30 December 2014

The Second Sunday after Christmas, 4 January 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
St. Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, or St. Luke 2:41-52, or St. Matthew 2:1-12

Background: From Christmas to Epiphany
In past comments I’ve described the important days that immediately follow Christmas, namely St. Stephen’s Day (26 December), St. John’s Day (27 December), and The Holy Innocents (28 December).  In the Lutheran and Episcopal Calendars, there are provisions for Christmas I and Christmas II, the Sundays following Christmas. The Roman calendar is different, with its provision for The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph that falls on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. The Gospel for that celebration is the account of the Presentation (St. Luke 2:22-40). The Gospels for the first and second Sundays of Christmas in the Episcopal and Lutheran Calendars are the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1) for the First Sunday, and a choice of Gospels for the Second Sunday – the Gospel for Holy Innocents Day (St. Matthew 2:13-23) although leaving out Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the Innocents, the trip with the adolescent Jesus to the Temple (St. Luke 2:41-52) and finally the Gospel for the Feast of the Epiphany (St. Matthew 2:1-12). The first of January is observed in the Roman calendar as The Octave Day of the Nativity of Our Lord, the Solemnity of Mary the holy Mother of God, with a reprise of the Lucan Birth Narrative. In the Lutheran and Episcopal Calendars it is observed as the Holy Name with the Gospel, St. Luke 2:15-21, the same as the Roman Gospel, but with the verses speaking of the circumcision of Jesus (which preserves the older name for the day). The Roman calendar observes the Epiphany on the nearest Sunday (this year the 4th), while the Episcopal and Lutheran Calendars keep it on its usual day but with the option of reading its Gospel on Christmas II.

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Thus says the LORD:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
"Save, O LORD, your people,
the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."
For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the LORD.

These words seem familiar to us, in that we have probably read them, or at least phrases like them in the material from II Isaiah. There is scholarly debate on the “genuineness” of these sections – how much is Jeremiah and how much is from another source, and from what period of his ministry did these words come? It is clear that Jeremiah proclaims a hopeful message here, either in retrospect to the victims in the northern kingdom, or currently to the exiles in Babylon. None-the-less they are hopeful, and messianic words for us, following the Christmas feast. There is a hint of what will become the universalism of Jeremiah, “and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth” and his emerging theology of the “remnant.” God is the one who is seen as scattering the flock and then calling them back, the traditional prophetic theme of faithlessness, punishment, and then return. 

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. How is God’s Word for you a gushing brook?
  2. Has God made highways through the desert for you?
  3. Have you made that happen for others?

Psalm 84 or 84:1-8 Quam dilecta!

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.

Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.

For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;

No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.

O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!

This pilgrim song uses powerful language to describe the author’s longing (the verbs in Hebrew add an almost sexual intensity to the phrases) for the “courts of the Lord’s house.” The temple precincts are seen as inclusive rather than exclusive, for even small birds are welcome there, nesting in the cracks in the fa├žade. The pilgrimage that is described here, ‘Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way’ are reminiscent of the sentiments in the passage from Jeremiah in the first reading (and equally reminiscent of readings from II Isaiah.) The following verses about the gushing springs especially recall the Jeremiah and II Isaiah passages. As the pilgrims make their way up to Jerusalem, they and the verses that describe them become aware of the wall towers (ramparts) that protect the holy city, and provide entry to the place where God dwells. It is also the place from which the King administers justice, and so some of the pilgrim’s fervor and prayers are centered on the Davidic kingship, which God has anointed as protector and “shield”. In the final verses however, God is revealed as a shield, ‘For the Lord God is both sun and shield.’  Thus dwelling in the capitol, as opposed to dwelling in the midst of the wicked, is the preferable way – for God withholds nothing from those ‘who walk with integrity.’

Breaking open Psalm 84:
  1. In what ways are you a pilgrim?
  2. How does the church or your faith enable your pilgrimage?
  3. What is your spiritual destination?

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

In preparing to read this passage or to preach on it, or even to spend some time of devotion with it, it might be helpful to recognize the strong baptismal background evident in the initial verses. And if we are tempted to look for a personal predestination here, we will be disappointed, for the community seems to be the focus of God’s actions toward us, and the center from which praise is rendered to God.  The second section (verses 15-19a) reveals the mystery of reconciliation. Again, the community of saints is the focus. The section begins with a prayer for “wisdom and revelation” so that we might know him, and through him the mystery (the hope) to which we are called – both Jew and Gentile. There is no fulfillment here, but only initiation and prayer.  As we launch into the Sundays after Epiphany, and meditate on the ministry and teaching of Jesus, these passages seem to provide and excellent place and manner of beginning.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. What does God intend for you?
  2. In what ways do you look back to your Baptism?
  3. How do you look forward from your Baptism?

St. Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."


St. Luke 2:41-52
Now the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.


St. Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

For the liturgy planner, or for the preacher we are met with a dizzying collection of Gospel possibilities. This richness is not one of largess so much as indecision as to the actual nature of the day. Is it a belated Holy Innocents/Christmas, or looking ahead to Jesus and the Holy Family, or incorporating Epiphany?  In the first selection we see Jesus placed by Matthew in the heart of the history of Israel – actually in the heart of their Salvation History. The second selection, from Luke sees the fulfillment of that vision of Jesus in the heart of Judaism. It is he who knows and understands the ancient teachings. The lesson might also be about what it means to be a family, family with father and mother, or family as the community of faith. The final anticipatory passages from Matthew that deal with the Magi opens the door to Jesus in the midst of the nations – in the heart of the Gentile, if you will.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is the heart of the faith of Israel?
  2. What is the heart of the faith of Christianity?
  3. How are these combined in your heart?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

23 December 2014

The First Sunday of Christmas, 28 December 2014

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
St. John 1:1-18

Background:  St. Stephen, St. John, and The Holy Innocents.
Unfortunately, to my way of thinking, there is a rule of precedence that does not allow the use of the propers for the three days noted above should they follow on a Sunday.  The on-line lectionary gives a caution: This Sunday takes precedence over the three Holy Days, which follow Christmas Day. As necessary, the observance of one, two, or all three of them is postponed one day.  Readers and those preaching on this day may want to take some time to devote themselves to these three days and the instructive nature they afford the celebration of Christmass.  It might be a good thing, having immersed ourselves in our cultures celebration of the holidays, to devote ourselves to the cost of what Christmass really is - to see what it means to follow Jesus.  

First, 26 December is Stephen, protomartyr and deacon, martyred because of his confession of Jesus.  Stephen, a Greek-speaking Christian was also appointed as one of the first deacons who were sent to serve the Hellenistic widows in the early Church.  Thus Stephen was a martyr both in will and in deed.

The second is the celebration of St. John’s Day, 27 December, which honors the Apostle and Evangelist.  John (and here we need to mention that a great deal of modern scholarship which sees John of Patmos, John the Apostle, and John the Evangelist as three separate persons) was not martyred and so he was a martyr in will but not in deed.  John’s prologue serves as the Gospel for Christmass I, and his late take on the ministry of Jesus adds additional insight and theology to the accounts by the synoptics.

The final day in this series is the day of The Holy Innocents, 28 December.  Matthew’s Birth Narrative relies a great deal on both the Moses and the Joseph stories from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Here we meet Mary’s spouse, also named Joseph, who like his forbearer has visions and dreams.  The story of the innocents depends on the story of the killing of the Hebrew firstborn in the Moses stories.  These young innocents were martyrs not in will but in deed.

Each of these days serves as an occasion to reflect on our Christmass celebration, and our following of the Babe of Bethlehem.  Like Mary, we need to ponder.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This writer, who followed the first Isaiah, is anointed to give a new vision to the exiles who are returning to Palestine after their trials in Babylon.  It is a vision of both joy and hope.  The passages mirror the hopes of an earlier Isaiah, in that this new prophet is called to bring good news to the afflicted.  There is a renewal of things in the earth and in society as well.  The references to the garden, the bridegroom and the bride, and to earth itself show the all-encompassing nature of this prophet’s hope and vision.  Finally, there is a new name for the nation and for Jerusalem.  It is a name given by God.  In the verses that follow this reading, the nation itself is seen as a nation of priests serving God and witnessing to the world in a new fashion.  What Christians might hear here are the voice of John the Baptist and his call for repentance, a turning back to God.   

