Reading Ramblings – December 31, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after Christmas, December 31, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 61:10- 62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Christmas is not just a single day, but an actual season of the Church year! It lasts for twelve days, until Epiphany. So keep playing those Christmas songs a little longer yet as we continue to explore the miracle of the Son of God made man in Jesus of Nazareth.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 – The proper response to the birth of the promised Messiah and Savior is one of unmitigated rejoicing. This rejoicing, properly, is not separated from the sorrow of Good Friday or the joy of Easter morning, but forms a continuum that runs through and is the focus of the first half of the Church year. More than any other baby ever born, we have reason to still celebrate God the Father fulfilling his promise to Eve by sending God the Son as one of her descendants, to tread upon the serpent’s head and free us from sin, death, and the power of Satan. With the divine victory banner implanted in the heart of enemy territory, can there be any other result than righteousness? Is there anything more fitting than to tell it on the mountains that Jesus Christ is born, and in this every man, woman and child is offered amnesty and forgiveness through the baby in the manger who is also the God on the cross? We are transformed! And it is to God alone that the glory should be given now and forever.

Psalm 111: A common identity and purpose undergird this psalm of praise to God. The first verse indicates that it is appropriate among God’s people and during worship. Praise can begin immediately based on a common understanding and experience of who God is, and the psalm can be offered in the shorthand appropriate to a shared faith that results from and leads to shared study of God’s mighty works (vs.2-4). Verse 5 begins to allude to specifics – the feeding of his people in the wilderness with manna and the establishment of his covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. Verse 6 may refer to the establishment of the nation of Israel in the Promised Land, first under Joshua and then more fully under King David. The goodness of God is also evident in that He has shown his people how to live (vs. 7-8), and his precepts and guidelines are alone trustworthy among all the myriad ideas people have about right and wrong and how the world should work. Ultimately though, the Lord is to be praised for providing salvation to his people, redeeming them, which implies a need to be redeemed, an acknowledgment of our estranged position with God because of our sinful rebelliousness. His covenant is not just a temporary arrangement but rather the eternal work and purpose of God with his creation. Likewise, our praise of Him and our immersion in his Word should and will be eternal as well.

Galatians 4:4-7 – Christmas is inextricably linked to Easter. It is God’s salvation plan incarnate, the fulfillment of God the Father’s promise to Eve in Genesis 3:15. God the Son is adopted into humanity, and in exchange we are adopted as heirs into the forgiveness and grace and promises of God the Father. The proof of this is the Holy Spirit of God now in our hearts, now operating on our behalf, constantly interceding with us and calling out to God our Father in the most intimate of terms, as only a true child can ever do comfortably or rightfully. Christmas begins the real-time breaking of our slavery to sin, death, and Satan. Paul beautifully summarizes the heart of the Gospel.

Luke 2:22-40 – The Christmas story doesn’t end in the manger. The birth of Jesus renders Mary ritually unclean, as per Leviticus 12, and requires sacrifice. While it is conceivable that they could have fulfilled this back home in Galilee, both Mary’s physical condition after the birth as well as the proximity of the temple in Jerusalem likely made it reasonable and desirable that they stay on with relatives in Bethlehem for 40 days after the birth.

The reality that Jesus is also the Son of God does not negate the Levitical law. Jesus will later state that He has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), and this is true even from his infancy. Mary and Joseph adhere to the expected requirements of the Law pertaining to their newborn son. But in case they might begin to say to themselves after the birth that the visitations and dreams were flights of fancy, they meet Simeon and Anna in the temple grounds. These devout figures serve as prophets – speakers of God’s Word and wisdom. Simeon’s primary message is to Mary and Joseph, who are astonished (despite the angelic dreams and visitations!) at what he has to say. Anna speaks to others, linking Jesus to the anticipated redemption of Jerusalem. It must have made for quite a spectacle!

Luke nearly completes his narrative of Jesus’ early years with the summary verses 39-40. By ancient standards, this was certainly more than adequate in terms of biographical detail. Ancient biographies emphasize what a person did to become noteworthy. Our modern ideas of biography are heavily influenced by modern psychology and the idea that in order to understand a person fully we need to understand everything about them, not just the noteworthy things. So it is that we hunger to know more about Jesus’ childhood. Luke only tells us that the child grew and was strong and wise and favored by God. The implication is also that his parents, who began so faithfully fulfilling the requirements of the Law in his regard, continued in this fashion.

Simeon’s words have come down through the Church as the Nunc Dimittis – the opening words of Simeon as translated in the Latin Vulgate of the Bible by St. Jerome in the fourth century. Simeon’s words are also seen as the last of the three great canticles (or sacred songs) of the New Testament – the first being Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1, then Zechariah’s song also in Luke 1.

While it has often been traditional to interpret Simeon’s words as indicating that he is ready to die, this is certainly not a necessary interpretation and may be overstating Simeon’s point. The assumption is that Simeon was advanced in years, but the text doesn’t specifically tell us this. Rather, Simeon’s song is an acknowledgment that God has fulfilled his promise to him to see the Messiah. He can leave the Temple grounds secure in this knowledge, and no longer needs to look anxiously each day to see whether today is the day that he will see the Messiah. His words ring true to us today, and particularly at Christmas time. By the eyes of faith, through the historical words of eye-witnesses, we too have seen God’s salvation incarnate. We anticipate eagerly when we will see him face to face in glory and for eternity!

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