both of whom not that the veil and the high priestly ephod are of the same fabric, Barker concludes: The high priest “thus represented the diving within creation, just as did the holy of holies itself.” (Barker, 137)
  16. Hebrews 10:19-20 (NRSV)
  17. The Liturgy of St. James is likely the oldest full liturgy still in use in the Christian church. (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Divine Liturgy of James,” in Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies, trans. William Macdonald, vol. 7, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 543.)


Commentary on Psalm 148

Beth L. Tanner

The bloom is off the rose and it is not even New Year’s Day.

The tree is still up and the Creche awaits the Wise Men, but memories of food and fun and family are starting to fade. Families gathered are slowly making their ways home again. The decorations which were so festive a month ago, now remind us they must be boxed and returned to the attic. It is almost time to tuck in for the brunt of winter’s cold and snow.

Holidays pass so quickly.  All the preparation amounts to a few hours of celebration. The baby is still in the creche, but our minds turn elsewhere. Yes, this Sunday we will still sing carols and next week too, but by the 6th of January, the songs seem a bit out of place. The world has moved on. All of the holiday radio channels have returned to regular programming. The endless cycle of holiday movies and shows are tucked away until next November. Christmas candy and toys are already being replaced by heart shaped boxes as the consumer machine grinds on. Even the lectionary has moved on, today the young Jesus teaches at the Temple even before the Wise Men make their way to Nazareth on Jan. 6th!

Enter Psalm 148. This psalm is all praise to the LORD. The Psalter itself moves from lament to praise and this psalm is part of its crescendo. Psalm 148 stands out from the other psalms in part because the praise does not begin with people. In fact, the people are not called to join in the chorus until verse 11. It is as if there is a praise party and we are the last ones invited.

Often when we think of worship and praise, our thoughts turn to Sunday gatherings and human voices lifted in song. This psalm reminds us God’s whole creation offers up praise. As our holiday celebrations fade into winter and the next thing, the praise of God offered by the creation continues unabated. Like Jesus’s statement in Luke 19:40 “If they [the people] are quiet, even the stones will cry out.” Creation will praise when the humans are silent.

The psalm begins the chorus in the heavens with God’s Council of messengers [NRSV, angels] and hosts (verses 1-2). Next the sun, moon, stars and clouds [waters above the heavens] join in (verse 3). Verses 5-6 provide the reasons for this praise. The heavens and sky are praising God for their creation and God’s continuing control of their purpose or course. The creation sings praise to God simply because they exist! The creation rings out in joy for the very purpose God has set it in place to do. When we are too busy, the sun and the stars and the moon and even the clouds shout with glory to their Creator.

At verse 7, the sea monsters and the deeps along with the fire and hail, and snow and frost, and the stormy wind join to celebrate fulfilling God’s purpose. After a fall full of hurricanes and massive fires, it is hard to understand these phenomena celebrating “fulfilling God’s command.” They disrupt our plans and at their worst destroy our homes. Would our human policies change if we thought more about the relationship between the weather and its God? I am not sure, but the psalm provides us with a new perspective. The weather belongs to God and praises God.

After all of the skies and seas, the surface of the earth is heard; mountains and hills, trees and wild animals and domestic animals and creepy things we do not like, and the birds (verses 9-10).  All of this praise and song and celebration goes on before humans ever open their mouths! Everything made, even the animals and creatures which scare or repulse us, sing to their Lord and Maker.

Are we, like the rest of creation, made to offer constant praise? The psalms certainly imply this is the preferred state of all of creation including us. Yet everything seems to get in the way. As noted about, even before end of the Christmas season, other things occupy our minds.  There is so much to do that praise is usually reserved for Sunday mornings and a few special services. Sure, I try to count my blessings and remember all of the gifts of God, but only for a few moments each day. Then I am back to the world. Yet Psalm 148 is still there, even in my busiest days as a reminder that the creation is still singing and offering an invitation to us.

Everyone is lamenting the state of the world, especially our meanness and divisiveness. It seems naïve to suggest that praise could fix our mean spirits. But is it really that naïve? The creation invites us to rejoin the song. Would we look at the world differently if praise was our default position? Would we treat each other differently if we heard and joined in them with joyful song?  Like the Apostle Paul, I am foolish enough to think it just might change us. Psalm 148 reminds us that we are being invited to a massive praise party, every day, all the time. Maybe instead of worrying about the world and the packing away of the creche, we should simply join the party!

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17

Frank L. Crouch

On the first Sunday after Christmas, it’s hard for any passage to compete with Luke’s story of the boy Jesus in the Temple.

However, the Colossians passage provides excellent commentary in relation to Luke 21:49, fleshing out the implications of the boy’s statement that he “must be about the things of his father” [literal Greek translation]. We are called to be, as he was, people who embody compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and thanksgiving.

Those qualities find little positive airplay in the US media, entertainment, advertising, and political campaign industries. Those entities — recently described by David Fouche as society’s “multi-billion-dollar formation machine” — attempt to form us as people who most desire power, possessions, and “winning.” The qualities in this passage often receive a disparaging cast in mainstream culture, best suited for children or naïve people who have so far escaped life’s hardships and tragedies. They’re okay for baby Jesus meek and mild, but they will hardly do for anyone who wants to live in the real world.

However, in Colossians, these same qualities are given an adult cast, stated as emblems of wise, mature people who know what life is actually about and seek to live into what it means to be “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (3:12). For anyone who might wish to depart from the lectionary during the nine Sundays of the upcoming Epiphany season, preaching on one of those qualities each week would offer a helpful, countercultural sermon series. Or Bible study series leading up to Lent.

Another approach to this passage, applicable to the Christmas season, would be to explore the incarnational aspects of Christ’s birth and ministry as the “enfleshment” of those nine qualities. This passage extends the image of “clothing ourselves” that begins in Colossians 3:10 — clothe yourselves with the new, renewed self — continues with clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, etc. (3:12-13), and concludes with, “above all,” clothing ourselves with love (3:14). When people embody those qualities, they make possible a community that lives in harmony. Such communities demonstrate an openness to the word of Christ that binds them together “completely,” “perfectly” (3:14).

Such communities are governed by the peace of Christ (Colossians 3:15). In this case, the word translated by the NRSV as “rule” has a connotation not of simple power and authority, but more of wise discernment, possessing an unruffled, non-anxious center that engenders good choices for all. The fact that that quality is itself engendered by the peace of Christ means that a community will not be driven by fear. (One could say that the opposite of peace is not conflict, but fear.)

Many congregations, whether they admit it or not, are significantly driven by fear — fear of changing, fear of not changing; fear of not having any new members, fear of having new members; fear of death and fear of the life “to which you were indeed called in the one body” (Colossians 3:15). It might be fruitful to ponder aloud what it means to let the peace of Christ rule in the heart of a community.

In significant ways, a deep fear for individuals and communities — whether thriving or withering on the vine — lies in the implications of the image of “clothing yourselves” with new life, and especially with love. On the one hand, we are called to wear those things every day like a shirt, a jacket, a favorite sweater. On the other hand, the image is not just of specific articles of clothing but of being clothed. Just as we don’t walk out of our homes without clothes, we are called never to leave home without putting on our love for each other, our love for our neighbor, without wrapping ourselves in the new life that embodies the life and ministry of Christ.

Moving through every day clothed in our new life in Christ calls for ongoing awareness of new claims on our lives that can over time become routine patterns, one more set of things to do. Like exercise, healthy eating, and attention to our spiritual wellbeing — one more thing to set aside in light of the urgencies of work, family, and other responsibilities or other more alluring prospects for how we might spend our days. On December 30, it might be helpful for those who engage in forming New Year’s resolutions to consider forming them along the lines of this passage.

In addition, the admonitions of this passage do not convey the competing realities of how one’s new life in Christ can play out over time. Often the new life in Christ and the love it generates will feel like “LIFE!” and “LOVE!,” like something that is only good, great, life-giving, and joyful. On the other hand, a constantly renewed life and enduring love often require not a happy set of feelings, but an act of will. At times, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness seem more like burdens than life-altering possibilities. Sometimes we do a loving thing not because it feels good but only because love calls on us to do it.

If one follows that line of thinking, however, best not to end on that note, as if we’re called to be sour-faced, begrudging drones for Jesus. When new life and love take hold at our center, when the word of Christ dwells richly in us and our community (Colossians 3:16), our life together, at its best, is marked by enriching and wise conversation, by grateful hearts, and by singing.

Every now and then I walk through the seminary where I work and notice that it’s the one place on this college campus — outside of the music department — where one regularly hears singing. Singing comes out of classrooms, out of chapel services, and sometimes randomly in the hallways. It comes forth from people whose histories include some hard stories, some bleak days and nights, and who also know in their minds, hearts, and souls how to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Like John 3:16, Colossians 3:16 does not speak only to what we do in worship and in church. It speaks to how we clothe ourselves with new life and let the word and peace of Christ dwell richly in ourselves and our actions every day.