Lectionary Commentaries for January 2, 2011
Second Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Jaime Clark-Soles

The Prologue introduces the major themes of the Gospel.

Stop what you are doing, read John 1:1-18, and jot down anything that strikes you. Notice repeated words and themes such as word, life, light, darkness, believe, know, “his own,” fullness, and bosom. Yes, bosom. More on that later. These are all words and themes that you will find repeated in John.

John: The Gospel of Abundant, Embodied, Eternal Life
The author of this Gospel, whom we shall call “John” for the sake of convenience, provides his thesis statement boldly at 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

From the get-go, John has informed you that he writes not to add to the annals of history, but to persuade you about the identity of Jesus and cause an encounter between you and the risen Christ through the text. He wants you to “believe.” The verb believe appears 98 times in the Gospel of John; the noun never appears. Believing is a verb. He tells you that he left out numerous details but that he has provided all that is necessary for you to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing leads to life. Abundant Life, Embodied Life, Eternal Life, Precious Life. The Fourth Gospel is concerned with nothing but Life: how we get it, how we lose it, how we find it again, or, better yet, how we get found by it.

John, Creation, and Genesis
The opening of John should make you recall the opening of Genesis. From the phrase “in [the] beginning,” to the emphasis on God’s Word as a creative force, to the language of light and darkness, Genesis is ever-present in John. And not just in the prologue but throughout. When you preach on John, draw your people’s attention to the fact that the stuff of earth is the stuff of God. Not a single thing that has been created was created apart from God. It all came from God, it all belongs to God, and it all testifies to and reveals God. In that way, creation itself is a sacrament, a means of grace.

For John, with the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, bread is no longer just bread (see chapter 6); flesh is no longer just flesh, water is no longer just water (see chapters 3, 4, 7, 19); vines, branches, sheep, shepherds — all of them reveal the nature of God and identity of Christ. No wonder, then, that in healing the blind man (chapter 9), Jesus takes the dirt and mixes it with saliva and puts it on the man’s eyes. Surely Jesus could have skipped all the messy, dirty parts and just healed the guy, as he does elsewhere (see chapter 5). But the use of the earth and the spit should remind us of the creation as told by Genesis, where God creates the first person using the earth.

John is interested in creation. He has a brief litmus test for what is Christian and what isn’t: if it is life-giving, if it promotes the flourishing of all creation, then it is Christian; if it is death-dealing, it may be real, but it is not ultimate and it is certainly not Christian: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Abundant Life. “From his fullness, we have all received.”

And the Genesis creation story appears all the way to the end of the Gospel. Recall the scene in the Garden, the interaction between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The text tells us that she took him for “the Gardener.” Not “a” gardener, mind you, but the Gardener. This scene rectifies the Fall, in effect, and brings us back to the unity shared between Adam and Eve in the original Garden. The rectification is now exemplified through Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Jesus as Lady Wisdom
John brilliantly presents Jesus in the role of Lady Wisdom in a number of ways. As we read in numerous LXX texts, Lady Wisdom (hokhmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek) is God’s partner: she helps to create the world, she delights in the human race, she continually tries to help humans to get knowledge and flee from ignorance. She cries aloud incessantly. Unfortunately, the Old Testament tells us that she is often rejected because fools hate knowledge and humans would rather wallow in ignorance, for the most part. 

This theme is played out mightily in John as there is ongoing irony related to who “knows” what and what really counts as saving knowledge (the verb oida appears 84 times in John; the verb ginosko appear 57 times). Read the Prologue alongside Proverbs 8:22-31; Sirach 24:1-9; and Proverbs 1:20-32 and you will see that John casts Jesus in the mold of Lady Wisdom. Given this fact, the reader should not be surprised by the statement in John 1:11 that the Word/Wisdom/Jesus came unto his own and his own did not receive him.

John: The Gospel of Intimate Relationship
There is no more intimate text in the Bible than the Gospel of John. Jesus and God and the Paraclete and we are all intimately related to one another. And it’s a very touchy-feely Gospel. As noted above, Jesus rubs mud on the blind man’s eyes; Mary anoints Jesus’ feet (chapter 12); Jesus washes the disciples’ feet (chapter 13); Mary Magdalene grabs onto the resurrected Jesus (chapter 20). We could easily multiply the instances of intimacy in this Gospel, but I want to draw your attention to an important feature of our text for today. In 1:18 John tells us that Jesus is in the “bosom (kolpos) of the Father.” Second, the only other place kolpos appears in John is 13:23 where the disciple whom Jesus loved was reclining upon Jesus’ bosom. John wants us to understand that the same intimacy shared by God and Jesus is shared with us and Jesus/God. Hence, the Incarnation.

The NRSV says: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The verb there is skenoo –a lively, allusive verb that means “to spread a tent.” John is pointing to the Old Testament texts that refer to God’s presence among human beings. For John, Jesus is that locus. The rest of John fills out the implications of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is John’s leitmotif, so maybe it could be ours as well. So I close with my own conviction about preaching John 1:

“If the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, that is, if the Word of God came out of the birth canal of a woman’s body, grew, ate, went to the bathroom, sometimes bathed, struggled against demons, sweated, wept, exulted, transfigured, was physically violated and rotted away in a tomb just before being gloriously resurrected, then the Bible must have flesh on it. If a valley of dry bones can live again, then bones and blood and bread and flesh and bodies should never be left behind when we are trying to understand the grime and glory of Scripture. Any interpretation that denounces the material, created order, including our own bodies, should be suspect. From birth to death our bodies swell and shrink, are wet with milk, and sweat, and urine and vomit and sex, and blood, and water and wounds that fester and stink and are healed and saved and redeemed and die and are resurrected. If you can’t glory in or at least talk about these basic realities in church while reading Scripture, then how can Scripture truly intersect with or impact life? We might as well just go read a Jane Austen novel; though I doubt we’ll ever be transformed or made whole or saved by it.”1

1 Jaime Clark-Soles, Engaging the Word: The New Testament and the Christian Believer (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

Bo Lim

It is quite peculiar that a text from Jeremiah disrupts a series of Isaianic texts in the lectionary calendar.

The five Sundays that precede the Second Sunday of Christmas all contain texts from Isaiah for their First Reading, and the three Sundays following this Sunday similarly all have Isaianic texts. Although a text from Jeremiah may seem discontinuous with the Isaianic focus of the lectionary for this Christmas season, Jeremiah 31:7-14 possesses an Isaianic pattern.

Jeremiah 31:1-14 summarizes the message of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), and demonstrates numerous similarities to Isaiah 40:1-11, the prologue to Second Isaiah. The text contains the motifs of travel through the wilderness (31:2), the revelation of Yahweh (31:3), a way for God’s people (31:1, 9, 14) rejoicing and singing (31:4, 7, 13), the blind and lame as pilgrims (31:8), Zion, the dwelling place of Yahweh, as its destination (31:6), Israel calling Jacob (31:7, 11), Yahweh as savior and redeemer (31:7, 11), Yahweh as shepherd and gatherer of his dispersed people (31:8, 10), Yahweh leading this procession (31:9) the transformation from wilderness into a watered garden (31:5, 12), and the announcement of comfort (31:13).

All of these themes feature prominently throughout the message of Second Isaiah, and the last of these, “comfort,” comprise the opening words of the prophecy, “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). In fact, chapters 30 and 31 of Jeremiah have been deemed, “The Book of Comfort,” and this passage likely served as a template for the writing of Second Isaiah. Viewed in this manner, this passage from Jeremiah naturally fits within a series of readings from Isaiah.

Jeremiah announces a great reversal in Yahweh’s plans for his people. This is stated plainly in 30:10, “He who scattered Israel will gather him.” Yahweh’s announcement to gather the dispersed Jews from the north, including “the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together” (31:8) overturns God’s judgment of Judah previously pronounced in 6:21. There God announced he would stir an invading nation from the north resulting in “parents and children together, neighbor and friend perish[ing].” Later on in this passage Yahweh instructs, “O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation” (6:26) because of the coming Babylonian conquest. The reading for today reverses this pronouncement, “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (31:13b).

This dialectic between judgment and salvation, exile and homecoming, old and the new covenant, is the existential space where the people of God demonstrate their faithfulness to Yahweh. Obedience is not the escape or banishment of one or the other mode of being, but is rather learning to negotiate the tensions within this continuum. Even as Yahweh announces the great reversal of judgment in the Book of Comfort, he reminds Israel of the terror of the Day of the LORD (30:4-7), Israel’s overwhelming guilt (30:12-15), the anger of Yahweh (30:23-24), and the weeping of Rachel (31:15). Yahweh does not relinquish the possibility of judgment even while he announces salvation (31:29-30).

Contextual theologies that highlight liminality and hybridity as loci for theological reflection offer a useful means to appreciate these exilic and diaspora texts of Scripture,1 as well as re-imagine the missional role of the church in post-Christian societies.2 The temptation for God’s people is to reify essentialist constructions of their own identity and mission that conflict with the values of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that cannot be solely identified with any human institution. The people of God are characterized, as exemplified in the ministry of Jeremiah, by their facility to flourish in liminal situations, whether it be in Babylon or Yehud, whether they be ruled by a Davidic king or a foreign one.

Thankfully, the poles of this dialectic are not fixed, nor will the synthesis comprise of a compromise between the two extremes. The trajectory of God’s plans for his people moves progressively in the direction of salvation and culminates there. Judgment and exile are not the final chapter in the story of God’s people. The exile, which was previously understood as the curse of the covenant, is transformed into an act of discipline (31:18).

