Sunday, December 26, 2010

Second Sunday after Christmas Day Year A,B,C

Second Sunday after Christmas Day A,B,C
(Revised Common

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 (or 84:1-8); Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:13-15,19-23;
OR Luke 2:41-52; OR Matthew 1:1-12

Jeremiah, with Ezekiel and Isaiah, dared to speak public words of hope in a desperate time of exile: "says the Lord" "see I am going to bring ... gather them from the farthest parts of the earth...." This bold message of hope is not just for the leaders or the able bodied, but for those who could be left behind under the duress of a long journey home-- the blind, the lame, pregnant women, including even those already in labor. All will begin this journey weeping but the Lord will lead them back on straight roads with plenty of water sources on the way. The emotional impact of this daring promise is intensified when the prophet also says that the Lord says, "I have become a father to Israel...." The journey home for God's people, which began with tears caused by anxiety and uncertainty, will end when "the young women rejoice in the dance and the young men and the old shall be merry."

One of the "Songs of Zion," psalm 84 finds the Lord's presence palpable in one specific place on earth--the Temple on the holy mountain, Mt. Zion. One day spent just at the threshold of the Temple, the poet sings, is better than a thousand days anywhere else.

As is customary in letters from or even attributed to Paul, it opens with a thanksgiving, this time specifically for Christ who blesses us "with every spiritual blessing..." and for the faith and love of the community of believer in Ephesus Then the writer introduces the theme of the letter, which is a desire for them to acquire "a spirit of wisdom and revelation" as they come to know Jesus so that through the vision of revelation they may come to know the hope to which he has called them, which is a "glorious inheritance" and "immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe."
(The Revised Common Lectionary provides three gospels for this Sunday in which Matthew and Luke use considerable imagination to offer random episodes for that period in Jesus' life in which the gospels generally show little interest otherwise: what happened in the life of Jesus before the beginning of his public ministry with his baptism.)

According to Matthew, after the wise men return home, "an angel of the Lord" instructs Joseph in a dream to take the baby and his mother and "flee to Egypt." They remain there until the death of Herod. All this happens "to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet "Out of Egypt I called my Son." [Hosea 11:1] Then another "prophecy" is fulfilled, according to Matthew's narrative. Joseph took them to Nazareth "so that what had been spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He will be called a
Nazorean.' " [Isaiah 11:1] Raymond Brown writes: "Now we have the full identity of the son of David, son of Abraham, the Son of God, as he will be known for all time: Jesus the NAZOREAN." (The Birth of the Messiah, p. 219)

In this episode, unique to Luke's gospel, Jesus at the age of twelve speaks for the first time and asserts his independence at his family's annual pilgrimage to the Temple at Passover, the same time and place he will meet his fate. "After three days," he is found by Mary and Joseph holding his own with "the teachers" who were "amazed." His family were "astonished." When they also express exasperation at his disappearance, the boy responds" "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" They did not understand what he said, although Mary took special note of the event, Luke says, and they returned to Nazareth. "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human form."

Matthew uses some popular folklore-- that the birth stories of great leaders were accompanied by signs in the heavens-- for his own purposes. He also uses rare but recent events-- the arrival of exotic visitors from "the East" to cites, such as Rome, and the sensation they caused-- to establish that the first to honor the newborn "King of the Jews" were Gentiles. Meanwhile, King Herod "and all of the Jews with him" were "frightened." Herod is advised by "the chief priests and scribes" of an ancient prophecy, which Matthew conflates from Micah (5:1) and II Samuel (5:2), so that the status of Bethlehem, which is "no means least among the tribes of Judah" is determined as the birthplace of a new "Shepherd of Israel." Herod tells the wise men to find the newborn so that he might pay homage. The magi continue to follow the star, find Mary, Joseph and the infant and offer their exotic, precious gifts. They return home via a route to avoid Herod.
Despite the Incarnation, Gabriel Josipovoci writes, Christians still approach the Gospels as if they had to "get behind the words to some truth supposedly hidden there which will authenticate their beliefs...." "They have shied away from reading these narratives in the simple and natural way in which they asked to be read...." (The Book of God, p.233)

Matthew intertwines two starkly different figures. The wise men set out on a pilgrimage to find and honor the newborn King of the Jews. They are from a foreign place with alien beliefs and customs. They innocently contact the local authority, King Herod, soon detect his duplicitous motives, find and pay homage to the child-King and return home to be never heard from again. In this episode and throughout chapter two, Herod-- lackey of the conquering Romans, re-builder of the Temple, and brute despot -- is consumed by fear, paranoia and panic. He tries to deceive the wise men, forces Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt for safety and, in an event so horrific it rarely gets mentioned yet is important to Matthew's narrative, has every male child in his realm slaughtered. In just chapter two, Matthew tries to preparer us for one big surprise-- the first to honor the baby Jesus are non-Jews, sincere seekers with strange and exotic beliefs. And, to "proof-text" his case that Jesus is the fulfillment of the most venerable and emotional hopes of God's people. And, issue a warning of further fear and violence to come by those who are frightened of this new way God has chosen to act in human affairs. Already, Matthew has hooked our interests, engaged our emotions and gotten us to invest in the rest of the story he will unfold. God conducts God's business in ways that never cease to disrupt, surprise and even dismantle some of our most prized assumptions. That is one of the ways we can know it is God's ways and not ours!

Luke inserts a story of Jesus as a boy of twelve that hints at how the story will unfold. On an annual family pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus disappears for "three days." Mary and Joseph are astonished to find him deeply engaged with "the teachers" and they only explanation they are given by Jesus is "Did you not know I must be in my Father's house?" The first time Jesus speaks in Luke's narrative, he identifies his whole purpose in life with the Temple, which is for God's people the deeply loved 'home' of God, and which the boy personalizes as "my Father's house." The first-time reader of Luke's gospel might recall this incident in the life of Jesus as a boy when she later reads that Jesus returns as an adult to fulfill his mission of showing that God's love has no boundaries; the returning reader winces at the innocence of the young boy's devotion to this site of coming intrigue and violence. We are hooked.

If we take these stories "in that simple and natural way in which they are asked to be read," as Josipovici implores, then familiar and powerful emotions begin to grip us. Already, we flinch at the violent opposition to God's ways when they challenge human privileges and expectations. Already, we are captivated by the story of Jesus, which begins in innocence but quickly is enmeshed in human anxiety and violence, especially in Matthew's version. But even Luke's more gentle narrative starts to prepare us for that time in the story when Jesus returns on a later Passover as a man to this scene from his childhood.

These stories tell us what we need to know about God and what we should want to know about ourselves not as some "hidden truth" but as plain and simple facts that never loose their power to captivate. They are the plain facts of the
Leitmotiv that runs throughout every biblical narrative-- innocence co- mingled with treachery, panic erratically calmed with hope, foolish floundering assuaged sometimes with hints of love, border less love, divine love. This is how God has chosen to act in our world.