Lectionary Commentaries for December 27, 2020
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

Melinda Quivik

This special day, celebrating the Presentation of Jesus at the temple in accordance with the law, is filled with fruitful directions for the preacher.

  • The word for the revelation Simeon received (chrematiza) is also in the story of Joseph receiving notice in a dream not to return to Herod after Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:12) and in the angel’s appearance to Cornelius, the centurion, telling him to send for Peter (Acts 10:22). The Spirit imparts visions of a new order of reality that both saves Joseph’s little family, all of Cornelius’ household, and finally “the salvation” revealed to Simeon.
  • When Simeon speaks of “the falling and the rising of many,” he encapsulates Jesus’ destiny, reversing the expected pattern of human life which we are accustomed to think of as success preceding failure.
  • Jesus will be “a sign that will be opposed,” echoing the prophet Isaiah: “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against … a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem … They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isaiah 8:14-15). This is an image of Jesus which is not the friendly guy who does not confront evil. This is the biblical Jesus who speaks harsh words to those who cheat the poor.
  • Simeon’s response to taking Jesus in his arms are the words that conclude communion in the worship of many mainline traditions, the Nunc Dimittis (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 113): “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace …” We become Simeon when we sing his song. 
  • We hear in Anna’s prophetic voice the voice of Hannah who longed for a child as well (1 Samuel 1-2). In gratitude to God for giving Samuel to her and her husband Elkanah, she sings what becomes a model for Mary’s Magnificat. God’s power to effect what seems impossible is good news for those in need.  

The two little words, “falling and rising,” in this seemingly straightforward story may seem inconsequential, but because the ideas are repeated, a working preacher sits up and takes notice. In normal language, we would speak of something “rising and falling.” Anna, we would say, worshipped “day and night.” We might explore a reason for this reversal, putting the fall before the being raised up. 

These words are keyed to struggles and sorrows, in keeping with the truth of human life. Simeon tells Mary that “a sword will pierce” her soul (her psyche). She will experience great pain, thorough agony, and the madness of those who witness injustice and are unable to stop it. When we who live on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection hear Simeon’s words, we have a way to know something of what Mary endures watching her son die. Or maybe we can never know; at least we honor the torment. She is the mother of all the disappeared and oppressed, the imprisoned and tortured protesters throughout history. She stands beside his cross. She watches. Before the rising is the falling. Before the glory of God is the cross. 

Mirroring the order—down before up, cross before triumph—is the fasting and praying Anna practiced “night and day.” We first learn that she is up all night and only then do we learn that she is also in prayer all day. She is keeping vigil at all hours, waiting for the arrival of the one who will redeem Israel. These two prophets know what God is about: salvation comes through confrontation. The sign of the Messiah is opposition. There is no resurrection without the crucifixion. There is no unbinding without the binding. That the hard reality of repentance precedes forgiveness tells us plainly that there is no forgiveness where there is no fault. 

The fact of injustice, pain, hurt, denigration, want, and death mean that God is eternally at work to bring healing to all facets of our lives. The Lord is at work in the world just as Mary sings about it when the angel announces God’s favor on her. She gives thanks that God brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and sends “the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). All these powerful actions mean to reverse normal worldly expectations. 

Not in spite of, but because of struggle and destruction, the Lord, the Holy Spirit, brings consolation and deliverance. The Holy Spirit guides the faithful to meet the Messiah in order to take on the same mission: to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. Just as the Spirit “rested” on Simeon (and on Joseph and Cornelius), the Spirit rests on the baptized in every age, compelling prayer and fasting, urging us to righteous deeds, calling us to see through or within our failures a pathway to the good. The Lord uses the wicked ways of all creation in order to bring about what nurtures and creates peace, and thus is Simeon able to sing of a peace which has come to him because he has seen the savior. 

When we end our worship with the words of Simeon, we acknowledge that we, too, have seen the Lord. We have been given a vision of the peace Simeon knew after such a long wait in the temple. We have heard the word of the Lord, confessed our sin, and received forgiveness. Whether or not we are able to be present to each other in person in the late months of 2020 because of a pandemic––whether or not we are given the bread of life in person––we receive through God’s Word the promise of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. 

This is enough for us to sing thanksgiving for this vision of the Lord’s real presence in our lives. We sing Simeon’s own experience when we sing his words.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3

Michael J. Chan

The book of Ezekiel defines a true prophet in this way: one who repairs the wall and stands in the breach on behalf of the people (Ezekiel 22:30).1

Based on this criterion, the author of Isaiah 61:10—62:3 is truly a prophet. He stands in the gap between God and Judah, decreeing a new age of freedom and restoration (Isaiah 61:1-3) and refusing to leave God in silence until Zion’s vindication is manifest on earth as it is in heaven. Fundamentally, Isaiah 61:10—62:3 is about the profound transformation that occurs in Zion as a result of the prophet’s spirit-anointed mission. So fundamental is this transformation that Zion has to be renamed (Isaiah 62:2).

The passage divides easily into 5 units: Isaiah 61:1-3, 4-7, 8-9, 10-11; 62:1-3. Within these five units are two speakers, the prophet (Isaiah 61:1-3, 4-7, 10-11; 62:1-3) and God (Isaiah 61:8-9).

Even though we know next to nothing about this prophet’s historical identity, we do know something about what the prophet thought about his own calling and how it relates to the restoration of Zion found in Isaiah 60-62 more broadly. The prophet is anointed by the Spirit (Isaiah 61:1), and his vocation is delineated in a series of infinitive clauses, which indicate the nature of his mission:

  • “to bring good news to the oppressed” (verse 1)
  • “to bind up the brokenhearted” (verse 1)
  • “to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (verse 1)
  • “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (verse 2)
  • “to comfort all who mourn” (verse 2)
  • “to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (verse 3)

The heraldic nature of the call is unmistakable. His job is to announce the new age described throughout Isaiah 60-62 to the oppressed, brokenhearted, prisoners, and mourners. In other words, like many of us, he is called to shine the light of promise into the dungeons of hopelessness.

In fact, when considered in light of this larger context, one finds that the description of the prophet’s vocation in Isaiah 60:1-3 is the very center of Isaiah 60-62, the earliest literature in Isaiah 56-66 (Third Isaiah). As Joseph Blenkinsopp shows, “there are 44 verses (i.e., lines) preceding and 45 following this passage, or, to be more precise, there are 295 words preceding and 296 following it.”2 But the prophet’s mission is not only central to the literary structure of these chapters, it is also central to Zion’s redemption, not unlike the mission of the “servants” of Isaiah 40-55 (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).

Remarkable things will happen because of the prophet’s mission. The people of Zion will be called “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3), they will rebuild and repair ruins, and they will exercise dominion over strangers and foreigners. Not only will the city of Zion be renewed, it will once again reflect God’s glory and wield international power (see my Working Preacher commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6 for my comments on how to preach the more problematic imperial aspects of Zion theology).

But even more breathtaking are the claims made in Isaiah 61:6a: The entire audience will be called “priests of Yhwh, ministers of our God” (v. 6a). The status of “priest” is typically reserved only for a select group within Israel. The text’s broadening of the priestly title to his entire audience is in line with the theological tendencies of Third Isaiah’s prophetic predecessor, “Second Isaiah,” who applied the entire Davidic covenant to Yhwh’s people (Isaiah 55:3-5). This special people, moreover, will not only be exalted in status, they will also receive the “wealth of the nations” (Isaiah 61:6), a reference back to Isaiah 60. Zion’s fortunes are reversed: Instead of double shame, the audience will inherit double in their land, including everlasting joy (Isaiah 61:7). The God of Isaiah 60-62 is a God who promises a profound reversal of circumstances.

Isaiah 61 concludes with two speeches, one by Yhwh (Isaiah 61:8-9) and one by the anointed prophet whose vocational report opened this chapter (verses 10-11). The new act of salvation promised in Isaiah 61 is grounded in the love of Yhwh for what is right (cf. Ps 37:28) and in his hatred for robbery-tainted burnt offerings (Isaiah 61:8-9). He will give his people their due and, in a promise reminiscent of Isaiah 55:3, will make with “them” an eternal covenant (Isaiah 61:8). As is the case in Isaiah 55, this new covenant has implications for Israel’s relationship to the nations. Zion’s inhabitants will be renowned, and all who see them will take notice that they are a “seed” blessed by Yhwh (61:9; cf. esp. Isaiah 55:5). Isaiah 61:10-11 returns to the voice of the anointed messenger in the form of praise.

Turning to Isaiah 62:1-3, we encounter again the powerful and persistent voice of the prophet, who refuses to remain silent until the Jerusalem of history is transformed into the Zion of eschatology (Isaiah 62:1); or, to use his own words, “until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1). The prophet embodies Yhwh’s own devotion to Jerusalem, where Yhwh’s name dwells.

Reflective of her newfound station among the nations of the earth, Zion receives a “new name that the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isaiah 62:2). The giving of a new name commonly accompanied the giving of a new position in the royal court (cf. Daniel 4:8 and the Ethiopian courtier, “Ebed-melech,” in Jeremiah [see, e.g., Jeremiah 38:7-12]) or could even be associated with significant moments in life (see, e.g., Genesis 32:28).

These are extravagant promises. But one discovers a profound tension when one compares the promises made to Zion in Isaiah 61:10—62:3 with a sober analysis of Jerusalem’s history: The Zion of Third Isaiah is not the Jerusalem of history. This ever-widening gap between Third Isaiah’s promises and Jerusalem’s history (ancient and modern) produces a sense of dissonance not unknown to Christians. For centuries, Christians have waited for the second “Advent” of their lord. They give liturgical voice to this longing in the weeks leading up to Christmas. And while Advent and Christmas are typically seasons of joy, careful thought reveals that Advent is also a season of sighing: Celebrating Christ’s first Advent is fine, but what about the second Advent? Where is our Lord? Where has God been while disease, poverty, violence, and hunger afflict creation? Sure, humanity can do more, but the eschatological and apocalyptic texts of the Bible indicate that humanity cannot do it all. God is needed. The world is constantly changing but will it ever be transformed? Will we ever be able to celebrate Easter, not as a remembrance but as a reality? The luster of promise expounded so beautifully in Isaiah 61:10—62:3, loses some of its luster in view of lived experience—“Amen, but where are you God? … ”

The mission given to the prophet of Isaiah 61:10—62:3 is still needed today, so long as the world is populated by those who are brokenhearted, mourning and in captivity. Christians often see Christ as a fulfillment of prophecies given in Isaiah 61:10—62:3 (Luke 4:16-30), but in point of fact, the prophet’s mission (see especially Isaiah 61:1-3) represents an abiding call, a mantle which Jesus happened to take up in the first century, but which remains available to those called to wear it. So long as Christians have to look forward to Christ’s Second Advent, there will be need for a herald of promises as-yet-unseen.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 28, 2014.
  2. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66 (AB 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 208.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 148

Rolf Jacobson

The psalmist of Psalm 148 sings:1

Praise the Lord from the earth
You sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command.

What an odd call to praise! What an utterly odd call to praise!

I live in the northern hemisphere. And not just in the northern hemisphere, but I live almost exactly half way between the equator and the north pole—I live a few hundred yards south of 45 degrees north—and, I should add, in the middle of the great continental mass of North America.

Why do I bring this up? Because my “global location” means that “I know from snow”—as my friends in New Jersey would put it.

I know from snow. And I also know from hail, frost, stormy winds, freezing rain, ice, sleet, and even sneet.

I know from the entire spectrum of what my Sermon-Brainwave colleague Karoline Lewis calls, “nature’s unnecessary freezing of water.”

And to be quite honest, because I am a double amputee and use a wheelchair year round, I often greet the various forms in which nature’s unnecessary freezing of waters comes to us with a curse.

Which is why I find Psalm 148’s imperative call to “Praise the Lord” so odd:

Praise the Lord from the earth
You sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command.
Mountains and all hills,
Fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle
Creeping things and flying birds!

What are we to make of this ancient call to praise? Is it a poetic flourish, whereby nature is addressed anthropomorphically in order to underscore the psalm’s global call for all human life to praise God? It is at least that—a lovely poetic flourish. But we should not regard it as an anthropomorphic call for all humanity to praise God.

A Reminder of Nature’s Power and Danger

This poetic turn of phrase is, first of all, a reminder that all creation—and not just human beings—belongs to the Creator. The psalm’s poetry invites us to imagine the very heart of a windy, winter storm as the summoning of the Creator—“fulfilling his command” (more literally, “doing his word”).

This poetic imagination of Psalm 148 will remind us all that although we humans may have a specially endowed divine role within creation as the only creatures who have been created “in God’s image,” yet we should nevertheless be aware that the rest of creation nevertheless still belongs to God and operates according to the divine will—“doing his word.”

We are reminded that nature is powerful and dangerous. It operates according to the laws that God has established for it. Humans are to respect those laws or be placed at risk. This Psalm and the Old Testament in general do not have a romantic view of creation—nature can be dangerous. The seas roar, mountains shake and predators are plentiful.

The Old Testament views creation as a wild, beautiful, but dangerous and at times chaotic place. Nature operates according to God’s will. According to Psalm 104, there is a divinely established order in creation: “the sun knows the time of its setting” (verse 19). And night is the domain of the wild animals, especially predators: “all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (verse 22). Note that this order is divinely bestowed; the lions—ever the symbol of nature’s independence and danger—seek their food from God.

Creation, too, belongs to God and will be redeemed

There is more. The call for nature to praise the Lord, which is found here and elsewhere in the Psalter and in the Book of Isaiah, has a vital theological message for us.

The psalmic trope of creation’s praise, attested in Psalms 148:1-6 and 19:1-4 and elsewhere, bears witness to the biblical teaching that the redemptive scope of God’s work includes the entirety of creation. Because of the universal power of sin, all of creation is in rebellion against and separated from its Creator. But the Lord, who is faithful to the entirety of creation, intends to be reconciled to all of nature, not just humanity.

In the New Testament, Paul affirms both that the entire “creation was subject to futility” that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” and also that through Christ God renewing creation—in Paul’s words, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20-22).

In the Old Testament, creation itself is likewise understood as in rebellion against God. Especially throughout the psalms, the waters of chaos are portrayed as the manifestation of creation’s rebellion against God and against God’s purposes. And in Psalm 148, precisely those rebellious chaos waters are bid, “Praise the Lord!”

Psalm 148 has a message that is especially fitting in the Christmas season, when we remember that when the Savior was born, he was laid to rest in a manger, amidst the animals—sheep and goats, cattle and oxen. And notice that many Advent and Christmas carols bear witness that the reconciliation that Christ was born to achieve includes not only humans, but all of creation. Just a few examples:

  • In “Joy to the world” we sing that “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” of praise. And also, “no more let sing and sorrow reign, nor thorns infest the ground.”
  • In “All earth is hopeful,” we sing “all earth is hopeful the Savior comes at last, furrows lie open for God’s creative task.”
  • In “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” we sing “all creation, join in praising God, the Father, Spirit, Son, evermore your voices raising to the eternal three in one.”
  • In “People, Look East” we sing “Furrows be glad, though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there. Give up your strength the seed to nourish.”

As mentioned above, the psalm’s call to praise is evidence of God’s commitment to be reconciled to the rebellious creation. It’s helpful here to remember that the act of praise is a fundamentally relational act.

Praise is directed to God, because praise puts our communication with God back on the right footing. Praise transforms the rebellious, “NO! I want to know good and evil like a god!” of Adam and Eve, with a more humble and relationally proper, “Your name, O Lord, your name is exalted.” That is, when we praise God, we acknowledge both to God and to others that we are not the lords of our own lives. When we praise God, we acknowledge both to God and to others that the Lord is lord, and we are not.

Praise is thus a liturgical action that turns us away from ourselves, that works to untwist the curved-in-upon-ourselves nature of our being.

Praise is thus a liturgical action that, as my old teacher Jim Nestingen used to say, that “trues us,” that straightens us out and aligns our rebellious will with God.

When the psalms call on creation to join Israel’s praise of the Lord, the psalms are thus bearing witness to the wide will and work of heaven. That heaven’s love for and commitment to creation certainly embrace human beings, but heaven’s love for and commitment to creation go far beyond just us and include sun and moon, fire and hail, even the unnecessary freezing of water that we call snow and frost. The Lord’s redeeming arms are broad enough to embrace all of creation.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 28, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

John Frederick

Galatians 4:4-7 contrasts our former status as slaves to the elemental spirits/principles of the world with our current status as “sons of God” because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.1

The adoption language in Galatians is framed in masculine categories (the word in Greek is not “children” but “sons”), and this is not incidental. In the Jewish culture of the time the inheritance and leadership of the family was located in the male heirs and male family members. Yet, strikingly, as Galatians itself demonstrates, just as circumcision had been replaced by the more egalitarian initiation sacrament of baptism, the benefits of “sonship” were now extended to all genders and socio-economic statuses—women, men, children, and even slaves. All human beings were to be equally included in the new covenantal family of God solely on the basis of God’s grace expressed by the sacramental covenant badges of faith and baptism (see also Galatians 3:28-29).

This first point concerning “sonship” and its subsequent application to all genders, sexes, and socio-economic statuses provides us with an important take-away. It is easy—and indeed, often necessary—to carefully and critically discern when the Bible is speaking descriptively about a cultural artifact in the text that no longer applies to us today. One example of this would be the argument concerning head-coverings for women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Yet, with issues concerning masculine language in the Bible, interpreters sometimes exhibit a tendency to automatically “correct” the supposedly sinister patriarchal bias of the original biblical authors. While this is appropriate in some contexts, we ought to be careful that we do not carry out such hermeneutical moves prematurely. To do so would be to risk stripping the biblical texts of potentially insightful exegetical elements that are contained in the particular grammatical structures and words used by the original authors.

In Galatians, for example, the use of masculine terminology actually demonstrates the radical progress away from Jewish and Greco-Roman patriarchy that was occurring in the earliest Christian church. Here the focus on the language of “sonship” is not a patriarchal shackle needing to be removed and retranslated into a contemporary key. Rather, by redirecting its reference away from a Jewish culture of male priority and patriarchy sonship itself is redefined by Paul. In Christ, “sonship” now refers to the full and equal inclusion of people of any age, gender, or socio-cultural status (see also Galatians 3:28-29) in the family of the people of God.

Reading the text in its grammatical-historical context, therefore, actually assists us in detecting this radical progressive shift. It also empowers us to be agents of correction and protest in a world and in a church that often wants to revert to “the good ole days” in which for some (if permissible) the chosen hymn at ordination services would be James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.” To the extent that we’ve lost the original narrative of total equality between men and women in the church and in the home, we’re in need of a correction from St. Paul. Being a son, daughter, and child of God is not contingent upon one’s gender; it’s contingent upon Christ alone. Equality and opportunity do not exist on the basis of gender; they exists on the basis of belonging.

Moving along, it is crucial to express that God’s sending of Jesus occurred through his human birth into the people of God, the Jews. This is the central point of the brief prepositional phrases in verse 4 “born of woman, born under the law.” It is not incidental, therefore, that Jesus was both human and Jewish. The great mystery of the faith, namely, that Jesus is fully divine, is of course equally true! Yet, so often in the history of the church Jesus’ humanity has been side-lined by a fixation on his divinity. It is comforting to remember that the divine Jesus was also the “crying infant” Jesus in a manger, the “awkward teenage” Jesus in Nazareth, and the obscure carpenter Christ who worked daily and diligently at his craft.

God didn’t save humanity instead of humanity. God didn’t save humanity in spite of humanity. God saved humanity through humanity; through the humanity of Jesus Christ for all human beings. In our contemporary religious context in which material reality is often seen as less important than spiritual reality, Christianity presents a faith in which spiritual redemption is inseparably linked with material human existence and experience. Redemption isn’t a result of spiritual abstraction; it’s the result of divine incarnation.

Equally important is the Jewishness of Jesus. Verse 5 notes that Jesus came as one under the Jewish law to redeem those who were under the law (namely, the Jews) in order that “we (a reference to the Gentiles) might receive adoption.” Christianity is not the replacement of Judaism; it is the expansion of Judaism to all nations through Christ Jesus. The Gospel is not the extinguishing of the presence and power of God toward the Jews so that the Church can come into existence in its place; it is the expansion of God’s grace and God’s faithful fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 that through him “all the families of the earth” would be blessed.

Inclusion in the family of God culminates and results in a new transformative reality: God’s Spirit is sent into our hearts so that we might embody and participate in his divine nature (see also 2 Peter 1:4). Like father, like son (and daughter). Thus, as we reflect on the many facets of the Scriptures for today, let us remember that God’s faithfulness through Jesus Christ has resulted in a new reality; a new creation, a new world in which followers of Jesus exist as equals, on mission together to see the world transformed through love so that it might reflect the beauty, peace, and purpose of the God who is love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 31, 2017.