Lectionary Commentaries for January 3, 2016
Second Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18

Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez

John’s prologue is very juicy, theologically, and it begins by celebrating God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God.

“Word” in Greek is logos, meaning word, spirit, and mind. Let’s not forget that the Word of God enlightens everybody regardless of class, race, gender orientation, culture, age, ableism, citizenship, etc.

For generations, Galilee, the land beyond the Jordan, was dismissed as “the people who walked in darkness” (see Isaiah 9:2), which makes Jesus’ emergence as Word in that time and place all the more surprising.

(1:10) Reading the Word and the world

“The world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10). This world may be God’s finest work, but in our present context it seems that big corporations and banks have reduced creation to merchandise. They (the world) do not know the Word.

As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire reminds us, it is not enough to know how to read; we have to learn to read the world, namely, reality.1 The word reality comes from “royalty,” and in this age it seems that the almighty mass media is the one who tells us what reality is. It favors virtual, fantastic, television reality at the expense of “real” reality. We as Jesus’s disciples need to step up and be accountable to God’s creation for real. What if the Word that brought the world into being is calling our churches to raise our voices to stop “torturing the earth” (à la Sir Francis Bacon)?2

(1:11) Jesus, rejected

“His own people did not accept him” tells us about the way “this world” works. While criticizing Jesus, Nathanael raised the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46) And the striking fact is that Nathanael himself was a Galilean. The colonized mentality is very pervasive: Jesus’ “own people did not accept him.”

Little wonder then, that when Jesus was in Nazareth where he grew up, he was not able to perform any miracle. The Galilean could “do no deed of power” (Mark 6:5). The message for today is that it is fine to be vulnerable; Jesus was not in control all the time. Thus, we have to learn to be rejected and in spite of that, to keep on keeping on.

Further, if we look at Mark 4, Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the mustard seed may be read as a confession of his own ignorance: “the seed would sprout and grow, he doesn’t know how.” (Mark 4:27). In spite of his weakness or limitations, Jesus continues advancing the Reign of God and its justice. We, his followers, should have no excuse at all, for “we walk by faith not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

(1:13) By what right?

In kingdoms of this world, children got their citizenship either through their jus sanguinis (blood rights), or by means of their jus soli (soil rights). In the reign of God, however, Jesus grants full humanity, leaving behind geographical walls and the “blue, royal” blood.

As Christians we become children of God in our baptism: “As many of you as were into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Children of God renew their baptism by practicing hospitality, welcoming all citizenships: Jews or Greeks; by respecting all religions: Jewish or Greek; by providing equal gender opportunity; by equalizing and redistributing wealth through bailouts that benefit the poor, not the banks or the car industry.

(1:14) God became clay and registered among us

Martin Luther was sharp in qualifying Mary’s humility as an economic element rather than a moral one.God’s glory, revealed through the Son, came precisely through unconventional ways, when judged by the empires of this world: a handyman (Mark 6:3), Galilean, layperson, unmarried by choice (Matthew 19:12) who was a glutton and drunkard (Matthew 11:19).

Luther said that some people play “hide-and-seek” with God, since they look for God where they know God is not, and vice-versa. In a 6th-century mosaic in the Archbishop Chapel at Ravenna, Jesus is portrayed after the likeness of Constantine carrying the cross casually over his shoulder, as if it were a golf club. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus and his cousin John saw the glory in taking sides with lost causes, with the poor, with the ones who lived outside the gates of Jerusalem.

(1:14) God’s glory is for the poor to live
According to tradition, St. Irenaeus, the 3rd-century bishop and martyr of Lyon, was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of John the Apostle, who himself was a disciple of Jesus. Irenaeus, then, was a good bit closer to Jesus than you or me. And Irenaeus described the glory of God in these words: Gloria Dei, vivens homo. “God is glorified when you care about men.” As the centuries have passed, others have adapted this adage accordingly — womanist theologians stated Gloria Dei, vivens mulier, (“God is glorified when you care about women”); ecologists added their two cents with Gloria Dei, vivens creatio (“God is glorified when you care about creation.”) Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador who was martyred while celebrating the Eucharist in 1980, went further: Gloria Dei, vivens pauper. “God is glorified when you care about the poor.”

(1:18) Jesus in disguise

Only the Son can see God directly but the Son has made God known in his incarnation: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” And still more good news: the criteria of truth to see God’s glory is by being able to see Jesus in disguise: through feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless. Seeing God’s glory is to listen to the immigrants knocking, to open our doors, to invite them for dinner and to shelter them, in short, to see Jesus in disguise.


