December 21, 2020
The Christmas 1B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 2:22-40 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 148 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Galatians 4:4-7 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 36 (Lord’s Day 14)
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. The whole thing in Mark takes up about 14 verses!
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 Blu-Ray. 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 2020 for the Sunday after Christmas, and it is the final Sunday in a year that has been hard on churches and pastors. Division has been rife over the pandemic, mask-wearing, racial reckonings, a political election. We are glad to see this year go and enter 2021 with both trepidation and the sincere hope it is going to be way better eventually. We exit 2020 with a sigh and a moan. We are tired. We would love to see something spectacular but we don’t expect it.
And so maybe the quiet trappings of Luke 2 give us hope. Maybe the understated nature of this little story fits the moment. 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.
And as 2020 mercifully draws to its conclusion, maybe it’s a reminder that God is with us and is speaking to us and is delivering us even when the skies don’t split asunder and we see some magnificent moving of God. Sometimes God speaks loudest through the quietest of incidents. And in that there should be more than a little hope.
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’d 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: Stan Mast
If we can successfully deal with a couple of problems in this Lectionary reading, we can preach a sermon on it that will address a perennial and painful question on this First Sunday after Christmas.
The first problem is the same one we stumbled upon two Sundays ago when we focused on Isaiah 61:1-3 and 8-11, namely, who are antecedents of the pronouns “me” and “I.” To put it bluntly, who in the world is speaking in these verses? “I delight greatly….” Is that the prophet who writes the text? Or is the prophet putting these words in mouths of Zion, Jerusalem, the community of Israel personified? Or, jumping several hundred years ahead, are these the words of the Messiah or the Messianic community? Scholars disagree over the identity of the speakers in this reading.
The second problem is the awkward borders of this reading. I mean that this is not a natural pericope. Verses 10-11 belong with the preceding verses of chapter 61 and 62:1-3 are part of the succeeding verses. The Lectionary has sliced and diced these two chapters in an unnatural way, and that makes this an awkward text.
I’m convinced we don’t have to solve the pronoun problem in order to preach this text. And that’s because the creators of the RCL had a perfectly good reason to create this hybrid text. The joining of these snippets from two chapters reflects a problem we all have with Christmas. It was the same problem that troubled the post-Exilic Jewish community.
Let me put it baldly. It’s two days after Christmas, the day we celebrated the earthshaking event of the Incarnation with shouts of “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” But the earth has not been shaken and God isn’t being glorified and there is no peace on earth. It’s pretty much the same as it was the day before the Christmas. We proclaim that God has come to redeem the earth, but the earth seems unredeemed. Even the people of God, whether that ancient Israel or the modern church, haven’t become the glorious spectacle of salvation announced by prophets and angels. It’s the same old same old. “He has appeared,” but the world still seems to lie “in sin and error pining.”
Here’s where our reading is helpful. It reminds us of the “already but yet” quality of salvation. Isaiah 61:10-11 declare the “already” of what God has done- “clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in robes of righteousness.” Isaiah 62:1-3 point to the “not yet” of consummation when that “righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.” Right now, salvation is hidden like seed in the soil of a garden (61:11), but the day is coming when that salvation will be seen by all the nations (62:2). To put it in Pauline terms, justification has come, but glorification has not yet been accomplished (Romans 8:30).
But let’s not jump right over the historical situation in the text, because that give us a perfect illustration of the “already but not yet” of our salvation. Israel, or a remnant of Israel, has returned from the Babylonian Exile. They are delighted, rejoicing greatly in what God has done for them. Using the imagery of a wedding, the “I” of the text celebrates the new status of God’s people. No longer called “deserted” and “desolate” (62:4), they celebrate their marriage to Yahweh. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to speak of the reconciliation of an estranged married couple. Israel is delirious with joy.
They look forward to the day when their restoration is complete. It wasn’t yet, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah make clear. There was much rubble to clear, much rebuilding to do, much replanting to accomplish in a land that had been devastated by successive waves of invaders. But the “I” of verse 10 is sure that this restoration will be done. Switching imagery from marital to agricultural, the speaker asserts with certainty that “as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” Israel may be the object of scorn in the eyes of the nations who see their small beginning, but Yahweh will finish the salvation he has begun in Israel. You can count on it.
So, keeping hoping, and keep praying. A rebuilt Jerusalem might be a shabby substitute for the golden city of memory, but “I” is not going to simply bemoan the state of things. He is going to pray and pray and pray for completion. “I will not keep silent… I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines like the dawn… like a blazing torch.”
Don’t miss the emphasis on righteousness here. Israel may have been primarily focused on the physical rebuilding, but God is focused on the spiritual. That, after all, is what God had in mind when he chose Israel in the first place—a shining city of righteousness that would attract the nations to Yahweh, a blazing torch of holiness that would illumine the way to the only true God. It was precisely the lack of that righteousness and holiness that landed Israel in Exile. Now that they are back, God is determined to re-make them in God’s image. He will crown them with glory and splendor so that the nations will see God in them.
So, says the speaker, I will keep praying, no matter how gloomy the present make look, because I believe in that glorious future. He paints a picture of a shining future for Jerusalem and Israel in verses 2 and 3 in chapter 62, as a way of encouraging the prayers of the people. God will accomplish all his work, so keep working and keep praying.
It should not be difficult to show your people how this text speaks to their Christian lives. We have just celebrated the birth of Christ with high spirits and higher praise. With ancient Simeon in the Gospel reading for today, our “eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:31,32).
But so many in the nations are still sunk in darkness, far from Christ. And even those of us who have seen his glory do not display his glory to the nations. Rather, we are as shabby as rebuilding Jerusalem, strewn with the rubble of old sins, a patchwork of new and old attitudes and behaviors, fields and orchards that aren’t filled with the fruit of love, joy, peace (Gal. 5:22ff). The world looks at a church as divided by partisanship and self-interest as the world is and it scoffs at our claim that God has come to change the world. Two days after the Incarnation of God’s only begotten Son, two days after the angels proclaimed God’s glory and earth’s peace, two days after God shook the earth, not much has changed.
Oh, but it has. Billions of people are clothed with garments of salvation, having been clothed with the robes of Christ’s righteousness. The seeds of salvation sown by 12 apostles and their handful of friends have resulted in a world-wide harvest that stretches to the ends of the earth. And the righteousness and praise of the church has transformed the world in many ways. The Kingdom has come and the world is much the better for it. Progress in government, science, health care, education, and human rights can be shown to flow directly from the church’s proclamation and demonstration of God’s righteous work in the world.
Oh, yes, it is true that the church has fumbled and bumbled, has obscured and hindered, has been sinful as well as righteousness. That is why we must pray and pray and pray that God will finish his work in us and through us. Things are not right yet, but God will make it so. So, pray and work, because God has already saved the world through the Christ whose coming we just celebrated, but he is not yet done with the world he will completely save through the Christ who is coming again.
That’s the Good News for the First Sunday after Christmas.
As I write this piece, I just finished performing a wedding for a young couple I have known for a long time. It was a festive celebration of their long-nurtured love and their solemn vows to stay faithful even if the love grows cold. They were filled with joy, but they both knew very well that this one event was not the end of their work. In a pre-marriage counselling session, I asked them what they expected their marriage to be like. She answered, “a struggle, hard work, but well worth it.” That’s realistic. They are already married, but they have a long way to go to full marital maturity. They are already together, but not yet one flesh in the fullest sense. A wedding does not a marriage make.
Incarnation alone does not accomplish salvation. There’s atonement through death and resurrection. And restoration through Word and Spirit in the church. And consummation when the Incarnate, crucified and risen Christ completes his work in the world.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some years back at a worship service we used St. Francis of Assisi’s poem “Canticle of the Sun” as part of a responsive reading. There was, alas, a slight typo in the bulletin that made it sound at one point as though we were worshiping Mother Earth. This led a rather conservative member of my church to fire off a letter to me and the Worship Committee about how clear it was we were slipping into some New Age stuff or endorsing the Gaia principle that the Earth itself is a living, almost divine, being. Clearly all of Francis’s talk about praising Mother Earth and Sister Moon and Brother Wind was just too much for our devout member. Even after we pointed out the typo, this person was largely unmoved. Just too much talk about nature in that Canticle. Keep things theological, please, or next thing you know we will slide clean into idolatry. (One wonders what this person would have made out of Francis’s preaching sermons to the birds . . .)
It goes without saying that St. Francis’s poem is close to identical to the language, the sensibilities, and the imagery of Psalm 148. But I think we can safely assume Scripture is not advocating for worshiping Mother Earth or Sister Moon in place of the Creator. Still, when you get right down to it, we may well find the language of Psalm 148 to be striking if not strikingly odd. And in fact most of the time we do not take Psalm 148 literally (or maybe even all that seriously, therefore). We assume that the psalmist’s calls for sun, moon, wind, hail, lightning, and so on to praise the Lord is a metaphor. Of course the sun cannot really praise God. Nor cattle nor sea creatures nor flying birds. That’s just sort of, you know, fanciful language. Poetic license. An image, a metaphor, a symbol but not something to be taken at face value.
Of course, the problem with that is that as the psalm proceeds, eventually we get down to this same praise imperative getting directed at kings, rulers, men, women, children. Then suddenly we toggle off the “Metaphor” switch and flip on the “Take It Literally” switch because now at last we have some people being commanded and of everything and everyone mentioned in this psalm, the people alone are in a position to take this literally and possibly do something with it (like actually praising the Lord). So the first half is sheer metaphoric hyperbole before we get to the literal stuff later in the poem.
In the text itself, though, the language throughout is undifferentiated. There are no linguistic cues in the Hebrew to indicate that the praise imperative is any different when aimed at people as opposed to being aimed at ocean depths and fruit trees and mountains. It is all of a piece. It is all one seamless poetic garment.
OK, perhaps what we are to take away from that fact is not that the moon has actual ears by which to hear and respond to anyone’s verbal command to praise God. But what we should learn from this and proclaim from this psalm is that in God’s sight (and in God’s ears) all of these created wonders, splendors, and creatures really do contribute to the Praise Chorus of all creation. These are literally members in God’s choir.
So how might this work? Well, from the looks of Psalm 148—as well as from many other parts of the Bible, including Job 38-41 and the imagery of many other psalms as well as vignettes in the Prophets and words from Jesus in the Gospels and language even used in the Epistles of the New Testament—God receives praise when these entities just do what they were created to do. When the moon spins and shines its reflected light upon the earth, God feels gratified, God feels glorified, God feels blessed. When crickets do their thing, when the fierce beauty of a snowstorm blankets the earth in white, when Orioles sing and Bald Eagles soar and mountains stand tall in all their created grandeur, God is praised. God is delighted.
Indeed, I have written in the past about what could be called “The Ecology of Praise” as it emerges again and again in the Bible. When creatures and things just fulfill their original purpose, God gets a boost. This is also what I have called the “Theology of Delight” that emerges in the Bible starting already in Genesis 1. There is an exuberance about God’s created works in the beginning. God does not create a few kinds of fish but a mind-boggling welter of kinds with every color and shape imaginable. God does not create a few birds but blackens the skies with flocks of warblers and cranes and seagulls and petrels. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, when in Genesis 1 we read again and again that God sees what he has made and calls it “good,” that is an aesthetic judgment, an appreciation of deep, deep delight in God. You can almost hear God yelling “Whoopee!” as he keeps proliferating the species, the mountain ranges, the ocean depths.
The Hebrew Psalter, as most of us know, is not some haphazard collection of poems. These psalms were carefully selected, edited, and then ordered to build up a larger theology. It begins in Psalm 1 laying out the rather stark landscape of this world: there are the righteous who serve God and the wicked who do not; the righteous who are like well-planted trees by a riverside and the rootless wicked who fly hither and thither like dust in the wind. As the Psalter proceeds, we get more and more indications that a key calling of the righteous—and more and more of the entire creation—is to praise God. This call to praise keeps rising and rising in intensity until it reaches a kind of crescendo in the final half-dozen poems in the collection even as the Hebrew imperative, hallelu yah, gets shouted to more and more people, more and more creatures, and ultimately to the entire cosmos.
Praise is our common vocation. And not just our common human vocation but our shared calling with all the other things and beings and critters with whom we share this universe. Far from a metaphor not to be taken too seriously, Psalm 148’s call for all things and creatures to praise God reveals the deepest core of created reality. We came from a loving and exuberant Creator God, we are made for this Creator God, and we will all together find our truest identity in fulfilling that call.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
The Bible is full of surprises though seldom more so than in how the Book of Job concludes. After around 37 whole chapters that are chock full of deep theological and spiritual and philosophical wranglings and the pondering of perplexing questions of theodicy and why bad things happen to good people and the ways of God, the ways of the righteous, the fairness or unfairness of life, suddenly (and none too soon) God shows up to have the last word.
But God’s last word turns out to be somewhere close to being the opposite of what most any rational person would have expected. Theology is not at the forefront. The obvious questions that have preoccupied Job and his friends are not touched. Instead God takes Job and all of us on a tour of the cosmos. We go to the zoo, in essence. We discover that for all the other things God might have to do, he apparently spends a lot of time delighting in watching mountain goats frolic, wild donkeys cavort, eagles soar, and hippos just being hippos. Chapter after chapter God goes on and on about storehouses for snow, spectacles of the night sky, deer giving birth to fawns.
What does all of that have to do with anything given the overarching (and wrenching) concerns of the rest of the Book of Job? Well, in part it has to do with the deep mysteries of creation by which God reframes the questions of Job and his friends. But let us not fail to notice something else: the splendors of his own creation and the wide panoply of creatures he fashioned is never far from God’s mind. God loves all that stuff. He delights in all those things and creatures. He receives a kick out of it all and feels praised by it all.
All of which is pretty much the point of also Psalm 148.
Author: Doug Bratt
Simeon, Luke tells us, “was waiting for the consolation of Israel.” However, most of us don’t like to wait. In fact, nearly every year at Christmastime my wife and I have a quiet debate about waiting.
It’s not about how long to wait to buy Christmas presents or put up our Christmas tree. Our annual holiday debate centers on how long we should wait to begin to sing Christmas carols. My wife Diane is an inveterate carol-singer who listens to them nearly all year around when no one else is around to harass her about it. I, on the other hand, would prefer to wait until Christmas itself to begin singing carols.
So how long should Christians wait to begin singing Christmas carols? Should we, for instance, begin on Halloween, the time at which the first Christmas advertisements sometimes come out?
Or should Jesus Christ’s friends wait to begin singing Christmas carols until after Thanksgiving, on the weekend on which Advent and the traditional Christmas shopping season begin? Or should we wait until Christmas Eve and Day?
The debate has finally ended for eleven months, at least at our house. No one will call me “Scrooge” for most of the rest of the year. After all, the wait is over – now we can all sing Christmas carols with all the joy we can muster. Unless, of course, we’re already tired of them.
Knowing just when to do things, however, is seldom any easier than waiting. When, for instance, should you arrive for a dinner party? A bit early to make sure you’re not late? Or should you perhaps arrive fashionably late, to show you’re not too eager? Or how about right when the invitation says to come?
Or think of a soccer player’s dilemma. If she gets to an opponent before the ball arrives at her foe’s feet, the referee may yellow (or even red) card her for being too aggressive. If, however, she arrives too late, after the ball has arrived, her opponent may have already trapped the ball and sailed unmarked down the field.
However, while it’s not easy to arrive anywhere at “just the right time,” Paul insists that Jesus arrived on earth at just the right time. “When the time had fully come,” the apostle tells the Galatians in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law.” In other words, when the time was just right, God sent Jesus Christ into our world.
Throughout much of his prophecy, Isaiah grieves with and for Israel. Down through the centuries, after all, Israel had waited. For millennia her faithful citizens prayed with the prophet, “God, come down and save us! Show us your glory!” And down through those dark centuries, God gave Israel glimpses, hints and promises. Yet Israelites like Simeon and Anna still waited.
Then, in the middle of a night in Palestine, a baby’s cry shattered the dark stillness. The heavens split open and shook with stirring songs. A star hung right over the place where the infant’s parents made their home. Angelic messengers talked about “good news of great joy.” Shepherds and wise men raced off to a backwater Palestinian hamlet to visit the new Baby. All “when the time had fully come.”
God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters have spent at least parts of the past month moving from Advent’s solemn hymns toward singing Christmas’ songs of joy. We’ve moved from “O come, O come Immanuel” to “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” and from “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” to “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” We’ve seemed to recognize that the time has fully come to sing joyful songs.
On this Sunday, however, Christmas is already 48 hours old. Its music and advertisements have faded from our stores and media. Children have already broken or tired of some of their gifts. So although our dying Christmas trees and boxes by the curb may remind us of a Christmas past, we’re ready to race into a new year.
After all, it isn’t just that December brings holidays’ bills to our mailboxes and some of the year’s shortest days to the northern hemisphere. It’s also that we’re so ready to be “over” 2020 with its “perfect storm” of a global pandemic, struggles for racial justice and, in the United States, deep political turmoil. The “time has fully come” for vaccines and effective treatments that were so scarce in 2020.
So is it still the right time to sing songs of joy? We still don’t, after all, know when a COVID vaccine will be widely available. What’s more, some Christians face difficult Januaries. A few of us peer into uncertain medical futures that are paved with tests and procedures. Others wonder about the future of our jobs. Still others wonder about the future of our most treasured relationships.
So is it still the right time to sing songs of joy? God’s dearly beloved people sometimes fear those things sap our joy and make it hard to sing songs of joy. Even churches and their leaders sometimes deflate our joy by filling our worship services with “shoulds,” “oughts” and “musts.” We sometimes leave people with the impression that God’s beloved people shouldn’t fully rejoice until they’ve finished a long list of Christian chores.
The time before Christ was, for God’s children, a time of longing for something not yet received, hoping for something not yet fulfilled. So during Advent we repeatedly heard the prophets speak about God’s longing for renewed righteousness in Israel, as well as of the darkness, sin, desire and need, of the pain of exile and homelessness.
On this Sunday, however, we join Isaiah, as well as the elderly Simeon and Anna in finally glimpsing what their tired eyes have been squinting at the horizon to see. We’ve seen again how a Son born of a woman has redeemed us from the futility of our sins and brought us into God’s adopted family.
So this Sunday is joyful, not just because COVID vaccines are being distributed and the northern hemisphere’s days are elongating. This is a day of joy because on it Jesus’ followers celebrate a joy that we’ve not invented. Today is a day of joy because on it we celebrate prayers answered, hopes fulfilled, and dreams come true.
After all, joy comes to God’s adopted sons and daughters today as a baby who looks quite a bit like our own children and grandchildren. Joy comes to us as God with us, God come to make God’s home among us.
Such joy, however, is not necessarily the kind of happiness that bubbles from within us. After all, difficult circumstances easily sap such happiness. Nor is this day’s joy the kind of positive mental attitude some people seem to have or crave.
No, today’s joy is more like the Spirit-produced delight that comes from knowing that Christians belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Joy is the deep delight that comes from knowing that God loves us and has a plan for us.
So perhaps one of Galatians 4’s proclaimers’ chief jobs on this last Sunday of a 2020 that we’ll be all too glad to send to history’s rubbish pile is to announce that this is a day for joyful songs. After all, Christ’s birth in Bethlehem is one of God’s most vivid demonstrations of God’s love that produces that delight. In Christ, after all, God came down to stand beside and with as well as be for us. In the Christ child we see God’s utter determination to love us, not matter what.
That’s why on this last Sunday of 2020 we, as Will Willimon who gave me some ideas for this Starter notes, gospel heralds don’t need to make and proclaim a long list of things for our hearers to do. We don’t have to set out to call our hearers to improve, or do something better.
Perhaps this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers’ most important task is to simply invite those who hear us to rejoice in God’s goodness today. We encourage each other to praise, to joyfully sing Christmas carols with all our might. The time is, after all, right. The time has fully come. God’s Son has been born among us. Rejoice!
A number of years ago even the bastion of religious orthodoxy that is The Washington Post, in an article entitled, “O Come, All Ye Advent Carols,” weighed in on the controversy over the appropriate time to begin singing Christmas carols. It pointed to the Christ Lutheran Church in Georgia whose pastor longs to sing Christmas carols before Christmas Day. During the four Sundays in Advent, however, his church sings only Advent hymns, not Christmas carols.
It sometimes seems as if the debate over when to begin singing carols is between some church musicians and other church members. So, for instance, the Post reports how members of the Christ Lutheran Church were so desperate to sing Christmas music before Christmas that they held a carol service on a Saturday night.
However, some church musicians insist it’s premature to sing songs about the birth of Christ before we actually celebrate his birth. One hymn writer compares it to sneaking into the closet and ruining the surprise by peeking at your Christmas presents. “It’s a bit of a letdown,” she opines. The music director at the National Cathedral agrees, asking, “Would you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ before someone’s birthday?”