The readings this week are the counterpoint of Advent waiting: the waiting time is over, and God’s salvation has appeared! This is the Good News to Simeon and Anna in the temple, and to Israel in exile in Babylon. Paul’s reminder to those trapped under the Law, which is supposed to save but cannot. And the psalmist’s response is, “Praise the Lord!” How can it be anything otherwise?
Holding salvation in our arms (Luke 2: 22-40)
What must it be like to hold salvation in your arms – particularly after years of waiting? If we’ve had any sense of the agony and grim hanging on of Advent waiting and hope – any echo of its desperation – we might glimpse something of what Simeon and Anna must have felt as they cradled the infant Jesus.
These two wonderful, faith-full, elderly people shine like beacons in Luke’s story of Jesus. They are the ones who “get it” – get Jesus, and more importantly, get what God is doing in Jesus. And they “get it” in contrast to the temple system, which will later kill this God-given gift of salvation-in-the-flesh, and, even more startlingly, in contrast with John the Baptists, who will point to Jesus as the Messiah but fail to understand both the work of the Messiah and the God at work in Jesus.
The burden of Luke’s story is to tell us that God has arrived among us in Jesus (see Luke 19: 41-44), but, against all expectations, has arrived in grace, invitation and welcome, rather than in condemnation and judgement. Jesus is the love and will of God for salvation in the flesh. That’s what the angels tell the shepherds, and what both Simeon and Anna announce in the temple.
Not that it’s going to end happily! The shadow of the cross already lies across the infant, as Simeon prophesies. Jesus’ message and ministry of the coming Kingdom of God will divide, not unite the people of Israel – not into “sinners” and “righteous”, but into those who respond to God’s free grace and salvation, on the one hand, and those who recoil in indignation, protest and murderous fury. This is the beginning of the story of the Way of the Cross – Jesus’ story, our story, and God’s story.
We need to see in this passage Luke’s emphasis on the surprising and shocking grace of God. If God is coming into the world, the key question is, “What is God’s disposition towards us?” If Jesus is the Messiah – the agent of God’s salvation – what will that salvation look like? What is Jesus bringing – wrath or salvation? Here, Simeon and Anna give the answer: grace and salvation. God in Jesus is a God who is for us, not against us. This God stands with open arms, rather than folded arms, tapping foot and thunderous scowl.
Christmas, in the Lectionary year, is the pivot between Advent and Epiphany. Narratively and theologically, these infancy narratives perform the same function in Luke’s gospel. Two major narrative themes meet in this story: Luke’s treatment of the temple, and the connection between John the Baptist and the Purity System (which the temple of Jesus’ day represents).
Jesus and the temple
Luke’s gospel begins in the temple – the Holy of Holies. The temple is central to Luke’s story because it is the place where God lives (the Holy of Holies) and therefore also the site of the struggle between Jesus and the Pharisees over the identity of that God. Jesus’ claim to understanding divine identity is exemplified in his use of “Abba”: he calls God “Father”. The Pharisees’ and scribes’ counter-claim is possession of the authoritative weight of tradition.
The story that unfolds is of the clash between Jesus’ proclamation of God’s grace and the Purity System, rooted ultimately in the temple. This is a system that has turned the temple from being a “house of prayer” into a “den of robbers”. The events of the last week of Jesus’ life take place in the temple, where that conflict comes to a head in a series of exchanges – beginning, significantly, with Jesus cleansing the temple – that sees Jesus the victor, but results in a determination to get rid of him that is eventually made possible by Judas’ betrayal.
The point is that we need to pay particular attention when Luke describes events taking place in the temple. He presents Simeon and Anna as exemplars of the true tradition – the gracious Truth about Yahweh: they are old, they virtually live in the temple, they are “waiting for God’s salvation” and they have a prophetic ministry (ie a Spirit-directed ministry that stands as a critical corrective to the cult). Luke tells us further that Simeon has had a direct promise of salvation from God, in a manner reminiscent of God’s promises to Abram that kick of the whole biblical Jewish salvation narrative. And here, these two side with Jesus in terms of who God is. As such, they represent both the traditional and Jesus-purified temple: we come to the temple at the outset of Luke’s story to hear the gracious, loving Truth about God.
Luke’s prologue (the infancy narratives) will once again feature Jesus in the temple, in which Jesus is seen as the true and authoritative Rabbi (teacher) about God. He is true and authoritative because he is the Son of the Father, whose house the temple is. Do you see how densely packed this exclusively Lukan prologue is with temple stories? All of this sets us up as an audience for the forthcoming clash between Jesus and the Purity System. And as the Prologue closes and the curtain rises on the shared Synoptic tradition with John the Baptist in the Jordan (chapter 3), we discover that John, too, is caught in the purity-induced myopia that will prevent many from seeing and responding to the gracious invitation of God in Jesus.
Jesus and the Purity System
John’s mission and ministry is to announce Jesus as the coming Messiah. Yet, as the Q tradition of the Baptist’s preaching makes clear, John is expecting Jesus as the agent of the God-of-the-Purity-System – God’s wrath incarnate (Luke 3: 7-18). In chapter 7, Luke has John in prison for his prophetic ministry, about to die a prophetic martyr’s death, and yet wracked with doubt about whether he had in fact identified the wrong man as Messiah (7:18ff).
What John cannot understand is that Jesus is the agent of God’s grace incarnate, not God’s wrath. The baptism of fire and Holy Spirit (Acts 2) will be a blessing, not an eschatological BBQ. And so, as Simeon and Anna meet the infant Jesus, Luke invites us to listen to their voices (rather than that of John) in order to discover the truth about what God is doing by coming visiting in Jesus. John will tell us that Jesus is the Messiah: he will also tell us how difficult it is to accept the God who comes in Jesus. It is Simeon and Anna, instead, to whom we must turn in order to hear the Christmas message: Advent is over! Salvation is born among us!
Sharing in Jesus’ sonship (Galatians 4: 4-7)
Jesus shares our humanity – totally – so that we might share in his relationship as a child of God. That, Paul tells us, is part of salvation – the way in which our relationship to God is transformed by being “in Christ”.
It is important to note that the transformation of our personal relationships to God does not exhaust what is meant by “salvation”. Israel incorrectly believed that Yahweh’s covenant-promised, messianic salvation would be exhausted Israel’s liberation and restoration: Paul tells his fellow Israelites that Jesus is none other than the Second Adam, and that God’s purposes are nothing short of wholesale re-creation. The salvation of God in Jesus is far bigger and far more disgracefully gracious (grace- and mercy-filled) than we can ever possibly imagine – or want to! So we must see what Paul is speaking about here in terms of being children of the New Creation in Christ – sons and daughters of the Living God whom, like Jesus, we call “Abba”. Salvation is nothing less than the transformation of our personal relationships with God, but it is also so much more than that!
Athansius, that great 4th century theologian of the whole Christian Church, wrote: [The Word] “was made mortal, in order that we might be made divine” (De Incarnatione 54:3). This commentary on Paul’s teaching here is what theologians call “theosis” – the process of divinisation, or, in Paul’s terms, becoming Children of God as Jesus was. It is a theological emphasis that is far more important in the Eastern Church than it is in our western theological tradition, but it preserves the significance of what Paul reminds us when he emphasises that Jesus, like us, “was born under the Law”.
How do we “become divine”, as Athanasius (following Paul here) wanted to assert? Another great theologian of the early Church, taught that “what was not assumed [by Jesus] cannot be healed”. His point is about the significance of Jesus’ humanity: Jesus had to be really and truly human in order to save us, because God’s salvation depends on Jesus sharing our humanity fully. Jesus was not God masquerading as a human being: Jesus is genuinely human in exactly the same we are. Otherwise, he taught (following Paul), we cannot share in Jesus’ relationship to God. You get the picture: Jesus is God become mortal for us so that we mortals might be a child of God like the mortal Jesus is, and share in his relationship to God through the Spirit, by which we cry out to God, “Abba” – as beloved children.
That is why it is hugely significant that Paul stresses that Jesus, like us, was born under the Law. In Romans 8: 3-4, he makes the same point – which the English translation promptly unmakes for us! Paul tells us that Jesus was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh”. “Likeness” suggests “mere appearance”: in other words, you can (mis)read Paul as saying in Romans 8:3, “… by Sending God’s Son in the appearance of sinful human beings”, which means that Jesus does not share our fallen humanity. Paul wants to say the exact opposite: Jesus shared our human fallenness!
Jesus is Paul’s Second Adam, obedient where the first was disobedient (1 Corinthians 15: 21-22). As Adam’s representative disobedience (in the Genesis story) brought about universal alienation from God and death, so Jesus’ representative obedience brings life. That is Paul’s argument. But (we might respond) that’s easy for Jesus, because Jesus didn’t suffer from our almost irresistible and inevitable attraction towards self-destruction, despair and death (ie sin). “Not so!” says Paul. What makes Jesus’ obedience so remarkable is that he shared fully our sinful human nature our bias towards disobedience – and yet was obedient!
And if we asked Paul on what grounds he could assert this as anything other than an elegant theological theory, he’d say, “Look at Gethsemane! Here, at the point of deepest struggle, Jesus says ‘Yes’ to the cross – when everything inside him is screaming, ‘Noooooooo!!! Please not, Abba!’”
This passage is a reminder that God’s salvation is cross-shaped. It is the Easter Story – what the gospel writers call the Way of the Cross. Sharing in Jesus’ relationship to Abba means that we find in Jesus, our Elder Brother, someone who shares all our fallenness and pull towards what destroys Spirit-Life and relationship with God. God understands and is therefore us – in all the Gethsemane moments – because God has become fully human in Jesus for us.
But, like Luke’s infant Jesus, it is a reminder that being a child of God entails the Way of the Cross for us, too: the giving up of everything in order to embrace the promise and presence of the Kingdom and give up our lives in love and service of the world.
When Yahweh breaks silence (Isaiah 61:10-62:3)
It’s Jubilee time! Waiting time is over for the Exiles in Babylon. They have waited in the agony of both oppression, bewilderment and doubt, and also in the face of Yahweh’s apparent silence and indifference to their plight (cf Psalm 39:12, for example). And now the prophet announces the Jubilee – the time of restoration, free forgiveness, salvation and restoration.
The chapter, you will remember, begins with the glorious cry of the prophet (which Jesus will echo in Luke’s Sermon in Nazareth): “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me to bring Good News to the oppressed …” As the Exodus narrative begins with Yahweh “taking notice” of the Hebrew slaves’ plight in the brickyards of Pharaoh, so Yahweh’s salvation for the Exiles begins with Yahweh taking notice of the plight of the Exiles. Yahweh, who has clothed himself in vengeance and fury (Isaiah 59:6), now clothes the prophetic messenger in salvation and righteousness (61:10) as a demonstration and sign of what Yahweh intends to do for the Exiles.
No wonder this passage – or at least the whole body of the prophet! – thrums and vibrates with excitement and joy! This is salvation is joyful time, not fearful time – wedding time and harvest time, not war time. Yaheweh has at last broken the silence of Exile and hopelessness with the announcement of salvation and vindication (62:2). Just as the nations have sat and spectated upon Israel’s agony and Yahweh’s apparent helplessness and indifference, so they shall see Israel’s true worth in the sight of Yahweh: a crown of beauty and a royal diadem.
This is the promise on to which the Jewish people have held for nearly 500 years by the time of Jesus. They have clung to it in the face of occupation by one empire after another, and it animates their conviction that their hope in the face of Roman oppression lies in the promised Messiah – the deliverer prophesied by Isaiah. Luke’s Jesus chooses the beginning of Isaiah’s announcement in chapter 61 to say, “This is happening in me!” What will blow the minds of Jesus’ hearers – and all readers of the gospel story forever afterwards, is the realisation that Yahweh’s Messiah has come at Christmas, not just for Israel, but for the salvation of the whole world.
“Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 148)
The theme of the worship, fear and celebration of Yahweh as creator of the cosmos features strongly in the psalms, which make up Israel’s hymnbook. Yahweh, who has created all things, will ultimately be universally praised and glorified – Yahweh’s worth and splendour will be acknowledged and celebrated.
Psalm 148 is a psalm that looks forward to creation’s restoration – the point at which the world becomes the place Yahweh intended at creation. In the context of this week’s readings, it echoes what we have heard about God’s salvation which becomes incarnate at Christmas, and which Epiphany will begin to unpack for us: Jesus is the salvation of God for all of created reality! And created reality lifts its myriad voices to shout in unison, “Praise the Lord!”