Lectionary Commentaries for January 3, 2010
Second Sunday of Christmas (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Ginger Barfield

The Prologue of John’s Gospel is one of the finest pieces of literature in all of the New Testament.

It introduces the reader/hearer to Jesus as fully human and fully God. This theological conundrum is delivered by John in poetic, abstract, but clear language that could expand with the audience.

Jesus, the Word, is presented as a character from another realm: the logos was in the beginning and then became flesh. The logos was with God and then lived among us. There is something unique about this character.

There is in this text another unique character, another one who is sent. His name is John, and he is sent by God. When one is sent by God, there is the indication of a purpose.

The Gospel writer clearly states John’s mission immediately upon introducing him: John “came as a witness to testify to the light” (verse 7). The same Greek word that means witness, testify, or speak approval on behalf of (can be in a legal setting) is used of John in both the noun and verbal forms 4 times in this prologue. This Evangelist never describes John as “John the Baptist.” (see 1:24-28).

We might want to name him John the Witness to Jesus. That is how he functions in John’s Gospel. There is a wonderful painting that visually depicts the Evangelist’s John.

To the right of the cross is John with his finger ever directed towards Jesus. This is who John was sent to be. This was John’s mission. This is the Gospel message for this day.

John’s Prologue ends by saying that no one has ever seen God, that the Son is the only one close to God, and that the Son has made God known. This begs a further question: Who makes the Son known? How do we remember the Son?

The visual above gives the answer from the Evangelist’s perspective and from Matthias Grunewald’s. John the Witness made Jesus known. There have been countless others throughout the ages. The word translated as witness also means “martyr.”

The gospel message does not go forward without witnesses like John, and one of the tasks in this sermon is to help show what it looks like to point our fingers towards Jesus. In the age of talk of missional churches, how does that work out practically? How can we point towards Jesus in mission in such a way that others come to know him and come to know and love God?

It may be helpful to look at John’s mode of witness. Verse 7 claims that John testified to the light. This might be characterized as highlighting the “light” (a name for Jesus in John) or it could be more expansive. Looking for and pointing towards bright spots in the world and in life rather than always directing others towards darkness and unpleasantness is a gospel kind of testimony.

Verse 8 is clear that John the Witness was not the light. Knowing his role and that he had a gospel sized task that was not all about himself would have kept him on his toes. He must have had to be ever mindful that the finger had to keep pointing outward. John was not the light. He was the witness to it.

Verse 9 clarifies that John only had to testify. The Gospel task of clarifying and creating understanding was not his task. The light was the subject of his testimony. The light would shed light or open understanding for all. That is God’s good Gospel work through Christ.

In the concluding verses of the Prologue, John finally speaks for himself. Here he clearly gives personal voice to his mission and his place in the world. The One, the logos ranks first. John is the one who testifies.

May we all come to such clarity of understanding of the Gospel order and be empowered by that so we might take up the places to which we have been sent. May we forever point the finger to Christ.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

Terence E. Fretheim

This text is part of Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation, often identified with chapters 30-31, but probably including chapters 32-33.

The larger scope of the Book is likely in view of the bracketing references to the ancestral promises in Jeremiah 30:3 and 33:26. This block of material focuses on God’s promises to the Israelites: they shall return from Babylonian exile and once again be established in the land of promise.

Even before the fall and destruction of Jerusalem (described in Jeremiah 39), God’s saving work was seen to be at work in the midst of judgment. These oracles are often introduced with a “Thus says the Lord,” indicating that God himself stands behind these promises and is the one in whom Israel is to place its trust even in the worst of times.

The images used throughout Jeremiah 31 are predominantly familial rather than political or military. Female images, especially those associated with birth and new life, are prominent. The return to the everyday life of the village, with its familiar tasks and joys, is given special attention. God is imaged as a loving, nurturing parent (both father and mother), comforting those who sorrow and caring for the needs of a bruised community.

The opening verses of Jeremiah 31 are important in evaluating verses 7-14. God’s word to Israel is strong and clear: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:2). God’s love and faithfulness to promises made remain intact through Israel’s infidelity and consequent judgment. Even in the worst of times! That divine love and faithfulness was now at work to recreate Israel out of the rubble of exile. Out of death God brings new life.

It is this understanding of God that undergirds 31:7-14. In lyrical, hymnic language, these promises focus on Israel’s journey home from exile through the wilderness and on its homecoming (compare the language of Isaiah 35). Words common to the psalms of praise and thanksgiving dominate: sing, shout, proclaim, and praise (31:7). The call is to sing “for” Israel, the chief of nations; it is probably a word to the exiles themselves (as in Isaiah 54:1). They are understood to be a “remnant”; not all of them will return home (and many had been killed in recent events).

Verses 8-9 state the reason for the praise of verse 7: God is going to bring the remnant of Israel back from Babylon (“the land of the north”) and from other places where they had been scattered. Notably, those returning home will not consist simply of the healthy and able-bodied. The returnees will include the weak and the disabled and even women who are in labor. The point here is a democratization in the experience of deliverance; those who return will include not simply the leaders and the affluent, but people from all walks of life and in every physical condition (“from the least to the greatest,” 31:34; see Isaiah 35:5-6; Micah 4:6-7). A great throng of people! Whatever their status in life they are equally members of the family of God (verse 9).

The return will be a time of joy and gladness, but it will also be a time of weeping (verse 9; see verses 15-20). Joy and weeping often go together at such times of homecoming, especially when those involved remember all the friends and loved ones who have died and are not able to return. God will personally lead them back and comfort them with words of consolation.

To pick up on verse 13, God will turn their weeping into joy and their sorrow into gladness. God will lead them by streams of water through the wilderness (see Psalm 23:2) and along straight paths so that they do not falter or stumble (see Isaiah 40:3). And verse 9 concludes with parental images for God (as also verse 20). If the exiles were wondering about their status with God, the claim is sharply made: they are God’s children, God’s firstborn (see Exodus 4:22). In spite of all of their failures, they remain the children of God and will share in that inheritance.

In 31:10, all the nations are called upon to listen to this word about God’s children; indeed, they are to help broadcast this fact out and about so that everyone will hear of God’s work of salvation (see Isaiah 48:20). What they are to proclaim is specified in verse 10b. The God who scattered Israel in judgment is the same God who will now gather them (see 23:3) and keep them as a shepherd keeps his flock.

The reason for this testimony is stated in verse 11 (“for”). Israel’s salvation is here anticipated, even in the midst of the worst of disasters. Deliverance from the strong arm of Babylon is linked by the vocabulary of “ransom” (of the firstborn) and “redeem” to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (see Exodus 6:6; 13:14-16; 15:13; see also Isaiah 51:10-11). Indeed, the saving significance of this event will surpass that of the Exodus (see Jeremiah 23:7-8).

In verses 12-13, the people come rejoicing and dancing (see 30:19). As they climb the heights of Jerusalem they will be radiant over the gifts of grain, wine, oil, and the young of flock and herd (see Isaiah 60:5-7). The land which had mourned (Jeremiah 12:4-13; 14:1-6) will once again be productive and provide sustenance for both people and animals. Their lives will become like a watered garden, flourishing and fruitful, and they will never (!) languish again (see Isaiah 58:11).

It is notable that the language of creation is drawn so strongly into this response to the saving work of God. Salvation is not simply for people; salvation is also for the land and for all of its creatures (devastated earlier, see Jeremiah 9:10). The abundance associated with the life of worship and its sacrifices is also picked up (verse 14).

In a remarkably inclusive text (verse 13), the young and old will rejoice, and young women and young men shall dance and make merry. The language of comfort and joy over what God has done dominates this scene of the people returning from exile.


Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20

Jerome Creach

Psalm 147 is one of five psalms that concludes the Psalter.

Each of these psalms has the words “Praise the Lord” as their first and last lines (see Psalms 146:1, 10; 147:1, 20). Thus, the call to praise God is their organizing feature. The general reason for praise in each case is that God has, or will deliver God’s people from their troubles. Psalm 147 points specifically to God’s word with which God brings order to the world and brings blessings to Jerusalem and its residents (verses 19-20). The lectionary portion of Psalm 147 highlights God’s protection of the holy city, which is an expression of God’s reign over the entire world.  

Psalm 147:12 contains the imperative “praise the Lord” (verse 12), the same imperative that opens and closes the psalm (verses 1, 20). Hence, Psalm 147:12-20 is a mini version of the whole work. Between the two calls to praise in verses 12 and 20 the psalm points to two reasons for that praise: God restores and blesses Jerusalem (verses 12-14) and the people of Jacob (verses 19-20a) and God reigns over the elements of the universe (verses 15-18).

Verse 12 calls specifically for Jerusalem and Zion to praise God. These two place names are here used as virtual synonyms to speak of the location of the temple (Zion being more specifically the hilltop in Jerusalem where the temple was built). As worshippers gathered there they sought God’s presence and favor and offered songs of praise and thanksgiving like those called for early in this psalm (see verses 1, 7). The mention of Jerusalem in verse 12 recalls verse 2 which declares “the Lord builds Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.”

Verse 13 gives reason for praising God that forms the content of praise as well: “he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you.” This declaration of God’s deeds for Zion and its people matches the statement of verse 2: “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Note that both sections of the psalm emphasize God’s protection of the weak and powerless.

The mention of children in verse 13 recalls the emphasis on the weak and vulnerable earlier in the psalm: “outcasts” (verse 2) and “brokenhearted” (verse 3). Such persons in the Psalter are often termed “righteous” because they depend on God for protection (Psalm 37:39-40).1  The reference to children here invites anyone who would seek God’s favor to come to God humbly, as Jesus suggested (Matthew 18:1-5).

The emphasis on God’s protection of the weakest of Jerusalem’s people in verse 13 is paired with the declaration that God strengthens the most vulnerable part of Zion’s physical structure. Invading armies focused their attack on the city gate because that typically would be the easiest place to break through and capture the town.

Verse 14 focuses on the material needs of ordinary life and declares that God supplies those needs. The word “peace” translates the Hebrew shalom. In this case the word might better be translated “prosperity” (see the use of the term in Psalm 73:3, “the prosperity of the wicked”). Indeed, verse 14a says generally that God provides material blessings and verse 14b declares more specifically, “he fills you with the finest of wheat.”

Verses 15-18 continue to catalog God’s saving acts. This section turns attention, however, to God’s rule over the natural realm and to the means by which God rules. Namely, God directs the world by means of God’s word. Verse 15 includes “word” and “command” as parallels. The term translated “command” does not necessarily refer to legal pronouncements or injunctions (Psalm 17:6).

There is good reason to identify command with God’s covenantal stipulations, however. Verses 19-20 will indeed declare that God sustains God’s people by “statutes and ordinances” (note these terms are parallel to “word” in verse 19). Therefore, in verse 15 “command” should probably be understood in terms of God’s ordering and directing word, like that given at Sinai. This specific and demanding word that rules over Israel also directs and reigns over the cosmos. 

Verse 18 hints at how divine command is a sign of grace. In this verse, God’s word is associated with the force of the wind. The word for wind is ruach, which may also be translated “spirit.” This same word appears in Genesis 1:2. When the chaotic waters covered the earth in the beginning God’s wind or spirit hovered over them, the first sign of God’s work to bring order to the creation. This is also what Psalm 147:18 claims. In Psalm 147, however, the work of the spirit also includes the protection of Jerusalem and it is associated with God’s Law given on Sinai.  

Psalm 147:12-20 illustrates an essential truth of scripture: God’s work in creation cannot be separated from God’s saving work for humankind. God’s actions for Israel fulfills God’s intentions in creation. In Psalm 147 this connection features the role of God’s word. God’s command over the elements of the universe stands alongside, and is connected to God’s work for Israel. The snow, frost, and hail (verses 16-17) are not just natural forces; they represent the power of the One who “declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel” (verse 19). This connection should not be a surprise to Christians. John 1:1-18 links creation and salvation specifically in terms of God’s word: the Word that ordered the world in the beginning took on flesh in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 147 anticipates the ultimate expression of incarnation in Jesus by linking God’s rule over the natural realm with God’s salvation for Jerusalem. This connection makes the use of Psalm 147 quite appropriate for the Christmas season. The Word made flesh was known among God’s people before the birth of Jesus. The proper response to the presence of God’s creative and saving Word in any time is, as Psalm 147 declares, “Praise the Lord” (verses 1, 12, 20).

1See Jerome F. D. Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008).

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Marion L. Soards

At least three observations are in order before we set out to explore the “content” of the epistolary reading for this Sunday.

First, Paul’s letters have a regular format. They begin with a salutation (naming sender/s and recipient/s, and offering a word of greeting) which is normally followed by a thanksgiving-prayer that precedes the body of the letter and the other parts of the epistle.

In Ephesians, verses 1-2 of chapter one form the salutation; verses 15-23 of chapter one are the thanksgiving-prayer. The verses of our lesson, 1:3-14, are a grand theological doxology that intervenes between the salutation and thanksgiving-prayer.

Second, anyone attempting to comprehend and interpret this epistolary lesson should read several translations of the text, for the vocabulary and syntax of the lines are rich and challenging; so that different translators have rendered the lines into English in different ways.

Third, in Greek (despite the punctuation offered in contemporary editions of the Greek text of the New Testament), the lines of our lesson are actually one long, complex sentence. Interpreters often refer to this passage as a “hymn” or a ‘confession.” It may well have been sung or recited in the life of the early church, for there are observable patterns and rhythms in the text that suggest that these lines are more than a casually composed statement. Commentators have proposed a number of possible settings in the worship of early Christians where these lines might have been appropriate.

For us, however, a sufficient understanding of the text may be arrived at without having to determine how the passage was used in the early church, though the worshipful and praiseful nature of the material should have some influence on the character and purpose of a sermon that derives from or relates to these verses.

The opening words of this lesson, “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” are similar to a Jewish berakah or word of praise for God. Remarkably, the God who is blessed is the God who has blessed the Christians “in Christ.” God’s blessing in Christ means the lavishing on the believers of every spiritual blessing — even blessing in the heavenly places; so that the blessing of God is even cosmic in scope and nature. This declaration stands as a kind of general opening to the lines that follow.

After noticing this blessing, we may view the verses that follow in two broad units of materials: 1:4-10 and 1:11-14. First, in 1:4-10 the author offers praise to God for both what God did before the foundation of the world (or, “cosmos”) and what God has done and is doing in the context of history. Initially, the author celebrates God’s having chosen the Christians (verse 4, “us”). The Christians are not only chosen before the foundation of the world, they are predestined to be God’s children through Jesus Christ. This perspective leaves unanswered the question, what about those who do not belong to the Christian body? The author is simply not interested in this issue and does not attempt to offer information that might help answer the question.

Here, the predestination that Ephesians commemorates is the choice of Christians before creation itself. The author is basically occupied with this positive dimension of God’s working. In turn, from the perspective of the historical experience of the Christians, the author continues the celebration of God’s work by focusing on “redemption” and “revelation.” The phrase “through his blood” mixes metaphors for understanding the significance of Jesus’ death. The reference to “blood” introduces images of sacrifice and blood purification, whereas the term “redemption” puts forth a metaphor from the marketplace.

Thus, we see that no one explanation was sufficient to illuminate the early Christian conviction that salvation had come through the death (and resurrection — see 2:1-10) of Jesus Christ. Redemption itself is said to be God’s gracious, lavish forgiving of the trespasses of those who were predestined and who now are called. Moreover, the revelation over which the author rejoices is the revelation of the mystery of God, which is God’s purpose and plan that is set forth in Jesus Christ.

In other words, what God had planned to do from the very start was to act in and through Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of those who are chosen and believe — and now God has made that plan known to those who believe. The striking thing about this redeeming work that is done in Christ is that it is cosmic in span, including “all things . . . in heaven and things on earth.” God’s work aims as a cosmic reconciliation and this plan of God has been revealed to Christians in Christ.

Second, in 1:11-14 the phrase “in him” occurs in the verses of this lesson three times at verses 7, 11, and 13. In addition, there are several occurrences of the phrase “in Christ” in the passage. These features have led interpreters to recognize and emphasize the Christological dimensions of the passage. At times, commentators have spoken about an “in Christ” mysticism that they believe permeated the fabric of early Christianity. The verses of our lesson, however, do not seem capable of supporting the weight of such an interpretive suggestion.

Rather, we should note that “in him” at verse 11 and verse 13, names the Christians’ relationship with their Lord (verse 4). Here, verses 11-14 make the fairly plain point that what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ sets the task for Christians: “to live for the praise of [God’s] glory.” Moreover, having spoken throughout this passage (verses 3-12) using the pronouns “we” and “us,” the author shifts in verse 13 to use “you” — probably an indication that reconciliation had taken place between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Finally, we read of the Holy Spirit, learning that the Spirit’s work is like a down-payment on our anticipated inheritance, until that inheritance is possessed — a clear indication that the cosmic reconciliation that Ephesians celebrates was still underway (leaving Christians today with something to do!).