Christmas is all but over. Yet we can meet this whole next year with the Christ we find in the manger. Martin Luther wrote these words in his Preface to the Old Testament (written in 1523, revised in 1545):
“Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of all holy things, as the richest of mines which can never fully be explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds (Luke 2:12). Simple and lowly are these swaddling clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.” (Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament I. ed. Theodore Bachmann. [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960], vol. 35, p. 236.)
The Gospel readings for this New Year feature the Gospel of Mark. It begins with these words, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1). What a bold introduction! No shepherds. No angels. No magi. No Mary and Joseph. No baby in the manger. Yet Christ rings true from these pages written by the evangelist, and from the first person we meet – John the Baptizer (as Mark calls him).
As we begin a new calendar year, I have become more interested in how that Good News is shaped by the readings we hear on Sunday mornings. I’ve been asked before if I pick the those readings. I don’t. Most Lutherans and many other Christian denominations follow an ecumenically selected series of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The RCL is arranged into a three-year cycle of Bible readings starting with Advent. The three years are divided by Gospel – Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B – this year), and Luke (Year C). John is divided and read across all three years. As I think about this New Year and those predetermined cycle of texts, I am particularly intrigued by the Bible passages we hear in our first reading. The first reading (typically from the Old Testament, but during Easter is taken from Acts of the Apostles) is assigned in support of the Gospel reading – reinforcing a theme or offering a similar narrative. Since Isaiah is used most often by the Gospel writers to illuminate Jesus’ ministry, the prophet is used most frequently in the RCL to complement the Gospel passage.
This year however, as we enter into Year B featuring Mark, we have a number of weeks in a row featuring narratives we often skim over or do not spend much time thinking about. I would like to change that this year. There are some rich Bible stories that open up for us more about our lives of faith and how we connect to God and one another that should not be glossed over. This winter and spring I want to spend some time with them. Some weeks sermons may feature them exclusively, others may connect the dots between that first reading and Mark’s (and sometimes John’s) presentation of Jesus the Christ. While sermon titles are still a work in progress (as are the sermons that will be developed from them) I want to share a brief preview as to what we will be hearing throughout this season after the Epiphany and into Lent as we head from the manger to the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond.
Over the course of these next weeks, I invite you to behold the treasure of the Christ child once placed in the manger. May the scriptures themselves, who hold Christ as that manger, be opened to us to reveal the treasure therein. May we be wrapped in the same swaddling clothes, to grow into God’s Word and into the faith given by such a precious gift to us.
Here is what we can anticipate:
On Sunday, the Baptism of our Lord – as we see Jesus arise from the waters, the heavens open and the Spirit descending upon him at “the beginning of the Good News” we hear first “the beginning” the first day of the creation story in Genesis 1:1-4. A curiosity for me (and what could have been a no-brainer way to connect these passages) is that the gospel reading starts at Mark 1:4 when John the baptizer appears. (You may remember hearing the “beginning of the Good News” the second Sunday in Advent).
The weeks of Epiphany (or Aha moments) feature some interesting stories. We will hear the call of Samuel who three times is called by a voice of God in the night (1 Samuel 3), the story of the prophet Jonah, a prophetic word about a prophet who will come (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), A word from Isaiah about those who will mount up with wings of eagles (Isaiah 40:21-31), the King Namaan’s bout with leprosy (1 Kings 5:1-14 – the Gospel that Sunday features Jesus healing a man with leprosy too), and Elijah’s chariot of fire as he hands off the prophetic ministry to his apprentice Elisha.
Lent this year also features some important Old Testament stories. Ash Wednesday starts the forty days of Lent with the prophet Joel’s call to repentance (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17). Sundays in Lent feature Noah and the flood (Genesis 9:8-17), God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16), the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), a story from the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9), and the prophet Jeremiah’s announcement of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Palm Sunday features Isaiah’s words about the one who gives himself to his adversaries who strike him and God’s steadfast help as we enter Holy Week.
“The beginning of the Good News” is as rich and deep as the scriptures themselves. As the manger that holds Christ is opened among us, we will hear that good news together and reflect upon its meaning for our lives. Christmas can indeed last all year long. I hope to see you around that manger as we start at “the beginning” together.
Peace, Pastor Geoff
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
Do you have a favorite Bible story or verse? How does it hold Jesus like a manger?