Lectionary Commentaries for January 1, 2017
Name of Jesus

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:15-21

Joy J. Moore

Many of my favorite songs are simple melodies that call out the name of Jesus.1

There’s just something about that name.  But in the saying of the name, there is an absence of just what is the something special. We identify a plethora of adjectives, but are limited in complete phrases that employ verbs depicting what Jesus has done. Not the doctrinal refrains Jesus saves, or Jesus hears our prayers, or even Jesus loves me.

As a present day testimony to the arrival of peace on earth, exactly what does salvation look like? What brings us to describe Jesus’ holiness? What activity of God TODAY renders the description good, faithful, or just? Can today’s listener join the throng of witnesses who call Mary’s son our savior? Our telling of the stories of old becomes barren if they do not provoke memories of present day experiences that can only be named as the presence of God.

Even as we read the unfolding drama Luke presents, we strain to appreciate the presence of God’s peace as we witness those who suffer wrong. And yet, already in the birth narration, the poor, the widow, and the weak are helped to be strong in the name of Mary’s baby boy. Luke has named those who testify to the arrival of God’s promised one. And they have named God as faithful.

Luke has drawn us into a story of unique characters who stand out in their context. Some are not named, but each represent very real lives and circumstances, very real sorrows and hopes. Like the unnamed workers effected by the decision making of politicians, the shepherds represent a number of common folk, seemingly incidental to the decision making of Caesar, but paramount in the decision making on behalf of the one who will be called the Son of God. Only recently have we truly attended to their status in the first century — the workers, the rest of the world. These are the ones who occupy the guest room in Bethlehem to see if the angel’s message is true.

The angel has named Jesus as the one who accomplishes the glory of God. Jesus is of the house of David; he is Savior; he is Messiah; and he is Lord. Mary accepts this name and so this will be the message proclaimed for generations to follow. More than the sign of the promise of peace, God’s salvation is made available to all humankind. The heritage of Israel, the one who restores wholeness to all the world, the long-expected anointed one who demonstrates the present in-breaking of the reign of God.

One of my favorite newer Christmas songs is Mark Lowery’s Mary Did You Know. The Gospel writer Luke suggests by the witness of the angels and the circumstances surrounding the birth, Mary might just have had some awareness of the life she would lead as the mother of the one that will be called the Son of God. This song is filled with great promise that enters into great pain. Like the words of the angel, this child’s arrival is good news to all. God is with us. But how does one comprehend anticipating the depths of sorrow and the heights of joy? The song describes some things that gives one pause. Pause, when an alcoholic prays, and a stranger hands him a hundred dollars. Pause, when the doctor says the cancer is all gone. Pause, when the wayward child returns home willingly, and the other siblings join the parents to receive all gladly. Pause, when your loved one returns with the last troops from overseas.

Will those who have hurried to sing the carols of Christmas this year depart glorifying God? Have they seen in the body of Christ that gathers in sanctuaries a scattering of the presence of God’s peace in the world that brings amazement? Does our action enable people to call the name of Jesus in such a way that glorifies God? Has the church provided a means for the world to recognize the arrival of God’s peace, or is the good in the world attributed to hospitals, schools, and government? Do we name the ones who speak of glimpses of the reign of God yet to come or those who fill our stocking today with gadgets that need replacing before the year ends?

Indeed a child has been born, found in the very place to which the shepherds were sent. The promises of the messenger Gabriel are unfolding as announced. The credibility of his words lends credibility to his declaration that the one born will be Ancient Israel’s awaited Messiah. Born as promised, his identification can be accepted. Naming God as faithful, the shepherds depart. Still the ministry and its fulfillment are yet anticipated.

Such was the miracle of Christmas. Familiar anticipation paralleled with signs of doubt, fear, and wonder. The agent of God is born in Bethlehem, the House of David, the Shepherd-King. “His name shall stand forever. That name to us is love.”2



1 Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 1, 2012.

2 Closing line from the Christmas Carol Hail to the Lord’s Anointed by James Montgomery.

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 6:22-27

Terence E. Fretheim

The year begins with a benediction!1

This familiar benediction has long been used by the church (and Jewish communities) to conclude services of worship. But it is wise to remember that this blessing stands at both the beginning and end of our life with God and in the world. 

This text is located in the middle of a major section of Numbers (1:1-10:10). It describes Israel’s preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai (where the people have been camped for almost a year) and the continuation of its journey through the wilderness to the land of promise. This blessing is designated for Israel’s time of departure from Sinai, and was to be used daily throughout their journey. This is a blessing for a journey!

The placement of this benediction seems unusual. It is preceded by specifications for the vocation of nazirites (6:1-21). These were male or female individuals who took a vow of consecration for a special vocation among the people of God. The nazirites are sometimes called the monks and nuns of ancient Israel. Perhaps the theme of consecration is the primary link with our text. The text that follows (7:1-88) describes the consecration of the tabernacle, standing in the center of the community, wherein God was believed to be present. The link with our text probably associates the benediction with God’s presence among the people.

This benediction in some form was widely used in ancient Israel, especially at the conclusion of worship (see Leviticus 9:22; Deuteronomy 21:5; 2 Chronicles 30:27; Psalm 67:1; 121:7-8). Note also that the word commonly translated Lord is Yahweh, the primary name of God in the Old Testament. It is often thought, however, that Lord (a masculine metaphor) is not the best way to bring this name into English. 

Each line of verse, with God as subject, is progressively longer (three, five, seven Hebrew words). Besides three occurrences of the name Yahweh, the remaining twelve Hebrew words may signify the twelve tribes. God is the actor in all six clauses: bless, keep, make the face shine, be gracious, lift up countenance, and give peace. The six verbs together cover God’s benevolent activity from various angles and state God’s gracious will for the life of the people.

The second verb in each line gives greater specificity to the divine action of the first verb and emphasizes the more concrete effects of God’s activity. Interestingly, the “you” is singular, perhaps with the idea that each person who hears this blessing will make it his/her own (without taking away the communal context and character of the blessing).

The word “bless” in 6:23 refers to the entire blessing that follows and hence that word covers all dimensions of the benediction. To “bless” testifies most basically to the work of God, both within the community of faith and beyond. It signifies any divine gift (spiritual, earthly, and bodily) that directly or indirectly serves the life, health, and the well-being of individuals and communities. The verb covers the spheres of both creation and redemption, from gifts of fertility and posterity to spiritual and bodily health. No conditions are attached.

To “keep” is a specific blessing given to those with concerns for safety, focusing on God’s sheltering the people from evil and its effects, especially pertinent for wilderness wandering. The verb “keep” occurs six times in Psalm 121 and covers a wide range of life’s journey.

God’s “face/countenance” (the same Hebrew word is used twice) is a common anthropomorphism, especially in Psalms (see Psalm 4:6; 31:16; 44:3; 67:1; 80:3; 89:15). At the same time, the reference to “shining” draws in elements of light and brightness from the nonhuman world, with the contrasting idea of darkness not far from view. The nonhuman world, too, illumines the basic character of God (see, e.g., Psalm 36:6). 

The shining face of God signifies God’s benevolent disposition toward the other, here in gracious action, for which Israel can make no special claims. The shining face is to be contrasted with the hiding face of God (see Psalm 13:1): You get to see God’s face glowing, not glaring! This is a gracious move on God’s part to those who are undeserving. Moreover, the whole world is brought into view to experience the effects of God’s shining face (see Psalm 67:1-7). In today’s idiom, we might say: God smiles on you.

The lifting up of the Lord’s face/countenance signifies a gracious movement toward the other (see Genesis 32:20; 40:13). The word “peace” (shalom) is the climactic word of the benediction and has wide-ranging connotations. In the words of Dennis Olson (Numbers [Louisville: John Knox, 1996] 42-43), the richness of the word includes “prosperity (Psalm 37:11; Proverbs 3:2), longevity, happiness in a family (Psalm 128:6), safety, security (Psalm 4:9; 122:6-8), good health (Psalm 38:4), friendship (Jeremiah 38:22), and general well-being.”

The concluding statement in 6:27 (“I will bless them”) returns to the opening theme, only with greater specification that it is God who blesses through the words spoken by the priests (the “I” is emphasized in Hebrew). Note the promise here: “I will bless them”; the translation of 6:24 that is sometimes used, “May the Lord bless you…,” could be understood to take the edge off this promise.  

Putting God’s name on the people (supremely by means of the word) emphasizes the divine source of all blessings. It is as if the people now wear God’s name, and that it should be worn so that all will see and believe. Putting the name of God on the people may have been understood literally, given that the blessing is inscribed on two cigarette-sized silver plaques found near Jerusalem, dating from the 7th-6th centuries BCE — the earliest known fragments of a biblical text (see Jacob Milgrom, Numbers [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1990] 360-62).

That this text is chosen for the “name of Jesus” Sunday is especially appropriate. In Jesus Christ, the “name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9), the Christian community encounters the gracious face of God in an unsurpassable way. This benediction is a deeply appropriate way to being the service of Christian worship in God’s name to a gathered conclusion.


1Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 1, 2012.


Commentary on Psalm 8

Fred Gaiser

A problem with our hearing of Psalm 8, as with so many other biblical texts, may be our affluence.1

Most of us are so used to being more or less well off and more or less comfortable that we have difficulty hearing the text from the margin, from the perspective of the underdog or the endangered. The result is not only confusion, but potentially destructive misuse.

The issue in Psalm 8, as in Genesis 1 to which it refers, is the relationship between humanity (us!) and the rest of creation. The psalm sings the old creation story into the present, rejoicing again in being made “little less than divine” (NJPS), which means having “dominion” over the works of God’s hands, over all creation. Creation is not merely a one-time act “in the beginning,” but an ongoing work and gift of God that makes us realize ever anew “how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

The problem, as we have heard often, is that one generation’s “dominion” becomes a later generation’s exploitation, and woe to the earth and woe to us if we think the psalms gives us license to do whatever is now in our power to ravish the earth and use up its resources. If this creational dimension of the psalm becomes a part of our preaching, we need to make people hear as clearly as possible that exploitation is not the message of Genesis 1 and not that of Psalm 8.

We live in a different world from that of these texts. When singers of the psalm looked “at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established,” they saw not the many stars and galaxies light-years away that we know from our science classes, planetariums, and telescopes, with the earth a mere speck in a minor planetary system, but the stars and the moon as fixed points on a half-dome sky, surrounding an earth that was the center of the universe, indeed, that was the universe. Even so, they were overwhelmed by the grandeur! And we? We may be all the more awed by our expanded sense of universe, giving greater praise to God, or some of us might find the notion of God quaintly irrelevant given our “greater” understanding.

Similarly, when the psalmists rejoiced in their surprising ability, under God, to bring sustenance from an unwieldy planet, they lived in a time when such “dominion” was relatively new–the ability to domesticate animals and till the soil–and the alternative was a daily hunter-gatherer existence that gave little or no time for developing culture, civilization, or even communal worship. “Praise the Lord,” they sang, “for God has blessed our humble efforts and given us life!”

But we dare not say, “Praise the Lord, for God has blessed all the assaults on the earth of which we are now capable and given us bigger and better stuff.” We too rightly rejoice in God’s blessing of our works, but, to be blessed, such works must understand “dominion” in the sense of Psalm 72, where the purpose of royal dominion (Psalm 72:8) is to “defend the cause of the poor” (verse 4) and to bring “abundance” (verse 16), “righteousness” (verse 7), and “peace” (verse 7) to all. That work is worthy of praise!

There are many potential sermons on Psalm 8, of course, as with any text. One will be to rejoice in our exercise of the responsible dominion given us by God as creatures who are “little less than divine” (a better translation than NRSV’s “a little lower than God”). Amazing! We rejoice in the gift, even as we pray for humility to bear the responsibility of exercising anything resembling god-like power over the earth. We have power, to be sure, but God-like power will abuse nothing.

Another sermon derives simply from the poetic structure of the psalm. A modern, Western reading of the psalm tends to focus on the question “What are humans that you are mindful of them?” as an outburst of existential anxiety from an “I” alone in the midst of overwhelming vastness. There might be something in that, but the structure of the psalm puts the singer in a different place. Psalm 8 has a rather clear concentric structure:

A O Lord, our Sovereign… (verse 1a)
B You have set your glory… (verses 1b-2)
C When I look… (verses 3-4)
B’ Yet, you have made… (verses 5-8)
A’ O Lord, our Sovereign (verse 9)

The A/B/C/B’/A’ structure is, in part at least, grammatical or rhetorical, comprised of sections introduced by Lord/you/I/you/Lord.

