Lectionary Commentaries for December 30, 2012
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:41-52

Craig A. Satterlee

Finally arriving in the temple, Mary and Joseph are astonished to discover amazed teachers and their precocious twelve-year-old son.

If I had been looking for my daughter for three days, I’d have exploded. But Mary and Joseph ask, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” I wonder how Mary really said it. More important, I wonder why Mary and Joseph looked for Jesus in all the wrong places. Why did it take them three days to figure out that Jesus must be in his Father’s house and about his Father’s business?

Had things been so blessedly ordinary for so long — no more angels, adoring shepherds, and OT prophesies — that the mystery surrounding their son’s birth had begun to fade like a dream? Or maybe Mary and Joseph were aware of what their son would do and become, but figured that was years away. Perhaps Jesus hadn’t shown any signs of theological curiosity and so his parents couldn’t imagine him hanging out in the temple. Maybe Mary and Joseph simply failed to see that their baby was growing up.

Like Mary and Joseph, we cannot or do not want to see that our Jesus is growing up even as we grow up. Our Jesus is growing beyond our childhood, beyond our children’s childhood. Our Jesus is growing beyond our expectations. Arriving in the temple, Mary saw only her boy. She couldn’t or wouldn’t see that Jesus had grown. Eager to be a good mother, always pondering the events that led up to and followed Jesus’ birth, Mary wasn’t ready to “lend” her Jesus to God. Perhaps she just wanted to keep her firstborn close to her. Maybe she simply wanted to delay the symbolic sword that Simeon announced would pierce her own heart as it took the life of her son.

Looking upon Jesus and seeing her baby, Mary asks, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” And Jesus answers, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” These same questions face us this week after Christmas, as peace and goodwill fade and Christmas leaves so many of us wanting. With Mary, we ask, “Why have you treated us like this?” We ask ourselves; we ask our families. We ask the church and we ask God, when our expectations are shattered.

And Jesus answers, “Why were you searching for me?” We know where Jesus has gone. He’s about his Father’s business. But we aren’t ready to let go of our expectations and give our Jesus to God. We are not ready to accept that Jesus did not come to fulfill our expectations. He is not to be found in sentiment for the way things used to be or the way we wish things could be. Jesus is about the future. Jesus was born and lived and died and rose to be about God’s business of putting an end to our searching by making plain the way to God, even if that means shattering our expectations.
In the Temple, Mary expects Jesus to behave a certain way and Jesus expects his mother to know why he isn’t. The problem is that Jesus and his parents have two different understandings of who Jesus’ Father is. Mary tells Jesus that she and his father have been searching anxiously. The message is plain to any child who stays out all night and upon returning home is greeted with a parent’s frantic, “Do you know how worried I was?” But Jesus responds that he’s been in his Father’s house, about his Father’s business. Again, I wonder just how Jesus said it. Was he surprised or scolding?

Regardless of Jesus’ tone, the tension between Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, Son of God, is heightened. Sure, Jesus returns to Nazareth and is obedient to his parents. But it is clear that his priorities have changed. Jesus’ primary concern is not the will of his parents but the will of God and the mission that God’s will entails.

The good news for us in this week after Christmas is that, like Mary and Joseph, our search has ended. Jesus shows us the way to God. The scary part, perhaps, is that our search doesn’t end where we expect. Mary and Joseph searched three days for Jesus, and on the third day found him alive and well. But they didn’t find him in the expected places — the safe confines of his extended family or the familiar company of the pilgrims’ caravan. After three days, Mary and Joseph found Jesus alive and well in the Temple at Jerusalem among the teachers of the law, the very company where it all will all end as Jesus is tried, convicted, and handed over to be killed.

Mary and Joseph find Jesus alive and well after three days in a place they didn’t expect. This sounds like Easter. Yes, Luke’s hint here is of resurrection. Jesus, dead and buried, is raised on the third day, and there is a new temple, Christ’s resurrected body. Our searching will come to an end in new life, meaningful life, the life God intends, but not the life we expect.

But that’s Easter. For now Jesus returns to Nazareth. He disappears back into the fabric of his hometown. For perhaps two more decades Jesus is in an out-of-the way place, far removed from the centers of religion and politics, in the company of ordinary people, just like us. Here Jesus continues to grow “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” The good news is that this description of Jesus is the description of every child of God, no matter what our age. We all will grow as we respond to God’s love. In Christ we can expect nothing else.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Dirk G. Lange

The Christmas season is easily equated with children.

Children abound — from the surprising and unsettling birth of God-as-child in a manger to this childhood story of Samuel. Hannah, a barren, older woman prays in the temple for a child. Eli hears her, thinking first that she may be drunk, then realizing that she is earnestly praying. He blesses her. Hannah makes promises, vowing to give the child to God. She does then give birth to a son, Samuel, whom she brings and entrusts to Eli. She dedicated this child to the Lord.

The scene described in today’s reading is particularly touching (but also foreign to our sensitivity with regards to children today). A mother willingly surrenders her child to the Lord, entrusting him to others, to serve the Lord. Once a year (we are told), Hannah and Elkanah go up to the temple to perform the yearly sacrifice and as they do, she brings a new robe, new clothing for her young and growing son. Each year anew, Eli would bless them.

The boy is already well versed in his service, wearing a linen ephod (a liturgical/priestly garment). The mention of a linen ephod may or may not be surprising. It is unclear to what extent young boys, serving in the sanctuary, would wear one. (The young king David danced a wild dance in front of the Arc of the Covenant apparently wearing only a linen ephod scandalizing Michal, the daughter of Saul! See 2 Samuel 6).

The story of Samuel’s origins is perhaps not surprising. It represents a pattern within the scriptural narrative: God choses the marginalized or the downtrodden to break-in upon history. Sarah, like Hannah, was older and barren. Rachel, too, was barren and jealous of her sister Leah. All three women were dealing with “competitors” — either co-wives or servants.

Hannah was taunted by Peninnah, the other wife of Elkanah. These stories finally parallel that of Elizabeth, also old and barren, who then conceives and gives birth to John, the baptizer, the last and greatest of the prophets. Through these surprising and unexpected births, a child is set apart as truly “of God,” dedicated to and willing to serve God.

The dedication to God of this child is complex. Eli and his household are corrupt. Eli’s inability to curb the wickedness of his own sons is continually revealed in these chapters. This blindness is highlighted in the preceding chapter when the prophet Eli does not recognize Hannah’s fervent as prayer but as drunkenness. (Eventually, Eli himself becomes physically blind.) The reader is left to wonder what the young boy Samuel might have suffered in his role as servant to Eli and as the one to prophecy against Eli and his household.

The child Samuel assumes multiple roles. In our short excerpt from chapter 2, we read that he ministers before the Lord and, as noted, wears a linen ephod. He is designated already to be priest and, as we know from the surrounding verses, also judge and prophet. Samuel is the child of transition, transition from the time of judges to the time of kings. This powerless child signifies a radical shift in power and political structure in Israel.

The mention of Samuel’s clothing is noteworthy here on yet another level. The ephod (and perhaps the little robe as well) points towards his ever-increasing role and growing prominence. Samuel will soon carry the people of Israel towards a new identity. In the Epistle reading for this Sunday (Colossians 3:12-21), we are reminded of another type of clothing that the baptized take on: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We too are called to bear one another, to care for each other in community and the world now not with powerful means but with love.

The lectionary is making a comparison on this First Sunday of Christmas but it is not between the birth of Samuel and the birth of Jesus. Rather it is between the childhood of Samuel and Jesus’s own life as a child. Luke gives us the only story of the twelve-year old boy who stays behind in the Temple, asking questions and astonishing those present with his wisdom.

Mary, unlike, Hannah is not willing to leave her child there and expresses her anxiety to him! There are pronounced dissimilarities highlighted in these stories. The child Samuel, though gift, is still given by his parent to God whereas the child Jesus, as total gift, is entrusted to Mary for care and nurture. One child is “of God.” The other child “is God.”

Reflecting again upon the place of this reading in the Christmas season, we realize that the “child,” as a central theme for these twelve days, is not such a blissful image. The manger scene — already a scene of marginality though this aspect is lost to us through our Christmas folklore — gives way to more violent scenes. On the day after Christmas, the liturgical calendar remembers the young man Stephen, probably not much more than a child at the time, who is stoned to death for his witness to Christ, the incarnate, crucified and resurrection God.

On December 28, the calendar remembers the Holy Innocents – all the children under two who were martyred by Herod in his attempt to thwart God’s plan in Jesus. We hear the wailing, the lament of Rachel. On this Sunday, with the text from 1 Samuel, we remember another child who will become a prophet and the maker and breaker of kings in God’s name.

The season is one of tension and a confrontation with the stark reality of what it means when God enters upon the scene. What does this image of a child contain? How will we grapple with it as preachers and in our prayers? Not the cute, loveable, adorable image we usually conjure up. In the ancient world, being a child was being without rights, a non-entity, subject to death at any whim. Today, millions of children remain equally vulnerable.

The Christmas season reminds us of the precarious form God takes on and the powerless means God uses to accomplish God’s design. A child surrendered to the Temple, serving God in a little ephod, receiving new clothes once a year from his parents. Finally, God assumes those powerless means and becomes himself a child, born in a manger, on the outskirts, dwelling in the Temple — present yet unrecognized.


Commentary on Psalm 148

James Howell

A lot of praising has been going on before we get to the 148th Psalm, and now we sense the Psalter rising to a climactic crescendo, pulling out all the stops. 

The Psalm tantalizingly suggests that a lot of praising was going on, not merely before the 148th Psalm, but before there were Psalms, or songs, or words or even people. St. Augustine pointed out the heavens have always been praising, but the Psalmist wished “to add his own exhortation” to that — as if you come upon people doing a good thing and enjoying it, you like what they are doing and you say “That’s the way! Keep on doing it!” 

All of creation, simply by existing, is a chorus of praise to its Maker. The sun marks the days, the moon the nights, time and space the evidence of a noble, good Creator. Stars, creatures, running water, snow, wind, trees, hawks and caterpillars: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). Both things bound by gravity and the canopy above form an all-enveloping circle of praise — what Hans-Joachim Kraus called a “double choir.”

How appropriate that the lectionary fingers this Psalm for the first Sunday after the birth of our Lord. Manger scenes and Christmas pageants feature not merely people, but mooing cows, braying donkeys, baa-ing sheep, cooing doves, as if the animal kingdom has awakened to its purpose and delight. St. Francis declared that on Christmas, all animals should be give twice their normal feed.

Speaking of Francis: we cannot hear Psalm 148 without recalling the picturesque twist he put on its images in his Canticle of the Creatures. With deep affection, he speaks of the heavenly bodies as family: brother Sun, sister Moon. This personal relationship, this sense of kinship, is what we have lost over many centuries of building, paving over paradise, stringing up things electric.

Francis did not speak adoringly about flowers. He spoke to the flowers, and encouraged them, as though they could understand, to praise the Lord. When walking by a field, he would turn and address stalks of corn, hilly meadows, a running brook, and even the wind rustling through the trees, exhorting them to serve and praise God joyfully.

What we may not realize is that in the winter of 1224-1225, Francis was physically miserable: nearly blind, his lungs riddled with tuberculosis, in constant pain, exhausted from the cumulative effects of fasting and rigorous travel. Mice were infesting the house, and he was emaciated by sporadic bleeding from gaping wounds in his hands, feet and side, with the only medical attention available being of the medieval sort that did more harm than good. Professionally he was stricken: the friars were bickering, in constant turmoil, showing every sign of the eventual ruin of his movement. Emotionally, he was drained.

And yet, instead of sinking into despondency, instead of pleading with God to fix what was broken in and around him, Francis pleaded with the Lord — not to cure him, but to help him bear his illnesses patiently. God’s reply? Francis “was told in spirit” he would receive a “great and precious treasure,” and a promise to “be glad and rejoice in your illness and troubles because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom.”

That treasure began to take shape in consonants, vowels, syllables, with a musical note, a phrase, a melody; his trembling, aching hands took up a pen and began to write a song of eloquent rejoicing in the delights of God’s kingdom: “Be praised, my Lord, for the blessed Brother Sun who gives us the day and enlightens us through You… for Sister Moon and the stars, formed by You so bright, precious, and beautiful.” And so began Psalm 148’s most beautiful stepchild.

Verse 2 invites the angels to praise. That’s all they’ve ever been doing, of course, and it will be our giddy pleasure to join their magnificent concert of praise forever. The angels enjoy a peculiar advantage. They were there, and the first to sing, when Jesus was born; and they were there, and the first to give testimony, when Jesus was raised from the tomb — the first and most trustworthy witnesses to the pillars of our faith, the foundations of our hope.

Elie Wiesel said, “If an angel says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better look out: a big assignment is on the way.” Our big assignment is to praise — and we begin by confessing how alien this is to us. Partly we struggle to find our way to praise because in our media culture, everything gets praised: cars, a bar of soap, a smartphone.

But also, we are burdened by a false image of a machine-God who exists to do our bidding, a functional deity whose sole purpose is to give us a boost if asked. We praise what we cannot and would not control or manipulate; we praise what is awe-inspiring and exponentially beyond our grasp; we praise the truly beautiful, and the immensely wise. We get out of our selves for a time, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Finally in verse 13, the Psalm rather cockily declares, “They shall praise the name of the Lord,” “they being all things and people.” They shall? Is the Psalm hoping they might now? Or does the Psalm blush and insist that if only they paid attention to God they couldn’t help themselves? Or is the Psalm speaking eschatologically?

Many now do not think to praise, or they forget to, or they do not love the Lord Jesus, or they think they are masters or victims of their own fate. But eventually, at the end of the day, they will with all creation praise: “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10).

Psalm 148 thus assists us in doing what we inevitably will do, and so the praise we tender today is a session of choir practice for our eternity with the angels when all will be prayer and praise.

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17

Amy L.B. Peeler

The celebration of the Incarnation can support the life of the church all year long.

The text for Christmas day, Hebrews 1, and the letter to the Colossians, which provides the first text for Christmas season, display a strikingly similar Christology. Both assert Jesus’ role in creating and sustaining all things, and both declare that Jesus, as God’s Son, displays the very image of God.

In this exalted state where he exists above, below, and within creation, Christ provides the model and foundation for the life of the Colossians. In him, it becomes clear from what they have escaped. They are no longer enemies, but those reconciled to God and made blameless before him (1:21–22). In him, they learn how to think correctly by avoiding vain philosophy (2:8–9). In him, they gain freedom from ineffective commandments (2:16–23).

Hence, in Christ there are still rules to follow. Selfishness and meanness remain prohibited. In this new identity based on and in Christ, ethnicity, religion, geography, or social status bars no one from relationship with God or with others in Christ. As a restatement of chapter 1, the author proclaims, “Christ is all and in all!” (3:11).

Positive Injunctions
Verse 12 marks a shift from what they are not — enemies divided by their human identity — and what they should not do — practice idolatry and enmity — to who they are and how they should behave. As ones God has chosen, set apart as holy and loved, they should make sure their behavior matches up with their identity; their outside should match their inside. Knowing who they are helps them to clothe themselves with behavior that fits. Just as ill-fitting clothes detract from the beauty of a person, so too do ill-fitting behaviors detract from the image of Christ that believers should exhibit.

The qualities Paul recommends paint the picture of a gentle person. As opposed to the fiery and combative disposition described in 3:8-9, the believers in Colossæ should exhibit quiet and calm maturity and display heart-felt compassion. They should be kind, humble, gentle, and patient, and give their fellow believers the benefit of the doubt by opting for forgiveness when a reason for complaint occurs. Just as they were forgiven by Christ for their previous way of life, they should be willing to forgive one another. Finally, because they are loved by God, the most important thing they can do is to love. If they add this to their behavioral clothing, it will bind them together not in a superficial way, but in a perfect and whole way.

Let Christ
Following the description of what actions they should display, the author returns to his first subject, Christ, by encouraging them to let Christ and his qualities accomplish two works in their lives.

First, he admonishes them to let the peace of Christ reign. Specifically, he intends for the peace of Christ to rule over their hearts. This term carries the sense of being in charge of their hearts as a judge. It carries the sense of authority and adjudication. Hence, this is not just a matter of Jesus reigning over individual hearts, but of him reigning supreme and administering decisions over the heart of the congregation. The “your” in this sentence is a plural.

The prominent idea here is not that his peace will quiet a divided and disturbed individual’s heart, but that he will bring peace to the heart of the community, which might have been challenged by feelings of animosity. The communal nature of this peace is affirmed again in the author’s next phrase in which he reminds them that they were called to peace in one body. The reconciliation of the members of this group, who come from a variety of backgrounds, is his goal. When this is achieved, they must remember to be thankful for this miracle.

Second, he encourages them to let the word of Christ live among them richly. In other places in the letter (1:5, 25; 4:3), he indicates that this word is his way of referring to the good news, about God’s work in Christ. When this story gets rooted in the life of the community — when this narrative determines their perspective and their behavior — they will be able to teach and even correct one another wisely. It is one thing to have peace in a community where everyone is polite and gentle. It is quite another to maintain peace even when members of the community call one another out on behavior that needs to change.

Strikingly, he asks the community to practice this difficult task through song. The psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes (a possible indication of the variety of types of music used in this congregation) are meant to teach and to form, not just to uplift the spirits. Similar to the first encouragement, this realization of this one should also result in thanksgiving to God. The final song is one of praise to God who achieves this kind of community.

Living in a Christmas state of mind
The description of the songs of this early community provides a connection to its place in the lectionary. Christmas is one time of year that most people tend to do a lot more singing, especially a lot more communal singing. Yet the instructions of this passage are clearly not meant for only a special time of the year. Verse 17 couldn’t be more comprehensive: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Yet the special celebrations of the Incarnation can support a mindset that continues all year. Because the Godhead put on flesh, his people can clothe themselves with his qualities and do so not just at Christmas.

But how? How do you keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year? This passage provides two avenues. First, live thankfully. The final admonition is the third repetition of this idea. When you do everything in the name of Jesus, do it as thanksgiving to God. Cultivating a spirit of gratefulness continually reminds us both of the great miracles God has achieved, like the Incarnation, but also the more mundane ones, like the creation of a peaceful community.

That leads to the second avenue for “Christmas kind of living.” To celebrate the coming of God in one’s behavior all year long is a communal event. There are no singulars in this passage; everything is directed to the “y’all” of the congregation. To live in a Christmas state of mind, peaceable and wise, is to live counter-culturally, and you cannot maintain that on your own for long. To carry the songs and hymns and odes of the season on into the bleakness of winter and then on into even the dog days of summer takes a critical mass, a body, brought together by the spirit from a variety of backgrounds that can teach and admonish one another to live giving thanks to God always.