Lectionary Commentaries for January 3, 2021
Second Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

James Howell

Words matter. In our culture, where words are cheap, or not to be weighed carefully, or that are seized upon as evidence of ideological wrongness, words matter.

We know because God created everything, us included, by simply speaking. In Genesis 1 and clearly in the background/foreground of John 1, God creates the universe(s) by simply speaking. “Let it be.” And it comes to be.

John 1 reminds us of the time when, as I have envisioned it, “God was young.” God has always been—but if we think of God as old, God was young when God spoke at Creation. Before there was anything at all, God, being fully God and with no need for anything else, spoke in love. Love speaks. Love is not quiet. Love cannot keep silent. The love within God the Trinity (can we preach on this without getting diverted into trying to explain the Trinity to skeptics?) overflowed and could not help itself. God made a world, a stupendous universe, and tender, small things like the flower in your yard, a snowflake, a child tottering by, and your own visage in the mirror.

John 1, we have to notice, just decades after Jesus the man lived and died, speaks of Jesus in sumptuous, startling, annihilating, contested terms. George Lindbeck, in his amazing book, The Nature of Doctrine, speaks of “Christological maximalism.” We cannot say enough fawning, extravagant, eloquent things about God in Christ.

The light in the darkness image invites the preacher to do peculiar things in preparing a sermon. I go outside, in the dark. I light a candle, gaze at the stars. I read this text with a flashlight. What is this light in the darkness? Doesn’t even a little bit of light, a flickering candle, banish the darkness?

Our text is heartbreaking. The puzzle, the tragedy—that God was in “the world made through him, but the world knew him not” (verse 10). “He came to his home, and his own people received him not” (verse 11). Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, said “Let our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” We need go no further than this week’s text. God made the world. But the world did not recognize, know, or welcome the very one to whom it owed its existence. We can blame the world. But what is that in God’s own heart? If we want to ponder what grace is about, it is right here.

Jesus was born “not of blood” (verse 13). And yet, there was blood. I continue, after Christmas, to be struck by Rachel Marie Stone’s reflection on what Jesus being born “of blood” was for Mary:

A girl was in labor with God. She groaned and sweated and arched her back, crying out for her deliverance and finally delivering God, God’s head pressing on her cervix, emerging from her vagina, perhaps tearing her flesh a little; God the Son, her Son, covered in vernix and blood, the infant God’s first breath the close air of crowded quarters … God the Son, her Son, pressed to her bare breast … God the Son, her Son, drank deeply from his mother. Drink, my beloved. This is my body, broken for you.”

Jesus, God in the flesh, was born “not of blood”—but there had to have been lots of blood!—for you. That is the glory, not the triumphant regal poses from medieval art. I wonder odd things—like did Mary have any postpartum depression? Was Joseph as attentive as in the paintings and pageants? Was Jesus colicky in his first weeks?

John the Baptist is in John’s poetic opening as in Luke’s nativity narrative. He is always in the Christmas stories—but never in pageants, Christmas picture books, or any narrative retellings of Jesus’ birth. No wonder: he is hairy, maybe a bit unsavory, like a survivalist, hollering “Repent!” like a street preacher. Did he holler? Perhaps his tone was more plaintive, pleading, almost tearful, so loving: Please, repent. Advent was to have been a season of repentance, of “prepare him room,” and Lent is coming. Christmas perhaps should be not just joy but also mortification. God has come down to earth. Nothing could possibly be the same.

John the Baptist, despite his evident fame and popularity, was forever deferring to Jesus. Karl Barth, rather famously, kept a print of the Matthias von Grünewald painting of the crucifixion in his office. John the Baptist, anachronistically, but theologically on target, is standing at the foot of the cross, pointing up at Jesus with a bony, crooked finger. Barth often said, “I want to be that finger.” Every preacher’s ambition is right there. The question is: can we trust ourselves simply to point to Jesus?

As I wrote in The Beauty of the Word, so many sermons are not about God or Jesus at all. They are about us, our faith, our struggles, our prayer, our serving, our sin, our hope. But the Scriptural witness is primarily about God, and Jesus. Various Bible stories have no moral, no takeaway. The Transfiguration? The story is about the glory of Jesus. Ours is to be like the disciples, falling on our faces in awe. The Temptation? It is now “How to overcome temptation the way Jesus did.” Not one of us would survive the devil’s assault for a minute. Jesus did what we could never do. And do we are in awe of him.

