The Gospel reading this day after Christmas strikes a new tone for the season by dramatically leading us away from anticipation of Advent and revelry of the holidays to the tenuous and dark days between promises and their fruition.
Threats abound, but God carefully orchestrates Jesus’ earliest days according to Matthew.
Though as an infant Jesus cannot act in his own defense, God’s steady protection and Joseph’s faithful obedience combine to ensure his safety in a world of danger. Even as potential disaster threatens Jesus, ancient prophecies come to life and guarantee Jesus’ ineluctable mission.
From the very first, the road Jesus walks is marked by both God’s promises and human resistance. Jesus is both the living presence of God’s promises and a consistent irritant to those in power.
Three prophecies anchor three narrative movements so striking that artists throughout the ages have been drawn to them. Let’s examine them in turn.
Fleeing to Egypt First, Matthew recounts how Jesus’ family was spared from Herod’s furor. His duplicity and fear were evident the very moment the magi arrived in his kingdom (2:3). Herod’s reputation for brutality was well known in antiquity. Neither his spouses nor his children could escape the effects of his paranoia. Thus, an angel tells Joseph to flee his home and head into exile. For Matthew, this escape is not simply an expedient move or an accident of history. Instead, scripture foresaw this geographical detour on the way to Jesus’ true hometown. God chose this path in the distant past. Citing Hosea 11:1, Matthew appeals to a prophecy originally focused on the people of Israel but now referring to Jesus alone. Matthew’s claim then is that Jesus in some significant sense embodies the people of Israel. He is the recipient, bearer, and fulfillment of the promises made to Israel by God.
Egypt also evokes the story of Moses and the liberation of Israel from the tyranny of slavery, an echo that will reverberate even more powerfully in the next prophetic fulfillment.
The Slaughter of the Innocents Once Herod realizes that the magi have circumvented the conspiracy to eliminate this newly regnant king of the Jews, his instinct to preserve his power at all costs kicks in. He knows the approximate date of the child’s birth thanks to the magi’s calculations, and so he orders the extermination of all children born “in and around Bethlehem.” Herod will not take the chance that this child has slipped out of the city. According to Matthew, Jeremiah 31:15 had already prophesied the cries of anguish that would arise in Israel over such grievous oppression.
This genocidal act is never mentioned in other ancient witnesses of Herod’s cruelty; Matthew is the sole record of these widespread murders. However, the parallels to the execution of Jewish male infants at the hands of Pharaoh are striking (Exodus 1:15-22). Herod is a new Pharaoh. Feeling his political power slipping away, he lashes out with great malice but also in vain. Both Pharaoh and Herod precipitate devastating losses of life yet ultimately fail to prevent the birth of a powerful leader of Israel. Both Moses and Jesus are born under the threat of death; both are guided by God’s protective hand.
At the same time, one wonders why such preservation did not extend over the other children of Jews in Egypt and Bethlehem. Such questions are not broached directly or indirectly by Matthew. Neither does Matthew dwell on those years lived in exile in Egypt. Instead, he quickly returns Jesus to his hometown as promised by scripture.
Back Home to Nazareth Though born in Bethlehem, Matthew’s Jesus is from Nazareth. This is the geographical appellation he will carry.
After an angel announces the death of Herod to Joseph, the coast is clear for the family to return home to Bethlehem of Judea. However, after learning that Herod’s son Archelaus now ruled Judea, the family makes a new home in Nazareth in Galilee. For the third time, Matthew points to a prophetic promise: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
However, unlike the first two prophecies, there is no single prophecy in the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint that reads quite like the prophecy Matthew quotes. Is Matthew citing a now lost prophecy? Is Matthew here eliding the difference between Nazirite and Nazarene? Or perhaps is Matthew’s reference to “the prophets” a wide appeal to the many promises of God? Though there is no particular reference we can be certain is Matthew’s source here, the threefold appeal to the scriptural guarantee of Jesus’ earliest days argues that Jesus’ mission is neither coincidence nor solely the product of human effort.
Preparing the Path Matthew here prepares a prophetic path for Jesus to walk. A seeming detour into Egypt is actually a prophetic call; even Jesus’ hometown reverberates with prophetic resonance.
Potential doom looms over these early chapters of Matthew. Jesus’ welcome to the world is not unanimous acclamation but fear that this child would subvert the order of the world, that a mere child would weaken the powerful. The arbitrariness of Herod would have been entirely familiar to ancient people living under Rome’s long imperial shadow. Most Americans have a difficult time relating to a despotic order of genocide; most Americans tend to trust that authorities are required to act to protect citizens. However, no such trust could have existed within the ambit of ancient Rome’s seemingly unending power.
Therefore, Matthew’s trust in the prophetic promises is not mere naiveté; his faith in not simple. The narrative of these threefold threats upon Jesus’ life bristle with authenticity for such tyranny was well known to ancient peoples. Matthew’s trust in God’s providence emerges not from an overly active credulity but from a faith that expects God to reign in a world where the dominance of the powerful seems unchangeable.
In the midst of the joys of the Christmas season, these passages are a ripe reminder that things might have been otherwise, that tragedy and disappointment are too often the orders of the day, even amidst the revelry of this holiday season. As the poet Jane Kenyon once wrote, “It might have been otherwise.” As the evangelist Matthew might have added, “…but what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled.”
Unfortunately the long standing tradition of celebrating Advent and Christmas is becoming replaced by the sole focus on a one or two day event.
Because of the enormous amount of resources invested into Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services, some churches have even opted to cancel their Sunday services following Dec 25th. By doing so the Church misses out on the opportunity to mediate upon today’s readings from the lectionary.
It is common knowledge in the medical community that the holidays bring about a sharp increase in cases of depression, primarily due to people’s unmet expectations for the season. The lectionary reading for the first Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah 63:7-9, provides a word to minister to those facing disappointment. Advent and Christmas are not singular events, but rather form a season of hope, lament, celebration, worship, penitence, and challenge. The lectionary readings, taken as a whole, provide guidance for the people of God to experience the full breadth of the significance of Christ’s coming.
The literary unit where Isaiah 63:7-64:12 is found is generally classified as a communal lament, and contains many of the same elements of texts such Lamentations, Psalm 79, and Nehemiah 9. The community complains to Yahweh because of the lack of compassion shown to his people (63:15), the absence of his presence (63:17), and the people’s defeat before their enemies (63:18). Their response is to confess their sin (64:5-6), call upon Yahweh to reveal himself in a theophany (64:1-2), and address the distress of his people (64:9, 12).
What is odd is that while the passage appears to be written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the profanation of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., it is found in Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66), a text that was composed in the restoration period following the exile. Even though the Israelites had returned to their homeland and had begun construction on the Second Temple, the difficulties and opposition they faced prompted them to remember and relive the laments of the generation before them. Contrary to Second Isaiah’s (Isaiah 40-55) call, “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!” (42:10), Israel continues to sing an old lament.
Isaiah 63:7-9 functions as a recital of the past faithfulness of God, a literary element that oftentimes begins many lament Psalms (e.g., Psalm 89:1-37). The thanksgiving in verse 7 is rather generic, a recitation offered numerous times throughout the Psalter. The word ḥasadim, translated as “gracious deeds” and “steadfast love” in the NRSV, is a word that describes the loyalty of Yahweh to his covenantal relationship to Israel. In a time when nothing good could be said of their situation, they can at minimum, acknowledge the basic and undeniable fact that God has been good to them in the past and that they continue to be his people today.
Whereas in Isaiah 57:4 the following accusation is made of Israel: “Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit?,” in 63:8 Yahweh reminds Israel in verse 8 that as God’s covenant people they are characterized as “children who do not deal falsely.”
Verse 9 has been difficult to translate due to the variations in the ancient manuscripts. The NRSV follows the Septuagint: “in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them,” but virtually all other English translations following the Qere reading of the Masoretic Text: “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them” (NIV). Certainly both readings are legitimate options, but the latter ought to be preferred.
The verse then recalls the events of the exodus, particularly the episode in Exodus 33:1-34:9. This text describes how Yahweh assures Moses that his presence will remain with him despite Israel’s disobedience in the golden calf incident. Israel’s first redemption, the exodus from Egypt, was followed shortly with the disappointment of a false and deceitful people. Nevertheless Yahweh did not depart from his people and continued to be their savior through their distress, particularly their wilderness wanderings.
Second Isaiah announced a new exodus of cosmic proportion featuring elements such as the transformation of the wilderness (41:17-20), an ingathering of the global diaspora (43:1-7), and Yahweh’s return to a renewed Zion filled with joyous celebration (52:7-10). In chapters 60-62 of Isaiah, Zion is described in its glorified state, vindicated and exalted over the nations. Yet the readers of Second Isaiah did not experience such a city. They continued to be oppressed by the Persians, harassed by the local people of Yehud, and engaged in intra-community conflict. The great salvation that Yahweh announced through Second Isaiah was not merely one event, but would be fulfilled over a series of events. God’s people then had to learn to be faithful in times of disappointment. God’s salvation may have its fits and starts, but the presence of the Holy Spirit will never depart from his people.
Thankfully the Scriptures provide the people of God the means to be faithful during all seasons of life. December 26th through 31st is oftentimes a period of reflection and reassessment for people as they acknowledge their regrets of the past year and renew commitments for the upcoming year. It is a period of penitence and hope. The lectionary acknowledges that along with spring and summer, the people of God must experience fall and winter. Isaiah 63:7-9 provides warmth to the saints during the cold winter months.
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,/sup>
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).
The second reading for the First Sunday of Christmas in this year of Matthew is clearly chosen to give further testimony to the pain and suffering so palpable in the story of the Massacre of the Innocents that only the Gospel of Matthew tells.
But even before the account of the slaughter of the first born in Bethlehem, the holy family is forced to flee to Egypt. That is, early on in the story of Jesus we realize that Jesus’ life and ministry which gives hope and blessing to so many will be fraught with the ever present human reality of pain and suffering.
As a result, one lens through which to view the reading from Hebrews in the context of the deaths of the first born in Bethlehem is through verse 14, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things.” The word translated “share” in “the children share flesh and blood” is in the perfect tense. That is, the writer of Hebrews witnesses to the fact the human condition of flesh and blood is the constant human situation. The verb points to the completed event implicit in the perfect tense, the incarnation, but also to the ongoing reality of the perfect tense, the lasting condition of the sharing of what it means to be human. That Jesus “shared” (aorist tense) in this reality, as incarnated, is a theme that is played out over and over again in Hebrews (e.g., 4:14-16).
Prior to the lection chosen for today, verses 5-9 also give witness to Jesus’ solidarity with the human plight. In doing so, however, it is not only a matter of Jesus’ mutual solidarity with humanity. Heard in the context of the Matthew text, and knowing the reality of Jesus’ future ministry, it is promise in the midst of the inevitability and apparent victory of suffering and death. Through Jesus’ death, death itself, even the fear of death, will be destroyed.
The reading for today finds its restatement and fulfillment in 12:1-2 with the repeated terms, pioneer and perfecter. The term for pioneer (archegos) can be translated “leader,” “author,” “originator,” or “founder,” but also has the sense of “one who begins something.”1 It is helpful to note that the semantic root of this word is arche or beginning, such as “in the beginning” (see Genesis 1:1; John 1:1). The term perfecter (teleiotes) has its roots in the verb teleioo which means to bring to completion or to bring to something to its intended goal.
In the context of 12:2, “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” there is a sense that when it comes to our belief in Jesus, Jesus himself is its beginning and its end, its alpha and omega, so to speak. In the reading for this Sunday, Jesus is the one who begins our salvation, who leads us into that salvific reality because of his life and death. The use of the term “made perfect” in 2:10 suggests that part of what salvation means, includes, and necessitates, is suffering. It will certainly be true when it comes to the interpretation of Jesus’ death.
But what does this mean for how we negotiate this relationship between suffering and salvation? Is suffering necessary for our salvation? Was it true for Jesus? Is it true for us? Or rather, is the author of Hebrews reminding us of what we can so easily forget? That to be human is to know suffering in all of its manifestations. And, that to be children of God is to believe that Jesus knows our suffering in all of its possible realizations.
As a result, another other primary theme in this passage from Hebrews, especially on the Sunday after Christmas, is its restatement of the incarnation and its interpretation. That is, how can this passage from Hebrews help our parishioners reimagine what the birth of Jesus can mean? Put in conversation with the story of Jesus’ birth according to Luke, the letter to the Hebrews plays out the meaning of the incarnation for our ongoing life of faith. As one commentator notes, “No New Testament writer takes the humanity of Jesus Christ more seriously or more purposefully than does the author of Hebrews.”2
Jesus shares humanity with us “in every respect” (2:17). There is a radical understanding of the incarnation here that perhaps offers a helpful corrective to the sentimentalizing of Jesus in the manger. In many respects, Hebrews helps us imagine and re-language the reality of post-Christmas, the ongoing realities and challenges of the human situation to which God in the baby Jesus has committed God’s self.
1 BAGD 112 2Fred B. Craddock, Hebrews, New Interpreter’s Bible (43).