Lectionary Commentaries for December 27, 2009
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:41-52

Ginger Barfield

To learn about Jesus’ childhood, we can turn to this text in Luke 2 or we can choose from the multiple apocryphal gospels replete with accounts of Jesus’ forming birds from clay and sending them flying into the sky or resuscitating childhood playmates.

While it might be fun to preach such an account to a congregation as they lean on the edge of the pews, those are not the passages before us this Sunday. Let us sigh and face the text we have been given, the only Gospel story from Jesus’ childhood.

There are several points worth noting in the account. It would be impossible to include them all in any one sermon, but it may be helpful just to lay these out as ideas to ponder as one begins preparation.

1.  Verse 41 indicates that this travel to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration is an annual event.   This event is part of Jesus’ routine religious and cultural heritage.

2.  The action takes place when Jesus is 12. The age of manhood in Jewish culture was 13. This is a childhood experience in the life of Jesus.

3.  Though there is a lot of action and there are multiple characters, only two people are named, Jesus and Mary.

4.  Verse 46 depicts Jesus as sitting, listening, and asking questions. But the observers described in verse 47 are amazed at Jesus’ understanding and his answers. The observers’ role in the story seems to be to focus full attention on Jesus. Jesus is the one asking the questions, but his own answers are worthy of amazement.

5.  Verse 49 contains Jesus’ first words in Luke’s gospel.

The story itself unfolds in a clear progression. The scene is set forth; a problem is introduced; a solution is enacted; and resolution occurs. However the resolution creates another problem. Let’s see this is outline form.

Scene: Jesus’ family and others travel from Passover celebration in Jerusalem.

Problem: Jesus’ parents realize that their child is not with them.

Solution: They direct an all-points search for the boy.

Resolution: They find him three days later sitting in the temple courts.

New problem: Jesus explains himself, but his explanation makes no sense.

Solution: Jesus goes home to Nazareth and Mary thinks about all this.

The simple truth is that there is no denouement!

This narrative outline of problem, solution, resolution juxtaposed to problem, solution, lack of resolution sets forth a realistic framework for Gospel understanding today. In a culture that calls for clarity and conclusive ways of understanding God’s good news in Christ, we offer a text this day that ends in pondering and lack of understanding. The conclusion of the story does not nail things down. The story is as open-ended as is the Gospel itself.

It is even more instructive for us as proclaimers, however, to identify what happens to create the new problem. The solution to the initial problem, Jesus’ absence, yields a search which locates the child. All seems well.

Then, for the first time in the text, someone speaks: Mary asks Jesus why he has done this to them, why he has caused them such anxiety. Jesus’ answer to Mary, however, elicits the new problem of misunderstanding. The narrative had come to resolution until the spoken word entered the text. The dialogue between Mary and Jesus is the catalyst for problem two.

This should serve as a warning to all of us wordsmiths. Words, our words and, in this case, Jesus’ words may muddle things at times. But that may be just fine. After all, the Gospel is an open-ended narrative.

The Gospel has the power to break in and surprise without providing total clarity. Our efforts to de-mystify it are sometimes counterproductive. The lack of resolution to the secondary, though I would say, primary problem in the text is the overall preaching opportunity for the day.

What possibilities are there in the face of lack of understanding? Where does the Gospel provide hope, help, and vision in such circumstances?

After the onlookers experienced this conversation and did not understand, where did they fit this Jesus boy into their religious and cultural heritage? What about the teachers? What about Mary, who is said to have pondered what happened?

What about us? What do we do when the best of our problem solving techniques don’t yield satisfactory results but only more problems? Where do we go when our best efforts at faith and Gospel living leave us with no understanding of what comes next in life?

Verses 51 and 52 provide a Jesus model: he went home with his parents and obeyed them. He grew in all ways as a person should. The end of verse 51 tells us what Jesus’ mother did: she worked out things in her heart and mind.

In the end, maybe that is the Gospel for us as we live out faithfully despite our inability to understand some things. The Gospel good news is that we do not have to.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Terence E. Fretheim

At first glance this text about Samuel’s early years seems not to provide many resources for preaching and teaching.

But it has been chosen for the lectionary because of its parallels with the gospel text for the day regarding Jesus’ boyhood (Luke 2:41-52). It should also be noted that the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 has many parallels to Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. So it is clear that 1 Samuel 2 has been a major resource in the writing of the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel and in early reflection about the significance of Jesus.

The book of I Samuel begins with the story of the birth and consecration of Samuel. Hannah had been barren and, upon Samuel’s birth late in her life, she understood that he was a gift from God in response to her prayer. She made a vow to offer him to the service of the temple when he had been weaned (1:22). In fulfillment of her vow, she “lent him to the LORD” (1:28), that is, she gave him to Eli to assist in the care of the temple and its worship (2:11). It was a permanent loan.

The Song of Hannah in 2:1-10 was her response upon the occasion of the gift of her son Samuel to the service of God. Its genre is to be identified as a song of thanksgiving. It celebrates God’s role in the reversal of the fortunes of his people–from barrenness to fertility, from poor to rich, from lowliness to being given a place of honor, from death to life. She speaks of the reversal both in her own life and that of the people to whom she belonged, and so it moves from the singular to the plural.

One can understand why this song with these themes was used by Luke 1:46-55 to give form and content to Mary’s Magnificat upon the announcement that she, a lowly one, would become a mother of the one promised by God. The similarities between Hannah and Mary are worth pondering.

1 Samuel 2 moves from this strong note of thanksgiving to the depiction of a contrast between the life of Samuel (and his family) and the life of the sons of Eli. This contrast is stated, not in parallel columns, but in interweaving stanzas. On the one hand, the life of Samuel is presented (2:11, 18-21, 26; continuing in 3:1-21) as moving increasingly toward maturity and in favor with the people and God. The lectionary draws only from these verses and then not fully (it will also use 3:1-10 for another time).

The life of Eli’s sons, on the other hand, is portrayed (2:12-17, 22-25, 27-36) in increasingly scandalous terms, leading to the sharpest judgment of God imaginable. So the text moves between the poles of decline and increasing favor, the poles of evil perpetrated against the people and increasing favor with the people, and the poles of God’s judgment and divine mercy.

In the language of 2:12-17, the sons of Eli were “scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord” and “treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.” The text that comes between the verses assigned for the lectionary (and eliminated from the reading; 2:21-25) develops the negative image of the sons of Eli even further. They were not only guilty of greed and theft but also sexual immorality. Indeed, they were so evil that it “was the will of the Lord to kill them” (2:25). This is to say that their behaviors were so contemptible and incorrigible that they would suffer the consequences of their sins according to the moral order created and mediated by God. Your sins will find you out!

This negative story is continued in 2:27-36 with the condemnation of the line of Eli. Strikingly, in that text a promise that God had made to this family is taken back (2:30), a rare event in the Bible. It suggests the difficult idea that God honors this family’s unfaithfulness. That is, in the face of such a massive rejection of divine grace, God’s promises do not entail immunity from judgment, even final judgment.

Woven into the fabric of this negative image of the sons of Eli are contrasting words about Samuel and his family and their faithfulness to God (2:18-21, 26; verse 21 is not included in the lectionary). Verses 18-20 speak of Samuel’s service “before the Lord”; he even wears an ephod (or apron) that suggests a role comparable to that of a priest. Also noted is the continued contact (including gifts) of his devout parents with him and with the sanctuary at which he served.

On their regular visits to the sanctuary Eli would bless them and pray that they would continue to bear children. The NRSV translation of Eli’s blessing is something of a problem (see the NRSV footnotes); the word translated “repay” would more naturally be translated “give;” moreover, the translation “for the gift” is more naturally translated “for the petition.” The issue here has to do with God’s response to their prayers, not some kind of repeated recompense for the gift she gave in the past. This blessing is followed by the announcement (verse 21) that in response to prayer God “took note” (it is not clear what kind of divine agency this entails) and Hannah gave birth to three sons and two daughters.

It is noted in verse 21 that “Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.” This theme of growing is continued in verse 26: Samuel grew “in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” Samuel’s maturity is witnessed at two levels: stature in the human community of which he was a part and growth in his relationship with God. Similar language is used of Jesus in Luke 2:52 (cf. 2:40). Jesus experiences growth at two levels as well. He increases in human wisdom (he is not gifted with all knowledge from the beginning) and his relationship with God advances in its maturity.


Commentary on Psalm 148

Jerome Creach

Psalm 148 is part of the Psalter’s concluding section that offers and calls for praise to the Lord.

Psalms 146-150 are linked by the words “praise the Lord” that appear in the first and last verse of each psalm. Psalm 148 focuses on God’s control of the created order as reason for praise. But verse 14 also hints at God’s salvation of Israel as reason to celebrate God’s might.

Psalm 148 does not say that the Lord “reigns” or that the Lord is king, but this is implied throughout the psalm. In fact, God’s universal rule is really the motivation for the psalm’s call to praise. With this emphasis on God as divine sovereign Psalm 148 helps conclude the Book of Psalms with perhaps the Psalter’s most important theological claim: “the Lord reigns” (NRSV, “the Lord is King;” Psalms 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). The claim is important because it was uttered and written in the Psalms in the midst of a theological crisis. During the exilic (587-539 B.C.E.) and post-exilic periods God’s people were defeated and dominated by the great empires of their day. It must have seemed at times that God was not in control.

The many complaints throughout the Psalter appropriately express such doubts (Psalms 44, 74, 88, 89). But the Psalter’s final word is not doubt, but hope: “Praise the Lord.” Psalm 148 is therefore well-suited for the first Sunday of Christmas. The birth of the Messiah is the source of hope and joy in the midst of trouble and woe and is appropriately addressed with words of praise.

Psalm 148 begins by calling for praise from the heavenly realm, from the place God is enthroned as king over the universe (verse 1; see Psalm 115:3, 16). The first six verses then expound on that initial call to praise. All those who dwell in the heavens as well as the heavens themselves– both creatures and inanimate things — are called to praise. The word translated “angels” could also be rendered “messengers” (verse 2). Such beings have the basic role of communicating God’s intentions to humans. This term is paired in verse 2 with the word “host” (tsbav). The heavenly host has a military connotation (the word appears in 2 Samuel 3:23 for example clearly referring to the army). The verse assumes God has around the heavenly throne a multitude of beings ready to be sent out with divine missions.   

Verses 3-4 catalog the inanimate objects of the heavens as it calls them to praise the Lord. “Highest heavens” in verse 4 renders an unusual expression in Hebrew that woodenly reads “the heavens of the heavens.” It may refer to the highest point above the earth (as NRSV and NIV seem to understand it). Or, the expression may connote the entirety of the heavenly realm. “Waters above the heavens” refers to the waters the psalmist believed provided rain for the earth. Such waters were restrained by a vault that could be opened to provide rain (Genesis 1:6-8; 7:11).

As verses 5-6 declare, God created and apportioned all these elements as part of God’s sovereign act of creation. The main point here, as in Genesis 1:6-8, is that God made boundaries the waters could not pass. Thus, God made life on earth possible for humans and land animals.

Verses 7-12 proceed in the call to praise downward from the heavens to the earth and sea. Verse 7a is identical in form to verse 1a: “praise the Lord from the earth” (verse 1, “from the heavens”). Then verses 7b-8 call for the sea and its creatures to praise God in a comprehensive way, much like verses 2-6 include the heavenly beings and elements of the heavens. “Sea monsters” refers to the great mysterious creatures that in some other texts are viewed as symbols of chaos and thus a threat to the order God wishes to establish (Psalm 74:13). In Psalm 148, however, they are simply creatures God made, as in Genesis 1:21. As verse 8 lists inanimate objects under God’s control it echoes Psalm 147:15-18 both in the list of objects and in its emphasis on God’s word.

The inclusiveness of praise in Psalm 148 has important implications for our understanding of our relationship to the rest of creation. As verses 9-12 make clear, human beings stand in alongside other animals and the inanimate objects of the earth to praise God. This suggests that the human exercise of dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28) is intended to be a partnership for the good of creation and ultimately to give glory to God.

Francis of Assisi composed his Canticle of the Sun with this point in mind. In this song based on Psalm 148, Francis calls to the sun, wind, and fire as brother and to the moon, waters, and earth as sister.  Although humans have unique responsibilities to oversee the rest of the creation, they ultimately are called to praise God, like everything else God created.

The ending of Psalm 148 is also important for understanding the nature of praise God’s people are called to voice. Verse 14 turns from the praise of God throughout the universe, from all God’s creation and because of God’s mastery of the cosmos, to praise of God for God’s saving acts on behalf of Israel. Terence Fretheim thinks this verse should be read along with Psalm 22:3, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” Psalm 148:14 thus indicates that “God has made God’s people strong, indeed has made them a praise in the earth, for the purposes of the universal praise of God.” 

Indeed, Psalm 148 will not allow praise of God that turns into praise of self. It will also not allow the people of God to remove themselves from the rest of creation. God’s saving deeds on their behalf is intended to give particular expression to the work of God in creation.

1J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible (eds. Leander E. Keck et. al; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), vol. 4, p. 1272.
2Terence E. Fretheim, “Nature’s Praise of God in the Psalms,” Ex Auditu 3 (1987), pp. 29-30.

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17

Marion L. Soards

The Letter to the Colossians combines large segments of theological/doctrinal and practical/ethical materials.

At times, however, it is nearly impossible to determine which kind of issue one is dealing with. The passage for this first Sunday after Christmas has the flavor of both theological and ethical concerns. Interpreters in general, however, regard these verses as belonging to the more doctrinal portion of the epistle — though they still admit that there are prominent ethical features to the text. Perhaps a final decision is not necessary, though anyone working with commentaries on this epistle will encounter discussions about the nature of the material in this section.

It is important to locate verses 12-17 of chapter 3 in their immediate literary context. Colossians 3:1-17 is a recognizable section of the letter. First, in verses 1-4 readers are admonished to seek heavenly ways because they have been raised with Christ. Second, verses 5-17 elaborate the meaning of this exhortation. Here, there are a pair of passages, one negatively focused (verses 5-11) and one positively oriented (verses 12-17).

Colossians 3:5-11 contains two lists of five negative items Christians are to shun. Then, in 3:12-17 there are a series of admonitions, including another list of five items, this time positive items that Christians are to embrace. Our text for this Sunday contains the more positively expressed set of verses.

The verses of our lesson begin with the word “therefore” in Greek–though this is often translated “then” and placed somehow as something other than the first word of the sentence. The “therefore,” however, reaches back to the material in 3:1-4 and recognizes that whatever actions the Christians take are taken because of what God has done — that is, Christian life is the consequence of the gospel. The verses of this lesson (verses 12-17) focus on Christian virtue, defining and describing Christian character while speaking to the community of believers.

The previous section of the letter (verses 5-11) with its concern with vices is now left behind. Now, the letter presents the positive dimensions of life in Christ as actions. Christians are to “put on” certain characteristics so that they live these qualities, they do not merely “have” them. Not merely traits, but actions define Christian living. As Christ lived, so the Christians are to live.

The list of five virtues in verse 12 (“compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience”) are found elsewhere in the Pauline epistles to designate actions/characteristics of God or Christ. These “virtues” describe the character of active Christian living as God’s chosen people who are called out of the ordinary realm of human existence to be especially dedicated to God as/because God loves them. The Christian community lives as it embodies the very gospel by which it was called and that it now proclaims.

The passage tells us that virtue exists, love prevails — why? Because “the Lord has forgiven you.” Thus, that which the community experiences, the community is called to live out — and here, it is crucial to see that the “you”s of these verses are consistently in plural forms; that is, the author addresses the community, not merely the pious individual. Preaching from these verses should labor both to avoid individualizing the sense of the text and to address the congregation as a whole. The gospel is personal, but it is not — based upon these verses — to be made private. The text of Colossians envisions a community in action.

The virtues of verse 12 and the forbearance and forgiveness of verse 13 come about because of what the Lord has done. As the community lives in Christ (putting on the godly virtues delineated in the text), the work of the Lord is manifest in the community in love. Love itself is neither a mere feeling nor an abstraction. (One curmudgeon put it that “the only place that you can really know what love means is on a tennis court.”) Rather, love is that power of God that has the capacity to bind all godliness together into a divine perfection.

In light of the admonition, “Above all these put on love,” the rest of this passage registers imperatives that may be considered for forming and directing the life of a Christian community. Other than to put on (and live out) the five virtues that are given in verse 12, the passage states a variety of directions: Verse 13 tells the recipients of the letter that they must forgive exactly as the Lord has forgiven — a very high standard indeed. Verse 14 itself is the admonition to put on love, which seems to supersede and epitomize the other virtues and directions given in this passage. Verse 15 seems to speak of the results of following the directives to love and to forgive — that is, the Colossians are both to let the peace of Christ reign in their hearts and to be thankful to God for the peace and forgiveness that they experience.

Verse 16 focuses on the life of the community in quite concrete terms: The Colossians are to “let the word of Christ dwell in [them] richly, which means teaching and admonishing, and singing. Thus we see education, exhortation, and worshipful expression. Finally, in verse 17, the author tells the Colossians to do whatever they do — be it in word or in deed — in the name of the Lord, all the while giving thanks to God through him. Thus, all of life is to be devoted to the Lord and lived in accordance with the gospel of God’s grace and love at work in Jesus Christ.

In essence, all of Colossians celebrates the gift of God through Jesus Christ to the community of faith. That gift is a new context (“Christ”) and a new power (“love”) for living. As we clothe ourselves in Christ (take on his way of life) we are transformed, not merely by our own actions, but above all by God’s own love at work in the gospel of God’s grace at work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.