Notes:

Paulo Freire, A Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Bloomsbury, 1994, pp. 76-77.

Matthew Fox, “A Mystical Cosmology: Toward a Postmodern Spirituality,” in Sacred Interconnections, David Ray Griffin, ed., Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 15.

3 The Magnificat, Luther’s Commentary, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1967.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks

These verses offer real good news to a people longing for it.

They are words of hope and restoration; a message of joy and praise. But there’s a catch, this is not a statement of facts. It is an oracle, a promise yet to be fulfilled, a description of things hoped for. Jeremiah is ever hopeful and his message is delivered to a people sorely in need of hope. The context of the text is that of the exiled people of Israel, who have suffered long in captivity and eagerly welcome the prophecy of a divine promise of release and restoration. But the prophecy is appropriate to the situation of many in the present society, who are exiled from the largesse of society and feel hopeless about the challenges confronting them in their daily lives.

The earlier verses of chapter 31 (1-6), addressed as they are to the remnant of Israel that have survived the devastation of being overrun by the various conquerors of their nation, offer the assurance of God’s empowering enlivening presence that will bring about their restoration. These people have suffered devastating loss that has extended beyond their personal and familial lives, beyond their religious and societal norms, to their very culture. In similar, yet different ways, many groups in our society feel devastated by the systems and structures of today’s society that devalue their personhood; that minimalize or even deny their culture; and that exile them from the places of familiarity and ease that they once enjoyed.

Loss of employment, home, family, financial stability, and health move one away from situations of comfort and ease and can force one into places of dis-ease, despair and debilitating loss. So hearing, as the Israelites did, that God has not forgotten God’s covenant of care for God’s people is a word of comfort. And in light of the present culture’s disregard or dismissal of those who are disabled — “the blind and the lame,” and of women — “those with child and those in labor,” as unworthy of attention or respect, this text is a message of empowerment. The underlying message that speaks to those in today’s culture who are often forgotten, disregarded, marginalized, or dismissed, is that regardless of your situation, God has a saving, affirming, uplifting word for you.

Thus it is essential that the message of the preacher be inclusive of all people. God is concerned even about the weakest among us. The blessing of God is not a sign of worthiness, no matter what criteria is used. God’s compassion and justice extends to all and promise God’s restorative justice to those who have been brought low by any and all circumstances of life. The promises of God delivered through the words of the prophet transcends time and place and gathers all people of every time and place into the ever-present grace of God that offers fullness of life to all.

In a very real sense we are all vulnerable to the vagaries of human existence and there are situations of life for each of us that can bring us down and land us in places of death and destruction. But not only does God promise restoration but abundant life. God promises prosperity that is not contingent on or evidenced by worldly wealth as the common teaching on prosperity gospel expounds. One’s riches are not necessarily evidence of God’s favor. Indeed, God’s favor is upon all people. God offers a reversal of misfortune that invites joyful celebration with shouts and singing. With God, there is abundance that dispels want, and feasting that denies hunger of body and spirit.

This text that falls within the feasting and light-filled celebration of Christmas also extends into and calls us to acknowledge and participate in the true gift-giving celebration of the Epiphany of our Lord. It is a celebration that brings together all God’s children. In terms of Israel, God is reuniting the nations that have been separated and perhaps in terms of the Christian church, we might consider that in the final analysis, God is reuniting all the people under Christ regardless of doctrine or denomination or life situation. However we have separated ourselves, the message from the prophet is clear, in God’s sight we are one. As Christians, in Christ we are one.

The oracle of Jeremiah is written to the exiled people of his day. But it is also written to the exiled people of this and any day. Whatever has divided, segregated, or separated the people of God in any way from one another has been overturned. God has made us all one and the reunion of the family is a time of joy. In Christ we have the promise and the opportunity of unity with the whole people of God. In this season we are invited to join this celebration of unity and of life through the promised salvation of God offered to us in Jesus Christ.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 147 is classified as a Community Hymn — a hymn of the people that celebrates God’s sovereign reign over the community of faith and over all creation.

It is the second of the five psalms known as the “Final Hallel” (Hallelujah) that form the doxological close of the book of Psalms (Psalms 146-150). As do each of the five psalms, Psalm 147 begins and ends with the words “Praise the LORD,” which is “hallelujah” in Hebrew.

Psalm 147 may be divided into three sections, each with a call to praise followed by descriptive words about God’s sovereignty over the community of faith and the created world.
vv. 1-6:        Invitation to Sing Praises to God
vv. 7-11:       Invitation to Sing and Make Music to God
vv. 12-20:     Invitation to Glorify God

The focus of this commentary is verses 12-20, but the context of the verses within Psalm 147 is important to understand. In verses 1-6, the community of worshipers is invited to participate in praising the Lord and then is given the reasons for the invitation to do so in a series of statements about God’s actions on behalf of the community of faith and all creation. God is gracious (v.1); God builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts (v. 2); God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (v. 3); God determines the number of the stars and names them (v. 4); God is great and abundant in power and understanding (v. 5); and God lists up the downtrodden and casts out the wicked (v. 6).

Verse 7 issues a two-fold invitation to participate in singing Psalm 147: “Sing to the Lord with thanks” and “make music to our God.” What follows in verses 8-11 is a continuation of the reason for the invitation to praise given in verses 1-6. God covers the heavens with the clouds, prepares rain for the grass, and makes grass grow on the hills (v. 8); God gives the animals and the young ravens their food (v. 9); God does not delight in the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner, but rather in those who revere (in the NRSV, “fear”) God (vv. 10-11).

And thus we come to our focus verses: 12-20. Verse 12 issues the third call to participate in singing Psalm 147: “Glorify O Jerusalem, the Lord; praise your God, O Zion.” Verse 13’s opening word, “for,” introduces the reason that the singers of the psalm should glorify Jerusalem and Praise God. God strengthens the bars of your gate and blesses your children (v. 13); God grants peace within your borders and fills you with the finest of wheat (v. 14); God sends out commands to the earth and the words run swiftly (v. 15); God give snow like wool and scatters frost like ashes (v. 16); God hurls down hail like crumbs so that no one can stand (v. 17); God sends out God’s word and makes the wind blow and the waters flow (v.18); God declares statutes and ordinances to Jacob and all Israel, unlike any other nation (vv. 19-20).

Verses 12-20 issue a resounding cry to “Praise the LORD” and outlines the various reasons why the psalm singer should do so. The reasons to do so are structured in something of an inclusion structure. According to verses 13-14, God cares and provides for each individual member of the community of faith. And in verses 19-20, God’s statutes and ordinances are the means by which God cares and provides for the community of faith. In the intervening verses, verses 15-18, the psalmist depicts God as creator and sovereign over the created order, sending out God’s word, giving snow and frost, hurling down hail and cold, and causing the winds to blow and waters to flow.

Thus, we might see a structure for these verses as follows:
verse 12:                call to praise
verses 13-14:          call to each member of the community of faith
verses 15-18:          call to all creation
verses 19-20:          call to the whole community of faith

All the faithful are called to see God’s good work in their lives — for strength, legacy, peace, and fulfillment. The faithful also are called to see God’s good work in creation — in the snow, the frost, the hail, the wind, the waters. And, finally, the faithful are called to see God’s good work for the community of faith as a whole — the statutes and ordinances, that is, the path to the good for society as a whole.

The closing verses of Psalm 147 outline a process of what I like to call “becoming human” as God’s good creation. We begin with ourselves, attempting to understand who we are in relationship to God; we then observe the world around us and try to fathom God’s place in the magnificent created order; and then we join with the larger community as we pursue the good for all creation. James L. Mays, on page 442 of the 1994 Interpretation commentary on the book of Psalms, sums it up well:

The history of the community of faith is a small part of reality, but the power that moves its course is the same that governs the stars. On the other hand, the processes of the world are vast, impersonal, and uncaring, but the sovereignty at work in the world is the saving, caring God whom Israel has come to know in its history.

The words of Psalm 147 remind the faithful of the nature and character of the God they worship. Psalm 147:12-20 is the lectionary reading for the second Sunday after Christmas Day, along with John 1:10-18 and Ephesians 1:3-14. John 1 states that “the word” was in the world in the fleshly embodiment of the person of Jesus. But only those who accepted “the word” as both the embodiment and transcendence of God, that is those who saw God as intimate provider and sovereign of the universe, could be called the true children of God. Ephesians 1:3-14 reminds the reader that believers are blessed as children of God in all of God’s wisdom and insight (Ephesians 1:8) and that their futures are assured according to God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Thus, all three texts (Psalm 147:12-20; John 1:10-18; and Ephesians 1:3-14) remind the community of faith that God is creator of all and yet that God intimately cares for humanity.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Brian Peterson

Ephesians begins with both a blessing (verses 3-14, as in 2 Corinthians) and a thanksgiving (verses 15-23, as in most of the undisputed letters of Paul).

This redundancy is only one part of the overflowing abundance which this text expresses. The style here is elevated, even extravagant; it is a bewildering array of participles, pronouns, and genitive forms piled one upon another, forming (despite the usual practice in English translations) one breathtakingly long sentence. The claims are every bit as extraordinary as the style, as God’s gracious act of salvation is described in the broadest scope possible. Here all creation is declared to be loved and redeemed by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus the rambling form of the sentence, which seems to have trouble finding a place to stop, reinforces the claim that there is no end to God’s grace. This is the grammar of worship more than it is the grammar of logical argument, and it is no surprise if we are left struggling to keep up.

The pericope begins in verse 3 with a play on words. “Blessing” may mean either the gift, or the response to it. Here, the author picks up both possibilities and says “Blessed be God because God has blessed us with every blessing.” This blessing by God is described in three important ways (all of them beginning with the same Greek preposition “en” (English “in”):

1) “in Christ.” This pericope repeatedly points to Christ. In fact, it happens in nearly every verse. God’s self-revelation and saving activity have come to clear focus in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Too often we reduce our picture of Jesus to something comfortable, a tendency especially strong during the Christmas season. Ephesians gives us a better perspective, and declares that Jesus is the focal point of all time and existence.

2) “in every spiritual blessing” (here, NRSV uses “with”). God has given to the church every possible good gift, and God’s generosity knows no limits. These blessings are “spiritual” because they are given and empowered through the Holy Spirit, who is at work in the church (see verse 13).

3) “in the heavenly places.” This phrase may be the most difficult of the three to understand (in the New Testament it only appears 5 times, all in Ephesians). Unlike some current ways of imagining spiritual geography, in the first century the demonic forces were not pictured as being “down.” Rather, people feared that such hostile forces were “in the air,” where they might come between people and God (see Ephesians 6:12). To say that God has already blessed us “in the heavenly places” indicates that God has done so in the face of such spiritual opposition, and thus nothing is able to stand in the way of God’s rich blessing. Where others might see reason for fear, the church can be confident in God’s gracious generosity.

Verse 4 says that God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing” not simply before we asked or did anything to deserve it, but before the world was created. This is an indication of how seriously Ephesians takes the claim that salvation is by grace (see 2:5, 8). This text consistently maintains that salvation is, from beginning to end, the accomplishment of God alone. Thus, we hear that God chose (v. 4), destined (v. 5), bestowed (v. 6), lavished (v. 8), made known and set forth (v. 9), and accomplishes all things (v. 11). All of this has happened according to God’s good pleasure and will (v. 5, 9), plan (v. 10), and purpose (v. 11). This is good news! Our fate is not in our own hands but in God’s, and God in mercy and love refuses to be limited by our abilities to produce death.

Such statements about God’s predestining grace are not puzzles to be solved or explained. Thus, we don’t find any words here about “others,” or even if there are such others, who might be destined by God for something else. Rather, such words are expressions of wonder in the face of God’s inexplicable grace. This language of praise is the context to which biblical talk about predestination properly belongs.

It is no wonder, then, that verse 9 speaks of God’s will as a “mystery” that has been revealed. Here, a “mystery” doesn’t mean something difficult to figure out, but rather something that goes beyond human ability to discover; it must be revealed by God. There are some mysteries which, once solved, become something that we grasp and comprehend (like the answer to a crossword puzzle), and thus they become far less interesting. That is not the sort of mystery this verse is talking about. There are other mysteries which, even when we have experienced them, continue to be beyond our ability to comprehend fully and remain as much a mystery as ever (like falling in love). Such is God’s grace.

This text invites us to wonder at the ultimate mystery of God’s will, namely that God will gather all things together in Christ (verse 10). “All things” should be understood with the widest possible meaning, including not only humans but all of creation. There is nothing that can stand in the way of God reconciling all things in Christ. God has already made Christ the head of all things (Ephesians 1:22) so that Christ fills all things (1:23). There is nothing that can escape or resist God’s reconciling plan, and that includes any forces or powers that might worry the readers. There is no reason for the church to feel timid or afraid in the face of momentary opposition; God’s intent is clear in Christ: redemption as God’s own (v. 14).

The only appropriate response to all of this is praise of God, which frames this text at the beginning and the end. A life of such praise, through words and actions, is the life to which we are called, because it is where God intends to bring the whole cosmos.