Lectionary Commentaries for January 4, 2009
Second Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Holly Hearon

Although the lectionary picks up in the middle of the prologue to John’s Gospel, it is an appropriate place to begin on the second Sunday of Christmas: “He was in the world” (1:10).

John’s Incarnational Perspective

This simple statement is a profound declaration of God’s incarnation. The season following Christmas invites us to reflect on the significance of this event: how it shapes the way we understand God, our relationship with God, and our relationship to one another.

Verse 18 brings to full expression John’s incarnational perspective: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” There are both alternate readings of the text among the manuscripts (some omit “God”) and alternative translations for this verse. Another possible translation reads, “The uniquely divine one (i.e. God), because that one rests in the bosom of God, he has revealed the nature of God” [translation mine].

Receiving God’s Gift

Our passage falls neatly into two parts: verses 10-13 and verses 14-18. The first part is spoken from the perspective of the omniscient narrator. Here the narrator identifies three responses to the one who has come into the world. First, there are those who did not know him, suggesting lack of knowledge. Next, there are those (“his own people”) who did not accept him. It is striking that the text does not say “reject” him, but “did not accept” him. Read in the context of worship, we are forced to put ourselves in the position of “his own people” and ponder in what ways we do not show hospitality toward God’s incarnational gift. Since John later declares that Christians will be known by their love for others (13:34-35), we also are invited to ponder in what ways we do not show hospitality towards one another.

The focus of verses 10-13, however, is not on those who do not receive, but those who do. These “children of God” are not designated by their flesh (i.e. their race, gender, or any other physical characteristic) but by their complete trust in the one whom God has sent into the world and who faithfully reveals the nature of God.

In verses 14-18, the voice shifts from that of the narrator to the collective “we.” We, the children of God, have received from God’s fullness grace upon grace. In the Christmas season, it is easy for us turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus who dispatches toy upon toy. This tendency is not what John has in mind. The word “grace” occurs only in 1:14, 16, and 17 in the Gospel of John. Grace, therefore, describes the gift of Christ, who makes God known. In these verses, “we” are reminded of how God has chosen to disclose God’s self in flesh and blood so that we, who are flesh and blood, might recognize ourselves as children of God.


John identifies that which has become flesh and blood as the “Word.” Here he draws on language closely associated with the figure ‘Wisdom’. In a first century CE Jewish text, the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is described as “she who knows your [God’s] works and was present when you made the world.” Jesus, like Wisdom, is described in John’s Gospel as the one through whom the world came into being (1:3, 10; see also Proverbs 8:22-31) and who does the works of God (5:36; 10:32; 14:10).

John also draws on the language of “Wisdom” found in another Jewish text from the second century BCE, Sirach. Here, Wisdom is said to make her dwelling (kataskēnō) in Jacob (Sirach 24:8). John uses the same verb root (from skēnoō) in 1:14. A more literal translation might render this verse, “The Word pitched its tent among us,” giving the phrase a wonderfully earthy feel. This alternate translation also provides a sense of God’s intentionality. God has chosen this place, a place identified not by physical characteristics or geographic boundaries, but by reference to relationship (“among us”).

The use of Wisdom language to speak about Jesus reminds us:

  • That the story of Jesus has deep roots within Judaism and cannot be separated from them.
  • That the language we use to speak about Jesus evokes additional images and ideas. Consequently, these new ideas inform our overall understanding of Jesus. Using the language of “Wisdom” to identify Jesus invites us to seek out those texts where Wisdom is central. To complete the circle, we reflect on how they help us to gain insight into Jesus.
  • That we need to be careful with the language we choose to talk about Jesus. Yet how do we speak about the ineffable? We need to pick our words with care, or we may end up making unintended claims with disastrous consequences. Consider, for example, the potential ramifications of calling Jesus “big brother.” In choosing the language of Wisdom, John gives his audience appropriate language with which to speak about and understand God’s incarnation.

Reading and Speaking with Care

Sirach goes on to identify Wisdom with the law of Moses (Sirach 24:23). John asserts that the law (Torah or ‘instruction’) was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ (17). This verse needs to be read with great care. For instance, it is important to notice that the word “but” never appears in the sentence. In other words, John is not claiming that grace and truth belongs to Jesus but not to the law. Both grace and truth are found in the law. The difference, from John’s perspective, is between reading a book and going directly to the author. Going to the author neither sets the book aside nor negates its contents. For Christians, the book (or the ‘law’) anticipates the direct revelation we experience in Jesus Christ.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Chapters 30-33 constitute a distinct section of the book of Jeremiah, traditionally known as Jeremiah’s “Book of Comfort” or “Little Book of Consolation.”

The date and origin of this material are unclear. However, the narrative in chapter 32 suggests that the core of chapters 30-33 could have originated with Jeremiah himself, at a point when Jerusalem was about to fall (587 B.C.E., cf. 32:1). Other scholars theorize that this material is largely the result of an exilic redaction. In any case, it is clear that the hope-filled perspective of chapters 30-33 stands in marked contrast to what precedes in chapters 1-29 and to what follows in chapters 34-52 (especially 34-45). While judgment oracles characterize most of the book, the defining phrase of chapters 30-33 is “restore the fortunes” (cf.30:3 and 33:26, where the phrase forms an envelope-structure for the section; see also 30:18; 31:23; 33:7, 11; Psalm 126:1, 4). God will orchestrate a great reversal, so that destruction gives way to restoration, exile becomes homecoming, and grief is replaced by joy. Our text, 31:7-14, clearly shows this great reversal in action, to the point that it is later revealed as “a new covenant” (31:31).

The characteristic accents and aspects of the great reversal are evident here. Verse 7 begins by inviting joy or “gladness.” Indeed, the Hebrew root involved occurs twice more in verse 13 (“rejoice” and “gladness”), thus enveloping most of our unit. Thus, joy encompasses the more elaborate articulations of homecoming (verses 8-10), and restoration (verses 11-12).

The phrase “chief of the nations” (more literally, “head” or “first of the nations”) also occurs in Amos 6:1. Amos uses it sarcastically in an oracle which plays ironically on the term “first” (cf. Amos 6:7, “the first to go into exile”). But in Jeremiah 31:7, the evaluation is genuine, a prelude to the proclamation of the return from exile.

Verses 8 and 9 recall Isaiah 40-55, suggesting that the return from exile will be a new exodus, even better than the first. It will include those who would be hard pressed to make the trip (31:8). Furthermore, there will be no shortage of water (31:9; see Exodus 15:22-25; 17:1-7), and there will be “a straight path” rather than detours and wandering for forty years (31:9).

The final affirmation of this section, “for I have become a father to Israel,” evokes Jeremiah 3:19, where God says, “I thought you would call me, My Father.” But the people did not do so (cf. 3:20-22). That God will become their father anyway is remarkable testimony to the character of God.

The language and imagery continue to be reminiscent of the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah. For example, consider:

  • the address to the “nations” and “coastlands” (31:10; cf. Isaiah 41:1; 49:1)
  • the metaphor of a shepherd (31:10; cf. Isaiah 40:11)
  • the use of the word “redeemed” (31:11), frequent in Isaiah but rare in Jeremiah (only here and 50:34)
  • the appearance of the phrase “watered garden” (31:12), which occurs elsewhere only in Isaiah 58:11
  • the theme of “comfort” (31:13; cf. Isaiah 40:1; 49:13; 51:3, 12; 52:9).
    Lastly, the theme of homecoming (31:10) gives way to restoration in verses 11-12, and celebration in verses 13-14.

In his commentary on Jeremiah, R. E. Clements introduces chapters 30-33 by pointing out “that so far as Old Testament prophecy is concerned the message of God was not regarded as a series of abstract theological propositions but rather the positive declarations of God’s purposes for his people.”1  Given that the bulk of Jeremiah consists of unrelenting announcements of judgment, it is imperative to attend to chapters 30-33 as a series of “positive declarations of God’s purposes for his people.” In short, what God wills for God’s people is life, including what is always necessary for human life. God desires for the people a place to live securely (thus the theme of homecoming in 31:8-10), and resources for daily sustenance (thus the themes of restoration and goodness in 31:11-12, 14). And life as God intends it should be received with joyful praise (31:7, 13).

In other words, judgment in a positive sense is never what God wills. Accordingly, prophetic judgment is the announcement of the destructive consequences which will exist when God’s will is not done. The prophet Jeremiah bore the painful burden of having to announce judgment upon the nation and people whom he loved, on account of their failure to respond faithfully to God and to pursue God’s purposes. (see Jeremiah’s “Confessions” or laments in 11:18-20; 12:1-4; 15:15-18; 17:14-18; 20:7-18, which express the pain of Jeremiah’s vocation). The “positive declarations” of chapters 30-33 do not cancel the judgment, but they do articulate what God willed (and wills) for God’s people all along!

The fact that God stayed faithful to a people who had turned away from God means that the “new covenant” (31:31) is grounded in grace (cf. 31:34, also 31:3, 20). As suggested above, God will be the people’s father even when they refuse to address God as “My Father” (cf. 31:9 and 3:19). This is grace, manifest as “everlasting love” (31:3), “faithfulness” (31:3), and “mercy” (31:20).

For Christians, the ultimate among the Bible’s “positive declarations of God’s purposes” is the Incarnation. From the beginning, God’s “Word” (John 1:1; the English cognate of the Greek word would be “logic”−that is, purpose!), or “Purpose,” has been “life” (John 1:4). And the enfleshment of God’s eternal Purpose was a revelation of “grace and truth” (John 1:14), from whom “we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Therefore, it makes good theological sense during the season of Christmas, the Festival of the Incarnation, to read simultaneously Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:1-18, the Gospel Lesson for the day. . Both put us clearly in touch with the life which God wills, and which results from the amazing, unfailing grace of God.

1R. E. Clements, “Jeremiah” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 176.


Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20

James Limburg

January has always seemed to be something of a letdown.

How Can We Keep From Praising?

If “April is the cruelest month,”1 then January is the coldest month, at least in the Midwest where I have lived my life. December always seems cheerful, warm, and bright, with carols near a fireside, vacation from school, skiing and skating, and of course, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. New Year’s celebrations provide a bit of excitement, but then comes the January letdown. Classes start up again. We children insisted that our mother take the Christmas tree down when we were in school, so that we would not have to witness the sadness. The hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter”2  seems to catch the mood. I recall my father, a positive and optimistic man, admitting that “it’s always good to get January out of the way.” In addition, every pastor knows that letdown feeling after the Christmas holidays, when the numbers under the “attendance” and “offering” categories reach a low point.

Yet the mood of the church year is quite different! In fact, it is designed to give worn out pastors and weary people a lift! Note especially the psalms for these post-Christmas Sundays. Assigned to the first Sunday after Christmas, Psalm 148 is a hymn about heaven and nature joining in singing praises to God. The same thing is true with the psalm assigned for this second Sunday after Christmas. It is a part of that closing quintet of praise songs, building up to the final composition featuring the Bible’s own praise band in Psalm 150. To invigorate post-Christmas preaching and worship, why not take up Psalm 147 as your text for the day?

Why Praise? Three Reasons (Psalm 147)

While the lectionary lists only verses 12-20, we begin by considering the psalm as a whole. As already noted, it is a part of the praise quintet that concludes the entire Book of Psalms, each one beginning and ending with “Hallelujah” (Psalm 146-150). Psalm 147 divides nicely into three sections, where each resembles the elements of a hymn, with a call to praise followed by reasons for praising (see my commentary Psalms, especially Psalm 113 for more information on this pattern).3  Each section also contains some observations about God.

Praise God who works in history and in nature! (1-6)

The initial call to praise (Hebrew, Hallelujah, translated “Praise the LORD!”) is followed by a comment in praise of praise (1). God works in history, engineering the rebuilding of Jerusalem and acting to bring the exiles home. The imagery is that of a new exodus, gathering the exiles from afar, healing their hurts, and settling them in a land marked by shalom (v. 14, translated “peace,” or “prosperity” in the NRSV footnote). Nature also reveals God at work, in the cosmos (4). At the end of this first section, we observe God’s power on display for all, even while it remains impossible to fully understand the ways of the Lord.

Sing to the God who is at work in nature! (7-11)

This time, a pair of imperative verbs call for praise in the forms of vocal and instrumental music (“sing…make melody”). Reasons for praise involve the astounding range of God’s work in nature, from preparing and providing rain to caring for the tiny ravens in their nest (8-9). Lastly, the psalmist observes that this God, known from cosmos to countryside, appreciates the trust and hope residing in God’s people! (10-11).

Praise God who visits the earth with his word (12-20)

After acknowledging God’s sending of blessings on Jerusalem as a reason for praise (12-14), the climactic reason for praising God in this part of the psalm has to do with the word of God, layered throughout verses 15-19. While the Old Testament can speak of the power of God’s word as it creates (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:4-7), or brings about events in history (Isaiah 9:8; 55:10-11), the emphasis here is first of all on the word of God and nature (15-17). But the psalm concludes with a reference to the special privileges of Israel, the people who have received God’s word in the form of “statutes and ordinances.” In other words, Israel has been blessed with directives indicating how God’s people ought to live, such as the ten commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21; see also Deuteronomy 4:5-8, 12-14).

Toward a Sermon

The Gospel text for this Sunday gives yet another run at telling the story about the  person that God sent to the world at Christmas time. John knows that the stories of the birth of Jesus and the visit of the shepherds have already been told by Luke. Now the writer of the fourth Good News account sits back and spins out the story in a new way. He picks up the notion of the logos or “word” that the Jews knew as the power that came from God, able to create and sustain the universe and to direct events taking place both in nature and in history. And John makes an astounding claim. That word of God, he says, took human form and appeared on earth as a human being, eventually identified as Jesus Christ, Son of God and Messiah. Yes, a special word from God did indeed come to the earth through Moses who gave the law. But now, says John, an even more special communication from God has come, that Christmas Visitor named Jesus Christ through whom came grace and truth (John 1:14-18).

John obviously loves to tell stories about Jesus even though he knows there are many more that could be told (John 21:25). Another one who loves to tell that story is Paul. He was a Jew who knew his psalms. He tells the good news that this Jesus the Messiah has made it possible for all people to become God’s adopted children, complete with an inheritance (Ephesians 1:5, 11). And knowing that good news, how could we keep from praising (Ephesians 1:12)? Even in the bleak midwinter.

1T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922).
2Christina Georgina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) #294.
3James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000).

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Hans Wiersma

There are all kinds of reasons to object to the opening salvo of the New Testament letter to the Ephesians.

To insulate yourself against the direct challenges to your personal sovereignty represented in this passage, it is possible to bring up the question of authorship: Is the letter really from Paul’s hand? Or is it, tsk, deutero-Pauline, written by some enthusiastic pretender, and therefore not really scripture, that is, not really authoritative and binding? Such questions ignore the fact that these words had the ring of the apostolic message for the ancient church, and, therefore–Paul, part-Paul, or no-Paul–these words were God’s life-giving words to the early believers.

It is also possible to approach these words at a scholarly distance. Public theologians and professional exegetes are particularly good at this. We are, after all, trained (and maybe even paid) to interpret scripture. If the books delineating the hermeneutical task teach us anything, it is how to put scripture under a microscope, standing over the good book and gazing at its words through whatever our preferred hermeneutical lens–a lens that we convince ourselves is “objective,” perhaps even “scientific.” We kid ourselves, however, when we think these words from Ephesians can be viewed through such microscopic lenses. No, these words about Christ are so grand, so large-scale, so universal, that the only way to view them is as you would view the heavens on a moonless night: gazing with awe, wondering at the vastness, convinced and convicted of your own finite infinitesimal-ness.

No, in the end, you are going to have to face these words head-on, staking your sense of entitlement regarding the determination of your own destiny against twelve verses that insist most insistently that even your destiny–especially your destiny–has been in Christ’s hands all along. In fact, if you were pressed to sum up these twelve verses in one sentence, you might try this: “Christ Jesus is in charge (and you are not).”

The passage represents a full frontal attack on our human disposition of wanting to be in charge. It doesn’t merely disagree with our protests regarding personal autonomy and “freedom of choice,” it overwhelms such protests under a flood of divine ordaining. Consider only the grammatical construction, with an eye toward who acts and who is acted upon, who gives and who receives:

  • God “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3)
  • God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (1:4)
  • God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will” (1:5)
  • God “has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ” (1:9)
  • In Christ, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (1:7-8a)
  • In Christ, “we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will” (1:11)

In terms of “Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen,” this passage puts the accent on Risen: Christ is not only risen from the grave, ascended into heaven, seated at God’s right hand, but he’s also the one in whom we are blessed, through whom we are destined and chosen, and by whom we have redemption and the divine inheritance. Now that’s Risen.

Well, if you can hear good news in the promise that you are not in charge of your destiny, there’s more good news to come. Alas, as the lectionary goes, this passage has been cut off from the verses that follow. You either have to hearken back to Christ the King Sunday or jump ahead to Ascension Day if you want to get “the rest of the story”–that is, if you want to cover Ephesians 1:15-23. On the other hand, there’s nothing to keep you from taking on the chapter all at once, in all its glory.

The first chapter of Ephesians concludes with a dramatic statement regarding this One who is in charge. When God raised up the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, he was placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:21). Moreover, God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). In other words, Christ Jesus is as in charge as in charge gets.

Those final lines of Ephesians are pure promise to us, the body of Christ, the church. For if Christ is the head of the church, he is in charge of the church. That is, Christ is not up in heaven, letting the rest of his body run around like, well, a church with its head cut off. Though it may appear that bishops and pastors are in charge (or not), the final promise of Ephesians chapter one is that Christ is in charge of all things in the church. Could it be that “in charge” here means that Christ is running the show (though perhaps “behind the scenes”)? Could it be that “in charge” here means that Christ is working even now to accomplish God’s good purposes, seeing to it that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven–often despite human efforts to the contrary?

Perhaps Martin Luther was on to something when, speaking to a group of his fellow monks in Heidelberg in 1518, he offered the following proposition for debate: “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe this,” and everything is already done.”1

1LW 31:41.