Lectionary Commentaries for January 5, 2014
Second Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Karyn Wiseman

When I was a kid, I was sick a lot.

I had childhood epilepsy, experienced some learning disabilities from a difficult birth, was often sick, and had numerous allergies. I spent a lot of time in doctor’s offices for all of these issues. So hospitals, tests, and doctors were part of my life. As a kid you are supposed to be foot loose and fancy free — without a care in the world. So it was a bit weird to be so focused on the physical issues I had to address in my younger years. My life was often about how my body was acting and reacting.

Dealing with embodied issues can often be problematic in our culture. Womens’ and young girls’ bodies are objectified on a daily basis. Vulnerable persons are abused and exploited physically and sexually. Men and boys are taught to be tough and that their physical strength is their greatest asset. We live in a society obsessed with the physical beauty and attributes of celebrities — even with pseudo-celebrities who are only famous for being famous. Negative obsession with the flesh, sex, gender, and sexuality issues by some in the church has reached epic proportions. Often these fleshly obsessions are hard to understand and cause significant pain, division, and confusion.

So, too, is the situation related to reading the opening lines to the Gospel of John. It is a passage known to many — Christians and non-Christians. John clearly holds the incarnation as significant as he portrays it in such an important manner (verses 1-14). His gospel is the only one that does not begin with the birth story of Jesus. Instead he opens his gospel with a song of sorts, extoling the power of God becoming flesh and celebrates the grace that comes to all through Jesus Christ. (verses 12-14) It is part song, part poetry, and part prose and it is full of biblical allusions.1

When I first read this pericope as a young pastor I was confused by the opening lines referring to the Word and the chronology of God’s being in the text’s meaning (verses 1-2). The pericope is separated into five sections each related to the Word — the Word and God (verses 1-2), the Word and creation (verses 3-5), the Word and John (verses 6-8), the Word and the world (verses 9-13), the Word and the community (verses 14-18).2 These sections can help the preacher understand what is happening in the text and help to determine particular emphases for preaching related to their context.

However in preaching and teaching on this text I am often asked about two major concerns. First, “Who came first, God the Creator or the Logos? Why does it matter?” And second, “What does it mean that God became flesh? Why would God put Godself into that kind of situation?”

These types of questions often come about in discussing complex issues of life and faith. God was before time, in time, and outside of time. Time is different when discussing God and the incarnation.

Jesus is the Word and the Word is also God. The Word gives light and life. And the Word is not always accepted. The Word was Jesus and the Word is the biblical text understood through the life and actions of Jesus. The Word is the embodiment of God in the world (verses 9-18)

God choosing to put skin on and walk among us is one of the pivotal points in salvation history, which begins with the redemption of the Hebrew people and continues in the story of Jesus, his ministry with his disciples, and his death and resurrection (verse 14). This point of Jesus being fully human and fully divine has been a bone of contention in history and continues to baffle some in the faith today. But for me it is one of the most important tenets of the faith — that God loved the world so much that God came to dwell among us, teach us, and die for us (John 3: 16).

One of my seminary professors, Emilie Townes, taught her seminary students that being in ministry means being more than just a tourist. Tourists come to a place and visit, while maintaining their own unique traditions and customs. They buy trinkets and take snapshots. She taught us that pastors and preachers need to be pilgrims and “pitch tent” with the people. Pilgrim pastors learn the “language” of the people they are sent to pastor. Pilgrims pitching tent take up their people’s traditions and customs, but they can also, like Jesus, transform the world in which they live through their ministry to and with the people.

Pitching tent means coming to be fully part of the world in which you live and minister. The Word in this text is doing just that — coming to “pitch tent” with humanity. The Word made flesh comes to be in the world and to change the world. “This text is the simple and dramatic telling of the mystery of the Word made flesh, dwelling among us, and empowering us to become children of God.”(verses 11-14)

The telling of Jesus’ birth in simple and homely ways in Matthew, Mark and Luke make for powerful images and create a sense of connection we can see replayed every year in Christmas Pageants across the globe. But John goes another way. He utilizes “grander theological declarations” in his Prologue to bring us into the story of salvation.4

When Mary’s baby walked the earth things changed.


When Mary’s baby walked this earth
People came from miles around to sit at his feet
And hear the wisdom that could only come from God.

They brought the sick, the lame,
And those who were troubled
In their minds.

The winds and the seas had to obey him
Because he was Emmanuel, God with us.

Formidable demons trembled
And ran away screaming
When Mary’s baby walked upon this earth.5

God is Emmanuel. Jesus, the Word, was made flesh. God walked around in skin. And it changed the world. Embodiment matters.

1 Commentary in Wesley Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1286.

2 R. Alan Culpepper, “Second Sunday after Christmas Day Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 189.

3 General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Resources, Year A Advent. http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/lectionary-planning-helps/christmas-day (accessed August 30, 2013)

4 Thomas H. Troeger, ‘Homiletical Perspective for John 1: (1-9) 10-18″ in Feasting on the Word, 191.

5 Safiyah Fosua. Part of the poem “Finding Joy in Unexpected Places.” http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/21st-century-liturgy/resource/finding-joy-in-unexpected-places (accessed August 30, 2013).


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ingrid Lilly

Fans of Steve Well’s The Skeptic’s Bible could have a heyday with Jeremiah 31.

It is a great example of a failed prophecy. But we will not hover like flies over this fact. Neither, though, will we follow the good Christian tendency to ignore inconvenient aspects of the Bible. We will make the skeptic’s truth central to today’s reflection. Our passage presents one of God’s promises that did not come true.

Inspired by Paul Ricoeur’s concept of the second naïveté, the skeptic’s truth offers critical distance. This distance gives us a vantage from which to look at our failed prophecy with new questions, new opportunities for faith, and new possibilities for reading our own biblical tradition. Where will we end up if we take seriously that a biblical promise failed?

Jeremiah 30-33 is known as Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation. The first two chapters are saturated with promises made to the Northern Kingdom. But the Northern Kingdom was swept into history with its exile in the 8th century (722/721 BCE). The promises in chapter 31: “again you will plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (verse 5) and “the sentinels shall call in the hill country of Ephraim,” (verse 6) were not fulfilled for them.

In their exile, they were forcefully repopulated by the Assyrians, their homes were replaced by other refugees from other reaches of the vast Near Eastern empire, and they never returned home. Indeed, it seems that most of the Northern Kingdom remained exiles in Syria and Babylonia.

Failed promises are a hard truth to face, especially since these promises are made, not just to a large abstract kingdom, but to blind people, the physically disabled, and women in their third trimester (verse 8). These promises are made to the grieving (verses 9 & 13), to people who are overcome by “hands too strong for them,” (verse 11). Jeremiah is not kidding when he says, “your hurt is incurable…there is no medicine for your wound, no healing for you (30:12-13).” It is not hyperbole when Rachel refuses comfort because “[her children] are no more” (verse 15).

While the people disappeared from historical record, the poetry was preserved, leading to both biblical and extra-biblical attempts to reuse it. Failure is just material waiting to be recycled. Already in Jeremiah 31, the promise oracles to the North were reapplied to the South, to Judah’s exile: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its towns” (verse 23).

Hence the hopes of failure can ignite others to new life. Matthew in the New Testament also works with this failed prophecy, claiming that Rachel’s weeping (31:15) refers to the children in Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod (Matthew 2:17). Here, Matthew takes the failure seriously, mapping current grief onto a more ancient sense of loss. “The Gabriel Revelation” contains a set of first-century B.C.E. prophecies about messianic death and resurrection that at one point appear to draw on Jeremiah 31’s prophecy to Ephraim (Israel). Here, failure is set into an emerging theology of resurrection.

But I personally am not satisfied with the idea that people die, lose, and suffer so that their hope can be recycled for others. While there is so much one can do with failed hope, as these post-8th century reflections attest, I cannot stop thinking about the people who died outside of the biblical story. What happened to those women in their third trimester who hoped to return to their homeland but never came back?

In this question, we are not alone. Apocryphal writings were no stranger to curiosity about the lost people of Israel. The book of Tobit presents an 8th century Northern Israelite who was exiled to Ninevah. The story focuses on two star-crossed lovers, Tobit and Sarah, as they both feel despair and a desire for death in exile. Tobit and his dog set out on an angel-graced journey which ends in his meeting and marriage with Sarah. Our question, “what becomes of these people who fell off the Bible’s radar?” puts us in touch with the ancient author of Tobit who wondered the same thing.

This desire to follow the lost is precisely what Jeremiah did with his Book of Consolation. It is not improbable that these failed hopes for the Northern Kingdom served as Jeremiah’s reading while he was in jail (chapters 32-33). With a mind fixed on the lost and an imagination shaped by God’s lingering hopes for them, Jeremiah crafted a new book in solidarity with the subaltern. That would make the Book of Consolation his “Letter from a Jerusalem Jail.”

In general, Jeremiah was braced for exile. Even during his incarceration, he refused to adopt the simple hope that God would save Judah and Jerusalem. Jeremiah was the ultimate skeptic, especially when compared with his prophetic contemporaries who preached hope and protection.

With love for the lost, Jeremiah imagined his way into exile. With hope for life outside of the city, Jeremiah’s willingness to be skeptical gave him the power to see forward. “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry” (verse 13).

Ultimately, in a letter to those Judeans already in exile, he writes,

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; takes wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).


Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20

Hans Wiersma

One sure way to doom yourself as a preacher is to make a habit of beginning your sermons by quoting the commentaries.

After all, Bible commentaries provide background information; such information does not necessarily preach, especially when quoted verbatim. The more recent the commentary, the more this observation holds true. On the other hand, occasionally quoting a commentary can be good shtick, particularly if the commentary is older, reflecting perhaps an outdated understanding of a text, but proclamatory nonetheless.

With that, here’s an example of an “allegorical” interpretation of Psalm 147:12-14 from Matthew Henry’s Exposition of the Old and New Testaments (1708-1710):

“Jerusalem and Zion must praise God. For the prosperity and flourishing state of their civil interests [and for] their common safety. They had gates, and kept their gates barred in times of danger; but that would not have been an effectual security to them if God had not strengthened the bars of their gates and fortified their fortifications. The most probable means we can devise for our own preservation will not answer in the end, unless God give his blessing with them; we must therefore in the careful and diligent use of those means, depend upon him for that blessing, and attribute the undisturbed repose of our land more to the wall of fire than to the wall of water round about us.”

Yes! A firewall!

Or try Luther on for size. In this classic bit, Luther uses Psalm 147:12 as a jumping-off point for a lengthy lament regarding human inability to give God thanks and praise:

“It is a great shame, if we are still capable of being ashamed, that, like sluggards, we must be goaded into giving thanks or, like sleepers, be shaken into an awareness of it, and that these gifts must be counted off, named, and pictured to us. We are daily so overwhelmed by them and use them so constantly that we really ought to goad and admonish ourselves to thanksgiving without psalms and outside reminders, being moved, enticed, and inspired by the gifts themselves. But this does not happen. One must sing and blow at us to impress on us that we ought to praise the Lord, and even the words must be prefabricated and put into our mouths, as this psalm does. But still our flabby flesh will not be moved to such easy, delightful, and happy works and to such a pleasant service of God. Shame on us that we are not shocked or do not blush every time we hear or read a verse in the Psalms!” (From Martin Luther’s 1531 Commentary on Psalm 147:12. Luther’s commentary on the entire pericope is found in LW 14:109-134.)

General bluster about human indolence and ingratitude notwithstanding, I suppose a word about the content of the Psalm itself is in order.

As with so many other Psalms, Psalm 127 has Jerusalem/Zion on its mind. The first half, verses 1-11 (not included in this reading), invokes Jerusalem and God’s power to build it up (again) to gather the outcasts from diaspora, to mend the hearts of the broken and lift up the downtrodden. (See also Psalm 146:5-10, Isaiah 61:1-4, Matthew 11:1-6, and Luke 4:16-21.) As part of remembering what God has done to bring the people back from exile and rebuild the temple, the Psalmist connects those historic events to God’s mighty deeds as found throughout the creation. Verses 12-20 — the second half — repeats the strategy, again connecting God’s work to restore Zion’s fortunes with God’s creative and renewing work as one encounters it in natural wonders like snow and frost and hail, blowing wind an flowing water. (If it’s going to be a chilly weekend, consider quoting verse 17b: “Who can stand before [t]his cold?”)

Finally, the brave preacher might consider pointing out a problem (or at least, an irony) inherent in this passage:

12Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!

13For he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you.

14He grants peace within your borders; he fills you with the finest of wheat.

If history has demonstrated anything empirically and with precision, it’s the fact that, since the time Psalm 147 was first sung within its walls, Jerusalem’s gates have fallen over and over, the children within have endured waves of suffering and death, its stores have been laid to waste, and peace within (and without) its borders has been fleeting if not absent completely. In light of its troubled, bloody history, the Psalm serves less as a description of the state of things and more as a hope and a prayer that if God can bring peace once, God can do it again. In the meantime, to begin to grasp just how much Jerusalem has been a place of on-going conflict for three millennia, consider adding Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography (2011) to your Christmastime reading list.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Kyle Fever

Ephesians carries a message of “identity formation,” reminding Gentiles that they are “no longer aliens and strangers” (2:1–22), guiding them in understanding their new identity and socialization (4:17–6:9)…

…and persuading them that in light of God’s great work of reconciliation in Christ, they too should live reconciled to one another (4:1–16).1

Our passage fills the crucial section of ancient letters where the writer sets the tone for the rest of the letter. Paul typically fills this part of the letter with a thanksgiving or prayer, but not always. As he does in 2 Corinthians, Paul begins the letter with a “eulogy” — the Greek word we translate as “blessing.”

This “eulogy,” like other Jewish eulogies, does not “bless” God but proclaims God as “blessed” because of God’s acts of goodness and salvation for his people (Psalm 28:6; 31:21; 41:13; 68:19).The word “eulogy” means very woodenly, “good word.” As we all know, a Greek word’s etymology is not the best way to understand meaning. The context of most Jewish eulogies clearly suggests that God’s “blessings” are more than just good words for us.

While “bless/blessing” language is fine because we’re used to it, and it can be explained as something far more than speaking well of another, let me suggest an alternative. Think of “eulogy” as an infusion of good (things, words, actions). To eulogize is “to infuse with good (by means of words and actions).” Try being creative about this famous first line of Paul’s “eulogy”: “The God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the “infuser of good things” — the one who has, in Christ, “infused good” in and for us with every spiritual “infusion of goodness” in the heavens!”

With this lengthy “eulogy” (verses 3–14), Paul frontloads the letter with heavy theological claims. God’s infusion of goodness plays out in the main idea that we are “chosen” (NIV) by God. Everything that follows is subordinate to this: chosen to be adopted into the family of God. Because of being chosen and adopted we “have redemption through (Christ’s) blood,” the “mystery of his will” is made known to us; we receive the promise of the Spirit. It is almost overwhelming.

The fact that this is one sentence in Greek pushes it over the edge. Where does one begin? Perhaps Paul intends to overwhelm the audience with God’s “infusion of goodness.” As it functions to set a foundation for the exhortation and instruction that will follow in the letter, Paul roots the community’s identity and the reconciliation to which Paul calls them in God’s infusion of goodness to them and among them. This must always be our starting point.

Paul makes effective use of repetition throughout the passage, repeating three times the prepositional phrase “in whom” (verses 7, 11, and 13) to refer to Christ as the one “in whom” God’s goodness comes. The doxological phrase “to the praise of his glory” is also repeated three times in verse 6, 12, and 14. The emphases lie on the claim that God chose them, and in Christ infused them with good things, the purpose of which is the return of praise to God.

Not all people, Christians included, are fond of the ideas that God chooses and predestines. It can be used as a sort of badge of honor to assert distinction and superiority over those who are not “chosen.” Or it can be a doorway into the Narnia of all kinds of bad theology. Nevertheless, predestination figures importantly in Romans 8:29-30, and being chosen is an important theme in the Old Testament (Psalms 33:12; 135:4; Isaiah 41:8-9), as well as in all of Paul’s letters.

One can do word studies on the Greek words and investigate how these ideas may have had meaning in the first century social world (which I recommend). Paul uses the second person plural throughout the section (more noticed in Greek than English) — he writes of God’s preordained election not of individuals, but of the Gentiles, a people who were once not God’s people (2:12–14).

God’s choosing and predestination do not function to draw lines; they are statements about God crossing the lines. Paul is not saying, “God has a plan for your life.” Paul is saying God has had a plan to welcome the Gentiles, and Paul the Jew uses the pronoun “us,” showing he has no problem saying that he is also part of them! God’s choosing and predestination here are not exclusivist claims. In this context they are claims of God’s great welcoming. In relation to the letter as a whole, God’s preordained welcoming of the once outsider Gentiles is to be the basis of a new identity and of unity and reconciliation to one another.

Jesus Christ plays a central role in this lengthy eulogy. God’s infusion of good things happens “in Christ.” “In Christ” likely implies both the agency by which and sphere wherein God’s work takes place. Emitting from God’s act of “choosing” us “in Christ,” several other good things come, signaled by “in whom” phrases in Greek, sometimes lost in English. Christ is the one “in whom.”

We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions (verse 7).

We have “obtained an inheritance” (verse 11).

Gentiles have received the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of inheritance (verses 13-14).

These things and the centrality of Christ may not be new — to us. Perhaps this familiarity carries unintended consequences. It really is a radical message: those once not part of God’s people have a new identity, chosen to share in fellowship with God in Christ, equal inheritors of God’s goodness.

The centrality of “in Christ” decenters all other identities that create divisiveness and superiority on the basis of worldly evaluations, or distinction along the lines of human built identities. The identity and benefits in Christ, stated in this “eulogy” at beginning of the letter, are not the end-point of God’s work in and through Christ; they are the starting point for new life. Everything – everything — about their new existence is to be found “in Christ.”

God’s choosing and infusion of good things in Christ have a purpose. The purpose clause “to the praise of his glory” is repeated three times (verses 6, 12, 14). The praise of someone’s glory was a vital part of the benefaction system in the Roman world where benefactors gave “graces” to those below them who were worthy, for the ultimate benefit of the benefactor. Here’s what rattles the system: God’s actions go well beyond the normal or even respected actions of a benefactor. God chooses people who are not part of the approved circles of benefaction (Gentiles) for the purpose of adoption!

Recipients of benefactions were to praise the “graces” of the benefactor, so that the benefactor’s status would be glorified. The infusion of God’s goodness and the calling in Christ do not serve the purpose of proclaiming human triumphalism. The infusion of God’s good work serves the purpose of proclaiming God’s goodness, which ultimately benefits humanity. Such praise does not happen within the comfortable walls of the church. It was and should be public declaration and “advertisement” of the goodness of the giver, so that all may know they’ve been chosen by God, adopted, and reconciled to God and to one another.

See J.P. Sampley, “Ephesians,” in The Deutero-Pauline Letters: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 23.

As Robert Ledogar points out, to “bless” God is not to express a wish or command to bless God, but rather it is a declaration that God is “blessed.” It denotes a quality: God is “blessed” because of God’s work for humans (“Verbs of Praise in the LXX Translation of the Hebrew Canon,” Biblica 48 [1967], 54).