John 1 is a symphony, a poem, a painting, an opera, a whisper, a shouted declamation that Jesus is far more amazing than you had ever imagined. Light, preceding Creation, the Word, the cause, reason and purpose of all things, banishing the darkness. Ours is to be in awe, to shiver in reverie, to be “lost in wonder, love and praise.” And then, like John the Baptist and Karl Barth, simply to point. The preacher is the docent in the museum, leading parishioners to the big picture of Jesus. You point, you say Wow, and they do not even notice you any longer.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

C. L. Crouch

These verses speak to a community of migrants and refugees.1

They speak to those who have been torn from their homes and homelands, who have seen their loved ones die or disappear. They speak to those who have suffered at the hands of an empire’s ruthless power—threatened, coerced, and terrorized into conformity with the ways and means of others. They speak to those on the run, in fear for their lives.

In this they form a natural complement to today’s gospel reading, which tells of the fearful flight of Jesus and his parents to Egypt—a desperate gamble to escape the murderous reach of Herod.

Two historical horizons present themselves as possible contexts for the origins of these verses in Jeremiah 31. The first and most typically cited is the late seventh century BCE, about a century after the people of the northern kingdom of Israel had been deported by the Assyrian empire. In this context, the prophet Jeremiah is understood to be speaking to the remnant left behind, coaxing them toward reunification with their southern brethren in Jerusalem.

The second and more likely background is the sixth century BCE, after the destruction of Judah by the Babylonian empire. After years of warnings from Jeremiah and others, disaster had finally befallen the kingdom: the city sacked, the temple destroyed, the king and his court deported or dead. The deportees who survived the journey to Babylonia were faced with a strange new life in a foreign country, their movements and actions subject to a foreign power, whose orders were conveyed through authorities speaking a foreign language.

Depending on a deportee’s status, she might have found herself in Babylon with Judah’s former king, Jehoiachin, and his family, or she might have been resettled in a refugee camp in rural Babylonia. Ezekiel’s community seems to have been part of one of the latter groups, who were expected to farm the land and pay taxes to the imperial government.

But the deportees in Babylonia, though certainly the most famous, were not the only ones to suffer the pain of exile. The book of Jeremiah is a book of many migrations. The Benjaminites (Jeremiah 6:1) and the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35) seek refuge in Jerusalem, hoping against hope that it might withstand the Babylonian onslaught. Once the territory has been overrun, people flee across the Jordan to Ammon, Moab, and Edom (40:11-12). Jeremiah himself is said to have left the devastated rubble of Judah for Egypt, part of a group seeking refuge from persecution by the Babylonian authorities (41:17—43:7). The group is divided over the causes of their plight, but united in their decision that flight represents a better chance of survival than staying put. The book of Jeremiah responds to a world of people on the move.

The divine word that speaks into this world is attentive to anxieties and concerns common among refugees and migrants.

A strange silence surrounds this time in Israel’s history—a silence that points to the impossibility of giving voice to profound trauma. But, after this period of unspeakable suffering, God promises the Israelites that God will bring them home again. Even if they have been scattered to “the farthest parts of the earth”—God will bring them home again. The joy this word evokes is so profound that it moves the people to tears. The pain and loss through which they have struggled for so long will be brought to an end—God will deliver them.

God’s motivation to action is identified as a form of parental care: “I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Depictions of God as a loving parent are especially prominent in the literature of this period, though perhaps nowhere so significantly so as the creation of humanity in God’s image in Genesis 1. The language signals that God’s relationship with the people is a personal one; humanity is more than an assortment of pawns being played across the earth for divine gain. God cares for the people, like a parent cares for a child.

The land to which the people will return is one akin to Eden. Last seen devastated and war-torn, the fields and the waterways of Israel’s homeland are now veritably bursting with life and abundance: “the grain, the wine, and the oil…the young of the flock and the herd.” God is not sending these traumatized people back into a war zone, but into a healthy homeland where their safety will be assured.

The book of Jeremiah reminds us that there are many causes of exile—foreign armies, famine, fear. These verses call us to acknowledge the great pain and suffering of those who seek refuge. Whether forcibly evicted from their homes or pressed to flight by famine, the exigencies of a collapsing national government, or persecution by the denizens of power, to abandon one’s home and flee into the arms of the unknown is a terrible, terrifying risk, and one that never comes without a cost.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 5, 2020.


Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 147 is classified as a Community Hymn—a hymn of the people that celebrates God’s sovereign reign over the community of faith and over all creation.1

It is the second of the five psalms known as the “Final Hallel” (Hallelujah) that form the doxological close of the book of Psalms (Psalms 146-150). As do each of the five psalms, Psalm 147 begins and ends with the words “Praise the LORD,” which is “hallelujah” in Hebrew.

Psalm 147 may be divided into three sections, each with a call to praise followed by descriptive words about God’s sovereignty over the community of faith and the created world.
verses 1-6:        Invitation to Sing Praises to God
verses 7-11:       Invitation to Sing and Make Music to God
verses 12-20:     Invitation to Glorify God

The focus of this commentary is verses 12-20, but the context of the verses within Psalm 147 is important to understand. In verses 1-6, the community of worshipers is invited to participate in praising the Lord and then is given the reasons for the invitation to do so in a series of statements about God’s actions on behalf of the community of faith and all creation. God is gracious (verse 1); God builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts (verse 2); God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (verse 3); God determines the number of the stars and names them (verse 4); God is great and abundant in power and understanding (verse 5); and God lists up the downtrodden and casts out the wicked (verse 6).

Verse 7 issues a two-fold invitation to participate in singing Psalm 147: “Sing to the Lord with thanks” and “make music to our God.” What follows in verses 8-11 is a continuation of the reason for the invitation to praise given in verses 1-6. God covers the heavens with the clouds, prepares rain for the grass, and makes grass grow on the hills (verse 8); God gives the animals and the young ravens their food (verse 9); God does not delight in the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner, but rather in those who revere (in the NRSV, “fear”) God (verses 10-11).

And thus we come to our focus verses: 12-20. Verse 12 issues the third call to participate in singing Psalm 147: “Glorify O Jerusalem, the Lord; praise your God, O Zion.” Verse 13’s opening word, “for,” introduces the reason that the singers of the psalm should glorify Jerusalem and Praise God. God strengthens the bars of your gate and blesses your children (verse 13); God grants peace within your borders and fills you with the finest of wheat (verse 14); God sends out commands to the earth and the words run swiftly (verse 15); God give snow like wool and scatters frost like ashes (verse 16); God hurls down hail like crumbs so that no one can stand (verse 17); God sends out God’s word and makes the wind blow and the waters flow (verse 18); God declares statutes and ordinances to Jacob and all Israel, unlike any other nation (verses 19-20).

Verses 12-20 issue a resounding cry to “Praise the LORD” and outlines the various reasons why the psalm singer should do so. The reasons to do so are structured in something of an inclusion structure. According to verses 13-14, God cares and provides for each individual member of the community of faith. And in verses 19-20, God’s statutes and ordinances are the means by which God cares and provides for the community of faith. In the intervening verses, verses 15-18, the psalmist depicts God as creator and sovereign over the created order, sending out God’s word, giving snow and frost, hurling down hail and cold, and causing the winds to blow and waters to flow.

Thus, we might see a structure for these verses as follows:
verse 12:                   call to praise
verses 13-14:          call to each member of the community of faith
verses 15-18:          call to all creation
verses 19-20:         call to the whole community of faith

All the faithful are called to see God’s good work in their lives—for strength, legacy, peace, and fulfillment. The faithful also are called to see God’s good work in creation—in the snow, the frost, the hail, the wind, the waters. And, finally, the faithful are called to see God’s good work for the community of faith as a whole—the statutes and ordinances, that is, the path to the good for society as a whole.

The closing verses of Psalm 147 outline a process of what I like to call “becoming human” as God’s good creation. We begin with ourselves, attempting to understand who we are in relationship to God; we then observe the world around us and try to fathom God’s place in the magnificent created order; and then we join with the larger community as we pursue the good for all creation. James L. Mays, on page 442 of the 1994 Interpretation commentary on the book of Psalms, sums it up well:

The history of the community of faith is a small part of reality, but the power that moves its course is the same that governs the stars. On the other hand, the processes of the world are vast, impersonal, and uncaring, but the sovereignty at work in the world is the saving, caring God whom Israel has come to know in its history.

The words of Psalm 147 remind the faithful of the nature and character of the God they worship. Psalm 147:12-20 is the lectionary reading for the second Sunday after Christmas Day, along with John 1:10-18 and Ephesians 1:3-14.

John 1 states that “the word” was in the world in the fleshly embodiment of the person of Jesus. But only those who accepted “the word” as both the embodiment and transcendence of God, that is those who saw God as intimate provider and sovereign of the universe, could be called the true children of God.

Ephesians 1:3-14 reminds the reader that believers are blessed as children of God in all of God’s wisdom and insight (Ephesians 1:8) and that their futures are assured according to God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).

