Joy to the World –
Spiritual Blessings for All
As we meander toward the end of the Christmas season, which according to the commercial calendar began more than a month ago, if not sooner. The carols have all been sung, the presents opened, unacceptable presents have been returned, the trees and decorations have started to come down, and we have begun to focus on the coming new year, when all things become new. The liturgical calendar, however, won’t let us move on quite yet. Yes, according to the liturgical calendar we’re still in the season of Christmas. The texts for this second Sunday of Christmas (unless you decided to skip this day and move to Epiphany a few days early) speak in one way or another of the spiritual blessings that God has chosen to bestow upon God’s people, and the Ephesian letter and the Gospel of John root these blessings quite directly in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, as the prophet Jeremiah says to us – sing for joy and make your praises heard.
The Gospel lesson for the first Sunday after Christmas for this year comes from Matthew 2:13-23, a passage that speaks of the slaughter of the innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into exile in Egypt, from which they later return, bypassing Bethlehem and heading to Nazareth in Galilee. This theme of returning from exile appears in the Jeremiah passage, where the prophet invites the remnant people of Israel to sing for joy and make their praises heard, as they call out to God, asking that God would save this remnant. In answer, the prophet says, the Lord will bring the people home from the land to the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Everyone, the blind, the lame, the expectant mothers and those who are in labor at this very moment, yes a great throng of people will return to the land. And the message is this – God will be with them – continuing the message that we heard from Isaiah 7 in a previous Sunday – and God will lead them along streams of water (so they don’t thirst) and God will make their path level so they don’t stumble. Again, don’t you hear in this word from the prophet the promises that were heard during the Advent season, as we heard the story of the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. Now, it is the Lord who will prepare the way for God’s people to return home, and then will serve as the shepherd for this people, protecting and delivering them from the hand of the ones who are stronger than they. And again, in response, the people will shout for joy from the highest points and rejoice in the bounty of God. Yes, they will embrace the blessings of grain, new wine, olive oil, and flocks and herds full of young animals. Their land will be one of blessing, a well-watered garden. In that moment there will be no sorrow and the young and the old will dance with gladness. In that day of blessing, God will “turn their mourning into gladness.” Comfort and joy will replace their sorrow and the people will be satisfied. The blessings spoken of here are more material than spiritual, but the question of the day, as we await the coming of the magi bringing gifts, do we not need the material/physical blessings as well as the “spiritual ones?”
As we stand here with the people of God, rejoicing in God’s outpouring of blessings, we turn to the Ephesian letter, and standing right at the heart of this passage is a strongly worded embrace of predestination – or so it seems. In him, we’re told, God has chosen those whom God has predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in accordance with God’s plan. This is an extremely dense theological passage that requires much reflection, in large part because it speaks so strongly about election and predestination. For this meditation, I’d like to leave that discussion to one side (see my Ephesian Bible study, pp. 14-15, for a fuller discussion of this issue), and focus more on the opening line of verse 3, which calls on the reader to praise God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, because God has “blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” The word about being destined – I prefer that form than the use of the word “predestined” – is rooted in this promise that God has chosen us for adoption to sonship in Christ. That is, we are heirs with Christ, of the full blessings of God, which comes to us as a result of God’s grace that includes forgiveness of sins. One of the key points in the Ephesian letter is that in Christ the mystery of God has been revealed, that God had chosen before the world began to bring Jew and Gentile into fellowship, with both peoples being made heirs of God in Christ, so that all might receive the blessings of God. It is, therefore, not a message of exclusion, as if God had chosen to bless some and not bless others, but that God had in mind an expansive sense of love and grace, and that sense is revealed in Christ, and it is sealed, so says the author of this letter, through the Holy Spirit, with which we have been sealed – a deposit guaranteeing that we will receive (redeem) our inheritance as God’s possession, to the praise and glory of God.
When we turn from the Ephesian letter to the prologue of John we move from one theologically dense work to another, though John 1 has a poetic sense to it. This lectionary passage places the first nine verses in parentheses and begins in earnest with verse ten, a passage that invites us to consider the one through whom the world came into existence. Interestingly, while the NIV uses the masculine pronoun in verse 10, the Common English Bible continues the train of thought from verse 9, and speaks of the world coming into existence “through the light.” But, as is often true in life, the world didn’t recognize the light when it came into the world. But, our theme that we’re following here has to do with blessings, spiritual blessings that come to us as a result of our engagement with the living God.
It would seem that the first and foremost blessing is the right to be born children of God, something that happens not because of blood or human desire, but from the decision of God. Consider the Ephesian letter which speaks of God’s election, God’s choice, in adopting us as God’s heirs/children. It would appear that the same theme is present in this text, though here the gift of God comes to us through the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. Even though we may not have recognized the light at first, for those who are willing, they will see the glory of this one who became flesh, whose glory is that of the father’s only sun, one who is full of grace and truth. This grace comes into the world through the Word (Light) made flesh, and it is this one we remember here in this moment that reveals to us the true nature of God.
As we move from Christmas into Epiphany, a move that continues the theme that began with Christmas, the sense that God has made God’s self known in our world. It is appropriate that this liturgical movement comes at the same time as the secular calendar moves into a new year. As we contemplate this new year, we can do so knowing that the one who is our shepherd goes with us, bringing the light of God into our lives, so that we might experience every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm. What better gift could one one receive at Christmas? And the proper response to this gift is to give thanks and praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!