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     What is your greatest joy in life?
2.     How well does this Isaiah do in describing the joy of return?
3.     He also speaks of hope.  What hopes do you have?

Psalm 147 or 147:13-21 Laudate Dominum

How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!

The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.

He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.

Great is our LORD and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.

The LORD lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.

He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;

He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.

He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.

He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;

But the LORD has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.

Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

He sends out his command to the earth, *
and his word runs very swiftly.

He gives snow like wool; *
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.

He scatters his hail like bread crumbs; *
who can stand against his cold?

He sends forth his word and melts them; *
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.

He declares his word to Jacob, *
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.

He has not done so to any other nation; *
to them he has not revealed his judgments.

This psalm follows well upon the words of a later Isaiah in the First Reading.  Here God is called “the builder of Jerusalem,” and gives us a clue that the psalm comes from the period following the exile.  In this psalm the author recounts the ways in which God is compassionate and caring.  The fullness of creation is resident in the God of Israel: God counts the number of the stars, and gives them names; God is the essence of wisdom, and the giver of life upon the earth.  Traditional images of strength are cited here so that God can be seen as the one who brings the people back without the strength of battle or war.  For this reason the city and its people are called to worship the Lord.  The final verses are overflowing with reference to God’s word and breath, and we as readers or proclaimers are drawn back to the mists of Creation where the Spirit hovers over the waters.  It is not just snow, rain, and hail that are blown from the mouth of God, but righteousness as well.

Breaking open Psalm 147:
  1. Where do you see God in creation?
  2. Where do you see God in the city?
  3. Where do you see God in your life?

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.

But 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, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Paul wants his readers to understand the setting of the Birth of Jesus; he wants them to experience the condition of humankind that necessitated the coming of the Christ.  Thus, he reminds them of the rule of the Law, and calls it “our disciplinarian”.  This is a difficult cultural argument to make, with the Galatians having had another religious background.  It is interesting to note, however, that Abraham and Sarah were seen as the “father and mother” of Jewish proselytes, and thus Paul is introducing them the full understanding of such a tradition.  That given, he begins to talk about another adoption, one that Gentiles could surely understand.  “You are no longer slaves – but a child.”  If in today’s liturgy we are counting the costs of kneeling at the manger, then here are the rewards as well.

Breaking open Galatians:
  1. How does God’s Law inform your life?
  2. How does Christ’s example govern your life?
  3. Are you a slave or an heir?  What does that mean?

Saint John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

When I was a kid, following his own services on Christmass Eve, my father would always watch a delayed television broadcast from The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York.  Of course, the rest of us sat there as well observing and reveling in the ritual of the liturgy.  At the Gospel, however, I was always deeply moved when the Gospel from John was read, and when the Deacon read the words, “and the Word became flesh,” he (and unfortunately it was always he then) would kiss the Book of the Gospel.  “Yes,” I thought, “this is the center, this is the mystery, and this is the reality.”

On commentator that I read compared the Prologue in John’s Gospel to a musical overture, “opening up the core symbols and central themes that provide the key.”[1] Where these verses originally came from is a bit of a question, but either their composition by John or their preservation by John serves as a gift to those who would understand Jesus.  He uses a powerful comparison to begin his Gospel, modeling the verses of the hymn on Creation itself.  The Word in the creation story, seen as God’s breath or ru’ah, the very Spirit of God, is the causative agent in creation.  John sees Jesus in this role.

The Evangelist also needs to deal with and differentiate the one who announced Jesus’ coming – John the Baptist.  Although he enlightened the people with his message of the Coming One, John wants us to be certain that John the Baptist was not the light.  Jesus was not only the bringer of light – he is the light.  Jesus is the effulgence of that light, and as John says, “we have all received, grace upon grace.”  Yes all the symbols, signs, and hooks are here; ready to propel us into the story.  It is like Christmass itself with its own signs and symbols – telling and initiating the story.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
1.      What words are powerful to you?
2.      What of Jesus’ words are powerful to you?
3.      How might you speak with power to the world?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Lee, Dorothy Ann, “John”, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abington Press, Nashville, TN,  2010, location 27533.