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.


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