Sunday, December 27, 2020

January 6, 2021 - Epiphany of the Lord

                              Biblical Words                                [695] 

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany is light to the nations, whose sages come to find a king, and who hear of their inclusion in the good news.  

If Christmas celebrated the share of the humble and poor in God’s salvation for Israel, Epiphany glorifies the royalty of God’s servant, whose righteousness and power shine like a beacon light for all the nations. 

Isaiah 60:1-6.  

Epiphany is about light shining. 

This great Prophetic passage of Epiphany summons Zion to shine with the reflected light from God’s “dawning” upon her.  (The verb and noun “dawn” appear three times in 60:1-3, translated in NRSV as “risen” and “will arise” as well as “dawn.”)  This light is to shine in a darkness, deep darkness that enshrouds the peoples of the world, the nations (“gentiles”). 

This is a breathtaking view, worthy of a Hollywood extravaganza or a Disney laser-light spectacular. 

The script of verses 1-3 would read: 

All the world is a vast black space when a piercing light cuts through from the east and illumines a glorious city on an elevated summit (see Isaiah 2:2).  The city on the hill shines for all the distant lands that have only that brilliant glow to guide them as they move to redistribute the wealth of all the world according to new priorities, now manifest as the righteousness and peace of the Lord of all creation. 

The great light that shines on Zion attracts the wealth of nations.  And as the nations bring their wealth toward the center, they also bring the dispersed sons and daughters of the mother city now restored to her glory (verses 4-5).  Included in the tribute flowing to Zion from Midian, Sheba, Kedar, and the like, are gold and frankincense.  Such gifts constitute “the praise of the Lord” (verse 6), and are the kind of gifts discerning sages will bring to a king as offerings from the nations. 

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14.  

The Psalm selection also focuses on the tribute and enrichment from the nations, but now the emphasis is on God’s rule through a chosen king instead of on the glory of the city. 

The psalm is a prayer uttered on behalf of God’s king by the king’s people.  The superscription says the psalm is “For Solomon,” i.e., for “the Son of David.”  In the prayer the king is seen as the source of blessing for the whole natural realm, producing “prosperity” (shalom) for the people and rain and showers for the earth. 

More especially is the king the source of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed of God’s people.  The tribute prayed for from the kings of Tarshish and Sheba is deserved because “he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (verse 12, NRSV).  He redeems the poor from oppression and violence, “and precious is their blood in his sight.” 

This is the kind of rule by the Son of David that will lure the devotion of the nations and cause them to stream to God’s city with gifts and new orientations of their power and wealth! 

Ephesians 3:1-12.  

The Epistle selection for Epiphany is an instance of a passage too rich to be exhausted in a lectionary reading. 

The relevant thread, however, is “the mystery of Christ” (NRSV; “secret plan” or “hidden plan” in CEB).  This mystery concerns the nations.  

(The English versions use “Gentiles/gentiles” to translate the Greek ethne and the Hebrew goyyim, both of which mean “nations.”  This is a translation error:  there were no such things as "gentiles" between Judeans ("Jews") and the Nations.  “Gentiles” is a Latin word left over by lazy translators -- who spoke Latin in their everyday work.  Instead of “gentiles” read either “the nations” or “people of the nations.”)  

While much of this passage emphasizes Paul’s status as the Apostle to the Nations, the major point is the content of the “mystery.” 

The mystery referred to is that the assembly of God’s people (the church) is not confined to the people of Israel, but is destined from of old to include the nations.  It is the peoples of the nations who are here told about the mystery.  They “have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers [with the people of Israel] in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (verse 6, NRSV).  In the old days, this mystery was a secret, not revealed to former generations.  Now, however, through apostles and prophets, the Spirit has revealed this new inclusiveness of the gospel of Christ (verse 5). 

The conclusion of this inspired line is that the heavenly powers themselves have received the revelation — the revelation that the nations are joined with Israel in the church of Jesus Christ.  Why?  “So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (verse 10). 

The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church of Jesus Christ is a revelation to the heavenly beings themselves! 

Matthew 2:1-12.  

The exalted language and imagery of the message about the nations used in the Prophetic reading and in the Epistle are left behind by the Gospel reading.  Here a series of simple circumstances are related very concisely.  We do not even hear of these magoi while they are still in the east, but they simply appear in Jerusalem and say, Where is the king?  We learn only later that they had previously seen a star leading them from the east (verse 9). 

Here there is no fanfare or spectacular laser light show; only some ambassador types trying to get local directions in order to make an appearance in a very modest court.  Where the prophets and the psalmists exulted in pyrotechnic language to refer to worldly realities that were more modest, here the divine aura behind the simple events is significantly understated. 

Some of the mystery behind these events is revealed unintentionally by the current king, Herod the Great.  Learning of the foreign ambassadors’ goal, Herod has the local scholars consult the scriptures.  The small town of Bethlehem is relatively insignificant among famous Judean sites, but it was long ago identified by the prophet Micah as one from which a ruler would come for Israel (Micah 5:2 [Heb. 5:1], quoted in verse 6).  Thus for both good and evil, Bethlehem becomes deeply involved in the light for the nations. 

The narrative presents, without emphasizing, that these sages are lofty representatives of the nations of the world, seeking the secret king whose coming changes the whole world.  Their star leads them to precisely the house they needed, and they bow in worship before presenting their gifts. 

These are royal gifts, representing great treasures, but their glory is presented in a few simple narrative phrases.  The modesty and the secrecy of the real identity and destined work of God’s saving King are preserved.  Only those with special wisdom (knowing the “mystery”) are aware of the cosmic import of what has happened and know how to conduct themselves accordingly. 

The welfare and the secret of these sages are preserved by God.  Having been warned in a dream, as is usual in Matthew, they “left for their own country by another road.” 

The light which Epiphany is about had come into the world, and only a few knew it. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

January 3, 2021 - 2nd Sunday after Christmas

                        Biblical Words                                  [694]

 Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:(1-9), 10-18. 

God’s own Word came to people, bringing awesome gifts of grace. 

There isn’t always a 2nd Sunday after Christmas in the liturgical year.  It happens only when Christmas falls on a Wednesday or later in the week, pushing Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas (January 6), past the 2nd Sunday in Christmas season. 

The texts for this Sunday are in the maximum voice.  

For Israel there is the most emphatic celebration of the end of Exile and the abundance and glory of Restoration.  For the Jesus communities, magnificent but somewhat opaque passages make vast and encompassing claims for the action of God in Christ.  These texts make the greatest theological claims to be found in the New Testament.  

Jeremiah 31:7-14.  

All of Jeremiah 30-33 is about the future of Israel and Judah, the two kingdoms that had been judged by their God as hopelessly guilty of disloyalty and punished by defeat and destruction at the hands of world powers. 

Those who created the great scroll of the Jeremiah traditions believed that the Lord had instructed Jeremiah to write out a separate set of prophecies that looked beyond the judgment. 

Write in a book [scroll] all the words that I have spoken to you.  For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it (30:2-3, NRSV). 

Scholars through the ages, therefore, have talked of this part of Jeremiah as “the Book of Consolation.” 

After the judgment, the people have prayed, “Save, O Lord,, your people, the remnant of Israel” (verse 7).  What survives the judgment and is the object of the proclamations of hope is the remnant of Israel.  The proclaimed answer to their prayer follows (in the New Jerusalem Bible translation): 

Watch, I shall bring them back
from the land of the north
and gather them in from the far ends of the earth. 
With them, the blind and the lame,
women with child, women in labour,
all together:  a mighty throng will return here! 

In tears they went away,
consoled I shall bring them back [following translator's note]. 
I shall guide them to streams of water,
by a smooth path where they will not stumble. 
For I am a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my first-born son.  [Verses 8-9, NJBV.]

God has made the return from exile a family matter, lordly parent rescuing lost offspring. 

The rest of the passage declares how mourning will be turned into joy and need into abundant prosperity in the restored land.  

“I shall refresh my priests with rich food [because the tithes will be so abundant], and my people will gorge themselves on my lavish gifts” (verse 14, NJBV). 

Psalm 147:12-20.  

The Psalm reading is virtually a continuation of the Prophetic passage.  The complete psalm began, 

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
      he gathers the outcasts of Israel.  

He heals the brokenhearted, 
      and binds up their wounds (verses 2-3, NRSV). 

Our reading summons Jerusalem / Zion to praise the Lord for the security of the City, protection through hot and cold weather, and the gift of God’s statutes by which to live righteously and well.  The conclusion to be drawn from these blessings is, 

“He has not dealt thus with any other nation; / they do not know his ordinances” (verse 20). 

After restoration from exile to a blessed holy city, Israel has the security and joy of living their lives entirely by God’s ordinances. 

Ephesians 1:3-14.  

The reading from the Epistle is an outpouring of religious language that overwhelms sense with eloquence. 

An early 20th century commentator wrote of this passage,

The twelve verses which follow [the opening] baffle our analysis.  They are a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights and shifting colours:  at first we fail to find a trace of order or method.  They are like the preliminary flight of the eagle, rising and wheeling around, as though for a while uncertain what direction in his boundless freedom he shall take.  (J. Armitage Robinson, Commentary on Ephesians, 1904, Kegel reprint of 1979). 

The difficulty in following the thought is compounded by the fact that what are six complex sentences in the NRSV translation is a single sentence in Greek, as modern editors punctuate it. 

Nevertheless, so much is clear:  the whole passage is a blessing, a benediction (“Blessed be the God and Father…”).  It is common to find the center of the thought in the phrase “the mystery of [God’s] will” (verse 9).  It is also possible to see (as do the notes in The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985 ed.) this topic developed in a sequence of blessings running through the whole as follows: 

1) we were elected, verse 4 (“he chose” NRSV);
2) we were predestined for adoption, verses 5-6; 
3) we were redeemed from our sins, verses 7-8;
4) we received revelation of the mystery of God’s will, verses 9-10;
5) we received hope, “inheritance” of promised future, verses 11 and 14;
both for us Judeans, verse 12;
and for you people of the nations,
who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, verse 13. 

The overall sense of the passage is that there is a vast work of God underway throughout the cosmos and the ages, and we are the blessed recipients of its benefits, without any reference to our works or merits. 

John 1: (1-9), 10-18.  

The Gospel reading presents the highest Christology in the New Testament.  That is, here Jesus is most completely identified as divine, as side-by-side with God Almighty, as in some sense identified with God (“… and the Word was God,” 1:1, NRSV). 

The “Word,” Greek Logos, means something like the rationality, the intelligibility, of the entire cosmos, of all reality.  That rationality is inherent in all creation.  The creation was an expression of God’s deliberateness, of God’s logos character.  Creation makes sense.  (“All things came into being through him [the Logos], and without him not one thing came into being,” verse 2.) 

The great difficulty of such views for a modern hearer is the personification of this logos-character of God and reality.  Here the Logos is a semi-personal entity, even before it assumes human form.  And the impossible transaction that is the most scandalous and the most radically important is that the Logos, this rationality of God and creation, became human:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (verse 14). 

This fantastic event in the life of the universe did not happen in the academies of Athens, where the schools of the old philosophers continued their transmission of wisdom.  Nor did it happen in the newer, modern style universities of Alexandria in Egypt, where the accumulated scientific, philosophical, and religious wisdom of the ancient world was gathered in libraries and lecture halls.  It happened in backwater Judea, and its human manifestation was a Judean.  A Judean who was in line for a great worldly dominion as successor of an ancient king David.  However, this figure was so paradoxical in his worldly course that he ended up executed in a shameful (not even tragic!) death as a political criminal. 

This Logos of the universe came to the Judean people, “to his own,” but “his own people did not accept him” (verse 11).  However, it was not only the Judeans who did not accept him.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him” (verse 10). 

A colossal event for the entire universe had happened here, and practically nobody knew it!! 

Only a handful of folks knew the immeasurable significance of all this; it was an inside secret for some time.  But some did know: all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, … not of blood [like all Judean people] or of the will of flesh [by human contrivances] … but of God.  [Therefore,] ...from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ [verses 12-13, 16-17]. 

Only as time had passed, as local lore about Jesus of Nazareth had gradually expanded and came to be seen in the light of the loftiest wisdom of the age – only then were reflective and born-again Jesus believers (John 3:3) able to grasp and proclaim the awesome declarations of this new scriptural witness.  Only then could this amazing Prologue to the Gospel According to John be given to the world! 


Friday, December 18, 2020

December 27, 2020 - 1st Sunday after Christmas

                                Biblical Words                            [693] 

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

In the fullness of time God gives joy to those seeking the Consolation of Israel.  

The readings for this Sunday visualize (1) the glorious public appearance of an awaited king with the prolific mother city, (2) the hallelujah choruses of heaven and earth, (3) the human dimension of the fullness of time, and (4) the consummation of hope for the faithful visionaries in Israel

Isaiah 61:10-62:3.  

The Prophetic reading opens with the exultant cry of a royal figure who speaks on behalf of true Israel

God in God’s own person has dressed this speaker in “garments of salvation” and a “robe of righteousness.”  This attire is appropriate to the joy and delight of a royal wedding, a time when the groom wears the most glittering headdress and the bride the most luxurious jewels.  This glory in the social and political world is like the outbreak of new growth in fields that are fertile and blessed, and like the luxuriant plantings of well-watered and carefully tended gardens (verse 11). 

As this figure representing Israel is gloriously clad before the nations, so Mother Zion will be revealed to the nations as vindicated from past woes (62:1-3).  For her too, the headdress of royalty will glitter and shine as the Lord puts his arm around her (as it were:  “…in the hand of the Lord,…in the palm [literally] of your God,”62:3).  Zion and Israel, marvelously attired, are re-united in God’s loving care for wife and son.  They will be the ornaments of the time of fulfillment. 

Such is the prophet’s vision of the consolation of Israel

Psalm 148. 

As if beholding the blinding glory of the royal coronation, the Psalm breaks forth in a tumult of Hallelujahs!  (Every occurrence of “Praise …” in the English versions is a translation of the Hebrew hallelu, the plural imperative.  In hallelu-jah, the jah is the shortened form of the divine name Yahw√©h.) 

The psalm drives exuberantly through all the reaches of heaven and earth to find entities and creatures to summon to Praise! 

In verses 1-6 the heavenly realms are called upon at large and in detail to hallelu the Lord.  The poet follows the cosmic structure of Genesis 1 and of Psalm 104, so these heavenly powers both extend beyond and encompass what human eyes can see.  After all the unseen heavenly things are summoned, the call goes out to all the stuff more familiar to the human eye. 

As for the earthly realms, their summons to praise (verses 7-12) begins with the exotic creatures of the deep, then goes on to the mysterious places of the sky and the distant horizons with their storehouses of all kinds of weather.  After summoning the mountains, trees, and the animals, both wild and domestic, humans are addressed:  the mighty of the earth, but also the ordinary young men and women.  Let them all hallelu the Lord because of his glory, but also … also because “He has raised up a horn for his people…for the children of Israel who are close to him” (verses 13-14). 

Thus, as the climactic—and almost add-on—thought, the realms of heaven and earth are called to rejoice in something special for Israel.  Because of this newly-revealed glory for Israel, all the world is called to hallelu-jah

Galatians 4:4-7.  

The Epistle selection is part of a rather complex theological discussion, but its pertinence to the Sunday after Christmas stands out in the following clauses (NRSV translation): 

·        “when the fullness of time had come…”

·        “God sent his Son, born of a woman…”

·        “born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law…”

The “Fullness of Time” has its meaning in reference to Israel’s covenant history with the Lord, ranging through the promises to Abraham, Moses, and David, and the prophetic messages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the visionary Daniel. 

The phrase “born of a woman” has echoes of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, but primarily affirms that God’s care reaches its embodiment at a fully human level. 

The phrase “born under the law” insists that salvation under the New Covenant is first of all for Israel, coming as the fulfillment of all God’s patient and yearning care for that troublesome and beloved people.  Whatever else Paul had to say about his fellow kinfolks, this priority of Israel in God’s plan of salvation is steadily maintained. 

Luke 2:22-40. 

The most gracious and endearing presentation of the Consolation of Israel is in this Gospel reading.  It is the narrative of the aged ones who have waited so faithfully and persistently to see the salvation of the Lord, the righteous Simeon and the dear prophetess Anna. 

The passage is at pains to make clear that Jesus’ birth was fully in accord with the laws of Moses.  (Strictly speaking, two separate rituals are combined here, the purification of the mother after birth, Leviticus 12, and the presentation of the male firstborn, Exodus 13:2, 11-16.)  From this viewpoint, Jesus was fully an Israelite.  He was duly circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (verse 21, just before our reading), making him a son of the covenant of Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14).  Then, forty days after his birth, he and his mother were brought to the temple for the “purification” and the redemption of a firstborn son. 

In the logic of the sacred rules, the firstborn belonged to God until the father made a sacrifice to redeem it and allow it to live in the ordinary world – an action referred to the sparing of the Israelite firstborn at the time of the exodus (Exodus 13:14-15). 

Though Jesus was fully an Israelite, he was a poor one—economically speaking.  The sacrifice presented by Joseph and Mary for her purification was two pigeons, the sacrifice made by the very poor who could not afford a sheep (2:24, referring to Leviticus 12:8). 

It was while the parents were engaged in the details of fulfilling the law of Moses that Simeon and Anna found them.  By the ordinary work-a-day folks, crowded and busy in the temple precincts, these two old folks must have seemed strange characters from another age.  In the evangelist’s view, however, they are heirs of Israel’s true hope for its time of fulfillment. 

In a poignant moment of prophetic insight, Simeon foresees Jesus’ destiny and the pain that the mother is yet to know.  Speaking to Mary he says, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition... And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (verses 34-35, CEB). 

So, true Israel, in its ancient wisdom, anticipates the agony and disturbance that yet lie between the coming of this little child and the mystery of God’s final salvation!  


Thursday, December 10, 2020

December 25, 2020 - Christmas Day

                                                         Biblical Words                                         [692] 

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

An ecstatic declaration rings out about a Messiah — to oppressed people and to working shepherds.  

The readings for Christmas Day are all ecstatic declarations.  Something awesomely good has happened, and humble people, nations, and all beings high and low are invited to rejoice in it. 

Isaiah 9:2-7.  

The prophetic reading concerns people sunk in gloom and oppression, people who currently know the “yoke” and the “rod” of their oppressor, people who have often seen the “boots of the tramping warriors” and the “garments rolled in blood” (verse 5, NRSV).  They are called people who walk in darkness, who live in a land of deep darkness. 

In the time of Isaiah ben Amoz (active, 740-700 BCE), the people referred to were the people of the former northern kingdom of Israel, people who had been conquered and occupied two or three decades before by the mighty kings of Assyria (733 BCE, first exile of the northern kingdom).  The people who remained in those northern regions now lived as subject peoples in Assyrian provinces created out of their old home territory. 

However, something has now happened, something that makes the prophet believe that there is extremely good news for those subject peoples.  The age of the great king David is about to return, the reign of the God of David is dawning again for the subject peoples living in darkness. 

The signal that a great change is happening is a birth.  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us” (verse 6; Hebrew verse 5).  A birth — a mere birth!  How can a birth of a child, no matter how high on the status scale, signify such a revolutionary turn as this passage envisions? 

Again, in the time of Isaiah ben Amoz we are probably not talking about a literal nativity.  More likely is the kind of birth pronounced in the messianic psalm:  “I will tell of the decree of the Lord:  He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7). 

The speaker of this part of the psalm is the newly enthroned king, whom God has “today” adopted, “begotten” as son to reign over the rebellious nations who oppose God and his Anointed (Psalm 2:2).  The “birth” proclaimed in the Isaiah good news is the establishment of a new regime, for which great expectations are raised high among the hopeful people. 

There is a new king in Jerusalem.  A divine decision has been made to put an end to the oppression of the peoples (of the old northern kingdom), to establish justice and peace in place of slavery and war.  Because of this new king, there is an ecstatic declaration of new light for people who have been trapped in darkness. 

Under this new king, the oppression will be ended, the debris of war will be disposed of, and there will be the beginning of a true reign of peace (verses 4-5).  This king will have some wonderful names pronounced in his honor, including “Prince of Peace” (verse 6).  In his reign “there shall be endless peace” and the throne of David will be established “with justice and with righteousness / from this time onward and forevermore” (verse 7). 

It came from Isaiah’s time, but it has become a vision and an ecstatic hope for the ages. 

Psalm 96. 

The ecstatic declaration in the Psalm reading is a “new song.” 

This is perhaps the most emphatic of the “Enthronement of the Lord” psalms, those psalms that celebrate Yahweh as King of all creation and source of all stability and justice (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).  Its punch line as an enthronement psalm is verse 10:  “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” perhaps better rendered “The Lord has become king!”  It is an event.  Something has happened (at the very least in the liturgy). 

The declaration of the Lord’s kingship always has as its corollary a judgment.  “The world is firmly established, …[therefore] he will judge the peoples with equity” (verse 10).  The kingship of the Lord is good news to the oppressed, the victims of injustice, but it is bad news to the oppressors, to the arrogant and those ruled by greed. 

The Lord, who has now appeared, is on the side of the needy and downtrodden.  For them, the ecstatic declaration at Christmas is good news.  

Titus 2:11-14.  

The ecstatic declaration in the Epistle reading is the opening.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all!” (verse 11, NRSV). 

The great event declared as good news always involves change.  Here the change emphasized is not in the outward conditions but in how the saved ones live.  The emphasis is on the consequences of the saving event as they should be developed in the lives of those who have been saved. 

These consequences include a “training” in an orderly manner of life, and living with a hope for a greater glory to come.  The climax of the great event is that Jesus Christ has prepared a people of his own, a people who are “eager to do what is good” (verse 14, NIV translation, avoiding NRSV’s “zealous”). 

The final consequence of God’s great act:  a people eager to do what is good! 

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20).  

In the Gospel reading the ecstatic declaration is by the heavenly messengers (“angels”).  That, however, is the climax of the story. 

The narrative begins with an imperial setting. 

“In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.” (verse 1, CEB [Common English Bible]).  The writer of the Gospel has overstated the case a bit.  It may have seemed to the local people that all the world was involved in the census, but in reality the census in question only involved Judea and Samaria. 

The Census.  Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, had ruled Judea and Samaria for ten years after Herod the Great’s death (from 4 BCE to 6 CE).  However, Archelaus was such a tyrant and foolish administrator that the Romans fired him (at the request of Archelaus’ subjects).  He was banished to distant lands (notice:  he was not executed) and Judea and Samaria were put under the oversight of the governor of the province of Syria, whose name was Quirinius (verse 2). 

Judea and Samaria now came, for the first time, under direct Roman rule, instead of being administrated by native kings or tetrarchs approved by the Romans.  It was Quirinius who took the census of Judea and Samaria in order to establish a realistic basis for taxing the people. 

(When this census was taken — and it is the only Roman census of Judea on record — Jesus was already twelve years old, assuming with Matthew that he was born before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE.  For the Gospel writer Luke, the imperial setting of Jesus’ birth was more important than precise chronology.  What people remembered about those times [80 to 90 years earlier] was the census that was taken at the beginning of direct Roman rule.) 

The Birth.  As the Gospel presents it, it was this imperial census that caused Joseph to make a trip to Bethlehem, taking along his very pregnant wife.  Joseph had to go to Bethlehem because he was a distant descendant of the great king David, who had himself been a shepherd around Bethlehem (I Samuel 17:12-14). 

Descendant of a great king or not, there was no room at the inn.  This little family is pretty humble, consigned in their great need to the barn with the animals.  (The reference to the “manger” establishes this.  That Greek word is used in the translation of Isaiah 1:3, where the donkey knows “its master’s crib.”)  The birth is told in simple terms.  “While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby.  She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him snuggly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guestroom” (verses 6-7, CEB). 

The real fireworks that do some kind of justice to the magnitude of the event take place out in the countryside, where a bunch of shepherds were on night duty, working where David had worked over a thousand years before.  A heavenly messenger (“angel”) appeared to these shepherds.  It became obvious that this was not something ordinary!  There is a blazing field of lazar light shining around this figure, which terrifies the shepherds.  As is standard procedure with heavenly messengers, the first thing said is, “Don’t be afraid!” 

Then the messenger makes the ecstatic declaration.  “I bring good news to you — wonderful, joyous news for all people.  Your savior is born today in David’s city.  He is Christ the Lord” (verses 10-11, CEB). 

The messenger adds that you can identify the right baby by a sign:  he will be found in a manger!  

"Annunciation to the Shepherds," miniature by Jean de Limbourg et al, about 1416. 
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity School Library. 

Then the Hallelujah Chorus breaks out — or more properly, the Gloria Dei Chorus.  A “great assembly of the heavenly forces” declares, “Glory to God in heaven, / and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (verse 14).  

Christmas is a huge claim for a humble event, and this ecstatic declaration to the shepherds reveals the secret that makes it awesome for all of heaven and earth! 

Monday, December 7, 2020

December 20, 2020 - 4th Sunday in Advent

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [691] 

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:47-55; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38. 

God’s promise to David sends a mystery into the world—which could become very intimate and personal. 

The final Sunday in Advent emphasizes the Coming One as a descendant of David, heir to the promises of the Lord that such a descendant would deliver Israel and be their faithful shepherd (see Ezekiel 34:23-24).  

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16. 

This prophetic reading is the prose version of the promise that David will have a perpetual dynasty.  (The main poetic version of this promise is found in Psalm 89:19-37.) 

At ease in his newly-occupied capital (the old city-state of Jerusalem) to which he has just brought the Ark of the Lord (II Samuel 6), David proposes to build in that city a “house of cedar,” that is, a temple residence, for the Lord. 

Through the prophet Nathan, God tells David he has things backward; he will not build God a “house,” God will build him (David) a “house.”  For the moment, says Nathan, God wants not a temple, but a dynasty.  (The temple will come through the son of David, as indicated in the omitted portion of our reading, verses 12-13.)

City, King, and Temple.  As the old Israelite tradition has it, none of these was a part of the original guidance for Israel given by Moses.  (The one exception is that the “Tabernacle” became the pattern for the post-exilic Temple.)  David comes into Israelite history as the shaper of a new order for Israel in the world.  In that new order, Israel will be the dominant power among the surrounding nations, its holy city will be world-renowned, and the blessings of peace will flow from it to all (as in Isaiah 2:2-4). 

The visions of the King and City always reach beyond the limited circuit of Israel’s tribes.  These visions of King and City become cosmopolitan, even universal. 

This “reaching beyond” Israel’s tribal world implants an unceasing tension in Israel’s heritage. 

This tension is between the elect exclusiveness and the royal inclusiveness.  It tends to pit the intimacy of tribal identity against the sovereignty of imperial rule.  It tends to cast the self-sufficiency of tribal fraternity against the shepherding care-of-all by a divinely supported lord.  Ultimately, this tension is between kinship loyalty and the claims of citizenship. 

This new order, the Davidic heritage, is not for the moment only, but for all time.  Our selection concludes, “Your [David’s] house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (verse 16, NRSV). 

Later generations were sure that in some way or another God would keep that promise.  They were sure that, though no native king might, for the time being, be visible ruling a humbled and oppressed Israel or Judah, nevertheless in some secret way a son of David is still in the divine agenda.  In God’s own time that promise – and the Davidic heir – would eventually emerge in some unexpected way, vindicating God’s promise. 

Luke 1:47-55.  

On the Sunday before Christmas, a psalm of David is replaced by the Magnificat of Mary, a hymnic celebration of God’s acting in favor of God’s maid servant and the lowly and hungry who have waited for the Lord. 

There is a small minority of early Latin manuscripts of the New Testament that make this the Song of Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother) rather than Mary’s Song.  But whether Mary or Elizabeth, the feminine voice in the hymn is Zion’s.  It is the voice of the city who was unfaithful to God but has served her time and has now been proclaimed as restored to beauty and motherhood.  The sacred world of the mother-city (metropolis, mater-polis), seen also in Athena, the goddess of Athens, lived on in the poetry (and at one time in the rituals) about Zion as the mother of her population and of her anointed one. 

Mary’s Song, in the voice of Zion, speaks first of the grace given to her, for which the generations will bless her.  God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his [maid] servant”; God “has done great things for me” (verses 48, 49).  God has shown favor to the espoused one, a favor that signals a change in the ways of the world. 

The Song then turns to the status revolution that this favorable action creates for the world at large.  By showing favor to God’s wife/city, to the woman who will give birth to God’s Son,

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

      and lifted up the lowly;
[God] has filled the hungry with good things,
      and sent the rich away empty (verses 52-53, NRSV). 

All of this comforting of the restored mother and reversal of fortunes of the rich and the poor—through all of this God has “helped [God’s] servant Israel, in remembrance of [God’s] mercy” (verse 54), which “mercy” includes God’s promises to David. 

Restoring the City, giving birth to the royal Son—all is done for Israel, though beneficial consequences will also flow over to many nations. 

Romans 16:25-27.  

The Epistle selection is at first sight surprising for this Sunday in Advent.  It is a benediction!  The key to its selection for this day lies in the language used about the proclamation of Jesus Christ:  “…according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed…” 

Advent is about the secret working of God.  Behind the scenes, through the ages, moves God’s own intention, bringing it about in ways utterly unfathomable to self-occupied people.  The announcement of the good news is definitely NEWS—unfamiliar, unexpected, improbable.  It is the revelation of what was unknown, secret, a “mystery.” 

The corollary of this view of the proclamation of Jesus is that only those “in the know” can realize what is really happening:  heavenly messengers (angels), who may give a “sneak preview” to a bunch of working shepherds, faithful elder folks who have anticipated these events all their lives (see Luke 2:25-38), learned men informed by the wisdom of the ages to look for this special moment (Matt. 2:1-12). 

Paul blesses the God who has revealed in Jesus Christ the mystery of how the promises of the past are being fulfilled now. 

Luke 1:26-38.  

The Gospel selection presents that excruciatingly private and intimate moment of the young girl Mary’s life when she was spoken to by the messenger Gabriel. 

A Little Aside about Gabriel.  Gabriel appears in history as one of the chief heavenly messengers (“angels”) during the Persian period (roughly 550 to 300 BCE).  He appears by name in Daniel 8:16 and 9:21 (and without name in 10:5-11).  In those places he is an interpreter of visions of the future given to the wise dream-interpreter Daniel. 

Gabriel, section from The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Florence, 1415. 
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity School Library. 

Gabriel’s co-worker Michael also appears in Daniel 10:13, 21 and 12:1, where he is the warrior leader staving off the onslaught of the forces of evil.  (Michael also appears in the New Testament in Jude 9 and Revelation 12:7.) 

A full portfolio of the top four heavenly commanders (“angels”) is given in I Enoch 40:8-10 (from around the 1st century CE). 

And after that, I asked the angel of peace, who was going with me and showed me everything that was hidden, “Who are these four faces which I have seen and whose voices I have heard and written down?”  And he said to me, “The first one is the merciful and forbearing Michael; the second one, who is set over all disease and every wound of the children of the people, is Raphael [in Hebrew the name means “El heals”]; the third, who is set over all exercise of strength, is Gabriel [the name means “El is a strong-man”]; and the fourth, who is set over all actions of repentance unto the hope of those who would inherit eternal life, is Phanuel [“face of El”] by name. 

(The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth, [Doubleday, 1983], Vol. I, p. 32; translated from Ethiopic by E. Isaac.)

Back to Mary.  Of all things secret, this interview between the messenger Gabriel and the virgin Mary has to about top the list. 

Only Luke and Matthew tell anything about Jesus’ birth and his virgin mother.  In Matthew’s version of the virginal conception, Mary’s side of the experience is totally absent.  The event is related exclusively from Joseph’s viewpoint.  His experience is of a near-scandal that must be kept as secret as possible.  The virginal conception is exclusively a divine secret, a mystery, at the direct instructions of the (nameless) heavenly messenger in Joseph’s dream (Matthew 1:18-25). 

The story of Gabriel and Mary was written about eight decades after Jesus’ birth, yet it is a touching and personal account of the secret divine action at work. 

There is emphasis on the fact that Mary is a virgin and will bear a child, but there is no direct reference to the prophecy in Isaiah of such a birth.  Here the virginal conception is simply a miracle, similar to those that accompanied the births of other destiny-makers in ancient Israel and the Greek world. 

Judean ethos took great pride in fatherhood and the succession of the male generations, but one parent had to yield to the divine source—and better the father than the mother!  (In Israel, the favorite type of miraculous birth story was infertile women becoming pregnant, and in Greek lore it was common for a male god to impregnate a human female.) 

In Mary’s case, Gabriel declares that, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (verse 35, CEB).  The Holy Spirit is the impregnator rather than a human father. 

Thus was Jesus’ divine origin affirmed.   

When Gabriel talks about the Destiny of this miraculously born child, the emphasis is on the descent from David.  “The Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father.  He will reign over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom” (verses 32-33).  God’s past reign over Israel through the house of David will take place again, after many centuries of apparent defeat and abandonment. 

Whatever God’s future work through Jesus would bring, this tender story presents Mary as the stand-in for the mother-city Zion—and for the coming church.  Down through the ages the faithful of God’s church would echo her modest response to Gabriel:   “I am the Lord’s servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said” (verse 38, CEB).