Tag Archives: Christmas

Sunday, December 25th

CHRISTMAS DAY

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

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,

Pastor Olsen

Isaiah 52:7-10

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.

Psalm 98

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.

Hebrews 1:1-4

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.

John 1:1-14

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.

Sunday, December 28th

FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 61:10—62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

PRAYER OF THE DAY

Almighty God, you wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and yet more wonderfully restored it. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of the one who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Sunday after Christmas is usually a bust in my congregation-at least as far as attendance is concerned. We are all worn out from celebrating Advent with midweek Eucharist in addition to our Sunday services. Top that off with two Christmas Eve Services, add on all of the craziness of the “holiday season” we cannot seem to escape, and you have an exhausted congregation. Yet there are always some who manage to come to church just the same. Do they come simply out of habit? A lingering sense of duty left over from the society in which they came of age? Or do they come because they are expecting something real? Perhaps the good news about the Incarnation was heard over the holiday din. Maybe these are folks like Anna and Simeon who continue coming to the holy place even though the high holidays are over. Maybe they are present because they believe the promise that the Christ child will be revealed to them, if only they cling persistently to this little community having audacity to call itself the “Body of Christ.”

Of course, I can’t see into people’s hearts, but I have discovered that it’s a good deal easier to preach once Christmas is past. Suddenly, I am not competing anymore with a million alternatives to church that are more interesting, gratifying and attractive. Suddenly, I am not faced with an audience that I have just one or two chances to reach. I am among my own people now. I am with folks who understand that the miracle of the Incarnation dawns slowly. They don’t expect me to reveal the whole truth in a single sermon. In fact, most of these folks would keep on coming if they never heard anything worthwhile from my mouth. It’s not really about me. It’s about the child. It’s about God’s promise that we will see him in water, word and holy eating. We are the ones still looking for a new heaven and a new earth when the party is over, the carols have ceased and the tree is out on the curb.

We read in our gospel lesson that Anna spoke of the Christ child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” The implication is that some folks were not looking for such redemption. Perhaps they had given up. Maybe they no longer believed that their poor city, firmly under the boot heels of Rome, was capable of redemption. Perhaps most of the people passing through the temple precincts that day thought Anna a bit daft. Religion is a fine thing, to be sure. But this old woman seems a little too fixated on it. Who on earth would spend a lifetime in prayer? Doesn’t this woman have a job? Family? Grandchildren to take care of? I expect that a lot of folks walked past Anna just the way most of us would pass a raving lunatic on the street. Pick up the pace, don’t make eye contact and continue on to your destination without looking back.

But some people apparently were looking for the same thing Anna was seeking. For some people, her words struck a chord of recognition. They evidently saw in her hunger, her yearning a reflection of their own need. So they stopped. They listened. They came near to see the infant squirming in Simeon’s arms. I have no idea how many of these people there were. A crowd? Just a handful? However many or few may have been gathered around the ancient prophetess, there were at least some left in Jerusalem that could still dream. The last embers of hope had not yet been extinguished. They still have not been extinguished. That is because our faithful God continues to send us prophets like Anna to fan them into white hot flame just when it seems they are about to go cold. That’s incredibly good news for those of us who will be gathering this Sunday.

Isaiah 61:10—62:3

The text comes to us from what scholars typically call “Trito-Isaiah” or Third Isaiah constituting chapters 56-66 in the Book of Isaiah. This section of oracles is principally the work of a prophet who ministered after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, but before reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In terms of dating, this time period runs from 530 B.C.E. to 510 B.C.E. Our particular lesson is a continuation of the “core” section of Third Isaiah, the beginning of which we saw in our lesson for the Third Sunday of Advent. See my post for December 14th for background information.

Having just delivered an oracle of salvation in the voice of the Lord (vss. 8-9), the prophet now breaks into a psalm of praise in his own voice. S/he declares that God has “clothed” him or her with “salvation” and “righteousness.” Vs. 61:10. To Lutherans like me, this language suggests the righteousness and salvation won for us through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death, i.e., vicarious satisfaction, substitutionary atonement, etc. But the theology of substitutionary atonement is not a good fit for this oracle (nor is it a good fit for any scriptural text, but that is a topic for another day). Here God’s salvation refers specifically to God’s gracious act of restoring the exiles to their homeland and God’s promise to exalt Israel among the nations. Because the proclamation of God’s word and the fulfilment of that word are viewed by the prophet as a single continuous act, the prophet bearing the word is clothed with the salvation and righteousness the word is destined to bring about. It is the prophet’s identification with God’s word, his or her soul’s exalting in God that clothes him or her in righteousness and salvation. Vs. 61:10. Of course, it is not only the prophet who will be so clothed. “Righteousness and praise” will spring forth before “all the nations.” Vs. 61:11. As surely as the earth brings forth vegetation, so will the word of God the prophet proclaims bring forth righteousness that will embrace the world and incite praise. Vs. 61: 11.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent…” Vs. 62:1. Who is speaking here? Is this a continuation of the prophet’s discourse? Or are we now hearing the voice of the Lord? Does it matter? Most commentators believe that the words in chapter 62 are spoken in the voice of the prophet. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 374 citing Voltz, P., Iesaja, Leipzig, 1932. However that might be, I agree with Westermann that this sentence must be understood as a reply to the classical Hebrew lament, “How Long?” best illustrated throughout Psalm 13. “How long wilt thou forget me?” “How long wilt thou hide thyself from me?” “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” “How long shall the enemy be exalted over me?” The prophet’s/God’s response is “not much longer.”

It is important that the nations see Israel’s vindication. Vs. 62:2. The rebirth of a righteous people exalted by God makes known to the world the heart and gracious intent of God for all peoples. In much the same way, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the community called church shaped by the Sermon on the Mount and suffering as a consequence of so living. It is not the great empires that “fret[] and strut[]” their hour upon the stage and are heard from no more that reflect God’s glory and implement God’s design. It is the people of the covenant living faithfully under the gracious reign of their God who embody God’s future for all humankind. Life within the covenant is God’s alternative way of being human.

“You shall be called by a new name, which the Lord your God will give you.” Vs. 62:2. A new name signifies a change in status. God changes Abram’s name (meaning exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations or peoples). Genesis 17:5. Jacob is re-named Israel. Genesis 32:28. The names “Forsaken” and “desolate,” often given to Israel by the prophets in their declarations of judgment, will no longer apply. Instead, the people will be called “My Delight is in her” and “Married” (as opposed to divorced or abandoned). Vs. 4 (not in our reading).

“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Vs. 3. Note well that the symbol of God’s sovereignty is a people without an army and without any sovereign status. God exercises God’s power through God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Divine sovereignty is exercised by the power of example rather than by an example of power. The prophet therefore calls into question the church’s Constantinian assumptions about the necessity of state sanctioned violence to establish and maintain order. More specifically for us Lutherans, the prophet puts the lie to our understanding of the state as God’s instrument of civil peace enabling the church to undertake its spiritual mission. As I have said many times before, pacifism is not one of many biblical themes. It is the biblical theme that finds its ultimate expression in the cross.

Psalm 148

This psalm is one of a group (Psalms 146-150) that begins and ends with the expression of praise, “hallelujah” or “Praise YAHWEH.” It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” Vs. 14. The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.

Vs. 1 “Praise the Lord!” or “Halleluiah” A refrain that appears again and again throughout the psalm. The word “Yah” is a Hebrew short form for the name “Yahweh.” “Hallel” is the word for praise or singing.

Vs. 2 “all his angels” or “Kol Melachw” in Hebrew literally translated means “all his messengers.” “All his hosts” or “Cal Zaboth” likely refers to angelic beings. The similar term, “Yahweh Zaboth,” is common throughout the Old Testament and is often translated “Lord of Hosts.” It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” or “Lord of the heavenly beings.”

Vs. 3 “Cal Cochav Or” or “all you points of light.” The stars are called to give praise to God as are the sun and moon. This is reminiscent of a passage in the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7.

Vs. 4 “You waters that are above the heavens.” Here we see a reference to ancient cosmology-the understanding of the earth as subsisting inside of a great bubble with the waters above held back by the sky and those beneath confined to the sea bed. Though perhaps not entirely consistent with our 21st Century understanding of the cosmos, it nevertheless displays a profound recognition that our existence is precarious and preserved only by the creative Word of the Lord holding all of the destructive forces of nature in check.

“He commanded and they were created.” Vs. 5. See Genesis 1 in which the universe is called into being by the command, “Let there be!” In verse 6 the psalmist declares that God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.” There is an echo here of Yahweh’s promise to Noah: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelt the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” Genesis 8: 20-22.

“Ye sea monsters and all deeps” Vs. 7. In Canaanite mythology, the sea monster Tiamat was an evil symbol of chaos that reigned before creation. We can hear an echo of that in Genesis 1:2 where the pre-creation state of things is referred to as “Tohu Vabohu” or “without form and void.” In the Canaanite creation myth, Tiamat is defeated in a great battle with the sky god Maraduk. There is no “struggle” in the creation story, however. When God speaks, the waters withdraw and order is introduced into the universe. Fire, hail, snow and ice-all potentially destructive forces-were very much feared in a culture of subsistence farmers. Vs. 8. Yet even these powers serve the will of God. In verses 9-10 we are reminded of the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 where God creates each species according to its kind, including the “creeping things.”

In verses 11-12 “kings and princes of all the earth” give praise to God. This is reminiscent of the universal appeal found in Second Isaiah: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow every tongue shall swear.’” Isaiah 45:22-23.

“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.” Vss. 13-14. The psalm comes to a climax with praise to God for what he has done for Israel. This is quite by design. Though Israel surely recognized her God as Lord of Creation, God’s saving power and loving kindness are demonstrated not chiefly in the realm of nature, but in the realm of history. It was in the Exodus that God showed Himself as the God of mercy who glories in raising up the slave and putting down the mighty. It is through God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel that God makes himself known as the God who keeps promises. So also in the New Testament God demonstrates that God is not merely “as good as His Word,” but that God in fact is God’s Word. See John 1:1-18.

Galatians 4:4-7

For background information on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, see Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org. Our lesson is a summarization of the main point Paul is making in this letter. Our salvation is relational. That is to say, we are redeemed not by adherence to the letter of the law, but through trusting Jesus, God’s Son through whom we have been adopted as God’s children. Paul contrasts the master/slave relationship governed by law, threat and the fear of punishment with the parent/child relationship that is grounded in parental love inspiring trust on the part of the child.

It is important to understand that Paul is not antinomian or hostile to Torah. The relationship between parent and child is not without boundaries, rules and expectations. The difference is that, as between parent and child, the rules serve the relationship. The relationship is not defined by the rules. That is enormously important because a lot of religion these days, much of it going under the name of Christianity, is more about rules than it is about our relationship with Jesus. For too many people, the Bible is essentially a rule book. The problem with that approach lies with the Bible itself. Its rules are frequently contradictory and always contextual. Nobody keeps all the rules in the Bible. So which ones do we keep? If you are going to raise up one passage out of Leviticus to condemn male homosexual conduct as “abominable,” don’t you have to say the same for people who eat lobster, also an abomination? See Leviticus 11:9-12; Leviticus 18:22. Which abominations are more abominable and why? As long as you maintain that the Bible is a rule book, you will never get past that argument.

Jesus makes clear that, while there are rules in the Bible and that these rules must be taken seriously, not all rules are equal. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied that there are two that tower over all the rest: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:28-34. If you interpret the Torah in any manner such that it detracts from love for God and compassion for your neighbor or if you construe the scriptures in ways that drive people away from God’s loving embrace, you have got it wrong. That is why I say repeatedly (and most often in vain) to people who insist that biblical provisions preclude full inclusion of GLBT persons, “Look, you can scream ‘Bible, Bible, Bible’ in my face until hell freezes over and I’m going to keep replying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Either you use (abuse) people to serve the interests of the particular law that suits your fancy, or you put the whole law to work in the service of God and your neighbor. That is the very issue Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians.

Luke 2:22-40

Luke seems to be conflating a couple of Hebrew Scriptural traditions in this lesson. The first is the rite of purification for Mary following the birth of Jesus. This requirement is spelled out in Leviticus 12. The second is the required ransom of the firstborn. Exodus 13:1-16; Exodus 34:18-20; Numbers 18:16. The offering of “a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons” clearly pertains to the purification. No mention is made of the five shekel fee required to redeem a first born male child. It appears, though, that Luke is far more concerned with getting Jesus into the Temple than he is with explaining whatever ritual purpose might have brought him there. Luke’s purpose appears to be that of echoing the presentation of Samuel “to the house of the Lord at Shiloh.” I Samuel 1:24. Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 450-451. Just as the shrine at Shiloh was the backdrop for Samuel’s consecration, so the temple serves as the staging for Jesus’ initiation into God’s service.

Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the temple. The story opens with Zechariah’s service in the temple and ends with the disciples returning to the temple “blessing God” following Jesus’ ascension. Luke 1:5-25; Luke 24:50-53. When Jesus goes MIA during a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he is found in the temple “about his Father’s business.” Luke 2:41-51. It may be that in drawing the implied parallel between the sanctuary at Shiloh (destroyed by the Philistines) and the temple in Jerusalem, Luke is foreshadowing the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. I must add that I have not found any commentary to support me on this. I may well be reading too much into the text. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that Luke has some literary/theological purpose in mind with all of his temple episodes.

Significantly, the main actors in this temple drama are not the priests responsible for performing the rites that allegedly drew the family to the temple in the first place. It is the prophetic voice of old Simeon that articulates Jesus’ calling. Vss. 25-35. Through revelation of some kind, Simeon has learned that he will see the Lord’s messiah before his dying day. Vs. 26. The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the temple where his prophetic vision is fulfilled. Now he can die in peace.

Simeon’s song of blessing anchors Jesus’ mission in Israel’s longing for salvation and her hope for a renewed existence. He was, after all, “looking for the consolation of Israel” and found it in Jesus. Vs. 25. Yet Simeon’s words to the effect that God’s salvation has been prepared “in the presence of all peoples” and that the messiah is to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles” foreshadow the movement of the church in the Book of Acts beyond the scope of Israel. Vs. 31. The cross is also foreshadowed by Simeon’s warning to Mary that “a sword shall pierce through your heart also.” Vs. 35.

The other main actor in this drama is Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. “Anna” is the Greek equivalent of “Hannah,” the mother of Samuel. It appears that from the death of her husband early in their marriage, Anna has been living a life of devotion to prayer and religious observance. The suggestion that she might have belonged to a religious community of widows providing service to the temple is interesting, but lacking in evidential support of any kind. Like Simeon, she was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Vs. 38. Whereas Simeon appears to have been speaking principally to Mary, Anna speaks of the child Jesus to all who, like her, anticipate the salvation of Israel.

Sunday, December 30th

First Sunday of Christmas

December 30, 2012
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Prayer of the Day
Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Greetings one and all! By the time you read this, the cultural part of Christmas will be over. The Christmas displays will have begun disappearing from the malls. Fir trees that only a week ago were selling for $50 to $100 will be lying out on the curb waiting for the recycling truck. The world will have woken up to the sad reality that Christmas is over, but winter has only just begun.

Not so for the people of God. The feast of the nativity continues for two more weeks culminating on Epiphany. I will admit that it is hard to keep alive the Christmas spirit when everyone else has moved on. But perhaps that is not what we should be attempting to do anyway. I am not so sure what we commonly refer to as the “Christmas spirit” has much to do with the Holy Spirit that gives life to the church. At its best, the Christmas spirit is about giving, family and light hearted fun, i.e., Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph et al. At its worst, the Christmas spirit is an orgy of consumption, consumerism and greed. In either case, I can’t help but point out that a “spirit” that evaporates on December 26th s not much of a spirit. I am glad, however, that however one defines this vacuous Christmas spirit, it has the good grace to clear out of the way so that during the rest of the Nativity Season we can focus solely on what the Holy Spirit is telling us.

The lessons for this week focus on two children, Samuel and Jesus. I think it might be productive to use these lessons to reflect on our feelings about our children in particular and children in general. We dote on our children. We spend a fortune feeding, clothing and educating them. Our leaders speak eloquently of wanting to bequeath a brighter future to our children. The Christmas season is largely about indulging (and often overindulging) children. Perhaps that is why the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has had such a powerful impact on us. We find it inconceivable that anyone could harbor such malice against a small child.

This week the Bogota police visited Trinity School to discuss with us precautions we should take to prevent or minimize the impact of attacks like the horrific one at Sandy Hook. I suspect that such visits from law enforcement are taking place at schools throughout the country. I appreciate the concerns expressed about school security. Still, I think we need a sense of perspective here. As horrible as the Sandy Hook shootings were, such events are thankfully exceedingly rare. The chances of a child perishing in a school shooting are far less than his or her being stricken by lightning. That does not mean we can afford to be careless with our security. But it should temper our security procedures with a good dose of healthy realism. Sandy Hook had state of the art procedures for dealing with terrorist threats. Those procedures probably prevented the attack from taking many more lives, but they did not prevent the attack. Practically speaking, we cannot prevent vicious attacks like those at Sandy Hook anymore than we can prevent lightning from striking. There are, however, more immediate and pressing dangers facing children that we can and should address aggressively.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, no less than 21% of our children live in impoverished households. A staggering 16 million kids in the United States suffer from some degree of malnutrition according to No Kid Hungry, a child advocacy organization. Each year over 3 million children are victimized by physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, and death – and those are only the ones that were reported! (Love our Children USA). Clearly, there is a huge disconnect between our avowed zeal for protecting children on the one hand and these horrific statistics on the other. The entire nation was horrified and outraged over the murder of the twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and rightly so. Should we be any less horrified and outraged about the 21% of our children living in poverty or the 16 million hungry children in our land or the 3 million children victimized by violence? If we are going to protect our children and ensure for them a better future, the places to start are secure homes, access to health care and adequate nutrition-not turning our schools into armed fortresses.

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306127

A word or two is warranted regarding the Book of Samuel which actually consists of two volumes  (I and II Samuel). The book is still widely regarded to be the product of two very different and originally independent pieces of literature or “sources.”

  • Early source: this writer expresses a favorable view of the development of Israel’s monarchy and sees the rise of the house of David as another saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. This piece was probably composed in the period of the united monarchy under David and Solomon before Israel split into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
  • Late source: This writer composed his or her work in the later period of the Judean monarchy and was influenced by the prophets’ criticism of the Davidic kings for their idolatry, injustice and oppression of the poor.
  • These two sources were woven together into a single narrative during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to 530 B.C.E. or shortly thereafter.
  • The actual process of composition is actually a lot more complex with evidence of editing as late as the Persian period following the Babylonian Exile.

The tension between these opposing views becomes evident later on in the book when Samuel expresses opposition to the very idea of Israel’s having a king like all the other nations, yet takes an active part in anointing both Saul and David.

The particular snippet of scripture making up our lesson for this Sunday is part of a larger story from the late source. Hannah is one of two wives wedded to Elkanah. She is unable to bear children-a particularly cruel fate for a woman in ancient near eastern culture. In many such societies, a woman’s failure to bear children was grounds for divorce. Though we now know that infertility can as easily be a function impediments to the male reproductive system, in ancient societies it was almost always attributed to the women. To make matters worse, Hannah’s sister wife was fertile, had given Elkanah several children and would not let Hannah forget it. So while the family was on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh, Hannah went into the sanctuary and prayed fervently to the Lord for relief. She vowed that if only the Lord would open her womb and give her a son, she would give that son back to God by sending him to serve at Shiloh. Eli, the priest of Shiloh, saw Hannah there engaged in earnest prayer and mistook the poor woman for a drunken prostitute. To his credit, Eli changed his tune when he discovered the truth and blessed Hannah. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to the boy, Samuel. True to her word, she brought Samuel to Shiloh where he served at the altar with Eli.

The pathos here is striking. Hannah prays for a child, but recognizes that any such child she may have will not be hers. I cannot help but wonder whether Hannah did not experience a degree of regret as she prepared her son for the journey to Shiloh form which he would not return with her. Her boy would spend his formative years away from home. Her only contact with him would be the annual visits she made with the family to Shiloh. She seems to accept this arrangement without any sign of regret.

Twenty seven years ago when I baptized my first child I began my sermon with the announcement that, after much prayer and consideration, Sesle and I had decided to give Sarah up for adoption. My relatives were deeply incensed and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a lame joke and in poor taste. The rest of the congregation was taken aback as well. I doubt they heard much of the rest of the sermon which explained (I thought) my reasoning behind the opening remark. So this was probably not one of my more effective sermons. Nevertheless, I think it faithfully reflected what we are actually doing in baptism. We are giving custody of our children to Jesus. We are acknowledging that the bond they are forming at the font is deeper, stronger and more important than the bond of parenthood that ties us to them. For disciples of Jesus, family values are not the be all and end all. What, then, does it mean for the church, the people of God, to be our primary family?  How does this understanding influence the hopes, dreams and expectations we have for our children? Are we ready to sacrifice all of these to whatever purpose God may have for our children?

Luke 2:41-52  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306195

I will move from I Samuel to the gospel from Luke because there is such an obvious tie in. It is remarkable to me that in this one and only New Testament story from Jesus’ childhood, Jesus does exactly what we all tell our children they must never, ever do. He wanders away from his family in a strange city without telling anyone where he is going. Why this story? Why not a story of Jesus winning the Nazareth elementary school spelling bee? Or why not the story of Jesus making Eagle Scout? Confound it, Luke! Couldn’t you give us a story of Jesus that we could hold up to our kids as an example? Why give us a story of Jesus being naughty?

It does seem that Mary and Joseph need to learn what Hannah understood from the beginning. Their child is not really theirs. God has a hand on Jesus who must be about his Father’s business (that remark must have been a little hard on poor Joseph). But again, isn’t that the case with us and our children as well? Don’t we surrender ultimate custody when we hand them over to become one with Jesus in his death? I cannot say that I am at peace with that. Of course, I was delighted to be a part of two of my children’s weddings last summer. I was happy to see each of them united with someone who loved them deeply enough to build a home with them. I was also aware, however, that they were entering into a new bond that was deeper than any bond I have ever had with them. Now there is someone in each of their lives that comes before me. On a purely intellectual level, I understand that this exactly how it should be. But on a gut level, I would be less than honest to deny that it hurt just a little.

I wonder whether we should not be experiencing something of the same thing at baptism. Perhaps we have gone overboard in making this event solely a joyful celebration, even “cute.” Should we not rather feel something of the dread upon Abraham when God said to him, “Take your son, your only son, and offer him up to me.” I believe we are far too invested in the destinies of our children in this culture. The insanity of intense competition for spots in so called “Ivy League” preschools is just one extreme symptom of a larger societal compulsion for exercising control over our children’s destinies. When the kids become extensions of ourselves and we begin to live vicariously through them, we are not only developing a pathological outlook destructive to them. We are also violating the vows we made at their baptisms to “live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Rite of Baptism. In reality, we are only stewards or surrogate parents for our Heavenly Father who has his own calling and purpose for the children we call our own.

Psalm 148  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306282

This is a psalm of praise most likely composed after the Babylonian Exile. The hymn has some interesting parallels to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. As pointed out by J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay in their commentary, vss 1-6 correspond to Genesis 1-19 recounting the creation of the heavenly bodies. Vss 7-14 correspond to Genesis 1:20-2:4. There are also similarities of language and ideas. The psalm reflects the “word theology” seen in Genesis, namely, that God creates by the power of God’s speech. Compare Genesis 1:3 “And God said ‘let there be light;’ and there was light” with Psalm 148:5 “For he commanded and they were created.”

Let me make just a couple of observations here. First, the psalmist is remarkably taken with the unity of creation in all of its diverse forms. From angels, to stars and planets, to weather phenomena, to human beings, to creeping things and winged birds, all created things are united in praising the God who spoke them into existence. Praise is the echo of God’s creative word reverberating throughout the universe. We might want to reflect on whether the “image of God” in which we were created consists in this: that we speak. How much of our speech, then, is creative and life giving? Is such speech the essence of praise?

Second, note that this psalm is a prayer that asks nothing of God, expects no response and has no motive other than sheer praise. I suppose that in result orientated culture that demands results, it should not surprise us that best-selling books on prayer tout “the power of prayer,” “answers to prayer,” “inner peace through prayer” and numerous other things that one might “get out” of prayer. Yet Jesus does not begin there. The Lord’s Prayer opens with a petition that God’s name be hallowed and that God’s will be done. In short, prayer is not first and foremost about us and our needs. We don’t pray out of our need but in response to God’s goodness and compassion. That is precisely what the psalmist does here. He or she praises God for no better reason than that God is God. We discover our true selves and our place in creation through praising the One who makes and sustains it by the power of his Word.

The last verse speaks of God raising up a horn for Israel as those “near to him.” The “horn” is a symbol of strength and power. (See Psalm 75). Israel’s exaltation is for the purpose of bringing all peoples to the praise of God that, in turn, will bring unity.

Colossians 3:12-17  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306343

For an excellent summary of this remarkable letter to the Colossians, see the introduction by one of my New Testament Professors at Luther Seminary, Paul S. Berge at the following link for enterthebible.org http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=18

There is plenty to talk about in these jam packed verses. But the one that strikes me at this time is the admonition to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” There is nothing that builds community like singing together. As one of my colleagues has often remarked, more people are driven out of a church by bad music than by bad preaching. This is true. I can easily forgive a lame sermon if the music of the liturgy carries me and the music leaders draw me and the congregation into spirited singing. But it is impossible to ignore a musician who lacks the skill and knowledge of the music to lead a faltering congregation in worship. Bad music is just painful. I feel the embarrassment of the musician as well as the frustration of the congregation. No sermon, however inspiring, articulate and well delivered can repair the damage done by disappointing music.

The church is about the last place in our society where people still sing together. Community singing is a practice fast disappearing in the rest of our public life. Other than singing the national anthem at sporting events, I cannot think of very many other occasions in which people sing together. Maybe that is at least part of what lies behind the lack of unity and polarization we experience in our nation and in our communities. We don’t have songs that unite us. That brings us full circle back to our reflections on Psalm 148. There, the entire universe finds its center in praise of its Creator. Perhaps disciples of Jesus can speak of their mission as a calling to sing for a people that has no song. I think that if I were going to preach on this aspect of the text, my hymn of the day would either be: “My Life Flows on in Endless Song (ELW 763) or “The Singer and the Song” (ELW 861).