Isaiah 61 : 10 - 62 : 3
Galatians 4 : 4-7
Luke 2 : 22-40
Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3
SECTION ONE: NOTES ON THE READINGS
Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3
This is a passage which raises some complex questions. When was it written? By whom? Who is speaking? There are many differences of opinion among Biblical scholars, especially around the last question. (1)
But whichever interpretation one accepts, the central message of the passage remains clear: it is a vision of redemption and glory. God is acting decisively to redeem God’s faithful people, and those redeemed will reflect God’s glory in a way that all the world can see.
Redemption starts with God’s action – the bringing of salvation, the giving of a new name, the restoration of precious intimacy with God – and leads to the springing up among God’s people of a response of righteousness and praise. It is both transformational – all is made new – and natural, like the springing up of a crop.
Crucially, the redemption of God’s people is not only for the benefit of the people themselves. It also enables them to be a beacon, their vindication and glory pointing towards the glory of the One who is their Creator and Redeemer.
This invitation to all creation to “Praise the Lord!” is one of a collection of ‘praise’ psalms with which the Book of Psalms closes.
It affirms God’s unique power and role as Creator. Starting with the angels in heaven, all things, even those themselves worshipped as gods by some in the ancient world, are called as created beings to give glory to the One who formed them and who gave them their place in the natural order. (2)
And what an array of beings – from stars to sea monsters, fruit trees to flying birds. God’s creativity is on full display!
Like the Isaiah passage, the psalm also celebrates God’s actions to save God’s people. In verses 13 and 14, there is a call to praise God as the One who has “raised up a horn for his people.” There are varied interpretations of what the “horn” means – some, for example, have seen it as referring to the advent of Christ, others to God’s granting Israel power or glory, providing a mighty king, or enabling the return from exile. (3) All point towards God’s power to deliver.
For those of us who have recently heard the magnificent opening of John’s Gospel as part of our Christmas readings, this is another affirmation of the interlinkage of the work of creation and redemption.
But the wonderful litany of beings praising God has prompted further reflections as well – including one of my favourite expositions of this psalm, which comes in Richard Bauckham’s sermon “The Community of Creation” (4)
Bauckham notes that by “call[ing] on all the different categories of creatures to praise their Creator, and only at the end of the list get[ting] to us humans, [the psalm] gives us the sense that there is already all the time this vast cosmic choir hymning the praises of God, and we are called to join in. When we give thanks and glory to God, delighting in God as God delights in us, we are almost literally getting in tune with the universe.”
He asks us to recover this sense of being part of a community of praise, noting that it helps us to avoid “the modern instrumentalizing of the non-human world” and to appreciate our fellow creatures as “they praise God by being what God made them to be – in all the endlessly diverse and particular ways they are.” Doing so, he argues, helps us to appreciate all with whom we share our common home and to see our rightful place: “This experience of worship as joining with all the creatures in their praise of God puts us back where we belong in the community of creation … When we join in the universal worship of God, we are not set above creation, as some sort of demi-god ourselves, but set within creation, alongside our fellow-worshippers and fellow-creatures. We join the choir or the orchestra, singing our part or playing our instrument.”
Galatians 4: 4-7
In Paul’s time, a boy was often placed under those who would have control of his upbringing or possessions until he attained his majority. Then, at the time set by his father, he would be recognised as an adult and given the status of a man – and heir. (5) For Paul, our change in status before God has nothing to do with our maturity and everything to do with Christ’s life, death and resurrection, which occurred “at the right time” according to the Father’s plan. (6) Through God’s Son, we have gained a chance to leave our old status as slaves (verse 3) or subjects (verse 5) – and to gain a new status and a new relationship with God. The Spirit of the Son enters into us and enables us to turn to God as Father. God accepts us as children and heirs of the promise given to Abraham.
Luke 2: 22-40
This long and rich reading weaves together several of the themes surrounding redemption. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Christ to the temple, in order to make the sacrifice that the law demands. It’s not a particularly auspicious arrival: according to Leviticus, only the poor had permission to offer a pair of birds, for the standard sacrifice was a lamb and a bird.
