Monday, December 27, 2021

January 9, 2022 - Baptism of the Lord.

                                                      Biblical Words                                      [752]

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. 

 The Spirit and Voice of God prepare a Servant for God’s people. 

The Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the Baptism of the Lord. 

In all the Gospels, the baptism of Jesus is the time when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Anointed One with power.  This event inaugurates Jesus’ mission of preaching, healing, and bringing hope to God’s elect people,  the poor and neglected. 

Isaiah 43:1-7. 

The prophetic reading presents a gospel in miniature for Israel.  It is this story of Israel that Jesus will re-enact in the Gospel.  

The oracle begins with Jacob/Israel in exile – exile (in Babylon) viewed as a repeat of Israel in captivity in Egypt.  The oracle insists that hopeless, defeated, abandoned Jacob/Israel is still a people.  They still have an identity, and are not just an abandoned mob.  They have an identity because God has “called them by name” – “you are mine” (verse 1, NRSV). 

This “gospel” sees the people passing “through the waters” (verse 2), valued even more highly than other nations (verses 3-4), and being gathered from all points of the compass (verses 5-6) to appear as God’s own created people. 

The reassembled, special people of God are the objects of this new divine movement in history.   

Psalm 29. 

This Psalm is used several times in the Christian year, but it is always read on the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord, right after Epiphany. 

As the psalm of Jesus’ baptism, its most direct link to the Gospel narratives is the Voice of the Lord.  In the Gospel reading in Luke (below), the voice of the Lord comes quietly to Jesus in prayer.  Here the scripture gives – not the hidden, secret meaning, but – the spectacular heavenly significance of that Voice. 

“The voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh) occurs seven times in verses 3 through 9.  

In so far as this phrase has one meaning, it is the sound of thunder, and the psalm portrays it as wondrous, violent, and astonishing in its power over many grandiose and lofty things in the world.  However, the wild sweep of roaring and flashing across the Syrian heavens culminates in a reverent and liturgical response from the assembled people in the temple – “and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV).  The worshiping community thus speaks its awed Amen! as the conclusion of the earthly sweep of God’s Voice. 

With this psalm Christian believers affirm that the mighty sweep of the heavenly powers has also spoken quietly through the dove that brings the Spirit to Jesus. 

Acts 8:14-17. 

The book of Acts, Luke’s sequel to the Gospel, often speaks of baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In this passage there is a particular relation between baptism and the charismatic Spirit. 

The Evangelist Philip had preached to some Samaritans and many of them were baptized.  Now Peter and John (“Apostles,” not just Evangelists) come down from Jerusalem to inspect this work.  They discover that the Samaritans had not received the Holy Spirit along with their baptism.  Therefore, they pray and lay their hands on the Samaritans and, behold, the new believers receive the Holy Spirit. 

This episode suggests that the laying on of apostolic hands was required for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Such a view is supported by Paul’s laying on of his hands for the re-baptized disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7).  However, Acts has exceptions to this rule.  The original Pentecost has no reference to baptism – only to the coming of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).  Cornelius’s household received the Holy Spirit first and only then were baptized (10:44-48). 

The patent fact is that the Spirit comes at the opportune moment.  Behind this literary device is a theological conviction:  the wind blows where it wills.  No institution or person can manipulate the Spirit of God...  (Richard Pervo, Acts, Hermeneia, 2009, p. 213.) 

For Luke, certainly, the Spirit that came upon Jesus was the same Spirit that moved and inspired the churches from Jerusalem to Rome. 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. 

Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus has some distinctive features. 

First, it was apparently important to Luke to round off the story of the Baptist before even mentioning the baptism of Jesus.  We first hear John’s testimony that a mightier One is coming after him who will judge (“baptize”) with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 

Then our reading skips Luke's conclusion of the John story (verses 18-20), where John is imprisoned for criticizing the morality of Herod Antipas, ruler of that region.  This imprisonment could have happened, of course, only after John had baptized Jesus.  Luke, however, wants to get the John story out of the way before beginning the REAL story of Jesus – which begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Voice giving Jesus his true heavenly identity. 

Secondly, Luke’s event happens after “all the people were baptized,” after Jesus has gone apart and begun to pray.  Then – “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (verses 21-22).  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will usually go apart and pray before any especially important action.  He is a model for later Christian leadership. 

But the main event is that the Holy Spirit – the spirit of the Lord from creation through the whole history of Israel – enters the action and will be directing the mission of Jesus the Anointed (baptized) One from here on.  And with the Spirit came the Voice:  “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (verse 22; compare Luke 1:32). 

Luke’s Gospel marks the importance of this turning point by inserting a great Pause here! 

Immediately after God’s Voice from heaven, we hear recited a long genealogy – 77 mostly unfamiliar and unimportant names (Luke 3:23-38).  That will certainly slow down the pace of a dramatic reading!!  It further shows that with the Temptation in chapter 4 a whole new stage of sacred history begins.  Thus, by discrete arrangement of his materials, Luke casts his own particular perspective on the saving activities of Jesus of Nazareth! 


January 6, 2022 - Epiphany

                                                          Biblical Words                                             [751]

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

 Epiphany is about a brilliant light coming into the world for all the nations.   

Christmas, especially as presented by Luke, celebrates the humble and poor in God’s salvation for Israel. 

Epiphany, on the other hand, 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, and the great Isaiah 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, a vast panorama exceeding a Disney World laser-light spectacular.  [The last one of these I saw may have been in the 20th century!]

Here is the scene:  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 all the wealth and glory from among the nations, and as they bring the wealth toward the center, they also bring the dispersed sons and daughters of the mother city now restored to her glory. 

Among the tribute flowing to Zion from Midian, Sheba, Kedar, and the like, are gold and frankincense.  Such gifts constitute “the praise of the Lord” 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 an anointed king instead of the glory of God’s city.  

The psalm is a prayer uttered on behalf of God’s king by the king’s people.  (Early Christians probably chanted it on behalf of their newly risen and enthroned King.  See allusions to Psalm 72 in Matt. 2:11 and Luke 1:48 and 68.)  Its superscription says the psalm is “for Solomon,” that is, 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 (verses 3 and 6).  

More especially is the king the source of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed of God’s people (verses 2 and 7).  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).  He redeems the poor from oppression and violence, “and precious is their blood in his sight” (verse 14). 

This is the kind of rule by the Son of David that will attract 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 is an instance of a passage too rich to be exhausted in a lectionary reading.  The thread that is relevant to Epiphany, however, is “the mystery of Christ” – a mystery that concerns the Nations.  (“Gentiles” in both Hebrew and Greek [as well as Latin] means “nations.”)  

The “mystery” is that the true congregation (church) of God’s people is not confined to the people of Israel, but is destined from of old to include the nations.  It is these nations who are here told about the mystery:  “…[T]hat is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (verse 6).  Through the gospel that Paul proclaims, these nations are being brought in from the distant lands to share in the blessings that God’s King has brought to those who turn (repent) and reorient their lives toward the rule of God. 

The conclusion of this line of thought is that it is revealed to the heavenly powers themselves that the nations are joined with Israel in the church of Jesus Christ, “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 previous readings is left behind by the Gospel reading for Epiphany, the visit of the Magi.  

Here a series of simple circumstances are related very concisely.  We do not even hear about these magoi while they are still in the east, but they simply appear in Jerusalem and say, Where is the king?  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 in fact rather modest, here the divine aura behind the simple events is significantly understated. 

The coming of these men from the east causes a great stir in the royal court in Jerusalem.  We hear how King Herod has his experts consult the Israelite scriptures predicting the birth of a great king.  This present king, dedicated to the ways of this world, is guided by fear rather than faith (verse 3).  He uses the scriptures and the good intentions of the genuine seekers to plot a violent attack on the promised one, rather than being guided in the giving of royal gifts and reverence for the coming reign of God. 

The narrative presents without special emphasis that the visitors from the east are lofty representatives of the nations of the world, come to find the secret king whose coming changes the whole world.  Here tribute from the nations is presented in an utterly unassuming way.  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. 

Their welfare and their secret are preserved by God, in spite of Herod’s plots, and these sages “left for their own country by another road” (verse 12). 

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

Thursday, December 23, 2021

January 2, 2022 - 2nd Sunday after Christmas

            Biblical Words                        [750]

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 Second Sunday after Christmas in the liturgical year.  It happens only when Christmas falls on a Wednesday or later in the week, pushing Epiphany (January 6) past the 2nd Sunday. 

(The texts for this Sunday are in the maximum voice, some of the most audacious claims in the Bible!

  • 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 sometimes opaque passages make encompassing claims for the action of God in Christ.  

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. 

At some point, however, as the impact of all this sank in, the Lord instructed Jeremiah to write a separate set of prophecies that looked beyond that judgment. 

“Write in a book 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” (Jeremiah 30:2-3, NRSV). 

Scholars through the ages, therefore, have referred to 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 becomes the object of future 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 meaning with eloquence.  [For a long time, I regarded this passage as the most difficult and extravagant piece in the New Testament letters.]

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 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. 

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, verses 11 and 14;
both for us Judeans, verse 12;
and for you non-Judeans,
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 some 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 reader 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. 

It happened through a Judean who was in line for a great worldly dominion as successor of an ancient king David, but who 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:  “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, … not of blood [like Judean people] or of the will of flesh [by human contrivances] … but of God” (verses 12-13).  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 16-17). 

Only as time had passed, as local lore about Jesus of Nazareth had gradually expanded through the interpretation of the old scriptures 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 the Prologue to the Gospel According to John. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

December 26, 2021 - 1st Sunday after Christmas

                           Biblical Words                    [749]

I Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52.

The vocation of God’s servants begins in childhood and is apparent in the clothes they wear and the company they keep. 

This year’s readings for the First Sunday after Christmas focus on the boy on his way – on his way to becoming a man of destiny.  These are the boy Samuel and the boy Jesus. 

I Samuel 2:18-20, 26.  

The reading from the Prophets actually portrays Hannah, the mother, more than it does Samuel himself. 

Hannah has left her little son in the care of the priests at the major temple where she had dedicated him before his birth.  Each year after that she visited him, bringing along a new clerical robe, presumably fitted to his growth from year to year.  The head priest Eli blessed Hannah and her husband, and – in a verse omitted from our reading – God gave Hannah other children to fill her later years (2:21). 

As for the boy Samuel, he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people” (verse 26, NRSV).  His personal story will begin when he is summoned in a mysterious way to bring a new thing in Israel – a word from the Lord (chapter 3). 

The prophet Samuel would terminate “the age of the Judges.”  In the Deuteronomistic history of Israel, the period of the Judges is a progressive worsening of the condition of the people – militarily and spiritually.  The high-point at which Moses had left the people lasted only a few generations.  Now the thrill is gone, the people are oppressed by more powerful neighbors from the outside and divided among themselves within.  It was an age in which “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25, RSV).  That does not mean the freedom of democracy; it means the chaos of gang warfare. 

In the big picture Israel needs a king who will unite them against enemies, maintain order, and administer an even-handed justice among the tribal warlords.  This, in the long run, Samuel will initiate.  This work by Samuel would bring to Israel the Anointed One (ham-māshîaḥ),  the Messiah. 

The boy playing around the temple in Shiloh, and learning priest-craft in his new tunics, was preparing a great destiny. 

Psalm 148.  

The Psalm reading is an exuberant and delightful summons to heaven and earth to praise the Lord, to “hallelu” (the plural imperative) God.  The craft exhibited by the composer is not complicated but is pleasing to watch as it unfolds. 

The call to heavenly things (verses 1-4) repeats in rapid sequence seven imperatives to praise, moving from one aspect to another of the heavenly realm:  (1) from the heavens, (2) in the heights, (3) all God’s angels (messengers), (4) all God’s host (army), (5) sun and moon, (6) all lighted stars, and supremely, (7) the heaven of heavens enclosed by the cosmic waters.  These seven imperatives are followed by an exhortation:  “Let them praise …,” which in turn leads, finally, to a reason for the praise:  because all these summoned entities were “created” by God and fixed forever. 

The second section (verses 7-13) also sweeps across a vast domain:  earthly things.  The imperative “Praise ye …” is given only once at the beginning, then followed by a chain of earthly things, places, and people who are included in this imperative:  (1) the earth; (2) sea monsters and deeps; (3) lightning and hail, snow and frost, storm winds (all weather elements kept in cosmic storehouses); (4) mountains and hills; (5) trees – for fruit and also huge cedars; then, moving toward the human world, (6) animals wild and domestic, crawling creatures and winged birds; and finally (7) the varieties of people – kings and clans, princes and judges, young men and maidens, old folks and kids.  

The long enthusiastic enumerations are intended to be inclusive, creatures of all kinds included in the command to “Praise the Lord.”  All of it culminates in a reason for the summons to praise:  because “his name alone is exalted; / his glory is above earth and heaven” (verse 13, NRSV).   

Does this reason for praise seem too general, too vague?  The poet’s basic structure is completed, but both creative art and faith erupt in a final declaration, a final proclamation of why God is to be praised:  “He has raised up a horn for his people, …for Israel, the people close to him” (verse 14). 

This psalm is not about this horn, this pillar of strength to empower the people; it is about the heavenly and earthly realms which, in this vision, will be transformed by God’s gift of such a leader. 

Colossians 3:12-17.  

As Hannah brought her son Samuel a new robe to wear in the Lord’s service each year, so the Epistle reading would have believers put on new clothes in their service of God.  These chosen folks are to be holy, wearing compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  These garments enable people to bear with each other gladly, because all know themselves to be forgiven ones.  Even more important is that you clothe yourselves with love, an outer garment holding in all the warmth of companionship. 

But lest we be held too completely by external things like clothes, most of all we must have inside “the peace of Christ … to which you were called in one body” (verse 15).  Then, beautified and warmed in body, we may burst out in exuberant song and let the word of Christ teach us all wisdom and all praise (verse 16)! 

Luke 2:41-52.  

On one of the years when Hannah went up to the temple to take Samuel his new garment (I Samuel 2:19), it would have been the time of preparation for his bar mitzvah – for his transition out of boyhood toward a young man responsible for his vocation in Israel.  The Gospel reading presents this occasion in the life of the boy Jesus.  His parents are represented as observant Galileans who made the pilgrimage each spring for pesach, which had to be eaten inside the precincts of Jerusalem. 

This narrative, however, is not about the faithful observance of Joseph and Mary; it is about Jesus being about his Father’s business – or being in his Father’s house, as the NRSV has it. 

It was a seven-day festival, but that wasn’t long enough for the precocious son of Joseph and Mary.  He has heard the learned ones discussing scripture and God’s will for daily life and for Israel’s destiny, and he rapidly learned to join in and exchange questions and answers with them.  His anxious mother comes close to stamping her foot when she finds him (verse 48), and he meekly goes back to Nazareth. 

On one level, this story is a playful speculation about how the boy Jesus must have grown toward his awesome vocation.  On another level, it is a more sobering, even tragic, parallel to the boy Samuel.  Samuel grew up and got his training in a great temple establishment, but when his prophetic calling came he would pronounce doom on that very sacred institution.  At God’s direction, he would prophesy the judgment of the Lord on the priests and the temple at Shiloh (I Samuel 3:10-14). 

So, in Luke’s larger story of Jesus, the boy grown to a man would lament over the fate of the beloved city that knew not when its time for repentance and turning had come (Luke 19:41-44). 

Still, before the doom, there was the time of the playful boys busy about the temple. 


December 25, 2021 - Christmas

                           Biblical Words                        [748]

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 about 740-700 BCE), the people referred to may have been the people of the former northern kingdom of Israel, people who had been conquered two or three decades before by the mighty kings of Assyria (733 BCE).  They were now subject peoples living in newly created Assyrian provinces.  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 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 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, 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 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.  “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…” (verse 11, NRSV). 

The great event that is declared 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.  What God has done includes 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, and this is 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.  That, however, is the climax of the story. 

The narrative begins with an imperial setting.  

“A decree went out from Emperor [Caesar] Augustus that all the world should be registered” (verse 1, NRSV).  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. 

Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, had ruled Judea and Samaria for ten years after Herod’s death (from 4 BCE to 6 CE).  However, he was such a tyrant and foolish administrator that the Romans had fired him.  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 were now, for the first time, coming under direct Roman rule, instead of being run by native kings or tetrarchs (“rulers” in NRSV) 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 was 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, the imperial setting of Jesus’ birth was more important than precise chronology.  What people remembered about those times – fifty or sixty years later – was the census that was taken at the beginning of direct Roman rule.  As far as Luke’s informants were concerned that census must have been around the time when Jesus was born.) 

As the Gospel presents it, it was the 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 her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…” (verses 6-7). 

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, “Do not be afraid.” 

Then the messenger makes the ecstatic declaration.  “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (verses 10-11).  The messenger adds that the manger the baby is lying in is the sign by which he can be identified. 

Then the Hallelujah Chorus breaks out – or more properly, the Gloria Dei Chorus.  A “multitude of the heavenly host” declares, “Glory to God in the highest 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 – the secret that makes it awesome for all of heaven and earth! 


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

December 19, 2021 - 4th Sunday of Advent

                                                         Biblical Words                                            [747]

Micah 5:2-5a;  Luke 1:46-55;  Hebrews 10:5-10;  Luke 1:39-45, (46-55).  

 In Bethlehem, ancient prophecies and songs of victory are given to those
who wait for God’s deliverance. 

Micah 5:2-5a.  

The prophet Micah was a country cousin of Isaiah of Jerusalem.  Isaiah was the city spokesman, close to the royal family, prominent in a time when the kingdom of Judah was still a regional power. 

Micah was from the small town of Moresheth, about twenty-five miles off to the southwest from the great city.  (Twenty-five miles was a long day’s hike over rocky trails.)  While Micah has less sympathy with Jerusalem/Zion’s possible fate (he predicts its complete obliteration in 3:12), he still shares with Isaiah the language and tradition of the renowned mother city where David ruled. 

That Zion tradition looked back to the reign of God over the nations through God’s Anointed servant.  David himself came from a small town of Judah, and neither that little town nor other clans of Judah forgot that David’s roots were among them.  (The book of Ruth further enhanced the lore of Bethlehem in later generations.) 

Both Micah and Isaiah lived through times of impending doom from invading Assyrian armies, with the resulting subjection of the kingdom of Judah.  From that time on, either in Micah’s own time or later, prophetic circles sought signs of a coming change of fortunes. 

Our passage anticipates such a new age.  Out of the little town of Bethlehem will come (again) a ruler in Israel.  (The word is mōshēl rather than melek, king.)  This ruler will be the good shepherd of the people, and they will dwell in security (verse 4). 

Later generations would have heard additional prophecies in the passage. 

Therefore he shall give them up until the time

      when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
      to the people of Israel (verse 3, NRSV). 

A long period during which God has “given up” the people to subjection and scattering is foreseen.  In the times of Herod, Pilate, or Nero, this long period can be seen as coming to an end; a new ruler will reunite the faithful of God, however dispersed they may be, and become for them a prince of peace. 

Luke 1:46-55.  

The psalm reading is the Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel.  Like the Micah passage, it looks back on a period of subjection and misery endured by God’s city and people.  But that has now ended and the speaker of this victory song exults in the great reversal that the “Mighty One” has brought about. 

The song in Mary’s mouth makes her directly parallel to Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in the older scripture.  Mary’s song is a modified version of Hannah’s song (I Samuel 2:1-10), with the same emphasis on the mighty being brought low, the rich sent away empty, the lowly lifted up, and the hungry fed. 

There is no reference in Mary’s song to the barrenness of one soon to be a mother, but when it says, “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” “servant” is feminine; he has looked upon his “handmaiden.” 

The Gospel is saying that Mary’s experience, like Hannah’s, anticipates the beginning of a new age:  in Hannah’s time the rise of King David, taking Israel to heights of prosperity and magnificence – to be followed by Solomon, “the one of peace.”  In this perspective, John the Baptist, the voice of a prophet after a long period of no divine words, is like Samuel (Hannah’s son), the forerunner and anointer of David, the Anointed One (Messiah) par excellence. 

Hebrews 10:5-10.  

The Epistle reading looks more toward the meaning than the events of Advent.  Its particular emphasis is on the incarnation: 

Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,

      but a body you have prepared for me …” (verse 5). 

This is a quotation from Psalm 40:6, except that the statement about the “body” is different from both the received Hebrew and Septuagint texts. 

The Epistle to the Hebrews is focused on the body of Christ as the sacrifice for sin, a sacrifice made once for all on behalf of all who accept Jesus as Lord.  This body entered living history and was given up – entirely in accordance with the will of God – and that body now replaces the animal sacrifices of old times. 

For those devoted to the old rituals of the Tabernacle and the Temple, this is the astonishing and revolutionary good news of Advent. 

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55).  

The Gospel reading is the visit of Mary, who has just heard the announcement from Gabriel, to her relative Elizabeth in Judah.  The passage is Elizabeth’s glorification of God's action in the Advent announcement.  

We have just heard the announcement to Mary of the conception; now we hear what it means. 

Painting, Church of Saint Elizabeth, El Sitio, El Salvador.
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library. 

Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.  Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah got lots of stage play in the first part of the chapter, Mary has a large part in the events still ahead, but here Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks her piece.  (A few early Latin manuscripts even say Elizabeth sang the Magnificat instead of Mary.)

These events are so portentous that the babies in the wombs are rejoicing by anticipation.  Elizabeth, feeling the infant kick, cries out, with all the ages, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (verse 42, NRSV).  She goes on raving about – not her own baby, but – Mary’s barely conceived baby.  “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”  

Who is unworthy old me, that the Anointed One visits me?  (She is not the last older woman to speak this way in Luke’s Gospel.) 

Elizabeth’s final word takes on a larger perspective.  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (verse 45).  All the women of faith down through the Israelite ages are encompassed here – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar, Samson’s mother, and Hannah. 

But supremely, the one who has waited for the fulfillment is Mother Zion, the city of God given its first glory by David, the shepherd from Bethlehem.  

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid...” (Isaiah 40:2).