I Christmas, Year B

Main Text

Gospel Anthropological Reading
Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions
Gospel So What?

Epistle Anthropological Reading
Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions
Epistle So What?

Main Text

Is 61:10-62:3
Ps 148
Gal 4:4-7
Lk 2:22-40
Heb 2:10-18

(Isaiah 61:10-11)
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

(Isaiah 62:1-3)
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.


(Galatians 4:4-7)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

(Luke 2:22-40)
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too." There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

(Heb 2:10-18)
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,
‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’
And again,
‘I will put my trust in him.’
And again,
‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Gospel Anthropological Reading

All of themes of mimetic theory can be found here. The temple as a place of substitution, sacrifice, atonement, ritual and prohibition are all present.

The temple as a theme will occupy our attention as we go through the gospels. It plays a major role in both Judaism and early Christianity. Jesus’ relation to the temple is a matter of intense scholarly debate. However we understand it, it is important to recognize that even if Jesus rejected the sacrificial system, he did so as an affirmation of Jewish faith. He never sees himself apart from the people of God. It is not Jewish faith that is being attacked but the religious-political-economic structure that had developed around it. In short, Jesus echoes the critique found in the Prophets.

Bruce Chilton puts it well. “The Temple of Jesus was the focus in Jerusalem of Israel’s cultic routine. It was not an ideal or a vision, but the place where sacrifice was in fact offered. Jesus’ innovation lay not in calling for a removal or rebuilding of that place, but in insisting that the kingdom of God would be disclosed when all Israel joined in the pure sacrifice enacted by righteousness and forgiveness.”

A key point in our text is that the revelation of God’s salvation comes in the midst of the sacrificial system, the system of substitutes. There are any number of substitutions in the temple: foreign and local currency can be exchanged for sacrificial offerings which are an exchange for the worshipper. The worshipper is twice removed from God. In the midst of this system of substitution Jesus comes as the substitute for God and before God as the substitute for each of us. In short, he is the final, the ultimate substitute, the one whose substitution puts an end to all substitution.

Some have suggested that the use of the term sacrifice or substitution indicates that there is still a valid appreciation for the sacrificial system, more so, that the notion of propitiation must still be attached to any notion of sacrifice. The New Testament, it seems to us (mostly Paul), may use sacrificial language but that language does not carry the denotation of appeasing the deity. Luke’s narrative use of the Temple does not indicate an appropriation of a propitiatory understanding of sacrifice, rather, it brings into sharp focus the problematic nature of the sacrificial system and the problem with propitiation and its propaganda controlled by the ruling masses.

The prophecy of Simeon that Jesus will be a sign that will be spoken against clearly suggests the process of scapegoating to which Jesus will be subject. He will be isolated as the mob seeks one against whom it can unite. His mamzer status will socially marginalize him. He will be betrayed and abandoned by his intimates. In his trial, he will be falsely accused.
In this foreshadowing of the Passion, Girard’s observations on the character of the gospel narrative, the way that it exposes the scapegoating process, ring true because they describe on an anthropological level what the Gospel asserts on a theological level, that is, a theology of the Cross. It all starts here. Here is where revelation begins to emerge. And what will be revealed? God does not retaliate. “Father, forgive them, they don’t have a clue what they are doing.” Jesus blood speaks a better word than that of Abel. And that is the ‘consolation of Israel.’

The event of the death of Jesus will constitute revelation, “the thoughts of many are revealed.” It will be revealed that “we have murdered God” (Nietzsche). The Gospel story itself, the story about Jesus, is a story that affirms his innocence, as opposed to “myth” which constantly declares the victim guilty. “Jesus did nothing to warrant the way he was treated by his contemporaries.” The gospel destroys the effectiveness of all myth with this announcement. The final verdict on mimesis, violence and death is in. Jesus is innocent, but God does not repay evil for evil. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that God triumphs over human violence not with more violence, but with more life.

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

The narrative of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple presents some unusual possibilities for the preacher. As in the previous Sunday’s text, it is crucial to keep in mind the socio-political background, in this case, though, it is not the Roman empire that is in view but that of Jewish salvation history.

This can be seen in:

1. The temple in Jerusalem as the narrative setting for the story.

2. The allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. Tannehill observes that the neuter ‘soterion’ (salvation) which is used four times in the New Testament (3 of them in Luke-Acts) is found throughout Isaiah 40-66. Fitzmeyer and Marshall both see numerous antecedents in Isaiah as well.

3. The theme of promise-fulfillment which is highlighted in Simeon’s prophecy.

This is the second Temple scene in the Infancy Narrative of Luke. The temple figures prominently in Luke-Acts. It opens and closes the Gospel and opens the book of Acts. By the time Luke composes his gospel though, the temple in Jerusalem stands in ruins after the crushing defeat of the revolution under Titus. Though it has been argued that some temple sacrifices were being offered from 70 C.E. to the final destruction of Jerusalem under Bar Kochba in 135 C.E., Luke’s audience would have been aware that the temple was no longer the institution it was just decades before (the best overall discussion is in the revised Schurer, Vol. 2).

At the time of Jesus the temple was one of three pillars upon which Judaism was established (the Torah and the Land being the other two). In our own time, when the remaining ruins of the Temple (the ‘wailing wall’) threaten to crumble, it is difficult to imagine the size and importance of this institution. During times of festal pilgrimage, it could hold between 80-100,000 people (numbers you only see nowadays at a college football game or protest!). The doors to the temple were 80 feet high and took 200 men to open them each morning and close them each night. The creaking of the doors, made of Corinthian bronze, could be heard all around Jerusalem and its environs. The temple served as the depository of the wealth of the rich and powerful. It had its own fortress and complement of Roman soldiers. In it were all the treasures of Jewish history. It was a place of great importance politically, economically and religiously.

Herod’s temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world, but to us it is an archeological ruin. In order to get a ‘feel’ for the temple in the gospels, we need to exercise a certain historical imagination. Ever been to a slaughterhouse? Can you smell the burning flesh from the altar? Can you feel the fear in the livestock as they encounter the smell of death? Can you hear through the din of thousands of conversations and prayers? How do you move as you make your way through the crowds?

Everyone knew that the temple priesthood was controlled by four families in Jerusalem, the house of Annas supplying seven high priests from Herod to the downfall of Jerusalem. The house of Annas had a monopoly on the ‘meat market’ located in the temple vicinity, and thus the money exchange system (only Tyrian gold was accepted). It was all about the economics of religion. It was a booming business.

It is in this context that two old folks happen upon a couple carrying a child. They do not come together, their encounters with Mary, Joseph and Jesus are sequential. They take place one after the other. Luke describes Simeon and Anna in terms that he will use of the early Christian movement: Simeon is “righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit is upon him.” Anna is a prophetess and a long time widow. Both await the fulfillment of the promise to redeem Israel. Interesting is the detail by which Anna is described. She is Anna (Hannah) in the house of Annas.

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Gospel So What?

In this week’s lesson, “redemption” is the key. Jesus, the first-born, is redeemed, even as he will redeem us. The question to which the Gospel gives us a new answer is this: “Redeemed from what? From whom?” In the past, Jesus’ death has been preached as the means by which we are redeemed from God’s rightful wrath, but in this scene, the substitution is clear. Jesus is not redeemed from wrath, and neither are we. He is redeemed from the sacrificial system, a system of our own making. The death he dies, he dies for all, so that we might not ever again be subject to the victimage mechanism.

A word of exegetical caution is in order. We must be careful not to assume that the destruction of the temple meant the rejection of Israel by God. The theory, known as supercessionism, whereby Christianity replaces Judaism is rightly disregarded. It is anti-Semitic. Nowhere in the New Testament is Christianity the replacement of Judaism. Our task as Christian interpreters is to see how Jesus’ Jewish critique of the sacrificial religion of his time can be applied to our contemporary Christian practice of faith. To do so will unmask the ‘violence’ we have hidden in our views of God, humanity and all creation.


Suppose during a baptism at your church, someone should come forward and say that the baptized child will mean the end of the congregation, as you know it. How do you think the congregation would respond?

I know it is hard for us to talk about the end of Christianity, but it is an end that is long overdue. Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Ellul, Barth, Eller, all have spoken of the end of Christendom as a religious structuring of culture. It is difficult for us to imagine ourselves as people without buildings, without paid staff, without great and plentiful ministries run out of those buildings by those staff. We are as bound to religious structure as was first century Judaism. In a sense, one might say that Christian history is no different than the history of the Jewish people in the Hebrew Bible. Both histories are replete with the substitution of faith by institution and the concomitant prophetic call to turn back (‘shuv’, metanoia) to God.

Finally, it is a question of whether or not the birth of this child Jesus really informs our eschatological imagination; will God deliver us from the power structures that dominate our religion, our culture, our lives? Do we put our hope in Jesus or in political processes? It seems to me that both right wing Christianity and liberal Christianity in America have confused the two, so much so, that political processes are perceived as salvific. Jesus, as envoy for the kingdom of God, is not and can never be identified with human political process, for every political process is sacrificial and beholden to an ideology of violence in one form or another. Our text today might make us shudder when we apply it to our own religious institutions but the time for the churches to be transformed is at hand. God is faithful and will see to it that the people of God will always have hope, hope that does not disappoint for it is grounded already in the promise of life eternal given to us in the child Jesus.

Jeff adds: Somewhere, buried even in evangelical Christianity, is the notion that Christianity must die. There is a song, popular in the Contemporary Christian worship scene, called "Fields of Grace." (By Big Daddy Weave) Each verse sings of a vision of the future that rests fully in the love and care of God. When the (live) recording comes to the third verse, the band sings, "There’s a place where religion finally dies," and the crowd of thousands cheers. I mean, they cheer! Of course, I think those prophetic words are probably not understood as I understand them in many cases, but it still speaks to the hunger, present especially in our young people, for something other than "religion." (That incomparable juxtapostion of ritual, myth, and prohibition in one ghastly mix.) Surely Jesus’ warning that following him means taking up a cross is no less deadly to the institution than it is to us.

Do we have the vision and courage to preach the end of the Church? Can we pray for its death? I don’t suppose it’ll fill a megachurch, this kind of preaching, but I think it’ll help bring about the reign of God.

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

On the first Sunday after Christmas, our epistle reading takes us immediately to Good Friday, the birth and death of Jesus are the boundary markers, the two horizons that illumine our preaching.  The primary emphasis is that atonement was achieved not by an animal sacrifice but by the self-sacrifice of a human being.  It also brings to the fore the problem of human suffering.

Our author attests that Jesus was made perfect through suffering(s).  Now our world sees plenty of suffering and it would be disingenuous to try to claim that suffering in itself is redemptive.  Especially by anyone who is not suffering, especially by a North American white male exegete.  I can safely claim (today) that I am not harassed because of my skin color or gender or sexual orientation, that I am not in depravation.  I have a roof over my head and food on my table. Nevertheless, I have known suffering, unjust suffering, have at times faced discrimination and know what it is to be rejected.  These experiences have formed who I am and how I see the world and go a long way toward inducing empathy toward those who currently suffer in this world.

Jesus was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”  He has known rejection, misunderstanding and alienation.  He has been known mockery, torture and has tasted death itself.  Jesus lived His life at the bottom of the ladder.  And he is not ashamed to call those at the bottom ‘brother or sister.’  Three times our author cites Scripture to buttress his argument that Jesus does what he does for these little ones. 

The New Testament does not valorize suffering, in and of itself, it only indicates the broken relationship between humans who disenfranchise, dominate, excoriate and scapegoat one another.  Suffering is not abstract; it is not about having to use an umbrella because it is raining.  The citation of Psalm 22:22, the scapegoat psalm, and the dual citations from 1st Isaiah 8:17 and 18 (judgment passages) describe the unhappy situation of human induced suffering. It is into this world of human suffering that Jesus is born into.  A world guaranteed to bring him pain.

What is pain but a reminder of our mortality?  It is the horizon of death that haunts us all.  We will all die.  The immortality that we felt as youth quickly fades as we grow older, as the grey hairs appear upon our heads.  We are daily reminded that death has cast it’s glance our way and we tremble.  We fear death because we fear either an end to that which we call our ‘self’ or we fear death because we believe we shall have to give an accounting of our life and it will fall very, very short of transcendent expectations.  But we are not called to live in fear of death for it has no power in that Jesus death has nullified the power of death, Jesus brings death to death and in so doing frees us from fear of death by bringing us to the horizon of life and resurrection.

There is no test in life we can undergo that He is unfamiliar with on a deep structural level, he has himself been tested in many ways at many times.  And so he is merciful to us when we endure our ‘trials by fire’ even when they are self-inflicted. 

Our author connects Jesus’ humanity with atonement because incarnation is atonement.  Heb 10:5-10 is a hermeneutical key to understanding this and our text today illumines this very connection.  God does not have to wait until Good Friday to accept us, to love us, to call us His own.  On Christmas morning when a baby is born in Bethlehem, God is already with us (Emmanuel), and will, through the agency of His divine child, do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

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Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

I note here that vs 17 in the main text of the NIV is translated “that he might make atonement for the sins of his people” but a footnote offers as an alternate translation “and that he might turn away God’s wrath taking away (the sins of his people).”  The Christus Victor motif of 2:14 is transformed into the penal satisfaction view in the footnote.  In fact, the footnote is not an alternate translation of ‘hilasterion’ but is a perversion of the author’s entire way of thinking about atonement.  I refer readers to my article in Violence Renounced (ed. Willard Swartley) on “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews” for an explication of this.

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Epistle So What?

In our modern world, Jesus seems to us as a far away figure.  Tony Bartlett points out that the temporal distance between Jesus and us is greater than that of Jesus to Abraham.  Mix into that equation all of the skepticism regarding the so-called historical Jesus and we seem to be left today with a Jesus who is either a lonely sage or a political revolutionary.  What we don’t have is a Jesus who is a priest, one who empathizes with us.

The crass materialism of modern Jesus research is barely touched by criticism of the historical-critical method.  Having stripped away the metaphysics modern Christologies leave us with a Jesus who appears as a Platonic ideal, a legend of immense proportion, but hardly one who now reigns with God and intercedes for us.  Modern Christologies, in short, have no Session (at the right hand of God).  They lack the vindication of His resurrection and ascension that we see so prominently in early Christian hymns (cf Phil 2:5-11 or Heb 1:1-4).

It is imperative that contemporary preaching not simply proclaim a politicized Jesus (king) or a revolutionary Jesus who speaks ‘truth to power’ (prophet) but also acknowledge that this same Jesus is also one who cleanses and forgives our sin (priest).  To do so requires that Jesus function as more than a religious symbol or as a great man; it also requires that we humbly bow before the mystery of incarnation, atonement, resurrection and ascension.  It means that we finally acknowledge that with this man, this human figure we have to do with….God.

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