Reading Ramblings – December 27, 2020

Date: First Sunday after Christmas – December 27, 2020

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

Context: Christmas is not a day but a season, a time of the liturgical church year to observe with wonder that God would become man, the eternal Son of God through whom all creation was spoken into existence was born as one of us, with a name and under the Law, themes of both the Isaiah passage and Galatians and also bound up in the Gospel account. The psalm calls us to praise the great works of God, and verse 1 stresses the public nature of this praise and worship, just as Jesus’ presentation at the Temple becomes a very public (and no doubt curious and stressful for his parents!) event.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 – With this reading we’ve covered almost all of Chapters 61 and 62 from Isaiah since Advent began. While the speaker might be Isaiah, it makes better sense to hear these words in the chosen Suffering Servant Isaiah has introduced already, the Messiah himself. This indeed is what God does for his servant when He has completed his work, and that work is made clearer in the opening verses of Chapter 62. That work remains incomplete, at least from our perspective, and won’t be revealed in the fullness of completion until our Lord’s return. God will accomplish the reconciliation of his beloved people, symbolied here by Jerusalem and bound up in identity with the heavenly counterpart of Jerusalem, Zion. The day is coming when the splendor of the Lord will return in power and glory and at that time the people of God – resurrected and living both – will shine forth in a shared radiance. God’s people may look weak and inconsequential now, but a time will come when their true value, as established in the sacrificial death of the Son of God, will be evident to everyone. The mention of a new name in 62:2 plays well with the birth of Jesus, Emanuel, God with Us, who in the name dictated by God the Father himself becomes the Word and promise of God made flesh.

Psalm 111 – A powerful hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. There are no requests for divine assistance here, only acknowledgement of God’s glory in who He is and what He has done for his people as well as all creation. Psalm 111 and Psalm 112 are sometimes treated as a complementary pair. Psalm 111 calls forth praise based on who God is and what He has done, while Psalm 112 focuses on how the people of God or the person of God lives their life. Because of God in Psalm 111, therefore the life of God’s people is described in Psalm 112. Psalm 112 is introduced by the last verse of Psalm 111. Although written from the standpoint of an individual reciting it, Psalm 111 is an applicable psalm of praise for the entire assembly of God’s people – the individual does on a small scale what the people of God do corporately across time and space. Structurally, verse 1 describes what this psalm will be about, and verse 2 provides the rationale by which the psalm is appropriate. Verses 3-6 rehearse the works of God in the history of his people, and verses 7-10 deal with the goodness of the commands God has given to his people. Verses 2-9 as a whole fulfill verse 1, while verse 10 moves into a different space, emphasizing the response of God’s people (beyond praise and thanksgiving as in the rest of the psalm) in obedience to the good commands of God.

Galatians 4:4-7 – The great transformation, the event which moves the people of God from children under guardianship of the Law to sons/daughterse and heirs and members of the family of God forever. We have been redeemed under the Law and from the Law by the Son of God who fulfilled the Law on our part. We are now taught how to come to God the Father by God the Holy Spirit of God the Son. We are the recipients and God is the active entity throughout. The Sender, the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit crying out on our behalf to God the Father, so we might learn how to do it ourselves. Enabled and emboldened to call God our Father, we find that we have indeed become his children to whom He responds in loving faithfulness giving us the inheritance we were created for, redeemed to become eligible to receive, and which God the Holy Spirit in the gift of faith makes our own. All of this bound up in the Christ child, the first visible step of God’s plan of salvation, witnessed to not just by shepherds and farm animals but expectant people of God like Simeon and Anna.

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 neatly 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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