Celebrating God’s Faithfulness - Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1A (Isaiah)

God's Hand - Carl Milles

Isaiah 63:7-9 Common English Bible (CEB)

I will recount the Lord’s faithful acts;
    I will sing the Lord’s praises,
    because of all the Lord did for us,
    for God’s great favor toward the house of Israel.
    God treated them compassionately
    and with deep affection.
God said, “Truly, they are my people,
    children who won’t do what is wrong.”
    God became their savior.
During all their distress, God also was distressed,
    so a messenger who served him saved them.
In love and mercy God redeemed them,
    lifting and carrying them throughout earlier times.


                        I realize the consumer world has moved on from Christmas. The sales are over and the Valentine’s Day merchandise has already replaced Christmas. Since Christmas seems to begin earlier every year, by the time we get to Christmas Day we may have moved on as well. It’s sort of anti-climactic, which may be why people want to dispense with Advent and start singing Christmas carols as soon as Thanksgiving is over (normally the first Sunday of Advent). Once Christmas Eve has come, all the candles on the wreath have been lit, the worship committee will want to get busy undecorating the church (especially if the committee members have the week after Christmas Day off). Liturgically, however, Christmas isn’t over. Indeed, the magi have yet to come, in spite of our nativity displays (that would be Epiphany). Between Christmas Day and Epiphany comes the First Sunday after Christmas.  

                If you turn to the Gospel reading for the day, which comes from Matthew 2, you will read of the flight to Egypt, the massacre of the innocents, and the Holy Family’s return to Nazareth after Herod’s demise. The move to Nazareth is meant to fulfill Scripture that speaks of one called the Nazorean (not that the nazarite vow had anything to do with the village of Nazareth, but that’s another story). The point of connection is that an angel warns the Holy Family to flee from Herod, while in Isaiah it is God’s presence that saves Israel from their enemies (Matt. 2:13-23). 

                The Christmas season serves to remind us that God has come into our midst to redeem us. In Christ, God’s compassion is revealed. It’s important that as we consider the start of Jesus’ life, that it’s the entirety of his life, not just one point, that reveals the faithful presence of God. That is the theme of this brief excerpt from a longer passage. It’s likely that Isaiah 63:7 begins a new song. In the preceding six verses God speaks of judgment on the nations. Then, in verse 7 the speaker takes not of God’s gracious deeds. This is followed in verse 10 with another word of judgment, this time on the people of Israel (the ones whom God showed compassion in the prior verses). In seminary, we’re taught to take texts in context, but as Barbara Brown Taylor points out, in this case we might want to forget that word of instruction, that is if preachers are planning on offering a word of comfort, that’s because “these three verses are airlifted out of a chapter thick with divine wrath and human despair” [Feasting on the Word, 147]. But then, the word of God comes to us in a world often filled with despair. Indeed, unless one chooses to omit the slaughter of the innocents from the Gospel reading, this seems to be a theme of the day. As Barbara Brown Taylor notes regarding the readings for the First Sunday after Christmas, “there may be no better day to confront the truth that neither God’s presence nor Christ’s birth rids the world of horror and death. Even the most sheltered parishioner may have noticed a sharp dip in holiday cheerfulness over the past week, as both neighbors and news media buckle their seat belts for the new year.” Indeed, as concludes: Any gospel that seeks to avoid the realities of sea monsters, murderous political leaders, dead children, waling mothers—and yes, even the chilling image of an angry God—is not a gospel big enough for human life” [Feasting on the Word, p. 149].

With that in mind we come to this reading carved out of words of judgment, a reading that emphasizes God’s faithfulness and compassion. Lest we get ahead of ourselves and imagine God to be nothing more than our compliant pal, a baby sitter who lets us “get away with murder,” we might want to heed verse 10, which declares: “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit; therefore, he became their enemy; he himself fought against them.” So, as we read in Ephesians: “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).

Having been reminded to stay true to the ways of God, so as not to grieve God’s Spirit, we can hear words of grace and compassion. Thus, I appreciate the way verse 9 begins (as rendered in the Common English Bible): “During all their distress, God also was distressed.” As we attend to this word, we may be feeling distressed. The new year may seem foreboding, even if we’re desirous of bidding goodbye to the year prior. For the year that I write this reflection, the First Sunday after Christmas falls on New Year’s Day, which in its own way signals a new beginning. But the news of the new year is troubling. There’s a spirit of fear and anger in our midst. It has political expression, but there is more to it than simply the way that the recent electoral situation played out. Thus, there is need for a bit spiritual warfare, as opposed to physical violence (and that includes the verbal kind). While this word from Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch may not seem to fit with the message of Isaiah 63, perhaps it does. He writes of the call to love one’s enemies:

“If our political struggle for justice is to resist the temptations toward dehumanization and hatred, it must be accompanied by this deeper spiritual struggle to love our enemies. Love is what prevents the political struggle from dehumanizing and demonizing flesh and blood” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 61].
With this reminder of our journey and God’s presence with us as we take the journey, we can begin to comprehend the nature of God’s compassion. With Christmas as the context for the reflection, we can begin to comprehend the incarnation. In Jesus, we see revealed the true nature of God’s love, as it’s expressed to all, including the perceived enemies—including Herod, whom Matthew suggests sought to destroy.

As the Word incarnate, Jesus experiences all of human life—its highs and its lows. As we go into the new year, which will provide both highs and lows, we go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the knowledge that God is with us, experiencing with us all our realities.For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we would gladly trust God's Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord

[F.W. Faber, “A Wideness in God’s Mercy”]

Let the adventure with God begin!

Picture Attribution: Milles, Carl, 1875-1955. God's Hand, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55402 [retrieved December 25, 2016]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guds_hand_2007.jpg?uselang=enhands%20painting.


John said…
So, I looked up your cite to Epgphesians, and saw that in the Message Eugene Peterson seems to zero in on your reflection:

Ephesians 4:29b-31 Say only what helps, each word a gift. Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted. Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.

"Don't break God's heart." Says more to me then 'don't grieve the Holy Spirit.'

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