The Gospel reading this day after Christmas strikes a new tone for the season by dramatically leading us away from anticipation of Advent and revelry of the holidays to the tenuous and dark days between promises and their fruition.1
Threats abound, but God carefully orchestrates Jesus’ earliest days according to Matthew.
Though as an infant Jesus cannot act in his own defense, God’s steady protection and Joseph’s faithful obedience combine to ensure his safety in a world of danger. Even as potential disaster threatens Jesus, ancient prophecies come to life and guarantee Jesus’ ineluctable mission.
From the very first, the road Jesus walks is marked by both God’s promises and human resistance. Jesus is both the living presence of God’s promises and a consistent irritant to those in power.
Three prophecies anchor three narrative movements so striking that artists throughout the ages have been drawn to them. Let’s examine them in turn.
Fleeing to Egypt First, Matthew recounts how Jesus’ family was spared from Herod’s furor. His duplicity and fear were evident the very moment the magi arrived in his kingdom (2:3). Herod’s reputation for brutality was well known in antiquity. Neither his spouses nor his children could escape the effects of his paranoia. Thus, an angel tells Joseph to flee his home and head into exile. For Matthew, this escape is not simply an expedient move or an accident of history. Instead, scripture foresaw this geographical detour on the way to Jesus’ true hometown. God chose this path in the distant past. Citing Hosea 11:1, Matthew appeals to a prophecy originally focused on the people of Israel but now referring to Jesus alone. Matthew’s claim then is that Jesus in some significant sense embodies the people of Israel. He is the recipient, bearer, and fulfillment of the promises made to Israel by God.
Egypt also evokes the story of Moses and the liberation of Israel from the tyranny of slavery, an echo that will reverberate even more powerfully in the next prophetic fulfillment.
The Slaughter of the Innocents Once Herod realizes that the magi have circumvented the conspiracy to eliminate this newly regnant king of the Jews, his instinct to preserve his power at all costs kicks in. He knows the approximate date of the child’s birth thanks to the magi’s calculations, and so he orders the extermination of all children born “in and around Bethlehem.” Herod will not take the chance that this child has slipped out of the city. According to Matthew, Jeremiah 31:15 had already prophesied the cries of anguish that would arise in Israel over such grievous oppression.
This genocidal act is never mentioned in other ancient witnesses of Herod’s cruelty; Matthew is the sole record of these widespread murders. However, the parallels to the execution of Jewish male infants at the hands of Pharaoh are striking (Exodus 1:15-22). Herod is a new Pharaoh. Feeling his political power slipping away, he lashes out with great malice but also in vain. Both Pharaoh and Herod precipitate devastating losses of life yet ultimately fail to prevent the birth of a powerful leader of Israel. Both Moses and Jesus are born under the threat of death; both are guided by God’s protective hand.
At the same time, one wonders why such preservation did not extend over the other children of Jews in Egypt and Bethlehem. Such questions are not broached directly or indirectly by Matthew. Neither does Matthew dwell on those years lived in exile in Egypt. Instead, he quickly returns Jesus to his hometown as promised by scripture.
Back Home to Nazareth Though born in Bethlehem, Matthew’s Jesus is from Nazareth. This is the geographical appellation he will carry.
After an angel announces the death of Herod to Joseph, the coast is clear for the family to return home to Bethlehem of Judea. However, after learning that Herod’s son Archelaus now ruled Judea, the family makes a new home in Nazareth in Galilee. For the third time, Matthew points to a prophetic promise: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
However, unlike the first two prophecies, there is no single prophecy in the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint that reads quite like the prophecy Matthew quotes. Is Matthew citing a now lost prophecy? Is Matthew here eliding the difference between Nazirite and Nazarene? Or perhaps is Matthew’s reference to “the prophets” a wide appeal to the many promises of God? Though there is no particular reference we can be certain is Matthew’s source here, the threefold appeal to the scriptural guarantee of Jesus’ earliest days argues that Jesus’ mission is neither coincidence nor solely the product of human effort.
Preparing the Path Matthew here prepares a prophetic path for Jesus to walk. A seeming detour into Egypt is actually a prophetic call; even Jesus’ hometown reverberates with prophetic resonance.
Potential doom looms over these early chapters of Matthew. Jesus’ welcome to the world is not unanimous acclamation but fear that this child would subvert the order of the world, that a mere child would weaken the powerful. The arbitrariness of Herod would have been entirely familiar to ancient people living under Rome’s long imperial shadow. Most Americans have a difficult time relating to a despotic order of genocide; most Americans tend to trust that authorities are required to act to protect citizens. However, no such trust could have existed within the ambit of ancient Rome’s seemingly unending power.
Therefore, Matthew’s trust in the prophetic promises is not mere naiveté; his faith in not simple. The narrative of these threefold threats upon Jesus’ life bristle with authenticity for such tyranny was well known to ancient peoples. Matthew’s trust in God’s providence emerges not from an overly active credulity but from a faith that expects God to reign in a world where the dominance of the powerful seems unchangeable.
In the midst of the joys of the Christmas season, these passages are a ripe reminder that things might have been otherwise, that tragedy and disappointment are too often the orders of the day, even amidst the revelry of this holiday season. As the poet Jane Kenyon once wrote, “It might have been otherwise.” As the evangelist Matthew might have added, “… but what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled.”
1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 26, 2010.
In the lectionary text for this first day of the New Year, the central theme regards the importance of thanksgiving, of taking a moment and celebrating the gracious deeds of a gracious God.
Central to this song of thanksgiving is then also the image of God’s salvation, which can be described in terms of the joyful experience of God once again putting my feet upon solid ground; of God calming the waters of the storm; of God giving me peace and quiet from the enemies around me; and of God restoring my health, my life, and my relationships.
At the dawn of this New Year, many of us may be looking at the world around us and feel that the world has gone mad: On a global level, in our respective communities all around the world, in our personal lives. We may be saying to one another: Yes, indeed, we are in desperate need of a Deliverer God. Elisabeth Johnson uses the following powerful metaphor in her book She Who Is that captures this desire well: She says that if you found yourself at the bottom of a deep dark pit with a broken arm, you desperately yearn for a Savior God who can come with a long ladder and a strong flashlight to haul you to safety (pages 266-267).
Isaiah 63:7-9 depicts such a God when it speaks of God’s great acts, of God’s steadfast love, which are exemplified in the powerful memories of God saving Israel from their enemies, and especially, and paradigmatically, from the house of slavery in Egypt. The image of what God did for Israel may also encourage one to look at one’s personal history and contemplates what God had done for me, and my family, and my people. It is not a bad idea to, at this beginning of the New Year, take a moment to proclaim in the call and response in certain faith communities: “God is good.” with the answer coming right back, “All the time.”
The image of God’s steadfast love, grace, and mercy is indeed deeply moving and vital in the time of Trito-Isaiah for a people who, after their return from Exile, continued to harbor doubts. The original audience consisted of people who desperately wanted to say “God is good,” but did not always feel that it is, “All the time.” For these people’s sake, the prophet is proclaiming in verse 9 that it was not a representative of God, his messenger, or an angel that God sent to do his saving work, but God’s holy presence self who in God’s love and pity redeemed them, and like the Good shepherd (Isaiah 40:11) or a Nursing Mother (Isaiah 49:15; 66:10-13) that they have come to know their God to be, carried them as in the days of old.
However, it is difficult to read this lectionary text in isolation. God’s saving actions that people are celebrating here is preceded by a powerful image of God as Warrior (Isaiah 63:1-6) attesting to the fact that God’s liberation is coming through an abundance of violence. Isaiah 63 starts with the vivid image of God as Vintner, pressing grapes in the wine press with the juice staining God’s robes red (verse 3).
In the words that would be familiarized in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” the reader, in a moment of recognition, realizes with shock that the “grapes” that the Divine Warrior is treading, are actually the heads of Israel’s enemies. The Battle Hymn of the Republic has become a song of war, used in virtually every war in which the United States and its allies have been involved.1
Reading the lectionary text of today together with the immediately preceding text, and given its complex history of interpretation, one has to be extra vigilant that, when preaching Isaiah 63:7-9 with all of its reassuring imagery of God’s love and mercy, one avoids the danger of proclaiming this text in terms of a God-for-us theology. The message that liberation comes through violence, as is the main thrust of Isaiah 63 if read in its entirety, is a message we do not need this year. If 2017 is going to be anything like 2016, there is way too much violence in the world already.
So how does one preach on God’s saving actions and resist the heavy baggage of violence and destruction that weigh down this image of God as Liberator? It is exactly this question that I tried to answer in my book Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Liberating Presence in which I tried to explore some alternative (biblical) imagery for God that speaks about God’s steadfast love and mercy in terms of metaphors that challenge the dominant association of God’s liberation with the Violent Warrior as particularly evident in this text.
I explored the image of God as a Wailing Woman (Jeremiah 8–9), God as Mother (Isaiah 42, 45, 49, 66), and God as Divine Midwife (Psalm 22, 71). Instead of the violence that has characterized the divine portrayal of God’s liberation in many of the prophetic texts, these passages employ the acts of tears and lament of the wailing woman, the acts of giving birth and nurturing new life closely associated with mothers, and the acts of wisdom, skill, and healing performed by professional midwives to talk about the Savior God.
To speak about God’s deliverance in terms of God’s liberating presence offers us language at the beginning of this year to speak about a God who is with us, but not with us alone. And who in contrast to the dominant portrayal in the biblical text does not save with violence nor encourage believers of all cultures and religions to do so either.
1 Claassens, Juliana L, “Trampling out the Vintage where the Grapes of Wrath are Stored:” Assessing the Legacy of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” NGTT 55/3.4 (2014) http://ngtt.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/653).
2 Claassens, Juliana L. Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Liberating Presence. Westminster John Knox 2012
And Heav’n and Nature Sing1
It’s always been one of my favorite Christmas carols. How could you lose with this one? The words are by Isaac Watts and the tune, at least according to some hymnbooks, is by George F. Handel. The combination of words and music is just right. Notice that the melody runs straight down the D major scale! Though we’ve sung it countless times and have heard it each year in churches and shopping malls, it’s possible that we have missed one important feature of this carol. Consider the words:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king; let every heart prepare him room and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.
The lyricist is thinking big. All humans on earth are invited to welcome the Christ-King into their hearts. Then Isaac Watts ratchets the lyrics up another notch. He names two extremes to indicate the whole, asking heaven and also nature to join in singing this joyful song. To make sure that everybody gets the point, he repeats “heav’n and nature” three times, even having the tenors and basses echo it in a refrain. Once you’ve changed from a boy soprano or alto to a man tenor or bass, this becomes one of your favorite songs to sing at Christmas time!
The Closing Quintet: Psalms 146-150
The biblical Book of Psalms begins with a strong emphasis on laments−prayers from times of trouble (most of the psalms in Book I, from 3-41). The plan of the book as a whole indicates an increasing emphasis on praise, coming to a climax with Psalms 146-150. Each psalm in the closing quintet begins and ends with “Praise the LORD” or, in Hebrew, “Hallelujah!” This makes for ten “Hallelujahs” at the end of the book; then Psalm 150 alone adds ten more. You’d think the book was put together by a praise band that was relegated to a separate “contemporary service” in the church (or synagogue) basement or gymnasium!
But now to an unusual feature in Psalm 148 that I did not notice for a long time. It is the same feature already noted in “Joy to the World,” namely the call for non-human creatures, that is, for nature to join in praising God. Professor Terry Fretheim has called attention to this theme in the entire Old Testament; see the helpful insights in Chapter 8 of his recent book, God and the World.2
The psalm begins by calling for praise “from the heavens” (1-6), continues with a call for praise “from the earth” (7-12), and concludes by tying “earth” and “heaven” together with a final call for all to join in the praises (13-14). It follows the typical pattern of the hymn with imperatives calling for praise (1-5,7,13-14), grounded by “for” clauses giving the reasons for praise (5b-6; 13b-14).
Praise from the Heavens (1-6)
The opening call for praise is aimed at all heavenly creatures, including angels and the heavenly armies (“host”). Note the Old Testament view of the universe: above the heavens (“firmament,” ” dome,” Ps 19:1; Gen 1) are waters (vs. 4). Windows in the dome slide open causing rain on the earth (Gen 7:11).
Praise from the earth (7-12)
Now the focus is upon the earth. A surprise: first to be invited to this praise fest are not human beings, but rather sea monsters (the Hebrew word is the same as that used in Gen 1:21). Next in line are the elements of nature, including fire, hail, snow, frost, stormy wind, mountains, hills, and trees (7-9). The invitation is extended again, now to the living creatures, including wild and domesticated animals, animals that creep on the ground, and birds (10).
Finally, the psalm says “O yes! And you humans are invited to join this praise band too!” The extremes are named to indicate the whole class: kings, princes and rulers, then young people, senior citizens, and children.
How ought we to understand this non-human praise of God? This could be considered simply highly-charged poetic language where the poet lets his or her imagination run wild But I think there is more. According to Psalm 150, one can praise God with dance (4). One can also praise God with an orchestra, including wind, string, and percussion instruments (Psalm 150). Clearly, praise need not be limited to human words or actions. If our dancing can express praise, why not the dance of the loons on a Minnesota lake? If the sound of the trumpet in Handel’s Messiah can express praise, why not the sound of a trumpeter swan?
Toward a Sermon
The Christmas season is a fine time to re-discover the theme of “nature’s praise of God” as found in the Bible and in the hymns of the church. In the case of this theme, the church’s hymns have been ahead of the church’s preaching and teaching! I admit, it is an area I have neglected. A sermon could be based on the “non-human praise of God” in this psalm, asking what it means for heaven and nature to sing. For example, “Earth and all Stars” is a modern hymn calling on non-human elements (including test tubes!) to join the praise band (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 731). For a classic hymn, check out Francis of Assisi’s “All Creatures, Worship God Most High!” which calls “brother wind,” “sister water” and a whole list of non-human creatures to join in praise (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 835).
One can page through the “Praise and Thanksgiving” section of any hymnbook to find numerous examples of praise offered to God from non-human entities. We humans do not have a monopoly on praise. It appears that the often suspiciously regarded “praise band” could be moved from the basement to the main sanctuary, “loud clanging cymbals” (Psalm 150) and all!
1. Commentary first published on December 26, 2010.
2. Terence Fretheim, God and the World: a Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).
Once the hoopla of Christmas fades, and the wonder of the new baby in the manger starts to become a memory, Christians rightly turn to the harder questions that arise from the Incarnation, such as “why did God have to come to us in this way?” and “was it necessary for Christ to suffer during his life and especially in his death?”
We ask these questions today, but even at the time of the letter to the Hebrews, people were already asking these questions and attempting to answer them.
The Necessity of the Incarnation
It really does boggle the mind, doesn’t it? Why would God, who created everything that is, and who could come into the world at any time and in any form, choose to become a human being? And why would God choose to commit to living this human life in the exact same way as the rest of us, to be born of a woman as a helpless child? This is the question that the author of Hebrews raises, and answers by saying that “the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.” In other words, when God decided to save humans, it seemed fitting to do so as a human.
Paul often uses the metaphor of a family to talk about the relationship believers have with one another. Here, the author of Hebrews (traditionally attributed to Paul, but scholars currently consider the authorship unknown) says that by virtue of his humanity, Jesus is also able to claim all people as his brothers and sisters (confirmed by the reference to Psalm 22:22).
The Necessity of Christ’s Suffering as We Do
And having found himself in human form, it follows that Jesus would also experience all that humans do, including suffering. According to Hebrews, unless he were to live and also die as a human does, Jesus could not overcome the death that comes to all humanity. Again, he reminds us that Christ did not come to help angels, but people and therefore he must be like us “in every respect.”
In this way, Jesus is able to show that though living according to the will of God is difficult, it is possible. He shows us what it would truly mean to be a merciful and faithful high priest. Christ is therefore able to make the most perfect sacrifice for the sins of the people.
The Good News of the Incarnation
In my work, I often encounter people who believe that they are special in only one way — that their sufferings are so unique that no one else could possible understand them. And I know what they are talking about. After all, I often feel the same way. But when I think of Christ and how he came to be like us, how he experienced hunger, and grief, and betrayal, and loneliness, and the fear of death, just as we all do, I know that I am not alone. And neither are those who tell me that they are.
By Christ’s humanity, and his embrace of all our challenges, we need never fear that God does not understand our experiences. Indeed, God forgives us from a place of empathy, from a place of commonality. God’s forgiveness comes to us less like that of a magnanimous judge, and more like that of a faithful friend who can enfold us in a hug and say “I know you did the best you could.” By overcoming suffering in his own earthly life, Christ is able to help us in our own suffering. No one could ask for a more merciful and faithful act than to accompany another in suffering.
The Incarnation is absolutely one of the most puzzling acts that God takes in all of history. But when we consider how it makes possible Christ’s most powerful actions as savior, we can see its necessity. Christ willingly accepts the challenges and sufferings of human life in order to release the rest of us from them forever.