The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Christmas Day III, 25 December 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
Saint John 1:1-14



Background: The Prologue of John

Both Matthew and Luke connect Jesus to the salvation history of the Jews by either modeling characters in the birth narrative on characters in earlier narratives (Joseph, Moses, Miriam, Pharaoh) or through the claims of two distinct genealogies. It is John, however, that makes the connection most complete in his Prologue to his gospel. It requires us to look beyond the Greek face that the Prologue projects (the logos vs. dabar), to see a content that really is derived from the Torah. It is the “word” of the Creator, hovering over the chaos of a primordial world that becomes the creative force that leads toward life.  The very breath of God (ru’ah) is the agency of the spirit that hovers over the deep. If this root idea is of interest to you, you may want to investigate John Shelby Spong’s book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.[1] You may find his findings difficult, but what you can appreciate is the Jewish background to John, rather than seeing him only in a Greek light. This makes for a deeper experience of the Prologue and of the other expressions of the birth of Jesus as well. Here is a tantalizing quote:

“To say, “the word was made flesh and dwelt among us” is to say that in the life of Jesus people saw the will of God being lived out and they heard the word of God being spoken. To exhort people to be born again or to be born of the spirit (as we will later hear John do) was not to call them to a conversion experience that would make them spiritually superior to others; rather, it was to invite them to escape life’s limits and enter a new level of consciousness where they would begin to see themselves as a part of who God is and to experience God as a part of who they were.”[2]

First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.



In a series of stages, the world which this Isaiah is commenting on has begun to change. In chapters 46 and 47 we begin to see the demise of the Babylonian Empire, and with that absence the hope for something better. This pericope stands at the center of a series of readings that are focused on the fall of Babylon under Cyrus the Mede, and the hoped for restoration of Jerusalem. Isaiah’s first return is seen in the return of YHWH to Zion, and thus the “ruins rejoice.” God shows strength to the nations that had conceived the downfall of Jerusalem, but the rise and return of YHWH is a sign of not just military or political victory, but rather salvation itself.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          Who are those who bring good news to you in your life?
2.          How do you greet them?
3.         When have you seen something ruined rejoice?

Psalm 98 Cantate Domino

     Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
2      With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
3      The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
4      He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
5      Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
6      Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.
7      With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
8      Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
9      Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
10    In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.



If the ruins of Jerusalem rejoice in Isaiah, and the people break out in song, then this is perhaps the song that was sung. This may have been composed after a particular military victory, but given the on-going context of the history of Israel, it becomes more general in its application and more cosmic in terms of its appeal, “Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, the lands and those who dwell therein.”

Breaking open Psalm 98:
1.     When do you sing in your life?
2.     What is the song usually related to?
3.    How are hymns a part of your life?

The Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12)

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

[For to which of the angels did God ever say,
"You are my Son;
today I have begotten you"?
Or again,
"I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son"?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
"Let all God's angels worship him."
Of the angels he says,
"He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire."
But of the Son he says,
"Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions."
And,
"In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end."]



Like John’s prologue, the author’s introduction to the letter to the Hebrews introduces us to a theme of inclusion of past witness and wisdom. All of this becomes either a precursor to or follow-on to the word that the Son speaks to us – “in these last days he has spoken to us by a son. In a way the author sets up a hierarchy not only of existence and status, for the next series of references will be Jesus place amongst the angels, but also a hierarchy of witness and proclamation. Other notions cement the understanding that the author has of Jesus, “heir,” “reflection,” “imprint,” and “powerful word”. What is interesting are the contrasts that are made, the permanence of the scepter, and the mutability of creation; the folding up of the heavens and the earth and the sameness of God’s existence, “and your years will never end.”

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What are the themes of Hebrews that are announced in the prologue?
  2. Why is the author interested in describing a heavenly hierarchy?
  3. Where are you in that hierarchy?

The Gospel: St. John 1:1-14

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.



Just as the prologue in the reading from Hebrews, so the Prologue of John is a forecast of both themes and symbols that will become central to our understanding of his theology. Some think that it was originally an early Christian hymn to the Logos, given its structure and poetic content. It is interrupted, in a way, with the appearance of the Baptist – the forerunner and broadcaster of this same message.

Although there is a Greek influence here, we must not be forgetful of the Jewish core to this composition, formed as it is on the account of creation itself. All things, including Jesus, either begin here, or in the case of Jesus are present here to be a part of the spirit-infused creation that will make for life. The Word, the ru’ah, the spirit, Jesus, and God are all in relationship here, making for something new. That the essential content of John’s Gospel is God’s gift of life to a dying word – a gift made possible by the one who is offered on the tree – is an extension of the story that will be, and was seen in several iterations though prophets, psalmists, and historians.  The culmination is finally reached in this phrase, “and the Word became flesh.” In the incarnation there is now a connection with humankind as well, a realization that we are all apart of this story. The traditional Christmas text from Luke tempts us to see the nativity as something outside of ourselves. John’s Prologue brings us right into the center with all things.
  

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the gift that John gives us here?
2.     When does the Christian story begin for you?
3.    How does it end?

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



O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

or

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

or

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller



[1]Spong, J. (2013), The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperCollins Publishers, New York
[2]Spong, page 59

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