Lectionary Commentaries for January 2, 2022
Second Sunday of Christmas
Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18
Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14
Jeremiah 31:7-14 is a complex theological text, which prompts the question: Is God a lion or a shepherd? Within this passage there are five “r-words” that, when taken together, give us a sense of the depth of the theological picture Jeremiah is drawing, and drawing from.
NOTE: While we are going to make a lot out of these five words that begin with “r” it is important to remember that Jeremiah was written in Hebrew, and these five words would not have been related in so simple or mnemonic a sense; still, it might prove a helpful tool.
The five words are:
- Redeemed; and
The progression through the reading from one “r-word” to the next can help us see and remember just what kind of song and dance we are being invited to join in.
First, then, is remnant.
We are called to “raise shouts,” to “proclaim, and give praise,” and by doing so, to call upon God to save the “remnant” of the people of Israel. The time has come, in Jeremiah, for the people to be called home, for the exile to be over. God is to be praised for having preserved the people even amidst the destruction of the nation, and of the temple. God is to be praised for keeping the covenant promise even during the peoples’ darkest times. Where there is a remnant, there is a way.
Second, is return.
The reason for shouts (which are joyous, as the word for shouts, wǝṣahălû, is in parallel with “gladness,” śimḥā, joy), and praise and proclamation, is that God is going to bring the scattered people home. The remnant is to return. All of it … them:
from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here
The return of the remnant is complicated. Though returning, they are a remnant. And so as they are lead back by their God,
“With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations”
This is a remarkable and spiritually important both/and, a simul (if you will). The weeping of the people is at once sorrowful and filled with joy because there is still loss that is felt, and at the same time there is hope for what is coming to pass. This duality of emotion is, no doubt, familiar to anyone who has even a little bit more emotional range than a teaspoon; but it is no less profound for being familiar.
What is more, this simul of both sorrow and joy salting the tears being shed may also point to the theological innovation or, better, break-through that Israel was able to make in the midst of one of their darkest hours as God’s people. Defeated, their nation torn asunder and the temple destroyed, still the biblical witness in general, and Jeremiah specifically here, maintains that it is God the Lord who is in control.
This was not the case among most (if not all) of Israel’s neighbors in the ancient near east. Political and religious thought at the time was that human conflict was a mirror image of divine conflict. War on earth mirrored war in the heavens. The nation whose “god” was victorious against a neighboring god gave victory to their human followers. Until Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures stubbornly maintained that even in defeat, it was the one true God who was in control. And so we get the tipping point of this particular reading, which is a double image of sorts:
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
What the people shout, proclaim, and praise, is that the Lord God both scatters and keeps. This can be hard for modern believers to wrap their heads around, the idea that God would be both wrathful and merciful, that God would both scatter God’s people and then gather them back. And I, for one, would not be too quick to apply this theology to a cancer diagnosis, an accident, or a flood. At least not in a simplistic one-to-one sort of way However, it is the clear theological claim of the prophet that the one who preserved the remnant of Israel is the same one who caused it. Once again what is more, the one who preserves the remnant promises a return to that one’s presence.
Which brings us to words three and four: ransomed and redeemed. It is God who does this for God’s people, saving them from “hands too strong for” them. What hands are those? Here again is another simul: they are the hands of Israel’s enemies, and the hands of God. And God ransoms and redeems from both—surrogate power and divine. God is merciful.
Which brings us back, then, to the question we began with, and the final “r-word”: rejoice.
Is God a lion, or a shepherd? The answer is yes. And this double image bears within itself another example of the reversal of (mis)fortune that the God of judgment and mercy promises. The returned remnant, ransomed and redeemed by God, may rejoice, for,
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
This is Israel’s religious and theological epiphany—that the one who, out of divine love may see us into a time of mourning, will see us through it to a time of joy; where there is sadness, there gladness may be found as well.
Is God the lion, or the shepherd? It seems that the answer is, “Yes.” Either way, we are the sheep; thanks be to God.
Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20
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.
- 1-6: Invitation to Sing Praises to God
- 7-11: Invitation to Sing and Make Music to God
- 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.2
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.
- Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 3, 2016.
- See Jerome F. D. Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008)
Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14
Our passage at the start of this New Year begins with a blessing—“Blessed be God.” And this is a great place to begin our New Year, an appropriate focus of giving thanks to God.
This blessing of God is more specifically a blessing of the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” and we begin to see that this passage is essentially Christocentric—Christ is the focus. Here in verse 3, then “chose us in Christ” (verse 4), “adopted through Jesus Christ” (verse 5), grace bestowed … in the Beloved (verse 6), “in him” (verse 7), “the mystery of his will … set forth in Christ” (verse 9), “In Christ’ (verse 11), “set our hope on Christ (verse 12) and last but certainly not least, “in him” (verse 13).
Everything has changed with the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians is fundamentally about what it means to live together in a community of different people. So for example, the author speaks of the “dividing wall” that has been broken down (2:14). In Christ, God’s people are no longer this group or that group, even our friends or those like us, or those who agree with us. But in Christ, God’s people are a vast and beautiful array of human diversity: those like and unlike us in every possible way—race, ethnicity, gender, language, education, politics and even theological preference—as is made clear in 2:13-22.
The extraordinary and wonderful affirmation that the Father has blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly place” begins to be expounded in what was originally a long and breathless recitation of God’s goodness.
We have been chosen in Christ (verse 4) for the purpose of being “holy and blameless.” Verse 5 then explains that this chosen-ness is manifested in “adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” Adoption was not unfamiliar to citizens of the ancient world. Those who were adopted would take on the status and name of their parent and would stand sometimes to inherit immense wealth and power.
