Christmas C, Year A
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
[For to which of the angels did God ever say,
"You are my Son;
today I have begotten you"?
"I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son"?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
"Let all God's angels worship him."
Of the angels he says,
"He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire."
But of the Son he says,
"Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions."
"In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up,
and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end."]
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
In the beginning. In the beginning.
That which we have come to know of God in the birth of the one we call Jesus, that which is revealed in him, was from the beginning. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him. Life. The light of all people. Light that will not be overcome by our darkness.
John came to testify to the light, but could not be the light because he was, as we are, born of blood, and the will of the flesh, of human will. He was no less entangled in the victimage mechanism than we are. But he testified to the light.
But the Word, the Word who speaks our freedom, who names our forgiveness, who re-creates us by the sound of his voice, has dwelt among us, and to those of us who believe is given the power to become. Not to be, but to become. We will not, in this lifetime, escape fully the snares of blood, or the will of the flesh, but we can become, we can be on the Way. (Lest we make scapegoats of those who do not believe and are also entangled!)
How do we preach on this passage without becoming poets ourselves? The glory, the majesty of these few words leaves us humbled, awed.
Still, the power of belief to set us on the road to freedom is gauranteed. We are not condemned to live as we have lived, as children of blood, of the will of the flesh, of human will, that is to say, of mimesis. We are empowered to become, to move toward a new way of being.
We look to the One in whom, for whom we were created, to the One who became our scapegoat to break forever the power of scapegoating, and in believing we are free. Merely by believing that God is this way and no other, that it is God, and no other revealed in the Son, we break the chains of myth that bind us in darkness.
For me, the hermeneutical implications of this text are astounding. On this day, Christmas Day, when we celebrate God coming in the flesh, to be known as the carpenter from Nazareth, and then itinerant proclaimer of the immanence of God’s reign, we read this extraordinary text that calls to mind not only the entire life and ministry of Jesus, but also has implications for how we read Holy Scripture.
Verse 1 signals what is under deconstruction; there is an abyssal eruption in the fabric of the universe of time itself. Time becomes differentiated not by day and night, nor by cycles of seasons, but by ‘in the past’ and ‘in these last days.’ A cleavage has occurred not as the Platonic separation of the ideal and the copy nor of the spiritual and the material, but in history itself, human history because it is to humans with whom God spoke. The writer recognizes that it is the history of a specific people that is under interpretation here. For of the various ways God spoke, in dreams, visions, still small voices, on mountain tops, etc, God also spoke to the Jewish forefathers through the prophetic schools in writing.
There was the written text of Torah, there was prophetic and targumic interpretation of Torah, some written, some oral, there were other writings that rendered the hands unclean to a lesser degree, e.g., the Historical books and some Wisdom literature. Writing was, and is, an important medium for the transmission of the Jewish story. All of these ‘various ways’ got the message across dimly, as a shadow. The writer will spend a great deal of time in the heart of this letter (chs. 7-10) demonstrating the insufficiency of the ‘old’ covenant, the ‘old’ priesthood, the old’ sacrificial system’ and the ‘old tabernacle.’
He does not do this Platonically but axiologically with an emphasis on the temporal element between then/now, past/present, before/after and only in this temporal sense as promise/fulfillment. In short the entire history of Israel is presupposed in this temporal break. That break still concerns God’s communication to humanity.
This time, however, God does not send down an infallible copy of some text from heaven to be scrupulously copied, nor does God speak by personal revelation but through a Son. Jesus’ sonship in Hebrews is dominated by the metaphor of the filial, of family. We are frequently called Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The revelation of God in the ‘face of Jesus’ that we see has a difficult time finding just prose or propositions to express itself. So, it becomes song, a melody and a harmony saying exactly and with precision who Jesus is.
Verses 2b-3 are, in the minds of some, a piece of a hymn sung by early Christians from this community (some other hymns can be found in Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20, I Tim 3:16 and some think John 1:1-5, 10-14). They do not sing about themselves here, nor about their subjective hopes, dreams or wishes. They speak of Jesus
agent of creation
radiance of God’s glory
exact representation of God
holds the universe together
Provided purification for sins
Sat down at the right hand of God
I would first of all observe that the way of telling Jesus’ story in the Nicene Creed and the earlier Apostles Creed both tell the story in the same framework. The life and teachings of Jesus are completely presupposed here, but they are known commodity, people had learned to become Christians through a paedogogical process (which we can see from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and The Didache). It is not that the so-called historical Jesus is ignored, no, God has spoken through a Son, with specific teachings and a clear, concrete ministry. Without this Jesus, it would be impossible to say these other things about him. They absolutely reveled in Jesus.
Second, this also demonstrates that this sort of Christological thinking was quite early, for no matter when we date Hebrews, the hymn itself is earlier. When compared with the hymnic fragments mentioned above, we see that there is a time schema in all of them. There is a before and there is an after. There is an absolute abyss that has been crossed on God’s initiative (10:5-10). It will not do to just seek to have an unknown Jesus, or a so-called historical Jesus, as though the sources were so meager; the letter to the Hebrews is proof what could be affirmed of Jesus when one followed him in obedience. It is this latter aspect that, as a hermeneutic principle, does not become formal until the Reformation with the Anabaptists. This perception of the importance of an imitatio Christi, of Nachfolge, of discipleship as hermeneutic would also influence Pietism and her heirs, and various holiness movements in the 17th-19th centuries including Wesley, Finney and Moody. Too frequently, however, the Jesus that was being followed had not brought that temporal break and his life and ministry were assimilated to the God of the Jewish Scriptures.
[For those wishing to understand how I see two strands or voices in the Jewish Scriptures please see my article Finding our Way Home]
Third, there is also a very clear Christus Victor slant to this Christological affirmation. Never once is there an indication of failure or doubt. There is only very clear assurance here. The ‘V’ pattern (descent/ascent) is the New Testament pattern for showing this eruption in the human narrative. ___________V—————————–
On this day when we affirm transcendence becoming immanence, God becoming not only human, but a person with a life story, of divinity humbling itself and mingling with human DNA, and sweat and blood, of sharing in the maturing process (‘he learned obedience’), of experiencing a call, of living a beautiful life, we affirm that God really, really loves us, that our God does not remain in shadows or hide behind systematic theologies, that our God is not hidden, that ‘God is light’ and in God ‘there is no shadow of turning.’ All has been made clear and plain. We name this revelation Jesus.
No significant issues. If you do not read Greek, consult the commentaries for the many nuances, word plays, great grammar and syntax of this piece. It really is a rich text.
The problem of religion is the ambivalent god. For Christians, the answer is Jesus Christ, child of the heavenly Father, who reveals God as not two sided, two faced, but as singular in love and compassion, a God who can be trusted and who is not to be feared.
Preaching a text like today is a hermeneutic challenge, not because the text is unclear but because folks in the pews have been given decades, centuries and millennia of teaching that the God and Father of Jesus is a Janus faced god.
The really good news of Christmas is not simply about the gift of Jesus Christ sent to us to redeem us, although it is certainly about that. The really good news is that on this morning, all humanity is embraced in unconditional love. Our congregations may not want to hear that, but they desperately need it.