Second Sunday of Christmas
January 4, 2015
Epiphany is always observed on January 6, which usually falls on a weekday. Since many church traditions that follow the lectionary do not have weekday services, they observe Epiphany on either the Sunday before or following January 6. The Readings for Epiphany can replace the regular lectionary readings on either Sunday to observe Epiphany.
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
This text is part of a series of closely related passages in which restoration and return from exile in Babylon is resolutely and beautifully proclaimed. Chapter 31 is the beginning of a collection of these restoration passages called "the Little Book of Consolation" (chs. 31-33; For commentaries on other readings from this section of the book, see the commentaries on 31:27-34, 32:1-3a, 6-15, 33:14-16.)
We do not know whether this material is authentically from the prophet Jeremiah (627-587 BC), or from a time much later in the life of the community after the return from exile (540 BC, 400 BC). The positive outlook of this passage is somewhat uncharacteristic of Jeremiah when compared to the rather gloomy perspective of much of the book. Still, there was a clear strand of future expectation in Jeremiah's preaching that would allow that view here. In any case, the issue of who wrote the material is not as significant as how this text fits within the larger message of the book itself.
Whatever the period from which this material originated, the time frame within which it is to be read in this context is clear, established by the concluding verses of chapter 30 (vv. 20-22). Israel is coming to the end of its existence as an independent nation (see Babylonian Control of Judah). Since they had entered the land as escaped slaves and homeless wanderers around 1290 BC, they had occupied this land. And since the time of the beginning of the monarchy under Saul around 1100 BC and then under David and his descendants from around 1050 BC, there had been a political and spiritual nation of Israel. The early accounts in Exodus, Joshua, and Deuteronomy celebrated the marvelous ways in which God had led them into this land and enabled them to settle in peace and security.
But the later accounts in Numbers, Judges, Samuel, and Kings recounted how badly they had responded to God's grace and leadership in the life of this nation across the centuries. Nearly from the beginning they mixed the worship of God with worship of the fertility gods of the land, and had refused to allow God to transform them into his servants in the world. The prophets, some priests, and a handful of leaders had tried over the centuries to guide the people into authentically being God's people. There had been short times of renewal and progress. But they had never really fully embraced this God who had brought them into being and called them to be His people.
And so now, after all these centuries, the dire predictions of the prophets were unfolding. Jeremiah himself, for 40 years or more, had warned of the consequences of continuing to ignore God. And yet they had not turned to God. The Babylonian empire was expanding from the north laying waste to everything in its path. Israel was no match for its power, and as the prophets had warned, this time God would not fight for them. The nation would die, many of the people would die, many would be taken as captives into exile in Babylon, Solomon's temple would be destroyed, the monarchy brought to an end, and with it the hopes of a thousand years would be gone.
They had expected God to do something! But the expectation was not really a hope grounded in who God was, but a selfish, nearly a magical, belief that God existed to serve them. They thought that the covenant relationship with God was a unilateral one in which God was obligated to take care of them no matter what they did. Too late they realized, in totally devastating ways, that they were wrong. And that left them no hope.
It is into that context that this passage comes. The conclusion of chapter 30 (vv. 20-22) clearly sets these passages within the near total destruction of the exile. And yet the word from God is that even though they had abandoned him, he has not abandoned them.
The governing concept for this text is the formula with which this entire section is introduced: "I will be your God and you shall be my people." (in this form in 30:22, and a slightly modified form in 31:1). This is often termed a covenant formula, not because it outlines a legal treaty, but because it expresses the relationship between God and Israel: as God has revealed Himself to them as God, they are called to acknowledge him as God and respond in faithfulness to him as his people. This formula succinctly depicts the grace of God, the accountability of the people, and the mutual acceptance that defines their relationship.
Some earlier prophets had used the concept as a threat against Israel. Through the symbolic naming of his children, Hosea had warned that even though God had revealed himself to them in their history as their God, if they were not willing to respond to him in faithfulness and acknowledge him as their God, then they would no longer be his people (Hos 1:6-8).
But the idea is most often used in positive ways, especially in addressing the crisis of exile. While some have tended to reduce the idea of a covenant between God and Israel to a legal treaty with stipulations, the significance of the using the metaphor of covenant is much more far reaching. It always emphasizes the totally unearned basis upon which God extends the invitation to become His people. That invitation is always grounded in a revelation of who he is as God, always expressed in terms of grace and love (vv. 2-3).
It is on the basis of that revelation of himself in history, in the concrete realities of where the people live, that he shows himself as God. It is the bedrock from which they can say without question, "this is the work of God, and from that work we understand who he is." From that foundation then, before on the banks of the Reed Sea (Ex 14:30-31), and now in the promise of a newness in the midst of the destruction and devastation of exile, comes the invitation to be His people!
The covenant formula proclaimed into this context means nothing less than a new beginning on the scale of the exodus from Egypt (note the exodus imagery of 31:2-3). It is a newness even less deserved than the exodus and so in some ways even more surprising. Then, as oppressed slaves, they had little choice in their future. But since then, they had deliberately chosen to compromise their worship of God and, as Jeremiah so coarsely yet eloquently says so often, to prostitute themselves to the gods of the land. And yet this prostitute can now be called "maiden" or "virgin" (v. 4) emphasizing the extent and thoroughness, as well as the purpose, of God's new work!
It is no wonder, then, that the prophet here breaks into nearly ecstatic joy at the prospect of a future. There is absolutely no reason to expect it apart from God himself. And they have recently experienced God in much more severe dimensions. Yet now, they are coming to an even greater understanding of who this God is who has called them into being as his people. So now the imperatives of joy and exaltation gush forth as the reality and the magnitude of newness dawns: Sing! Shout! Proclaim! Praise! Speak! (v. 7).
The concrete cause for this joy is clearly given in verse 8: God is bringing back his people from exile! That means the possibility of a new beginning. Because of the uncertainty of the origin of these passages, we have no way to know whether this is anticipated as a future event or is actually in the process of unfolding as these verses are being written. Many scholars think that these verses come from the time period near or shortly after the announcement by Cyrus the Persian that would allow the Israelites to return home (538 BC). If so, it would give even more depth to the emotion here, since it was not just a hope, but a reality unfolding before their very eyes!
The confession "your people" (v. 7) is an acknowledgment that this people, at least for this time, are truly God's people. It will remain for others at a later time to work out what all that implies in the realities of day to day living. They will need that. And from this perspective in history, it remains to be seen whether they will be faithful as his people. But for now, there is only the joy at the realization that they can, indeed, again confess that they are God's people.
This fact is emphasized even further in verse 9 with the proclamation that "I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn." As accustomed as we are to hearing it, the imagery of Father applied to God is rare in the Old Testament. Since the fertility gods of the ancient Near East were described in terms of family relationships that always had sexual overtones to them, Israel was reluctant to use those images for God, especially in light of the temptation to resort to the magical practices of Baal worship.
And yet here the prophet boldly uses the metaphor in a context that could not be misunderstood. Just as the prostitute Israel can be transformed by God's grace to a maiden (v. 4), so these people who are again homeless and godless, scattered over the face of the earth will become a people. He will gather the scattered remnants and families, as helpless and powerless as the lame or blind or pregnant women, and recreate them as a people, as children of God. What they could not do for themselves, God was willing to do (v. 11; cf. Rom 8:1-4, 14-17).
The pastoral imagery of a shepherd gently leading his sheep through safe passages (vv. 9, 10) reinforces the "everlasting love" (v. 3) that this Father is willing to demonstrate to these sons and daughters. But they are not just any children. They will become the firstborn, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. From exiles to firstborn heirs! No wonder they are rejoicing!
Lest this should be taken as cheap grace, and the people be tempted to forget the sins of the past and what brought about their situation, the prophet reminds them that it is God who had scattered them, that they have reaped the consequences of their past unfaithfulness. Yet, it is this same God who will now gather them and become a shepherd to them (cf. Ezek 34:7-16).
The idea of ransom and redemption (v. 11) are metaphors rooted in ancient customs of the Near East, expressed in Israel's law codes. Both ideas relate to a payment or sacrifice offered in place of a firstborn child (Num 18:15-16), buying back the freedom of a person sold into slavery for debts (Lev 25:47-49), or the purchase of land to allow it to remain with the family inheritance (32:6-15; cf. Ruth 4:1-4).
This cultural metaphor came to be used in a theological sense to refer to the mercy and grace of God in choosing to reestablish relationship with his people even after they have deliberately been unfaithful and have failed to be his people. Especially in light of the events of the return from exile, as here, this metaphor took on the dimension of a faith affirmation about the nature of God and how he works with humanity in the world (e.g., Psa 130:7-8, Mark 10:45).
The promises in verses 12-14 are ways to talk about the real life restoration that will unfold from the newness that God's grace precipitates. These should not be taken as specific promises, as if all of the future will be marked by total prosperity, and no one in this restored community will ever again "languish" (v. 12). To do so would be to misunderstand the poetic dynamic of the passage, and, even worse, to reduce the great work of God in this restoration to the same level of magic as the fertility gods of the Canaanites. In fact, there would be terribly hard times ahead for this community.
But it is clear that the metaphors of an abundance of water and crops intend to signal a new day in which life will be marked by a new joy (v. 13) that springs from a renewed hope. The metaphors of water and abundant luxuriant crops, as well as the "fatness" to be eaten (the most prized part of livestock in that culture) operate on two levels. First, in the arid country of the Near East, water is scarce and precious. A well watered garden would be a sign of security and stability, because it would guarantee food, and so survival.
But an even deeper implication of this symbolism here is the background in Baal worship. Baal was the god of rain and fertility of the ground as well as livestock (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament). In language that echoes the problems they have had with Baal worship in the past (Hos 2:5-13), the prophet here makes a powerful statement that the future is in no way related to the gods of the land that they have served in the past. Everything they have and will have comes from God and from God alone. He is the source of the rain, the crops, the livestock, as well as their joy and hope, indeed of the people themselves. This is a powerful call to recognize God in the events that are unfolding before them.
One of the most noticeable features of these passages is the highly emotive language and symbolic poetic imagery, especially evident in today's text. To our modern ears, the poetic style even seems excessive at times, with the symbols and metaphors running together and the superlatives overdone. And yet it is partly the very dominance of this poetic and often stereotypical language that serves to communicate the message.
The focus of that message is not so much carefully ordered theological reflection, although there is a significant amount of confession about the nature of God in this passage. It is more about our response, how we as human beings react to the announcement, even to the realization of the reality, of God's grace actually unfolding in our midst in concrete ways. It is the response of those who have expected some action of God for so long that they have abandoned hope, and then are suddenly confronted with a newness that exceeds anything that they have ever imagined! Human language can scarcely contain such happiness and delight, and even the flowery language of this text falls far short of expressing it. It is only with the realization that we are being invited to share such unrestrained joy that we can approach this text with any sense of its import.
This is the season of celebration in the Christian year in which we rejoice at the love and grace represented by the Incarnation. But it is also a time to begin reflecting on the nature of the community that is called into being by such an act of God in the world. We will spend the rest of the church year reflecting and coming to terms with what it means to be the people of God, the community of Faith that God has chosen to create in the world.
Even on this second Sunday of Christmas, as the biblical texts still reflect the celebration and joy, as we still proclaim the nature of this God who has entered our human condition and revealed his heart in a manager, we also begin to realize that we are being called to respond.
Our preaching this Sunday may take this path as it interweaves the pure joy at the magnitude of the event that we are celebrating and the sense of new beginning that it brings, with a sense that this new beginning is going somewhere, and that it may just require something of us.
There are two features of the text that will help define that path. The dimension of unbridled joy is, of course, the most obvious feature. We probably need to celebrate that joy together as a community in all its innocence and splendor. There will be plenty of time to talk of crosses and suffering and sacrifice, and we will need to do that further along the journey. But now, as we stand so close to the event of the Incarnation itself, I think we are allowed for this brief time simply to celebrate, to bask in the love of the Father in all its radiance, to relax in the security of his grace. This text gives us permission, as few other passages do, to allow the joy and praise and celebration of God's wonderful gift of grace and love to be demonstrated shamelessly.
This is a childlike astonishment at the incredible love of the Father as he turns to the outcasts, the powerless, those who have rejected him, and again says, on no other basis than his own love, "My children!" We will need to grow. We will need to learn what it means to be his children. We will need to learn how to be faithful and obedient. We will come to understand the terrible cost, for him and us, of taking to ourselves his name. But we will do so in the security of his acceptance of us.
The second feature is much more understated and subtle, but is an important part of this text. God is working here to create a people. There is emphasis in this passage on bringing together diverse groups into a unity, at the very beginning (v. 1) by referencing "all the families of Israel," and later in speaking of scattered Israel (vv. 8, 10). These remnants are not yet a people. They are only scattered, disorganized groups and families with no unity and no purpose. This great new work of God unfolding in their midst is for the purpose of taking these scattered individuals and family units and forging them into a people. God's people. They will be given a purpose and a mission that only a people can carry out.
We sometimes get so caught up in the individualism of our culture that we are tempted to think that the return from exile, or the Incarnation, is for us individually. It is easy to get sentimental and personalize the experience of this event into a warm fuzzy that makes us feel good. There may be a valid place for some of that in the joy and celebration mentioned above. But unless we place that in the context of the creation of a people, a community, we have misunderstood what God is about in this event. The Incarnation, no less than the return from exile, is not so much about individual salvation, as important as that might be, as it is about the creation of a redeemed community of Faith that can be the people of God in the world, the firstborn people of God, with all the responsibility that entails.
"I will be your God, and you shall be my people." "Save, O Lord, your people!" "My people shall be satisfied!" Our celebration, our joy, should be as a community, always, even in the midst of our dancing for joy, with the knowledge that there is more to come, that God has created this community for a purpose.
Today we celebrate in our Father's house and bask in his love. But only today. Tomorrow, we will begin to realize there is work to be done!
This Sunday in the Church year
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White and Gold
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