Some churches may choose to observe Epiphany (January 6th) either this Sunday or next Sunday.
Revised Common Lectionary
Second Sunday of Christmas: Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Holy Name of Jesus: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
New Year’s Day: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Psalm 8; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 25:31-46
Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Narrative Lectionary: The Genealogy of Jesus, Matthew 1:1-17 (Psalm 132:11-12)
For the Second Sunday of Christmas, we begin with a short reading from Third Isaiah, in which the prophet praises God and recalls all that God has done for the people. It was God alone who was their savior, who claimed the people as God’s own. God didn’t send a prophet, or a messenger, or an angel to do this—it was God who redeemed them.
Psalm 148 is a call to worship and praise for God. The psalmist calls all of creation into this act of praise and worship—all the heavens, the stars and moon, but also all heavenly creatures such as angels, and the “dome above the waters” (from the ancient creation stories). The psalmist then turns to the depths of the waters, calling forth the sea monsters to praise God, and all elements of fire, wind, water and earth. The singer turns to all plants and animals on the earth, before turning to the rulers of the nations. Lastly, crowning the list, are the regular people, young and old, all genders, coming together to praise God, for God alone is to be glorified, and the faithful know this.
The letter of Hebrews explains that Christ came not to help the heavenly creatures, the angels, but Christ came in the flesh to help all flesh. In Hebrews 2:10-18, Christ shares in our death so that we might be free of the fear of death. Christ is the merciful and high priest, and also the sacrifice. Because Christ suffered, he is able to help the believers who suffer, for the knows all we have been through. Christ had to be fully human in order to be the savior of humanity.
The Gospel lesson of Matthew 2:13-23 takes place after the visit of the magi. Not long after the wise ones have left, Joseph has another dream, in which the angel tells him he needs to get up and take Mary and Jesus and escape to Egypt, for Herod was looking for the child to destroy him. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt until Herod’s death. The writer of Matthew used passages from the Hebrew scriptures to prove Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. One such passage was Hosea 11:1, in which the prophet was referring to Israel’s past relationship with God, in that God led the people (personified as God’s child) out of their oppression in Egypt. Another was Jeremiah 31:15, in which Jeremiah uses Rachel, one of the matriarchs of Israel, to show that even their ancestors weep for what the people have been through as they were taken into exile. However, the following verse is God’s response to the people, that there is hope to be found. While it appears that the writer of Matthew took the verse out of context to show the devastation of Herod’s actions to the children of Judea, Matthew uses Jeremiah in a similar way to Jeremiah’s use of Rachel. Matthew is continuing a literary tradition, linking the past with the present in a new context. Nonetheless, we must not conclude that the new context is widely accepted by the community as a whole, nor negates the previous contexts. Once Herod was dead, Joseph again dreamed of an angel telling him to return, but this time, Joseph was afraid to return to Judea with another member of Herod’s family on the throne. Instead, he moves the family north to Nazareth, connecting Matthew’s Gospel accounts with other accounts that Jesus was from Nazareth. Once again, the writer of Matthew uses Hebrew scriptures, but either misunderstands the term Nazorean—a child set aside for God, like Samson and Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures—or it was a deliberate play on words. In Matthew’s account, this ends the stories of Jesus’s childhood.
For Holy Name of Jesus, the readings begin with Numbers 6:22-27, the blessing of God through Moses to Aaron and the priests, and then to the people of Israel. This blessing was given before Moses entered the tent of dwelling, calling upon God to give the people peace.
Psalm 8 is a prayer praising God in awe and wonder of all God made. What are human beings in the vast universe, the expanse that God has created? Yet God made human beings a little lower than divine, and put the earth in our sacred trust, to care for every creature on earth. How amazing and wonderful is our God, the psalmist proclaims!
Galatians 4:4-7 is part of Paul’s argument to the leaders of the church in Galatia, who made the Greek Christians second-class citizens. Paul reminds them that Christ was born “under the law” as the other Jewish followers of Jesus were. Paul’s view is that all are made children of God, regardless of if they were born a Jew or a Greek because of Christ, not because they follow the law, and therefore the Greek believers should not be subjected to anything other than faith in Christ.
An alternative Epistle reading is Philippians 2:5-11, the ancient confession of the church that Paul shares to the Philippians: though Christ was in the form of God, he was born a human being. He did not abuse his power, but instead emptied himself, serving God through his humbleness in the fullness of humanity, dying on the cross. God raised him and exalted him, and gave him the name above every name, so that all may know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The Gospel lesson of Luke 2:15-21 contains the witness of the shepherds, proclaiming what they had heard and seen of the angels, and glorifying God in witness of the birth of the Savior. Mary treasured all their words, pondering them in her heart. After eight days, she and Joseph had Jesus circumcised, and he was given the name Jesus, as the angel Gabriel had told Mary to name him.
For New Year’s Day, the first reading is the ancient poem of seasons in Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, in which the Teacher (the narrator of Ecclesiastes) reminds us that there is a season for everything and a purpose under heaven. Verses 2-8 display an antithetical structure, in which each verse has two lines, and each line has a statement with its antithesis. Seven pairs show a perfectly balanced poem (seven being the number of days of the week, a holy number in scripture). We cannot control what happens in life, but verses 9-13 help us live into the balance of 2-8. There is nothing better than to find enjoyment in what we do and how we live now, because we cannot control anything else. Love God and love your neighbor and do your best. Better to make an intention for a good life than resolutions that will not last. (An expanded version of these thoughts are in Judson Bible Lessons Journeys for Winter 2022-2023 from Judson Press).
The Psalm reading for New Year’s Day is the same as for Holy Name of Jesus, Psalm 8, a prayer praising God in awe and wonder of all God made. What are human beings in the vast universe, the expanse that God has created? Yet God made human beings a little lower than divine, and put the earth in our sacred trust, to care for every creature on earth. How amazing and wonderful is our God, the psalmist proclaims!
The Epistle reading of Revelation 21:1-6a contains the vision John of Patmos beheld of a new heaven and a new earth, reminiscent of Isaiah 65. The new city of Jerusalem came down from heaven, arriving like a bride ready for her wedding, because God would now live with the people, and there would be no more separation between earth and heaven, between death and life—there would be only life, and all things made new. God is the Beginning and the End, encompassing everything.
The vision of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is of a king separating the sheep from the goats. Jesus tells the disciples that when the Son of Humanity arrives in glory with the angels, those who fed the hungry and thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned will inherit the reign of God. They will be unaware that when they did these things, they did them to the Son, but the Reigning One will know; for when they cared for the most vulnerable, they cared for the Son. However, those who didn’t do those things, who didn’t see Christ in the faces of the people among them, they will face eternal punishment. If we are waiting for a God to come and save us, or even if we believe we are already saved and we’re just waiting for the end time, we are missing God right in front of us, and God needs us, now—in loving our neighbor as ourselves.
For Epiphany we begin with the glorious proclamation of Third Isaiah in 60:1-6: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” For the people returning from exile, God promised them that nations would be drawn to their light, because of what God had done for them. They were a witness for God in the world, and would be blessed by other nations, who would share with them their wealth—including gold and frankincense, brought in on the backs of camels!
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 is a song of blessing for a new king. The psalmist asks for God to grant the new king wisdom and justice, and to judge with righteousness. The psalmist blesses the new king with long life as he listens to the poor and those in need, lifting them up. While the psalmist also calls upon other nations to bring tribute and to serve him, the psalmist also calls for the new king to deliver the most vulnerable of his kingdom from oppression and violence, to be on the side of the poor and needy.
While most scholars are uncertain if Paul wrote Ephesians, in 3:1-12, the writer, purporting to be Paul in prison, writes of how the mystery of God has been revealed now: Gentiles are also fellow heirs of God through Jesus Christ. Gentiles and Jews are members of the same body, and the church is what can bring them together on earth. