Lectionary Commentaries for December 28, 2014
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

Stephen Hultgren

The story of Jesus’ presentation in Jerusalem is one of the few stories in the canonical gospels that have to do with Jesus’ childhood.

Along with the stories of the circumcision and naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21, January 1 every year), the visit of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany every year), the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23, First Sunday after Christmas in year A), and Jesus in the temple as a twelve-year-old (Luke 2:41-52, First Sunday after Christmas in year C), this story gives one a rare opportunity to preach on Jesus’ childhood on a Sunday.

The scarcity of information about Jesus’ childhood reminds us that the gospels are not biographies, or at least not primarily that. They are kerygmatic narratives — they seek to proclaim the gospel and to undergird and strengthen faith in Christ. The little information that they give us about Jesus’ childhood is not intended, say, to explain the development of his character or personality. It is clear that Luke’s childhood stories seek to make theological points: Jesus was born a Jew among Jews. He came under the law of Moses. And, although he fulfilled the law in honoring his father and mother (Luke 2:51), his ultimate obedience was to his heavenly Father (Luke 2:49; cf. Mark 3:35). As such, our Gospel lesson is easily linked to the epistle reading for the day, where Paul tells us that Jesus was “born of woman” and “born under the law” so that he might redeem those who were under the law (Galatians 4:4-5). (The same link is easily made on January 1, for which the Galatians text is appointed every year.)

The presentation in Jerusalem is motivated by specific requirements of the law of Moses. According to Leviticus 12, after a woman gives birth to a son, she is impure for forty days. At the end of that period, she is to bring an offering to the temple, which the priest offers as a sacrifice, effecting her purification. In addition, Exodus 13:2, 12, 15 state that every first-born male (which “opens the womb”), whether human or animal, “belongs” to the Lord (cf. 34:20). While (clean) animals (Leviticus 27:27) would be sacrificed, first-born sons needed to be redeemed (Exodus 13:12-15). According to Numbers 3:46-51, the redemption involved the payment of five shekels to the priesthood. However, according to another tradition in Numbers 3:11-13; 8:16-18, the tribe of the Levites takes the place of the first-born sons of Israel as the Lord’s possession. Thus the biblical notion of redemption included the idea that the first-born son “belongs” to the Lord in a special way and is dedicated to serve him (as the Levites were also dedicated to serve him).

Luke has apparently taken this old idea of the first-born son being dedicated to God’s service and made it fruitful for his narrative. The Torah contains no requirement that the first-born son be presented at the temple. However, Luke alludes to the story of Samuel. When Hannah, who had no children, prayed to God for a son, she vowed that, if she had a son, she would give him to God for all his days (1 Samuel 1:11). And indeed, after Samuel was born, Hannah brought him to the temple, and he was “lent” to the Lord for life (1 Samuel 1:24-28). It is clear that Mary in Luke takes the role of Hannah (cf. Luke 1:46-55 with 1 Samuel 1:11; 2:1-10) while Jesus takes the role of Samuel (cf. Luke 2:40, 52 with 1 Samuel 2:26). Thus when Joseph and Mary present Jesus to the Lord in Jerusalem, they are in effect dedicating his life to God (no redemption money is given). Jesus will be “holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23). With these words Luke subtly alters the language of Exodus 13:2, 12 from a command to consecrate (hagiazein) the first-born to God to a declaration about Jesus. Luke’s wording is reminiscent of Luke 1:35, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her son will be “holy” and will be called the “Son of God,” because he will be conceived by the Holy Spirit. Luke’s wording is perhaps also (though more distantly) reminiscent of other stories that speak of Jesus as a “holy one” with a special relationship to God (e.g., Mark 1:24). The story thus sets the stage for Jesus’ life dedicated fully to his heavenly Father (Luke 2:49).

As noted above, Paul speaks of Jesus as having been born under the law in order to redeem those who were under the law. Instead of being redeemed, Jesus himself will by his death redeem others. This happens when Jesus takes upon himself the curse of the law — indeed, “becomes” the curse (of the law) — by being crucified on the tree (Galatians 3:13). That is the scandal of the cross, by which God saves the world (1 Corinthians 1:21, 23). The idea is, to be sure, more Pauline than Lukan. Yet the scandal of the cross is hinted at in Luke 2:34. Jesus will be the cause of many rising and falling in Israel — he will be both the stone upon which some stumble and the stone of salvation (Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6-8). In any case, Luke’s account certainly gives credence to Paul’s claim. The dedication of Jesus to God at the temple sets Jesus on the way to his work of redemption.

Simeon and Anna appear as devout Jews who are awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises of consolation and redemption for Israel. These sections of Luke’s story are drenched with the language of Deutero-Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 40:1; 42:6; 49:6, 13; 52:9, 10). Simeon and Anna thus become spokesman and spokeswoman for the salvation and redemption that is to come through Jesus. Simeon gets a glimpse of the salvation that one-day the whole world (“all flesh”) will see (cf. Luke 3:6, Luke’s addition to Mark): forgiveness of sins and deliverance from eternal death (Acts 13:38-39, 46-47). That is the ultimate meaning of Christmas, the incarnation of the Son of God.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3

Michael J. Chan

The book of Ezekiel defines a true prophet in this way: one who repairs the wall and stands in the breach on behalf of the people (Ezekiel 22:30).

Based on this criterion, the author of Isaiah 61:10-62:3 is truly a prophet. He stands in the gap between God and Judah, decreeing a new age of freedom and restoration (Isaiah 61:1-3) and refusing to leave God in silence until Zion’s vindication is manifest on earth as it is in heaven. Fundamentally, Isaiah 61:10-62:3 is about the profound transformation that occurs in Zion as a result of the prophet’s spirit-anointed mission. So fundamental is this transformation that Zion has to be renamed (Isaiah 62:2).

The passage divides easily into 5 units: Isaiah 61:1-3, 4-7, 8-9, 10-11; 62:1-3. Within these five units are two speakers, the prophet (Isaiah 61:1-3, 4-7, 10-11; 62:1-3) and God (Isaiah 61:8-9).

Even though we know next to nothing about this prophet’s historical identity, we do know something about what the prophet thought about his own calling and how it relates to the restoration of Zion found in Isaiah 60-62 more broadly. The prophet is anointed by the Spirit (Isaiah 61:1), and his vocation is delineated in a series of infinitive clauses, which indicate the nature of his mission:

  • “to bring good news to the oppressed” (v. 1)
  • “to bind up the brokenhearted” (v. 1)
  • “to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (v. 1)
  • “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (v. 2)
  • “to comfort all who mourn” (v. 2)
  • “to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (v. 3)

The heraldic nature of the call is unmistakable. His job is to announce the new age described throughout Isaiah 60-62 to the oppressed, brokenhearted, prisoners, and mourners. In other words, like many of us, he is called to shine the light of promise into the dungeons of hopelessness.

In fact, when considered in light of this larger context, one finds that the description of the prophet’s vocation in Isaiah 60:1-3 is the very center of Isaiah 60-62, the earliest literature in Isaiah 56-66 (Third Isaiah). As Joseph Blenkinsopp shows, “there are 44 verses (i.e., lines) preceding and 45 following this passage, or, to be more precise, there are 295 words preceding and 296 following it.”1 But the prophet’s mission is not only central to the literary structure of these chapters, it is also central to Zion’s redemption, not unlike the mission of the “servants” of Isaiah 40-55 (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).

Remarkable things will happen because of the prophet’s mission. The people of Zion will be called “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3), they will rebuild and repair ruins, and they will exercise dominion over strangers and foreigners. Not only will the city of Zion be renewed, it will once again reflect God’s glory and wield international power (see my Working Preacher commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6 for my comments on how to preach the more problematic imperial aspects of Zion theology).

But even more breathtaking are the claims made in Isaiah 61:6a: The entire audience will be called “priests of Yhwh, ministers of our God” (v. 6a). The status of “priest” is typically reserved only for a select group within Israel. The text’s broadening of the priestly title to his entire audience is in line with the theological tendencies of Third Isaiah’s prophetic predecessor, “Second Isaiah,” who applied the entire Davidic covenant to Yhwh’s people (Isaiah 55:3-5). This special people, moreover, will not only be exalted in status, they will also receive the “wealth of the nations” (Isaiah 61:6), a reference back to Isaiah 60. Zion’s fortunes are reversed: Instead of double shame, the audience will inherit double in their land, including everlasting joy (Isaiah 61:7). The God of Isaiah 60-62 is a God who promises a profound reversal of circumstances.

