Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, January 5, 2020 – Christmas 2A


Christmas 2A – January 5, 2020

We know who God is! (Satterlee.)
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Jeremiah 31:7-14 – God will gather all people
Sirach 24:1-12 – Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people

Psalm 147:12-20 – He grants peace within your borders; he fills you with the finest of wheat. 15 He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. 16 He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. 17 He hurls down hail like crumbs— who can stand before his cold? 18 He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow. 19 He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. 20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances. Praise the LORD!
Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
She brought them over the Red Sea,
and led them through deep waters;
19 but she drowned their enemies,
and cast them up from the depths of the sea.
20 Therefore the righteous plundered the ungodly;
they sang hymns, O Lord, to your holy name,
and praised with one accord your defending hand;
21 for wisdom opened the mouths of those who were mute,
and made the tongues of infants speak clearly

Ephesians 1:3-14 – God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.

John 1:(1-9), 10-18 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us

Sunday, January 5 is technically Christmas 2A, though many congregations will observe Epiphany, which falls on the next day, Monday, January 6, 2020.

If you didn’t get a chance to preach John’s Christmas story, John 1:1-14, Set III, for Christmas Day, this could be your chance. Christmas 2A which falls every three years but often gets superseded by Epiphany, gives is the mythical, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Second Sunday after Christmas falls on any Sunday between January 2-5, inclusive. Some years January 2-5 falls during the week, so the 2nd Sunday after Christmas is not observed, and John 1 does not get read. Some years Epiphany Sunday falls on the second Sunday after Christmas, or close enough to it that congregations choose to celebrate Epiphany on that day. This year is a good example. Epiphany falls on Monday, January 6, 2020. Many, if not most congregations, will celebrate Epiphany on Sunday, January 5, 2020. In 2021 Epiphany will fall on Wednesday. In 2022 on Thursday.

Our text comes from an anonymous gospel we have named The Gospel of John. It is written by someone who only identifies himself as the Beloved Disciple.

John’s origin story for Jesus, his birth story, has no magi, no angels, no manger, no inn. John’s gospel is written much later than the other gospels, possibly between 100 AD and 120 AD. This mystical approach reflects John’s high christology. This is no earthly Jesus who becomes the Son of God in his death and resurrection. This Jesus is the preexistent Word/Logos, through whom all things came into being, who became flesh and dwelt among us.

This story is composed in rhythmical prose, says F. F. Bruce (The Gospel of John). Karoline Lewis, our presenter for Preach at the Beach 2020, says that while the opening verses 1-9 of John 1 are optional, verses 10-18 don’t really make any sense without them. Judge for yourself. Here is the text:

[In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.]

 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John begins with the words, “In the beginning…” any Jewish Christian reading this would immediately default to Genesis 1, the opening words of the Bible. The light shines in the darkness also depicts God’s Genesis 1 declaration, “Let there be light.”

Consider this statement from the Lutheran World Federation: Light Shines un the Darkness:

Consider also 2 Corinthians 4:6:

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ

  1. F. Bruce in his The Gospel of John, wrestles with how (or whether) to translate logos:

There is a famous passage in Goethe’s Faust where Faust grapples with the translation of this clause, attempting to hit on the mot juste for logos, until at last he thinks he has found it: “Im Anfang war die Tat”—“ In the beginning was the deed, the action.” And while this is not the whole meaning, it is part of it. If we understand logos in this prologue as “word in action” we may begin to do it justice.

The word (logos) meant “the principle of reason” in some Greek philosophical circles. This principle created material form in the real world. John is bridging Greek and Hebrew thought. “The Word of the Lord came to Isaiah (Isaiah 38:4).  Both Jewish and Greek hearers could have a frame of reference here.

In Hebrew thought, the Word of the Lord is personified. Isaiah 55:11:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Philo says, in Creation 24-25:

…anyone who wants to use plainer words, would say that the world of the mind was the Word of God [logos theou] already making a world. For a city in the mind is nothing else than the reckoning [logismas] of the architect, already planning to build the city.

The Word was in the beginning, was with God and was God. Light came into the world through this Word. The world did not recognize this Word. He came to his own but they did not accept him. To all, all who believed in him, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not just of blood, but of God.

(Lewis says verses 6-9 about John the Baptist are generally held to be a later addition. Others add verse 15 to the interpolation. Still other suggest the author may also have added them later.

Verse 14 (the Word became flesh and dwelt among us) is the central incarnational thesis of John’s gospel. “Dwelt” is literally “tabernacled” (ἐσκήνω). To a Jewish Christian community this poetic image will evoke the Festival of Booths. The Tabernacle was the place of God’s presence. John’s Jewish-Christian theology is that Jesus is the tabernacle of God’s presence, and Jesus is God’s presence in the world.

