These notes are mostly provided to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, to get ready for Sunday worship. But because the Bible lessons we use will also be read at most churches in the world this coming Sunday, I hope that they'll help others as well.
First Sunday of ChristmasThe Bible Lessons:Isaiah 61:1-62:3Psalm 148Galatians 4:4-7Luke 2:22-40The Prayer of the Day:
December 28, 2008
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 if the One Who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit. Amen.General Comments:
"Adoration and telling are the focus of today's reading about Simeon and Anna, who are overwhelmed with joy at the sight of the Christ child," one resource
notes of the Bible lessons. That's true. But the Gospel lesson from Luke, along with the other lessons for the day, also point us to the faithfulness of God in fulfilling promises and the need for us to be faithful in waiting for their fulfillment, trusting in God's timing. More on that as we look at each passage.
Another common theme of the Bible lessons for this Sunday is that salvation and righteousness are gifts from God. We can't attain them by fulfilling religious laws, though there's nothing inherently wrong with religious rites. They can be ways of expressing gratitude to God. God gives us life with Him freely. We simply grasp it with faith or live and die enslaved to the law of sin.Isaiah 61:10-62:3
1. Most contemporary scholars say that these words were given by God to the person we call Deutero-Isaiah
(or even Trito-Isaiah), a prophet who lived about two-hundred years after the original prophet Isaiah, but whose way of thinking about faith was marked by similar notions.
If, as thought, this passage was written after the Babylonian exile of God's people, the perspective would be of someone whose fondest prayers of return to the promised land have been fulfilled, yet without the kind of restoration of joyful faith and allegiance to God among all the people. Isaiah lives with an already/not yet perspective. Of God's faithfulness, he's certain. But God's dominion over His people's hearts is not yet complete.
2. The passage begins with a resolution to glorify God for salvation and righteousness. We would do well to make similar resolutions as we prepare to enter the new year.
3. Also in v. 10, the clothing Isaiah says he will wear--provided by God, will be comparable to the clothing worn by brides or grooms on their wedding days. Two points:
a. Salvation and righteousness are gifts from God. We cannot resolve to obey God's laws and achiever salvation or righteousness. They're gifts from God. The only resolution we can make--and then with no hope of fulfilling it without God's help--is honor God for giving.
b. God intends to have an intimate relationship with us, like the relationships of wives and husbands.
4. Isaiah switches metaphors in v. 11. Here, God is a farmer who has planted righteousness--in the people of Israel--and God will cause it to sprout. As it grows, the whole world will see it.
5. My inelegant paraphrase of 62:1a is: "For the sake of God's people, I won't shut up." Instead, Isaiah says, "I will keep talking about how God vindicates faith in Him, in spite of adversities and seeming irrelevance, waiting for the day when God's vindication and power will be as bright and obvious as blazing sun at dawn or a roarng torch fire!"
Isaiah has seen signs of God's faithfulness: the Babylonian exile has ended. But to a people beaten and uncertain in their faith, it's not yet obvious the extent of God's power and grace. They will see, Isaiah is certain.Psalm 148
1. The last five psalms are The Hallelujah Chorus
* of the book of Psalms, the Old Testament's worship song book. Each of these five psalms, Psalms 146 to 150, begin and end with "Hallelujah!," a Hebrew phrase that means, "Praise the LORD!"
As several commentators point out, the Psalms seem to move climactically toward these final five songs. The earlier psalms contain laments and pleas, among other things, with praises becoming more and more prevalent through the songbook until you come to these psalms, which are all about praising God.
2. Also pointed out by many commentators is the fact that vv.1-6 call for the heavens, including inanimate objects, to praise God, while vv.7-12, call for the earth, including men and women, old and young, to praise God.
The Biblical emphasis on radical theocentrism and utter dependence on God are both seen in this psalm's call: "praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone
3. About the phrase "you waters above the heavens" in v.4, an explanation is in order. The ancient Hebrews thought they lived on a flat planet. They pictured the Earth as a gigantic dome, carved out of primeval chaos (see Genesis 1) by God. The sky above and the earth beneath held back the waters that would otherwise swamp the planet.Galatians 4:4-7
1. Throughout this letter to the first-century church at Galatia, the apostle Paul draws a distinction between two ways of life:
a. The life of slavery to the law, a performance-based life in which, whether in the eyes of God or others, we are enslaved to the judgment of others.
b. The life of freedom through God's grace given in Jesus Christ.
In Galatians, Paul refutes the so-called Judaizers, who claim that one must obey Jewish ritual law in order for one to receive forgiveness and eternal life through Christ.
As Paul points out in Romans 4:1-3, even Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, received life and the promises of God not on the basis of his ability to act righteously, but as a gift from God in which all he needed to do was trust in God. Jesus and His family were, as our Gospel lesson from Luke, emphasizes, scrupulous in keeping the law of God. There's no indication though that they did so in order to achieve righteousness or salvation, but only to live in gratitude for these gifts from God.
2. In v.4, Paul says that God acted at precisely the moment of God's choosing, the moment right from God's vantage point, to enter the world in the person of Jesus. This is an example of what the New Testament Greek calls the kairos, God's time. This contrasts with the chronos, the chronological time under which we live and which we seek to bend to our control. God doesn't operate on our timetable, a fact which has tried the patience (and grown the faith) of millions of believers over time. The Biblical writers wouldn't be the first to ask God, "How long, O Lord...?"
But in waiting for the kairos, we also learn complete dependence on God.
3. Also in v. 4, Paul shows that Jesus was born "of a woman" as a human being under the laws that constrain and convict human beings. Later, this same Jesus, Who had never sinned, would also bear our sins, our conviction for sin, in order to liberate us from the consequences of sin: death and separation from God
4. God's Spirit comes to us (v.6), making it possible for us to call out to God as Abba!, Father, a relationship not possible for slaves, but given as a gift of grace through Christ. That's why Christ was born into our world! That's why v. 7 tells us that the Galatian Christians--and all the baptized, that we are now children of God, fully restored, heirs of righteousness and eternity. (A little Psalm 148 seems in order here!)Luke 2:22-40 (Verse-by-Verse Comments)
22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), their purification
: The reference is to both Mary and Jesus. Forty days after the birth of a son, a woman was to be purified at the temple, eighty days after the birth of a daughter.
A son eight days old was to be circumcised and given his name, also at the temple. Jesus, of course, required no purification, but as He emphasized when He was baptized, Jesus sealed His connection to the human race by fulfilling all righteousness
.as it is written in the law of the Lord
: The Old Testament passage is Exodus 13:2, 12
. First born males were especially consecrated to God.every firstborn
: Of course, in ancient times, it was firstborn males who were dedicated. But this birth order stuff is significant, even today. When I was a senior in seminary, we were required to take a class called Senior Integrative, ostensibly designed to help us integrate the diverse strands of our four-year seminary experience--classwork in the areas of systematic theology, Bible, ministry and practical experiences like hospital chaplaincies and a year-long internship with a congregation--into something like a cohesive theology for living and doing ministry. A professor asked us one day, "How many of you are the oldest children in your family?" Something like 80% of those present raised their hands. "It's never less than this," the professor said, remembering his three decades of teaching at the seminary.Here
is a fascinating report from CNN on the impact of birth order on careers.24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons
: This was the sacrifice offered by the poor
.25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.looking forward to the consolation of Israel
: Like the writer of our lesson from Isaiah, Simeon expected God to act to console His imprisoned people.the Holy Spirit rested on him
: The Holy Spirit wasn't a new invention at Pentecost when He brought the Church into being. The Spirit always rested on those who put their trust in the God of the Bible.
Luke puts a heavy emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to those who believe. You see it in both the Gospel and the second volume of history, the book of Acts.
The Galatians text says that it's by the power of the Holy Spirit that we confess faith in Christ.26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah
: There's no indication here that Simeon had sought this promise from God. It's perfectly possible that he may have regarded the promise as a burden: each day that it wasn't granted was a day when this old believer was kept from eternity with God.
My own view, based on reading Scripture and on personal experience, is that people who seek specific assurances from God or particular spiritual gifts are usually disappointed. Their requests (my requests) too often are selfishly-driven, even if only for the sake of pride and a sense of being spiritually together.
Paul's letters to the Corinthians upbraided the members of that first-century church for that kind of pride and for seeking specific gifts from God. As Paul says there, God parcels out gifts as God sees fit...especially when we don't want them.Guided by the Spirit
: Simeon lived in such constant communication with the Spirit that he knew when he saw the child of this impoverished couple that Jesus was the long-awaited consolation of Israel.Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace
: At Saint Matthew, we sing Simeon's words every Sunday. It should be pointed out though, that Simeon's words are more accurately translated than they are in the Nunc Dimittis we sing. Simeon speaks in the present tense: He doesn't ask God to dismiss him in peace; he says that he is being dismissed in peace. Having seen the consolation he'd been promised, Simeon could now die.
Simeon saw this in an ordinary baby! By the guidance of God's Spirit, it remains possible for us to see how God is working in ordinary people and circumstances.all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles
: The promised Savior isn't just for the Jews, but all people! Simeon understood this.33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Even knowing what had been revealed to Mary, according to Luke, and to Joseph, according to Matthew, Simeon's words had to have stunned them.34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”the inner thoughts of many will be revealed
: How we react to Jesus is the only measure of our eternal destinies.36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. There was also a prophet, Anna
: Anna is the other portion of a matched set in the temple on the day of Jesus' circumcision. She too, affirms Jesus' identity as the Savior. If Simeon underscores Luke's emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Anna underscores his obsession with prayer. She was a woman of prayer.
One other thing: To this point in the Gospel, the angels (including Gabriel), the embryonic John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna have all given witness to the identity of Jesus. In ancient Jewish thought, only three witnesses were considered necessary to affirm the truth of testimony. Early in his gospel, Luke gives the testimony of more than enough witnesses that Jesus is the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh.began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem
: Anna does as the shepherds did before her. She told everyone about the Child.39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
Compare and contrast with a similar verse regarding John the Baptizer, Luke 1:80
Mary and Joseph did nothing to "force the hand of God." They had the promises. Now it was time to wait. When God gives us orders, sometimes the orders are to march and sometimes they're to stand down. Much of the Christian life is spent in waiting, which isn't passivity but obedience, while God moves toward the kairos moment.*Here are the lyrics of The Hallelujah Chorus.