Lectionary Commentaries for December 31, 2017
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

Shively Smith

In many ways, Luke 2:22-40 is the after story that is rarely shared during Advent season — at least, not theatrically.

For many churches, their dramatic presentations of the nativity stop at the scene of baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by angels declaring, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors” (Luke 1:14, New Revised Standard Version). Parents snap pictures. Grandparents beam with pride. The congregation laughs in delight as the youngest among them parades — sometimes quite sheepishly — across the stage as lambs, shepherds, and innkeepers. The curtain falls and everyone disburses to private celebrations among family and friends.

Today’s lectionary, however, reminds the preacher that there is yet more to share about the birth and purpose of Jesus in the world than simply the nativity scene. In Luke 2, readers encounter some of the quintessential features of Luke’s storyline that are not present in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, or John. Literary devices such as story doublets and the juxtaposition of male and female characters recur through the Gospel of Luke. In just the first two chapters, readers encounter multiple configurations of Luke’s gender contrasts and parallel story forms. For example, Zechariah receives the birth announcement for John the Baptist (Luke 1:10-23), while Mary receives the birth announcement of Jesus (1:26-38). Similarly, Mary sings praise to God affirming the significance of Jesus’ birth (1:46-55) and Zechariah spoke prophetically about the significance of John the Baptist in the unfolding Jesus drama (1:67-79).

Not only are there parallels between Zechariah and Mary in the Gospel of Luke, but there also exists contrasts between couples. The story of John the Baptist’s birth emerges from the marital relationship between Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7, 23-25, 57-65). Similarly, and yet slightly different, the story of Jesus’ birth emerges from the marital arrangement between Mary and Joseph (1:26-27; 2:4-7, 16). The Simeon and Anna story is also a type of coupling, albeit one that diverges from the trend. In the case of Simeon and Anna, there is no marital arrangement between them. Yet, like Mary and Zechariah, the Simeon and Anna accounts have parallel responses — public speech (2:28, 38) — to the same event — the presentation of Jesus in the temple (2:22-24).

Readers should begin noticing how the birth account is not the only marker of Luke’s masterful literary artistry. Of particular interest for the season of Advent is how Luke 2:22-40 brings to conclusion one aspect of Luke’s theology only to kick off a new aspect. Luke maintains his literary use of doublets by juxtaposing the observance of two purity rites — circumcision and temple presentation — and the declarative work of two interpreters — Simeon and Anna.

Unlike the birth story, there is no parallel account of the Simeon-Anna pericope in Matthew. This section is unique to Luke and is essential in determining the contours of Luke’s plotline and theological significance during the season of Advent. What does this story add to the portrayal of Jesus and the theological vision this particular gospel writer casts at Jesus’ birth and early beginnings? In one respect, the story of Jesus’ circumcision and temple presentation as well as Jesus’ youthful engagement in the temple (2:40-47) portray him as a person of Israel. There is no question that Jesus is an observant Jew, even at his birth and into his youth. Indeed, his Jewish identity is reinforced by his mother’s observance of purity laws related to childbirth (2:24; Leviticus 12:6-8).

Yet, the writer does not halt his depiction of Jesus’ identity and origins at the level of piety. Luke makes clear where in Jewish society Jesus’ observant family exists. It is among the poor. The two turtledoves Jesus’ family presents are the sacrifices designated for the poor, according to the Levitical code (Leviticus 5:7, 12:8, 14:22). It is easy to miss the significance of this brief detail. Many liberation readings of the gospel of Luke, notice Jesus’ affinity and attentiveness to the needs of the poor. For instance, Jesus speaks of the poor in his prophetic inaugural speech (Luke 4:18; see also 7:22) and in his sermon on the plain (Luke 6:20). Jesus juxtaposes poor to rich people, alluding to the poor having access to the kingdom (Luke 16:19-3; 18:18-27; 21:1-4).

In Luke 2, however, the issue of poverty and the gospel is much more than simply a “cause” Jesus champions. The location and experiences of the poor, is the experience of Jesus from his infancy. From Luke’s perspective, when Jesus talks about the poor, he is talking about himself. Thus, interpreters of Luke 2 should not only pay attention to the prophetic proclamation that Jesus is the Christ who was also a practicing Jew. Readings about the birth story of Jesus and his youth, should also include recognition and wrestling with Luke’s narrative portrayal of Jesus’ beginnings being from the economic margins of his own community.

Yet, Luke’s gospel does not dwell on the issue poverty — at least not here. It is a detail of Jesus’ family situation that readers are expected to know and hold lightly in the back of their heads. In the meantime, the story moves forward to a more celebratory moment in which songs, passionate declarations, and high expectations are shared publicly. Simeon and Anna introduce into the story a new air of expectancy and excitement. Up to this point, the narrative expectation was focused on the birth moments of Jesus and John the Baptist. With Simeon and Anna, the object of expectancy shifts to what Jesus will do. In the words of Simeon to Mary, Jesus is “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34).

Together, Simeon and Anna serve as external interpreters of the significance of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Zechariah represented insider prophetic witnesses. They received directly divine prophecy of the births of Jesus and John as players in the unfolding salvation history. In turn, Mary and Zechariah articulated songs of praise that interpreted the birth narratives of Jesus and John within the context of the deliverance and salvation of God’s people — but again, they did this as insider prophetic witnesses.

In contrast, Simeon and Anna represent outsider prophetic attestations on the life and work of Jesus. Whereas Anna spoke of the “redemption of Jerusalem” from the Temple, the Benedictus of Zechariah spoke about God’s redemption of Israel (Luke 1:68). Similarly, whereas Simeon spoke of Jesus as destined to be the glory of God’s people, Israel (Luke 2:32), the angelic witnesses to the shepherds displayed the glory of the Lord as part of their prophetic act and message (Luke 2:9).

This account is a wonderful invitation for our churches to consider the diversity of messages, voices, and locations among us as we celebrate the birth of Jesus as the Christ. The story of Jesus’ birth and early life in Luke makes room for a variety of bodies and proximities to the gospel message. It makes room for women and men. It makes room for youth and elder. It makes room for the poor, disappointed, and unsuspecting. The good news of Jesus’ birth is that insiders and outsiders of our immediate communities and families can carry the good news of God’s salvation, liberation, acceptance not just to others in the world, but to us as well. Like Mary pondering the words of Simeon in the Temple, even contemporary preachers of the good news with their own stories of divine encounter, need to be reminded of what else God can do.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3

Samuel Giere

Isaiah’s poem is a song for today.

An overture resonant with the faithful witness of Simeon’s song and the witness of Anna, the prophet, at the circumcision of Jesus (Luke 2:22-40). These songs are held together by doxology. The giving of thanks for what God has done. For God’s faithfulness. The song that the prophet sings echoes through time as it witnesses to the heart of who God is — the One who clothes the naked, who brings forth righteousness even among the nations.

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God…” (Isaiah 61:10a)

While the song is in the first person — it is the singer’s thanksgiving — it is not the singer but the song that is most central. The song recalls God’s heart in such a way that the incarnation is figured. The movement of God toward God’s creation is not an innovation that happens with Jesus’ teaching ministry. Consider instead that the teaching ministry of the Incarnate Son and the proper work of the Son, that is his gifting of his righteousness to sinners and his life to the dying, resonates from the words of the prophet.

Upon closer examination, Isaiah’s text rings forth with multiple metaphors. In the structure of Isaiah 61:10-11, there are two significant images: marriage and gardening.

The first is a marriage metaphor. Such an image is of course not without its textual challenges1 and contemporary abuses.2 As it is here, however, the image is one of care. Of love. Of tenderness of God toward God’s creation. This is a marriage. A reason for celebration. A sign of commitment.

For the Lord “has clothed me with the garments of salvation,”
and “has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” (Isaiah 61.10)

The impetus for the song — for the doxology — is the tender movement of God toward God’s creation. All problems with the metaphor aside for a moment, the text is beautiful insofar as the Living God clothes us, God’s new partners, with salvation and righteousness. The very bits that are unachievable from the creature’s point of view become that which clothes us and keeps us warm.

For the second metaphor we wander out to the garden, which (at least in the northern hemisphere) is both a memory and an anticipation in the throws of winter. The garden at our house is dormant. The promise of the fresh summertime tastes of its yields (homemade salsa!) is covered with snow.

Yet, the garden is where Isaiah takes us on this First Sunday of Christmas.

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is down in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all nations.” (Isaiah 61.11)

The image here is one of germination. Forgive me for a moment, but I recall planting and waiting on a garden with our daughter. While there is a beauty in horticultural science, there is also a sense of awe and wonder at the dirt being cracked open by a sprout. In this metaphor, the prophet draws the connection between the earth and the garden, cognizant of whence life sprouts and the generative movement of the Lord God. And what does the Lord cause to spring forth? Righteousness and doxology. The song of Isaiah is itself the result of God’s generative movement.

And why this attention and care whether wedding or vegetable garden?

For the sake of the nations.

For the sake of the world.

That the world may know and take delight in God’s loving, nurturing movement toward creation.


Notes:

1. It is incumbent upon the biblical interpret to be mindful of the abusive flip-side of the marriage analogy in Scripture, for example Ezekiel 16 and 23, passim.

2. It seems fair to say that Christians have had a tendency to abuse the marriage images in Scripture with a particular proficiency. In what is (save the anomaly of Ezekiel) is intended as a grace-filled movement, when the metaphor is applied to human relationships the regular imbalance and abuse of power is disturbing and should not be ignored.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 148

Rolf Jacobson

The psalmist of Psalm 148 sings:1

Praise the Lord from the earth
     You sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
     stormy wind fulfilling his command.

What an odd call to praise! What an utterly odd call to praise!

I live in the northern hemisphere. And not just in the northern hemisphere, but I live almost exactly half way between the equator and the north pole — I live a few hundred yards south of 45 degrees north — and, I should add, in the middle of the great continental mass of North America.

Why do I bring this up? Because my “global location” means that “I know from snow” — as my friends in New Jersey would put it.

I know from snow. And I also know from hail, frost, stormy winds, freezing rain, ice, sleet, and even sneet.

I know from the entire spectrum of what my Sermon-Brainwave colleague Karoline Lewis calls, “nature’s unnecessary freezing of water.”

And to be quite honest, because I am a double amputee and use a wheelchair year round, I often greet the various forms in which nature’s unnecessary freezing of waters comes to us with a curse.

Which is why I find Psalm 148’s imperative call to “Praise the Lord” so odd: 

Praise the Lord from the earth
   You sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
     stormy wind fulfilling his command.
Mountains and all hills,
     Fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle
     Creeping things and flying birds!

What are we to make of this ancient call to praise? Is it a poetic flourish, whereby nature is addressed anthropomorphically in order to underscore the psalm’s global call for all human life to praise God? It is at least that — a lovely poetic flourish. But we should not regard it as an anthropomorphic call for all humanity to praise God.

A Reminder of Nature’s Power and Danger

This poetic turn of phrase is, first of all, a reminder that all creation — and not just human beings — belongs to the Creator. The psalm’s poetry invites us to imagine the very heart of a windy, winter storm as the summoning of the Creator — “fulfilling his command” (more literally, “doing his word”).

This poetic imagination of Psalm 148 will remind us all that although we humans may have a specially endowed divine role within creation as the only creatures who have been created “in God’s image,” yet we should nevertheless be aware that the rest of creation nevertheless still belongs to God and operates according to the divine will — “doing his word.”

We are reminded that nature is powerful and dangerous. It operates according to the laws that God has established for it. Humans are to respect those laws or be placed at risk. This Psalm and the Old Testament in general do not have a romantic view of creation — nature can be dangerous. The seas roar, mountains shake and predators are plentiful.

The Old Testament views creation as a wild, beautiful, but dangerous and at times chaotic place. Nature operates according to God’s will. According to Psalm 104, there is a divinely established order in creation: “the sun knows the time of its setting” (v. 19). And night is the domain of the wild animals, especially predators: “all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (v. 22). Note that this order is divinely bestowed; the lions — ever the symbol of nature’s independence and danger – seek their food from God.

Creation, too, belongs to God and will be redeemed

There is more. The call for nature to praise the Lord, which is found here and elsewhere in the Psalter and in the Book of Isaiah, has a vital theological message for us.

The psalmic trope of creation’s praise, attested in Psalms 148:1-6 and 19:1-4 and elsewhere, bears witness to the biblical teaching that the redemptive scope of God’s work includes the entirety of creation. Because of the universal power of sin, all of creation is in rebellion against and separated from its Creator. But the Lord, who is faithful to the entirety of creation, intends to be reconciled to all of nature, not just humanity.

In the New Testament, Paul affirms both that the entire “creation was subject to futility” that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” and also that through Christ God renewing creation — in Paul’s words, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20-22).

In the Old Testament, creation itself is likewise understood as in rebellion against God. Especially throughout the psalms, the waters of chaos are portrayed as the manifestation of creation’s rebellion against God and against God’s purposes. And in Psalm 148, precisely those rebellious chaos waters are bid, “Praise the Lord!”

Psalm 148 has a message that is especially fitting in the Christmas season, when we remember that when the Savior was born, he was laid to rest in a manger, amidst the animals — sheep and goats, cattle and oxen. And notice that many Advent and Christmas carols bear witness that the reconciliation that Christ was born to achieve includes not only humans, but all of creation. Just a few examples:

  • In “Joy to the world” we sing that “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” of praise. And also, “no more let sing and sorrow reign, nor thorns infest the ground.”
  • In “All earth is hopeful,” we sing “all earth is hopeful the Savior comes at last, furrows lie open for God’s creative task.”
  • In “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” we sing “all creation, join in praising God, the Father, Spirit, Son, evermore your voices raising to the eternal three in one.”
  • In “People, Look East” we sing “Furrows be glad, though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there. Give up your strength the seed to nourish.”

As mentioned above, the psalm’s call to praise is evidence of God’s commitment to be reconciled to the rebellious creation. It’s helpful here to remember that the act of praise is a fundamentally relational act.

Praise is directed to God, because praise puts our communication with God back on the right footing. Praise transforms the rebellious, “NO! I want to know good and evil like a god!” of Adam and Eve, with a more humble and relationally proper, “Your name, O Lord, your name is exalted.” That is, when we praise God, we acknowledge both to God and to others that we are not the lords of our own lives. When we praise God, we acknowledge both to God and to others that the Lord is lord, and we are not.

Praise is thus a liturgical action that turns us away from ourselves, that works to untwist the curved-in-upon-ourselves nature of our being.

Praise is thus a liturgical action that, as my old teacher Jim Nestingen used to say, that “trues us,” that straightens us out and aligns our rebellious will with God.

When the psalms call on creation to join Israel’s praise of the Lord, the psalms are thus bearing witness to the wide will and work of heaven. That heaven’s love for and commitment to creation certainly embrace human beings, but heaven’s love for and commitment to creation go far beyond just us and include sun and moon, fire and hail, even the unnecessary freezing of water that we call snow and frost. The Lord’s redeeming arms are broad enough to embrace all of creation.


Notes

1 Commentary published on this site on Dec. 28, 2014.


Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

John Frederick

Galatians 4:4-7 contrasts our former status as slaves to the elemental spirits/principles of the world with our current status as “sons of God” because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

The adoption language in Galatians is framed in masculine categories (the word in Greek is not “children” but “sons”), and this is not incidental. In the Jewish culture of the time the inheritance and leadership of the family was located in the male heirs and male family members. Yet, strikingly, as Galatians itself demonstrates, just as circumcision had been replaced by the more egalitarian initiation sacrament of baptism, the benefits of “sonship” were now extended to all genders and socio-economic statuses — women, men, children, and even slaves. All human beings were to be equally included in the new covenantal family of God solely on the basis of God’s grace expressed by the sacramental covenant badges of faith and baptism (see also Galatians 3:28-29).

This first point concerning “sonship” and its subsequent application to all genders, sexes, and socio-economic statuses provides us with an important take-away. It is easy — and indeed, often necessary — to carefully and critically discern when the Bible is speaking descriptively about a cultural artifact in the text that no longer applies to us today. One example of this would be the argument concerning head-coverings for women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Yet, with issues concerning masculine language in the Bible, interpreters sometimes exhibit a tendency to automatically “correct” the supposedly sinister patriarchal bias of the original biblical authors. While this is appropriate in some contexts, we ought to be careful that we do not carry out such hermeneutical moves prematurely. To do so would be to risk stripping the biblical texts of potentially insightful exegetical elements that are contained in the particular grammatical structures and words used by the original authors.

In Galatians, for example, the use of masculine terminology actually demonstrates the radical progress away from Jewish and Greco-Roman patriarchy that was occurring in the earliest Christian church. Here the focus on the language of “sonship” is not a patriarchal shackle needing to be removed and retranslated into a contemporary key. Rather, by redirecting its reference away from a Jewish culture of male priority and patriarchy sonship itself is redefined by Paul. In Christ, “sonship” now refers to the full and equal inclusion of people of any age, gender, or socio-cultural status (see also Galatians 3:28-29) in the family of the people of God.

Reading the text in its grammatical-historical context, therefore, actually assists us in detecting this radical progressive shift. It also empowers us to be agents of correction and protest in a world and in a church that often wants to revert to “the good ole days” in which for some (if permissible) the chosen hymn at ordination services would be James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.” To the extent that we’ve lost the original narrative of total equality between men and women in the church and in the home, we’re in need of a correction from St. Paul. Being a son, daughter, and child of God is not contingent upon one’s gender; it’s contingent upon Christ alone. Equality and opportunity do not exist on the basis of gender; they exists on the basis of belonging.

Moving along, it is crucial to express that God’s sending of Jesus occurred through his human birth into the people of God, the Jews. This is the central point of the brief prepositional phrases in verse 4 “born of woman, born under the law.” It is not incidental, therefore, that Jesus was both human and Jewish. The great mystery of the faith, namely, that Jesus is fully divine, is of course equally true! Yet, so often in the history of the church Jesus’ humanity has been side-lined by a fixation on his divinity. It is comforting to remember that the divine Jesus was also the “crying infant” Jesus in a manger, the “awkward teenage” Jesus in Nazareth, and the obscure carpenter Christ who worked daily and diligently at his craft.

God didn’t save humanity instead of humanity. God didn’t save humanity in spite of humanity. God saved humanity through humanity; through the humanity of Jesus Christ for all human beings. In our contemporary religious context in which material reality is often seen as less important than spiritual reality, Christianity presents a faith in which spiritual redemption is inseparably linked with material human existence and experience. Redemption isn’t a result of spiritual abstraction; it’s the result of divine incarnation.

Equally important is the Jewishness of Jesus. Verse 5 notes that Jesus came as one under the Jewish law to redeem those who were under the law (namely, the Jews) in order that “we (a reference to the Gentiles) might receive adoption.” Christianity is not the replacement of Judaism; it is the expansion of Judaism to all nations through Christ Jesus. The Gospel is not the extinguishing of the presence and power of God toward the Jews so that the Church can come into existence in its place; it is the expansion of God’s grace and God’s faithful fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 that through him “all the families of the earth” would be blessed.

Inclusion in the family of God culminates and results in a new transformative reality: God’s Spirit is sent into our hearts so that we might embody and participate in his divine nature (see also 2 Peter 1:4). Like father, like son (and daughter). Thus, as we reflect on the many facets of the Scriptures for today, let us remember that God’s faithfulness through Jesus Christ has resulted in a new reality; a new creation, a new world in which followers of Jesus exist as equals, on mission together to see the world transformed through love so that it might reflect the beauty, peace, and purpose of the God who is love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.