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Christmas 1, Cycle A

Christmas ain’t no bed of roses for Jesus (but it is for us). The texts help us see how God’s work in Christ (his suffering) makes life better for us (Justification and Sanctification), and how this is presupposed in Old Testament prophecies.

Psalm 148

Psalm 148 is a hymn calling on all created things (including animals, trees, and mountains) to praise God. Creation is said to transpire by his command or word (John 1). The reference to “horn” [geren] in verse 14 refers to God’s strength and power. In short, the Psalm claims that Yahweh has raised up strength for his people. Our strength politically, it seems, is his work.

Application: The song affords an opportunity for a sermon reminding us that nature does not stand on its own, but remains dependent on God (Providence). Insofar as the creation praises God, the text also affords occasion for sermons pertaining to ecology (Social Ethics).

Isaiah 63:7-9

Located in the context of a book that is an editorial compilation of two or three distinct historical strands of prophecy, we consider in this text what is likely the book’s final section: written in 539 BC after the Babylonian Exiles had returned to Judah and dealing with disappointment. This is part of a longer psalm of intercession. These verses are a historical prologue recalling Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. God’s abundant, steadfast love is stressed (v. 7). This last point is an expression of God’s continuing loyalty to his covenant, despite the Hebrews’ faithlessness. Yahweh is said to have become the Savior of his people (v. 8). Not a messenger or angel, but God’s presence saved the people; they are lifted up (v. 9). This last point opens the way to a Christocentric reading, as a testimony that only God (in Christ) can save. In its Hebraic context, this text represents an appeal to God for mercy based on his gracious activity in the past. The recitation of God’s almighty acts in the lesson serves both as praise and as the basis for the laments and petitions that follow the lesson.

Application: The text affords an opportunity to be reminded of God’s faithfulness to his promises, his commitment not to abandon us despite our sin, a word most evident at Christmas (Providence, Christology, and Justification by Grace). In accord with justification, we are reminded that only God (nothing else, including ourselves) can save us. The psalm’s testimony that we are saved by God alone also reminds us of the Christmas festival’s celebration of the incarnation. The theme of his lifting up the faithful also provides opportunities for sermons on growth in grace and Sanctification.

Hebrews 2:10-18

The book is an anonymous treatise which, given its argument of the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice to those of Levitical priests, was likely written prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Remarks in 2:3-4 suggest it was written by a member of a generation of Christians after the apostles. Modern scholars are inclined to regard the book as a sermon, perhaps modified after it was delivered to include travel plans, greetings, and a closing (13:20-25). The Christians addressed are thought to have been in danger of falling away from their confession (3:1; 4:14; 10:23). They had endured persecution (10:32-36).

The text is a discussion of Christology with special attention to the destiny of humankind. God, the one from whom and through whom all things exist, is said to have brought many to glory. Apparently referring to Christ, the author notes it is fitting that God made the pioneer [the Greek word archegos can also be translated "author"] of their salvation perfect through suffering (v. 10). (The theme of perfection [teleioo], in the sense of making complete, is characteristic of the book [see 5:9; 7:19, 28; 9:9; 10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:23]. The one who sanctifies and those made holy are brothers, for they have one Father (v. 11). Psalm 22:2 and Isaiah 8:17-18 are quoted to show that Jesus proclaims God’s name to human beings and we are to put our trust in him (vv. 12-13). Subsequently the author asserts that the Son became human to defeat the devil, setting free humanity from those in slavery by the fear of death (vv. 14-15). He did not come to save the angels, but descendants of Abraham (v. 16). Jesus became like his brothers and sisters in order to be a merciful and faithful high priest in service of God to offer the sacrifice of atonement for sins. Because he suffered he is able to help those being tested (vv. 17-18). This image of the Atoning Work of Christ satisfying the wrath of God seems in some tension with his role in atoning for us by defeating evil.

Application: The lesson affords opportunities to preach on the dynamics of Christ’s Atoning Work (whether as high priest to offer a sacrifice to God or as conqueror to defeat evil or both). Instead focus could be placed on Christ’s suffering, how he and God suffer (if the preacher comes from a tradition in which Jesus’ suffering is shared by God) and how this makes God more lovable. The theme of redemptive suffering (salvation made complete or perfected through suffering) is clearly implied by the lesson and could be developed in the sermon. The impact of the atonement on the believer’s life (Justification and Sanctification) may also be validly explored, construing it as setting the faithful free, overcoming fear of death, or perfecting life holiness as Christ offered the complete and perfect sacrifice. Focusing on the Christmas theme of the incarnation and Christology (Christ as the one from whom and through whom all exist, and so our brother) is also a legitimate alternative.

Matthew 2:13-23

This Synoptic Gospel, rooted in the oral tradition and dependent on Mark, was likely written to Jewish Christians in Antioch who were no longer in full communion with Judaism. Its primary agenda was to portray Jesus as the messianic fulfillment of the Torah. This theme seems reflected in the lesson — the story of the escape of Jesus and his family to Egypt and their eventual return. In this account, the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Israel in the chosen people’s escape to and return from Egypt are echoed.

The text begins with a report how, after encountering the wise man, Joseph and Mary are instructed to flee to Egypt, since Herod the puppet king of Judea would be searching for the newborn Messiah (v. 13). Joseph complies, remaining in Egypt until Herod dies. This fulfills the prophecy of Hosea 11:1 suggesting that the son was called out of Egypt (vv. 14-15). When Herod saw he had been tricked by the wise men, who never returned to provide the location of the Messiah’s birth, he was angered and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem. This is reported to fulfill Jeremiah 31:15, a prophecy of the grief endured by Rachel [and her genetic daughters] (vv. 16-18). This massacre also echoes Pharaoh’s actions at the birth of Moses (Exodus 1:15-22).

When Herod died it is reported that an angel appeared to Joseph telling him to return to Israel, and he complies (vv. 19-21). Given Herod’s death date in 4 BC this could suggest the likelihood of a 6 BC date of birth for Jesus. When Joseph heard that Herod’s son Archelaus reigned in Judea (Judah), Joseph was afraid to go there and so he journeyed instead to Nazareth. This fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1 that the Messiah would be a “branch” of Jesse’s stump — for there is a similarity between the Hebrew word netser used in that Isaiah text and the Aramaic word for Nazorean (vv. 22-23).

Application: The text invites sermons on how Jesus’ young life embodies the experience of the Jewish people (exile and return), so that those enduring banishment can still hope to experience new life (Sanctification) for we are in him. The wisdom of Joseph in practicing common sense (fleeing when it can save your life and coming home when the time is right) and how God’s will accords with such common sense (since this common-sense wisdom is provided in the revelations Joseph received) is another possible homiletical direction. Not to be overlooked for multicultural preaching (Social Ethics) is that Jesus seems to have African roots according to this lesson.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen