Lectionary Commentaries for December 27, 2015
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:41-52

Ronald J. Allen

Christians sometimes refer to Jesus’ growing-up years as a model for human growth and development.

The Christmas hymn, “Once in David’s Royal City,” for example, contains the stanza,

Jesus is our childhood’s pattern,
Day by day like us he grew.
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
Thus he feels for all our sadness,
And he shares in all our gladness.
(Cecil F. Alexander, “Once in David’s Royal City,” Chalice Hymnal [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995) 165

While we can assume that the infant Jesus was weak and helpless, cried and smiled, and grew from infancy through childhood and youth to adulthood, the gospels themselves are almost silent on those years. The theological purposes for recalling Jesus’ growth in this frame of reference are often twofold — to assure congregations that Jesus fully understands the depths and heights of the human experience and to use Jesus’ growth as a model for Christian education as well as for rearing children in the home.

Luke’s story of Jesus in the temple at the age of 12 is the only incident in the gospels about the life of Jesus between infancy and the beginning of his ministry. Luke has several intentions for this passage in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts that are suggestive for preaching. While these motifs intersect with the themes just mentioned, they do not simply validate them in a one-to-one fashion. The latter themes are theologically important regardless of whether Luke (or other biblical writers) have them in mind.

When recounting the lives of major figures in antiquity, ancient literature often included stories of unusual births and remarkable childhood feats. Ancient people regarded such stories as evidence that the gods had a special guiding role in the lives of such figures. Luke’s birth and childhood narratives play this role (among others): assuring listeners that the hand of God guided Jesus from the beginning.

This ancient function might prompt the preacher to a contemporary consideration. What things give today’s congregation reason to trust Jesus and to commit ourselves to the way to the realm?

By noting that Mary and Joseph went every year to Jerusalem for the Passover, Luke 2:41-52 implies that Jesus grew up in a faithful Jewish household. The emphasis on Jesus in the temple and his interaction with the teachers of Israel plays a similar important role in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Jesus was immersed in Judaism since his youth. He speaks as an insider with a thorough knowledge.

These facts are important because by the time Luke wrote (80-90 CE) tensions had developed between Luke’s congregation, whose distinguishing features were believing that the ministry of Jesus began the final and full manifestation of the realm of God and welcoming gentiles into the community without complete conversion to Judaism, and other Jewish groups that did not share that belief.

As the ministry of Jesus unfolds, Jesus has considerable conflict with Jewish authorities over how to interpret God’s presence and purposes in the eschatological moment. The same thing is true of the church in Acts. By recollecting that Jesus was raised in a faithful Jewish atmosphere, and recalling that Jesus speaks as a Jewish insider, Luke assures listeners that the viewpoints of Jesus and the church are authentically Jewish. Jesus and the church do not reject Judaism. They interpret Jewish convictions in light of the eschatological turning of the ages.

At one level, a preacher could use this theme as the beginning point to reflect with the congregation on its perceptions of, and relationship with, Jewish communities today. A sermon could help the congregation reflect on the degree to which anti-Judaism or even anti-Semitism may touch life of the congregation and of the larger world. Taking another step, a preacher might help the congregation consider shared mission with the synagogue down the street.

At another level, today Christians often find themselves in disagreement with other Christians. One Christian group sometimes proclaims the Christian way and condemns as unchristian those who hold to other interpretations. A lot of people trying to follow Jesus — especially in the historic churches — are confused as to what might be authentically Christian. If the congregation finds itself in such a situation a preacher might begin with Luke 2:41-52 as an analogy in a sermon in which the preacher assures the congregation of their Christian identity similarly to Luke’s assurance of his earlier congregation.

It is easy to be appalled that Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus. Luke, of course, is not pointing to bad parenting, but is setting the stage for Jesus to state clearly his own understanding that he has a special relationship with God. God is Jesus’ parent (not Joseph), and Jesus is to be about God’s interests, i.e. must serve God’s purposes.

This notion raises a possibility for preaching. Many people today are confused about identity and vocation, about who they are and their mission in life. This is particularly (though by no means exclusively) true of Millennials. It may go too far to say that Jesus here claims his own identity and mission. Whether or not that is exegetically true, this passage could provide the preacher with an entry into the importance of claiming our own identities as disciples and witnesses in 2016.

