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Introduction To The Scripture For The First Sunday After Christmas - Year B
Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) 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 
official position.

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 
Jesus.  

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 to treat it in a literal 
manner.  The issue these stories raise for us is, in the words of the 
familiar carol, "What Child is this?" This was the same question Luke 
answered for his audience in the Christian diaspora of the 1st century.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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