Lectionary Commentaries for December 25, 2009
Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (III)
Commentary on John 1:1-14
Commentary on Isaiah 52:7-10
Terence E. Fretheim
The larger context of these verses (see 51:17-23) vividly describes how the people of Israel have been devastated and depopulated in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.
These events are ascribed to the wrath of God; that is, the people have experienced the effects of God’s moral order — sins have consequences. But now the tables have been turned; Israel’s captors will drink the cup of wrath instead.
In view of this changed historical situation, “captive Jerusalem; captive daughter Zion” is called to “awake” from the slumber of exile and captivity and prepare for a new day (52:1-2). Get ready! A new day has dawned! In the passage following the lectionary text (52:11-12), the people are urged to depart from their place of exile, taking the captured temple vessels with them (for a description, see 2 Kings 25:13-16; Ezra 1:7-11). Leave! They can be assured that God will surround them in their return home, going before them and bringing up the rear. In an interlude of uncertain meaning (52:3-6), God declares that the people’s release from slavery will be accompanied by the defeat of Israel’s oppressors (Babylon) as had earlier been the case with Egypt and Assyria.
Turning to the text for Christmas day, the call goes out to the people to “Listen!” (52:8; echoing 51:1,4,7,21). In Isaiah 52 that invitation comes between the call to “Awake” (51:1-2, with other imperatives designed to prepare for a momentous and celebrative occasion) and “Depart” (52:11; note also the earlier calls to “Rouse yourself” in 51:17).
Hear the good news! The good news of return from exile is described in 52:7-8. It is worth considering what all these imperatives to the exiles are doing in a context that stresses the decisive action of God in Israel’s salvation. It is possible that actual historical realities are in view; that is, many of the exiles did not awake, listen, and return to Jerusalem and their own land; they preferred to stay in Babylon (and make their home there for centuries to come). The call from God is not irresistible.
Two primary images are used to convey the bringer of the good news. First, it is the image of a “messenger” that travels by foot over mountain passes to bring good news to a beleaguered people regarding a victory over the enemy — the fastest means to spread news in that world. How beautiful are those feet! How good is the news! You can tell by the way the feet move!
A second image used is that of “sentinels” keeping watch from the walls of the city. Their sharp eyes search the horizon for signs, signs of the messengers who bring the results of the battle in which the people’s future is at stake. And the view comes into “plain sight”! What God has done will be evident to all! The sentinels shout for joy over the news that the experience of warfare and all of the associated suffering has ended because of what God has accomplished.
The “ruins” of the city are invited, ironically, to “break forth” in singing (52:9). The word “ruins” describes Jerusalem after the Babylonian devastation. Now, in view of what God has done, ruins can sing! Ruins can live again as the people of God flow back into those spaces. The invitation to sing has been issued before (42:10-12) and not only human creatures, but heavens, earth, mountains, and trees have been called to join in the song (44:23). What God has done has an effect, not only on Israel, but on the entire creation.
A cascade of words is used to describe the communication these messengers/sentinels convey: peace, good news, salvation (repeated at the beginning and end of the pericope), God’s return to Zion, comfort, redemption. God’s “return to Zion” does not mean that God has been absent from the ruined city, but that God will closely accompany the people in their return to Jerusalem, surrounding them all the way (see verse 12).
Also, this does not likely mean that the sentinels see a vision of God (cf. 40:5). Rather, in view of a people returning from captivity to a major power, God will be understood to be present and active in their midst. In a sense, the people will embody the saving work of God. The “comfort” that God brings is a strong theme throughout this section of Isaiah, bracketing the entire segment (see 40:1-2; 66:13). The “good news” (a theme that is introduced so strongly in 40:9-11) is a “gospel” word and centers this text on all that God has accomplished for these captives of Israel. What God has done is captured in such key words as “salvation” and “redeem;” both of these words are understood in a comprehensive sense, with effects both bodily and spiritual. The words that best describe this new situation of the people of God are “peace” and “comfort.”
Such a wonderfully positive announcement is possible because “God reigns” (see Psalm 96:10). Be careful not to translate this phrase into CEO images such as “God is in control” or “God is in charge.” The emphasis lies not on God as a controlling deity, but on what this God has done for God’s people in the face of much adversity; God has exhibited commitment to promises made (bared his arm, that is, “rolled up the divine sleeves” to do what needs to be done rather than flexing his muscles) and brought peace and salvation (see 40:9-11).
What God has promised (see 40:1-2) has now arrived. God’s action is not some private act or simply some spiritual event, for the people will return home as part of a visibly socio-political event and the ruins of Jerusalem shall be reconstructed. This will be a deeply comforting event for the people, but this will also be a very public matter, visible and concrete; “all nations,” indeed “all the ends of the earth” shall see what God has done. As the returning captives “see” (verse 8), so that sight is now available to all peoples. What a sight!
Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]
Marion L. Soards
Hebrews is a rich writing that presents a plethora of puzzles to the interpreter of the text.
In the first place is the question of authorship and on that issue one frequently finds commentators citing the statement of Origen, “Who wrote this epistle, God knows the truth” — meaning that it was God alone who really knew. Regarding the letter in general, many readers would join in Origen’s bafflement, but by saying, “What this epistle means, only God knows.” Nevertheless, certain prominent features of the letter stand out, so that identifying them assists the reader of Hebrews in making sense of this substantial writing.
Hebrews contains at least three kinds of material: theological reflection, biblical citation and interpretation, and exhortation. These elements of the letter are related to one another in an intricate fashion that is sometimes not apparent to the current-day reader of the epistle. Yet, identifying the kind of material and its function in the letter assists us in “making sense of” the text.
The main epistolary text for the Christmas Day celebration is Hebrews 1:1-4, a portion of the letter that is often referred to by interpreters as an “exordium.” According to the norms of ancient rhetoric, an exordium was an introductory statement designed to make the audience (reader/s) open to the balance of what the author/speaker had to say. Hebrews 1:1-4 is a long, polished single sentence in Greek. It is written in a formal, poetic style that seems designed to capture the attention and the imagination of anyone reading or hearing these lines.
In essence, verses 1-4 form a lofty Christological statement that is designed to register the superiority of God’s Son. Verse 1 looks back into the past to God’s manifold actions through the prophets in relation to the ancestors (of the Jews) and takes its point of departure from observing that previous activity of God. As the author looks back and invites us to join him in viewing what God did in the past, we should understand that the author is pointing to the great and good (not inferior or bad) past actions of God in relation to humanity.
Nevertheless, in verse 2 the author continues by introducing still further action of God (“in these last days”) that transpires in God’s work in and through God’s Son. Then, having introduced God’s Son into the picture, the ensuing verses continue by speaking of the Son and the particular characteristics that set him apart from all else. Remarkably, the Christology that these verses express is about as “high” as anything in the New Testament (and the rest of early Christian writing for that matter). Interpreters form many comparisons between the statements about Christ in these verses and statements in Wisdom literature, especially as regards the figure of Wisdom in those writings.
Perhaps, above all else, the Son is said to be “heir of all things.” Inheritance was of supreme importance in ancient culture and establishing lines of connection between the parental figure/s and the heir/s was taken with utmost seriousness, for only the recognized and designated heir could inherit the parental estate at the death of the parent/s. Remarkably, God does not die, so that the Son enters his heir-ship through his own death. The remainder of verses 2-4 celebrate what it means that the Son of God is heir: The statements that follow recognize the Son (Christ) as Creator (the one through whom God created the world), Revealer (he reflects the glory [of God] and bears the very stamp of God’s nature), Sustainer (he upholds the universe by his word of power), Redeemer (he made purification for sin), Exalted One (he sat/sits on the right hand of the majesty on high). Finally, he is superior to the angels, as his name is more excellent than theirs — that is, he is the Son, not merely a messenger (even if it God’s own messengers from on high). The statements about the Son are in essence a catalogue of his divine identity, recognizing both who he is and what he has done.
With the mention of the angels and the statement that the Son is superior to the angels, the author moves to give biblical evidence for the claim that has just been made (that is, the Son is greater than the angels). Hebrews 1:5-12 cite a variety of passages from Jewish scriptures — Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17; Deuteronomy 32; Psalm 96; Psalm 103; Psalm 44; and Psalm 101. The author’s use of these passages from Jewish scripture does not follow the norms of modern-day historical-critical interpretation of these ancient texts; but at the same time the author does not simply offer a batch of proof-texts. Rather, Hebrews 1:5-12 presents an elaborately woven tapestry of statements, texts, and interpretations.
The most immediately apparent point is that God’s Son is superior to the angels, but in the course of making that statement and registering its truth through the citation and interpretation of scripture, the author tells us still further things about the Son: First, the Son was begotten by God — an idea expressed in language similar to that of the Synoptic Gospels in the story of Jesus’ baptism.
