Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Second Sunday after Christmas Day

Isaiah 61:1-3 * Matthew 2:19-23

Today's Collect draws our attention to the relationship between the Word made flesh and the word spoken as recorded in scripture.

"Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word; Grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

This is very fitting, because the readings appointed for this Second Sunday after Christmas Day remind us very much of this relationship. The living and eternal Word is the subject of the revealed Word of God, made known to Apostles and Prophets, recorded in the scriptures. We all know that the Word, or the Logos, (λo'γος), is a title of Christ that speaks of him as an eternal Person, uncreated and one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This is why the Gospel of John opens with a threefold mention of God.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God."

God is named three times, and this is because John begins right away to teach us about the Trinity. I grow weary of musical and dramatic readings of the prologue of this Gospel that edit out the third mention of God, as if it were redundant. It is not redundant, but necessary. John is saying this: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (the Father), and the Word was God (the Son). The same was in the beginning with God (the Holy Spirit)." John later records the words of Jesus about the Other Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who "proceedeth from the Father." This is very important, because without the Trinity, the next major theme of John's Gospel would be lost, namely the Incarnation. For, he teaches us that "the Word was God," and then says in v.14,

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth."

Only this proper understanding of the double theme of the Gospel of John can help us understand all of its hardest, deepest and most puzzling statements. It is quite obvious that either John was teaching the substance of what later would be named the doctrine of the Trinity; or that he was completely incoherent. But, incoherent he most certainly was not. Those who cannot see the double theme of the Trinity and the Incarnation in the Gospel of John are forced to conclude that he simply rambled on without any meaning or logic. But, in fact his Gospel is well organized, and that is because it is thematic. Once you acknowledge the plot, so to speak, of the revelation of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that this revelation is made known because "the Word was made flesh," you can see the logic, the pattern, the scheme, of the book. It is like a fugue by J.S. Bach, with the subject stated, developed and woven throughout.

But, here I am going on about the Gospel of John thanks to the Collect, and our Gospel reading today is from Matthew; and in place of an Epistle we have an Old Testament reading that is quoted in the Gospel of Luke.

In the reading from Matthew is one of the two most enigmatic portions where he quotes the prophets.

"And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene."

Where exactly is that? In fact, I have seen many cases where Bibles with reference columns have pointed to the closest spot, closest to saying this, that the publishers can think of in the Old Testament. I have heard many explanations for why this or that verse is singled out, and all I can say is, it would help if only they knew Hebrew. I will explain this in a moment. But, first I want to look at Matthew's other seemingly far-fetched Old Testament reference (all his other Old Testament references make perfect sense right away). I refer to what comes earlier in the same chapter.

"When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son."

It is from Hosea 11:1. "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt." Or, so says the King James Bible. We see "child" and "son" as synonyms. But, not so the Hebrew, which uses the word
נַעַר (na'ar). In modern English we would say "youth" rather than "child." The youth, Israel, and God's Son who is called out of Mizraim, or Egypt, need not be the same. The prophet foretold that like the entire nation of Israel, God's Son would be called to out of the land of Mizraim, or as our English Bibles say, Egypt. In fact, this has everything to do with Christ being a prophet like unto Moses. This comes from the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy:

"The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him...And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him"(15,18,19)

Indeed, the entire episode of saving the infant Jesus from a mad king who ordered the death of the male children, fits that pattern; and it was because of Herod that the holy family was sent by God into Egypt. As Moses came out of Egypt with the people of Israel, yet a youthful nation, God's Son came out of Egypt with the holy family, the chosen of the chosen, the virgin Mary his mother and Joseph his adopted father.

So, where does the Old Testament call the Messiah a Nazarene, now that I plan to relieve you of the suspense? The answer will surprise you. It is in Isaiah 11:1, and it will surprise you because no English translation will carry it.

"And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his root."

Yes, there it is. Now, I did not see that at all until I read this in the Hebrew. The word for "Branch" is
נֵצֶר (nazir). It may be rendered "and a Nazarene shall grow out of his root." As such, it may strike you that Matthew sees even something we may loosely regard as a pun, as having great weight. Jesse is who? The father of David; and so the reference to Jesse is clearly Messianic, foretelling the eternal and peaceful reign of the Lord's Anointed.

My reason for going on like this about the Old Testament prophecies is explained simply in that passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus reads aloud the Old Testament lesson that we had in place of an Epistle reading. In the 4th chapter of Luke we read:

"And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." (16-21)

The point of all scripture is to reveal Jesus Christ, "for in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." (Colossians 2:9) As St. Augustine put it, "The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed." The Old Testament is about Jesus Christ. Through history, through shadows, through types, and through very direct foretelling in various places, it is all about Jesus Christ. When he rose from the dead, the Lord made this clear:

"And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." (Luke 24:27)

This says "the things in all the scriptures concerning himself," rather than saying, "all the passages of scripture concerning himself." That is because all the scriptures are about him.

"And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me." (Luke 24:44)

No wonder Matthew could seize even upon one word, and realize that it was significant. It is because the revelation of God is not simply a set of teaching, a body of laws, or even a great ideology. The revelation of God is in his Son; and without him we cannot come to the Father. God, who made man in his image and likeness, did so to send his perfect and express image, his exact likeness, his very Son. Jesus Christ himself. Not simply facts about him, and not simply his teaching, is the revelation of God come into the world to save us from sin and death.

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth."

So, we may repeat our Collect: "Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word; Grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

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