Thus, all three texts (Psalm 147:12-20; John 1:10-18; and Ephesians 1:3-14) remind the community of faith that God is creator of all and yet that God intimately cares for humanity.


    1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 3, 2016.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Susan Hylen

The fact of human difference may no longer surprise us.1

What may surprise us in this passage is that the author stops to thank God for the foresight and grace to plan this messy human diversity.

Ephesians is a letter about living together in the midst of human differences. The author writes as a Jew to a largely Gentile audience with the message that in Christ God has “made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14 NRSV). It is not easy living together as two groups who have previously been at odds with one another on religious grounds. The letter acknowledges that living with differences requires effort: it takes humility, gentleness, and patience (cf. Ephesians 4:2-3).

Before the author goes on to describe this situation and advise the recipients how to respond, he first stops to thank God for having placed us in this situation to begin with. Ephesians 1:3-14 is actually one long sentence extolling God’s action. The verbs in vv. 3-10 name God’s action, while vv. 11-14 use passive verbs to describe indirectly what God has done to or for humankind. Many of Paul’s letters open with thanksgiving for the faith or spiritual gifts of the recipient community (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:4-9). Ephesians includes both a thanksgiving for the community (1:15-23) and for God’s action (1:3-14).

God is praised in these verses for having chosen and adopted the church as God’s own people. Verse 4 states that “God chose us” to be holy and blameless, and verse 5 adds, “he destined us for adoption as his children.” The verb in verse 11 “we have obtained an inheritance” is difficult to translate but also carries the sense of having been appointed or chosen for this inheritance. The author pours out praise to God for having chosen us.

Adoption was not uncommon in antiquity. Among the elite it served the important function of allowing for an heir if one had no children, or if one’s children died. The adopted person (who could be a child or an adult) gained social status through association with the parent’s social status. In the same way a biological child would, the adopted child benefitted from the social and political connections of their parent. They also gained wealth through their inheritance. In return the adopted child honored the parent through taking the parent’s name and being loyal to them.

Similarly, adoption by God is a blessing for which the author praises God. It is an action planned by God (verses 5, 9, 10, 11) and also pleasing to God (“according to the good pleasure of his will,” verse 5). It results in the praise of God (verses 6, 14) by the adopted ones, who have a share in an inheritance from God (verse 14).

The adoption indicated here is unique in that it is not the adoption of an individual but of a people. The language echoes the stories of God choosing Israel (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:6; Psalm 135:4; Isaiah 41:8), and the purpose of being chosen for “redemption” (Ephesians 1:7, 14) evokes God’s release of Israel from slavery (e.g., Exodus 6:6). In addition, all of the relevant verbs and pronouns (we, us) in the passage are plural. The author is not so much concerned with God’s relationship to individual believers as with the claim that God has chosen a people for God’s self.

There is much about God’s choice that remains unexplained. Indeed, it is part of “the mystery of [God’s] will,” which remains difficult to understand even though God has made it known (Ephesians 1:9). The fact of God’s choosing has always been difficult to understand. The author does not try to explain the inner logic or ethical reasoning of God’s choice. Instead, he notes that it is a mystery, yet one for which we should give thanks.

This people God has chosen includes both Jews and Gentiles. At the end of the passage the author describes himself as part of one group that was “the first to set our hope on Christ” (Ephesians 1:2), alongside another group including the recipients of the letter “who also heard the word of truth … and believed in him” (verse 13). God graciously adopts not a single child or even a group with one ethnic or religious identity. Instead, God chooses and adopts a diverse group of people.

Although God is the primary actor who is praised in these verses, Christ appears throughout the passage as an important part of God’s plan for adoption. God chose us for adoption “through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). God gave grace “that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (verse 6). The letter will go on to describe Christ’s central role in the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles: “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near … So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:17-19). God’s will is revealed through the death of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13, 16) as a choice of one people composed of two groups that previously were hostile to each other.

The adoption of God’s people is part of a larger plan that has been established in the past and has both present and future effects. Already God has gifted the community with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. This is not simply a promise of future gifts to be experienced in heaven, but a present gift of spiritual blessings. Similarly, in Ephesians 1:14 the Gentiles are described as having been sealed with the Holy Spirit, likely a reference to baptism. The experience of transformation by the Spirit is “a down payment of our inheritance” (verse 14). Believers participate now in something that is a preview of the gifts that will be realized fully in the age to come.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on July 12, 2015.