Lectionary Commentaries for January 4, 2015
Second Sunday of Christmas
Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18
Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14
Carolyn J. Sharp
This beautiful mélange of promise oracles asserts the power of the Lord to gather those Judeans who have experienced forced migration and captivity.
God is one who leads the faithful back home, and the Lord’s power to redeem is mighty. God is able to bring back even those who had been exiled to “the farthest parts of the earth” (Jeremiah 31:8); the Holy One can sustain even those whose resilience for the journey homeward might be impaired (“the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor”).
The redeemed are brought to voice in a marvelous cacophony of ways in this passage, something that points forward to the voice of the weeping Rachel just beyond this lection (Jeremiah 31:15) in a passage many congregations will have encountered liturgically in the preceding week for the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Those whom God has delivered will sing aloud, raise shouts, proclaim, and give praise (v 7). But grief and pleading will be voiced as well. This traumatized and diminished community will beg for God’s help (they are bidden to say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel,” (v 7). They will weep, presumably at the memory of losses experienced and suffering witnessed, and they will implore God’s mercy as the Lord leads them back (v 9). Some translators, evidently uncomfortable with the notion that pleas for mercy might be offered even as the redeemed return to Zion, propose “consolations” (so NRSV) or “compassion” (NJPS) as the meaning of ta?nunîm. But the semantic sense of the term is well established in numerous biblical contexts as “supplications” from a distressed party. The term occurs in Jeremiah 3:21, a passage that begins with the same noteworthy syntactical construction as 31:15. “A voice on the bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping of Israel’s children” anticipates “a voice is heard in Ramah” (or “on a height”): Rachel weeping for the lost children of Israel. Verse 9 gives us the indelible image of a once-broken community rejoicing through tears, imploring God’s favor even as the new reality of restoration unfolds. The poet depicts a journey of transformation marked by lingering sorrow, brilliantly authorizing the grief of a community still waiting for the Lord and unable to forget what they have lost. The imagery here is truer to pastoral processes of healing from trauma than would be a monochromatic image of happiness. With this text, the preacher may explore the emotional complexity of restoration for individuals and communities that have suffered. In the aftermath of destruction, it is a complicated thing to hope again. The experience of healing can be painful as well as joyous.
It may be theologically productive for the preacher to meditate on something unusual about this passage: the diction and imagery seem strikingly foreign to the rest of Jeremiah. Many scholars of Jeremiah propose that material in the Book of Consolation was added late in the process of composition. This may worry preachers who attribute all in Jeremiah to the historical prophet or his scribe Baruch (a claim not required by the book itself, which expressly acknowledges a long process of growth; see Jeremiah 36:32). But the transparent lateness of traditions in Jeremiah 31 represents an opportunity for the preacher to consider ways in which the text here draws on authoritative older traditions. The imagery of God as father to firstborn Ephraim and of Israel accepting “the grain, the wine, and the oil” as gifts from the Lord (implicit: rather than from Baal) comes straight from Hosea, as does material a few verses beyond our lection (vv 18-20: Ephraim as an untrained calf needing discipline and as beloved child whom God has punished but for whom God still has compassion). The images of rejoicing, jubilant return of all including the physically challenged, pools or streams of water signifying restoration, the geography of redemption reaching to distant “coastlands,” and life “like a watered garden” have been drawn from Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah. The rich allusiveness of Jeremiah 31 was surely obvious to an ancient audience that had carefully preserved prophetic tradition for centuries. Then as now, recognizing allusions would trigger a profoundly formative learning for those steeped in sacred traditions. So: what might have been evoked for ancient hearers?
From Hosea, Jeremiah 31 borrows the intimacy of familial relationships as a model for Judah’s covenant relationship with God. Verse 9 draws on the tender parental imagery of Hosea 11:1-9 and 14:1-8 to foreground the compassionate nurture that God promises this broken people. In Hosea 2:1-13, a raging husband-God had staked a violent claim on the body of adulterous “wife” Israel. Jeremiah 31:12 reconfigures this, showing Israel not as stripped, shamed, and beaten but instead “radiant over the goodness of the Lord,” whose providence is now acknowledged by God’s people. The allusions to Isaiah confirm the prospect of a joyous return from captivity, consolation (cf. Isaiah 40:1; 49:13; 51:3, 12; 52:9; 61:2; 66:13), exuberant celebration, and bounteous abundance in the restored community. But more: these allusions subtly promote an Isaianic theology of the power of God as One who has been in control of history since the dawn of time (cf. Isaiah 42:9, 43:9-21, 44:6-8), something not strongly articulated in the deeply anxious book of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 31 offers glimpses of a luminous future for a people terrified in the (narratological) present. Our text is situated after the first Babylonian deportation of Judeans in 597 (see Jeremiah 24 and 29); surrounding texts strike ominous notes regarding the Babylonian invasion, God’s wrath, and devastating internecine disputes that fracture God’s people. Jeremiah 34 brings us back into the present of the plot, a hyperbolically fearsome time of siege “when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and all his army and all the kingdoms of the earth and all the peoples under his dominion were fighting against Jerusalem” (34:1). In Jeremiah 31, then, powerful promises with a venerable prophetic pedigree are uttered into a narrative present marked by destabilization and terror. A people formed by this prophetic word learns that death and loss are inescapable and that repentance is always necessary (Jeremiah 7:3-7, 18:1-11, 29:11-14), yet grace will abound. The challenge is to move forward faithfully in the present moment, trusting that through grace, the life of the reformed community can become “like a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12; cf. Hosea 14:5-8, Isaiah 58:11) — Gospel word indeed.
Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20
Let’s go with the snow. It stands out in the text, because it is rare in the Bible, as it is in Palestine.
Like all the psalms, this poetic text contains many more rich images than any one sermon could possibly deal with; so, for now, let’s go with the snow:
[God] gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs — who can stand before his cold? (Psalm 147:16-17)
This sounds like Minnesota in winter, and it certainly fits the season here in the frozen north. But it doesn’t fit so well in the land of the text, and that’s the point. The snow, the frost, the hail — they are wild and uncontrollable; they are unexpected and have huge consequences; they are remarkable and make you take notice. They are divine mysteries (Job 38:22-23), so sometimes in the Bible snow serves as a sign that God is up to something (for example, here and in Psalms 68:4; 148:8). Those of us who are used to snow in this Christmas season need to be reminded that we should not get completely “used to” the work of God in the world — and certainly not the divine word. They are meant to surprise.
Why the snow in Psalm 147? It does not seem accidental. The part of the psalm that comprises our text is quite carefully constructed:
A Praise the Lord v. 12
B God’s unique care for God’s people vv. 12-14
C God sends out the divine word v. 15
D God sends out snow, wind, and hail vv. 16-17
C’ God sends out God’s word of power vv. 18-19
B’ God’s unique care for God’s people v. 20a
A’ Praise the Lord v. 20b
In other words, at the center of this part of the poem we find those strong and unexpected phenomena of weather illustrating the unexpected and effective word of God in the surrounding verses.
In this regard, the psalm parallels those well-known verses of Isaiah:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
God’s word accomplishes God’s purpose. So do snow, wind, and rain. Sometimes, snow, wind, and rain wreak havoc; sometimes they provide the moisture for the earth that is necessary to produce the “finest” wheat (Psalm 147:14). God’s word, too, is meant to bring life and hope; but sometimes, in order to do that, it must challenge and condemn — perhaps doing both at the same time. The word of God is as life-giving and dangerous as snow and wind, and the how and why of this is as mysterious as the how and why of God’s unique choice of Israel and Zion (v. 20a).
Why Israel, why then? As we know from Genesis 12:3, God’s choice of Abraham and Sarah is only for the sake of the world, to be a blessing to all. But it is easy for us latter-day Sarahs and Abrahams to forget that calling, to bask in the glory and forget the mission, to tame the surprise — especially when everything seems as calm and pretty as the “Silent Night” of Christmas Eve.
There are other surprises in the psalm (outside of today’s liturgical text). The same God who names and numbers the stars cares for the downtrodden and the outcasts, heals the brokenhearted, and feeds the young birds (Psalm 147:2-9). Who’d have thought it? Moreover, God does not require icons of culture like the strength of the horse (or the Harley?) or the speed of the Olympic runner (or the Porsche?) — as impressive as those things are — to do God’s work (v. 10). The wounded and the marginalized will do. What builds up and protects is hope in God’s steadfast love, which God freely offers to all (v. 11).
Sometimes, it may be necessary for God to bar the gates of the city (Psalm 147:13) to save God’s people from the “wicked” (v. 6), but only after “all the outs are in free” — the wounded, the outcasts, the strangers, the orphans and widows (Psalm 146:9).1 In God’s city, none are excluded but the excluders.
Psalm 147 so closely unites God’s creative work (stars, wheat, water, snow, wind) and God’s redemptive work (saving, healing, protecting) that they become essentially indistinguishable. God is one, and so, finally, is God’s work. That announcement is made again in today’s Gospel and in the gift of Christmas. The word of creation now becomes the Word made flesh, the word of salvation. With that, the promise to Sarah and Abraham is fulfilled — that “unique” people of God (Psalm 147:20a) is thrown open to “all who received him” (John 1:12). It’s another surprise; everything is blown open, and God treats all nations and all people the same: “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain [and snow!] on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Preachers in northern countries might need to turn the psalm’s imagery around in order to catch people’s attention. God’s word is like the snow? We take that for granted. So maybe God’s word would be like a December tornado, as unexpected and powerful as Job’s whirlwind (Job 38:1). In that tornado, Job found a word of God that challenged everything, especially Job’s own presumption. Job would never comprehend all things, but the fact that God actually showed up was enough to give him new life (Job 42:5-6). We believe and proclaim that in that humble Christmas manger, God actually showed up. How odd. How challenging.
1 The psalms of the Psalter’s final doxology (Psalms 146-150) seem to be deliberately connected in several ways. For example, the widows and orphans of Psalm 146 mirror the outcasts and downtrodden of Psalm 147; the strong snows and winds of Psalm 147 sing God’s praise in Psalm 148 (v. 8).
Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14
Ephesians begins by baptizing its hearers in a flood of poetry.
After the conventional opening in 1:1-2, the writer himself overflows (see verse 8) in one very long sentence (less a problem for Greek-speakers than for us), filled with so many images, promises, and challenges that we barely know where to enter the text. Ephesians 1:3-14 is like one of those rushing streams that looks easy to wade in but sweeps us off our feet by its sheer flowing power. Yet, it is worth trying to enter this stream for these verses set the tone of the letter and the tone of our lives in Christ the beloved one (verse 6). How does a contemporary preacher help a congregation hear poetry, catch the hymn, hear an echo from such a distant past?
I have two images that may be helpful. The first is that rushing stream, clear, swift and sparkling that has many stepping stones by which we might find a path. The stepping stones in Ephesians 1:3-14 are repeated words and phrases that highlight different ways to engage the stream (yes, you might fall in, but, finally, would that be so bad?).
These verses pour their energy into helping their hearers imagine that the coming of Jesus, God’s Messiah, the one beloved by God, was all according to the will of God and God’s good purpose (eudokia, verses 5 and 9). Since we English readers miss many of the repetitions that would have served as stepping stones or links throughout this passage, let me highlight a few of them.
Eudokia shows up in verses 5 and 9, providing a frame around the very important verses 8-9. Eudokia is a reminder not only of God’s purpose, which is also very much emphasized by the long-range planning of God (coming up in a moment), but also the good gifts which it was God’s long range plan to impart. God’s interaction with humankind, both Jew and Gentile, is based on God’s favorable purpose.
In addition, the hearers of Ephesians (then and now) need not doubt that God’s good purpose has always included them. The hearers of this letter are part of a larger group of believers who have been fore-ordained, fore-planned, fore-chosen as God’s own from the very foundations of creation. See verses 4, 5, 9, 11, and 12. God’s calling of a new people by Jesus the Messiah had been God’s plan all along. The alliteration of all these “pro” syllables in Greek would have powerfully reinforced confidence.
Note that the above verses do not include, but rather frame, the mighty declarative statements of verses 7 and 8. In these two central verses, we hear quite directly — and this is our great “stepping stone” — that we have (echomen, a present tense, indicative verb) redemption and forgiveness through a grace that has been poured out on us to overflowing. There is more.
We also hear in verses 8 and 9 (recall that this is all one sentence) that this gracious gift is one that comes with all wisdom (sophia) and understanding (phronesis) that clarify the mystery of God, that is to say, God’s favor toward us. Why would God so love us? It is not to be fathomed. But we can fathom, through this gift of wisdom and understanding, that God indeed does.
Again, there is more. This passage is laden with purpose clauses. The love of God given to us in such overflowing measure, the wisdom that clarifies God’s mysterious but undaunted good purpose for all of us, is for the express purpose of our salvation, which is to praise God. The very, very good news is that we have been sealed by the promised holy spirit as God’s own heirs along with God’s covenant people Israel (not named here, but note the “we” and “you (pl.)” contrast between verses 3-12 and 13-14. We contemporary hearers are the “you (pl.)” who have been made heirs of God’s promises, so long awaited by Israel. We — to our eternal surprise and joy — have been sealed with God’s Holy Spirit. And we are called to render praise.
Purpose clauses abound, but in Ephesians 1:6, 12, and 14 the great repetition of for the praise of his glory/reputation (“eis epainon doxes … autou … “) resounds over and over. A drum beat or a stepping stone, whatever image captures this for you and your congregation. It is for the praise of God’s glory, a God who reaches out to all God’s creatures with forgiveness, with wisdom and understanding to grasp that God thus loves in Christ.
How to make all this concrete and graspable for those whose sense of having been grasped is weak, intermittent, or nonexistent? In addition to stepping stones into and across a stream, a second image that emerged for me was that of painting. In a powerful, even disturbing, exploration of art and artists, Louise Penny (The Long Way Home, St. Martin’s Press, 2014) shows us a very successful painter who had run dry, gone empty. Penny describes the work of this man as he seeks for himself and the “lump in the throat” that is the beginning of all art. Desperate to find and paint from his elusive emotions, the artist’s paintings are uncontrolled combinations of color, nearly formless, and wretchedly messy. Yet it is clear to all who know him that the sheer intensity of his painting, the plethora of colors, brush strokes, shapes bespeak a newly discovered passion to communicate a truth for which standard images are inadequate.
I wonder if this is comparable to Ephesians 1:3-14. While not quite formless and not wretchedly messy, this passage offers a mass of images, of claims, of promises, all trying to get at the enormous and unexpected gift of God that has been granted now to all God’s people. The writer conveys sheer jubilation at God’s grace poured out with a heedless abundance. The very abundance, the generosity of God in Christ is who God is, oh so worthy of praise. Ephesians 1:3-14 is an instance of the very praise for which it calls from all believers. What, then, is the art of our praise?
Do not look here for careful, systematic theological propositions. Look here for the poetry of the faith, stretching speech, grammar, and words further than they can comfortably go.
It is a somewhat clumsy eloquence, powerful and rich, hard to preach, difficult to hear for some. You know your congregation. What is the poetry of the gospel in your place? What colors, strokes, images, juxtapositions will be evocative in the power of God’s Holy Spirit for those in Christ? This text is call and freedom to evoke the nearly inexpressible joy in God’s generosity and the harsh realities of our lives that make God’s gift such a source of joy.
John 1:(1-9), 10-18 is the assigned Gospel lesson for Christmas 2, Years A, B, and C.
While John 1:1-9 is optional, verses 10-18 make little sense without the premises set out in the opening verses. The Prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus. To view these 18 verses as such is both homiletically and hermeneutically helpful. The themes we have come to know for Christmas preaching are certainly present in how John begins his gospel. A preacher could focus on any of the themes outlined below to create a meaningful Christmas sermon.
Christmas as the rebirth of God
The first verse of John 1 is deceptively complex. “In the beginning” should stir up biblical resonances, particularly that what follows will have something to do with creation. The next verses (1:2-4) secure Jesus’ role as creator with God. Furthermore, God has chosen to recreate God’s very self in Jesus. God has been reborn into the world, now as God’s creating Word in the flesh. The threefold claim, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” reveals the origin of Jesus, his relationship with God, and his identity as God. These truths about Jesus are inseparable and essential to John’s portrait of Jesus, the meaning of the incarnation, and denote that which describe our own humanity. We make sense of our humanity through these categories of origin, relationship, and identity and now God lives these truths.
Christmas as the light shining in the darkness
Verse 5 has been a topic of ongoing debate for Johannine scholars with regard to pinpointing the moment of the incarnation, either here or in John 1:14, “the Word became flesh.” Regardless, that the incarnation of God is first presented as light shining in darkness once again calls upon the creation story in Genesis. The verb “overcome” can be translated “grasp” or “seize,” and has connotations of “understanding” or “comprehending.” Festivals of light are essential in the darkest days of the year and so Christmas originated as a celebration that could rival Saturnalia (See Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History). A preacher might explore the importance of light, for Christmas, for our lives.
Christmas as witnessing to the light
The introduction of John in the next verses, not the Baptist but the Witness, is a rather strange interlude in this cosmic birth story. What is John doing here anyway? Commentators explain away John’s presence as a later interpolation that does not belong in such a majestic narration of Jesus’ origins and identity. Yet the presence of John here, particularly for our Christmas preaching, suggests that a critical response to Christmas is witness. Christmas is not over when the trees are put out to the curb. Christmas is just getting started for those who confess Jesus as God who has become flesh.
Christmas is Jesus as a child and is who we are
John 1:9-13 suggest that just as Jesus is a child of God, so are we. Jesus as a baby cannot devolve into sentimentality but has everything to do with its promise for us. To be a child of God is a literal claim for the Fourth Gospel. This Gospel imagines that every single aspect of the parent–child relationship is operative in our relationship with God. Everything a child needs from a parent, for survival, protection, to be sustained and nurtured, to grow and mature is what God provides. Preach the promise of Christmas that puts us in the manger with Jesus and helps us sense the dependence of Jesus as that which we have on God.
Christmas is the word became flesh
“The Word became flesh” states most clearly the theological promise of John. This primordial Word, which was in the beginning with God, a partner in creation, in relationship with God and who is God, has now become human. While the NRSV translates the verse, “and lived among us” the verb here is skenoo, “to tent” or “to tabernacle.” Most readers of the Gospel of John will be familiar with the translation “and dwelt among us.” The verb can also be translated, “took up residence” and thus Peterson’s The Message, “moved into the neighborhood.”
This is as much about who God is, what God is about, and to what and whom God is committed as it is a declaration about the Word itself. The fourth evangelist understands that God’s promise to be with God’s people wherever they go has now taken on a different representation in Jesus. The dwelling of God is a deeply intimate, personal claim and assumes God’s commitment to and continuity with God’s people. Moreover, in the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, now God not only goes where God’s people go, but is who they are. That is, God now dwells with us by taking on our form, our humanity. This “different” dwelling of God is God being where God’s people are, and now who God’s people are.