Chapter 31 of Jeremiah ends with the announcement of a new covenant and a new Jerusalem. This covenant is God’s final covenant with Israel and this Jerusalem “shall never again be uprooted or overthrown” (31:40). This assurance provides the hope to enable the exiles to not despair when restoration seems so distant. In addition, these salvation oracles grant people the courage to resist identities and institutions that may offer empty promises of security that possess no substance behind them.

Today’s reading ends with the promise of an unending banquet and festival featuring an abundance of provisions and celebration. Psalm 147 and Ephesians 1:3-14 similarly speak of the assurance of God’s lavish blessing of his people. Whereas the first reading for the previous week, Isaiah 63:7-9, acknowledged the possibility of disappointment within God’s plan of salvation, this week’s reading reminds God’s people of its certain fulfillment.

1 E.g., Mary F. Foskett and Jeffrey Kah-Jin Kuan, eds., Ways of Being, Ways of Reading: Asian American Biblical Interpretation (St. Louis: Chalice, 2006).
2 Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).


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

Karoline Lewis

The opening words of this reading from Ephesians signal to whom the praise should be given on this Sunday and every Sunday — God.

While we tend to put Jesus front and center at Christmas, and legitimately so, it is worthwhile to remember that at stake in all of this is God’s longing to bring the entire world into the relationship that is acknowledged at the start of the blessing– “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). Just as God is Father to Jesus, God desires to be father to all who are in Christ. In fact, in verse 3, the root for “blessing” is used no less than three times in this one verse. This repetition of blessing sets the stage for the claim of the abundance of God’s grace that is at the heart of these opening verses of the letter.

These verses of the letter to the Ephesians are always the designated epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Christmas, paired with the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18), in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. One obvious reason for this matchmaking lies in the language about adoption and inheritance found in the Ephesians text as compared to John’s similar claim, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13).

These Sundays after Christmas are some of the more challenging preaching opportunities. What does a preacher say that has not already been said? One solution is to take our cues from these biblical texts as to general themes about what Christmas is and can mean. While I am usually a proponent of preaching only one text on any given Sunday, and do not typically encourage finding connections between the lectionary texts, the resonances between John and Ephesians might create some much needed creativity and imagination on these “morning after” Sundays.

For example, another connection between the two readings might be the cosmic perspective of each of these writers. Just as John puts the beginnings of Jesus outside of time and space, “in the beginning” (1:1), the writer of Ephesians also places us in an eternal reality, “in the heavenly places” (used only in Ephesians; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12), “before the foundation of the world” (1:4), “things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). This connection alone offers a different take on the meaning of Christmas. Putting the birth of Jesus side by side with the claim of his pre-temporal existence reminds us that when we confess our faith in Jesus, we give testimony to both the incarnation and the divination of Christ. We hold both together simultaneously — that Jesus is fully human yet fully of God, and for John, the very presence of “I AM” in the world.

The writer of Ephesians communicates that in Christ, God is making God’s self known to the world, “he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ” (1:9). A similar claim is made by the author of John’s Gospel, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” 1:18). While the terminology is different, Ephesians uses the term gnorizo, John uses exago, there is a shared sense that God is revealing God’s self in a new way through Christ. How does Christ make known God? How often do we ask what we learn about God when we hear the stories of Jesus’ ministry?

Amazingly, Ephesians 1:3-14 is all one sentence in Greek. Taking the form of a general blessing rather than the more usual thanksgiving of the first verses of a Greco-Roman letter, these verses could easily be transported to a number of different literary contexts because they do not specifically speak about or to the recipients of the letter. In this sense, there is a reinforcement of the cosmic nature of God’s activity in Christ. That is, the blessing that is possible because of what God has done in Jesus Christ transcends the boundaries of a particular audience. This resonates with John’s prologue, where the entire world is the recipient of the word made flesh, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (1:9).

The urgency of one long sentence gives emphasis to the bountiful blessings that are made possible in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is as if the author cannot stop, cannot contain “every spiritual blessing” (1:3) once he gets started. Verse 6 is better translated, “to the praise of his glorious grace that he graced on us.” Note also the repetition of the word “all” and the use of the word “lavish” (1:8). The translation “lavish” is certainly acceptable for a term that means “abundance,” “overflowing” or “make extremely rich,” but it has the sense of being more than enough with even some left over.

There is an extravagance communicated in these opening words to this letter that gets at the heart of what God becoming human can and should mean. This claim is not unlike what we hear in John’s Prologue, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16). The grace that God shows in the birth of Jesus is only the beginning of the grace we will see in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Verse 10 in the Ephesians text expresses this claim as well, “to gather up all things in him.” A better translation of the meaning of this verb is “to bring everything together” or “to sum up.” In other words, Jesus, in the Word made flesh, sums up what God’s grace upon grace looks like.