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Introduction To The Scripture For The Second Sunday After Christmas - Year A
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:91-9)10-18
alt - Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom 10:15-21

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 Second Sunday after Christmas - Year A


JEREMIAH 31:7-14         The promise of a joyful celebration of exiles
returning home from Babylon, and from many other nations as well, rings
through this passage.  But there is a note of sadness too in their singing,
for only a remnant of Israel would actually return.  The main emphasis,
however, is on the faith that it is God who will bring about this
homecoming.

PSALM 147:12-20          Another of the "Hallelujah Hymns" ending the
Psalter praises God for numerous gracious acts.  The psalmist cites such
mighty works as the building Jerusalem and its temple, gathering the exiles
from many lands, and providing all creation with sustenance.  In this
latter part of the psalm, he also sees the hand of God in the natural
phenomena of the environment,  and above all in choosing Israel as God's
favoured people.


EPHESIANS 1:3-14         This prayer blesses God's gift of Jesus Christ who
makes clear to all who believe God's plan from the beginning of time.  This
mysterious plan is to bring all things in creation into God's reign of
love.  God's gift of the Holy Spirit marks us too to be included in God's
redemptive plan.


JOHN 1:(1-9),10-18       Unlike the other gospels, John begins his version
of the story by showing how Jesus, as the Word of God (Logos/Wisdom/Plan),
had a part in the beginning of creation.  He then describes John the
Baptist as witnessing to the coming of Jesus who even then lived in their
midst, although none of his contemporaries recognized him.  When through
faith we recognize him, Jesus is revealed as the Word of God in a living
human being and as the only Son of God.


     NOTE: There are two alternative lessons from the Tanakh.  The
     summaries and analysis of these passages follow those of the
     regular RCL lessons.  


SIRACH 24:1-12           (Alternate)  The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach is
also known as by its Latin name  Ecclesiasticus ("The Church's Book").  In
most Protestant Bibles it appears in what is known as the Apocrypha to the
Old Testament.  This book of wisdom, originally written in Hebrew but not
included in the Hebrew Scriptures, appeared about 132 BC translated into
Greek by the grandson of the author.  In this passage, divine Wisdom
personified speaks with great respect for God's choice of Israel as the
chosen people.  

WISDOM 10:15-21          (Alternate)  Like Sirach, the Wisdom of Solomon,
did not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It appeared in Greek in the last
century B.C.E.  expressing attitudes toward divine wisdom of its educated
Greek-speaking Jewish author.  It is one of several books now published in
the Apocrypha to the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles, but does appear in 
Bibles of The Roman Catholic tradition because St.  Jerome translated it
into Latin in the 5th century CE.  This passage recalls the event that
shaped all of Israel's history and faith tradition: the Exodus from Egypt. 
     
************ 

JEREMIAH 31:7-14   The promise of a joyful celebration of exiles returning
home from Babylon, and from many other lands as well, rings through this
passage.  But there is a note of sadness too in their singing, for the
historical reality was that only a remnant of Israel would actually return. 
The main emphasis, however, is on the faith that it is God who will bring
about this homecoming.

As in many other prophetic oracles, the theological tradition that Yahweh
is the Lord of history resonates though this poem.  The Babylonian exile
was a well documented historical event, not only in the Hebrew scriptures,
but also in relevant discoveries by archeologists from other sources.  The
Hebrew faith tradition interpreted this catastrophic event as initiated by
Yahweh, not by the political and military forces arrayed against them. 
Similarly, the Hebrew prophets of the exile voiced unequivocally their
trust that Yahweh would bring back to their homeland at least some of those
who had been forcefully transported to Babylon or scattered far and wide
across the ancient Middle East.  This passage utters the sacred promise of
Yahweh to bring the dispersed people of Israel home.  Jeremiah paid dearly
for his constant faith that Yahweh's promise would be fulfilled.  

Vs. 8b presents an especially hopeful element of the promise.  The naming
of pregnant women and those already giving birth represents divine
assurance that the holy people of God would continue.  History has shown
how decisive it has been that women - even those who have been raped in
violent pogroms - not only survive, but bring forth a new generation of
faithful Israelites.  

Traditionally, Jews trace their ancestry through their mothers, due to the
historic reality that their biological fathers may not have been Jewish. 
In an article on the Bet-Debora website, "Children of Jewish Fathers,"
feminist historian, Jessica Jacoby wrote that the idea of being Jewish
emanated from the mother  came relatively late, promoted by the Pharisees
in talmudic times (2nd to 6th century CE) as part of a package of reforms. 
She quote both the Mishnah and the Talmud to support her 
statement.  (www.bet-debora.de/2001/jewish-family/jacoby.htm)  Is it not
also possible that this principle was in development a century earlier when
the Christian gospels were being composed? Hence the exalted role given to
Mary in the birth narratives and the subsequent emphasis in later centuries
on her virginity.  More than one scholar, including Bruce Chilton (*Rabbi
Jesus: An Intimate Biography.* Doubleday, 2000) has speculated that the
birth of Jesus occurred as a result of an encounter with a rapist.  On the
other hand, vs.  9c could also be interpreted as a promise of the virgin
birth in that the saviour of Israel would be fathered by Yahweh. 
Confusing? Of course, but biblical metaphors always contain mystery that
our humble minds must struggle to interpret.  As Bishop John Selby Spong
says, although the birth of Jesus may or may not have been perfectly
natural, it was not how it happened, but who he is that really matters. 
"It is a beautiful story filled with meaning, deeply steeped in the Jewish
storytelling tradition.  It was created to capture a truth that human words
cannot fully contain."
(http://secure.agoramedia.com/spong/week66story1_prev.asp)

Vs. 12 not only proclaims that Yahweh would rescue the remnant of Israel
from captivity, prosperity would accompany their return.  Yahweh alone
would be the source of this continuing beneficence.  The returning people
would respond in joy and the priesthood would be restored (vss. 13-14.) 

In such prophetic passages we too may find hope for a new year.  Despite
all the destructive belligerence that confronts us, centred to a
considerable extent in the ancient biblical lands of the Middle East, the
Lord of history still reigns over the events of our time.


PSALM 147:12-20   Another of the "Hallelujah Hymns" ending the Psalter
praises God for numerous gracious acts as the creator and sustainer of all
creation.  It falls into three sections (vss. 1-6, 7-11, 12-20) that may
indicate separate origins as independent hymns brought together for
liturgical purposes.

The latter part of the psalm from which this reading is taken appears to be 
supplementary and perhaps distinctive enough to have been originally a
separate psalm.  Meteorological phenomena are summoned as witnesses to
Yahweh's power.  

It is true that Israel depends on the rain and occasional snow in winter to
bring forth a productive grain harvest.  Thus the psalmist could also
recognize divine favour in these natural events.  In all of these Yahweh
operates through the divine word (vss. 15, 18).

Finally in vss. 19-20, the psalmist equates the divine word with the law as
a mediator between a far-away God and God's creation, and especially with
regard to Israel as the chosen people.  This points to an emphasis which
had precedence during and after the time of Ezra (5th century).  


EPHESIANS 1:3-14   Professor George Caird noted in his classic discussion
of this passage that most of the first three chapters are in the form of a
prayer.  (Carid, G. B. *Paul's Letters from Prison.* New Clarendon Bible. 
Oxford, 1976) John C. Kirby, one of Caird's students at McGill University
prior to Caird's appointment as  principal of Mansfield College, Oxford,
developed this thesis to a full definition of Ephesians 1-3 as a "berakah"
or Hebrew prayer of blessing.  According to Kirby, this prayer began as a
Pentecostal liturgy.  The Letter to the Ephesians was created by this
prayer being subsequently joined to a sermon admonishing newly baptized
catechumens on the ways of Christian living in response to the gift of God
in Jesus Christ. (Kirby, John C. *Ephesians, Baptism and Pentecost.* McGill
University Press, 1968.)

Even cursory reading takes note how this prayer blesses God for the gift of
Jesus Christ who makes clear to all who believe God's plan from the
beginning of time.  This mysterious plan is to bring all things in creation
into God's reign of love.  God's gift of the Holy Spirit marks us too to be
included in God's redemptive plan.  

Throughout this passage, the author (whom many scholars, including Kirby
but not Caird.  doubt was the apostle Paul) placed emphasis on faith.  But
that faith can only come to its full maturity through a knowledge of the
Jesus story and what it means for all humanity.  As Caird states, the end
product of creation, and of God's redemption through Jesus Christ, is to
create a new humanity that is like Jesus Christ, people suitable to live in
God's presence.  This will come about not by our own efforts, but by God's
gracious gift of a forgiven and redeemed life through faith in and
obedience to the loving ways of God.  Of course this had not happened as
yet, but it will come about in the fullness of God's time and the working
out of God's plan.

God's purpose is being worked out even now through the lives of believers
in and followers of Jesus.  Our faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit
evident in the way we  live anticipates  and guarantees the fuller
blessings yet to come when God's purpose for all creation reaches it final
consummation.  

This passage at the beginning of what was most likely an encyclical letter
accompanying a body of other Pauline correspondence presents the very core
of Paul's  theology of universal redemption.  Paul (or his anonymous stand-
in) is saying in effect, "This is what the gospel means and this is how it
affects all of us."


JOHN 1:(1-9),10-18   Unlike the other gospels, John begins his version of
the story by declaring that Jesus, as the Word of God (Logos/Wisdom/Plan),
had a part in creation itself.  He then describes John the Baptist as
witnessing to the coming of Jesus who even then lived in their midst,
although none of his contemporaries recognized him.  When through faith we
do recognize him, Jesus is revealed as the Word of God in a living human
being and as the only Son of God.

*Word* has a special meaning in Fourth Gospel.  Behind it lay concepts of
both the Hebrew and the Greek traditions.  The Hebrew *dabar* could be
understood as the active presence of God.  When "the word of the Lord" came
to Jeremiah, it meant that God was present in Jeremiah's words and actions
revealing God's will and God's supreme authority.  So also in the case of
other prophets of Israel.  Later Hellenistic Jewish thought interpreted
divine wisdom in much the same way.  As in the Wisdom of Solomon above, it
was through Wisdom that all the rest of creation came into being.  Earlier
Hebrew thought had said that God created the universe more directly than
through a secondary agent.

By New Testament times, the two ideas of Word and Wisdom had become
assimilated with the Greek concept of *Logos.* This occurred largely
through the influence of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the
Septuagint, or LXX), Greek philosophers known as Stoics, and Hellenistic
Jews like Philo of Alexandria.  This assimilation had the effect of
removing God from direct contact with creation and humanity, by
transforming the understanding of the divine nature into a more distant,
transcendent, spiritual reality.  

These opening verses of John's Gospel proclaimed the newly revealed truth
that the Word had been incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth.  He is none other
than the full revelation of God.  The final authority of who God is,  what
God is like and what God wills has been made known in this human being.  

To quote J.N.  Sanders, "John's assertion that in Jesus the Word became
flesh was an attempt - apparently successful, if the subsequent influence
of the gospel is any criterion - to put into language intelligible and
acceptable to his contemporaries, pagan as well as Christian, the basic
Christian conviction that through the life, teaching, actions, and death of
this man Jesus a new revelation of God had been given, different in kind
from that made through the prophets." (*Interpreter's Dictionary of the
Bible,* IV.  871.)
     
************ 

SIRACH 24:1-12   (Alternate)  The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach is also known
as by its Latin name  Ecclesiasticus ("The Church's Book").  In most
Protestant Bibles it appears in what is known as the Apocrypha to the Old
Testament.  This book of wisdom, originally written in Hebrew but not
included in the Hebrew Scriptures, appeared about 132 BC translated into
Greek by the grandson of the author.  
     
In this passage, divine Wisdom personified speaks with great respect for
God's choice of Israel as the chosen people.  "How odd of God / to choose
the Jews," goes the old rhyme attributed to different sources, including
twentieth-century Roman Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc.  It appears to
have come from British journalist William Norman Ewer (1885-1976).  Some
regard it as anti-Semitic to which a funny Jewish rejoinder goes, "Not odd
of God.  / Goyim  annoy 'im." ("Goyim" is the Hebrew word for all non-
Jews.) 

The passage sounds a much different note.  Wisdom praises herself before
the assembly of the Most High as being both a creation of Yahweh and an
agent in  creating all else that exists.  After completing that creative
mission, Wisdom searches for a place to rest and receives the Creator's
direction to "pitch (her) tent in Jacob and make Israel her inheritance."

This emphasis on the continuing identity as the chosen people of Yahweh has
stood the Jewish people well through many centuries of persecution.  Not
least during the 20th century when Hitler determined that European Jews
should be exterminated, many found succour in their sacred tradition.  Both
Zionism, the late 19th century political movement and the 1948 founding of
the modern state of Israel had its roots in this same conviction.  


WISDOM 10:15-21   (Alternate) The Wisdom of Solomon, first appeared in
Greek in the last century BCE.  expressing attitudes toward divine wisdom
of its educated Greek-speaking Jewish author.  It is one of several books
now published in the Apocrypha to the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles,
but does appear in Bibles of The Roman Catholic tradition because St. 
Jerome translated it into Latin in the 5th century CE.

This passage recalls the event that shaped all of Israel's history and
faith tradition: the Exodus from Egypt.  This event is attributed to Wisdom
which inspired Moses to challenge Pharaoh and lead the Israelites to
freedom.  In a unique retelling of the Exodus story, Wisdom served as the
agent of divine power in overwhelming the Egyptian pursuers and giving rise
to the great narratives of the Exodus by which the faithful learned to
extol Yahweh's name.  

One can see in this revised version of the great Israelite myth a movement
away from a direct, quasi-physical relationship between God and Israelites
toward a more spiritual understanding of the religious tradition.  This may
reflect the increasing influence of Greek thought which was much more
speculative and abstract than Hebrew thought had been.  Another century
would go by before this movement reached its ultimate development in the
Gospel of John where the Logos/Word replaced Wisdom as the agent of
creation and redemption, and the Word becomes incarnate in the person of
Jesus (John 1:14).  There too, God is Spirit and effective worship is
spiritual (John 4:24).  

Thus Sirach stands as a witness to the continuing advance of religious
thought in what many sometime regard as a bypath in the Judeo-Christian
religious tradition.

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



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