Christmas is grace upon grace
“From his fullness” (John 1:16) has the sense of the “sum total,” “complete,” and can also connote “superabundance.” The word “grace” is used only four times in the Gospel of John (1:14, 16, 17) and only in the Prologue. Once the Word becomes flesh, grace is then incarnated in the rest of the Gospel. That is, the entirety of the Gospel will show what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like. This is Christmas preaching. For John, God in becoming flesh in Jesus has committed God’s self not only to revealing what God’s grace looks like, but that God wants to know it and feel it as well.
Christmas is intimacy
Verse 18 concludes and yet encapsulates the Prologue. It is a recapitulation of the first verse addressing again who Jesus is, what Jesus’ relationship with God is like, and where Jesus comes from. A comparison of translations for John 1:18 exposes the theological difficulties with each of these three theological themes. The only portion of accord for translators in verse 18 is the first sentence of the verse, “No one has ever seen God.” After this fundamental truth, any agreement between translations quickly disintegrates. The first clause, “It is God, the only son” restates the identity of Jesus made clear in the last clause of verse 1. The declaration of Jesus’ identity is complicated by a translation issue and by a text-critical issue. The translation issue centers on monogenes, rendered as “the unique,” “the one and only,” and “the only begotten.” The identity of Jesus is once again God, as stated in verse 1, “and the Word was God,” but it is further clarified that the Word made flesh is a unique God, a one and only revealing or representation of God, calling attention to the limits of the incarnation but also to the distinctiveness of who Jesus is. The text-critical issue is the word “son” included in some translations. The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John do not include the term “son.” While it is true that Jesus is God’s son which will be central when the Word has become flesh, that is not the focus here. Jesus is God revealing God’s self in a new and profoundly different way.
The location of Jesus as the unique and one and only God as “close to the Father’s heart” (NRSV) “heart,” “side,” and “bosom” is indeed kolpos, “bosom.” The choice of “side” and “heart” in translations over “bosom” suggests an essential difficulty with the concept that Jesus, as God’s unique expression of God and God’s son, dwells at the bosom of the father. The meaning conveyed in this picture of Jesus at the bosom of God is extraordinary tenderness. One would be hard-pressed to secure a description of relationship more intimate than the nursing of a child. Everything we need for life, right here and right now, God will give, over and over again. To be a child of God will ring false without the very literal manifestation of what it actually means to be a child.
At stake in this image is not only who Jesus is as the Word made flesh, as the unique and one and only God, but who we are as believers. The only other time in the Gospel of John that the word “bosom” is used is in 13:23, the first introduction to the disciple whom Jesus loves. It is, at the very least, odd that this beloved disciple is never mentioned before this point in the story. If Jesus loves this disciple so much, where has he been? The beloved disciple’s introduction and placement in the story indicate that his function and meaning are more important than his identity. While scholars still devote significant effort to determining who the beloved disciple was, the more important question, narratively and theologically, is why the beloved disciple. The fact that the term “bosom” occurs only in 1:18 and 13:23 affirms the premise of the Gospel that every claim about the relationship between God and Jesus is at the same time a claim about the relationship between the believer and God/Jesus. Who is the beloved disciple? He is you. He is me. He is every believer who either comes to belief or continues in belief when hearing this Gospel (20:30-31).
The last clause of verse 18 seeks to describe what the Word made flesh does, to “declare,” “reveal,” and “make known” God and points to Jesus’ origins. The verb exago is a compound verb, combining the prefix ex, which means “out” with the verb ago which means “to bring or to lead.” In other words, the principal purpose of the Word made flesh is to bring God out, to lead God out, so that an experience of God is possible. It makes no sense for the Word to become flesh if God is not able to be experienced, and on every level of what it means to be human.
A few Christmas sermon possibilities.
1 For further discussion, see Karoline M. Lewis, John (Fortress Press, 2014)