December 22, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s amazing how much detail Luke gives us. If Luke were a movie, it would have been directed by Cecil B. DeMille with a cast of thousands and long, lingering scenes on most every situation imaginable. The Gospel of Mark by comparison is like a PowerPoint presentation where the presenter goes way too fast through the slides. Mark gives no birth narrative but just plunks first John the Baptist and then Jesus in front of our eyes, dropping both from out of a clear blue sky. Then before you can even get a good look at this Jesus, he’s been whisked to the wilderness, spends a little time with the wild angels, and then, before you know it, he’s out and about preaching in Capernaum.
Not so in Luke!
If you look at an English translation of everything in Mark’s gospel from its first verse to Jesus’ first sermon, you will find a total of about 250 words. But Luke devotes just over 3,500 words to everything that led up to Jesus’ first sermon, fully 2,500 of which comprise Luke 1 and 2 alone. Luke’s first two chapters provide 10 times more detail than Mark gives us for the comparable time period. Apparently once Luke set out to draw together “an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1) he meant business!
And so in this lection for the Sunday after Christmas we find the intriguing story about old Simeon and Anna in the Temple on the day when Jesus was formally dedicated to God according to the custom of the Law. But you have to wonder why Luke deemed this worthy of inclusion in his gospel. After all, we’ve already had not one but two visits by no less stellar a figure than the archangel Gabriel himself. By the time Gabriel is finished talking to first Zechariah and then—even more significantly and expansively—to Mary herself, we as readers already have a pretty good clue that this Jesus who had been born was a divinely sent figure who was Christ and Savior and Lord.
And in case we were too dense to miss noticing this obvious revelation in Luke 1, the first part of Luke 2 whops us upside the head with not one angel but an entire sky-full of angels singing so loudly and so gloriously as to stupefy those unwitting shepherds who became privy to the jubilation of heaven over the birth of that child in the manger.
So after all that drama, to see a couple of stooped figures in the Temple marveling over the now 40-day-old Jesus seems downright anticlimactic in terms of drama and downright unnecessary in terms of establishing the heavenly credentials of Mary’s little boy. To again invoke the movie metaphor: if the film’s director needed to cut a scene to shorten up a movie that was already a bit too long, this is certainly one of the scenes that could end up on the cutting room floor, and no one would miss it.
And yet . . . Luke did not cut it but lovingly preserved it, and if you believe that this happened not because of something like a film director’s whimsy as to what to include in his movie but rather under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then you’re left to ponder in your heart—along with Mary—what these things all mean. Like Mary and Joseph themselves, so we as readers did not anticipate the occurrence of such things at the Temple that day. As I once said to my congregation, we’d all be startled in the church today—and possibly not a little perplexed and annoyed—if, while celebrating the sacrament of baptism for an infant from the congregation, the whole ceremony got unceremoniously interrupted by a couple of senior citizens who tottered up to the font, grabbed the baby, and started babbling wild-sounding predictions for who this child would grow up to be.
Surely our eyes would widen if a doddering older member of the congregation picked up little Jimmy Jones and said, “Excuse me for disrupting your sacrament here, folks, but I just gotta tell you that this little guy will grow up to be president. Some will love him, others will hate him, and you’ll spend most of your years as parents worrying yourselves sick about his safety. OK, now I’ve said my piece and you can go back to baptizing the little fellow.” What in the world would such a spectacle portend or mean!?
Mary and Joseph were in the Temple to fulfill a religious ritual every bit as familiar to them and the others in the Temple that day as an infant baptism is to many Christians today. What’s more, as such rituals went, Mary and Joseph’s version was less glitzy than some because the best they could offer up to God was the poor person’s offering of a couple pigeons Joseph had managed to nail with his slingshot the day before.
If it were a baptism in a contemporary church setting, Jesus would not have been the child dressed in an expensive silk baptism gown that grandma had bought at Saks Fifth Avenue for just this occasion even as the tyke’s uncle filmed the whole thing from the front pew with one of those amazingly expensive digital recorders that could instantly convert to a Blu-Ray disc. No, this would have been a ceremony by a quiet set of humble-looking, poorly attired parents who, by all outward appearances, would disappear from the Temple—and from the consciousness of everyone in the Temple—about as quickly and quietly as they had appeared there in the first place. Mary and Joseph would not have arrived at the Temple in some shiny new Lexus but in their rusted-out Ford Pinto that belched exhaust every time you started the engine.
And yet . . . things did not go as planned. The Holy Spirit of God had gone ahead of this modest family and had planted two people in the Temple courts that very day—two people who had somehow been told by God for years that they’d live to see just such a day as this one when the Christ of God, the consolation of Israel, would show up. Who knows what Simeon and Anna had expected to see. Maybe they envisioned a day when a shining Alexander the Great-like figure would ride up to the Temple on a white stallion and take the place by storm. Maybe they envisioned a day when someone with the sculpted good looks of King David of old would stride through the Temple courts even as angels sang overhead and people fell at his feet below.
Whatever they thought they would see, what they actually saw when the Holy Spirit gave them a quickening of the heart was far, far quieter than all that. They saw a baby. They saw a poor family. They saw a mother and father who—despite what we as readers of Luke know in terms of everything that had been revealed to them about the special nature of this child—were quite simply blown away by the testimony of Simeon and Anna as to what was to come.
This passage is assigned in 2014 for the Sunday after Christmas and the 4th to last day of the year. It is an anticlimactic Sunday (so much so that a good many folks who crowded in for Christmas Day services the Thursday prior won’t roll out of bed for this last Sunday of the year). It’s all anticlimactic.
Like this passage. A magnificent Messianic spectacle it is not. But there is something about this scene’s humble trappings, something about the picture of these ancient-looking people bearing witness to something no one else could see, something about the fact that it was precisely two little old people like this whom the Holy Spirit would raise up to bear that witness (and not someone from the Temple elite or the Roman leadership): there is just something about all this that speaks volumes about the ways of God and the fundamentally surprising nature of the one true gospel.
In The Lectionary Commentary contributor Stephen Farris notes that Simeon’s line about having now seen God’s “salvation” may have been a play on Jesus’ name, which means “God Saves” and is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Joshua.” Also, note the role played here by the word “peace.” This conjures up images of shalom in the Old Testament sense and was also the concluding line of Zechariah’s well-known canticle from the end of Luke 1. The Messiah would be the one to lead all of God’s people into the paths of shalom/peace. Simeon can now die in peace because he has beheld the one who would bring God’s final and lasting peace.
Notice another hook for Luke’s gospel. Here in chapter 2 we see Anna as looking for the redemption of Jerusalem and so of bringing joy to others who shared that longing. Now fast-forward to Luke 24 and the Road to Emmaus where the disciples heartbreakingly tell Jesus (whom they have not yet recognized) that they had HOPED Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. The tension of the whole gospel is set up here. Is Jesus the One? Can one who comes in so lowly a form (and who ultimately shatters everyone’s fondest hopes by dying on a cross) really manage to pull off redemption?
From Frederick Buechner’s character sketch of Simeon in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 156-157.
Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem as the custom was, and that’s when old Simeon spotted him. Years before, he been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop it. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ he said, the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, so he blessed them too for good measure. Then something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed. What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. ‘A sword will pierce through your soul,’ he said. He would rather have bitten off his own tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions
The First Sunday after Christmas is something of an odd moment in the church’s year. Many in the church regard it as somewhat anticlimactic following whatever big services, concerts, and other celebrations and programs that probably accompanied the run-up to Christmas Day and then whatever special services got held on Christmas Day proper. By the time the Sunday after Christmas rolls around, people are already starting to turn their thoughts away from the holiday season and toward the time when they will start to take the garland and the tinsel and the bright lights down and then pack them away for another year.
Yet at just such a moment, these verses from Isaiah come to us and confront us with images of decking the halls all over again, of sprucing things up and getting arrayed in finery and taking on the appearance of shining crowns and resplendent jewels. We’re just getting ready to DE-decorate our churches and sanctuaries and homes and along comes the word of the Lord in Isaiah to point us toward a day when the garments of salvation and the glory of God’s adornment of his people will outshine and outlast anything we could imagine. In fact, unlike even the best of the holiday decorations that we may manage to put up each December, the adornment that God alone can do will be not just for a brief season but for all times.
So often in our human lives and despite all the effort we put forth to make things like weddings and birthdays and holidays special and vibrant with color and spectacle and special attire, the fact is that there is always a part of us that knows we can only take so much festivities. We’re actually glad for the times when we can take off our tuxedos or wedding gowns, when we can get the house back to “normal” by throwing that Christmas tree to the curb and boxing up again all those lights and ornaments and garland. All good things must come to an end, we say, and that includes even those times that we ourselves work hard to make as festive and cheery as possible.
We can scarcely imagine something so good that the festivities would never end. We can scarcely imagine a celebration so grand that we’d never want to get out of our party clothes and we’d never want to see the decorations disappear from view. But Isaiah knew that the time would come—and in Christ and in his coming kingdom has now come—when just such a never-ending time of delight would come to pass. And if we have a hard time imagining such a thing, it’s probably because our view of the salvation that God brings is much smaller, much more parochial and provincial than we are mostly aware!
Still, preaching on this Year B lection as it is listed is not easy. Chopping up texts in Isaiah and then splicing them together in various ways is a somewhat common practice for the Common Lectionary, but as Stephen Breck Reid once pointed out, it certainly creates some tensions and challenges for preachers. For one thing, the first (and better-known) part of Isaiah 61 was assigned earlier in the Year B cycle on the Third Sunday in Advent, and since the last couple of verses of Isaiah 61 continue and complete the themes started earlier in the chapter, anyone who brought this text to light earlier in December will be treading the same territory again on the Sunday after Christmas when this lection is assigned.
But a second challenge comes in the fact that between the end of Isaiah 61 and the beginning of Isaiah 62 there is a shift in voice in terms of who is speaking. The “I” of 61:10-11 is not the same first person narrator as the “I” in 62:1-3 as we shift from the voice of the prophet rejoicing in the Lord and in the promises he has made to the voice of the Lord in declaring further promises to Jerusalem. So for a variety of reasons, this is a text that may be very underpreached (at least in the form the Lectionary presents it).
The text is also challenging in that it focuses pretty exclusively on Israel and Jerusalem and on a restoration of their fortunes that would become a wonder in the eyes of other nations but that does not appear—in these verses at least—actually to reach out and include those other nations of the earth. Yet this Old Testament text is paired with the New Testament selection from Luke 2 and the story of Simeon and Anna at the Temple where something of the universal scope of salvation is communicated as the child Jesus is predicted to become “a light to the Gentiles” by the prophecy of Simeon. Certainly that points to the global trajectory of Jesus’ mission, which may also be why Jesus as Messiah never really did restore the fortunes of Zion in the ways so many of his contemporaries thought he might if he really were the Christ of God. (Recall that even as late as a few moments before Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples were still asking him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus did restore “Israel” but by the time he was finished doing so, it was a “New Israel” that looked and felt rather different from what many had expected.
So even though our New Testament perspective forces us to have a rather different “take” on the fulfillment of the lyric words contained in this portion of Isaiah, we can nevertheless appropriate something of the beauty of these words and apply them to the Advent of the Christ, which we are still celebrating when this text comes up for the first Sunday after Christmas. And among the thing we may note at such a time in the church year is the fact that what we are celebrating is so clearly the work of God alone. The things Isaiah predicts and that the Lord himself promises are so big, so grand, so mind-boggling that we know immediately that this is a work that only God could do.
Too often in the holiday season we make the message and the hope of Christmas so very domesticated and, for that very reason, so very much within our human reach of things we might be able to accomplish on our own. If we can just manage to be a little nicer, if we can just manage to smile more at our neighbors, if we can just manage to reach a little deeper into our pockets just this once to help the neediest among us, if we can just get the family together without fights breaking out . . . These may all be good goals but they pale in comparison to what God is actually aiming at in bringing his Christ, his only Son, to this world. The real work of salvation, the real delight that comes from the redemption that God alone can work out for us, is actually so big, so grand, so cosmic in scope that it will quite probably take us a goodly chunk of eternity just to explore the riches of the kind of vision Isaiah is sketching for us in these glorious verses!
If you are a devotee of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, then not only have you read these outstanding novels, you have likely seen the film versions of The Lord of the Rings (and let us Tolkien fans not speak of what all went on when Peter Jackson took on The Hobbit itself . . . ). In Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth, there is a threat arising in the east as the dark Lord Sauron attempts to find the one ring of power. If that ring, forged long ago in the fires of Mount Doom, returns to Sauron, all will be lost and evil will rule the world. Again and again in Tolkien’s story, that threat is depicted as a creeping shadow. As Sauron’s power increases, darkness begins to fall over one section of Middle Earth after the next. And as the hobbits and other characters repeatedly say to one another, if Sauron finds the ring, then the entire world will fall into shadow. All that is good and green will cease to grow. Trees will die, grassy meadows will be burnt over, clouds will gather, and the sun will no longer shine. Indeed, the inscription on the one ring says it all: “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
In the beginning God’s first order of creation business was to create light. According to Genesis, God did not create the sun first, nor the stars, nor any proximate source of light, but he created just light. Pure, radiant light. In the beginning there was light. And almost from the beginning, evil and sin and all things unholy have been depicted as darkness. To this day people describe depression as rather like slipping into a dark hole.
Author William Styron once told his own tale of battling depression in his memoir titled, Darkness Visible. In fact, in recent decades psychologists have discerned a link between a lack of light and depression. Some of the most melancholy people in the world live in the northern reaches of places like Finland and Norway where, during many months of the year, sunlight is restricted to a few scant hours per day. Even in other parts of the world something called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or “SAD” for short, has been discovered in people who drive to work in the morning darkness of winter, labor all day in a windowless office or factory, only to drive back home in the evening darkness. But when people go without natural light long enough, something goes awry and they begin to slip into depression. For some, a most striking remedy has been prescribed: light therapy. By exposing some depressed people for a few hours every week to sun-like light, doctors have been able to lift the fog of depression.
We were created in the light, from the light, and we still need light. We are drawn to the light. Yet light remains a mystery. We know it is the fastest moving phenomenon in the universe. Einstein theorized that nothing could ever move faster than a beam of light. That is not too difficult to believe in that light travels at just over 186,000 miles per second. When you hear someone referring to “a light year,” that is the amount of distance that a beam of light would travel in the course of one year. And by the way, that total is just under 6 trillion (6,000,000,000,000) miles, or a 6 followed by 12 zeroes! So we know light is fast, and we also know it is constant. You can neither speed up nor slow down a beam of light. Einstein even figured out that time itself can slow down or speed up relative to a beam of light, but the light itself will not be affected.
Isaiah loves to play with imagery of blazing light, of radiant glory, of bright shining things that will attract, hold, and keep the attention of the nations of the earth and, ultimately, of the whole cosmos. Isaiah knew something about what the promise of this kind of light might mean and of the hope that beams forth from words like “I will not remain quiet till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch!”
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 148 is a stirring call to praise that’s strikingly reminiscent of Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King.” It’s an invitation to “all creatures of our God and King” to lift up their “voices and with us sing, alleluia, alleluia.” In fact, Psalm 148 doesn’t just, with so many other psalms, open and close with calls to “praise the Lord.” The poet is also relentless in his call for representatives of God’s whole creation to praise the Lord.
The Revised Common Lectionary appoints this psalm for the first Sunday after Christmas. However, this Sunday is also the last Sunday of the year. So those who preach and teach it might ask worshipers to dig into Psalm 148 by asking them why this psalm might be fitting during our final worship services of the year. Services near the end of the year often look back on the past year. How, then, might this relentless call to praise the Lord fit into such reflection? Might, for example, the Spirit use it to prompt reflection on worshipers’ many reasons for praise during the past year?
The poet fills this psalm with verbs in the imperative form. So she isn’t just inviting the whole creation to praise the Lord. The psalmist is, in fact, commanding the whole cosmos to join in praising our God and King. Yet she isn’t even just commanding the general creation to praise the Lord. The poet also calls for all members of its various species and groups to offer that praise. Note, after all, the rhythmic use of the word “all” throughout the psalm.
Psalm 148 anticipates, in some ways, the very final phrase of the whole psalter: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (150:6). Yet Psalm 148 even suggests that having “breath” isn’t somehow a requirement for praising our God and King. After all, this psalm essentially invites not just every living creature but also every created thing to praise the Lord. In fact, the psalmist extends Psalm 96 and 98’s calls to the whole earth to praise the Lord to the whole creation.
J. Clinton Mc Cann notes that this invitation to the whole cosmos to join in praise to the Lord recalls God’s covenant in Genesis 9:8-17. There, after all, God doesn’t just covenant with flawed Noah and his troubled descendants. God also draws “every living creature” under the protective umbrella of God’s gracious care. God even includes “the earth” itself in that loving covenant.
Psalm 148 intersperses reasons for praising the Lord with its relentless calls to such praise. Yet the poet spends most of his time commanding praise rather than explaining why that praise is so appropriate. In fact, the calls to praise seem disproportionate in number to the reasons for that praise. Humans naturally want to know why we should praise the Lord. While not entirely ignoring that question, the psalmist largely simply calls us to praise the Lord. It might be worth exploring the implications of that “imbalance” in the course of any message or lesson on Psalm 148.
We can almost neatly divide Psalm 148 into two halves: the first (verses 1-6) praises the Lord from the “heavens” (1b); the second (verses 7-14) praises the Lord from “the earth” (7). We recognize how some parts of that chorus offer their praise to our God and King. We can understand how, for example, angels and heavenly hosts, as well as rulers and various other people can praise the Lord. The angels and heavenly hosts, after all, praise God in celebration of Jesus’ birth. Some of us also just heard lots of young men and maidens, old men and children joyfully sing Christmas carols.
However, it’s harder to know how other parts of God’s creation join in that cosmic choir of praise. How, for example, can the sun, moon, stars and waters that have neither tongues nor vocal cords praise the Lord? Some scholars suggest things like the sea creatures, lightning and hail, wild animals and small creatures praise our God and King by simply doing what God created them to do. This, of course, challenges our natural concept of praise. It suggests that bullfrogs, for example, praise the Lord not when they show perfect pitch, but when they simply burp out their communications.
Some of the psalmist’s pairings of choristers are particularly instructive. By linking the sun that praises God during the daytime with the moon that offers its praise at night, she reminds us that God’s praise is never silenced. By combining the highest heavens and waters above the sky with what’s under the earth’s its waters, the poet reminds us that God’s creation from top to bottom praises the Lord. By pairing the mountains and hills with creatures and flying birds, the poet reminds us that both the noticeable and scarcely noticeable offer their praises to our God and King.
The psalmist’s call to the whole creation to join in praise to the Lord has ecological implications. She reminds us that the sun, moon, stars, waters and various creatures are fellow members of the universal chorus of praise to God. So each time we render a sea creature or wild animal extinct, we silence its “alto” or “tenor voice.” In fact, it’s sobering to think that each time even just one creature dies, praise to God is muted, if even just slightly. This lays a special responsibility on people whom God has created in God’s image. After all, as Mc Cann also notes, among the unique things about humans is our ability to respect and protect creation so that it may join us in praise to the Lord.
After directing all the rest of the creation’s sopranos, altos, tenors and basses to offer their praise, the psalmist turns, finally, to humanity. Humans are, in fact, the last to enter Psalm 148’s cosmic chorus. Perhaps, Mc Cann posits, that reflects Genesis 1’s account of humanity as the final piece of God’s masterpiece that is creation. However, the psalm’s call to mighty people as well as young and old, men and women to join the chorus is also a reminder that people are just “one section” of creation’s chorus.
Of course, as Walter Brueggemann points out, human praise is fundamentally different than, for example, the sun or cattle’s. Human praise takes the form of what he calls “lyrical self-abandonment” in its yielding of one’s self and desires to God and God’s loving purposes. We praise the Lord not just by singing Christmas carols or “All Creatures of our God and King,” but also by responding to God’s grace with our obedient faith. Such praise is, after all, a most appropriate response to God’s loving and sovereign care for everything God makes, including the members of Psalm 148’s cosmic chorus.
Verse 14’s reference to “the praise of all his saints, of Israel, the people close to” God’s heart is a bit puzzling. It may be linked to Israel’s praise to God for God’s raising up a “horn” that refers perhaps to Israel’s king. However, Terrence Fretheim suggests that it may also be linked to how we praise God. Creatures praise God by being what they are as God’s creatures. In a similar way, Israel has been made what it is by God. So she offers her praise by being who God created her to be, God’s redeemed sons and daughters.
As noted, the psalmist spends comparatively little time elucidating reasons for the cosmos to join in praising our God and King. At the heart of those reasons, however, lies God’s “name,” (5, 13), in other words, God’s character. Psalm 148 especially focuses on God’s creative nature. Verses 5-6 speak of how God “commanded and they were created.” They reflect Genesis 1:1-2:4’s teaching of God as the universe’s creator. David Migliore says that that creation reveals that God’s nature is essentially love. God, after all, not only lovingly created all things that were created, but also lovingly cares for what God creates. So it’s most appropriate for that whole creation to respond in praise.
A 2012 edition of USA Today reported on what we might think of as a new addition to the cosmic chorus of praise to the Lord. It noted that twin spacecraft have captured sounds that mimic the chirping of birds from earth’s radiation belts.
The crafts collected measurements of radio waves. Those waves can produce an energy boost to radiation belt particles. However, those waves also operate in ways that can be heard with the human ear.
As University of Iowa physicist Craig Kletzing played a recording of those high-pitched radio waves, he noted that you can’t just hear what sound like “chirps.” You can also hear what he calls “that sort of cricket-like thing in the backgrounds.” Even radio waves are, it seems, part of creation’s chorus that praises the Lord.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions
While it is true that there are no birth narratives outside the synoptic Gospels, it is not true that the rest of the New Testament pays no attention to the miracle of the Incarnation. In fact, right here in one of (if not the) earliest epistles, Paul offers as profound a theological explanation of Christmas as we’ll find anywhere, except maybe John 1. Unfortunately, this high theology is embedded in a controversy that may seem far removed from our lives in 21st century North America. And it contains language that would sour many of our contemporaries before they ever wrestle with Paul’s central point.
So, before we can deal with the Pauline Christmas story, let me deal with those controversial points, beginning with the second. Paul’s use of the term “sons” seems on the face of it to exclude daughters, and that sounds sexist. This seems to be prima facie evidence of Paul’s patriarchalism, unless we read it in the light of his radically egalitarian statement in Galatians 3:28. “There is… neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If we take that as the clearest revelation of how Paul views men and women, then our text today is not about gender, but about relationship. Paul is not excluding women from the redemption we have in Christ; he is talking about how our relationship with God has changed. We are no longer slaves under the law; we are children and heirs of God because of God’s Son. Though the Greek does actually say “sons” again and again, it is clear that Paul means children of either sex. All of us who were once slaves are now children.
That introduces us to the central controversy in this letter to the Galatians. What must we do to become full children of God? “Keep the law of God,” said the Judaizers who had recently invaded the Galatian churches. “No,” said Paul, “you must trust in Christ, and that’s all.” “But God gave us that law centuries ago as one of the central blessings of his covenant. Law keeping is essential to our identity as God’s children.” “That’s true, as far as it goes,” replied Paul. “But now God has done a new thing that changes everything. Now, God has sent for his Son… to redeem those who were under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Paul’s Christmas story, then, is the lynch pin in his argument that keeping the law is not the way we become full children of God.
That’s an important point to make in a legalistic culture, but I wonder if it matters at all in a culture as libertine as ours. I mean, most people, if they even think about it at all, probably think that God loves them no matter what. The idea that there is an objectively true, divinely given law is nonsense in the relativity of our postmodern age. And the notion that our relationship with God might be in jeopardy if we don’t do things right would be laughable to many of our contemporaries. Thus, the whole business of an Incarnation designed to remedy our broken relationship with God is irrelevant. Both the controversy of Galatians and the Pauline Christmas account are far removed from the minds of most North Americans. How can we make this text relevant for our congregations who live in that world all the time?
A few years ago Time magazine sponsored a debate between Richard Dawkins, the famous atheistic scientist, and Francis Collins, an equally renowned scientist who is a devout Christian. Time labeled the debate, “God versus Science.” At the end of their debate, Dawkins actually allowed that, although he disagreed with the whole idea of a supernatural intelligent designer, it was at least a worthy idea, grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. But then he added this, which is apropos of our text. “I don’t see… Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. [That] strikes me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”
I actually like that last statement. It gives us an entre into Paul’s proclamation of Christmas. “If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.” That’s exactly what Paul and the other early Christians claimed—that what they had seen and heard and touched in Jesus Christ was a whole lot bigger and more incomprehensible than anything any theologian of any religion had ever proposed. They claimed that Christianity is not simply a religion, the invention of theological wise men or superstitious fools. It is the revelation of the incomprehensible God who is a whole lot bigger and grander and worthy of respect than any human can imagine.
At the heart of that revelation is the scandal of Christmas. Paul summarizes that scandal in the words of our text. “But when the time had fully come….” Time is not merely an endless stream of billions of years with no destination, no appointments. In verse 2 of this chapter Paul talks about human fathers setting a time for their children to become liberated adults, rather than minors under the supervision of guardians. God had set a time for His Son to come and liberate us. Time is the purposeful development of God’s plan. Mere humans find that plan as incomprehensible as a baby in the womb finds the outside world. But God has a plan that he revealed bit by bit in history, until like a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy, time was full.
Those words are crammed with history, a reminder of the long story of God’s previous efforts to bring freedom to the human race. He focused his efforts on the Jewish people, sending them all sorts of ambassadors to represent him. There were prophets to speak his message, priests to bring the people before God in prayer and with sacrifices, kings to rule in God’s place, wise men to impart God’s wisdom in the midst of life’s struggles. In Luke 20 Jesus summarized all of God’s efforts with a story about a rich landowner who rented his land to a group of farmers and then went away for a long time. At harvest time, he sent a messenger to collect some of the harvest in payment for the use of the land. But the tenants beat the messenger and sent him away empty handed. The landowner sent another messenger and yet another, but each one was treated shamefully, beaten and sent away with nothing. Finally, the landowner said, “I will send my son whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.”
When the time had fully come, when all else failed, God stopped sending messengers. The world didn’t need another merely human prophet to thunder God’s word, or a human priest to kill another sheep, or a human king to wave his scepter, or a human wise man to point the way. What the world needed was God himself, God in the flesh, in the middle of the mess, God the mediator. So God the Father sent forth God the Son filled with God the Holy Spirit.
Paul knew exactly what he was saying here. He was well aware of the religious pluralism of his world. He had been to the great centers of civilization in Athens and Ephesus and he would go to Rome. He had heard of other gods and lords represented by hundreds of images in thousands of temples. His is not the claim of a naïve parochial fanatic. In Acts 17 Paul stood in the midst of the most pluralistic city in the world and boldly proclaimed that God is a whole lot bigger than they had ever dreamed. He does “not live in temples built by hands… and he is not served by human hands….” Indeed, “from one man he made every nation of men….” There is just one God, and he is not one of your little parochial gods. He is far beyond your hands and minds.
And now this incomprehensible God sent forth (it’s exapesteilen in the Greek) his Son, sent him forth from the furthest reaches of space, from the depths of eternity, in the time of Caesar Augustus to a little town called Bethlehem. Yes, of course, that is preposterous—that the infinite God should gestate in the womb of a woman, that the eternal God should become a mortal human. What’s more, says Paul, he was born under the law, where all the rest of us live all the time. Yes, of course, that’s ridiculous—that the one who set in motion the laws of the universe, who implanted a moral impulse in every human heart, who wrote his law on tables of stone so every single human being would know his will, that the Lawgiver should become subject to his own law.
That’s the scandal at the heart of Christianity. We know it is offensive to the great world religions and ridiculous to intellectuals. But it’s not a parochial idea. It is magnificent. It is mindboggling. And it is merciful. We humans have been running away from God and attacking God since the beginning of human sin. We have made him our enemy and have made ourselves orphans. That’s why the One and Only God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law—so that we could be redeemed from our sin and once again receive the full rights of God’s beloved children. We, says Paul in verse 5, we—all of us, not just Jews, not just white men, not just North Americans. The Christian faith is not parochial. It is universal, for the whole world.
It will help us in our preaching to a “liberated world” if we focus on that word “redeem” in verse 5. Paul is talking about the way we get free– not through law, but through Christ. As I pondered that, I recalled the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” which told the story of the one man who saved the lives of over a thousand people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The Hutu tribe slaughtered one million Tutsis in 3 months using machetes and machine guns. When the Hutus went on their rampage, Paul Ruseabagina sheltered hundreds of Tutsis in a luxury resort hotel, where they became virtual prisoners. That hotel kept the Tutsis safe; it was a good place to be. But it was like being in prison. They had to leave to gain real freedom.
So it is with the law, says Paul, any law whether Jewish or Roman, anything we might use to order and structure our lives to gain safety and security. Anything we use to enjoy the favor and blessing of God (even if we don’t call it God) will ultimately become a prison. We need to be set free from all the things we use to set ourselves free. Only God’s Son can set us free.
The wonderful news Paul proclaims is that God’s Son not only sets us free, but he also makes us children and heirs of God. To catch the full beauty of Paul’s message, remember the sad plight of the slaves after the American Civil War. They were set free, but they were virtual orphans wandering the countryside with no place to live and no resources. Paul declares that through Jesus Christ we can receive the full rights of children or, more literally, adoption. By his redeeming work, Jesus brought sin-created orphans back to our Father. And by the Spirit of his Son, God created in us the faith and love that calls a formerly estranged God, “Abba, Father.” I think that Paul is describing the two dimensions of adoption here—the legal side that gets us from the orphanage to the house and the personal side which actually generates a loving relationship between us and God. Now we can call him Father. All of us can do that; that’s what Paul is getting at by using the Jewish word “Abba” and the Greek word “pater.” No matter what our background may be, we are all God’s children through Jesus. And if we are children, we are also heirs of all God’s riches. Talk about a Christmas gift.
All of which is to say that this controversial passage actually speaks to deeply felt contemporary need. Paul’s explanation of Christmas shows us that God’s gift of the Christ child was designed to make us whole new people, to give us a new identity as human beings. We are no longer slaves who must keep inventing ourselves. We are liberated sons and daughters of God, heirs of riches that will boggle our minds.
Gillian Flynn’s story of a violently dysfunctional marriage, Gone Girl, was on the bestseller list for 91 weeks and has now been made into a wildly popular movie. In reviewing the movie, Time magazine made this telling analysis of its popularity. “Gone Girl gets at an essential truth about the limits of intimacy; however close you get, you can never know everything about your partner. There’s always that secret increment, a black box with God knows what inside it. What if there’s a whole secret life in there? A whole alternate personality? Gone Girl became a way for people to think and talk about relationships, but its resonance goes beyond that. In an age of social media, we are all more than ever invested in creating and maintaining fictional persona for others to consume. (emphasis mine) That ongoing fraud is part of how we live now.” In other words, who are we, really? Only God knows. Only God can tell. Only God can make us what we’re supposed to be.