Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday 28 December - 1st Sunday of Christmas

Theme(s): Salvation / Messiah has come / Purification of Jesus / Praise God for his great gift of life

Sentence: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law. Galatians 4:4-5a

Collect: Ep 2:2

Holy and eternal God,
your Son Jesus Christ has taught us
to learn from the simple trust of children;
give us pure hearts and steadfast faith
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40


Isaiah 61:10-62:3

This joyful song of praise in the mouth of the prophet looks ahead to a great day, a day such as a wedding day, when Israel/Zion/Jerusalem is restored and renewed to be what God intended it to be.

In the context of this day when we read in the gospel of Jesus being received and recognised in the Temple in Jerusalem as Israel's Messiah, the joyful day has arrived: the Messiah has blessed Jerusalem with his presence.

Psalm 148

This glorious psalm envisages each and every part of the universe rising up in praise to God.

Note its division into two halves: 'Praise the Lord from the heavens' (1) and 'Praise the Lord from the earth' (7), with the whole psalm encompassed between repeated 'Praise the Lord' instructions (1, 14).

Its connection with today's theme, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem and to the Temple is found in one tiny conception in v. 14, 'He has raised up a horn [the Messiah] for his people.'

Galatians 4:4-7

Paul notoriously offers few signs of knowing the biographical outline of the life of Jesus (as found in and across the four gospels). But there are a few, and today we read one of them, 'born of a woman, born under the law' (4). Paul being Paul this sign of historical knowledge of Jesus is embedded in a theological claim about the purpose of Jesus' being born 'in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children' (5).

The good news of and about Jesus is tremendously good news as we read on in verses 6 and 7. The greatest gift we can receive at Christmas time is not found under a Christmas tree or in a Christmas stocking. It is the gift of life as Spirit-filled children of God, no more slaves to sin but heirs to all the God who is now our 'Abba, Father' gives us.

Note a particular connection to our gospel reading which tells us of an instance in the early life of Jesus when his parents followed the requirements of the Law of Moses, thus underlining Paul's statement that Jesus was 'born under the law' (4).

Luke 2:22-40

The purification of Jesus is an interesting story, technically speaking, inasmuch as it is ambiguous what ceremony is being followed in terms of the Law as we read it in the Old Testament.

Luke 2:23 refers to Exodus 13:2, 12, 15 (which is a general instruction re consecration of every firstborn male) and Luke 2:24 refers to Leviticus 5:11 (but this Levitical instruction concerns a sin offering) and to Leviticus 12:8. But the latter refers to the purification of the mother alone and not to the father or the newborn - note that Luke talks about 'their purification' in verse 22.

Thus from a technical, legal, scriptural perspective we may wonder whether Luke is referring to a ceremony not prescribed in the Law.

But from Luke's own perspective, as a theological historian concerned to centre the story of Jesus on Jerusalem (and the spread of the gospel as a movement from Jerusalem to Rome), this rite of purification enables him to locate the infant Jesus in Jerusalem soon after his birth, and in the Temple in particular.

When we think in that way, that is, from a narrative point of view, we see Luke using this incident to develop his theme of Jesus as the true lord or king in a world dominated by the Roman Caesar.

First, King/Lord Jesus as an infant grows up in the right way, connected to the city of God, to the Temple of God and, via Anna and Simeon as elders of Israel, to the people of God. Note how Simeon looks forward to seeing 'the Lord's Messiah' (26). In this context, 'Messiah' means the anticipated anointed king or lord sent by the Lord God to Israel to take up and fulfil the promise made to David that he would always have a dynasty. Anna and Simeon constitute a powerful recognition and reception of baby King Jesus: from the beginning, as befits a true king, the king is recognised and received as king.

Secondly, King/Lord Jesus grows up in the right way, both as one who fulfils the Law and its requirements (39), and as one who grows in wisdom and receives continuously the favour of God (40).

Thirdly, Luke weaves into the story the future life of the infant, one in which suffering will feature in order that Israel might be restored (34-35, 38). This king is a rival to Caesar, but not as kingly rivalry was understood in those days, in terms of competing power, privilege and prestige.

A strong clue that this king is of a different kind to Caesar lies in the characters of Anna and Simeon. They themselves are not part of the power structure of Israel, let alone of the Empire. Relative to established power structures of the day, they are nobodies. Neither is described in terms of any role, not even in respect of some kind of priestly service within the Temple. Each is simply a faithful believer in the God of Israel who devotedly pursues through quiet activity such as 'fasting and prayer' (37) the fulfilment of the ancient promises of God. They 'see' what the authorities do not and their faith is rewarded (Hebrews 11 applies to them).

In other words, Jesus the king/lord of Israel is not going to be the kind of king who is recognised as his sword gleams in the light of the sun as it is waved to signal the start of a battle. He will be recognised by the eye of faith, he will be received by those intent on doing God's will. His power will be expressed in suffering and exerted in the hearts and minds of those able through the Holy Spirit to see his true character as God's Messiah.

The preaching challenge here is not to express all this as an abstract exercise in types of kingship, contextualised into academic thoughts about Luke's aims as a narrator. Rather, we should preach the Jesus Christ who continues 2000 years later to challenge all worldly power, offering a different way to be human than to be enslaved to human power, let alone be ambitious to secure it for ourselves.

Nearly at the turn of another year, we usefully can reflect on what kind of people we will be in 2015, noting how horrible 2014 has been as people have exercised power malevolently and all too often in the name of 'religion.'

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