SECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Although I will be preaching from the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, we will be observing the Epiphany of our Lord at Trinity on Sunday, January 4th. I believe the gospel lesson is particularly appropriate for the day. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek verb,” epiphanein,” to “reveal” or “make manifest.” That is precisely what John’s gospel does with Jesus. John unwraps Jesus slowly, deliberately and with great tenderness as one might unwrap a precious gift. He describes Jesus as “the light of men,” telling us that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The light ought to bring us joy. I don’t know about you, but I derive a good bit of comfort knowing that the shortest day of the year is behind us and that, from here on out, the days will be getting longer and the nights shorter. While I have never been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, I know that I thrive on light. For me, the worst part of losing our power after Hurricane Sandy was the darkness. Even during the day it seemed we were always moving about in semi-darkness. Nothing was more maddening than reactively flipping on the light switch to no avail. What a delight it was when the power came back flooding the house with light!
But John tells us that the world is less than thrilled with the light of Jesus. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Why would anyone shun the light? The answer comes to us later in the gospel when John tells us: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” The problem with light is that it reveals everything-even the stuff we prefer not to see. I would rather not know what my country does to people in musty dungeons far “off the grid” in the name of fighting terrorism. I would prefer not to know who made the items I buy, or under what sort of working conditions they were made or how the workers making them were compensated. I would rather not believe that racism pervades the culture in which I live, making me blind to the injustice and pain experienced by people of color in my land. But the truth cannot be had piecemeal. It’s an all or nothing proposition. The light illuminates all things indiscriminately, good, bad and ugly.
Still, for all the pain, embarrassment and discomfort the light can bring, it is nevertheless “life.” So says John the Evangelist. To those who receive Jesus, to all who are willing to be instructed by him, exposed by him and transformed by him, “he gives power to become the children of God.” Knowing Jesus is knowing the heart of God whose desire is not our destruction, but our salvation. That gives us the courage we need to see ourselves and our world, not as we fancy them to be, but as they truly are. Knowing Jesus also reveals to us all that our world can and will be. It may take our eyes some time to adjust to the light, accustomed as they are to the darkness. Indeed, our initial reaction to the light might very well be to avert our gaze, cover our eyes and remain in the darkness. But, in the words of the hymn: “Morning dispels, gently compels, and we’re drawn to the light of God.” “Drawn to the Light,” John C. Ylvisaker, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 593. May it be so!
Our lesson is taken from Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation,” consisting of Jeremiah 30:1-31:40. These oracles are thought to have been collected by Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, and reflect the period between 622 B.C.E. and 609 B.C.E. During this period the Southern Kingdom of Judah was under the reign of King Josiah who, during the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, manage to restore Judah to independence and to a measure of national prominence. Under his leadership, Judah was able to annex much of the land once occupied by the Northern Kingdom of Israel that had been destroyed and occupied by Assyria in 622 B.C.E. Jeremiah was probably a young man or perhaps just a boy when the Northern Kingdom fell. He laments that calamity with these memorable lines: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel, of course, was the second wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph. The northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh trace their lineage through Rachel and Joseph. Matthew’s gospel cites to this verse to express the grief of Bethlehem over the slaughter of its male children by Herod the Great. Matthew 2:18.
This section of Jeremiah, unlike so much of his work, reflects the joy and comfort available to the “remnant” from the Northern Kingdom now that they have been liberated from the yolk of Assyria. The Assyrians carried many of the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom into Exile throughout their empire. II Kings 17:1-6. Jeremiah voices an expectation that the new state of affairs brought about through Josiah’s annexation of what was once Israel will allow these exiles to return home. Vss. 10-11.
Jeremiah is clear that the northern tribes have no one but themselves to blame for their fate. The Assyrian conquest came upon Israel “because your guilt is great, because your sins are flagrant.” For this reason, God dealt her “the blow of an enemy.” Vs. 14. Yet even God’s punishment is an act of mercy designed to bring about repentance and faith. Thus, Israel ought not to complain that her “hurt is incurable.” Vs. 12. “For I will restore health to you,” says the Lord, “and your wounds I will heal.” Vs. 17. Assyria ought not to think that, because its military oppression has served as God’s instrument of discipline, it will suffer no consequences for its ruthlessness. This brutal empire will soon get a taste of its own medicine. God assures the oppressed northerners that “all who devour you shall be devoured, and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity; those who despoil you shall become a spoil, and all who prey on you I will make a prey.” Vs. 16. That is precisely what occurred in 626 B.C.E. when the Babylonian general, Nabaplausur, took Assyria’s capital city, Nineveh.
The resulting relief given to Judah and other smaller countries of the Middle East was short lived. Recognizing the destabilizing threat posed by the rise of Babylon, Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco led his army north in order to prop up what remained of the Assyrian forces. According to the account in II Kings, Neco had no interest in engaging Judah but, for reasons best known to himself, King Josiah felt it necessary to confront the Egyptian army. The battle ended badly for Judah with the death of King Josiah and loss of independence to Egyptian vassalage. II Kings 23:29-30. According to II Chronicles 35:25, Jeremiah uttered a lament for this fallen king. No such oracle can be found, however, in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah itself. Though it is quite possible that Jeremiah supported the religious reforms introduced by Josiah according to II Kings 23, it is likely that he felt they did not go far enough. In his preaching Jeremiah called for a change of heart commensurate with ritual practice. Torah was to be inscribed upon the hearts of the people under a new covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Jeremiah’s hope for the enslaved and exiled northern tribes did not come to fruition in his life time. Indeed, he lived to see also the conquest and exile of his own nation of Judah. Yet the people of Israel continued to find hope and direction from Jeremiah’s words and do so to this very day. Faithful readers of the scriptures know that prophecies are often fulfilled in ways greater and more wonderful than the biblical authors themselves could have imagined. The new heaven and the new earth foreshadowed in Jesus’ resurrection is quite beyond our own grasp. To the extent the scriptural witnesses can speak of the new creation at all, they must resort to parables, poems and apocalyptic imagery. Prophesy is designed, not to foretell the future, but to enlarge our imaginations so that we can recognize in the future the redemptive intent of our God.
As I find it altogether impossible to appreciate the verses making up Sunday’s lesson without taking Psalm 147 in its entirety, I will do so. I encourage you to read the whole psalm as well. Like the group of praise psalms to which it belongs consisting of Psalms 146-150, this psalm begins with the words, “Praise the LORD!” Or “Hallelujah” as pronounced in the Hebrew. Vs. 1
“How good it is” “Kee Tov.” An exclamation that is likewise used throughout the Psalms to express what is “good,” “right,” or “fitting.” E.g., “O give thanks unto the LORD, for He is good” Psalm 136:1; “O give thanks unto the LORD; for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever” Psalm 106:1.
“The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 2. This verse pinpoints the composition of the psalm to Israel’s post-exilic period, probably between 510 B.C.E. and 400 B.C.E. After the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 B.C.E., the leading citizens of the Southern Kingdom of Judah were carried away into Babylon where they lived as forced immigrants for nearly 70 years. Israel’s longing and hope for return from exile never died, however. In 539 B.C.E. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus, who lived from 580 B.C.E.-529 B.C.E., was the first Achaemenian Emperor of Persia. He issued a decree providing, among other things, that Babylon’s captive peoples were free to return to their homelands to restore their shrines and worship traditions. Inscribed on a clay cylinder, it has come to be known as the first declaration of Human Rights. This artifact is in the custody of the British Museum. A replica is also on display at the United Nations in New York. Known as “The Kurash Prism,” this decree reads as follows:
“I am Kurash [ “Cyrus” ], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth, Son of Kanbujiya, Great King, King of Hakhamanish, Grandson of Kurash, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, descendant of Chishpish, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, of a family which always exercised kingship; whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…. As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.
“He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.” Vs. 3. This is a particularly moving verse and a source of great comfort to people in all kinds of circumstances. Though this psalm is one of praise glorifying God for all the great things God has done, the psalmist is mindful that songs of praise arise from deliverance out of circumstances of dire need. The psalmist who composed this beautiful hymn of praise celebrating a keen awareness of God’s presence is also mindful that we sometimes experience God’s seeming absence. S/he has also had occasion to pray, “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD.” Psalm 130:1.
“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” Vs. 5. Compare and contrast this affirmation to that of Cyrus in the Prisim. It is the God of Israel who makes the stars in the sky. This God’s understanding and power are beyond measure-unlike the gods to which Cyrus refers whose power is limited to their geographic domains. We see again the contrast between ancient Mid Eastern religion and that of Israel in verse 6. Cyrus feels that he must return the images of all of the god’s held in Babylon to their rightful temples in order to placate them and earn success. Little does he know that his success was ordained by Israel’s God long before he arrived in Babylon! See Isaiah 45:1-3. Moreover, it is not by placating God, whether by sacrifices or obedience to the law, that the earth produces food for people and animals. God does this of his own volition, regardless of what people do or do not do. Vss. 8-9. “[God’s] delight is not in the strength of a horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Vss. 10-11. By contrast, the Prism reflects a belief that divine favor is manifested in military victory and that power and prosperity are signs of divine favor. But that is not the case. God’s favor is found in his mercy toward those who humbly rely upon his promises and look to him for all their needs.