A prime example of this, and perhaps most pertinent as we consider this passage, is adoption within the Imperial Family. Emperor Augustus had been adopted by his uncle Julius Caesar. Augustus then adopted his wife’s son, Tiberius. Tiberius subsequently adopted Germanicus, and it was Caligula, the son of Germanicus who then succeeded Tiberius. And also the infamous Nero was adopted by his stepfather Claudius.
Perhaps the author of our passage is deliberately making the point that we, by the grace of God, have been adopted into a glorious new family with a previously unimaginable high status, to share the responsibility of wielding the glorious power of God’s love in the world.
It may be worth highlighting here the phrase in verse 11, “In Christ we have obtained an inheritance.” The term in view here is difficult to translate precisely, but literally means, “to be appointed by lot.” The idea of choosing may be unfamiliar to us, but the Old and New Testament choosing by lot was common practice. The division of the land was by lot (Numbers 26:55), and the replacement apostle for Judas Iscariot —Matthias—was by lot (Acts 1:26). Moreover, the Greek text of Deuteronomy 9:29 refers to Israel as God’s lot or portion. So it may be that verse 11 should be rendered, “we have been chosen as God’s lot, or portion,” which emphasises the chosen-ness of those who have been adopted by God, and the “good pleasure” with which God carries his choosing and adopting.
Verse 7 highlights two initial gifts that are bestowed upon the adopted. First, redemption and then second, forgiveness. It seems unavoidable to consider redemption without reflecting on the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery to their tyrannous imperial overlords in Egypt. Here is Ephesians, set in the first century context, we might suggest that the author is seeking to hint at a contemporary deliverance from the values, and ethos of the Roman Imperial world. The adopted now have a new Lord, who forgives them, completely releasing them from the power of the insidious nature of contemporary society.
God the Father has made it known that the “mystery of his will” is to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. And so we are now presented with a glorious reality that overshadows even our own redemption and forgiveness and is truly the culmination of the reconciliation of estranged people groups. God’s plan is to sum up all things, draw everything together in conclusion, in Christ. The sense here is of recapitulation: restoration, reconciliation, and salvation. Everything in creation that has been separated out, divided, ostracized and othered, will be gathered back together. And the “all things” seems to be all-inclusive, a view expressed in Colossians 1:20 and also 2 Corinthians 5:19. The entire cosmos is in view.
The believer can hold a deep confidence in the actions of God in the past and present, and the promises of God which will come to fruition in the future. The believer has been sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, a profound assurance of belonging to God and being part of his plan. And this “sealing in the Holy Spirit” can be seen as a deposit, or a first instalment of all that God will yet do in the ongoing work of salvation in the believer’s life and the life of the believing community.
John 1:1-18, also known as the prologue to John’s Gospel, is a richly layered text that introduces the major themes of the Gospel, offering countless homiletical possibilities. Where, then, to focus for the second Sunday of Christmas?
One possibility would be to focus on verse 14, which so vividly expresses the substance of the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (NRSV).
As many commentators have remarked, the Greek verb translated “lived” in this verse is skenoo, which means more literally, “pitched his tent.” Just as God traveled with the people of Israel in the wilderness by means of the “tent of meeting” in their midst, John announces that God has chosen to “tabernacle” among us in an even more radical way, by the Word embodied in human flesh.
In our digital world, we have multiple means of communicating with one another. Yet for all our advances in technology, there are still some messages best delivered in person—a proposal of marriage, for example, or news of a loved one’s death. In such cases, delivering the message in person makes an enormous difference. Not only can we say the words face-to-face, but we can also give and receive tangible expressions of love and compassion.
The pandemic of Covid-19 has brought home to many of us just how important physical presence is. For the sake of our own health and that of others, we have had to communicate by electronic means with family and friends. Perhaps the most heartbreaking reality of this pandemic is that so many families have had to say their final goodbyes to loved ones from the screen of a telephone or tablet, and that so many have died without a loved one by their side.
The God who created and loves this world understands the need and longing for physical presence. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God has always been present with God’s people and has always spoken to God’s people through human voices such as those of the prophets. “But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds,” says the writer of Hebrews.
In Jesus, God decided to come closer, to deliver the Word in person, the person of God’s Son. This Word-made-flesh brings us a message that it would be hard for us to understand otherwise.
We might well speculate about the majesty of God by witnessing the beauty and wonders of creation, all of which came into being by the Word. But when creation seems to go awry, when we are devastated by a drought, a flood, or a tornado, when we are threatened by a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or cancer, it is difficult to see anything in nature but God’s fury.
Similarly, we might well reflect on the justice and faithfulness of God as expressed in the words of the prophets. But the prophets also give voice to some terrifying visions of God’s judgment and wrath. And so, if we were left only with these ways of knowing God, we might well be confused and afraid.
God has not left us in fear and confusion. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In order that we might know beyond a doubt that God’s love and compassion for us will have the final word, the Word took on our flesh. The Word came to us in the form of a frail and vulnerable infant to dwell among us and to show us firsthand the depth of God’s love for us.
Martin Luther expresses this truth so well in his Christmas sermons. He says that reflection on the divinity and majesty of God may very well terrify and crush us. That is why Christ took on our humanity, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console us. For what could be less intimidating or more comforting than a baby? Luther writes:
See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to a person than a babe. Are you afraid? Then come to him, lying in the lap of the fairest and sweetest maid. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to humankind than this, that Christ became human, a child, a babe, playing in the lap of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to see this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.1
Of course, the baby in the manger is only the beginning of God’s message to us in the Word-made-flesh. But in this baby, we begin to see and understand the very heart of God. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). In the Word-made-flesh, we see a heart so full of love for us that it will go to any length to reach us. It will stop at nothing to make us God’s own. Not even the frailty of human flesh nor the darkness of suffering and death can keep God from us, nor us from God.
For “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).