Lectionary Commentaries for January 1, 2012
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

Joy J. Moore

Today, some find the Christmas season so overwhelming, church attendance and worship are an intrusion in the scheduled events.

The idea of waiting on and witnessing to the intrusion of a faithful God interferes with holiday shopping and socializing. Planning for the sermon this first Sunday after Christmas requires intentionality by preachers to thread together the familiar episodes of Christmas Day with the subsequent arrival of peace on earth.

From the Guest Room to the House of God

One thread is the civil/sacred responsibility demonstrated by Mary and Joseph. The narrative takes time for both the municipal and the religious. Just as they travelled to their family’s community to fulfill the requirements of being counted in the census for the government, they travelled to their faith community to fulfill the requirements of presenting a newborn before God. Their experience of hospitality shapes their practices of godly devotion.

The two stories of Jesus in the Temple, not unlike the parallel accounting of the birth and ministry of John and Jesus enable Luke to provide context for the events about to be rehearsed. In a constant reversal of expectation, Luke first narrates the faithfulness of Jesus’ family and his orthodox upbringing. In just a few verses (representing a few years), Jesus’ temple presence will be noted as a disconnection from his earthly parents.

Some interpret the scene in verses 40-52 with in-front-of-the-text concerns about disobedient children and an arrogant boy Jesus. But entering the narrative here, in verse 22, we witness the religious observance of Mary and Joseph, who teach Jesus to be observant of the Law from the time of his birth. The perspective Luke presents in these practices of devotion provides context for the critique Jesus later lays against religious practices that undermine love of God and neighbor. 

Set against the hospitality extended to the couple when they arrived in Bethlehem, this visit to the temple serves as another witness to the presence of the peace of God. Having experienced welcome and reception by their community, Mary and Joseph obediently respond as the children of God who are as comfortable in the House of God as they have been made to feel in the guest room of their distant relatives. Throughout this narrative we learn the reciprocal nature of Jesus’ observance of the Law.

This background is significant to establish that Jesus does not abandon his parents teaching, but in fact fulfills all that is required of the Law. Scholars have given attention to the many criticisms Jesus lays against the empty traditions practiced by religious leaders and the empty rituals they hold in high regard. When Jesus, as an adult, evaluates the practices of the religious leaders, he assumes reciprocal expressions of love of neighbor and love of God. The tension Jesus has with the Law is never that of an outsider, but as one who has faithfully observed the divine expectations. Practices of the law that subvert God’s command to love are unacceptable requirements, and Jesus repeatedly condemns those who attempt to flaunt their holiness before God without hospitality toward neighbor. Luke depicts a temple open to all that seek the presence of God, distinguishing between pausing to worship and honor God from practices that oppress and dishonor others.

O Come all ye Faithful 

Framed by the story of his observant upbringing, Luke presents two regulations — the purification of the mother and the dedication of the firstborn male child. Mary and Joseph are faithful to keep the religious rituals of Jewish Law, which requires that every male child be circumcised eight days after birth. When the time comes for the child to be brought to the Temple, again, the baby is presented. In this manner, Jesus, the firstborn male child, is bought back from God — who claimed possession of every firstborn in Israel during the Passover. In obedience, Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple to be presented, offering the prescribed sacrifice for his redemption (see Numbers 3:13 and Exodus 13:2).

We observe from their offering, the lowliness of Jesus family and their marginalized position in society. Indeed, hope seems most evident in places of extreme poverty when those with the least seem to continue to embrace the rituals of an abundant life.  But here Luke also portrays the one who redeems the world himself — the firstborn of Israel — as redeemed before God, serving as the new paschal lamb.

Another correlation throughout Luke’s account is the practice of partnering women and men as witnesses to the presence of God that leads to peace. Framed by Mary and Joseph’s obedience to God, Jesus is recognized and affirmed as God’s agent of redemption by eminently reliable persons. Simeon testifies to the faithfulness of God. The sight of the child, or the mere arrival of the promised one, stirs from within Simeon a song born of the peace in knowing God will indeed bring glory to the people, Israel, and provide “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” The presence of the long-expected one granted sufficient peace, that the prophetic announcement of impending opposition and suffering could not diminish the joy Simeon experienced by the promise fulfilled.

Similarly, though Luke does not quote the words of Anna, he conveys their content as confirming the arrival of the one who sets the people free. She, not Simeon, is the prophet. Both have faithfully awaited the intrusion of a faithful God. Both now witness to the arrival of peace on earth. Our announcements of Christ’s birth into human history should render sufficient joy that the present circumstances cannot diminish the intrusive signs of God’s peace.

All the while, Luke keeps Jesus central through this scene. The child does not so much as whimper, and yet, all that is described centers on Jesus as a means to glorify God. The occasion of Mary’s purification becomes Jesus’ presentation. As important as it is to draw in our listeners to the scene of real persons enacting a very real moment, this theo-centric Christology challenges our proclamation to bring into focus the arrival of God’s peace demonstrated in the life of Jesus. With all the attention to persons and practices, Luke orients the narrative to the fulfillment of the promise that God indeed is with us.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3

Patricia Tull

The lectionary’s creators evidently viewed this portion of Isaiah as both eminently appropriate to Christmas and flexible in its boundaries.

The reading for this first Sunday after Christmas overlaps with the Isaiah reading just three weeks before, on the third Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11). Isaiah 62:1-5 is read during Epiphany in Year C, and 62:6-12 on Christmas Day in all three years.

This passage begins with a hymn of thanksgiving (61:10-11) that concludes one passage, and continues into the first few verses directed to the city of Jerusalem in chapter 62. Indeed, while most see a break as the chapter ends, some commentators in the past have attempted to read 61:10-11, or verse 11 only, as more closely connected to what follows than to the chapter in which they are found.

While chapters 60-62 clearly have much in common, they were probably not originally written as one, or even three, whole compositions, but from a series of closely related exegetical additions over time. Positioned in the center of “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66), these three chapters share some features that distinguish them from their surroundings. From one end to the other, they proclaim salvation and forecast redemption. Thus they differ from the more hortatory and even denouncing speech of parts of chapters 56-59 and 63-66. Of all of these eleven chapters, these three stand closest in theme and vocabulary to Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah), the chapters that anticipated and paved the way for the Judean return to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile.

In fact, these three chapters adopt and adapt so much imagery from Second Isaiah that some have thought them to have been composed by the same poet or poets. Emphasis has shifted, however, in subtle ways, and it is far more likely that prophets living in the rebuilt (or rather rebuilding) city of Jerusalem are freely borrowing from the exilic prophet’s language.

Some shifts in the focus of attention within this passage make it a challenging read. At first a human individual speaks of his or her own renewal — the self is compared to both a bridegroom and a bride — and of God’s expected deeds among the nations. But attention shifts in 62:1 away from the individual and toward the city itself, personified as a woman and called both Zion and Jerusalem, as it is throughout Second Isaiah. In verses 2-3 the feminine singular pronouns describing Zion shift to 2nd person, addressing her directly. Since verses 2 and 3 speak of “the Lord,” in the 3rd person, verse 1 is likewise probably meant to be read as prophetic speech — it is the prophet who won’t sit still till Zion’s restoration is revealed.

But even though this passage is pieced together from two sections focused on two different entities, some continuity in imagery may bind them together enough to make them a preachable passage. Most striking are the adornments found in the first and the last verses. Verse 10 envisions “garments of salvation,” “robe of righteousness,” and a wedding garland and jewels given by God and worn by the poet. Five verses later this imagery returns. Here Zion is not putting on a splendid crown and royal diadem, as earlier mentions of Zion’s clothing might lead us to expect (Lamentations 1:9; Isaiah 52:1), but rather she is the crown in God’s hand.

Even more strikingly, the same word, though in two distinct forms, is used in each of the first four verses. In the first two verses, tsedakah, “righteousness” appears, first paired with “salvation” (or, according to some translations, “triumph” or “victory”), and second paired with “praise.” In verses 1 and 2 the close synonym from the same root, tsedek, is used in relation to Zion. The meanings of tsedakah and tsedek are so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable: one interpreter, for instance, considers tsedek to denote a just order, while tsedakah refers to an act of justice. In any case, in verse 1 Zion’s tsedek is paired (as in verse 10) with salvation, and in verse 2 with glory. Throughout the passage, “righteousness” is by no means a narrow term, as in “self-righteousness,” but an expression of overflowing goodness, originating from God, transforming the world, visible to all, a new order entirely, ushered in along with justice, praise for God, and divine glory.

In fact, what shimmers throughout these five verses is the unavoidable visibility, the unquenchable luminosity, of God’s deeds and their results. They are as festive as celebrative clothing, designed to be admired by all. They are no longer seeds covered by earth, but have sprouted in God’s garden for all nations to see. They shine like the dawn and blaze like a torch in a darkened room, visible across the world. This is no secret, but a redemption that will not be overlooked.

The vector of the gospel narrative is similar, starting with one proclamation to one priest alone in the temple sanctuary, and radiating out as word passes from the angel to Mary and from her to Elizabeth, from Zechariah to neighbors gathered for his son’s circumcision, from a host of angels to some night shepherds. Finally, in today’s gospel, back in the public court of the temple where Zechariah first heard the news, Simeon and Anna proclaim Jesus’ significance for all who will hear. Though this episode begins small and ordinary with the dedication of Jesus, like all Jewish babies, it culminates in a song of celebration by Simeon that has been repeated throughout the ages, throughout the world, proclaiming the “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (verse 32).


Commentary on Psalm 148

Fred Gaiser

Isaac Watts got it right: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” — which means, he writes, that every heart will “prepare him room” and that “heaven and nature” will sing.

Or, better, Psalm 98 got it right, the text that Watts paraphrases in his famous hymn. There, too, all creatures clap their hands and sing together because God is coming to judge the earth with righteousness and equity.

Almost no one — believer or nonbeliever — has a soul so dead that he or she cannot hear “heaven and nature sing.” The awe, the beauty, the power, and the grace of nature give rise to poetry by both children and literary giants in every generation.

The surprising thing about creation’s praise in the Psalter, however, is its particularity. True, we can hear “nature” sing, just because it does, but “creation” does more: it, too, sings because birds sing, but creation sings more loudly and more perfectly on key because it knows and responds to its Creator. This is why there is always a “because” in the Psalter’s call to praise: “Praise the Lord, because….”

That kind of theo-logic marks the clear structure of Psalm 148. The entire psalm is enclosed in a “Praise the Lord!” inclusio, and then the two main parts of the psalm call all things to praise the Lord. The call to praise comes first to those things above: heavens, heights, angels, sun, moon, stars — “Let them praise the name of the Lord” (verses 1-5).

Then in part two, all things below hear the call: sea monsters, fire, hail, snow, wind, mountains, trees, animals and birds, rulers and all people — “Let them praise the name of the Lord” (verses 9-13). Note here how, in this psalm, humans are not above nature, they are of nature, so they join in a praise of God that already resounds before they arrive.

But in both cases, the “let them praise” is followed by a “for,” a “because,” a “ki” in Hebrew. And that’s where this song of nature becomes Bible, word of God, and — as so often the case with the word of God — where it gets both its oomph and its offense.

Praise the Lord, all you heavenly bodies, sings part one, because the Lord has created you and fixed your bounds. Why would the heavenly bodies praise being bound? In most of the Psalter’s world, the heavenly bodies were themselves deities (or at least deified). They should be capitalized: the Sun, the Moon, the Waters — those amazing primeval forces that control our lives.

Should we not rightly sing to them and fear them for their power — as nature worshipers have done since the beginning of time even unto today? Why should sun and moon praise anyone or anything else, much less the God of insignificant Israel? Yet, Psalm 148, like Genesis 1, uncapitalizes these heavenly forces, turns them into creatures, and lets them sing the praise of the God that made them and all things.

The Bible understands this as good news, because the alternative to setting cosmic bounds is chaos. Water out of bounds brings floods and tsunamis. Sun and moon out of bounds would destroy all life — including the “life” of the sun and moon themselves. Here, even these heavenly bodies recognize there is life to be found in “driving on the right side of the sky” and thus avoiding collision and death. Creation gives life, chaos kills. The heavenly bodies have become creatures of God, so now that “lucky ol’ sun got nothin’ to do but roll around heaven all day” (in the lyrics of Haven Gillespie’s song) — no more of the worries and terrible responsibilities than come with being a god. Praise the Lord!

And then the psalm turns to the things below — all of them. Let them, too, praise the Lord, “because….” Now the particularity and offense are more direct. All creatures, all kings, all peoples — Israel and everybody else — should praise God because God “has raised up a horn for his people” (verse 14). Why should rulers in Egypt, for heaven’s sake, sing praises because God has chosen to be active in Israel? Or the rulers of any other country? Or the cedars of Lebanon, or the emus of Australia? What has Israel to do with them?

The Christmas story proclaims, however, that it is precisely those foreign kings, those sheep and stars, those angels and shepherds who show up at the stable of Bethlehem to worship this God-baby. Why such odd particularity? The Old Testament argued, as far back as the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 that God had to begin in a particular place like Israel (offense!), in order to get back to blessing for all (promise!).

God raises up a “horn” for his people, sings the psalm (verse 14) — the horn of the ox or the ram that is the symbol of power throughout the Old Testament. Hannah had praised the strength of that horn, raised up for her in her distress (1 Samuel 2:1 King James Version), but then saw that same strength given to God’s anointed king (1 Samuel 2:10 King James Version) — the “horn” becomes the inclusio around her song.

Later, Mary, of course, sang Hannah’s song (Luke 1:46-55), wondering at that same strength that is now to be brought into the world through her. Hannah and Mary, lowly nobodies, both recognize that through them, God is doing something amazing for Israel and all people, for sun and stars, dandelions and dogwoods, larkspurs and locusts, for snips and snails and puppy dog tails, for the earth and all its creatures. The psalm includes both the offense of particularity and the promise of particularity. Let God’s strength be found here, sings the Psalm — here in the God of Israel, the God of Bethlehem, who is also the God of the moon and stars. Let God’s salvation be found here, sings Mary.

And Watts is right: “Let heaven and nature sing!” And we join in. What else is there to do once we get it, once we hear that creation’s God is Israel’s God is Jesus’ God is our God? I am brought back into the unity of all things, and God is out for us all.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

Elisabeth Johnson

While Paul’s letters do not relate any narrative traditions about Jesus’ birth, he does speak profoundly about the meaning of the incarnation.

This passage from Galatians 4 reflects on God’s sending of his Son in the context of a larger theological argument about what it means to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ.

Minors and Slaves

Writing to Gentile believers who are being persuaded that they need to adopt circumcision and law observance in order to be fully included in God’s people, Paul responds with a forceful scriptural argument.

In chapter 3, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham precedes and takes priority over the law. The law served its purpose, holding a custodial function with the authority to restrain sin, yet lacking the power to liberate us from sin (3:21-22). The law served as our disciplinarian until Christ came (3:23-24). But now in Christ we are set free, justified, and made children of God through faith (3:25-26). This is true for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female alike. In baptism we all belong to Christ; we are all one in Christ and heirs to God’s promises (3:27-29).

In chapter 4, Paul expands on what it means to be an heir. While heirs are still minors, they are “no better than slaves,” for they and the property they will inherit remain under the control of guardians and trustees “until the date set by the father” (4:1-2). “So with us,” Paul continues, “while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (4:3).

The root meaning of the word translated “elemental spirits” (stoicheia) is “what is put in order.” It can refer to basic principles or teachings, or to elemental spirits that are believed to order the universe (such as the signs of the zodiac, for instance). In 4:8-10, Paul tells the Galatians that formerly, when they did not know God, they “were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (4:8).

He then pleads: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved by them again?” (4:9). In particular, Paul is concerned that the Galatians are “observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years” (4:10), likely referring to the Jewish liturgical calendar.

Paul makes the astonishing claim that for the Galatians to adopt the Jewish law is the equivalent of returning to their former pagan practices. Being “imprisoned and guarded under the law” (3:23), or being minors, means being “no better than slaves” (4:1). It is the same as being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (4:3). But there is no need for that, because the “date set by the father” has arrived!

Children and Heirs

“But when the fullness of time had come” (4:4) — at the end of one age and the beginning of another, at the time God deemed just right — “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (4:4-5).

God’s sending of his Son ends the reign of the law and inaugurates a new age (cf. 3:25). The Son is “born of a woman,” fully human, and “born under the law.” The latter phrase might be seen to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish lineage, but in context it seems rather to identify him with all of humanity. Paul suggests that all that are born under the law in one form or another — whether the law of Moses or the law of the “elemental spirits.” Jesus is born under the law in order to redeem us who are under the law (cf. 3:13), “so that we might receive adoption as children.”

Here Paul shifts metaphors, from a child growing to maturity and receiving the inheritance at the time set by the father, to a child being adopted. Under Roman law, adopted children had the same legal status and inheritance rights as biological children. It is significant that Paul does not identify Jews with biological children and Gentiles with adopted children. Rather, he suggests that we are all adopted children. None of us have any prior claim on the father. Our adoption as God’s children is pure gift. Jesus alone is Son of God from birth, but he deigns to share his kinship and inheritance with us.

Paul continues: “And because you are children (huioi = sons), God sent has sent the Spirit of his Son (huios) into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!'” (4:6). The Spirit links us with God’s Son as fellow children of God, and enables us to call upon God with the same intimate language Jesus used (Mark 14:36; cf. Romans 8:15-17).

Our adoption as God’s children means that there is absolutely no reason to return to a life of slavery. In Christ we are children of God and full heirs with him to all that God has promised (4:7; cf. 3:18, 29).

A preacher might help hearers envision the difference it makes in daily life to know that we are children of God purely by God’s grace and not by our adherence to the law, whatever form that law may take. For instance, post-Christmas letdown may be setting in with all its attendant guilt–about the Christmas cards that didn’t get sent, the hoped-for family harmony that didn’t quite happen, the overeating now apparent on the bathroom scale. One way of dealing with that guilt is by making “new year’s resolutions” about how we will change, how we will make a fresh start with the turning of the calendar. And we know how well that usually turns out.

Don’t go back to that life of slavery, Paul tells us. The fullness of time has come! God sent his Son to redeem us from under the law, so that we might receive adoption as God’s children. God’s gift to us will not be revoked, regardless of how well we live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others. We do have a fresh start — not by our own will power, but by the gracious initiative of God in sending his Son, claiming us as God’s children, and sending the Spirit into our hearts. This is pure gift; we cannot earn or deserve it. We can only give thanks and share this gift with others.