Our lesson, consisting of verses 12-20, declares that God’s greatest work does not lie in any of his marvelous doings in nature, but in his relationship with Israel which has been blessed by God’s commandments and statutes. This is what distinguishes Israel among the peoples. As Israel learned through bitter experience, neither her land, her temple nor her king were essential to her existence as a people. Israel lost all of these things in the Babylonian conquest. What Israel did not lose and can never lose are God’s covenant promises to her and God’s declaration that Israel will forever be his people. God remains faithful to his promises even when God’s chosen people depart form theirs. So it continues to be. The word and promise spoken to us in our baptisms is irrevocable. The psalm appropriately ends exactly as it began: “Hallelujah”
In the lesson for today from the Letter to the Ephesians, the writer articulates an unmistakable belief in predestination. It is critical, however, to understand this teaching within the total context of the letter. “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Vss. 8-10. Consequently, the church is not the select few that God has graciously decided to snatch from the deck of a sinking ship. God’s concern is not merely with particular passengers, but with the entire ship. Thus, to be predestined for faith in Jesus is not to be elevated to a position of special privilege. It is instead a commission to witness and embody the plan God has for all people. Thus, the church is the first fruits of and a testimony to God’s plan to “gather up all things in heaven and on earth.” Vs. 10.
I believe that this is particularly pertinent to the observation of Epiphany during which we are compelled to recognize how, as non-Jewish believers, we come into the covenant relationship God has with Israel by Jesus’ gracious invitation. We are not here by right. That has recently come to shape the way I express hospitality toward visitors to my congregation whose relationship to Christ, faith and the church are tenuous at best. At our Christmas Eve Eucharist, my daughter Emily preached a first rate sermon using the example of children’s Christmas pageants in order to illustrate our desire for participation in the drama of the Nativity. This worship service, I should say, was an outreach experiment designed to appeal to families with small children in our community. I was pleased to see that at least half the participants were folks I had never seen before.
When it came time for Holy Communion, a couple of these families came forward to receive. I handed the host to a woman followed by two children. “I’m not sure we should be here,” she said. “We are not baptized or anything.” I always wondered what I would do in a circumstance like this. After all, I have always been taught and believed that Baptism is the door by which we are born into the church and Eucharist is the feast of the baptized. But here was an unbaptized person who had just heard and was accepting our invitation to participate in the mystery of the Incarnation. What else could I say but what I said? “Yes, you should be here. This is still Christ’s Body given for you.” To say anything less would have been to place a stumbling block in the way of Christ. I am currently working on re-writing the invitation to the Lord’s Table used in our worship bulletin.
“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” John Steinbeck from his novel, Cannery Row.
I think that is perhaps the best way to describe how John writes his gospel. Rather than relating the story of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a poem about the miracle of the Incarnation filled with many opposite, contrasting and complementary images that will be developed and brought into sharper focus throughout the following narrative. Light and darkness; being and nothingness; knowledge and ignorance; belief and unbelief; birth from flesh and birth from God. All of these images and terms will find further expression and deeper meaning as the story of Jesus unfolds. For now, though, they swim about together in the rich primordial soil of John’s imaginative lyrics. We must wait for them to ooze out and show themselves for what they truly are.
John begins with the declaration that the Word was both with God in the beginning and was God. This is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of God’s Word as “coming” and “accomplishing.” See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:2; Isaiah 55:11. God is not merely as good as God’s Word. God is God’s Word. Yet even though the same as God, the Word is somehow distinguishable from God. So far, I think, our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers might agree with John.
But then John goes on to tell us something remarkable. “The Word became flesh.” The Word became a human person such that the invisible God is now visible. Here, I believe, is where the church’s confession parts company with our Abrahamic sisters and brothers. If we are going to say that God has a Son, it seems to follow inevitably that there must be at least two gods. Yet John (along with the rest of the New Testament writers) maintains that God is one. The church has struggled with this enormously counterintuitive confession from the onset, rejecting numerous more plausible alternative understandings. At the heart of the Incarnation stands this one scandalous truth: God is visible and God is human. The Incarnation was not a temporary state into which God entered for a single lifetime. It was not merely a clever disguise. In Jesus, God became irrevocably human and remains so. That is why John can say in his First Letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20.
The inescapable conclusion is that to rend the flesh of another human being is to rend the flesh of God. To ridicule, excoriate or insult another human being is to blaspheme God. God cannot be harmed or insulted by the removal of a crèche or a cross from public lands, disrespect for the Bible or desecration of a sanctuary. Only by harming the persons created to bear God’s image and for whom the Son of God died can God’s self be injured. When that becomes clear, it is equally clear by how far much of what passes for Christianity these days misses the mark. Something is seriously out of whack when we grieve more over the removal of humanly designed plastic figures of Jesus from the park than we do for the homeless people created by God in God’s image who are still sleeping there.
One of the most significant words in this section is that word “dwelt” or “lived” as the New Revised Standard Version has it. Vs. 14. Both translations fall short of the actual Greek word “skaiano” which means literally to “tent with” or “tabernacle with.” The word conjures up images of the tent of presence in which God dwelt among the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. This powerful image of Jesus as God’s presence gets lost in the English translation!
There is far more that could be said about this section of John. Nearly every word in John’s gospel is freighted with meaning that accumulates like the mass of a snowball rolling downhill. For those of us who will be observing the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful.