The First Sunday after Christmas, 30 December 2018

December 30, 2018 | by Robert Gnuse

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Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 147 Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 John 1:1-18

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

This grand hymn of praise comes to us from a nameless prophet whom scholars label Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). Whether Third Isaiah was one prophet or three separate prophets is debated by commentators, and the dates for that prophet or prophets are located variously from 525 BCE to 300 BCE. Regardless of that scholarly debate, the hymn of praise is grand affirmation of what God will do for Jerusalem. Jerusalem suffered destruction and her people experienced exile in Babylon, the subsequently rebuilt city of Jerusalem appears pitiful, but now the Lord will bring “vindication” for the city and the people, and nations will see that “vindication” and “glory.” Jerusalem and the people will become a “crown of beauty” and a “royal diadem” in the “hand of the Lord.” These are beautiful words of hope envisioning a future age of glory, because regardless of when the prophet spoke these words, the city was nothing more than a small provincial town languishing under foreign rule, most likely Persian (539-330 BCE) when these oracles were proclaimed. These were powerful words meant to give hope to a sad little city and a poor people.

To our modern age it speaks hope in similar fashion. It speaks to the many poor people in our world and declares, “Do not fear, somehow God is with you. Somehow God will work things out for your benefit.” Of course, it says to us who are blessed in our country that perhaps it is the will of God to work through us to bring hope to those poor and suffering people in our world.

On the Sunday after Christmas we reflect upon the birth of the Christ child. We reflect upon God who has become intimately involved in the process of human life and the world. This God has become part of our world, entering as a baby. What an inauspicious beginning, but what a powerful statement will ultimately be made with the cross and the empty tomb! How much more clearly can God say, “I am with you. I will work with you to bring forth good things.”

The joy of the prophet is expressed with imagery of happy times in the life of a human being, for he speaks of being robed as a bridegroom or a  bride would be. So many people in our world live in poverty and experience hunger, fear, and sorrow. Yet even the poorest people have moments of joy in their lives, such as the celebration of a wedding or the birth of a new child. Our prophet appeals to those images for his audience back in that age to say that God will bring good things, and the message speaks yet again to us today. Christmas is a celebration of hope that reminds us that God was in our midst once and is still in our midst today. To all who are poor and suffering, this text and the message of this season says that somehow God will be with them to bring hope and joy. To those of us who experience pain and sorrow, it says that God will be present in our lives to bring forth meaning and purpose in life.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

“God sent his Son, born of a woman.” We say those words so often, that we no longer hear the powerful words. God was born as a baby and lived in our midst. You cannot speak more dramatically of a God involved in the process of the created order than to utter those words.

Ancient Christians in the fourth century CE began to proclaim that Mary was “theotokos,” the bearer of God, in order to speak dramatically of God’s incarnation into the world as a baby. We have become too familiar with the expression, “Mother of God,” especially Roman Catholics, who speak lovingly of Mary with this term. We need to focus more on the radical meaning of God’s presence in our human existence as a little baby. We should call Mary “the divine diaper changer” to capture once more that radical image of God present in our midst as a small baby in the arms of a poor, helpless mother. That would shock all and offend some, but it would communicate clearly that God was in our midst.

Because we are redeemed by Christ’s salvific activity, we are adopted as children of God, says the text. Paul declares that as a result of this divine action we can call God “Father.” The term he uses is Abba, a word that might be either Hebrew or Greek. It is the word that critical scholars assume Jesus used when he taught people to pray the Lord’s Prayer. But there is discussion as to whether this word, Abba, is a Hebrew word or an Aramaic word (the common street language of Jews in the days of Jesus). If it is Aramaic, it means “father.” If it is Hebrew, it is the more familiar and familial way of speaking, it means “daddy.” I would like to suppose that if Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them a prayer in Hebrew, since it was the custom of Jews to speak Aramaic on the streets, but to speak Hebrew in worship and especially in prayer to God. “Abba” means “daddy.” How powerful is this understanding, that we are enabled to call the divine being that created the universe by the name of “daddy.” Our God has drawn near to us, our God has become one with us, our God has become “daddy.”

John 1:1-18

This powerful hymn extols the divinity of Jesus more than any other text in the gospels. It proclaims that Jesus was divine from all eternity. Matthew and Luke, with their infancy narratives seem to imply that Jesus was divine from birth, and Mark, which begins with the baptism of Jesus, could be understood to say that Jesus became divine at his baptism (at least that’s how Arius used the text in the fourth century CE). Thus, critical scholars will declare that John has the highest Christology of all the gospels. Yet at the same time this gospel will speak of Jesus’ humanity, telling us that at hearing of the death of Lazarus, “Jesus wept,” that in his post-resurrection body he had physical wounds and ate food. We see a strong affirmation of both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, which reminds us of our own Christology.

The hymn in John 1 speaks to a process theologian when it declares that the pre-existent Jesus participated in the creation of the world and was there in all eternity, yet came down and dwelt among us, taking on human form. God became part of the process and entered into human existence. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” He lived among us so completely that people beheld God in the person of Jesus. Some Gnostic Christians in John’s day were uncomfortable with the idea that God would actually become part of this physical world, for this physical was evil and corrupt. They said God would not become part of it, so that Jesus only appeared to be human, he was not really human. The Gospel of John thunderously responds that God did become human, just like us. God became part of our human world.

As a process theologian I believe this is the most important affirmation of process theology, that God became totally involved in the world in the person of Jesus. God was a baby, God was a teenager (pity Mary on that score), God suffered, and God died. What that says to me is that God still continues to be part of the process. God is involved in my everyday world, in everyday life, yes, even my own personal life. God is not watching me from above, God is in me.

In this Christmas season, with all its bright lights, presents, parties, and joyous fun, it is a powerful message to remember that God is with us in all that we do. God became part of the world, and in this season we particularly celebrate that God became a baby, just as we all once were babies. That same God is part of me now, in my life, leading me to make good decisions, leading me to make good decisions even after I have made bad decisions, leading me to make my life meaningful, leading me to have purpose in life. God has made that message clear by once being a baby.

In our world today, what is more precious than a baby, what is more helpless than a baby, what speaks of future hope more than a baby? How tragic that in our world of war, disease, refugees, water shortages, food shortages, and starvation among so many people of the world, that babies are the ones who suffer the most. Babies die quickly in  horrid circumstances found in our world. I believe that God was incarnate in more than that one baby, Jesus. I believe that God is incarnate in all babies, especially those who suffer and die in our world today. I believe that God is incarnate in those babies calling us to action. Perhaps in this Christmas season we might celebrate not only the baby born in Bethlehem, but the babies born everywhere today, for our God of process is in all of them.

Psalm 147

This psalm of praise weaves together several noteworthy elements. It speaks to a post-exilic Jewish audience when it lauds God for the restoration of Jerusalem and the people by “lifting up the lowly.” It then moves to a splendid hymn of nature, with references to flocks, herds, horses, and baby ravens. It concludes with dramatic images of snow, hail, hoarfrost, wind, and water. The poem reminds us of the divine speeches in the book of Job wherein God speaks of the grand images in the created order (Job 38-41). It sees God present in all the processes of the world, both social and natural. It views God as actively involved and providing benefits for both people and animals. Even baby ravens get food. But ultimately it ends with praise to God for providing the law and moral guidance to people.

As a process theologian this hymn speaks to me of the manifold ways in which God is active in the process of life. It portrays God not as a distant deity with magnificent power to accomplish great things from afar. Rather, the psalm says that God is personally involved with all these functions of life, especially with those images wherein God provides food for the animals. This speaks of God as a truly active presence in our world, a God of the process.

Robert Gnuse (Ph.D., M.A., 1978-80, Vanderbilt; M.Div., S.T.M., 1974-75, Concordia Seminary in Exile) teaches Old Testament at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he is the James C. Carter, S.J./Chase Bank Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. He also serves as part-time pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  in Marrero, LA (since 1989).