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1st Sunday after Christmas – January 1, 2017

Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

Well, we can’t say we don’t have lots of teaching and preaching choices this Sunday.

Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

We could, with Isaiah, take this first day of 2017 to recount the gracious deeds of the Lord. Lifting up and giving thanks and praise for the abundant, steadfast love of God would be a heartening change of pace from the relentless shrill shouts of the 2016 election and the 24-hour news cycle with the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. Considering how God has lifted us up and carried us through difficult seasons could strengthen us for the journey ahead in 2017. This approach could be a fitting one on January 1st.

However, if that doesn’t feel right in a context where tensions are high with the upcoming change in the White House, or the images of beleaguered civilians from Aleppo haunt us, or people in the pews are suffering the effects of chemotherapy, divorce or grief, then perhaps the Gospel text appointed for the day is more appropriate to tackle. And tackle it you must, because this is one of those “hard texts.” (Aren’t they all, really?) The massacre of the infants and Rachel’s inconsolable weeping greet us when we walk into the sanctuary just a week after we welcomed baby Jesus.

The story of Herod’s wrath resonates all too well in a world where the innocent suffer at the hands of the powerful and cruel. The scale of this violent decree is genocide-like, all the children under two in and around Bethlehem. Such horrendous revenge isn’t about expedience; it is a show of power, a way to intimidate and pound people into submission. It sounds all too familiar what with the use of poisonous gas in Syria; terrorist attacks on theatres, markets and schools; the kidnapping of girls and the use of boy soldiers. The more things change, the more the Herods of the world remain the same.

Wrestling with the word of the Lord from Matthew will take courage, but that hard word will not return empty.

The other choice comes from Hebrews, and choosing these verses will give you pause as well. These eight verses pack in a lot of theology. Sanctification, dying and rising with Christ, being engrafted into Christ, incarnation, atonement – it’s all there if you want to take it on. Gregory of Nanzianzus put it succinctly when he wrote that “what is not assumed, is not redeemed.” Jesus assumed all of our sinful humanity, suffered for our sake, and therefore opened the gates of redemption. The gospel hymn gets it right, “Jesus paid it all.” What difference does that make to us? To our sufferings and that of others? For the parameters of our community and concern? Talking about atonement and sanctification in ways that are accessible and not reductive is no small task, but it is one well worth undertaking.

Will it be door number one, two, or three this week? What about the possibility of thinking that all these biblical doors lead to the same room? Imagine that all roads, prophet, epistle and gospel, lead to the loving kindness of the Triune God. Now, think about which route each individual text uses to get to that throne of grace.

The prophet proclaims the mighty gracious deeds of the Lord and prescribes praise and worship in response (even though lament will immediately follow these verses).

The preacher of Hebrews quotes scripture and theology in order to remind the congregation of the lengths to which God will go in order to be in solidarity with humanity.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel tells the story of the Holy Family to reveal the undeniable truth about both the pervasiveness of evil and God’s relentless pursuit of justice and good that will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps that could be the form and function of this week’s lesson or sermon:

  1. Remembering all the times God has lifted us up and carried us, as individuals and corporately. (Even just a review of 2016 should give you a long list.) Praise God for those gracious deeds.
  2. Acknowledging the present implications of Christ’s incarnation and atonement. We are not lost to sin, alienation, death and destruction. The baby born in the manger last week has “paid it all.” Justification has come, and sanctification – living the newness of life in Christ – is now possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. Praise God for this grace upon grace.
  3. Recognizing that no matter the scale of present cruelty, the future will reveal that God’s promises of justice, righteousness, light, and abundant life, are trustworthy and true. What the prophets proclaimed has come to pass in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Weep with Rachel, resist Herod like the faithful wise of every age, heed dreams that reveal God’s will, recognize the Messiah to be found in Nazareth, praise God for the great reversal that comes with the coming of Jesus Christ.

Remember the work of God in the past, acknowledge the difference Jesus Christ makes in the present moment, recognize that radical, transformed future that is ushered in with Immanuel. Then praise and worship. Too much for one Sunday? Pick one and run with it. Be bold and ask those gathered to participate in whatever ways are appropriate for your context. Invite them to speak aloud the times God has carried them. Suggest they take some time for silent prayer to consider the difference it makes in their daily living that Jesus became incarnate; walked the earth; lived, died and was raised from the dead. Take time in the service to write down the names of individuals or groups of people who are inconsolable this very day, commit to pray for them, go to them where you are able and sit with them, ask for discernment to participate with Christ in working for justice, peace and righteousness. Praise God in it all.

This week:

  1. The Isaiah text appointed for this Sunday stops just short of the verses of lament. What difference does it make that these verses are left out?
  2. All three texts have some mention of angels. Is this significant? How do the biblical accounts differ from popular, contemporary understandings of angels?
  3. Note the importance of place in the Matthew text. What do you make of that importance? Can you relate to the importance of place or not?
  4. Use this prayer for the first Sunday of Christmas from the Book of Common Worship in your devotions: Almighty God, you wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of Jesus Christ who came to share our humanity, and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
  5. Use a theological word dictionary and look up, “atone” or “atonement,” “sanctification” and “incarnation.”
  6. Read as a prayer the lyrics of “In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy” (153 in the “Glory to God” hymnal).

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