The First Sunday after Christmas
December 27, 2020
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Isaiah 61:10–62:3
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
The Christmas story reveals to us that God acts into history, into the world of ordinary people, and transforms not only our individual lives, but upends history itself. This is what John means when he says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Jesus Christ has made God known, present, visible. He did this in a small corner of the Empire and among a select and small group of ordinary people.
What must have seemed like a minor kerfuffle in a far flung province of the Empire, background noise at the court on the Palatine, began in the manger at Bethlehem and slowly entered the foreground of history, eventually converting an Emperor and overtaking the Empire, the whole known world. “To all who received him,” John tells us in this morning’s Gospel, “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
The incarnation brought with it transformation and the inauguration of a new age. John and the other evangelists, along with all the people who first encountered Jesus incarnate, recognised in him the fulfilment of prophesy. Isaiah spoke of one who would come into the world
to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:1-2).
According to Luke, Jesus himself identified himself with this mission (Luke 4:18) that would both bring justice on a human scale and on the cosmic scale, would usher in a new age.(1) The incarnation is a source of joy and represents the promise of hope. Today’s reading from Isaiah is taken from just a bit further along in Isaiah 61 and helps us understand a little better how the evangelists made meaning of Jesus’ messianic arrival and can give us language, give voice to our own expectant hope and joy that Christmas brings with it.
The messianic prophet, having announced his programme to restore justice to Israel, sings a “song of thanksgiving:”(2)
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
To the Christian reader this evokes all the talk we heard this fall in Matthew’s Gospel about the Kingdom of God being compared to a banquet or a feast. This messiah is clothed in the correct garment, for God has given it personally. He is like the bridegroom for whom the maidens waited, arrived and ready for the feast to begin. The great celebration that accompanies the arrival of the messianic figures is not simply a party to be enjoyed, it is a monumental endeavour in which we can join: “to bring good tidings to the afflicted; ... to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” The Incarnation, then, is a celebration of justice prioritised.
The resonance for the Christian reader of this text grows even richer, as the messianic speaker explains:
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.
We are familiar with the Kingdom of God being compared to processes of nature. We can imagine how the new age begins with something as small as a seed and, after the seeming death that comes with winter, sends up powerful shoots that will embody the changes God brings. As my old Old Testament professor, Brevard Childs puts it, he “connects the new order of righteousness with the growth of a community of faith acknowledged by all nations.”(3)
The coming of the messiah, the prophet tells us, will be a great thing, and he will not be able to contain himself: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.” The prophet shows his willingness to engage with the powers of the world, risk his safety, all for the sake of the emerging Kingdom of God, which, while it begins humbly like that seed, eventually will be recognised by all the nations and place the priorities of the God of Israel before all else:
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
This rebuilding of Zion can be interpreted as being fulfilled not in the physical restoration of a place, but in the work of the messiah who will herald in the new age.
These words from Isaiah give us an added perspective on the incarnation we have been experiencing this Christmastide. They show us that Jesus’ birth was anticipated and desired, and from the beginning the expectation was that God’s self-expression into time and space would have consequences in the lives of real people, would make a difference to those who are suffering, marginalised. God would upset the received human wisdom of who and what were important and bring justice in an act of supreme joy. John the Evangelist knew this. He knew that the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh would raise us up, engage us in God’s work for, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” The Incarnation, the coming of this messiah unites our purpose with that of God and sets us upon a new path, as we watch the unfolding of the Kingdom of God.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Saint Stephen, 26 December 2020
(1) Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 507.
(2) Childs, 2001), 506.
(3) Childs, 2001), 506.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume