1st Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5

bulletModern scholarship remains convinced that the book of Isaiah emerged over a period of two or three centuries, and that many texts including this one, are most difficult to date within that trajectory. In the last couple of decades, scholarship has deconstructed the neat lines between the three Isaiahs and recognized that not only are relatively late passages found in First Isaiah (traditionally 1-39), but that the present arrangement of the book shows an effort to create a unified reading, linking together its separate parts and anticipating the last chapters of Third Isaiah already in the first chapters of Isaiah of Jerusalem. There are many lexical ties between chapters 1 and 65-66. In addition, the first part of the book of Isaiah projects judgment on and subsequent restoration of Judah and Jerusalem, and the second part of the book announces that judgment has ended and restoration is beginning.
bulletChapter 1 deals with the punishment, purification, and redemption of Jerusalem, and then 2:2-5 announces Zion's role as the center for Yahweh's world rule. The temple mount, a hundred feet shorter than the Mount of Olives, will become "in days to come" the highest mountain in the world. Almost like a magnet, the temple mount will attract the nations of the world, who will make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to learn Yahweh's Torah or instruction, and they will express a desire to walk in Yahweh's ethical ways. Yahweh is depicted in this passage as the dispenser of binding arbitration--he will resolve all international disputes. As a result, war will become obsolete and irrelevant, and people will retool their swords into plows and their spears into hedge shears. With no cause for war, wars will not be fought nor will people find the history of military adventures interesting. The folk song echoes back this poem: "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More."
bulletThis passage also occurs in Isaiah's contemporary prophet Micah where an additional verse spells out the resulting domestic tranquility: each nation will sit under its own vine and own fig tree, and no one will intimidate them (Mic 4:4).
bulletHow are we to interpret this passage? Were Isaiah and Micah false prophets since their words did not come true? Are these passages to be taken metaphorically as pictures of heaven? Are they like other depictions of utopia, too impractical to implement and designed only to get the reader to dream about a new reality.  The old Soviet Union gave a statue to the United Nations exemplifying the ideals of this passage:

bulletI would suggest two other possibilities. First, both Isaiah and Micah contain what I would call liturgical responses to these promises:

                "O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of Yahweh!" Isa 2:5

                "For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of Yahweh our God forever and ever."
                         Mic 4:5.

bulletThese liturgical responses to the divine promises concede that we live in a world of wars and rumors of wars, but they also promise that Israel itself will start living as if these promises were true. The people of God today might be encouraged and empowered by the gospel to practice peace-making at home, in the congregation, and in society. While others may still choose to fight, the people of God would resolve to walk in the light of the promises contained in these texts regardless of what others might choose to do.
bulletA second possibility builds on the implications of Christianity's heightened eschatology. Just as the early Christians saw the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of the new age and saw initial fulfillments of the promise of the Spirit at Pentecost and of the ingathering of the nations in their witness to the Gentiles, so we might take these words as renewed promises or challenges addressed to the people of God today. What would it mean for Christian behavior if we took these promises seriously as our Advent future? What if we stood on tiptoe in anticipation of their imminent fulfillment? Would not the church become a powerful force for peace?

First Sunday of Advent

We are not so much moving toward the future, but the future is rushing in a transforming way toward us. Isaiah’s picture of the future depicts God as the one settling all international disputes, making war unnecessary and in fact obsolete. God draws all peoples to Jerusalem as if by a divine magnet, and there they learn God’s ways and God’s paths, and they will not study war any more. Instead, they will transform their swords into stoves and washing machines and their spears into laptops and mopeds, the twenty-first century equivalent of plowshares and pruning hooks. With the violence in our streets and terrorism dominating our headlines, we may find this vision hard to believe, even hard to imagine. But the final verse in the First Lesson expresses a fit liturgical commitment: “People of God, let us at least anticipate this on-rushing future by starting to walk in God’s light.” Breaking the chain of violence in our homes, schools, and congregations can be the dawning light of God’s promised future.

            As Psalm 122 reminds us, peace is not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of everything that is good and God-pleasing. So Paul in the Second Reading from Romans urges us to wake up since God’s eschatological peace (salvation) is measurably closer then when we first came to the faith. If God’s daylight is really coming, as we hope and insist in Advent, we will want to conduct ourselves as if everyone, including God, could see us. People living in darkness, on the other hand, continue to have a lifestyle of excess and division.

            The Gospel from Matthew 24 scared the daylights out of me as a child. People doing normal things like grinding flour would be confronted by Christ’s onrushing future. While we all know that home break-ins can occur, we all are surprised and devastated when they happen. But what if the impasse of violence Isaiah presupposes and that we often accept as inevitable were to meet its match in the transforming power of God’s future? Would we not want to be ready, as God’s witnesses, to start transforming the obscenity of weapons into the utility of useful things we need every day? The timing of God’s coming should not terrify us, but encourage us.

Ralph W. Klein

The psalm for the day is Psalm 122

An Advent Psalter: A Study of the Four Psalms for Advent (122, 72, 146, and 80) in the Revised Common Lectionary Series A

2nd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

bulletThis messianic prophecy promises that a shoot will come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will blossom from its roots. The stump results from Yahweh's act of judgment as woodsman in Isa 10:33-34 although it is unclear whether Israel and its kings have therefore been axed by the Assyrian or Babylonian invasions of the 8th to 6th centuries, or whether the stump results from Yahweh's own issuing of a threat against all that was proud in the land. In any case, Nathan's promise to David is still alive in Isaiah's opinion (2 Samuel 7//1 Chronicles 17), and a new king, or even a new David, is expected to appear soon.
bulletThis king will have a seven-fold gift of the spirit--the spirit of Yahweh, of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and the fear of Yahweh. These gifts of the spirit will lead the king to just judicial decisions (wisdom and understanding, like Solomon), to effective military leadership (counsel and might are synonyms for military strategy), or to exemplary piety (acknowledgment of and reverence for Yahweh). Only Saul and David of Israel's kings had charismatic endowment (1 Sam 10:10-11; 16:13; 2 Sam 23:2). Solomon and his descendants profited by dynastic inertia--Solomon and all his successors became king because their father was king before them.
bulletThis future and ideal king will be a righteous administrator of justice, as was expected of all Israelite kings (Ps 72:12-14) and of all royalty in the Ancient Near East in general. He will not be influenced by bribes or by those of wealth or high station (v 3); he will have a preferential option for the poor (v 4a); and he will announce harsh verdicts on the arrogant wicked (v 4b).
bulletAnother paragraph (11:6-9) announces the paradisal conditions that will prevail during/because of the reign of this new king. Wild and domestic animals will become strange bedfellows and dinner companions--wolves with lambs, panthers with young goats, and cows and lions, with a young child tending this mongrel herd. Cow and bear will eat from the same pasture, and the carnivorous lion will become vegetarian. Human infants will play with horned vipers; yes, nursing babies will put their hand into the lairs of vipers with no harm resulting. The earth will be transformed into the Garden of Eden, that is, conditions of the end time will return to the conditions enjoyed by our first parents. The last verse in this paragraph attributes this transformation from a violent to a non-violent world to the universal acknowledgment of Yahweh's sovereignty, a picture not unlike Isaiah 2 and Micah 4.
bulletThe lectionary, somewhat inappropriately, includes v 10 in this pericope, even though scholarship is strongly inclined to say that Isa 11:10-16 comes from a much later time. In v 10 the "root of Jesse" has become a title for the expected king, who will attract the nations to himself like a beacon and they will voluntarily submit themselves to him. The reference to his resting place being glorious may be an allusion back, with some linguistic license, to his spirit endowment in v 2.
bulletA number of Advent themes suggest themselves as we reflect on the significance of Jesus and the community centered on his name. The messianic age is a time when God can bring life from death and victory from defeat. Followers of Christ, like their master, can be blessed by or endowed with the spirit. The messiah and the messianic community have a social conscience, with a passion for justice. Everything is changed by the advent of this messiah--the environment, even the "orders of creation." The messiah and the messianic community by their behavior attract and win over the curious outsiders. Talk about a challenge to our lifestyle and our efforts at evangelism!

The psalm for the day is Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Christians see the Jewish hope for the messiah fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. The first kings of Israel, Saul and David, were given the gift of the Spirit, but all their successors were kings primarily because their fathers had been king. The coming king, Isaiah tells us in the first reading, will once again be endowed with God’s Spirit. And this messiah will decide with equity for the poor of the world. Our politicians often favor their largest contributors, but the messiah and his followers will not judge by what eyes see or ears here—the fancy clothes or flattering words of those who petition them. The messiah’s reign will usher in peace in both the animal and the human kingdoms.

            Psalm 72 prays for king Solomon and for all who govern. It prays that those who rule will be blessed with righteousness and justice. Government should strive for prosperity for all. The lectionary skips from the heart of the Psalm to its final verses, the blessing at the end of Book II of the Psalter. These verses offer blessings for the one who makes good government and a just society possible, that is, the God of Israel, the messiah, and Jesus Christ.

            Paul urges us to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us. We are to live in harmony with one another, in the church of course, but also in the wider society. Many of the conflicts in society and between nations have to do with having and not having, that is with justice. No justice, no peace. Paul never tires of talking about the Gentiles, about outsiders. They place their hope in the root of Jesse. The church exists primarily for those who are not yet part of it.

            John the Baptist knew his place. He was not worthy to carry the shoes of the one who would come after him—Jesus. John was also confrontational: the coming of Jesus was a call to repentance. No one should think that their standing in the community would cut them some slack. God could raise up replacements for them from the stony ground.  God is the international harvester: he will gather the wheat into the storehouse, but he will burn those who are counted only as chaff.

            What’s the good news here? The messiah is indeed coming to fulfill all of God’s promises and to challenge all expectations about himself. Is this not a call for us to identify the injustice in our communities and our complicity in that injustice? We are in danger of being the Pharisees and Sadducees of the twenty-first century.

Ralph W. Klein

3rd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 35:1-10

bulletWhile many commentators have seen a similarity between this pericope and parts of Second Isaiah, this chapter functions in the book of Isaiah as part of a diptych with Isaiah 34. Chapter 34 announces divine judgment on the nations, and chapter 35 promises the return of the redeemed to Zion. These pericopes "point both backward to the earlier Isaianic prophecies as well as forward to the ensuing chapters." The contrast between Edom, the enemy par excellence, and Judah is worked out in detail. Both chapters announce God's coming in judgment (34:1-4; 35:4); the thorns, nettles, and thistles in Edom contrast with the reeds and rushes in Israel (34:13; 35:7); Edom lacks fresh water and Judah abounds in it (34:9; 35:6-7); Judah will no longer be like Edom, the haunt of jackals and other dangerous animals (34:9, 13; 35:6-7); travel will be impossible in Edom but pilgrims travel on a paved road in Judah (34:10; 35:8).
bulletChapter 35 speaks of God's Advent or coming (35:4; 40:9-10). God will come with vengeance against his enemies, but he will come to save "you," the people of God (v 4). God's coming means the renewal of creation--the wilderness will rejoice and the desert will blossom (v 1). God's good news is always for our bad situations. Hence those who are physically challenged will recover their sight, their hearing, their ability to walk and to speak. The road on which God's people travel is a Holy Way, just as God promises to dwell with those who are repentant and humble in spirit (Isa 57:15, 18). Verse 10 is a quotation from Isa 51:11: "And the ransomed of Yahweh shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." The people experience not just deliverance from Babylon but they share in God's new creation: "For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65:17).
bulletThis passage keeps the renewal of creation and human salvation together as a common goal of God's promises. It encourages the faithful in anticipation of God's coming (vv 3-4; 43:1-4). It admonishes us not to accept the status quo, even on physical disabilities--God is the one who heals all our infirmities (Ps 103:3). The result of God's coming is changed lives--God's people walk on a Holy Way on which not even fools can go astray. Finally, this passage sees the goal of the divine-human encounter to be our sheer joy in God's presence. This is an Advent text for all those whose God is too small or whose view of the regenerate life is crimped and cramped. The gospel renews and empowers the church in its goal to transform society.

Third Sunday of Advent

The gospel in Advent is God’s good news for our bad situations. The reading from Isaiah echoes  themes in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The “bad situations” are weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts. It includes those who cannot hear, walk, or talk. When God comes, all those limitations will be reversed either by divine intervention or by Christians addressing such maladies. People will be freed from whatever diminishes them. The “redeemed” and “ransomed” are people who are released by the Lord’s coming intervention that is rushing toward them. All sorts of violence—lions and ravenous beasts—will disappear, and God’s people will return to Zion with singing.

God brings justice to the world, feeds the hungry sets captives free, and welcomes the discouraged, the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. It makes no difference in message whether the congregation hears Psalm 146 or Mary’s Magnificat. James urges his readers to be patient but only because the Advent of the Lord is near. Prophets who could speak both judgment and hope are remembered by James as those who spoke in the name of the coming Lord.

            What hope do we include in God’s coming in the Advent season? John the Baptist was not quite sure who this messiah/Christ was. “Are you the one who is coming or should we look for someone else?” Jesus answers clearly if indirectly: John, the blind are seeing, the lame are walking, the lepers are getting cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are being raised, and the poor are having good news and good actions addressed to their bad situations. The readers of Matthew saw such actions by Jesus himself in Matthew 8 and 9 and by the disciples of Jesus in Matthew 10. People who had gone to see John saw a prophet, and something more than a prophet. John not only spoke about the future, but he brought it to pass. John was a messenger preparing the way for the coming of Jesus, drawing on Old Testament images (Exod 23:20 and Mal 3:1).

            We often speak of the threefold coming of God in Advent, but this Third Sunday in Advent talks about a God who comes to people in their physical needs and hardships. God makes their deserts bloom and sends them marching back to God, with joy and singing.

Ralph W. Klein

The psalm for the day is Psalm 146:4-9.

4th Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16

bulletThis Old Testament passage has a clear--but a rather complicated--relationship to the Gospel for the day, Matt 1:18-25. This gospel, for the 4th Sunday of Advent, reports the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. All this took place, Matthew reports, to "fulfill" what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "'The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us.'"
bulletMatthew seems to be using a first century Jewish style of exegesis, also known in the Dead Sea Scrolls, that asks not what the text meant in its original context, but what might its eschatological meaning be. The eschatological meaning of Isaiah 7:14 is found in the virgin birth and in the positive meaning of the name Emmanuel, "God [is] with us."
bulletThe meaning of Isa 7:10-16 in its original context is another story. That pericope reports events during the Syro-Ephraimite War, 734-732 BCE, when the Northern Kingdom under Pekah and Aram/Syria under Rezin tried to force Ahaz of Judah into an anti-Assyrian coalition. Accompanied by his son Shear-jashub, Isaiah warned Ahaz not to be afraid of these two invading kings but rather to trust in God's promises: "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all" (Isa 7:9).
bulletIn a second episode, Ahaz received an oracle from Yahweh, directing him to ask for a sign as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. This may refer to a sign announced by an earthquake or in lightning. With seeming piety, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign lest it put Yahweh to a test. Isaiah, however, treats his answer as a refusal to trust God and announces that God will give him a sign anyway. We might translate v 14b as follows: "That young woman over there is pregnant and will bear a son, and she will call him Immanuel."
bulletAs recognized already by the translators of the RSV in 1952, the word המלע should be translated "young woman" and not "virgin." But who is this woman? Some say an anonymous woman, others say it is Ms. Ahaz, and still others think it is Ms. Isaiah. Isaiah already has two other children with names of significance, Shear-jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Immanuel might be a third. If the mother-to-be is Ms. Ahaz, the child might be Hezekiah. But if there is ambiguity about the identity of the mother-to-be, there is also uncertainty about the significance of the name Immanuel. Does it mean "God is with us" and everything will be ok, or does it mean "God is with us" and God will punish us?
bulletThe answer would seem to lie in vv 15-17, but an interpreter is faced with six difficult questions in trying to determine the meaning of this passage, which is shortened by one verse in the lectionary.
bulletAre curds and honey (v 15) the food of prosperity (A-1) or the food of affliction (A-2)?
bulletIs the infinitive in v 15 to be taken as temporal (by the time he…B-1) or as final (so that he…B-2)?
bulletIs the choice between good and evil a moral one (C-1) or does it only refer to the maturity needed to make decisions (C-2)?
bulletIs Ephraim's departure from Judah a reference to the prosperous days before the breakup of the United Monarchy (D-1), or to the times of hardship immediately thereafter (D-2)?
bulletIs the "king of Assyria" in v 17 a gloss (E-1) or is it authentic (E-2)?
bulletIs the connotation of the name Immanuel positive (F-1) or negative (F-2)?
bulletConsider this translation of vv 15-17 in the New English Bible (NEB): By the time that he has learnt to reject evil and choose good, he will be eating curds and honey; before that child has learnt to reject evil and choose good, desolation will come upon the land before whose two kings you cower now. The LORD will bring on you, your people, and your house, a time the like of which has not been since Ephraim broke away from Judah."
bulletIn all six cases, the translators of NEB chose the first option. Now consider another translation of the same verses: "He will eat (the sparse fare of) curds and honey so that he will know how to reject what is wrong and choose what is right. For before the boy learns how to reject what is wrong and choose what is right, the land whose two kings you now dread [Ephraim and Syria] will be abandoned. Yahweh will bring upon you, your people, and your father's house (bad) days, which have not existed since Ephraim left Judah. (That is, he will bring) the king of Assyria.
bulletThe two translations agree that Syria and Ephraim will soon be turned back, and they agree that the choice between good and evil is a moral one (C-1). But in the five other cases the second translation opts for the second option. We might paraphrase the meaning as follows. Little Immanuel will suffer through hard times, with insufficient food, and this privation will lead him to choose what is right over that which is wrong. By the time he reaches the age of discretion (3 years?), Syria and Ephraim and their threatening kings will be defeated. But this will be no reprieve. Rather, Yahweh will bring an invasion by a more serious enemy, which will lead to disastrously hard economic times. Yahweh will send the king of Assyria in judgment.
bulletWhile I favor the second interpretation, I know that there are many competent exegetes who would agree with the NEB. The wider context has similar ambivalence. Lack of faith will result in Assyria's invasion of Immanuel's land in Isa 8:5-8--hence God is with us means God is with us in judgment. But Isa 8:9-10 says that "God is with us" will mean defeat for the "far countries"--hence God is with us to save us.
bulletClearly, it would be hard to sort all this out in a standard twelve minute sermon even if you used Power Point, assigned homework on this text the week before, and spoke with human and angelic voice. But it might be worth exploring in a sermon how a slogan like "God is with us" can be good news or bad, depending on whether God comes in grace or in judgment. It is "the rest of the story" that makes all the difference. The boy born to Mary relived the career of Israel. He came out of Egypt with his parents, delivered a Sermon on the Mount like Moses, kept the law perfectly, offered up his own life on the cross, rose again from the dead, and then promised in the final sentence of the Great Commission: "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." That "I am with you" is clearly grace and not judgment.
bulletAn Isaianic Advent allows for a rich observance of the beginning of Year A in the liturgical calendar. It promises peace that passes all understanding (Isa 2:2-5). It promises a spirit-endowed king who will be an advocate for social justice and whose reign will be marked by a transformation to non-violence in the animal kingdom and the ingathering of the nations (Isa 11:1-10). It announces a new age, in which the environment will be restored and disabilities will be undone, and in which the ransomed of Yahweh will experience God's nearer presence with great joy, as they practice conduct pleasing to God (Isa 35:1-10). And finally, it will remind us of the simplicity and profundity of the gospel, that can be expressed in the simple words "God is with us." And the best news of all is that we can share the reassuring promise, that God is with us in grace and not in judgment (Isa 7:10-16).

The Psalm for the day is Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

The fulfillment of God’s promises are often better than the original promises themselves. The famous Immanuel sign in Isaiah 7 is a good case in point. “God is with us” can be bad news as in Isa 8:8 or good news as in Isa 8:10. In Isaiah 7 the good news lies in the defeat of the invading Syrians and Ephraimites; the bad news lies in God’s bringing the king of Assyria (Isa 7:16-17).          The psalmist prays three times: “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine upon us and we will be saved. The echo of the Aaronic benediction found in Num 6:25 is unmistakable. The promise of salvation anticipates today’s Gospel. The psalmist’s prayer has a built-in commitment on our part: “Give us life so that we can call on your name.” Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, confessed that the gospel of God was promised beforehand through prophets like Isaiah. Jesus was adopted into the line of David by Joseph, but he was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. This fulfillment is better than the original promise since nowhere does the Old Testament name the coming Davidide God.

            And here’s another fulfillment better than the promise itself according to Matthew: he will save his people from their sins. There is also no ambivalence in Matthew’s reference to Immanuel. The child Jesus is from the Holy Spirit, and his name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” The birth of this Jesus-Immanuel is the birth of the Messiah. The Greek says that this is the birth of Christ, but the NRSV and the NIV recognize that most of us don’t know Greek etymologies very well and name him the Messiah. The word Messiah appears sixty-four times in the NRSV’s translation of the New Testament, and only two of these are actually Messiah in the Greek (John 1:41 and 4:25).  

            The child Immanuel fulfilled what was spoken through Isaiah. God stood by his word and gave us all a God-with-us, all the time, and without equivocation. In 1 Cor 1:23-24 Paul notes another instance where the fulfillment outstrips the original promise: We preach a crucified messiah, he said, a stumbling block to Jews who find nothing about the death of the Messiah in their Bible, but to us who were called, both Jews and Greeks, this crucified Messiah is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Ralph W. Klein

The Nativity of our Lord--Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7

bulletThe original setting of this passage (9:1-7) is the birth of a Judean king, which thereby signals that the promise to David is still alive.  The northern kingdom (Zebulun and Naphtali) had been devastated by an invasion of Tiglath-pileser in 734-33, who carved out three Assyrian provinces that are here called "the way of the sea," "the land beyond the Jordan," and "Galilee of the nations."
bulletVerse 2 could be translated in the past tense, as in the NRSV, or the verbs could be taken as "prophetic perfects."  Light connotes victory, change of circumstances, or even theophany.
bulletThe joy of Yahweh's deliverance in v. 3 is compared to similar joy at harvest time or at military victory.  We might compare it to joy at winning the Super Bowl.
bullet Yahweh's victory is compared to that of Gideon, here referred to as "the day of Midian."
bulletThe Hebrew word for boot in v. 5 is a loanword from the Assyrian language.  The uniforms of the occupying forces will be burned up.
bulletWhat gives the prophet such hope?  The birth of a new member of the royal line.
bulletThe name in v. 6 is very problematic.  OT kings were not considered to be God, at least in orthodox circles.  Hence the series of titles, as in Handel's Messiah and the NRSV, does not make sense.  I would interpret the child's name as two sentences:

                    The warrior God is planning a marvel

                    The everlasting Father is planning to give us a Captain of peace or wholeness.

That is, the birth of the child in Jerusalem signals that God's plans for Israel are still operative!  That also might be one application we could draw from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem:  God's plans for God's people are still operative!

bulletVerse 7 spells out what is expected of the reign of the newly-born royal heir:  authority, wholeness, and a passion for justice and righteousness.
bulletIf the name in v. 6 points to God's promise as the ultimate source of our salvation, that interpretation is confirmed by v. 7:  The passion of Yahweh of the heavenly armies will see to it that this happens.

The psalm for the day is Psalm 96

Nativity of our Lord I: Christmas Eve

 Isaiah promises that the long-suffering Israelites will see the light of God’s intervention on their behalf. Their liberation from oppression will be like “the day of Midian,” when Gideon defeated the Midianites with a rag-tag Israelite army. The blood-stained uniforms of the occupying Assyrian army will burn up. These hopes are based on the birth of a new descendant of David in the royal palace at Jerusalem. His name signifies that the warrior God is planning a wonder; the everlasting Father is promising a captain of peace. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will see to it that all these things will happen. It’s not so much about the birth of another Davidic king, but about the God who is behind that birth.

            Since the grace of God has appeared, the book of Titus urges us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, that is, to behave in ways that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, zealous for good deeds. The birth at Bethlehem is a call to a transformed life, to a life that is worthy of our calling.

             The Christmas gospel shimmers with bright lights in the dark sky. The angels began their announcement of the Messiah’s birth with the familiar words, “Do not be afraid.” That is always the opening line in the Old Testament when God or angels appear to human beings. Good news and great joy are offered to all of God’s people. Let us not forget that the first announcement of the birth of Jesus was made to shepherds, who were located at the bottom of the social ladder in first century Palestine. These words of promise are a down payment on the joy offered to all the people, then and now. The announcement of peace—the end of hostilities, the gift of everything that makes for a satisfying life—comes only because of God’s grace or favor.

            The ultimate significance of this Bethlehem baby comes from the life he lived, the death he died, and his resurrection that confirms the promise for all of us mortals. But the birth spoken of by Isaiah or by the angelic choir also reminds us that the promising God is still in charge. Isaiah spoke of the zeal of the Lord. I prefer an alternate translation: the passion of the Lord that will see to it that all these things will happen: deliverance from whatever oppresses us; grace that will empower us to be zealous for good deeds; the fear-breaking joy that is for all.

            The promising God is still in control. That, indeed, is Christmas gospel.

Ralph W. Klein

The Nativity of our Lord--Christmas Dawn

The birth of Jesus is evidence that the Lord once again reigns and that the earth should rejoice (Psalm 97). The First Reading speaks of the coming of salvation, and it is fitting to remember that the Old Testament word “salvation” has a connotation of victory—for God and for us. This passage from Third Isaiah alludes to the fulfillment of Isa 40:10: “His reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”  God’s salvation gives high status to those who believe. They shall be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord.

            The Second Reading describes the effects of Christ’s birth as the appearance of the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior.  God’s salvation is never a result of our merit, but solely due to God’s mercy shown in baptismal renewal and in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

            Luke 2 emphasizes that the lineage of Jesus goes back to the promise made to David in 2 Samuel 7, and Christians can only conclude that the fulfillment of that promise far exceeds the original promise itself. The fulfillment of that promise took place in David’s own home town of Bethlehem. The angelic message to the shepherds moves beyond any sentimental understandings of Christmas. What happened then and what happens now is the birth of a Savior, who is the Messiah (Hebrew) or Christ (Greek), promised in the Old Testament. The shepherds were eyewitnesses of this event and they had to share with others what they had experienced. Those they told were amazed by their simple and enthusiastic report. The shepherds had to live up to their calling and return to their flocks, but they did so glorifying and praising God. The disciples displayed far less faith and understanding when they heard the predictions of the suffering and death of Jesus (Luke 9:45; 24:25-26). Meanwhile Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Mary not only sees herself as the servant of God (Luke 1:48), but she quietly considers the meaning of these wonderful events. Amid the hustle and bustle of this season, we too need to find quiet space and time to reflect on the significance of this birth. Mary is a model for the community. Thoughtful hearing of the word of God is a major theme in Luke’s gospel (8:15, 19-21; 20:39; 11:28).

Ralph W. Klein

The Nativity of our Lord--Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10

bulletIsaiah of the exile exults over the prospect of a messenger running from Babylon to Jerusalem with the message that God reigns!  Three synonyms are worth noting in v. 7:  peace (shalom), good news, and salvation (or victory).  The prophet describes the sentinels on the city walls catching sight of this running messenger in v 8.  They are eye witnesses to Yahweh's return.
bulletThe word "comfort" in v. 9 connotes much more than sympathy; it also includes acts of deliverance (cf. 40:1; 49:13; 51:3).  Yahweh has redeemed Jerusalem.  In the Old Testament, "redeem" means fulfilling the obligations of a family relationship.  Hence Yahweh has been the best mother and father Israel has ever known.
bulletIn baring his arm, v. 10, Yahweh is playing the role of the divine warrior who wins deliverance and victory for his people.  The Hebrew word for victory is translated in the NRSV by salvation.
bulletAt Christmas we believe that God's rule is affirmed and confirmed in the birth of Jesus.  We should cultivate among ourselves the excitement and anticipation of the ancient prophet and the heralds on Jerusalem's walls.  The inclusion of Gentiles is clearly signaled in v. 10:  All the ends of the earth will see the victory of our God!  We also might picture ourselves as the messenger, sharing with others the news of God's reign.

The Psalm for the day is Psalm 98.

The Nativity of our Lord III: Christmas Day

Sing a new song because the Lord has done marvelous things! (Psalm 98).  Excitement and depth characterize all the readings for Christmas day. In the first reading Second Isaiah describes a messenger racing from Babylon to Jerusalem with news about the end of Israel’s exile. This is a message of peace and salvation (victory): “Your God reigns!” The Lord’s “comfort” for his people is true deliverance and is acknowledged everywhere, to the ends of the earth.

            Throughout the Old Testament God had spoken through the prophets, but now we hear in the second reading that God has spoken through his Son. Hebrews confesses the preexistence of Christ and his role as creator and sustainer through his powerful word. Hebrews anticipates Jesus’ saving works, including his purification for sins. This Son is superior to the angels because God said to the Son, “You are my Son; today I have given birth to you” (See Ps 2:7).

            John’s Gospel also confesses the preexistence of Christ as the Word or Logos. There is no real nativity story in John, but instead an affirmation of Christ’s incarnation and his role as co-creator with the Father. What he sired was life, the life that is a light to all people. That light still shines in the darkness of the world, and no darkness can overcome it. The evangelist praises John the Baptist who testified to this light so that all might believe through him. John himself was not the light, but a witness to it.

            Jesus came into the very world he had created, but that world did not know or acknowledge him or accept him. All who did receive Jesus, however, by believing on his name, were given power to become children of God. Our status as children of God did not come about through normal reproductive means, but solely by the will of God.

            The gospel for the day ends with an affirmation of the incarnation. I prefer a literal translation of v. 14: “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” This vocabulary recalls the way God was present in the Old Testament through the tabernacle. It recognizes Christ’s real presence among us, identifying so closely with all our challenges, but the earthly tenure of the Word was time-bound and somehow transcendent. The Old Testament confesses again and again that what God is in Godself is God’s holiness; what we see of God is called his glory. We see God’s glory most clearly in Jesus. The glory Jesus shares with his Father is full of grace and truth.

Ralph W. Klein

1st Sunday after Christmas

Isa 63:7-9

bulletThis pericope is part of a communal lament that runs from 63:7 to 64:12.  63:7-14 speak of Yahweh's acts of redemption in the past.  In 63:15-64:5a, we have an appeal for help, including references to the present pitiful state of those who are praying.  Next, in 64:5b-7 comes a confession of sins, and finally, in 64:8-12, we have a renewed appeal for help, which ties together earlier elements in this lament.
bulletIn v 7, the words "gracious deeds" and "steadfast love" refer to demonstrated acts of loyalty on Yahweh's part.  "His mercy" might be better rendered as "Yahweh's motherly mercies."
bulletVerse 9 indicates that Yahweh does not delegate acts of salvation for Israel.  It was no (second rate) messenger or angel that saved them, but God's own face or presence.  By love and pity Yahweh proved himself to be Israel's best father or mother--the word "redeem" refers to kinship relationships. 
bulletVerse 9 also refers to Yahweh's lifting up and carried Israel in all the days of old.  Isa 46:3 articulates what is meant here: Jacob/Israel has been carried by Yahweh from their birth, carried from the womb.

The psalm for the day is Psalm 148.

First Sunday of Christmas

After the visit of the magi to Bethlehem, Herod’s paranoia got the better of him, and he killed all the children in Bethlehem who were two years old and under. Such madness is not unknown in our day when a mob can kill one hundred fifty Christians in Kenya, and a depressed pilot can crash his plane in the Alps, taking one hundred forty-nine passengers with him in his suicide. The first reading assures us that in some dire emergencies God did not delegate responsibility to an angel, but his own presence saved Israel (Isa 63:9). The Psalmist calls on everyone—angels, heavenly bodies, sea monsters, wild animals, young men and women, and the elderly—to praise God for intervening to help his people who are close to him. According to Hebrews Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest. Because Jesus was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

            The gospel tells the story of the flight into Egypt to escape Herod. In this case it was a God-sent angel who warned Joseph (Matt 2:23; see also 1:20, 24). The obedient Joseph immediately fled to Egypt, but not a word is said about how long the family stayed there or what they did while they were there. Joseph also brought his family back from Egypt in an echo of the Exodus. Hosea had announced that the Israel of the Exodus was God’s child, and Matthew sees in the Exodus of Jesus from Egypt confirmation of his Son-ship. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is seen by Matthew as an echo of the exiling of the Northern Kingdom and of Rachel’s weeping for her children, grandchildren, and later descendants. Attentive readers also note a parallel with Pharaoh’s attempted killing of all male Israelite babies. Told by an angel that he could return to Palestine, Joseph heard that Herod’s successor was not much of an improvement. Warned in a dream, he moved the Holy Family to Nazareth. All these events were understood by Matthew as fulfillment of prophecy. Matthew’s exegesis is much like that of the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls: a) All Scripture is written for the end time; b) We live in the end time; c) All Scripture is directly about us. In the meantime Jesus relives the history of his people, and he is indeed able to help those who are being tested.   

Ralph W. Klein


The Epiphany of our Lord

Isa 60:1-6

bulletThe imperatives in v 1 in Hebrew are in the 2fs and hence are addressed to Jerusalem.  What God is in Godself is "holy"; what we see of God is God's "glory."  This is the connotation of "glory" in vv 1-2.  The contrast in vv 1-3 is between light and darkness, good news and bad, with "light" also standing for God's presence.
bulletNations and kings will be drawn to the light (God) in Jerusalem, as if they were drawn by a magnet.  The mention of kings led to the association with the Magi and the day of Epiphany.  "Light" also seems appropriate for Epiphany.
bulletThese nations will bring back to Jerusalem its dispersed sons and daughters.
bulletThe nations will also bring tribute--goods brought by sea and the general wealth of nations.  This eschatological hope has been seen as one of the reasons Paul took up his famous collection.  Since for him the new day had dawned, he was trying to bring a down payment on this stream of money.
bulletCamel caravans will also bring goods to Jerusalem (V 6).  The Midianites lived in the north Arabian desert, east of the Gulf of Aqebah.  Ephah is considered a son of Midian in Gen 25:4.  It is not clear whether the Midianite camels will carry the wealth of Sheba or whether the Sabeans themselves will bring tribute to Jerusalem. The Sabeans were known as suppliers of gold, frankincense, and spices.  This verse also leads to an association with the magi, or, otherwise viewed, the story of the Magi in Matthew has been shaped by this eschatological hope.


The psalm for the day is Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14.

Epiphany of our Lord

The mission to the nations with which the gospel of Matthew ends (28:19) is anticipated in the story of the wise men. Their story is built on Old Testament expectations that in the last days nations and kings would come to the God of Israel’s light. According to the first reading, the wealth of the nations (gold and frankincense) and the abundance of the sea would come to Jerusalem, transported by camels. Psalm 72 prays that all the kings will bow down to the Davidic heir because he delivers the poor who cry out in their distress. In the second reading Paul confesses himself as a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of the gentiles. The gentiles are fellow heirs with the Jews, members of the same body.

            Matthew now finally locates the birth of Jesus in space and in time: in Bethlehem and during the reign of Herod (37-4 B. C.). The wise men naively asked Herod where the new king of the Jews resided, and the Scripture experts consulted by the frightened king said it would be in Bethlehem. Matthew modifies the quotation about Bethlehem found in Micah 5:2, by saying that this town was by no means least among the rulers of Judah. Micah had said that Bethlehem was one of the little clans of Judah. For Micah the new king was not just another Davidic monarch born in Jerusalem: he comes rather from David’s little home town. Matthew also added a citation from 2 Sam 5:2 saying that the coming ruler would shepherd God’s people Israel. Herod asked the wise men when they had first seen the star so that he would understand the timeframe of the birth of this potential rival. The “homage” he promised to pay led to the slaughter of the innocents.

            The story of the wise man has been elaborated and mangled in later tradition. The number three is a deduction drawn from their three gifts, and their role as kings comes from Psalm 72. They had not seen the star in the east, but only at its rising. Despite nativity sets, they did not visit Jesus at the manger. The less said about their names Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior the better.

            For Matthew, Jesus is God’s revelation to the whole world, and the wise men are the first fruits of that harvest. To confess that Jesus is the Christ is to confess that the inclusive vision of Old Testament prophecy has already invaded the present. The wise man slunk off to their unknown home country by an unknown route, but their story is central to an understanding of the inclusive mission imperative of the church. It is also the beginning of the “shining out” of the season of Epiphany.

Ralph W. Klein           


The Baptism of our Lord; 1st Sunday after the Epiphany

Isa 42:1-9

bulletThis is the first of the four servant poems from Second Isaiah (see also Isa 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12).  Some scholars limit this poem to vv 1-4.  The servant is thought to be Israel or the prophet as a representative Israelite.  Early Christians identified the servant with Jesus.
bullet Yahweh presents the servant as his chosen agent in v 1.  Gifted with the spirit, the servant will execute the divine plan for the world = bring forth justice to the nations.  The servant will do this apparently by maintaining trust in Yahweh despite the suffering the servant is experiencing.
bulletIn vv 2-3 the servant will not cry out like a warrior nor will the servant grow impatient with or harm those who are weak and frail.
bulletVerse 4 talks of the servant's perseverance.  The coastlands (the nations) await his Torah or teaching.
bulletIn v 5 Yahweh is identified and certified as the creator of the world and the one who empowers people.  On this basis (v 6) Yahweh calls and protects the servant and offers the servant as a witness to the nations.  This witness has social consequences:  opening blind eyes and liberating prisoners (v 7)
bulletVerse 8 is an affirmation of monotheism and a denunciation of idols.  This is a polemic against the other deities being presented to Israel during the Babylonian exile.
bulletIn v 9 Yahweh announces that the former things have already happened and new things are now being promised.  Are the former things earlier promises (like the promise of Cyrus)?  Or are the former things the words of First Isaiah?  Many scholars now believe that Second Isaiah never existed as an independent document, but only as a supplement to First Isaiah.

The psalm for the day is Psalm 29

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany

Isa 49:1-7

bulletThis is the second of the Servant poems in Second Isaiah, in which the servant reports his divine call.  Like Samson, Samuel, and Jeremiah, the servant was called pre-natally.
bulletVerse 2 presents the servant, or specifically the message (word) of the servant, as God's secret weapon. 
bulletVerse 3 makes the identification of the servant with Israel explicit. 
bulletIn v 4 the servant expresses his frustration--he has labored in vain, his word has not bee heard.  Despite his setbacks, however, he lodges his trust in Yahweh.  This contradicts or corrects Israel's earlier complaint:  "My right is disregarded by my God."  (40:27)
bulletThe fact that the servant has a message to Israel in vv 5-6 has long perplexed scholars.  How can the servant who is Israel have a mission to Israel?  One might ask:  Does not the church also have a mission to the church? 
bulletThe servant's complaint about his mission to Israel is trumped by God giving him an even bigger mission.  If he has had difficulty getting Israel to listen, well then Yahweh will make him a light to the nations!
bulletThe nations that had despised Israel during its exile will come to recognize and honor her because of her God--the Holy One of Israel who has chosen her.
bulletSecond Isaiah is full of beautiful pictures of God's mercy and love.  A "Redeemer" is one who pays off her sister's debt, marries his brother's widow, or avenges the member of the family who has been killed.  To designate Yahweh as redeemer makes God the best brother or sister we ever had. 
bullet"Holy" in Hebrew means separate, transcendent, or something similar.  Buy Yahweh is called--paradoxically--the Separate One who belongs to Israel.  That note of special concern for Israel is also sounded at the end of v 7.


The psalm for the day is Psalm 40:1-12


3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

Isa 9:1-4

bulletThis selection from Isaiah finds its eschatological fulfillment in the Galilean ministry of Jesus (Matt 4:15-16).  The latter verses are part of the gospel reading for the day that extends from 4:12-23 (the call of Peter and Andrew and the proclamation of the good news and the curing of illnesses).  Isa 9:6 is the famous messianic passage:  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us....The verse numbers in Hebrew are one less = Isa 8:23-9:3.
bulletI follow a line of interpretation inaugurated by Albrecht Alt that understands 9:1 as referring to the invasion of the Northern Kingdom by Tiglath-pileser III in 733-32 and his creation of three Assyrian provinces:  Galilee (Galilee of the nations; Zebulun; Naphtali), Dor (the way of the sea), and Gilead (the land beyond the Jordan).
bullet"Light" in v 2 refers to a manifestation of God's power.  Should the verbs be translated as past tenses (the people have seen a great light), or are they prophetic perfects (will see a great light)?  In any case God's appearance brings a total change in he people's condition.
bulletTwo comparisons are used to demonstrate the people's joy:  harvest celebration and division of spoils in war.  We would probably talk about exuberance like the victors in the Super Bowl.
bulletVerse 4 spells out the present oppression concretely.  The first three lines speak of military cruelty:  the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
bulletAt the end of v 4, God's recent or impending victory is compared to victories in the days of Gideon when God broke the Midianites.
bulletNote that vv 4, 5, and 6 begin with the word For.    The celebration is predicated on the reversal of oppression (v 4), the burning of the uniforms of the Assyrian soldiers (v 5), and the birth of a new king in Jerusalem (v 6), which is the sign that God's promise is still alive.
bulletChristians see the birth of Jesus as likewise confirming God's promise with the expectation of transformation in human society and individual lives.

The psalm for the day is Ps 27:1, 5-13.


4th Sunday after the Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8

bulletThis pericope begins as a lawsuit conducted by the prophet against the people.  The mountains and hills are witnesses to God's prior actions on behalf of the people.  The words "case" in v 1 and "controversy" in v 2 might better be translated "lawsuit."
bulletVerses 3-5 demonstrate the benefactions of Yahweh and the ingratitude of the people.  "Answer me" in v 3 is an invitation for the people to offer their defense in this lawsuit.
bulletVerse 4 recounts the Exodus.  Verse 5 tells of the scheme of Balak to hire Balaam to curse Israel although Balaam's "answer" was one of blessing on Israel.
bulletThe trip from Shittim to Gilgal (v 5b) is the first part of the conquest of Palestine--hence it refers to the gift of the land.
bulletIn view of the indictment in vv 1-5, vv 6-7 are a series of rhetorical questions that ask how the person/nation can make up for its sins.  With lavish sacrifices?  With abundant offerings of olive oil?  With the sacrifice of one's own child?
bulletRather than seeking superficial cultic activity, Yahweh wants true repentance.  Doing justice is the fruit of "loving kindness," which might better be rendered as loving loyalty to Yahweh.  "Walking humbly" may not refer to self-abasement, but rather it refers to walking shrewdly or appropriately in view of Yahweh's many benefactions.
bulletThe psalm for the day is an entrance liturgy performed when one entered the temple.  It too calls for obedience and social justice.

The psalm for the day is Psalm 15

The Transfiguration of our Lord; Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Exod 24:12-18

bulletThis passage describes God's giving Moses the tablets of stone on which were written the ten commandments (Exod 20:1-17).    Joshua, who will succeed Moses as leader of Israel, accompanies Moses on this journey up Mount Sinai.  Hur and Aaron fulfill the judicial duties of Moses in his absence (cf. Exod 18:26).  Verses 12-15a are assigned to the J source.
bulletWith v 15b the priestly writer takes up his pen.  Note the reference to the glory of Yahweh and the appearance of Yahweh on the seventh day.  In the Old Testament, what God is in himself is called "holy"; what we see of God is called "glory."  Fire and cloud are also part of this theophany. 
bulletTwo items make this an appropriate text for Transfiguration.  First, there are the various descriptions of theophany--glory, cloud, fire.  Secondly, it is Moses who experiences this theophany, and he and Elijah--representing the law and the prophets--appear at the transfiguration of Jesus.  Moses and Elijah had unusual ways of departing this life.  Elijah went up to heaven in a chariot of fire; Moses died and was buried in a secret place by God (Deut 34:6).  By New Testament times they were both thought to be in heaven.

The psalm for the day is Psalm 2 or Psalm 99.