Today in the Spirit: Christmas 1B

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The Church’s messaging on the Sundays following Christmas Day might best be summed up as promises fulfilled with more to come, or light shining with ever-increasing brightness. The Christmas 1 readings are the same all three years. It is on this Sunday that we receive as a Gospel selection the famous prologue to John’s Gospel, John 1:1-18. Before ever mentioning the name of Jesus in his Gospel, John the Evangelist will announce the long-awaited arrival of him whom John the Baptist (the most renowned preacher of his day) described as greater than himself because he was before me (15). That one is the Word of God before all things, the life and light of all humanity, the glory of the Father, and he is here among us!

We sensed an already-but-not-yet dynamic in previous weeks, but now, in the Christmas season, it is even more pronounced. In the assigned OT reading out of Isaiah 61:10-62:5, we hear the ongoing testimony of the servant of the LORD who has been clothed…with garments of salvation and the announcement of a new identity for all God’s people, Zion, no longer Forsaken and Desolate but now God’s Delight and Married. From the Psalter, Psalm 147:12-20 is selected for its emphasis on God giving his word unto Jacob (19, BCP Coverdale), which the Christian worshiper will connect with the Word of God, Jesus, in John’s Gospel.

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The appointed NT reading from Galatians 3:23-4:7, with its emphasis on faith in Jesus Christ for the righteousness of all people, connects with that part of John 1 stating, But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12). And the Collect for Christmas 1 is a prayer for the Church, now that “new light” has been poured in through the Father’s “incarnate Word,” to shine out through Christ into the world.   

The Collect

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, kindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

For Zion’s Sake I Would Not Keep Silent (Isaiah 61:10-62:5)

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.

The nations shall see your righteousness,
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.  You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 

For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (62:1-5).

In the beginning portion of our passage (61:10-11) we hear Zion, out of the joy of her restoration by the mercy of YHWH, crying out, I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation (61:10). Then, immediately, using similar language, we hear God himself, or perhaps the Messiah, declaring, For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,…, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. It is almost as if, oddly, the LORD is parroting back what his people have already said.

Why the repetition? Why? One reason is that we need to hear the Lord’s own words of assurance speaking into our lives at all times. We need to hear him say that he is present with us, and that he is active in keeping our defense, at every moment. There are days, as in the earlier section of the reading, when we feel confident, elated, over the work of God in our lives. We are sure in those moments that we could never lose our conviction , that our zeal could never flag. But then, in the next hour, faced with even the slightest threat of a setback, we forget–our earlier certainty flying fast away like a bird provoked to fleeing at the smallest movement in its vicinity. The moment our attention is turned away from the promises of God and onto ourselves fear and vanity take over, and doubt gets a foothold. We are in those moments, are we not, just as James the Just describes in his NT letter, like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like (James 1:23-24). So, yes, beloved, we need to hear our Lord’s own assurances speaking into our hearts hour after hour, day in and day out. And we do well to keep our regular time alone with God, with Bibles open, in order to hear them.

Today, Holy Spirit, observing how you speak back comfort to Zion in this passage from Isaiah, I come, like I can never get it enough, to hear again of your delight in me and your assurance of my salvation.

He Sends Out His Word (Psalm 147:12-20)

He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.

He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes.

He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold?

He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.

He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules[a] to Israel.

He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules.

Praise the Lord! (15-20).

There are many words used in this psalm to describe the revelation of God’s person and works in the world, among them commands, statutes and rules. The most versatile is word (Hebrew דבר), really the umbrella term for all the others and carrying the general meaning “what is said.” Notice it is by God’s word we receive both the natural revelation of snow and frost, and also the special revelation of God’s saving commands to Israel. One cancels out the other. By God’s word we observe there is both the unendurable freezing of the human situation in the world, and then the redemptive word that melts the ice. 

For Christians, the arrival of Jesus Christ is the word of the Father God which, at long last, overcomes the winter of the human heart and society. The Good News cannot be canceled or reversed, and we find nothing but encouragement in that. We must not miss the emotion of relief crying out between the lines of this psalm. The reference to the wind blowing makes us think of the oncoming Holy Spirit. What seemed like a helpless cry of despair–who can stand before his cold?–converts to a mighty hurrah for spring. Of course, C.S. Lewis’ narration of the great consolation filling up the hapless Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe comes to mind: “Unless you have looked at the world of snow as long as Edmund had been looking at it, you will hardly be able to imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white.”

Today, at Christmas, feeling the wind of the Spirit described in this psalm, we rejoice in the relief of God’s salvation at the arrival in the flesh of his Word, Jesus Christ.

Adoption as Sons (Galatians 3:23-4:7)

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

Paul is at pains in this letter to persuade a group tempted to return to a life of following the law of Israel not to do it. It might appear to us that the apostle is overstating his case, claiming that in Christ the Galatian Christians have received adoption as sons of God. That phrase adoption as sons (just one word in Greek υἱοθεσία) is a legal term describing the full rights of the adopted male heir for inheritance. Paul’s claim here is that all Christians, no matter who they are, have received that designation of full heir of the Father God with and by Christ Jesus (see also Romans 8:15-17). We perceive this as an exaggeration because our experience in the world seems to indicate that we do not have the fullness of anything just yet.

How can it be, Father God, that I have already received the full rights of your heir? I am still so limited, first, just by physicality. I cannot walk through walls as you did with your resurrected body. All I experience is the lack of things–of resources, of stamina, of ability. Are you trying to convince me through the Scriptures that there really is something more to understand about who I am as a person believing in Christ than my experiences will permit? Oswald Chambers wrote, “Reality is Redemption, not my experience of Redemption; but Redemption has no meaning for me until it speaks the language of my conscious life. When I am born again, the Spirit of God takes me right out of myself and my experiences, and identifies me with Jesus Christ.” This then is the proof of adoption as a child of God–not simply by my experiences but the way I am led out of myself, by faith, in my experiences into the loving arms of the Father. So Paul writes elsewhere: Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God (1 Corinthians 2:12).

Today, Holy Spirit, you who have been given to me through Christ as testament of my certain adoption as your child, increase in me over time and through my experiences the knowledge that nothing is truly lacking.

The Life Was the Light of Men (John 1:1-18)

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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (1-5).

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. My Google editor is insisting I change and the life here to and life in this sentence because (I am guessing) it cannot understand how any one person or thing in “life” could be designated “the life.” But is this not exactly what John the Evangelist would say to us in this prologue to his Gospel? All of the animating force in creation can be traced back, John says, to the Word, Jesus Christ, who designed, engineered and brought everything into being, and brought being into it. Life in creation exists only insofar as the Creator gives it of himself, so in this way his life was [and is] the light of men

Now one thing we know: light shines in the eyes of people always by reflection off of something else. So we see light from the sun by its reflection off our eyes. Light which is the life of Christ comes to us how? By the life of Christ coming off the pages of Scripture? Well, not from the paper itself. The light of the life of Christ comes to us by reflection from that which carries or embodies the light of Christ–namely, the saints. Archbishop William Temple describes the saints as “beacon-lights” of the life of Christ passing down through the generations: “As we look forwards, we peer into darkness, and none can say with certainty what course the true progress of the future should follow.  But as we look back, the truth is marked by beacon-lights, which are the lives of the saints and pioneers; and these in their turn are not originators of light, but rather reflectors which give light to us because themselves they are turned to the source of light.”

Today, by the Spirit, we seek to be “reflectors” of the life of Jesus shining as pin-pricks of light in the dark world, that others can look and discern a way forward.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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