Lectionary Commentaries for December 28, 2008
First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

Holly Hearon

The birth of a child is an occasion that evokes family, religious, and social traditions.

The infant’s gown, once worn by a great-grandparent, is carefully liberated from layers of tissue paper where it has been preserved for this moment. A rose is placed on the altar or communion table in honor of the child’s birth. Announcements are sent to family and friends.

Traditions Ancient and Modern

In the Gospel of Luke, the parents of Jesus respond to his birth by attending to the obligations called for in Leviticus 12:3-8. These ancestral traditions are a reminder to them that Jesus is born in the context of the covenant established between God and the people Israel. The language of purification may sound odd to us, but it arises from sensitivity to the holy. One way a woman encounters the holy is through the miracle of giving birth. It is a holiness which belongs to and describes the natural rhythm of life.

There is also a holiness that is ascribed arbitrarily to certain times, places and activities (such as the Temple). The two do not stand in opposition to each other, but they belong to separate spheres−in the same way that we might say a mound of earth is a good thing in the garden, but not in the middle of the living room. Ritually presenting their offering to God is a formal way of recognizing the difference between the two spheres.

Of course, this ritual reflects an ancient worldview. Today, Jews celebrate the birth of a child with a ceremony marked by prayers, songs, and food. All present recite the words, “As he/she has been welcomed into the covenant so may he/she grow into a life of Torah, marriage and good deeds.” Elijah, the famous prophet, is welcomed to the celebration, linking each new birth to the renewal of hope in the coming of the messianic age.1  This same hope is expressed by each of the persons named in our passage from Luke:

  • Mary and Joseph come to present Jesus to God, demonstrating their confidence in God’s promises
  • Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man seeking the consolation of Israel
  • The prophet Anna fasts and prays for the redemption of Jerusalem

It is a vibrant hope, evident from ancient traditions, but equally as alive today.

Setting and Memory

The action in our scene takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem. As the dwelling place of God, it is an appropriate setting for a story revolving around the theme of redemption. Yet Luke is writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. In that year, the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground and scattered its survivors abroad. These facts yield two differing interpretations.

On the one hand, readers can see the setting as hearkening back to remembrance of a time when life seemed safe, traditions were observed, and Joseph and Mary could safely negotiate registering in a Roman census (2:1-11) while worshipping in the Temple of the one God. On the other hand, it may be a poignant reminder of the catastrophe that already exists in the memory of Luke’s readers: the Temple’s destruction. This juxtaposition of memories presents a yellow caution light−a warning against painting too thick a veneer of harmony and tranquility over the past. Underneath that veneer, cracks will appear in the surface, evidence of the tensions percolating underneath.

Living in Anticipation

Such ‘cracks’ are present in Luke’s text. We see them in the way Luke alternates between references to God’s deliverance and references to destruction and exile:

  • Verse 23 links the presentation of Jesus to the words in Exodus 13:2 that “every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” In Exodus, this verse is set in the context of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Children born into slavery belonged to the slave master; in consecrating them to God, the Israelites affirmed their new identity as God’s people.
  • Contrasting with this reference to God’s deliverance in the past, Simeon is one looking forward to the consolation of Israel. Between past and present, another catastrophic event has occurred. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, an event echoed by the Roman destruction of the Temple. Simeon awaits the moment when God will console those who are in exile (in Babylon or the Roman Empire). Taking the child in his arms, he declares that that moment of deliverance is at hand (verses 29-32).
  • Yet, just as quickly, Simeon warns Mary and Joseph that the child who marks the presence of salvation in their midst will also be the cause of the ‘falling and rising’ of many. This ‘rising and falling’ will not be the result of war, economic overturn, or natural disaster. Instead, it will come about through radical transparency, as people’s inner thoughts are revealed (verses 34-35). The windows into the soul will be thrown wide open.
  • Anna’s description picks up this anticipation of disruption. Her constant state of fasting identifies her as one in a state of mourning, not for her husband, but for the people of God. However, seeing the child, her mourning turns to praise! God has come to bring about the return of God’s people from exile.

At the center of this is the child. He is mentioned by name only once, in verse 27. Elsewhere he is referred to always as “the child.” Substantial words spoken about someone so very small! But Luke has been playing on this contrast throughout the birth story. The savior of the world is born in a stable, while another ‘savior’ of the world, i.e. Caesar, sits on a throne in Roman splendor. In striking contrast, Jesus’ parents bring the offering designated for the poor: two turtledoves. It is this child born in poverty who is the true savior. He is the sign of God’s consolation and redemption. We are left in anticipation to watch as the child grows strong, filled with wisdom and blessed with the favor of God.

1Thank you to Rabbi Sandy Sasso of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck (Indianapolis) for her insight into the ritual of purification and for providing a description of contemporary Jewish practice surrounding the birth of a child.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Our text falls within the central section (chapters 60-62) of what is traditionally known as Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66).

According to the historical-critical consensus, this portion of the book was written by disciples of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) after the return from exile. However, the return was not as glorious as Second Isaiah had envisioned (cf. 62:4). Therefore, Third Isaiah continues to articulate the hope of a full restoration of the people and nation, with special attention on setting things right for Jerusalem (cf. 62:1).

While this consensus is helpful and has not been abandoned, the past twenty years have seen the emergence of a new consensus− that is, the book of Isaiah should be read as a unity. Edgar Conrad, a major proponent of the unity of the book,1  concludes that the shape of the book itself implies it was addressed to “survivors” (1:9; 66:19, although the Hebrew differs in each case). These “survivors” have witnessed the defeat of Judah by Babylon (39:5-8), and now await with hope for God to deliver them, just as Isaiah 1-39 (First Isaiah) recounted that God once delivered Judah from the Assyrians (chapters 36-39).

At this point, it is easy to detect points of congruence between Conrad’s argument and the historical-critical consensus. But Conrad goes even further. He suggests that although the return from exile is anticipated in Isaiah 40-66, it is not explicitly narrated. Thus, in his view, the book of Isaiah positions its readers in every generation to wait with hope for a new act of divine deliverance. In addition, Conrad concludes the Babylonian exile can be understood metaphorically, not just historically. As a metaphor, then, the whole book of Isaiah invites its readers, whatever their time and place, to live in hope toward a future which is claimed and redeemed by God. Indeed, this redemption will ultimately involve the setting of things right not only for Judah and Jerusalem, but also for all peoples and nations (cf.2:1-4; 42:1-9; 49:1-6). See also the extraordinarily expansive Psalm 148, the psalm for the day.

In this regard, notice in today’s Gospel lesson that the prophet Anna testifies concerning Jesus “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). And having seen the child Jesus, Simeon proclaims he has seen the “salvation” which God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:31-32). These references are not to say that Isaiah 61:10-62:3 (or any portion of the book of Isaiah) is a prediction of Jesus, although the Gospel writers sometimes seem to have thought so. Rather, the congruence between Isa 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2 (see also the citation of Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:16-21) suggests that the Christ-event is similar to the book of Isaiah. Both are invitations for people in every place and time to live toward a future which is claimed and redeemed by God.

In a real sense, when we read Isa 61:10-62:3 during the 2008 Christmas season, we are still “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” and the setting of things right for the nations. Even after Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we are called to live with hope, entrusting ourselves, our futures, and the future of the world to God and God’s deliverance.

Apparently speaking for the entire community, the prophet declares, “I shall greatly rejoice.” Such joy could be a response to the promises in 60:1-61:9 (cf. 60:17-18, where three of the capitalized words recur in 61:10-11−Righteousness, Salvation, and Praise). Further reasons for joy are introduced by the two occurrences of “for.” The clothing imagery in verse 10 features “salvation,” a prominent theme in Isaiah 40-66 (45:17, 21-22; 49:6; 51:5-6; 52:7, 10; 59:11; 60:16, 18; 62:11; 63:1), and “righteousness.” Occurring four times, “righteousness” becomes the keyword in our passage (two are in verses 10 and 11, while two are in 62:1-2, where the same Hebrew word is translated “vindication”). The clothing imagery is filled out by the mention of wedding attire, and weddings would have been occasions to rejoice. It is perhaps not coincidental that the covenant relationship between God and God’s people is sometimes described as a marriage (see Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2:1-13; and note the mention of “covenant” in Isaiah 61:8).

Agricultural productivity, featured in verse 11, would also have offered reason to rejoice. The second occurrence of “righteousness” and the mention of “all the nations” reinforce the source of the joy−God setting things right for God’s people and for the world.

Whereas the previous two verses suggested God has set things right, these three verses suggest that there is still work to be done. Whether the prophet continues to speak, or whether God should be understood as the speaker, is unclear. In either case, God still needs to act for the sake of Jerusalem/Zion (see Isaiah 42:14; 63:18-19; 64:1-12, especially verses 10-12). The pairing of “vindication”/”righteousness” and “salvation” in 62:1 recalls 61:10; and as in 61:11, the “nations” are involved. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, to envision the “glory” of Jerusalem (62:2) is to envision that “the full rule of Yahweh is established.”2  The rule of God is regularly characterized by righteousness (our keyword), along with justice and peace (cf. Psalm 96, 98). These three traits are the substance of the new identity or “new name” (62:2) which God will give the people, in contrast to the current condition of being “Forsaken” and “Desolate” (62:4).

The royal imagery in verse 3−”crown” and “royal diadem”−may hint that the new identity/name of the people will include a mission. In other words, the people as a whole will be entrusted with the former monarchical function of administering God’s justice and righteousness in the world.

The tension between “already” (61:10-11) and “not yet” (62:1-3) is important and instructive for Christian reflection upon and proclamation of our text. On the one hand, we affirm that Jesus proclaimed and embodied “the full rule of Yahweh,” so that we can “greatly rejoice” in the ways that Jesus has set us and the world right. On the other hand, we (as individuals and as the people of God) are clearly works in progress, and there is much in our world that still waits to be set right. Thus, we live as the postexilic community lived, and as the final form of the book of Isaiah invites God’s people in every generation to live. We live, entrusting ourselves to God, living in hope toward a future which is claimed and will be redeemed by God, and contributing by our words and deeds toward making the world right and life-serving, for God’s sake, for our own sake, and for the sake of “all the nations” (61:11; see Isa 2:1-4; 42:6; 49:6; 51:4-6).

1Edgar Conrad, Reading Isaiah (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).
2Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 220.


Commentary on Psalm 148

James Limburg

And Heav’n and Nature Sing

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.1  


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!

1Terence Fretheim, God and the World: a Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

Hans Wiersma

Besides being the second reading for the first Sunday of Christmas, this passage is assigned for “The Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord” on August 15th.

For those who may have missed Mary’s feast day or any who are inclined to take this lesson as an opportunity for a meditation on Mary, feel free. After all, a church council meeting in Ephesus in 431 A.D. considered this passage (and others) in its theological deliberations regarding Mary. The consensus reached by this Third Ecumenical Council was that Mary is properly called theotokos (Greek for “God-bearer”) rather than “merely” chrisotokos (“Christ-bearer”). In fact, you might offer a spell-binding sermon on the intricacies of the early Christological debates and how, in the fourth century, a bishop named Nestorius taught that Mary gave birth to the human Jesus but not to the divine logos, and how another bishop, Cyril, led the charge to keep the human and divine natures united within Mary’s womb. You could do that.

On the other hand, it is likely that the Apostle Paul did not have the fight against Nestorianism and the consensus regarding Christ’s “hypostatic union” in mind when he wrote “born of a woman.” In fact, when the entire passage is considered, we see that it is less about the relationship of Christ’s humanity and divinity, and more about the believer’s relationship with God through Christ.

In the previous chapter, Paul, preaching to those Galatian believers and explained that those “under the law” (that is, everyone) cannot receive the divine inheritance through obedience to the law. Instead, the law is like a task master or disciplinarian (Greek: paidagôgos). Under the law, we have no rights before God and, therefore, we are as slaves in God’s household (3:19-24). Then Paul begins to announce the promise. Now, that faith has come, we are no longer slaves serving a tough taskmaster (the law). Instead, we are God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus.

In chapter four, Paul is simply underscoring his main point. Christ has come in the flesh (born of a woman!) to free us from that old master (the law), making possible our adoption as members of God’s household–with all the benefits that go with it. It is no longer our relationship to the taskmaster (the law) that determines our situation in the divine household. Instead, it is our relationship to Christ (the rightful Son and heir) that determines our new status in the family. Consequently, as adopted sons and daughters, we do what children do (call their father Abba–“Daddy” for instance) and receive what children receive: blessing and inheritance.

Paul’s overriding concern in the Galatians letter is the distinction between one’s relationship to God through faith in Christ as opposed to one’s relationship to God via the legal code. In chapters two and three of Galatians, Paul emphasizes this difference between “law and gospel” in a number of different ways. In fact, if you want to emphasize Paul’s emphasis to your hearers, simply quote the source:

  • “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16)
  • “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (2:19-20a)
  • “If justification comes through the law then Christ died for nothing” (2:21b)
  • “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (3:11)
  • “For if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from the promise” (Galatians 3:18a)

In chapter four, Paul illustrates the law/gospel difference in the language of relationship. Look, says Paul (in short), you cannot have it both ways. Either you are child of God because you are “under Christ” through faith, or you are slave because you are “under the law,” relating to God through the law. Further on in the chapter, Paul describes the law/gospel divide in familial terms, using the child of the slave woman, Hagar, and the child of the rightful wife, Sarah, as allegories for his law/gospel distinction.

Martin Luther held in high regard the importance of distinguishing law from gospel. For Luther, in fact, only the one who could discern law and gospel could call herself a theologian. Luther wrote: “Nearly the entire Scripture and the understanding of all theology hangs on the right understanding of law and gospel.” He also wrote: “Whoever knows well how to distinguish the gospel from the law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.”1

Perhaps you think this law/gospel business is too theological, too abstract, for your hearers. You are probably correct. Preaching about law and gospel is one thing–a theological and abstract thing. On the other hand, doing law and gospel for your hearers is another thing all together. In the case of the passage in question–Galatians 4:4-7–this will mean proclaiming in concrete and relevant terms the difference between being a slave “under the law” and being a child, an heir, through faith.

In Paul’s Galatians letter, the concrete and relevant terms had to do with circumcision. Paul “did the law” to those Galatians by testifying “to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law” (5:2) and “you who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4). Obviously, preaching on circumcision no longer cuts it–especially if you are seeking to be inclusive. Therefore, where Paul said: “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2), you will have to fill in the blank: “If you [blank] in order to gain God’s blessing and inheritance, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

Fortunately, there is no shortage of things we think we can do to make God accept us into the household of Christ: be good people, go to church, assent to the creeds, give our hearts to Jesus, and on and on and on. Here the task is anything but abstract. You expose all of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways your hearers attempt to gain the divine inheritance via obedience to the law. Then you tell them, “Good luck with that.” Then you hit them with the sweet gospel: “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

1WA 7:502.34-35 (my translation) and LW 26:115.