I have never had a dream that told me to flee in the middle of the night to save my family.
I have had what might be called “premonitions caused by fear” of things not going well if I made a particular decision, but no voice yelling, “Watch out!” And no awful results from those decisions, so far.
But as I look back on my life, I can think of a time or two when I could have used a bit more warning. When I got up one morning in 1987 in rural Colorado to go play a round of golf and rolled my car 5½ times down a mountain road, I could have used a warning that the fox was going to be in the road when I came around the corner. When I stepped off a curb on a snowy night in Arkansas and broke my ankle, I could have used a warning that there was a pothole under that snow. Warnings would have saved me some serious pain and suffering.
Most of us can think of times when a warning of some sort might have been very beneficial. Just some inkling of what is about to happen that might cause you to pause and reconsider to avoid some difficulty. Just a still, small voice clearly guiding you in one direction over another would be helpful.
But that is not how things typically work. We live by our faith, our choices, and our instincts. We live knowing that the decisions we make, while often guided by a deep sense of God’s guidance, are often still very much our own.
On this first Sunday of Christmas, we hear a story about a serious warning of coming peril. But this is not a still, small voice offering words of encouragement, guidance, or direction. This is a much more intense and emergent dream, from my reading. And in it the holy family is told, by an Angel’s visit to Joseph in the dream, to clear out, to get away as fast as they can. They are warned of the nature of the impending danger, are directed where to flee, and are told of the exact time they should stay away (verse 13). Later in the text, we read that Joseph is visited in a dream once again, to tell him to return to Israel but is warned to go to Nazareth to avoid Herod’s son (verses 19-23).
I would hope that such clear and vivid dreams would spur me to act in a way that steers me clear of danger, but more than likely I would chalk it up to a bad sushi or too much scary TV prior to bedtime. However, I sincerely believe that I would take the warning seriously if it involved the safety and survival of my family.
In this text, we read that the holy family received the messages and heeded the warning immediately (verse 14). The flight to Egypt was unexpected in so many ways. What a change in circumstances in such a short period of time we have experienced. The story of Jesus’ birth has just occurred in the reading of the lectionary and in the liturgical calendar. Now that the child has received symbolic and important gifts from some pretty unusual visitors, the family must run for their lives (verses 13-14). Fleeing Herod, who wants to destroy the young Messiah, is their only option (verse 13). We know that some time has probably transpired since the birth but the trip must have been fraught with fear and danger as they looked over their shoulder virtually every step of the way.
However, getting to Egypt did not stop the executions back at home as Herod tried to find and kill the holy child (verse 16). The story of the flight from Egypt and the killing of innocent boys under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding area are often called “fulfillment” texts, in that they supposedly fulfill Hebrew Bible texts and prophesy (verses 15, 17). While the “fulfillment” of these texts in this passage is limited at best, the text makes clear that this event was not ordained by God — it was ordered by Herod. These acts are not “fulfillment” of God’s desires; these are examples of human fear, power seeking, anger, and evil (verse 16).
In the text, the reader is reminded of the slaughter of male Hebrew infants in Egypt during the days of Pharaoh (Exodus 1:22). We see once again an evil leader destroying innocents while saving one special child.1 These events and the pain inflicted in Herod’s attempt to destroy the infant Jesus are brought into sharp focus in the use of the Jeremiah text which elicits powerful images of mothers weeping for lost children (Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15). Comfort is often not to be found in these moments of extreme grief. And that is what Herod brings about in his anger (Matthew 2:16).
This part of the text can be problematic for many preaching and/or hearing this text, therefore the preacher on this first Sunday of Christmas should use caution in dealing with the passage. Making clear that humans are responsible for the evil they inflict on one another is paramount.2
The crux of this text for many preachers and their congregations is going to be the role God played in the midst of all of these events. “Where was God?” some might ask. “Why did God allow such evil then and since?” others will posit. And the nature of evil and the realities of theodicy, trying to make sense of evil in the presence of God, are hard to deal with in any one sermon.
Acknowledging the fact that God does not cause evil but is present in times of distress in the voice guiding us, in the sending of us to safety, in the healing of our pain, and in the presence in our lives is important.
1 Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 254.
2 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 16.
Not many people will come to church on December 29th.
It will probably be mostly just the regulars, the steadfast, the pillars, and perhaps one or two energized or interested new people. The church feels empty. The decorations have come down or else simply look tired and spent from all the activity and energy they represented just days earlier.
One cannot keep that Christmas spirit up forever, injected as it is with marketing, media, and public displays — an entire secular and national infrastructure of Christmas spirit just came to a screeching halt. And there you are, called to stand in the breach.
Today, the people in your pews are likely the ones who stuck with you during Advent…who tried to enter into your counter-cultural reflections on what anticipation of Christ’s coming means. Nevertheless, today is a tough day to be a preacher. You are, no doubt, tired. And no matter what you do, the sanctuary is going to feel a bit lonely.
Isaiah 63 is a lonely passage. Salvation here is not triumphant. It is marked by loss and theological collapse. Isaiah 63:7-9 are some of the first words uttered after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (587 BCE). Historical cues come in 63:18 and 64:10 where we learn that “our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary” and “your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.”
I am aghast at my own suggestion that post-Christmas let-down can be compared with the physical loss of homeland through warfare. Indeed, that would be a pretty egregious example of a myopic “first world problem.” But some occasions raise our capacity to hear the wisdom from of old. And here in the wake of the ringing collapse of secular Christmas, which often summons the personal pain of broken lives and relationships, we would do well to hear this powerful Isaianic response to his devastated audience.
Isaiah 63:7-9, part of a longer unit running from 63:7-64:11, initiates a communal lament. Given its psalm-like character, some have concluded that its composition was inspired by actual liturgical laments on the site of the ruined temple. Whether or not there were actually Judeans who held formal religious ceremonies there, this lament inscribes an audience of pillars, of regulars, of the steadfast, and perhaps the one or two energized or interested new people. It inscribes the people with cause to embrace the ruins of their central religious institution to find communal expression for their loss.
Today’s lectionary passage in verses 7-9 isolates the first element of the lament, historical reminiscence of the high points of God’s relationship with his people. As a stand-alone reading, these verses form a bold account of what is working in the long-term relationship with God, a “best-of” list, if you will. God’s mercy and stead-fast love take center stage.
The passage highlights what will later become the Christological idea of God entering the human world of distress to save his people. In Isaiah, it refers to the Exodus as God’s paradigmatic salvation event.
The passage shows how the Hebrew Scriptures, far from being an “old” [i.e., superseded] covenant, contain all the religious ideas which later informed Christianity’s account of God’s Trinitarian character. Covenant language abounds. “Gracious deeds” and “steadfast love” (hesed) is a benevolent response promised in a formal covenantal commitment. “Surely they are my people” summons formulaic language found in Deuteronomy. “Deal falsely” refers to abandoning the vows of a covenantal commitment.
The theology of the lectionary passage is put in a new and dynamic light when we read the entire lament. After the account of God’s activity on behalf of his people, Isaiah 63:7-64:11 contains several other typical elements of the communal lament: the people’s inadequate response (63:10), complaints about the contemporary conditions of misery (63:18-19 or 64:6), and urgent petitions to God (64:9) (cf. Psalm 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, and 94).
What was, at first glance, a standard theological account of God’s salvific character is now framed by the lament genre. Odd. Even more theological problems await: Isaiah 63-64 presents a glaring omission in the genre. The lament lacks divine assurance; God does not answer.
What could it mean to read about salvation in this dismal light? Here is salvation recounted amidst lament, loss, and complaint wherein God does not show up at the end to fix things? Throughout, God stands aloof. What great activity God accomplished through Moses cannot be found in the present. Listen to these questions: “where is the one…” (verse 11b), “where is the one…” (verse 11c), “where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion? They are withheld from me” (63:15b).
Interestingly, the people do not, indeed they cannot, adhere to religious tradition in this moment. There is no Jerusalem temple, so profound questions about the God of Zion confront Isaiah. Our passage displays several adjustments in what are acts of vigorous theological re-imagination.
Verse 15a urges God to “look down from heaven [note he’s not in the earthly temple] and see, from your holy and glorious habitation.” Also novel is the reference to God as a father in verse 16. The paternal qualities of tenderness, affection, and availability are sought in what was then only a newly emerging theological idea (cf. the late compositions of Malachi 1:6; Isaiah 45:9-11; Sirach 23:1, Tobit 13:4, etc.)
Isaiah gives God an old name: “our Redeemer from of old” (verse 16) and draws on the older (Canaanite) idea of a heavenly mountain theophany (especially in 64:3). But these elements are brought to bear on a moment of significant religious adjustment.
What is inspiring here is not only the theological flexibility of Isaiah, but also the prophet’s insistence that God show up in these new ways. God is a fire that can cause water to boil (64:2), the prophet insists. The lament genre already showcases this kind of bold piety as people decry God’s negligence and demand that he show up in new ways. (My favorite example of this type of demand is when God needs to wake up from slumber. cf. Psalm 44:23 and 78:65).
A bold piety and a demanding faithful; this is Isaiah’s ideal. This is probably what lies behind his own lament in 64:7, “[no one] attempts to take hold of you.” The loss of the temple and its god prompts this vigorous search for God in new places and with new metaphors.
I can imagine two fruitful tacks the preacher can take with this passage. We just discussed the first, the vigorous art of theological flexibility and religious adjustment. However, the second returns us to this odd juxtaposition of salvation and lament.
While the lament certainly provides a model for bold piety, the stark account of salvation in a communal lament might offer up an idea for how to preach on December 29th. The first week after Christmas may be the exact right time to remember the birth of Christ and then turn to the complaints and laments of the faithful people who have come to the lonely, December 29th sanctuary.
Third Isaiah, after all, is a text about rebuilding. And our passage may be among the earliest compositions in the post-exilic preaching of Isaiah 40-66. If this is true, it predates the famous Isaianic assurance that God will “comfort, o comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1).
Before comfort comes the honest expression of what it feels like to live with a stubbornly aloof God. The post-Christmas, “what now?” can be honest about the fact that something supernal came on December 25th. But today is December 29th. What will renewal look like in this year, in your church, in the lives of your faithful? For our Isaiah passage, it does not start with God’s comforting assurance. It might instead start with communal lament.
Praise songs for Christmas!
God forbid? In the so-called “worship wars,” traditionalists have been heard to grumble about “praise songs” and everything that’s wrong with them. One element of the litany of objections to “praise songs” is the alleged repetition. “It’s the same words repeated over and over again,” is perhaps the most common form of the traditionalist’s lament.
On the other hand, the fans of “praise and worship” music could simply point out that there’s certainly precedent for repetition here at the end of the Book of Psalms. Not to mention the fact that there’s plenty of repetition in traditional hymns like “How Great Thou Art” and “It Is Well with My Soul.”
As with Psalm 146-147 and 149-150, Psalm 148 is heavy on the praise chorus. “Praise the Lord” (hallelu-YH or hallelu-YHWH) is exclaimed four times, “Praise him” (hallelu-hu) is exclaimed six times, and “Praise the name of the Lord” (y’hallelu het-shem YHWH) is exclaimed twice. That’s a lot of praising.
Comedy troupe Monty Python’s oeuvre includes a few memorable riffs on this praising business. At the start of Life of Brian, Mandy (mother of Brian) asks the Three Wise Men: “You do a lot of this then?” “What?” asks the tallest of the magi. “This praising,” Mandy responds. “No, no,” the wiseman answers.
And what about the English Boarding School Chapel scene in The Meaning of Life, the one where the chaplain begins: “Let us praise God,” and continues with “Oh, Lord…Ooo, you are so big…So absolutely huge…Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you…”
Then there’s the bit from The Holy Grail where God appears in a cloud to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (who dance when e’er their able, who do routines and chorus scenes…). As Arthur and the rest bow in worship, God complains: “Oh, don’t grovel; one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.” (Arthur averts his eyes.) “What are you doing now?” God asks. Arthur: “Averting my eyes, O Lord.” God: “Well don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms — they’re so depressing. Now knock it off.”
However, here at the end of the Psalter, the overall sentiment can hardly be called depressing. There’s unbridled enthusiasm here. And, sure, Monty Python can get a laugh preposterously praising God for being so absolutely huge, but Psalm 148 seems to take preposterousness one step further where it envisions the sun and the moon lifting up their voices in praise. This audacious psalm commands sea monsters and fruit trees and cattle to praise the Lord.
And in the end, there’s a vision for intergenerational worship: “young men and women alike; old and young together.” Imagine that. Psalm 148 presents us with a utopia of praise: not only all of God’s people (including both traditional and contemporary worship warriors), but all of creation united in praise, exalting the only One worth exalting. Nice.
This reading from Hebrews for the first Sunday after Christmas continues to celebrate the festival of the Incarnation, the adventus/katabasis of God in the human Jesus.
This reading from Hebrews for the first Sunday after Christmas continues to celebrate the festival of the Incarnation, the adventus/katabasis of God in the human Jesus. The highly poetic and densely packed language of the text may cloak its stunning revelations about (a) who the Son is, (b) what God has done through this intimate involvement with the very stuff of creation, and (c) why it was necessary. All this is bracketed by the meditation on the suffering of Jesus introduced in verse 10 and returned to in verse 18. A few words about each of these points are in order.
Who the Son is
This reading follows extended praise of the exalted Son that takes up much of chapter one of Hebrews. The Son is the appointed heir of all things (1:2), through whom the world was created (1:2), the exact imprint of God’s very being (1:3), who sits at the right hand of God (1:13), enthroned above the angels (1:6), and so on. The wording of 2:10 refers back to this panegyric (“God, for whom and through whom all things exist”) yet then makes a stunning claim.