The author of Hebrews does not state when the Son was begotten and that has allowed much theological speculation and argument. Nevertheless, the comparison of this line with the foregoing statement in 1:1-4 might best support a connection to resurrection and exaltation — although the lectionary may have in mind the birth/incarnation of Jesus.
The remainder of the statements in verses 5-12 make clear that God is Father to the Son, that the Son was the “firstborn” into the world (another statement that generates much speculation and argument), that the Son was/is worshipped by angels, that the Son reigns eternally, that the Son is indeed eternal while creation itself is but temporal in nature. In the mix of these statements, verse 8 may be a statement (again, speculation and arguments occur) that the Son is God.
All these themes are suggestive for preaching on Christmas Day. The preacher is confronted by a proverbial embarrassment of riches. Prudence will require discipline in selecting and developing one or another (or more) of the themes in this lesson.
Whereas the Christmas Eve account was simple narrative, this text can only be viewed as poetic or imaginative.
Though there is a story here, it must be teased out from the creative language of the Evangelist. The task of the preacher is not so much that of interpreting in precise language as it is in awakening the imagination and granting permission for hearers to open themselves to the possibilities that the text provides.
“Swinging for the fences” is often the temptation on high holy days when attendance is, perhaps, beyond the normal. Proclaimers have self-expectations that we in one stupendous sermon might make all things plain and provide fodder to generate the return of the masses. If that is your dream, it may be time to let that one go. A home run is not required: a single will suffice!
With that in mind, my suggestion would be to focus only on two verses, the first and the first half of 14. The first verse abstractly sets the “word” into the context of the Johannine author’s community. The verse concretizes that context in a still poetic way.
Verse 1: The word
One cannot understate the significance of the logos concept throughout this text. However, one should not overestimate one’s ability to give clarity to its meaning. Suffice it to say that scholars continue to debate the source and meaning of the word logos and why and how the Evangelist used it in the Prologue to the Gospel.
For the purpose of this essay, it seems appropriate to state that the concept was present in multiple contexts of the time period. It fits the style and purposes of the Gospel author to use words and concepts in new ways to evoke fresh understandings. For preaching’s sake, this might be a good model for us on Christmas Day. Suggesting evocative images for how logos might be understood today can be quite a gift on Christmas.
The first verse is instructive in defining the logos in terms of being (existed), in terms of relationship (with God), and in terms of identity (was God). How might we tease forth a poetically insightful, imaginatively evocative logos parallel for our contexts? This is not Luke’s baby wrapped tightly and placed in a crib. Might it be a swirling sonata that is timeless and universal so much so that it existed before it was set to music or played by an orchestra? What images come to mind that might work for your congregations?
Logos was a concept on which the Evangelist could build creatively for that ancient community. From where can you pull to be poetic for your congregation?
Verse 14: The word
Every word here is truly significant because each one gives concrete definition to the abstraction of the first verse. The logos is not described here as existing (eimi): something has happened, taken place in the sense that this is now a real event (ginomai). Furthermore, when this event took place, it resulted in a fleshly logos. It seems abstract but it is not meant to be. The timeless universal strain of a sonata is now on a piece of paper. You can hold it in your hands and look at it. The word has become flesh and sinew.
What existed with God and was God is now pitching a tent as a fleshly logos. It is here for a time. This is not some ephemeral passing presence or spiritual apparition. The logos has taken up residence with us. What was formerly with God is now with us: this flesh-word has relational relevance not just to God but also to us.
The first half of verse 14 has now come full circle in concretizing verse one. The being has expanded to an event of becoming; the relationship has expanded to include us. And this one’s identity is clear to us: “we have seen.”
The word translated as “we beheld” or “we have seen” can be used in a literal sense as “we have looked at with our eyes.” It may also connote a deeper sense of perception or understanding that is quite separate from literally seeing. This secondary meaning is what is prominent if we are to identify fully the identity of the one who has taken up fleshly residence with us. There is a glory about this one that is beyond mere visual identification. We can know who this one is.
The gift of Christmas is not some neatly wrapped package under the tree. Neither is it some neatly worded sermon that explains the Gospel gift of God through Christ Jesus. It may this year be a carefully crafted, imaginative, evocative message that sparks the minds and hearts of worshippers to encounter the Word in community all over again for the first time.