In the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, Jesus is the model for the apostles who are the leaders and models for the church. In the broad sense, then, the last line of this passage is a model for Christian education and child raising: to encourage children to increase in wisdom and in stature (the latter a preferable translation to “years”). Wisdom and statue refer to the capacity to discern God’s realm purposes and to respond accordingly.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Gennifer Benjamin Brooks

Christmas has come to be widely associated with gift-giving.

For Christians it is, or should be, because Christmas marks the celebration of God’s gift of salvation to all humanity. But the reality is that the practice of exchanging of gifts has become highly commercialized. Many persons deliberately take on excessive debt in the interest of finding the perfect gift to demonstrate their appreciation and love for the persons in their lives, especially their children. So the magnitude of the gift exchange that occurs between God and Hannah may be difficult to imagine or understand.

In the depths of despair over her continued childlessness, Hannah makes a request and a promise to God. It is a covenantal agreement the like of which most parents today could not imagine and would not make. Looking ahead to the role that Samuel plays in God’s plan of salvation for the people of Israel, one can be forgiven for making this text a call to faith for the hearers. However since neither Hannah nor any of us have the ability to see into the future, that Hannah not only makes, but also keeps covenant with God as this text affirms, offers us a startling testimony of faithfulness.

The birth of her first child, after years of barrenness and its attendant shame compounded by the taunts of her husband’s second wife, is more than a moment of celebration. It is a wellspring of joy for this new mother and yet, she gladly and willingly gives her son to the temple priest as soon as he is barely weaned. Her love this child that opened her womb is great, and she gives him all the care that she can by bringing him an annual gift of a robe, most likely sewed by her own hands, to fit his growing body.

But her love for God and her thankfulness for the answered prayers that fulfilled and solidified her womanhood in the eyes of the community is even greater. It is her love for God that enabled her to keep her covenant with God and give her child fully into the service of God. She has no way of knowing that her son Samuel will grow into a great prophet, but having already experienced the favor of God, she continues in her own way in the work of God by giving her child to the service of God in the temple.

Many parents today find it difficult to give their children to God. As Christians we are privileged to give our children back to God in several ways. Whether the doctrines of your faith require you to offer up your child in thanksgiving or to take the vows of Christian initiation or baptism on behalf of your child, such outward signs signify a parent’s intention to raise that child in the fear of God through the example of Jesus Christ. It is a covenant whereby you give your child back to God, and raise the child according to the teachings of Christ.

But too often instead of guidance that adheres to Christian teaching, parents are so permissive that they make of their children little gods, who have their every whim catered to and begin to believe that the world owes them anything they desire. In such cases the children have no clear understanding of their relationship with God and the gift of God that they are to their parents and to themselves. The text says: “Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” Children that are allowed to live overly permissive lives, with little or no appropriate parental guidance in the way of Christ may grow in stature but far from the favor of either God or the people.

Samuel’s life in the temple brought him close to the will of God and with the guidance of Eli who understood the precious gift — from both God and Hannah — that had been entrusted to his care, took great pains to guide the boy Samuel in the path that God had already laid out for him. The sad reality is that Eli had not done the same with his own sons. He was the model of a permissive parent and his children were totally out of control and out of God’s favor. As a result they could not be trusted to assume the duties of temple priest after Eli, as was the custom of the culture. Perhaps Eli may have thought that being allowed to raise the child Samuel might be God’s second change of fatherhood.

Eli’s blessing to Hannah and Elkanah may signify that he did not fully or clearly understand the divine/human covenant between Hannah and God. In his blessing of the couple he prays for repayment from God for their gift, but almost certainly in Hannah’s mind no repayment was necessary. Her covenant with God had been fulfilled. She asked God for a gift and promised a gift in return. And it was done. No further repayment was required.

When God gifts us with children, our responsibility is to return that gift to God by raising our children to know that they belong to God, so that they will come to understand the favor of God for their own lives and in the process know the favor of people as well. It is one of the important lessons of this text. Another key lesson is that we are to provide for the welfare of our children as they grow in physical as well as in spiritual ways. And always as this text reminds us, we are called to know that our children are never ours alone, they also belong to God. As we continue our celebration of Christmas, the message of the preacher should be a reminder of God’s gift to all of us that needs no repayment, the holy child of Bethlehem.


Commentary on Psalm 148

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 148 is classified, along with Psalms 8, 19, 65, and 104, as a Creation Psalm.

While the Creation psalms in general reflect on and celebrate God’s sovereignty over the created world and the special place of human beings in the world (see, for example, Psalms 8:3-8 and 65:2-5), Psalm 148 is an unbridled cry to ALL creation to “Praise the LORD!”

The words “Praise the LORD!” link Psalm 148 to the psalms surrounding it; it is the third of the five “Final Hallel” psalms (Psalms 146-150) that the reader encounters at the close the book of Psalms. Each of the psalms begins and ends with “Praise the LORD!” (in Hebrew, “hallelujah”), and the phrase occurs twelve times in Psalm 148, calling on the heavens, the angels, the sun and the moon, the stars, the sea monsters, the fire and hail, the fruit trees, kings, young men and women, among others, to join in the praise.

Psalm 148 may be divided into two distinct sections, each calling upon a particular realm of creation to praise the Lord. First, verses 1-6 call upon the inhabitants of the heavenly realm to praise God: angels and hosts, sun and moon, stars, the heavens of heavens, and the waters over the heavens.

The sun, the moon and the stars were considered by other people groups in the ancient Near East as individual gods — the god of the day and the god of the night. The words of the psalmist in Psalm 148 reflect the biblical creation theology of Genesis 1; in Genesis 1:6, we read, “God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night — and the stars” (NRSV). The sun, the moon, and the stars are not gods to be worshiped but objects created by God and are called upon, here in Psalm 148, to worship God. Joshua 10:12-13 relates a similar admonition. Recall that there, in the midst of a battle Joshua spoke these words, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” And we read further, “And the sun stood still and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on the enemies” (NRSV). Joshua calls upon the so-called gods and admonishes them, “Just watch. See what the creator God is about to do.”

The phrase “highest heavens” in Psalm 148:4 also occurs in Deuteronomy 10:14 and 1 Kings 8:27 and most likely reflects the ancient Near Eastern concept of the world in which the heavens were separated into the heavens above the dome (in Genesis 1:6, often translated as “the firmament”) and the heavens below. The heavens below the dome was the realm of earthly existence (the atmosphere); the heavens above the dome was the realm of the gods. In Psalm 148, the heavens above the dome (the realm of the gods) is called upon to praise the God of Israel.

In like manner, the phrase “the waters above the heavens,” which also occurs in Genesis 1:6-8, refers to the ancient Near Eastern concept of the waters above the dome of the earth and the waters below the dome of the earth. The waters below the dome were the source of springs, rivers, and seas. The waters above the dome, which apparently lay between the heavens below and the heavens above were the source of rainfall.

The singer of Psalm 148 calls on all elements of the heavens to praise the Lord, and in verse 5 provides the reason. Why ought creation to praise God? Because, the psalm singer says, at God’s command all was created, the same word used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creative activity (Genesis 1:1, 21, 27).

In verses 7-14, the focus of the psalm singer’s call to praise shifts from the heavenly realm to the earthly realm. Using language reminiscent of both Job 38 and Genesis 1, the singer calls sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creeping things and flying things, kings, and men and women, old and young to join in the praise. Every element, every aspect of creation is to join in the praise.

Verses 13 and 14 is a summary statement, a final call to all creation to praise and, as in once again provides the reason for the praise. “For his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven” (v. 13). Name was a very important concept in the Old Testament. Names reflected the natures and characters of the persons who bore them and were conceptually equal to the very essence of being. To know someone was to possess some part of that person; to speak a name was to speak into being. In Exodus 3, Moses encounters God at the burning bush. In that encounter, Moses replies to God’s command to return to Egypt with a seemingly simple request. “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13). Moses asked for God’s name. What is the nature and character of the God who is requesting such a thing? God replies with self-naming words of existence, “I am that I am.” “His name alone is exalted.” The word “glory” is, in Hebrew, kavod, and means, “weightiness, heaviness.” Psalm 148:13 reminds us of the weightiness, the great position of God over the heavens and the earth.

Psalm 148 is an invitation for all of creation and its inhabitants — the heavens and the earth — to join in the praise of God. All are included; none are excluded in the call. One commentator observes, “Though moderns tend to think of worship as the response of rational creatures to their God, this psalm rather regards worship as virtually inherent in the world’s structure.” All creation, animate and inanimate, can participate in celebration of the God of the creation. St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) wrote a hymn he titled “The Song of Brother Sun.” Its words, adapted to the modern hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” were inspired by the creation psalms of the Hebrew Psalter: “All creatures of our God and King … thou burning sun … thou silver moon … thou rushing wind … ye lights of evening … ye folk of tender heart … O praise him.”