But despite the lack of fanfare, two faithful servants of God, Simeon and Anna are able to recognise Christ’s importance and to place Him firmly in salvation history. Simeon, who we are told had the Spirit resting on him, had spent his life “looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” a phrase that scholars note echoes Isaiah’s language about Israel’s deliverance. He praises God’s faithfulness and, in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecies, proclaims the child as the one who will bring both glory to Israel and revelation to the Gentiles. (7) Anna likewise speaks about Jesus as a source of hope for those who seek Jerusalem’s redemption and responds to his presence with praise.
Praise and rejoicing are not the only things going on, however. Simeon also picks up the themes of opposition and suffering that run through Isaiah’s proclamations. This will not be a redemption without strife or cost. His words foreshadow the Cross, binding together the full sweep of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.
SECTION TWO: DRAFT SERMON/SERMON OUTLINE
There are several clear themes to explore – and each of the readings offers particular possibilities to explore some or all of them in a way that links with our concern for creation.
As we reflect on the coming of the Redeemer, where do we see God doing transforming work today – in our lives and in the life of our suffering world? Each of us will have our own examples: for me the ever-increasing growth in churches seeking to care for creation even at significant cost to themselves is one, and the action of Colombia at the recent COP, joining the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty, despite being a country with considerable fossil-fuel assets, is another. Taking those signs of hope as a kind of first fruits, do we dare allow ourselves to consider – using the eyes of faith – a world in which God’s salvation, for us and for the earth, shines out? What would that look like?
As we enter a new year and ask God’s guidance for our actions in the year ahead, we can also ask to be shown what a life of “righteousness and praise” in response to God’s gift of redemption might mean for each of us, especially in view of the environmental challenges we face. How might we seek to increase our care for creation as part of our response to God’s gift? And how might this best offer a witness to the world around us?
This passage also offers a challenge. We live in a world where climate change is disrupting longstanding agricultural cycles, meaning that for many of us, the earth doesn’t necessarily bring forth its shoots, and gardens don’t necessarily allow what is sown in them to spring up. Indeed, the sufferings of farmers across many continents – and the resultant lack of food security – are among the major crises of our time. The contrast between Isaiah’s use of natural processes as an analogy for God’s saving action and our current experience of nature highlights the scale of distortion and damage caused by humanity’s overuse of the earth’s resources.
But while the harm done to the earth is rendering this analogy for God’s faithfulness problematic, God remains faithful. How, in times of struggle, can we acknowledge both these realities? Perhaps we can look to the prophet Habakkuk. He railed at the greed, injustice and violence that he saw around him and lamented the harm that had come to his people – but nonetheless maintained faithful hope, awaiting the next stage of God’s saving work: “though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.” (Habbakuk 3: 17-18).
At Christmas time we confront the paradox that Christ is both helpless baby and the lord of all creation. This psalm, like the opening of John’s Gospel, sets out the cosmic scale of God’s grandeur and the praise God is owed for his creative and redemptive acts. In doing so, it reinforces our awareness of the extent of Christ’s self-emptying in becoming one of us, an act of love undertaken in order to redeem what had been made through Him.
Psalm 148 also reminds us, if we follow Richard Bauckham’s lead, that the praise of God is far too great a thing to be our province alone. As he notes, God is praised by all that has being – we are part of a chorus, not doing a solo! And this is a reminder that we are part of, not above, creation.
Many of us found comfort in a re-connection with nature during the pandemic and have tried to hold onto that in the ensuing years. As we move into this next year, with its challenges and possibilities, can we resolve to maintain that appreciation for all that surrounds us? As we appreciate nature’s beauty and power, can we consciously ponder the way it reflects God’s glory and try to gain a sense of that almost overwhelmingly great chorus of praise? And can we, as we gradually gain that sense, strive to act with a humility that recognises the value of all creatures with whom we share our common home, and stands against the instrumentalization that devalues and exploits them?
What a gift to be adopted as God’s children! At Christmas time, we give thanks for Christ’s birth and His saving work. But our adoption isn’t simply a change of status; it’s a transformation. The Spirit calls us to prayer and action in line with our new reality. If we are adopted through the One who created and redeemed all things, then our new reality must involve loving the whole created world as He does.
Moreover, the promise to Abraham was that he and his offspring would be blessed, and also that by Him all nations would be blessed. Being adopted as children and heirs to the Abrahamic promise is, therefore, both a gift and a challenge. As we praise God for the gift, we are also called to allow God to show us how we can, by God’s grace, be a blessing to the nations. Where might God be calling us to be a blessing to a world in environmental crisis … especially to those communities and nations most affected by climate impacts and environmental degradation?
For many of us around the world, this has been a difficult year: conflict, climate-related disasters, and economic crises have left many of us struggling. In such a context, it can be hard to keep up hope. This may be particularly true as we contemplate the global response to the climate and other environmental crises. We see again and again the devastation that our changing climate is inflicting, often on the most vulnerable – and yet, while incremental improvements are made, responses at every level, international, national and local, often feel lacking in urgency. Vague language about ‘transitioning’ from fossil fuels is not enough: we need practical commitments that will end the fossil fuel era, and we need them now!
Can Simeon and Anna offer us a model in these difficult times? As they looked forward to the promises of Israel’s redemption, we look forward to the promise that creation’s groaning will be replaced “by the freedom of the glory of the children of God” – that humanity will be transformed and the whole of creation be freed from its bondage. We can have this faith, as we worship the Christ who has already reconciled to God “all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20)
Simeon and Anna’s faithfulness took the form of both trusting God to fulfil promises and, crucially, maintaining lives of righteous activity and prayer, in accordance with God’s commands, as they waited for God’s initiative.
In our daily lives, can we commit to action which reflects God’s call to care for creation – whether practical action or advocacy – offering our small acts of faithfulness to God both as the necessary sacrifice of love and praise we owe our creator and redeemer, and with an awareness that God can use them in ways that may exceed anything we can imagine? And – as we push forward with the call to preserve the diversity of God’s creation, to protect its air and land and water, to end the fossil-fuel era rapidly and fairly, and to provide adequate finance for climate justice – can we commit to pray earnestly, as people who genuinely believe that God can and will act for our world’s transformation? Some suggestions are below.
Who knows what signs of God’s salvation we may then be able to perceive.
SECTION THREE: ADDITIONAL MATERIAL
During the course of this year, Christians around the world will be joining together in prayer for the climate through a variety of initiatives:
- The Laudato Si’ Movement has prayers for local groups and retreats
- Every month since late 2014, Pray and Fast for the Climate has provided material for intercessions – and now has an online prayer time at the beginning of each month.
- A global network of Climate Intercessors meets monthly for prayer.
Green Christian puts out a helpful monthly prayer guide.
We often speak of hope, but what does hope for creation actually look like – theologically and practically? One of the best explorations is in “Hope and the Environment,” a special edition of the journal Anvil, edited by Martin and Margot Hodson. It’s available online at ANVIL: Hope and the environment | Volume 29 issue 1 (Sept 2013) – Church Mission Society and is well worth perusing. The articles are engaging and accessible.
(1) Is the speaker in the final verses of chapter 61 the prophet? The redeemed people of Zion? The ‘Servant of Jehovah’ who presages Christ? And, again, who is the “I” in the first verses of Chapter 62: prophet or ‘Servant’? Scholarly opinions vary: see, for example, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Proverbs – Isaiah, pp 839-844; A S Herbert, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah 40-66 (Cambridge Bible Commentary), pp 160-167, F Delitzsch, tr James Martin, Isaiah (Book 7 of C F Keil and F Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament), pp. 579-587.
(2) Sun, moon, stars – and sea monsters – all played a role in Middle Eastern mythology, cf Willem S Prinsloo, ‘The Psalms’ in Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p. 434, and Willem A VanGemeren, ‘Psalms’ in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 872ff. Their inclusion in this list of created beings praising God reinforces the principle of God’s supremacy, including supremacy over those things worshipped as gods by surrounding religions.
(3) For example, Prinsloo seems to favour the “horn” as “power” or “deliverance from exile”; Van Gemeren favours “glory”; Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), p. 148 opts for ‘strong deliverer’.
(4) Bauckham develops these themes at greater length in his book Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation – also well worth a read!
(5) Joseph A Fitzmyer, SJ, ‘The Letter to the Galatians’ in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 243 suggests this refers to a particularly Palestinian usage in terms of appointing a guardian for an orphaned son. R Alan Cole, Galatians, rev ed (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) cites works referring to the father’s legal right to set the age of majority.
(6) See Beverly R Gaventa, ‘Galatians’, in Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, p. 1380.
(7) On the many resonances between Simeon and the prophecies of Isaiah, see, for example, Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (The Anchor Bible), pp. 421-430.