The First Sunday of Christmas, 28 December 2014
Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
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.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
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:
- Where do you see God in creation?
- Where do you see God in the city?
- 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:
- How does God’s Law inform your life?
- How does Christ’s example govern your life?
- 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.” 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