The First Sunday after Christmas (Year A), 29 December 2019

December 29, 2019 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 63:7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2:10-18 Matthew 2:13-23

Today’s readings describe an incarnational mysticism in which God directly encounters us in dreams and visions, political events, intimate companionship, and the voices of the non-human world. The readings invite us to be part of a world of revelation and praise in which God is deeply embedded in each moment of experience and every encounter. The whole world, as the angels sung to Isaiah, is full of God’s glory. (Isaiah 6:1-8) The whole world, including ourselves, reveals divine wisdom when the doors of perception are cleansed and we align ourselves with God’s vision for the present moment and the long haul. God comes to us, as Alfred North Whitehead asserts, through the “initial aim,” that gives rise to each moment of experience, seeking the best possibilities for ourselves and the world around us. God also comes to us through God’s presence in other persons, events, and the non-human world.

In the hardscrabble world of politics, God directly inserts the divine presence to uplift and save the nation, Isaiah proclaims. Present intimately and not needing intermediaries, God personally guides the nation toward a new day of prosperity and liberation. After what appeared to be divine absence, God is now fully present as the energy of national restoration.

Psalm 148 invites us to be part of a world of global praise. Two thousand years before Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun” (or “Canticle of the Creatures”), the Psalmist portrays a world chockful of divinity. God is praised by sun, moon, and stars, weather patterns, creatures of all kinds, and humans of all stations. The world is a theater of God’s glory, a mouthpiece for divine exaltation and praise. This is not praise given to a distant majestic God, untouched by the world. This global praise is God’s voice speaking within all things, giving life, breath, and joy. This is the world as it is, and as it could be if we open our senses in gratitude and awareness. In this enchanted world, all creation, everything that breathes, praises God. (Psalm 150:6)

With praise comes value, spirituality, and ethics. Whatever can praise, whether human or non-human, is worthy of respect and reverence. God is in this place and in this life, to paraphrase Jacob, and now we know it, and must affirm the value of the non-human world apart from human ends. The non-human world as well as the fetal world deserves ethical consideration in the intricate interdependence of life.

Psalm 148 inspires a spirituality of enchantment or, perhaps, re-enchantment. Where once the world was brute matter, now the earth is the holy of holies, inspiring mystical intimacy. There are “thin places,” places where heaven and earth, and divinity and creation, meet everywhere. Inspiring praise, we honor the non-human world with values and ethical concern. A Christmas creation ethic surely brings joy to the world!

The Epistle of Hebrews describes an embedded incarnation. God does not come through angels, untouched by flesh and blood, but within the embodied, political, world of humankind. Divinity rises from within human cells and souls. Salvation comes from the inside, from intimacy, companionship, and suffering. Similar in spirit to the kenotic passage from Philippians 2:5-11, God’s incarnation occurs in the world of embodied joy, sorrow, and suffering. God is surely the fellow sufferer who understands, the intimate companion who shares our joy and celebration, and who works within the flesh and blood structures of our world to bring healing to persons and institutions.

Matthew’s gospel describes God’s paranormal proclamations. Once again, Joseph like his ancient namesake is confronted by divinity wrapped in a dream. Joseph’s dreams are about survival and protection, as was his first dream involving Mary’s pregnancy. God’s ubiquitous revelation must embrace dark as well as light, depths as well as heights, dreams as well as praises, mysticism as well as rationality. Deep within us, beneath consciousness, God’s vision comes to Joseph in sighs too deep for words, beckoning him – as God later beckoned the magi – to change course to protect the Holy Child.

In Matthew’s gospel, mysticism meets political realities. Joseph’s dream alerts him to the diabolical machinations of Herod, whose lust for power leads to political violence. The Holy Family flee for their lives and survive as the result of the hospitality of strangers in Egypt. No doubt, some espoused Egypt-first policies that would have led to expulsion of Joseph and his family, but loving hearts prevailed. They found a home, a place of safety, where Jesus spent his first years. The Holy Family’s story is that of today’s pilgrims from the South, as well as a revealing of the diabolical machinations of USA leaders whose fear and lust for power separates toddlers from their parents and turns a deaf ear to the cries of parents. The Herods of our time, lusting for power and fearing otherness, are just as dangerous as the first century Herod. They close their senses to the vulnerable and with great intention close their senses to God.

The First Sunday after Christmas is surely no Hallmark Christmas movie! If your congregation has, as our church, an intergenerational service in the “low Sunday” following Christmas, preachers would do well to discern how to share these stories, including or omitting certain stories, to edify persons of all ages. Perhaps, we need to hear Psalm 148 and open our eyes to the ubiquity of revelation and the enchanted reality that surrounds and fills our lives. Perhaps, knowing, with the author of Hebrews, that God has “skin” and feels our joy and pain will deepen our faith. Our children often know more than we imagine about life’s harshness and the violence of institutions and political leaders: age-appropriate retellings of Joseph’s dream and Herod’s retelling may awaken every age to God’s care for pilgrims and immigrants of all ages.

What is most important for preacher and congregation alike is that God is with us, encountering us directly through all our senses, the conscious and unconscious, and the praise of the non-human world. In awakening to God’s intimate presence, we find ourselves in a world of praise, where the heavens declare God’s glory and our hearts sing God’s praise.

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author.  A Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of over fifty books including Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: a Progressive Vision; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims.  He can be reached at