PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you gave us your only Son to take on our human nature and to illumine the world with your light. By your grace adopt us as your children and enlighten us with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This post is woefully late by my standards. Blame it on the Christmas crunch or the fatigue of a pastor who has written so many sermons, articles, letters and memos over the last couple of weeks that he becomes ill at the very notion of writing a single syllable more-or both. This time of year I see any number of bumper stickers calling for Christ to be put back into Christmas. Yet, often as not, I find them on cars parked at the mall. There are just too many cultural expectations to get Christmas cards/blogs/e-communications out, gifts purchased and the house ready for guests. Of course, for us clergy types there are all manner of worship services and programmatic tasks to attend to. Christmas isn’t supposed to be this way and we all know it. But unless you are able to escape to the wilderness leaving your cell phone behind, there is no resisting the tidal wave of busyness that overtakes us this time of year.
Thankfully, just as we cannot force Christ into Christmas, we cannot entirely keep him out either. Jesus is stubbornly resistant to our efforts at marginalizing him. The God we worship became human for keeps. That means God is with us (Emmanuel) in our aching heads, our blurry eyes and our frayed nerves. I am confronted with Jesus at every turn, calling me back to sanity, challenging my distorted priorities and inviting me to take his easy yolk and gentle instruction. It is good to know that when I finally collapse under the weight of my own self-imposed burdens, Jesus will be there to catch me.
Wishing you all God’s richest blessings and a measure of true peace during this Nativity season,
For a brief but thorough overview of the book of Isaiah, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN published at enterthebible.org. Here it is enough to say that these words were spoken by the prophet to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet sees in this development the hand of God at work creating a new future for Judah. The exiles are naturally skeptical. Most have built new lives for themselves in the foreign land. Those born in Babylon know of Israel only through the legends and stories told by their elders. The prophet’s task is to make his fellow exiles see the glorious new future God is offering them. To that end, the prophet employs some of the most beautiful poetic language in the scriptures. He compares the opportunity for return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt. He promises that, just as God provided miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, so God will shelter and protect the exiles as they travel once again to that promised land from captivity in Babylon.
The glad tidings spoken of here is Cyrus’ decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Judah. The verses describe the anticipated jubilation of the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem and the surrounding territory when that news reaches them. The poem portrays watchmen on at their posts sighting the messengers bringing word of the new development and singing for joy. Vs. 8. They immediately recognize in the edict of Cyrus the hand of God working salvation and thus demonstrating that God’s favor has returned to Zion once again. The ruins of Jerusalem break into song at this new manifestation of God’s salvation that will be known to the ends of the earth. Vss. 9-10.
The trouble with this poem is that we know from subsequent chapters in Isaiah and other scriptures that the return to Judah turned out not to be the jubilant and triumphant event for which the prophet hoped. It was a difficult, slow and frustrating process with numerous ups and downs, many false starts. The rebuilding of the temple was accomplished only with the strong, insistent and sometimes threatening encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The restoration of Jerusalem faced violent threats and frustrating bureaucratic delays. Life back in the promised land was not all milk and honey.
Yet the people of Judah did not discard these prophetic words, but recorded and treasured them. Instead of concluding that the prophet had failed to deliver, that his promises were empty lies, that the efforts to return and rebuild had been wasted, they continued to look for the fulfillment of the prophet’s words. They continued to hold them up during dark times looking for encouragement and direction. The words, they maintained, were true-even if not necessarily for this time. There was no doubt in the minds of Jews for whom the prophet’s words became scripture that they would find their fulfillment one day.
This psalm of praise is an “enthronement psalm” celebrating the lordship of Israel’s God. The people are invited to sing a “new song” to the Lord echoing a nearly identical phrase in Isaiah 42:10 which introduces a song used in celebration of God’s coming to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon. This similarity has led some commentators to conclude that the psalm is post-exilic. That might well be the case, but it seems to me a slender reed upon which to make a definitive decision on dating. The victories of the Lord celebrated in verses 1-3 could as easily refer to events connected with the Exodus. In the absence of reference to any specific historical event, the issue of dating must remain open.
Verse 6 makes clear that the “king” whose enthronement is celebrated here is the Lord. This, too, may well indicate a post-exilic time in which any king there might be would necessarily be a gentile ruler. The psalm would then be a bold assertion that the earth is under the sole jurisdiction of the Lord rather than any emperor or king asserting authority over the nations. If, however, this psalm dates back to the monarchic period of Israel’s history, it would testify to the prophetic insistence that even Israel’s king is finally subject to the reign of God.
Verses 4-8 extend the call to praise out to the whole earth, its peoples and all the forces of nature. All the earth is invited to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” with all manner of musical instruments. Vss. 4-6. The sea is ordered to “roar,” the floods to “clap” and the hills to “sing together for joy.” What is the great act of God evoking such cosmic celebration? The answer is given in verse 3 where the psalmist announces that God “has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” This faithfulness has been expressed in a victory handed to Israel that is witnessed by the whole earth. Vs. 3. Furthermore, Israel will not be the only beneficiary of God’s faithfulness. For this God comes to “judge the earth” and “the world” with righteousness, establishing “equity” for all peoples. Vs. 9
Whether this psalm was written during the monarchic period of Israel’s history when she was but a small player in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood or whether it was composed following the Babylonian Exile when Israel lived as a conquered people, there was and still is a huge gap between the psalmist’s bold assertions of God’s reign and the “reality” in which the people were living. As we will see in our gospel lesson, God’s people of every age are called to live as children under God’s reign in the midst of a world where many other hostile forces assert their lordship. Faith refuses to accept the “reality” of the present world as the only one or the final one. God’s reign is the only real kingship and will endure after “crowns and thrones” have perished and after all other kingdoms have “waxed and waned.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” The Lutheran Hymnal, # 658.
As most of you know by now, I do not view this epistle as an assertion of Christian superiority over Judaism. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the new age. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to all Jews, including those who followed Jesus. According to the Book of Acts, the earliest believers worshiped at the temple. Its destruction meant the end of a sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. The temple was an institution Jesus attempted to purify. We can see from the gospels that many of his followers understood its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the loss of the temple in Jerusalem was a traumatic event for all Jews. Most dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands.” John 2:19-22. So the objective of the author of Hebrews is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how life ordered by faith in Jesus fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it in the same way Torah observance eventually eclipsed the cultic temple traditions in Judaism.
The brief introductory words constituting our lesson for Sunday set forth the basic proposition on which the rest of the letter will build: Though in the past God spoke through the mouths and pens of prophets, today he speaks to the church through his Son. The Son is qualitatively different not only from human prophets, but also from angelic beings who occasionally speak and act on God’s behalf. His person reflects God’s glory and God’s very nature is imprinted on his life, work and speech. His placement at God’s right hand is not to be confused with any particular locality. Just as God has God’s hand in everything, so the Son’s agency permeates creation and upholds it by his word of power. He makes “purification for sins” (vs. 3) which formerly was the role of the temple cult.
The temple cult has been woefully misunderstood in Christian circles due largely to our imposing upon it the medieval concept of “substitutionary atonement.” This is the notion that God needs somehow to be compensated or recompensed for our sins. Unfortunately for us, we have fallen so far behind on our debt for sin and so much interest has accrued that we can no more hope to pay it off than can a minimum wage earner hope to get out from under his or her credit card debt. Jesus takes the punishment we deserve and thus pays the debt. He is our “substitute.”
The temple cult did not operate on any such theological presumption. Its sacrificial rites were not concerned half so much with satisfying debt as restoring relationships. Stripped of their elaborate ceremonial trappings, sacrifices were meals. Eating together provides the context for reconciliation, strengthening community and reinforcing confidence in God’s covenant promises. Sacrifices made at the temple were not intended to “buy God off,” but to create an environment in which confession, forgiveness and reconciliation can take place. It is precisely this function of the temple that Jesus is said to have assumed. His once and for all sacrifice has permanently opened the way to communion with God and with our fellow disciples.
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.” Vs. 14. 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 regularly driven out of such venues.
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! The same word is used in the Book of Revelation which describes the final state of things in these words: “Behold, the dwelling [skaiano] of God is with men. He will dwell [scaiano] with them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4.
Verses 6-8 dealing with John the Baptist appear to interrupt the flow of John’s hymn to the Word, causing many commentators to view them as an interpolation into the original text. See, Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel according to John, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p 21-22. However, as Brown points out, “when a scholar rather arbitrarily forms a set of presuppositions about the original import of the poem…and then proceeds to eliminate lines that do not agree with his hypothesis, this criterion becomes very subjective.” Ibid. at 22. It seems to me that regardless of whether John is working with a poem or hymn that had an independent literary existence apart from the gospel, the distinction of John’s ministry from that of Jesus was so critical to the New Testament church that it could hardly have been a mere afterthought for John the Evangelist. Thus, I would credit the evangelist with such editing (if any) to the prologue’s text. Like the other gospels, John seeks from the beginning to contextualize the work of John within the larger story of Jesus’ mission. Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books) pp. 104-105.
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, January 8th, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful.