Lectionary Guide: Christmas
December 31 | First Sunday After Christmas Day | Year B
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Psalm 148 | Galatians 4:4-7
Summary of the Text
Strange days, unexpected times: a belief-defying announcement of a pregnancy, a wearying journey to be taxed, an uncomfortable birthing bed in a hewn out cleft in the rock repurposed as a stable, a visit from herdsmen, unexpected. The last 40 days were a whirlwind of surreal confusion as to the veracity of any of these unexpected occurrences. Seven days of purification then circumcision of the boy, giving him a name not personally chosen, and a return to wait out the 33 of the remaining 40 days required of a new mother for cleansing, both expected and unexpected occurrences.
Women born under the law of Moses and having just given birth carried a heavy burden. Mary adhered to it dutifully (see Leviticus 12 for laws concerning purification after birth). Jesus was the angelically chosen name given to his mother. It was the Greek for the Hebrew name Joshua.
Joshua had been the second-in-command to Moses. It was he that brought the people into their promised rest. Jesus, the first born child, dedicated to the Lord, consecrated and made holy as the firstborn son, and in compliance with the law no different than any other pious 1st century Jewish family, expected (see Exodus 13 for the consecration of the first born).
A Fascinating Cast of Characters
A family living in poverty gave the required sacrifice for the completion of Mary’s period of purification, two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering, expected (see Leviticus 12). A day at the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill this purification, expected, an old man, one foot in the grave, one foot firmly planted in the temple and devoted to the baby brought in by Mary and Joseph, unexpected. Add to this strange encounter with Simeon, an old widow named Anna, 84 years of age, enamored by an infant and prophetically proclaiming the arrival of God’s anticipated kingdom through him, unexpected.
The preacher may wish to focus on the unexpected nature of the events in Luke’s narrative. Mary and Joseph do what is expected under the law, they show up where they must. It is just another day in the life of a young Jewish couple with a newborn until the unexpected occurs. As Luke continues the narrative beyond the text for this week, a twelve-year-old Jesus sits at the feet of the teachers of the law in Jerusalem having abandoned his family on their return caravan to Nazareth. Luke 2:47 says that after Jesus had listened to and queried the teachers of the law, “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” When Jesus’ mother and father returned to Jerusalem and found him in the temple, Luke says, “his mother treasured up all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).
We know why this matters to the story of Jesus, but why does it matter to us? In the expected routine of life it is hard for us to accept the unexpected. Sometimes it takes the continuance of the unexpected to discover the unique treasure of God. Sometimes that which seems ordinary is an unexpected treasure in disguise and repeated surprises reveal the extraordinary.
The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.
G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, Mead and Company.
The Moussaieff Red Diamond
The stone had been formed in the depths of the earth centuries before it was found, transformed from worthless carbon by unimaginable temperatures and pressures. It had been driven to the surface of the earth by tectonic forces and had made its way down various tributary streams until it came to rest at the edge of the Abaetezinho River in Brazil. No one could know how long it was there, unrecognizable, covered with mud and sand. It looked like any ordinary stone, but it was precious beyond words.
In 1990, a Brazilian farmer needed some water for his fields and stooped down to get it. The stone somehow caught his eye, and he scooped it up, dripping and dirty. There’s no way the farmer could have known that he had just discovered the largest red diamond in history—13.9 carats in its rough form. All diamonds are rare, but red diamonds are the rarest of them all. That red diamond would eventually be cut into a triangular shape weighing 5.11 carats. It is now known as the Moussaieff Red Diamond, after the collector who purchased it in 2001. Its sale price was undisclosed, but estimates put its value as high as $8 million. This amazing red diamond is exceedingly precious.
Comment: Just like the unnoticed red diamond, the birth of a boy in 1st century Palestine could be easily dismissed as an insignificant event, but for Simeon and Anna, like the Brazilian farmer in 1990, something, “caught [their] eye.” Eventually Mary and her husband Joseph took notice of the unexpected in the midst of the expected routine of life. Are we looking for the unexpected treasure of God in our own day-to-day order of life?
- Compared to our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Protestants spend little time considering Mary’s role in Jesus’ life. What might we learn from Mary’s faith?
- How does the beginning of Genesis 1 connect to John 1:1 and the word (logos)?
- How does the story of Simeon impact your own faith? Do you ever feel like you’ve been waiting forever to see God move? Or does his steadfast waiting encourage you to persevere through difficult times, trusting in God’s provision?
- Our text describes the unexpected taking place in this text. Joseph and Mary probably thought this would be just another day. Do you find yourself “going through the motions” of your faith? Where might you experience afresh God’s grace and presence in your life?
Call to Worship
Adapted from Psalm 148 (NRSVUE)
Leader: Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; Praise him in the heights!
People: Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Leader: Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
People: Praise him you highest heavens and you waters above the heavens!
Leader: Praise the Lord from the earth…. mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
People: Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
All: Let us praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. Praise the Lord!
Scott Bullock (Ps 148:1-4, 7, 9, 11, 13, NRSVUE, pronoun change for liturgical use)
Prayer of Confession
Almighty God, you have surprised us with your presence in unexpected ways. In the expectations of our routine, we have missed the treasure that you place before us. We come to worship you in community often expecting nothing more than the usual. We begin our days, our weeks, assuming all will run as it always has. We do not look for the unexpected, for your active presence in our daily lives and for that we confess our sorrow. Forgive us for not allowing our eyes to catch the unexpected, to glimpse your glory in the ordinary. May this season, we see the presence of your Son by the power of your Spirit in new and transformative ways. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
But when the time had fully 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 daughters. And because you are sons and daughters, God has set the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son and daughter, and if a son or daughter then an heir.
In Christ, you are forgiven, adopted into God’s family, an heir to the kingdom!
The Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis)
Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel.
[Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.]
Note: The Song of Simeon has been a part of worship since very early in Christian history. Indeed, Luke may have included it because it was already part of worship in his day. It has been an important part of evening worship since the 4th century.
It is an excellent way to close your service. It connects with the readings for the day, allows your congregation to “own” the message of the text, and orients your congregation outward toward the world. It would work very well right before your benediction. It works well either said responsively (the asterisks mark out traditional divisions for responsive reading) or said together.
This version is from The Book of Common Prayer (1979), but more contemporary versions may be found in other translations.
Adapted from Isaiah 61:11 and Numbers 6:24-26
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.
Giovanni Bellini ca. 1430 – 1516, Presentation at the Temple. Tempera on wood panel. Pinacoteca Querini Stampiala, Venice
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Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.