The Second Sunday after Christmas, 3 January 2010

The Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 84

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Saint Matthew 2:1-12


On a Sunday such as this one doesn’t know whether to look backward or forward. Backward, since this is still Christmas, we recall the readings of Christmas Day and Eve, and the three holy days that follow – St. Stephen, Holy Innocents, and Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist. These we discussed in the Christmas edition of this blog. Immediately preceding this Sunday is 1 January, which the church knows as The Holy Name, whose readings expound on the name of Jesus. Looking forward to the coming Wednesday, we encounter The Epiphany of our Lord, which is the principal Nativity feast in the Eastern Church, and which marks the close of the “Twelve Days”. The lectionary does not make this day easy, providing for three choices of a Gospel: 1) Joseph’s Dream, and the flight into Egypt (Matthew), 2) the visit to the Temple by Jesus and his parents at the age of 12 (Luke – which moves us quite quickly into his life), and 3) the story of the Magi (Matthew). Since there will be no service on Epiphany we will use the Magi text so that we can encounter that story. The ramifications of the birth of Jesus continue on.

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.

Written late in the ministry of Jeremiah, this text brings a message of hope to Israel. There fate, as predicted both by Isaiah, and by Jeremiah, is a theme with which we have become engaged over the past weeks. Now, however, it is not threats or wrath that are held up, but rather hope. There are three principal ideas in the reading: a) the people will return, b) they will be a remnant, and c) there will be abundance. In this way Jeremiah points toward the future Messianic era in which Israel hopes. It is an era, however, that comes with some cost. The people return from the exile in which they were held. There is the reality of the deportation of some of the population to Babylon, leaving the remainder leaderless in their own land. Thus the return that Jeremiah writes about is both real and psychological; real for those who come back to Palestine from Mesopotamia (not all did – thus beginning “the diaspora”) and psychological for those who toughed it out, remaining in the land, soon to be joined by former countrymen and women. It was not an easy thing. To them the notion of “the remnant” must have been a heady idea, one that takes “left behind” and begins to transform it into “chosen”.

The final theme of abundance is startling since these people returned to a land that was nothing – all had been stripped from it. Jeremiah’s abundance is both in the mode of return (the straight way, the watered garden) and in what awaits them (mourning turned into joy, comfort, and satisfaction with God’s bounty. What does this have to do with Christmas? It features for the reader a land, society, and religion that is turned up-side-down, that is made totally new and different. A preacher might find it interesting to take the notions of return, remnant, and refreshment and apply them to the Christmas story and what follow from following Jesus. We will be interested to see what our preacher does with this.

Breaking Open Jeremiah:

1. In what way is Trinity a “remnant”? What is good about that?

2. Did you ever leave religion for a while, and then come back? What was it like to return? What was missed? What was new?

3. What abundance do you have in your life? How do you share it?

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!

Psalm 84 is one of four psalms (84, 85, 87, and 88) addressed to “the Korahites” that sit on either side of a single Davidic pslam, 86. The Korahites were either singers in the temple or were porters there. Psalm 86 is a lament in which David wonders about the meaning of his life. The psalms that surround it (84, 85, and 87) all consider the return of Israel to Jerusalem, and a love of the temple. The final psalm, 88, mirrors David’s lament in Psalm 86. Several commentators have done exhaustive numerical studies of Psalm 84, all of which underscore a love of the temple. These emotions seem to follow the emotions of Jeremiah in the first reading.

Breaking open Psalm 84

1. What happy memories do you have of “church”?

2. What unhappy memories doe you have of “church”?

3. Who are the pilgrims in this psalm?

4. Who is welcome in the Lord’s house?

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 these opening verses of his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul continues a line of thought that we first saw in his Letter to the Galatians, and that is his notion of adoption. Those who stood at the periphery of belief are now fully welcomed in to become sons and daughters of God, through Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Paul also presages John by talking about how God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. All of this inclusionary language is an invitation to the polyglot, and polytheism of cosmopolitan Ephesus. The Paul who made obeisance to Jerusalem in Galatians, is now open in his invitation to both Jew and Gentile to follow Jesus – the Lord of Creation.

Breaking open Ephesians:

1. To what hope do you think you have been called?

2. What would you be like if you were given a “spirit of wisdom”?

Saint 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.

Matthew bases his birth narrative largely on the story of Moses. We see this clearly in the reading, which immediately follows this, the murder of the innocents. In that story, Herod plays Pharaoh, and the innocents of Bethlehem play the innocents of Goshen. What is more amazing about this story is that it opens up the story to the non-Jewish hearer. Both nature, science, and other lands understand the wisdom that draws the Magi to Jerusalem and finally to Bethlehem. Matthew also goes to great lengths to connect the Hebrew Testament to the quest of the Magi. In Herod’s request to find out “where the Messiah was to be born” we hear the chief priests and scribes readily supply the answer, “Bethlehem”, and then quoting the prophet Micah. Like Joseph, the Magi are warned in a dream (the Joseph story) to go back by another way.

The reading that follows this one has Joseph (Mary’s husband) as the dreamer, who understands the evil king’s intents and who takes Jesus and Mary to Egypt. It is a reversal of the Moses story.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1. How is this the gospel of the gentiles?

2. Why do you think that Matthew inserts the story of the Magi

3. What role does Joseph play in Matthew’s story

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.


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