Isaiah 61 concludes with two speeches, one by Yhwh (Isaiah 61:8-9) and one by the anointed prophet whose vocational report opened this chapter (vv. 10-11). The new act of salvation promised in Isaiah 61 is grounded in the love of Yhwh for what is right (cf. Ps 37:28) and in his hatred for robbery-tainted burnt offerings (Isaiah 61:8-9). He will give his people their due and, in a promise reminiscent of Isaiah 55:3, will make with “them” an eternal covenant (Isaiah 61:8). As is the case in Isaiah 55, this new covenant has implications for Israel’s relationship to the nations. Zion’s inhabitants will be renowned, and all who see them will take notice that they are a “seed” blessed by Yhwh (61:9; cf. esp. Isaiah 55:5). Isaiah 61:10-11 returns to the voice of the anointed messenger in the form of praise.

Turning to Isaiah 62:1-3, we encounter again the powerful and persistent voice of the prophet, who refuses to remain silent until the Jerusalem of history is transformed into the Zion of eschatology (Isaiah 62:1); or, to use his own words, “until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1). The prophet embodies Yhwh’s own devotion to Jerusalem, where Yhwh’s name dwells.

Reflective of her newfound station among the nations of the earth, Zion receives a “new name that the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2). The giving of a new name commonly accompanied the giving of a new position in the royal court (cf. Daniel 4:8 and the Ethiopian courtier, “Ebed-melech,” in Jeremiah [see, e.g., Jeremiah 38:7-12]) or could even be associated with significant moments in life (see, e.g., Genesis 32:28).

These are extravagant promises. But one discovers a profound tension when one compares the promises made to Zion in Isaiah 61:10-62:3 with a sober analysis of Jerusalem’s history: The Zion of Third Isaiah is not the Jerusalem of history. This ever-widening gap between Third Isaiah’s promises and Jerusalem’s history (ancient and modern) produces a sense of dissonance not unknown to Christians. For centuries, Christians have waited for the second “Advent” of their lord. They give liturgical voice to this longing in the weeks leading up to Christmas. And while Advent and Christmas are typically seasons of joy, careful thought reveals that Advent is also a season of sighing: Celebrating Christ’s first Advent is fine, but what about the second Advent? Where is our Lord? Where has God been while disease, poverty, violence, and hunger afflict creation? Sure, humanity can do more, but the eschatological and apocalyptic texts of the Bible indicate that humanity cannot do it all. God is needed. The world is constantly changing but will it ever be transformed? Will we ever be able to celebrate Easter, not as a remembrance but as a reality? The luster of promise expounded so beautifully in Isaiah 61:10-62:3, loses some of its luster in view of lived experience — “Amen, but where are you God? … ”

The mission given to the prophet of Isaiah 61:10-62:3 is still needed today, so long as the world is populated by those who are brokenhearted, mourning and in captivity. Christians often see Christ as a fulfillment of prophecies given in Isaiah 61:10-62:3 (Luke 4:16-30), but in point of fact, the prophet’s mission (see especially Isaiah 61:1-3) represents an abiding call, a mantle which Jesus happened to take up in the first century, but which remains available to those called to wear it. So long as Christians have to look forward to Christ’s Second Advent, there will be need for a herald of promises as-yet-unseen.


Notes:

1 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 (AB 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 208.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 148

Rolf Jacobson

The psalmist of Psalm 148 sings:

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.


Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

Erik Heen

The choice of this text as a reading for during the on-going celebration of Christmas is appropriate.

In four verses, Paul describes in succinct prose the salvific design of the Christ event. A paraphrase of these verses, incorporating other elements of Galatians and 2 Corinthians might go something like this:

“The transcendent God, in complete freedom, chose to change the very fabric of all life in order to liberate it from the power of Sin and Death to which it had subjected itself. God’s pre-existent Son — God’s own righteousness and glory — was commissioned with the task. This Son — the very wisdom of God — entered the sphere of the cosmos as in the form of a vulnerable human, ‘born of a woman.’ He was constrained by the elemental enslaving powers (Galatians 4:3) as were all living things. The man Jesus — a Jew faithful to the Word of God — took on upon himself the curse that came with this bondage to Sin on the cross (Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Galatians 3:13), so that humanity might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Through sacramental baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ (Galatians 3:27; cf Romans 6:1-11), one receives the very spirit of the exalted Christ and so becomes the adopted children of God, incorporated into the new humanity of God’s creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is a humanity in which there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female (Galatians 3:27-28) — distinctions that Sin worked to its own advantage. As adopted heirs gifted by the Spirit of Christ, that Body, brought from death to new life, rightfully might call God, ‘Abba’ — ‘Father.’”

This is story of redemption of amazing scope! Paul, in fact, can speak of the Christ event as “by which the world has been crucified”(Galatians 6:14). That is, the world as he knew it before Christ no longer exists. Something completely different — of the order of the difference between life and death — has taken its place. All this is why the church celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus in the Christmas season!

There are a few phrases in this pericope that are deserving of some attention. The first is “the fullness of time” in Galatians4:4. Much ink has been spilt over speculations about why Jesus was born when he was. Most look to the material conditions of the Mediterranean basin in the first century for answers. There are variations of this approach that usually look to the Roman, Greek, and Jewish “preparations” for conditions suitable for the spread of the gospel. The Roman Empire had established the Pax Romana — a peaceful period following the chaos of the civil wars that ended when Augustus (the first emperor) defeated Anthony. The Romans stabilized trade, built roads, etc. The Greeks are seen to have provided the common urban culture and language (Koine Greek) of the East where early Christianity flourished, as well as an interest in cultic pieties, foreign gods, mystery religions, “divine men,” healing rituals, etc. Jewish culture gave the monotheistic framework, Scripture, messianic midrash, apocalyptic, the respectability that came with its antiquity, as well as a Greek-speaking diaspora community that attracted Gentiles (aka “God Fearers”) to Jewish ethics and synagogal life throughout the Empire. All of this might be true and did, perhaps, provide complex material, cultural, and religious foundations for the spread of the gospel.

But it still leaves much of the world unaccounted for. The Americas were then populated, as were Africa and Asia. Such speculations regarding the timing of the Incarnation are, really, arguments from silence that carry a Eurocentric bias. There is, of course, no satisfactory answer. Not much more can be said then that God freely chose to unleash the gospel, “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16), through the particularities of the Christ event in the first century CE. It was, in fact, the Incarnation that delineated the turning of the ages, the “fullness of time,” not the other way around. It is, as grammarians would say, a condition that is inferred from evidence (“If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.”) That is, by analogy, “if God has sent the Christ of Israel to redeem the world, then the fullness of time has come.”

The second phrase that is of interest is found in Galatians 4:5. The Incarnation occurred “in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” One is tempted here to assume that Paul is referring to Jews when he refers to “those who were under the law.” Many interpreters do. The problem, however, is that Paul is writing to Gentiles. The “we” here must at least include Gentiles. How are Gentiles “under the (Jewish) law”? Here we come under much disputed theological territory that has come in the wake of the “New Perspective on Paul,” which is really a new perspective (among Christian scholars of the last generation) on the function of Jewish law in Second Temple Judaism. This is a complex, but important, subject. Suffice it to say here, that perhaps the problem is not so much with Jewish law, but Sin. So insidious is Sin that even the good gifts of God, like the Law (Galations 3:21) or even the gospel, can be easily misused.

As J. Louis Martyn has pointed out, one of the problems with Law (understood as commandments, mitzvot) is that it categorizes the world in terms of “law/not law.” This opposition can, then, work against the intent of God. Even Gentiles are born “under” a system that construes life in terms of that which is guided into righteousness by halakhah and that which is not. Under this system, Gentiles lie outside the holiness demanded by God. Paul, in Galatians, is arguing against the imposition of Jewish law on Gentile converts, because this assumes the structures of the “old age” and the thinking that goes with it. In fact, with Christ, comes an end to this function of the law — it no longer clearly delineates the people of God from those who are outside its purview (Romans 10:4). Its guidance for the people of God now lies elsewhere. As Paul notes in Galatians5:14,“The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (cf. Matthew 22:37-40). Rather than realizing holiness through the observance of mitzvot, it is the very spirit of Christ, poured into the heart, that allows Paul to call both the Jewish and the Gentile followers of Jesus “holy” (hagioi, “saints”; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthains 1:2). It is the indwelling spirit of God and not the status of being “under the law” that makes the church “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).