The mystery of incarnation is not easily explained. It is embodied in the poetry of the hymn Of The Father’s Love Begotten, (ELW 295) written possibly around 390 AD, by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, and set to 13th century plainsong:

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

This is also the last of the short days we get to use the Proper Preface for Christmas, which may help us imagine the importance of this message for this generation:

In the wonder and mystery of the Word made flesh
you have opened the eyes of faith to a new and radiant vision of your glory
that, beholding the God made visible,
we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see.
And so, with all the choirs of angels…

EPIPHANY – Monday, January 6, 2020 (May be observed on Sunday, January 5, 2020)

Isaiah 60:1-6– Arise! Shine! Your light has come… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… they shall bring gold and frankincense and bring the praise of the Lord.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14– Give the king your justice, and righteousness to a king’s son. May all kings fall down before him, and nations give him service.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The mystery made known by revelation: That the Gentiles have now become fellow heirs.

Matthew 2:1-12 – The magi consult with Herod, then visit the child Jesus with his mother Mary. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, returning to their country by another road.

The Epiphany of our Lord

Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity. All six feasts fall within six months of the year, followed by six months of “green Sundays,” sometimes referred to as “ordinary time” with no major feasts. 

There was some debate about when to celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably January 6. Because of the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Ethiopians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar). A few years ago, when the bishops went to the Holy Land at the request of Bishop Younan, it was a delight to celebrate Christmas here on December 25, then go to the Holy Land and celebrate it again on January 6.

According to Frank Senn, The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy, some early Christians believed that Jesus’ conception (by the Holy Spirit) was on the same day as his resurrection. Since they set resurrection day around March 25, it was easy to count forward nine months of gestation to December 25, which was the date set for Christmas in the Western calendar. Others may have set the date of Christmas to coincide with the pagan celebration of winter solstice, around December 21. When Christianity moved into German and Scandinavian areas, this coincided with Yule-time, a pagan festival which ran from late December into early January. The historian Bede said December 25 was the first day of the pagan year.

For Western Christians, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi. For Eastern Christians, Epiphany ranges from Christmas to the Baptism of Jesus.

In the Eastern Church the historical theme of Epiphany was the mystery of the incarnation. It included Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, some of his childhood events and even the wedding at Cana. The earliest reference to Epiphany is in 361 A.D. For a while Christ’s Epiphany and his birthday were used interchangeably. In 385 Epiphany still commemorated the birth of Christ. It was also called the Day of Theophany. Even into the 5th century John Cassian tells us that the Egyptian monasteries were celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism on the same day, but other churches had begun to separate the festivals.

For us in the West, Epiphany is the culmination of the 12-day Christmas season. Some Latino cultures have a 40-day Christmas which extends to Candlemas on February 2. I could spend a lot more time going into the developments of the calendar and the religious festivals, but I’ve discovered that while I and a few of you are interested by this stuff, the majority of our people aren’t. The preacher might dare a short paragraph on the development of the holiday for the erudite who bask in the esoteric, but the bulk of the faithful are less interested in history and more interested in “what does all this mean for us today?”

Even if we deconstruct the nativity scene which wants to put the Magi at the manger, we can nevertheless see it surrealistically, like John the Baptist at the cross in Grünewald or something Salvador Dali paintings. 

The coming of the Magi is a tremendous opportunity to talk about gift-giving and generosity. As the Magi brought their gold, frankincense and myrrh, we bring our gifts, whatever we have in our hands, to Christ. We offer our time, talents and treasure to God’s work of renewing the world. I am reminded of Christina Rossetti’s famous poem In The Bleak Midwinter which was set to a brooding hymn tone. The final stanza:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Another potential theme is global diversity. In the New Testament texts, the coming of the Magi is symbolic of the nations coming to Christ. It is a turning point. The gospel is for the Gentiles, for all people. This theme is picked up in the epistle reading from Ephesians. Paul states unequivocally that the mystery of the gospel that has been hidden for the ages is this: That God planned all along to bring in the nations. This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 60, our Hebrew Bible reading. This is being seen in the growth of a Christianity around the world today.

Another theme is global mission. The gospel for the world – the whole world. This means not preaching our culture, or even our peculiar religious traditions. This means preaching Christ alone. The Magi come from the East (Persia). People of other cultures and other religions come to see something in this Jesus.

Christianity in China will look different than it does in Germany, or North Dakota. Christianity, and also Lutheranism, look very different in Latin countries than they do here. This is something to celebrate. The core message is the same, but many of the customs and traditions are different.

In the southern hemisphere, Christmas and Epiphany are not about the days getting longer, or about snowscapes and a heavily clad Santa Claus. There Christmas falls on the longest, hottest day of the year. Epiphany may be a time for us to learn to strip our proclamation of Christ of its cultural trappings, down to the meat of the matter, so that we ensure that we are proclaiming Christ to the world, and not our cultural bias.

Epiphany may be a time to consider sponsoring a missionary. Even a small amount helps! Get started with a special Epiphany season offering.

Another theme is local mission. Epiphany is also a time to consider the ways that Christ comes to those in our own culture who have wandered from God. An increasing portion of our own population have no church home. How do you proclaim Christ into this increasingly irreligious world?

δο μγοι π νατολν παρεγνοντο ες εροσλυμα. “Behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem.” The word μγοι (magoi) is the plural of μάγος (magos), a word used for a hundred years before Jesus to refer to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) lived at least 6,000 years before Jesus. He was probably Persian by birth, but no one knows for sure. Most agree Eastern Iran, probably.

Zoroaster founded a religion now known as Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism or Magianism, through the writing of hymns and liturgical pieces. Zoroastrianism focused on the worship of Ahura Mazda, a transcendent, benevolent deity. Zoroastrianism was at some point in the two millennia before Christ, the largest religion in the world.

Magi were Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity. The oldest surviving reference to a μάγος is in Heraclitus (6th century B.C.), who does not give them a good review. A century later (5th C. B.C.) Heroditus uses “magi” a couple of times while commenting on Iranian expats living in Asia Minor. He calls them interpreters of omens and dreams. Xenophon (4th C. B.C.) refers to magi as experts in all matters of religion.

The Hellensitic world came to view Zoroaster as the father of magic and astrology. Later these priests came to be seen as tricksters, charlatans and cheats. Magi became associated with magic. Zoroaster was the figurehead for the magi. Some believe we have seven days in the week today because Zoroastrians believed there were seven planets. The Suda (an ancient encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world) claims that the Babylonians learned astronomy from Zoroaster. There is archeological evidence that the Chinese character/word Wu (shaman/witch/wizard/magician), was a loan from the old Persian word magus.

Sadaam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party often pejoratively called Iranians “majus,” indicating that they were not true Muslims, but captive to an older pre-Muslim religion based on magic and paganism.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), in Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15), magus is usually translated “magician.” This is pejorative as well, since Jewish law forbade sorcery of any kind.

The New Testament (Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6, 8) also translates magus as “magician,” except in this Sunday’s text from Matthew, where it is transliterated “Magi” or translated “wise men.” This is an odd choice based more on legends than linguistics. Interesting though: Justin, Origen, Augustine and Jerome all translated it “magician,” even in Matthew.

Consider reading it like this: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magicians from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

The Magi were pagans. These pagans were interested in Jesus. There is great symbolism here. Pagans today are interested in Jesus is well, they just seem disillusioned with the church. Instead of seeing those who are disillusioned with the church as enemies, what might it look like to honor the spiritual hunger they have, and the righteous indignation they have when religious communities are more self-focused and other-focused? How might we welcome them to the manger?

Finally, there are also power themes in this text. Herod is afraid to lose his tenuous grasp on power, a power he has only at the will of the Empire. He will stop at nothing to keep that power.

We have here a continuation of the paradoxes, opposites we heard in the Christmas story. Angels vs. shepherds, the mighty vs. the humble, the first vs. the least city of Judah, kings vs. animals, an inn vs. a stable, mortality versus the infinite. Here we have the ruthless power and scheming of a king who will stop at nothing, versus the innocence, vulnerability and faith of a child who welcomes all, even magicians. “The difference between Herod’s rule and the one to be born in Bethlehem could not be more stark,” says Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

If you go with this approach, consider substituting Revelation 12:1-6 as the epistle reading. Some associate Herod with this text.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. (Rev. 12:1-4)

A woman, clothed with the sun, moon under her feet, crown of stars, bears a child to rule the nations. Mary. Then a red, seven-headed dragon wants to devour the child. Herod? Or Rome (city of seven hills)?  Herod is certainly Rome’s functionary. Sadly, this text never gets read in Lutheran churches. Using it allows you to use an unused text, gives you an opportunity to teach people how to read John’s Revelation, and helps you clarify the power dynamics in this text.

Perhaps this is a time to talk about our relationship to civil authority, or to the power structures of the day. A few years ago, 132 children were executed at a school in Peshawar Pakistan. Herod’s execution order does not sound so far-fetched. It still happens today. In our own country, there have been hundreds of school shootings since 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Perhaps this is a Sunday to pray for children everywhere. Children trafficked. Children in danger. Children and their families running for their lives. Refugees, most of whom are children. 

The night is still dark

The night is still dark
And a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth
Killing the children to stay in power
The world still knows its Herods
And the world still knows those persons
Wise enough
To follow a star
Those who do not consider themselves
Too intelligent
Too powerful
Too wealthy
To kneel to a child…

by Ann Weems