The psalm begins and ends with the outburst of congregational praise of God’s majestic name (A/A’). Within those verses comes the praise of God’s particular works (overturning foes in B; blessing humans in B’), and, at the center, the wondering awe of the poet (C). Now, instead of an isolated “me,” viewing a distant universe in existential anxiety, “I” (C) stand surrounded by the gracious and protecting works of God (B/B’) and the congregation gathered to sing God’s praise (A/A’). (This structure of the psalm could be modeled for the congregation by reading or singing it in worship in three groups: A, B, and C, corresponding to the segments of the psalm.)

Now, the answer to the singer’s question “Who am I?” question is the surprised recognition that “I’m surrounded!”–which could well be the title of a sermon on this psalm. “I’m surrounded!”–surrounded by the gracious works of God and the gathered community of God’s people. It is a good and safe place to be; a place where I am not left to my own devices to figure out who I am, but am given a place in relation to God, to God’s world, and to God’s people; a place where my identity is given (not my own project) and where I am kept safe from whatever “foes” (verses 1b-2) stand in opposition to God’s good will for me and all God’s creatures.


1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 1, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11

Elisabeth Johnson

What’s in a name? From a biblical perspective — everything!1

A name was believed to represent the essence of a person’s character. On this eighth day of celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remember that he was circumcised on the eighth day and named Jesus, “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21). The name Jesus, of course, is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “he saves.”

“The name that is above every name…”

In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul incorporates into his letter what is most likely an early Christian hymn. In this hymn we see how Jesus embodies his given name, “he saves.” Being “in the form of God,” he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited, as something to be held onto at all costs and used to his own advantage. Rather, he willingly “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point to death — even death on a cross” (2:6-8).

Jesus is not a passive victim, but enters fully and willingly into his mission. He empties himself of all claims to divine glory and honor to become a human being — not a human of high status and honor, but a lowly slave serving other human beings. He humbles himself even to the point of dying a slave’s death, for the shameful and tortuous form of execution by crucifixion was reserved for slaves and rebels against Roman rule.

This Jesus is the one whom God highly exalts and to whom God gives “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11). In exalting Jesus, God gives Jesus his own name — “Lord” — and confers on him Lordship over all creation. One day every knee will bend before him, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and every tongue join in confessing together that Jesus Christ is Lord.

This hymn makes the astonishing claim that the one we call God and Lord is most fully revealed in the crucified one. The one who humbled himself and took the form of a slave shows us who God is and how God acts. God’s essential character is shown to be one of self-emptying love rather than self-aggrandizement or grasping for power and glory. God’s high exaltation of Jesus confirms the divine nature of his mission and ensures that one day he will be acknowledged by all for who he truly is. Jesus, the one who saves, is God’s anointed one (the Messiah or Christ), and Lord of all.

“Let the same mind be in you…”

Paul incorporates this hymn into his letter in the service of pastoral theology. He is thankful for the Philippians’ care for him and support of his ministry (1:3-8), yet there are some problems in the community. In particular, Paul is concerned about dissension among members (2:2-4; 4:2-3), and about “opponents” who preach righteousness based on circumcision and law observance (1:28; 3:2-3, 7-11, 18-19). Paul urges the Philippians to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel” so that he will know that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27).

Paul continues on this theme of unity of mind and spirit, urging the Philippians to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). In encouraging the community to be “of one mind,” it is unlikely that Paul expects no differences of opinion within the community, for he is not so naïve about congregational life. Rather, he implores them to be united in a spirit of love and concern for the common good. This becomes clearer in what follows, as he urges them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” and further exhorts them: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3-4).

Paul then introduces the Christ hymn by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). The phrase “in you” is plural (en humin), and perhaps better translated “among you.” Paul envisions the life of the community being formed by the mind of Christ — by a spirit of humility and loving service to one another rather than competition and grasping for power and control.

On this Sunday celebrating the Name of Jesus, a preacher might explore with hearers what it means to bear his name. Does our life together reflect “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”? Are we looking to the interests of others rather than our own interests? Are humility and servant hood evident among us?

Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the internal life of a congregation, but its relationship with its community and the world. While some may mourn the passing of “Christendom” and the waning influence of the church in society, Paul calls us to relinquish our grasping for worldly power and embrace the role of servant.2 Power struggles and pining for glory do not honor the name of Jesus. Rather, by following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves away in humble service to a suffering world, we honor “the name that is above every name.”



1Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 1, 2012.

2Marsha L. Moore-Keish, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 174.