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Introduction To The Scripture For The First Sunday after Christmas - Year A
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The First Sunday after Christmas - Year A


ISAIAH 63:7-9            This is the beginning of a long prayer of
intercession continuing to 64:12.  These verses speak of God's love for and
faithfulness to Israel.  Through many distressing periods of their history,
God's presence among them gave them assurance of God's favour. God's
frequent and direct initiative in delivering Israel from difficulty was the
basis for this trust.


PSALM 148                This is another of five "hallelujah hymns" with
which the Book of Psalms closes.  All creation and every nation are
summoned to praise the God of Israel.


HEBREWS 2:10-18          The Letter to the Hebrews is not really a letter
at all, but a theological essay by some unknown leader of the early
Christian church.  This brief passage affirms the birth of Jesus, known in
Christian doctrine as the Incarnation.  The sharing of human flesh and
blood by the Son of God is 'proved' by texts quoted from the Psalm 22:22
and Isaiah 8:17-18.  Jesus' suffering and death are cited as both his
actual human experience and the fulfilment of his divine mission.  The
author thus prepares for his main theme that Jesus is both the great high
priest and redeeming sacrifice according to ancient Hebrew ritual.


MATTHEW 2:13-23          The flight of the holy family into Egypt, Herod's
slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem, and the return of the holy
family to Nazareth did not stand alone in  Matthew's narrative.  He
emphasized the significance of these three episodes in the early life of
Jesus by linking them to texts from the Hebrew scriptures.  These were not
merely literary devices, but affirmed a central theme of early Christian
doctrine: Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel by all the great
prophets.  In other words, Matthew interpreted the birth of Jesus through
the eyes of a devout Jew who firmly believed that the Messiah had come.

************

ISAIAH 63:7-9   The poems and prayers by the unnamed prophet of Israel's
Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC (Second/Deutero-Isaiah, so-called)
and a later group of his disciples were subsequently attached to the
collection of Isaiah's prophecies.  This passage comes from the latter
group, whom some scholars call Third Isaiah (chs. 56-66), though this
designation is also characterized as an oversimplification.  Passages
appear all through the Book of Isaiah which are obviously the hand of a
later redaction than either of the 8th or the early 6th century prophets
(e.g. chs. 24-27).  This passage probably dates from the middle of the 6th
century BCE not too long after the destruction of the temple and the exile
of most of Israel's political and spiritual leaders to Babylon.  
     
The reading forms the beginning of an extended prayer (63:7-64:12) and
possibly existed as a liturgy for public worship.  The whole attitude of
the prayer parallels that found in Lamentations and similar laments such as
Pss. 36, 74, 77 and 79.  Yet despite its somber mood, this excerpt
expresses trust in God based on the gracious acts of God toward Israel. 
Most important of these acts according to these lines was God's choice of
Israel as God's people and God's saving intervention in the nation's
history.  
     
The wording of this passage describe the relationship of God to Israel as
one of intense and steadfast love (vs.7).  The depth of this love comes
dramatically to the fore in the KJV and RSV readings of vs. 9a which the
NRSV and NEB soften by attempting to correct the corrupted Hebrew text. 
This only lessens the power of one of the strongest texts in the OT which
conveys the sublime thought that God is afflicted by the suffering of those
in distress.  

As we recover from our annual convulsion of consumerism during which our
indulgence denigrates the name of the Christ who came in the humility and
poverty of a peasant family, such a text could provide us with an
appropriate purgative.  On the other hand, it is still not too late to make
a contribution to a charity of one's choice instead of haunting the Boxing
Day sales for something we did not receive as a Christmas present -- and
may not need.


PSALM 148   This hymn of praise is the third of five ending the Psalter and
often named of the "Hallelujah Psalms" from the Hebrew words with which
each begins, ends and frequently resounds antiphonally throughout the hymn. 
The jubilant outburst of song summons the whole of creation to celebrate.
     
In biblical times people believed that the universe was constructed on
three levels: the heavens above, the deep sea below and the earth that they
saw around them.  As the understanding of the spiritual nature of the
divine being developed, this cosmology made it theologically necessary to
introduce intermediary angels, "the heavenly host," between the
transcendent, spiritual Creator and the physical creation.  
     
Even though the discoveries of modern astronomy and our 20th century
ventures into space have given us a totally different view of the universe,
this ancient cosmology still influences our language, especially in our
worship.  One has to wonder to what extent this has contributed to the
disbelief of many people who sincerely reject literalist interpretations
and expressions of faith as found in many scripture passages, prayers and
sermons.  Such interpretations may be familiar because of their persistent
use in prayer and the content of our hymnody.  It would be more appropriate
to wrestle with the task of finding new metaphors to express our joy in the
presence and providence of the God who is Spirit.  
     
For this psalmist of the post-exilic period, the centre of the universe was
the temple in Jerusalem to which all peoples were summoned to sing God's
praise (vss.12-13).  The faithful of Israel, however, still had preeminence
(vs.14).  Universalism had not yet captured the imaginations of religious
minds; nor has it yet done so as many fundamentalists in all religious
traditions continue to insist.


HEBREWS 2:10-18   The so-called Letter to the Hebrews reads more like a
theological essay drawing heavily on Old Testament scriptures to prove the
supremacy of Jesus.  It attempts to counter ideas from Hebrew religious
traditions at a time, possibly before or just after the destruction of the
temple by the Romans in 70 CE.  It appears to have been directed to Jewish
Christians who doubted that Jesus was the Messiah and were tempted to
return to their former faith and ways of worshipping.  
     
On the other hand, cogent arguments can be made for a date later in the lst
century when the church was under attack from both rabbis of the Pharisees
and Roman officials during the reign of Domitian (81-96 CE).  Scholarly
claims have strong support that the letter contains a theological viewpoint
of Hellenistic Christianity in the post-apostolic age similar to the
Revelation of John and the first letter of Clement of Rome.

This passage emphasizes that Jesus' human nature qualified him to atone for
the sins of others by offering himself as the perfect sacrifice and so
"bringing many sons to glory" i.e. to a saving relationship with God.  Yet
though Jesus is described as "the pioneer of salvation," (vs.10), he is not
the hero who leads the way of moral excellence.  Rather, his humanity rests
on the fact that it was God who initiated the incarnation of the Son of God
that led ultimately to the sanctifying sacrifice of the cross (vs.11).  
     
The author then turned to the OT scriptures and found what he perceived as
relevant quotations  proving that Jesus is the Messiah.  Psalm 22, the
source of the first quotation (Heb.2:12 is from Ps.22:22), had wide use as
a messianic psalm.  Neither this quotation nor the one from Isaiah 8:17-18
(vs.13) in their original context had any connection whatsoever with Jesus. 
Perhaps they were more convincing to the recipients of the letter.  They
appear to be used merely to reinforce the identification of Jesus with his
human brethren and children of God by simply repetition of those words from
the LXX.  Yet they do demonstrate how the early church used the Hebrew
scriptures from a proof-texting point of view.
     
The thinking in the latter part of this passage seems even more convoluted. 
It attempts to answer the question of why Jesus needed to share our human
experience.  The idea that the devil held the power of death and so held
all humans in the thrall of fear were current in Jewish and Christian
thought at that time.  This fear focused on the consequences of judgement
after death.  Access to God through worship had the intention of dealing
with this fear.  By sharing our human experience in every respect, Jesus
served the liturgical function of being both priest and sacrifice in this
transaction.  He was, the author claims, "a merciful and faithful high
priest in the service of God" (vs.17) and being one who "himself had
suffered and been tempted" (vs.18) so offered the perfect atoning sacrifice
for all.  
     
As confusing as the thought of this passage may be to our minds, the
passage does weave together in a theological tapestry the continuity and
discontinuity of Judaism and Christianity as well the divine and human
natures of the Saviour of the world.  It thus serves as a reliable metaphor
for the Christian belief in the dual person and work of Christ as both God
and human in every respect.


MATTHEW 2:13-23   In last week's commentary, we proposed the hypothesis
that Matthew created midrashim stories concerning the birth of Jesus to
interpret the passages of the Hebrew scriptures in which he found
references or prophecies about the fulfilment of Israel's hopes for the
promised Messiah.  This excerpt tells of God intervening to prevent the
death of the infant Christ Child in Herod's massacre of the children of
Bethlehem.  The incident fulfills the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15 (vs.18). 
However,  Jeremiah's oracle actually dealt with the lamentations of the
Ephraimites (one of tribes of Israel) being led into exile after the fall
of Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE..  
     
A further allusion to the Hebrew scriptures occurs in the warning to Joseph
in vs.20 derived from Exodus 4:18-20.  There Moses was called to return to
Egypt to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land.  Again in vs.23, Joseph
chose to make a home for his family in Nazareth in fulfilment of another
supposed prophecy from an unknown source.  It may also be an allusion to
Judges 13:5 or perhaps Isaiah 11:1 or 53:2.
     
The real point of the story is to portray Jesus as the Messiah by quoting
Hebrew scriptures to show how Jesus fulfilled several prophecies and how
the Messiah could come from Nazareth.  As originally written in the Hebrew
scriptures, these prophecies did not have this intent.  We can never know
whether Matthew found these stories circulating in the community for whom
he wrote or composed these interpretive narratives himself.  We can
determine, however, his theological purpose here and throughout the gospel:
to portray Jesus as the Messiah come not as Moses to promulgate a new law,
but to initiate a new people of God in whom the salvation-history of Israel
is fulfilled and among whom all people of all nations, Jew or Gentile, are
welcome on the same basis of faithful discipleship.

While this approach to the text may not satisfy everyone, it does offer a
departure from a literalist approach that regards the nativity stories as
factual history.  There can be no question that the truth of Christian
gospel had its roots in the religious traditions of Israel.  Matthew wrote
to explain how there could be both continuity as well discontinuity with
those traditions.  

If we are to believe that Jesus is for all people of every time and
place, then we must find a way to interpret his "Good News" that all
humanity is included in "the kingdom of heaven," the biblical name
given to the spiritual and theological concept of God's eternal reign
of victorious and sovereign love in all of creation.  Such an
interpretation takes on even greater significance when  alternate
religious and ethical traditions express open hostility to Christian
and Hebrew traditions.  Such opposing voices regard the universality
of the gospel as a totally erroneous way of living in the global
culture of our time.  Our faith tradition, however, requires that we
live with ever greater faith in an increasingly troubled time.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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