It is congruent with God’s character (“it was fitting”) that Jesus — the exact imprint of divine being — is made “perfect/complete” through “suffering.” God, who by definition transcends everything mutable, changeable, and temporal, is revealed in the suffering, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus. This is the central irony of the festival of the Incarnation — that the transcendent God is definitively revealed only in human vulnerability.
God is known as a baby born to peasants in Judea of the first century CE, who was “flesh and blood”(2:14), “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (2:17). He was crushed by the powers that be (as many are), yet through that death not only revealed the heart of God as merciful and faithful (2:17) but (a) expiated the very Sin that killed him (2:17) while he (b) destroyed the power of death (2:14).
These are, of course, outrageously extravagant claims. Though Hebrews shares this scandalous gospel kerygma with the rest of the NT (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20), Hebrews thinks it through thoroughly by means of its unique “high priest” Christology introduced first at 2:17 (cf. 1:3b), an image that has its genesis in a christological reading of Psalm 110:4 (explicitly introduced at 5:6).
What God Has Done
The intent of the Incarnation, Hebrews says, is to bring “many children to glory” (2:10). “Glory” (doxa) has different referents in the NT. It can refer to the “honor” that those in Christ have before God, though they may be despised by the world at large — clearly the situation for the first recipients of this letter (10:32-34). “Glory” can also refer to the presence/kavod of God. The “glorified” Christ, then, is the one who exists in the presence of God.
In this way of thinking, the intent of the Christ event is to bring “many” into the very presence of God, a process “completed” only by means of death. Jesus is the pioneer here (2:10), charting out the path through death (2:14-15) and making it possible for others to follow. But in Hebrews, as in much of the NT, that which lies ahead (here specifically the glorification of the faithful in the very presence of Christ) is not only a distant hope but also a present reality. It is an eschatological process “already” inaugurated though “not yet” completed.
In Hebrews, the present gift of the “real presence” of Christ is less a “cultic” sacramental reality than an invitation to enter into the service of the world in need of healing. The great appeal at the end of Hebrews reads, “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured (13:13).” Heaven is experienced proleptically in the service of neighbor. “Santification” in Hebrews, then, is not setting the “holy” apart from that which is “profane,” but eliminating the boundary line between the two notions.
The Son, after all, left the very presence/glory of God to sanctify, as high priest, the world through the most “profane” spectacle of humiliation the Romans could devise — crucifixion. One might indeed ask, “What is ‘profane’ after the cross?” Christmas celebrates this lifting up (anabasis) of all things into the very presence of God by means of the descent of God in Christ (katabasis), a kenosis that brings many “children to glory.”
Why It Was Necessary
From a post-Darwin perspective, death is perceived as part of the natural order of things. This is not the perspective of the New Testament. Death is a problem, as is Sin. Neither is intended by God in any simple way. Hebrews does not speculate on the origins of either Sin or Death, though it personifies “the one who has the power of death” as “the devil” (2:14). Note that not only is “death” problematic — in that it is the supposed end of life — but that the “fear of death” (2:15) is more so. That is because the fear of death ironically causes one to turn one’s back on life and the creator of life — God.
Thus from the perspective of Hebrews, physical death is less a threat than spiritual death. Spiritual death might be paraphrased in modern terms as an immobilizing “self-absorption” when one is curved in upon oneself so that the needs of the neighbor are ignored. In contradistinction to so being “held in slavery” (2:15), the pioneer has revealed that “merciful and faithful service of God” (2:17) is lived out by reaching out to those in need, which includes those so self-absorbed that their Sin, as well as their spiritual death, is invisible to them. Christmas and the light it brings to those living in the midst of darkness, even in its secular dress, can illuminate the way “outside the camp” of such fear. This is forever epitomized by the transformation of Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
One final word about suffering is appropriate. Hebrews is written to a congregation that has suffered much (10:32-34) because of its confession of Christ within a culture hostile to it. The suffering it is experiencing, then, is not something that is random but comes as a direct response to its public discipleship. It is the suffering of persecution. This passage, which begins and ends by lifting up the suffering of Christ as “fitting,” does not intend to suggest that all suffering (or violence) is to be absorbed by the Christian on the model of Christ.
In fact, the community sought to eliminate the suffering of others where it could (13:1-3). Rather, in the specific situation of persecution, Hebrews proclaims that “death” is not the last word. As Christ “trusted” (2:13) the promises of God, so too might those who find themselves brought to “the time of trial” cling to the knowledge that in Christ God had triumphed over death. As Paul notes, after Christ, death no longer has the power to separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:37-38), a love that even now, though the gospel of the resurrected one, is refashioning the world in God’s own image through the new life given to the Body of Christ.