The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
The First Sunday After Christmas - Year B
ISAIAH 61:10 - 62:3 This is another selection of poetry
from the same school as the unnamed prophet of Israel's exile in Babylon
whose prophecies were included in the Book of Isaiah. It actually
consists of the ending of one and the beginning of another poem. Both
parts draw on the theme of a new, messianic age and rejoice in the promise
of renewal which the return from exile offered to the Jews. Such a
message is appropriate for the turn of the year when the past is behind us
and the future offers hope.
PSALM 148 The summons to praise God is given
no less than thirteen times in this psalm. All heavenly and earthly
creatures, and all humanity too, are called to sing to the Lord.
GALATIANS 4:4-7 Paul gives a theological
interpretation to the birth of Jesus. Stating that God's Son was "born of
a woman, born under the law," he places Jesus in continuity with Jewish
tradition. But his focus is essentially on the redemption of all humanity
effected through Jesus, the fulfilment of Israel's hope. The phrase "the
fullness of time" expresses a philosophy that God is sovereign over all
history. So God's plan will be fulfilled according to God's timing when
the Messiah, Jesus Christ, reigns as the divinely appointed sovereign of
the world. The idea of believers being adopted as children of God and
heirs with Christ is for Paul the fulfilment of both his Jewish heritage
and his Christian faith. God's promise to Abraham, including freedom and
election as God's chosen people, has been made good through Jesus.
LUKE 2:22-40 The three stories of Jesus'
childhood in Luke differ dramatically from the one told by Matthew. But
they share a common purpose: Jesus is God's Son and Israel's Messiah.
Once again we have the familiar note of continuity and discontinuity.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
ISAIAH 61:10 - 62:3 This is another selection of poetry from the same
school as the unnamed prophet of Israel's exile in Babylon whose
prophecies were included in Isaiah 40-66. (Could his name actually been
Isaiah too after his great predecessor of the late 8th century BCE?) The
reading consists of the ending of one and the beginning of another poem.
According to James Muilenburg, exegete of Isaiah 40-66 in *The
Interpreter's Bible,* vol.5, these two poems form two-thirds of an
eschatological trilogy extending through chs. 60-62. The trilogy presents
the theme of a new, messianic age where the redeemed people of Israel
rejoice in the renewal of the ancient covenant with Yahweh which the
return from exile offered to the Jews.
Taken as they are vss. 10-11 of this excerpt consist of thanksgiving
praise spoken by the prophet on behalf of Zion for the beneficent new age
and new mission extended to Israel in the preceding verses. The images of
new garments like those of bridal couple at a wedding feast symbolizes the
eternal covenant now renewed by the return from exile. In vs. 11, the
image is changed into that of a garden springing forth with new life.
This symbolizes the divine initiative of righteous living and worshipful
praise that will be Israel's witness to all nations.
The final poem of the trilogy begins with a strophe celebrating Israel's
new role as the messianic people. The images the prophet-poet uses, each
one exceeding the other in reference to the divine action on Israel's
behalf, are all drawn from different forms of light. Israel's release
from exile, her vindication "goes forth as brightness, and her salvation
as a burning torch" (vs. 1b). The nations will witness Israel's newly
acquired "glory" (vs.2a); and Israel shall receive a new name (vs. 2b)
revealing her new character. Finally, Israel shall be seen as a "crown of
beauty" and "a royal diadem" in the hand of Yahweh. These metaphors
emphasize once again that what is happening in freeing Israel from exile
is Yahweh's doing. Sovereignty over these historic events belongs to
Yahweh alone, but yet they also exalt the place that Israel has in the
divine plan of salvation for the world.
It should not surprise us that the author of John's Gospel found
precedence for his use of light as the metaphor to describe the messianic
work of Jesus. Like the pagans before them at the darkest time of the
year, Christians celebrate the coming of Christ with a festival of light.
Such a message offers renewed hope as we prepare for a new millennium in a
world where darkness abounds.
PSALM 148 The summons to praise God is given no less than thirteen times
in this psalm. All heavenly and earthly creatures, and all humanity too,
are called to sing to the Lord. As one of the five concluding "Hallelujah
Psalms" in the Psalter, it was composed for congregational worship late in
the postexilic period. It still echoes across the centuries in such
modern hymns as *This is my Father's world* and *Praise the Lord! Ye
heavens adore him* as well as in a metrical version from the Anglican Book
of Common Prayer.
The psalm falls into two parts (vss.1-6 and 7-14) each ending with refrain
or a call to further praise probably sung by the temple choir. The
content of the praises resemble the priestly hymn of creation in Genesis 1
and the attitude toward creation is similarly good. The cosmology is that
of a three storied universe with the heavens above, the underworld below
and the earth in the middle. This psalm may have been the model for
apocryphal Song of the Three Young Men found in Roman Catholic versions of
the Bible as in the Septuagint in Daniel 3:51-90. It may also find echoes
in Rev. 5:13.
Whatever its origin or subsequent use, the psalm presents a theological
vision of divine transcendence far removed from creation and humanity.
This supreme emphasis on divine holiness is mostly absent from modern
worship in favour of more self-centred, utilitarian forms designed to meet
human spiritual needs. To quote John Paterson, of Drew Theological
Seminary, in his *The Praises of Israel,* (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950):
"Here are thoughts of sheer exultation and worship untangled by any
thought of self. Theology here is fused with doxology." As such it is a
fitting counterpoint to the angelic hymn, "Glory to God in the highest and
on earth peace to all whom God favors."
GALATIANS 4:4-7 Unfamiliar with the later tradition of the virgin birth,
Paul gave a theological and scriptural interpretation to the birth of
Jesus. Stating that God's Son was "born of a woman, born under the law,"
he places Jesus in continuity with Jewish tradition. In some respects,
this could be interpreted as a rebuttal of the doctrine of the virgin
birth, although Paul probably did not intend it to be so. He may not even
have known about the somewhat later tradition of the virgin birth cited
only in Matthew and Luke.
If Jesus was born "under the law," then his birth must have been regarded
as the natural result of human sexual activity rather than the asexual
descriptions of later Gospels. For Mary to have given birth before
marriage would have been a serious transgression of the law as defined by
Deut. 22:13-28 and as alluded to in Matthew's narrative. Paul, however,
wrote to the Galatians circa 50 CE, possibly 25-30 years before the birth
narratives were written. If there was an earlier tradition of the virgin
birth, Paul did not share it.
Instead he focused on the redemption of all humanity effected through
Jesus, the fulfilment of Israel's hope. The phrase "the fullness of time"
expresses the prophetic view that God is sovereign over all history. So
God's plan will be fulfilled according to God's timing when the Messiah,
Jesus Christ, reigns as the divinely appointed sovereign of the world.
The redemption of which Paul spoke (vs. 5) began with coming of Jesus, the
Messiah. This *already but not yet* eschatological process will be
completed only at the Parousia.
Paul conceived the idea of believers being adopted as children of God and
heirs with Christ (vs. 5b-7) as the fulfilment of both his Jewish heritage
and his Christian faith. This was also the new status of the Galatians.
God's promise to Abraham, including freedom and election as God's chosen
people, had been made good through Jesus. But the Christian communities
in Galatia included Gentiles as well as Jews. The main theme of the
letter declared that Gentiles and Jews alike were now freed from slavery
to "the elemental spirits of the world" (vs. 3) and to the law of Moses.
The new relationship with God through Christ made everything different in
their relationships with each other and with the particular cultural
milieu in which they lived. Paul would spell out just what that meant in
the latter segment of the letter (especially 5:13-6:10). So as well as
fulfilling their heritage, the relationships born of their new-found faith
in Jesus Christ, rather than any previously held convictions, would also
give rise to a definite discontinuity with that same heritage. Their new
spiritual inheritance as a result of receiving the gift of the Spirit made
all this possible.
LUKE 2:22-40 The three stories of Jesus' childhood in Luke differ
dramatically from the one told by Matthew. But they share a common
purpose: to proclaim Jesus is God's Son and Israel's Messiah. Once again
we find the familiar note of continuity. This comes to the fore in the
repeated references to the law (vss. 22, 23, 27, 39). The quotation in
vs. 23 may be an inexact reference to either Exod.13:2 or 13:13. It would
also appear that the pericope parallels Samuel's presentation and
dedication in 1 Sam. 1:24-28 which may well have been Luke's model. In
this instance, Simeon is cast in the role of the priest Eli of the temple
at Shiloh although Luke does not make any mention of Simeon having any
The pre-Christian Jewish phrases, "the consolation of Israel" and "the
Lord's Christ", further emphasize the element of continuity. Another
significant aspect of this narrative is the identification of the Holy
Spirit as the revealer of the Messiah. This is in keeping with Luke's
overall theme that the Spirit of God is the initiator of the whole gospel
story and motivator of the apostolic witness that Jesus is the promised
Messiah for both Jew and Gentile.
In the OT and the intertestamental literature, the Spirit is primarily the
spirit of prophecy, but it manifested itself primarily in specific great
figures and is no longer active in Israel. Here, "a man in Jerusalem,"
(vs. 25), who may not have been a prophet, priest, Levite or rabbi,
receives a revelation "that he would not see death before he had seen the
Lord's Messiah" (vs. 26). Simeon was inspired to enter the temple (vs.
27) and when Jesus' parents brought him there, Simeon uttered a messianic
prophecy about him. To a large extent this prophecy consisted of phrases
from the Septuagint version of Isa. 40:5; 52:10; 42:6; 49:6; and 46:13.
According to Brevard Childs (*The New Testament As Canon*. Fortress Press,
1984. 114) this combination of Spirit and scripture, creates a unity in
Luke's thought where both scripture and the Spirit witnesses to Christ
Simeon's prophecy has been used in Christian liturgy under its Latin name
*Nunc Dimittis* at least since the 5th century CE. Other religious
traditions such as Buddhism also have similar songs anticipating what will
become of a child believed to be destined for spiritual greatness. This
is an *ex post facto* development, however, which faith created and read
back into the infancy narrative.
Contrary to the statement in vs. 34 that both parents marveled at what was
said about the child Jesus, Simeon's blessing and further prophecy (vss.
34-35) were spoken only to Mary about her future suffering. This has led
some scholars to conclude that Joseph had died before Jesus reached
maturity. Others see this as a convoluted reference Isa. 8:14-15,
although there seems little reason for such an interpretation.
The third pericope in this infancy narrative introduces an elderly
prophetess, Anna (vs. 36), who also hailed the child Jesus as the Messiah.
Her witness "to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem"
functions as yet another means of indicating that with this child the
messianic age had begun. That we are now living in the messianic age is
surely a message for the turn of the year 2006.
It has been speculated by some scholars that Mary herself was the source
of the whole sequence of stories in Luke about the birth and childhood of
Jesus. Against this, one must place the fact that the stories contain
numerous OT references which the apostolic church identified as messianic,
whether or not they were so regarded by their Jewish contemporaries. The
church made every effort to search the Jewish scriptures for such
references, many of which they interpreted according to their own
categories and convictions, just as we do today.
The point is to make scripture meaningful, not