29 December 2015

The Second Sunday after Christmas, 3 January 2016

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
St. Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
St. Luke 2:41-52
St. Matthew 2:1-12 see The Epiphany of Our Lord

Background: A Rant (Of Sorts)

The Lectionary for today represents the demise of the traditional holy days in our time. And this has been with us for some time. For example the Gospel readings for this day offer three options: The Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23), Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), and finally, The Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).  I wish that the framers of the lectionary had stuck to the three-year cycle even on these days. That way we could have devoted ourselves to Luke in this cycle, and left Matthew for year A. The anticipatory reading of the Visit of the Magi discourages the celebration of the Epiphany, and diminishes the richness of the Christmas Season, to my way of thinking. In the Lutheran Lectionary (slavishly following the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), Christmas 1 has a deferent reading for each of the cycles, and on Christmas 2 has the reading from the Prologue to John (although it does truncate the reading to 1:10-18, an addition of four verses to the Christmass III reading. It all seems a bit of a hodgepodge in the exclusively Episcopal readings for this day. One wonders what the wisdom was in changing course at this point. I will reserve commentary on the Epiphany Gospel to that day’s edition of this blog.

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.

This is theatre, perhaps in the Greek sense. The Oracle addresses the people of Israel (verses 7-9) and then a silent chorus of on-looking nations (10-12), with a summarization at the end (13-14). The conundrum is whether the verses inviting praise are YHWH’s request for forbearance, or praise as a response to God’s deliverance. The oracle of the Lord makes clear what is needed in either situation in a list worthy of Paul – Sing aloud, raise shouts, proclaim, give praise, say. The dual purpose is reflected in the next verse where we hear the words, “Save, O Lord, your people” and “See, I am going to bring…and gather.” There are qualifications, however. It is not the pure-bred that God seeks here, but a wider gathering (perhaps looking ahead to the nations that are observing all of this.) There is another of list – those to be gathered – “the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together.” It is a spectrum of those to be saved, the ones who are debilitated in some way, and those who represent the future of the community.

In case the observing nations do not understand what they are witnessing the oracle of the Lord explains about the ransoming of Jacob, and the redemption of the people. The metaphor is that of a watered garden, lush, abundant and happy. There is no response from the nations – they are to see and to learn, to hear and to understand. The doormat of welcome is well laid out, however, and this welcome will be developed further in Jeremiah’s writing. The long and the short of it is well said in this phrase, “and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. What does the world see when it looks at religion?
  2. What do you see when you look at Christianity?
  3. What do others see in your religious life?

Psalm 84 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!

The connections between these readings may be strong, loose, or non-existent, however the connection between the psalm and the first reading seems to be a strong one. If one can see through the eyes of the people whom Jeremiah addresses, one can see in this psalm the love of Jerusalem that was a part of those whose lives were lived there. Implied, of course, is the centrality and meaning of the Temple. Like the oracle in Jeremiah, all are gathered here – bird and swallow along with the faithful. Later in verses 7 and 8 we have similar images of rain and blessings and the pilgrims who make their way to the holy city. In this Jerusalem, however, the king is still strong and in control. The psalmist uses several descriptive phrases to describe his power – Defender and Anointed – kingship is a part of God’s plan and protection of the people. The psalmist compares several possibilities – living in the courts of the Lord, living in my own chamber, or living in the tents of the wicked. Like the Jeremiah text, the psalmist implies the request for a choice.

Breaking open Psalm 84
  1. What do you love about being in your church?
  2. How does that translate into the reality of your life?
  3. Is there a “church space” in your home?

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.

This reading begins with a blessing and ends with a thanksgiving. The blessing is addressed to God, who in turn has blessed the Ephesians with the Son, Jesus, the Christ. We are assured that such blessings and such presence are not a last minute thought but rather planned for, “before the foundation of the world.” The action verbs, destined, and adopted, give the intent of the eternal plan. It is God’s will that in God’s gift to us of the Beloved, we are also beloved.

The thanksgiving is for those who have accepted this new distinction, and who hold to the faith that Jesus calls them to. Paul wishes further gifts, wisdom, revelation, and hope ought to accompany the further knowing of this Son of God.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. For what do you give thanks during this past year?
  2. How have you been blessed in this past year?
  3. How are you adopted by God? To what are destined?

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

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."

Matthew has his own program and agenda in telling us of the birth of the Messiah, and in its telling he uses the Old Testament story of Joseph. Thus this reading is in a sense a reverse of the Salvation History stories of Israel, and then a repeat. The wise ones are the fulfillment of the ancient promises (see Isaiah 60:1-7) where peoples from the East come to do “homage” or “worship.” All of this is seen as a threat to the powers that be, and the magi are quickly shunted home to avoid a conversation with Herod. There are other prophesies to be fulfilled here, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” And thus the story continues, but with new players and new promises.


St. Luke 2:41-52

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.

In Luke’s birth narrative there are four parallel stages that are shared between the Baptist and Jesus: An annunciation (to Zechariah, to Mary, and to the Shepherds), Birth and Circumcision, Prophetic Recognition (Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna), and finally Growth and Call. This Gospel reading represents the latter, where Jesus, accompanying his parents to Jerusalem and the Temple exhibits his Knowledge and his sense of Call. Earlier visions of Mary see her acceptance of what God has called her to do, her pondering over the events surrounding his birth, and now she seems at odds with it all. Perhaps Luke has Mary represent every believer as the move from disbelief to belief and all points in between, becomes a good description of what we all have experience.

St. Matthew 2:1-12

See the entry for The Epiphany.

Breaking open the Gospels:
  1. Which of these Gospels do you like best, and why?
  2. What point is Matthew making in the story of the Flight into Egypt?
  3. What do you think of Jesus’ behavior over against his parents, in Luke?
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 © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

21 December 2015

The First Sunday after Christmas, 27 December 2015

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

Background: What makes for Christmas?

Christmas has become so entangled with ancient cultural expressions (Saturnalia, the birth of Mithra, and other cultural/mythological connections) and with current consumerism and mass culture that may or may not have anything to do with the birth of Christ. I can recall one visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in which I wandered into a room that was inhabited by a solitary image of the Buddha. I remember my thoughts as I saw it. "This is what Christmas should be like”, I thought to myself. Our minds are crowded with so many images at this time of the year that it is difficult to focus. And, we do little to challenge our mental collection. After as sermon on Christ the King at Saint Mark’s Church in Berkeley, when I tried to explain my sense of loss about the lack of a crucifix anywhere in the church, I was met at the door of the narthex by Margaret Miles, theologian and author. “We need to talk about the crucifix,” she said, and then went on to explain how she thought that the image of focus for Christians ought to be the Virgin suckling the Child. There seem to be too many images, and too little thought about what might direct our internal meditation during this season. I keep going back to my Buddha – that one image that evoked a simplicity of thought and focus for me. It’s disconnected from Christmas, but then so is Rudolph. It does, however, always lead me back to the Christ.

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.

In his commentary on the latter Isaiah’s, Claus Westermann[1] entitles the first part of our pericope (61:10-11) as “The Seed that Yahweh Blesses.” I find it to be a dazzling concept. For the third of the Isaiah’s the seed was the hope that would come with the return. Isaiah makes it all the more startling in verses that are not included in our pericope, but which help us understand the amazing image of salvation in contrast with what was (or is, for us). In the fourth and fifth verse, Isaiah paints a stark picture into which he inserts this divine promise, “Aliens shall feed your flocks, foreigners shall be your ploughmen and vine dressers.” The “present” of this situation was the reality of the power that others had over the lands of the Fathers and the Mothers. The next verse, proclaiming the promise, corrects our vision, “but you shall be called the priests of Yahweh.” That then is the cause of rejoicing that begins our pericope, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.”  What Isaiah sees, and because of which, “I cannot keep silent”, is the image of the salvation of Israel. For those of us who have walked with shepherds to Bethlehem, we see in Isaiah’s vision the Jesus, who will redeem and save. Now the focus is complete – so complete that other nations will both see and recognize the God who saves.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     How is God a seed for events in your life?
2.     Is there anything about your faith of which you cannot keep silent?
3.     What does salvation mean to you?

Psalm 147 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 psalmist a meditation on strength and power, which is made clear to us in the tenth verse, “He is not impressed by the might of a horse, he has no pleasure in the strength of a man (or in a less sanitized version) not by a man’s thighs.” Great powers have seen the undoing of Israel. Great armies and warriors have done their worst, but God is not impressed, nor is the psalmist who devotes his words to reveling in the strength and deeds of the God of Israel, who has returned the people from exile to a safe place in their own land. His praises, however, are not that local, but are more cosmic as all of the elements come under God’s power. The final verses refer to God’s choice of Jacob, and the exclusivity of Israel. In the Gospel, however, we shall be treated to a much more basic and yet cosmic view.

Breaking open Psalm 147:
1.     Who has power in your life?
2.     What power do you have?
3.     Is God powerful 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.

A good introduction to the theology of this pericope can be found in Romans (8:3-5), For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.Paul sees the Law as deficient in promoting faith in the hearts of humankind. So there is a need for the Christ, which one commentator described as both the content and author of faith. So thus the stage is set for a new kind of interaction with both God and the law. Jesus comes into history “under the law” and makes us heirs and members of the family. The history of Jesus’ actions and life-events began with the Nativity, and we do well to honor and observe that. But we participate in a greater way having become heirs.

Breaking open Galatians:
1.     How do Laws make you feel?
2.     How does forgiveness make you feel?
3.     How do those two elements come together?

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.

I remember as a child watching on TV the midnight mass from the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York. At the Gospel, the Deacon would process down the aisle and declaim this great gospel text. Amidst the smoke and wonder, I would be stirred up when at the words, “And the Word became flesh,” at which point he would pause and lean down and kiss the text. Wonder! I cannot hear or read these words without having that some sense of awe and wonder. We need to begin at this place, to understand the Nativity. If Luke provided us with a sense of the lowly and ordinary, then John propels us back to the beginning of all things – to the presence of God and the power and awe of the Word that breathes all things into being. Manger and breath – both contain and embrace God’s will and plan. In a way this is merely an introduction of characters and plot. Jesus, John, the people of both Israel and the world – all are there, awaiting the unfolding of “grace upon grace.” There is wisdom as well, but this time it is our wisdom concerning God, breathed out upon us in the Word. Perhaps the hymn ought to end, “O come, let us know him.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is God’s Word for you?
2.     How is Jesus the Word?
3.     Where did your faith begin?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Westermann, C. (1969), Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 368.