Lectionary Commentaries for January 1, 2023
First Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:13-23

Diane G. Chen

The text for today displays a tension between two extremes. On the one hand, Herod’s means of securing his power was dark and murderous, necessitating the holy family’s flight to Egypt. On the other hand, Joseph’s three dreams bore witness to God’s protective hand and sovereignty over each twist and turn as he brought “the child and his mother” first from Bethlehem to Egypt and finally to Nazareth of Galilee. Even the locations were intriguing and ironic. Egypt was historically a place of oppression for God’s people, yet it provided a place of refuge for Israel’s Messiah. And who would guess that neither Tiberias nor Sepphoris, the famous cities of Galilee, but Nazareth, an obscure village of little repute, would end up being the childhood home of the Messiah? 

Surely Herod’s evil scheme could not thwart the coming of God’s Messiah! More than that, the narrative evokes clear memories of the exodus. Like Moses, whom God sent to save the Israelites, Jesus, God’s eschatological agent of salvation, was delivered before fulfilling his mission to save God’s people as well. This note of solidarity is also sounded in today’s lectionary reading from Hebrews, which affirms Jesus’ sharing of his brothers’ and sisters’ sufferings and trials. Even as a baby, Jesus faced rejection and was rescued. He was a saved Savior, a delivered Deliverer.

The narrative contains many parallels between Moses and Jesus. Just as Moses could have been killed because of Pharaoh’s edict to destroy all male Hebrew infants, Jesus could have met the same fate under Herod’s order to kill all the boys under the age of two in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Thanks to divine rescue through the obedience first of the Hebrew midwives and now of Joseph, both Moses and Jesus were kept alive and tasked to save God’s people, one from slavery in Egypt and the other from their sins. 

The three quotations from the prophets of the Old Testament provide this passage with an interpretive framework. Each is presented as a fulfillment of prophecy, emphasizing that all the unfolding events have long been a part of God’s overarching plan. 

First, Matthew views Jesus’ escape to and return from Egypt as a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (2:15). This reference hearkens back to the first exodus, with Israel being identified as God’s son. In the ensuing verses, Hosea describes Israel’s persistent disobedience and subsequent oppression by the Assyrians. Yet God’s compassion remained with Ephraim and he promised to “return them to their homes” (Hosea 11:1-11). Here, not only was Jesus, Son of God, called out of Egypt when Herod died and was no longer a threat, he would also reverse the pattern of Israel’s failure by being obedient to God his Father. In one person, Jesus thus took on the roles of both a second Moses and a faithful leader of Israel at the same time.

Second, in verse 18 Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15 to express the horror of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Imagine the blood-curdling screams and inconsolable sobbing throughout the region as little boys were mercilessly killed. Yet the use of this text signals a glimpse of hope. In Jeremiah’s day, as the Israelites were taken into captivity, on leaving Jerusalem they would have passed by Ramah, a town six miles to the north, on the way to Babylon. Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob and mother of Israel, wept over this national tragedy. If we continue on in Jeremiah 31, however, we will hear God’s words of comfort, his new covenant with Israel, and his commitment to his people’s salvation.  

The third citation, “He will be called a Nazorean” (2:23), claims that Joseph’s decision to settle his family in Nazareth was also prophetically anticipated. Oddly, though, these exact words cannot be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Could this be why Matthew uses “through the prophets” in the plural instead of the singular to connote a more general idea? Since Nazareth was such an insignificant town, “of Nazareth” became, ironically, a distinctive identifier for Jesus. A deeper meaning might further be extracted from a possible play on words here. In Hebrew, Naṣrat (Nazareth) and nēṣer (branch) share the same middle consonant phonetically. Isaiah 11:1 reads: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (nēṣer) shall grow out of his roots.” Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Jeremiah speaks of God raising up “a righteous Branch for David” (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15), and Zechariah calls God’s servant “the Branch” (Zechariah 3:8; 6:12). Although a different Hebrew noun is used in Jeremiah and Zechariah, the idea is similar to that of Isaiah, that “Branch” is a messianic title. Thus, the designation of Jesus as a Nazorean (or Nazarene in some English translations) indicates both his being from Nazareth and his identity as the Branch, that is, the Davidic Messiah.

Common to all three prophetic fulfillments is the theme of salvation. God promised to save Israel through the prophets and this salvation was set in motion with the coming of the Messiah, who was God’s second and final Moses. 

In order to be saved, God’s people must follow Joseph’s example in being absolutely obedient. The repetitiveness in the instructions given by the angel of the Lord to Joseph and Matthew’s description of Joseph’s response is intentional. In other words, when told to take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and wait there until further instructions, Joseph did exactly that (2:13-14). And when told again to take the child and his mother, and return to the land of Israel, his action again matched the instructions word for word (2:20-21). There were no ifs, ands, or buts. As a result, Joseph and his family steered clear of the threats of both Herod and his son Archelaus. His faith and obedience were commendable and instructive. When we receive the Lord’s salvation, are we humble enough to obey our Savior in total trust?  

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 63:7-9

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

“It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.”1

Isaiah seeks to get his community in formation by remembering YHWH’s actions in the age of salvation, the age of Moses and the Exodus, of exile and return.

Celebrating God in the midst of us

Long before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah shared this good news with a people losing memory of how YHWH works in the world—in our midst.

Not from afar. Not sending a herald to come down while YHWH remains at a distance. The prophet is performing a profoundly liturgical act in this moment, using words to cause the people to remember how YHWH stood with them in seasons of crisis and eventually saved them.2

Remembering is the heart of worship for Israel. Amnesia leads to all sorts of spiritual and political crises. Psalms are liturgical songs remembering YHWH’s saving acts, for both the people to hear and even for YHWH to hear, when it seems as if either party is at risk of forgetting the covenant that binds people and Creator together. And so, the prophet calls out in verse 7: “I will bring to remembrance the loving kindness of YHWH!”

YHWH’s hesed must be imaged by the preacher. To tell people “God’s love is steadfast and enduring” won’t move the congregation in the same way that a story about how God persistently went after someone in the midst of crisis would. Again, as you preach from Isaiah, the prophet who shared not simply sayings, but a vision, do your best to add flesh, color, and vitality to your words.

Why does the prophet need to bring this to remembrance after the people have arrived at home?

Spiritual homelessness

Over the last few weeks in the lectionary we have shifted from first Isaiah now to third Isaiah, a timeline of roughly two centuries. And contexts have shifted along with us. Those who were in exile have now returned to a spiritual home that was never physically a home, only known through stories and songs. The people are unsure of who and how to be in Zion. How can they reclaim their identity? Through worship, through remembering, the prophet seeks to reorganize a people seeking reconnection to their physical/spiritual homes. For all of us, remembering and repenting in light of that memory of God’s hesed paves the path for our wandering souls to journey home.

But who are YHWH’s people, really?

In these three verses, and throughout the “sermon-prayer” in this chapter of Isaiah, the theological message that is meant to draw the people to worship YHWH is that YHWH saves the people by being present with them.3

But who are “the people” YHWH saves?

This is what the series of interruptions addresses, in the genre of lamentations, in the remaining verses of this chapter. Perspectives shift with each line: Nationalists, Zionists, Israelites, Jerusalemites, and other people of the land seek to secure YHWH’s favor and action for their own sectarian interests rather than for the sake of “all.”4 As Watts summarizes it in the World Biblical Commentary:

There are those who would pray exclusively for Jerusalem. There are others that would pray for redemption for all twelve tribes of Israel. There are others who feel that only descendants of the original covenant community should receive God’s attention and blessing. There are activists that demand a return to political power and military strength that will win the respect of the nations.5

This is spiritual amnesia in action. Each party forgets the earlier visions of Isaiah, which paint a portrait of shalom. Wholeness and holiness in the land that radiates out to other lands and draws all nations near.

This portion of the chapter is not included in the pericope. But it may be important in your preaching and in your context. How do we still limit the vision of prophets with sectarian prayers?

Sermon image

In this image of Carl Miles’s sculpture, “God’s hand,” there is promise and challenge.6 The promise is that God is a God in our midst, that we are creatures held in the Creator’s hand. But there is a challenge as well. If we only see ourselves in that hand, if we only see people who look like and think like and vote like and speak like us in that hand, then we miss out on the vision of Isaiah and the vision of Christ as well.

Remembering the Christmas story

Do not rush to the Christmas Story and the way in which it makes flesh and brings vitality to the sermon-prayer of Isaiah. But, after giving Isaiah’s concerns attention, do eventually tell the story—of how God’s very presence inhabited the vulnerable, fragile body of a newborn. Tell the story of how the salvation offered for this Messiah was truly for all people, challenging notions of us vs. them and sibling rivalry.

But let us not make the mistake of Isaiah’s audience, as they thought “only in terms of what God did once long ago,” and so they only “pray for a return to that kind of action” as they can easily imagine it.7 Consider how the story of Christmas continues today in ways beyond our imagination: through every disciple who seeks to bear Christ out into the world and through ordinary theotokos, God-bearers, who bring the words “justice” and “righteousness” to action in the world.

Remember the story of Jesus—not for the sake of comforting nostalgia only, but for the sake of a world still searching for home, wholeness, and holiness and a people still needing to get in formation.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 29, 2019.
  2. John D. W. Watts. World Biblical Commentary, Volume 25: Isaiah 34-66, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2005), 329.
  3. Watts, 328.
  4. Watts, 330.
  5. Watts, 337.
  6. Carl Miles. “God’s Hand,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55402.
  7. Watts, 337.


Commentary on Psalm 148

Working Preacher

Commentary is forthcoming for this text.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 2:10-18

Bryan J. Whitfield

Much of our reflection about Christmas focuses on the who and the what. We ponder the roles of Mary and Joseph. We revisit Luke’s story of the shepherds at the manger in the city of David. We tell Matthew’s account of the magi before Herod in Jerusalem one more time. 

But this season also leads us beyond the who and the what to contemplate why Christmas matters. This epistle reading for the first Sunday of Christmas offers preachers the opportunity to reflect on the purpose of the Incarnation, as the author of Hebrews sketches several reasons why Jesus came. After a prologue that sets out the superiority of God’s speech through the Son (1:1-4), Hebrews compares the Son and the angels (1:5-14) to stress the importance of what God has spoken in these last days (1:1; 2:1-4). 

To support that claim, the author quotes and then interprets the Greek translation of Psalm 8:4-6. The Psalmist reflects on God’s mindfulness and care for human beings who live their mortal lives below the level of angels (2:7). But the author of Hebrews reads the psalm on two levels. Greek readers can interpret the phrases in 2:6 (literally “a human being” and “son of a human being”) either as an individual or as a group. Although English does not allow translators a straightforward way to preserve the richness of the Greek text, seeing these two levels of reading is key to understanding the author’s message. We consider each of these levels in turn. 

The first level focuses on an individual “son of a human being.” The author of Hebrews initially reads the phrase “son of a human being” (New Revised Standard Version’s “mortals” in 2:6) in the singular, as a reference to the human Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels, the title “Son of Man” was Jesus’ preferred way of referring to himself (Mark 2:10, 28; 8:31, 38). Focusing on the singular “Son of Man,” the author of Hebrews stresses that Jesus, once lower than the angels, is now “crowned with honor and glory” because of his suffering (2:9). This present vision of Jesus promises a future reign not yet seen. 

But the author of Hebrews then shifts to a second level of interpretation, reading “son of a human being” as a collective term for all people. The New Revised Standard Version places this collective reading in the foreground in its translation, to stress that all human beings are the object of God’s mindfulness and care (2:8). 

Both levels of interpretation become the focus of today’s text. The writer joins the destiny of Jesus, “the Son of Man,” to the destiny of all human beings (“mortals”). In that way, the goal of Jesus’ journey does not remain a solitary pilgrimage but becomes a path for the entire human family. Through this shared journey, God binds Jesus to his sisters and brothers, joining the one who makes people holy with those who are made holy (2:11). Just as human beings share in flesh and blood, in human frailty and mortality, so too does Jesus (2:14).

Here the author underscores one crucial grace of incarnation—that Jesus is with us as one of us, made human like us “in every respect” (2:17). He knows our lot from the inside, as one who becomes hungry and thirsty and tired. He knows joy and sorrow, delight and pain.

But the good news of incarnation is not simply that Jesus is with us as truly human. It is also that Jesus is for us. He has not come to help angels, but his fellow human beings, “the children of Abraham” (2:16).

For the author of Hebrews, that help comes in several forms. First, Jesus helps us in his role as the “pioneer of salvation” (2:10). This image is a rich one, depicting Jesus as our leader or captain or guide. He is the scout or trailblazer whose journey through life creates a path for his sisters and brothers to follow. To understand our human experience and the goal of our lives, we look to the humanity of Jesus. We follow where he leads. As our pioneer, Jesus experiences suffering, an especially important note for those who are facing testing. Because Jesus’ own path includes testing, he draws on his own experience to support others (2:10, 18).

Second, Jesus helps us because he frees us from slavery to the fear of death (2:15). He liberates us because he “destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (2:14). Ironically, that defeat comes through Jesus’ own death. Identifying fully with humanity in his own death, Jesus breaks the hold of death and the fear of death over humanity.

Third, Jesus helps us because he makes our communion with God possible. Here the author introduces the image that will dominate the rest of his sermon: Jesus as the “merciful and faithful high priest” (2:17). Through the “sacrifice of atonement,” Jesus opens up an access to God that had been closed off because of human sinfulness. Jesus restores our relationship with God, equipping us to draw near to God in worship. The “new and living way that he has opened for us” (10:20) gives us confidence to enter God’s sanctuary with confidence and assurance.

The author’s wide range of images here reminds us of the scope of the work of salvation that incarnation makes possible. In his mercy and in his faithfulness, Jesus becomes like us in every way and so provides help in times of testing. He claims us as his sisters and brothers, fellow pilgrims whom he frees from the power of death. As our high priest, he opens anew our access to fellowship with God. This range of imagery underscores that Jesus is both with us and for us. It provides a starting framework for our answer to the meaning of Christmas, leading us to the heart of this season’s celebration.