22 December 2014

The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2014

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Saint Luke 2:1-20

Background: Christmas Eve
God called the light  ‘day,’ and the darkness he called  ‘night.’ Evening came, and morning followed—the first day.”  This passage from the first creation account gives us a clue as to how the liturgical day was structured to follow the days of creation.  The day begins at 6:00 in the evening and proceeds to the following 6:00 in the evening.  Thus Christmas Eve is not anticipatory but rather participates in the full celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord.  Some churches have made their celebrations later in the evening either at midnight, or an hour earlier so that the night of our Lord’s birth is honored as a festival of light.  There are many traditions that surround this holy evening, such as the German tradition of singing the Quem pastores in different stations within the church building.  Spanish traditions center around the Misa del Gallo (The Rooster’s Mass).  One Anglican tradition is the Nine Lessons and Carols as celebrated at King’s College in Cambridge.  All of these traditions reflect the notion that Christ was born at night, and that Christians ought to gather at that time to remember and celebrate the birth.

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

In the first Isaiah’s “Book of Emmanuel” we come to this segment devoted to the Prince of Peace.  Our reading for this evening is taken from a larger pericope (8:23-96), which gives us some context for the Isaiah oracle.  We understand with the citation of the tribes of Zebulon and Naphthali that the prophet wants to make comment on the dire situation that faces Israel, as these two provinces were the first to be conquered by Tiglath-pileser III in 733 BCE.  The prophet looks forward to what God will do for his distressed people, and thus we are ushered into a liturgical poem that at one time celebrated the accession of the king.  With Isaiah’s use, we see it as a prophetic answer to the Assyrian devastation.  With its use in the Lectionary for Christmas I, we see hopes for the messianic king who is made real with the birth of Jesus.  The son and child that Isaiah sees is the ideal king, who is adopted as YHWH’s son and heir.  The oracle begins by celebrating the light that dawn upon a defeated people and then moves on to the new messianic king.  What follows then are a listing of virtues and offices that characterize the rule of this “son of God.”  We should read these offices as reflective of the “Wisdom” that comes from God, and like the traditions that surround Solomon, these virtues all emanate from the mind of God, who anoints this king with such knowledge.  The Christian tradition is that Jesus, the son of Mary, is the one who completes and fulfills this promise of both hymn and prophet.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1    1.  How does history work itself into the prophet’s message?
2    2.  How does our current history work itself into your faith at this Christmas?
3    3.  What are the qualities of an ideal ruler?

Psalm 96 Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.

Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.

As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the LORD who made the heavens.

Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!

Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the LORD honor and power.

Ascribe to the LORD the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.

Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.

Tell it out among the nations: "The LORD is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the LORD when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.

Although the psalmist declares that this is a “new song,” it is really a pastiche of versets and thoughts from other psalms.  Especially appropriate for its use in the Christmas Eve Liturgy is the scope of its interest – the whole world (not just the People of Israel) are invited to sing the “new song.”  Thus it is more universal and more useful in the Christian setting than songs of a more national character.  It is very clear, however, as to the focus of this new song.  It is YHWH, the creator of all things, heaven and earth.  It is not the “ungods” of the peoples.  It is YHWH who not only gathers Israel, but it is YHWH who gathers all the families of the nations, and who reigns, and “metes out justice.”  To this righteous justice the whole of the cosmos responds.  Heavens, earth, seas, fields, and trees – all rejoice at the justice of the One who has made them all.  The peoples too - they rejoice as well.

Breaking open Psalm 96
1    1.  The psalm is clear in depicting God as gathering all people into God’s family.  
2    2.  Who, in your mind, is hovering at the perimeter? How might you draw them into the fold?
3    3.  What new song could your write or sing?

Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.


In this reading, St. Paul is unequivocally clear about what he thinks about Jesus.  He is not only the Christ, the anointed one, but he is both God and Savior.  These pronouncements are not only theological but political as well.  To the readers who lived in a world in which the rulers were some-times named as “gods”, and saviors (soter) as well, Paul is making clear that these men and women are only shadows of the One who “gave himself for us.”  Here the crucifixion as a sacrificial offering sets apart this Jesus who gathers up his own people (a reflection of YHWH choosing a people) for the purpose of “good deeds.”  On this night, as minds are gathered at the manger and the Blessed Mother, it is good to remember for what this Child has been born.

Breaking open Titus:

1    1.  What do you think about Jesus?
2    2.  Do you ever think about Jesus in political terms?  What might that be?
3    3.  What are the “good deeds” for which Jesus chooses us?

St. Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke leaves behind his account of the Annunciations and the Birth of John the Baptist, which are reflective of the Hebrew background into which they are cast.  Now Luke begins to tell his tale of what it is that Jesus means.  The dates that Luke proposes (while Quirinius was governor of Syria) present problems that aren’t worth our while here.  He outlines his arguments and his points of contact that will become foundational in his theology of Jesus.  There are the connections to the Davidic kingship, but there are also signs of the poverty into which most of the people were born and in which they lived.  As if to accentuate his Gospel to the Lowly, Luke then turns our attention to the shepherds who see in the skies the angelic message and the song of praise.  The angels voice the startling news, and the shepherds respond.

Let’s talk about the shepherds for a second.  Although among the lowly in society, they also represent a heritage and nobility.  The fathers and mothers who make up the early history of the people of Israel were shepherds.  The kings that followed David were often written about and seen as shepherds as well (a common notion in the ancient near east).  In a way, the shepherds represent a whole spectrum, the audience to which this Gospel is addressed, and representative of the people that God desires.  The shepherds break their bounds, in Luke’s Gospel, by becoming the first to only to witness (as in seeing and experiencing) but also witnessing (as in telling their story).  Those who hear are “amazed”, Luke’s code word for “belief”. 

Mary, however, shows another aspect in assimilating this news.  She tells no one, to our knowledge, but she does “treasure” and “ponder” what has happened.  In both shepherd and in Mary Luke gives us examples of what we are called to do.  The story cannot be told if we do not understand its meaning, and its precious nature.  Mary, if we are to trust the content of her song in the preceding chapter, understands the radical thing God is doing – bringing down, and lifting up.  Later prophets (Simeon and Anna) will see the same pattern and will rejoice in a God who makes all things new.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1    1.  Why is it important in Luke that Jesus be related to King David?
2    2.  What does it mean when Luke (in the announcement to the shepherds) calls Jesus, “Savior,” “Messiah,” and “Lord”?
3    3.  Have you ever pondered this story?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Christmas Day.  There are three possibilities:

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

or this           

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

or this

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

All comments and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller

15 December 2014

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, 21 December 2014

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
St. Luke 1:26-38

Background: Readings in Advent
Perhaps this is my own little rant, but I miss the readings that used to be used during the Sundays of Advent – or to put it better I miss the consistency of the season as being distinct from Christmas proper.  I was comparing the readings from the old Service Book and Hymnal (Lutheran) and the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and they appear to be the same.  Advent I – was the classic Palm Sunday gospel from Matthew (21:1-9) with an optional reading from Luke on John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-6) (not a reading in the 1928 Lectionary). Advent II – Lucan apocalyptic (21:25-33), Advent III – The question of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-10), and Advent IV – Questions about the role of John the Baptist (John 1:19-28).

The “Palm Sunday” reading pictures for us the inexorable nature of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and the promise of his return. The apocalypse from Luke follows the patterns of readings in the “Advent Shadow” from the last readings of the church year. The question of John the Baptist ought to be our own question as we await the coming Christ.  Whom do we expect? Finally, the reading from John (which already appears in the RCL) gives us a chance to look at the forerunner, and his message and to understand who he is vis a vis Jesus.

I love the broad depth of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), but I dislike its watering down of the Advent season with the reading concerning the Annunciation on Advent IV year B.  Year A is Matthew’s “Birth of Christ”, and Year C is the Visitation.  It seems an accommodation to the world’s insistence on “rushing the season” and not allowing for one last week of holy waiting.  Perhaps this would be allowable if Advent returned to its original six weeks, but now it seems we are down to three.

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."

But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

We sit on two cusps here.  The first is the divide with Michal, namely the leaving behind of David’s relationship with the house of Saul.  The other cusp is the move toward Temple-centered worship, which will fall to Solomon, not to David.  The reasons given are several, ranging from David’s spilling of blood, and therefore ineligible and or that it was an act of presumption. More likely is that David did not have the time for such a grand enterprise, being concerned with succession battles in his own house. The author, however, cleverly makes an exchange between the house that David would build for God, and God’s promise of building the House of David, and ensuring its continuity. Thus it will be the son in David’s dynasty that will accomplish the Temple, but not David.

It is that latter point that connects this reading with the Advent series. The focus is on the son (Solomon) who is and will build the house – dynasty and temple. And it is this succession into which Jesus will fall, as a son of David. Thus the lineage is founded, and the expectations are drawn out. If the Temple was the presence of God for Israel, then Jesus, Immanuel, would be God’s presence for a later people.

Breaking open II Samuel:

1.     Has God every denied you a wish or a goal?
2.     Why?
3.     Why do you think David was denied his wish?

Canticle 15
The Song of Mary Magnificat
Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
    for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
    the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
    in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
    he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
    and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
    for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
    to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
    as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Like Hannah’s song (see I Samuel 2), Luke’s Magnificat is a collection of phrases and themes from other sources. The reader may want to consult Psalm 111, especially verse 9 as well. It is also similar to Psalm 126 (above) in its picture of the reversal of fortunes. Here God is seen as the One who does not take what the world gives as given, but stands against it and its harsh truths and realities. It is a theme that Luke rejoices in as he constantly pictures God’s interventions into the lives of the lowly. Mary does not stand outside the song as an observer, but as a significant contributor, “for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Mary not only sings about the lowly and those that are servants, but also embodies that role in what she has taken on, “be it unto me according to your will.” She is not the only one who lives the life of this psalm – Abraham and Sarah are remembered as well. Mary in her role as the theotokos is the reality of the promise made to them.  Thus generations from Abraham on – into the future – can remember God’s gracious promise.

Breaking open Canticle 15:
1.              How have you been a “lowly servant”?
2.              In what way are you one of “the proud”?
3.              Will other generations call you blessed? Why?


Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Misericordias Domini

Your love, O LORD, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.

For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.

"I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:

'I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.'"

You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: *
"I have set the crown upon a warrior
and have exalted one chosen out of the people.

I have found David my servant; *
with my holy oil have I anointed him.

My hand will hold him fast *
and my arm will make him strong.

No enemy shall deceive him, *
nor any wicked man bring him down.

I will crush his foes before him *
and strike down those who hate him.

My faithfulness and love shall be with him, *
and he shall be victorious through my Name.

I shall make his dominion extend *
from the Great Sea to the River.

He will say to me, 'You are my Father, *
my God, and the rock of my salvation.'"

This is a David psalm – not written by him, but rather about him.  In a sense, its tenor is more like that of the prophets who pointed out the unfaithfulness of Israel, and God’s standing to the side, and allowing other nations to realize his wrath.  Much of this, however, is in the bulk of the psalm that is elided from the liturgical selection. Here the psalm is used to underscore the Davidic connection to Jesus, who stands in David’s line.  More than this connection, if we read the psalm with history’s eyes and understand its message and impact on Israel, this is really a psalm about the covenant. The agreement with Abraham lies in the background, and the agreement with David is in our line of focus. Both are connected, and the psalmist wants Israel to understand that the God who is described in cosmic terms requires its faithfulness. God will protect but only if Israel follows the laws of God. Then will God protect and uphold the House of David.  The relationship of the David house to God is described in familial terms, “He will say to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’” Into such a complex tradition and relationship is the Christ child born.

I cannot leave without commenting on verse 25, “I shall make his dominion extend from the Great Sea to the River.” In 1975, I was a guest of the Israeli government along with other clergy (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Baptist). We spent ten days in Israel seeing sights and visiting digs that were not open to the general public. We were also guests at several kibbutzim, in particular, the kibbutz at Lavi, near the Sea of Galilee. There, as we talked with the residents about their relationship with Palestinians, we heard and saw how difficult it is to read into the psalms a national policy. A member of the kibbutz, rocking in her chair to side and knitting, when the discussion became heated and difficult about Israel’s role over the Palestinians, turned to us and quoted Psalm 89:25. “He (God) has given us the land from the Great Sea (the Mediterranean) to the River (the Euphrates)” And that was that. 

Breaking open Psalm 89:

1.     How is David a good example of faith?
2.     How is he not?
3.     What do people see in you?

Romans 16:25-27

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

It is disappointing that this reading has not been preceded by a reading from one of the prophets, for in it Paul connects the thread of the prophetic enterprise to the “mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” Like countless others after him, Paul sees in the Isaiahs, in Jeremiah, and others, the connected promise that bears fruit and becomes evident in Jesus. Paul spends no small time in discussing the heritage of the Jews in his letter to the Romans, and now in this concluding comment he ties the knot. What is distinctly Christian, however, is his connection of this ageless prophecy and covenant not to Israel, who already knows it, but to the Gentiles as well.  He labors to discuss the difficulties of the Law in this letter, but here he bids those of the New Israel with these words, “to bring about the obedience of faith.” Our times seem to center on belief as a status that exists unto itself, but Paul cautions us that faith leads on to a greater recognition of what it is that God requires.  Micah comes to mind. So do the O Antiphons, which could surround the mystery that Paul lifts up. Those verses would give a sense of light and depth to this reading.

Breaking open Romans
  1. How has God made known the mystery to you?
  2. How do you explain Jesus to others?
  3. What do you think is the “obedience of faith?”

St. Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

In this reading, Luke, as he does in the bulk of his Gospel, brings together heaven and earth in a compelling and novel manner. Both lowliness and the heights of heaven come together in a new conjunction. Galilee, in the back water of Palestine, becomes the place where God manifests a new presence with Israel. All of this is announced by the heavens via Gabriel to the lowly Mary, the handmaid (read slave) of the Lord.  Mary is lifted up in this annunciation. All of the language that surrounds her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” would be uncommon for a young woman of her station, and yet the promises and proleptic tie her with powerful people in Israel’s history. Gideon hears a similar greeting. And although Luke goes to great lengths to connect Joseph, and thus Jesus, to the line of David, it is the lowliness of Mary and the Shepherds that carries the day for us.  Perhaps this greeting in this quiet and hidden situation in Nazareth is similar to Paul’s “mystery that was kept secret for long ages.”  Here, however, it is not the separation of time that hides the tremendous announcement but poverty and distance from the elites. God comes to the outcasts and sinners – comes in a manner that is only slowly revealed to us. The connection to the hidden mystery is also revealed in Mary’s relationship with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth is in this sense a type of Sarah, and Luke underscores this in his (the angel’s) words about the example of Elizabeth, who has “also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (See Genesis 18:14) In all of this, Mary becomes the model, the unassuming recipient of God’s grace. Laced with both terror, “But she was much perplexed” and duty, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Thus begins Mary’s holy waiting.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     What do you see in the humanity of Mary?
2.     Do you see your life reflected in hers? How?
3.     What have angels said to you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller