Friday, December 24, 2010

First Sunday after Christmas Day

First Sunday after Christmas Day

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25,4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Revised Common Lectionary, Years A,B,C

The Book of Isaiah is a compendium of interpretations. Chapters 1-39 are generally ascribed to the historical prophet, but even within that original text, chapter 28 is regarded as a reinterpretation of the rest of his text by Isaiah himself. Chapters 24-27 also reinterpret 13-23. Later writers reinterpret chapters 40-55 in chapters 56-66. The single book of Isaiah, therefore, is the product of continuous reinterpretation originally by the author himself and then by subsequent commentators. What causes these new interpretations?   

New circumstances. When will the reinterpretations cease? "I will not keep silent" until God fulfills promises made.

According to the psalmist, God provides everyday necessities, including security for families, wheat and food, snow, frost and ice. Each plays a role in the economy of our survival. Listed among these concrete necessities, the psalmist includes other necessities God provides, God's word, statues, and laws.

Unlike the other leaders of the first followers of Christ, Paul had not known Jesus as they had. Indeed, his personal history and identity had been shaped as a self-appointed defender of tradition. That makes his conversion all the more remarkable. In this excerpt from Galatians, he speaks for himself as well as those whose life experiences were similar to his. The one-time arch defender of limited reinterpretation of tradition became the most energetic and vocal exponent of a new interpretation that saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient longings for a Messiah and even more. His life and his testimony bubble over with enthusiasm for his new understanding of God's work in the world and in himself. It feels like freedom bound not by laws but by love.

John's prologue mimics the beginning of Genesis. At creation, God speaks and we and all creation come into being. This same word now becomes flesh, full of grace and truth.

Postmodern inquiries into the role of human language in describing, representing and influencing human experience has led to an appreciation of language that is closer to
pre-Modern than Modern. The conclusion is that human language is far less successful and far more successful than has been assumed. It never fully captures the complexity, subtlety and contingency of human experience, but, at its best, it comes close enough to actually enable communication and action. Its near-hits means that the task of describing and reinterpreting reality is never finished. 

After a year of dramatic personal and professional changes, the estimable American poet Wallace Stevens went on a reading binge. He focused especially on Vico, Descartes, Hegel and I.A. Richards. In May of 1941 he delivered a lecture at Princeton in which he said: "The deepening need for words to express our thoughts and feelings which, we are sure, are all the truth that we shall ever experience, having no illusions, makes us listen to words when we hear them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search the sound of them for a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration...." This regard for the power of language is closer to pre-Modern. The work of postmoderns, even religious sceptics such as Wallace, provides an opening to rediscover the biblical regard for words. For biblical writers the power of language is as vital but in a different way. Today's excerpt from Isaiah demonstrates the fathomless abundance of meaning gained from continuous reinterpretation of earlier texts that record words attributed to God. The psalmist equates God's word, laws, and statues with the basic necessities of life. Paul honors tradition, but points to yet a fuller expression of God's words. John directly claims that the life-giving words of God, which have sustained us in the past, now become a person. (One group of scholars influenced by a postmodern rediscovery of the power of words but interested in scriptural interpretation call themselves The Society for Scriptural Reasoning. A summary of their principles can be found at There is also now an affiliated group in the UK. Their website is Preachers and their congregations are engaged in that never-ending reading, re-reading, interpreting and re-interpreting of the words that give life.

Further Thoughts

The reading from Isaiah attests to the two ways we experience God-- silence/superabundance. God declares that "for Zion's sake I will not keep silence," acknowledging that God occasionally does keep silent and the chaos/despair that that silence causes for humankind. The climax of this thought occurs actually in the next verse, where God's people are told, "You shall no more be termed 'Forsaken'," (v.4), which equals God speaking freely, clearly and loquaciously. The magisterial opening of John's gospel is itself a poet's exuberant and florid verbal attestation to the power of the words that spoke all life into being at creation and now that "Word became flesh and dwelt among us" whose traits are both "grace and truth." The words he speaks and are spoken about him accumulate into "grace upon grace," releasing John's testimony and an unending flow of life-giving words.

A Word that breathes distinctly
Has not the power to die
Cohesive as the Spirit
It may expire if He--
"Made Flesh and dwelt among us"
Could condescension be
Like this consent of Language
This loved Philology

second stanza, "A Word Made Felsh is Seldom," Emily Dickinson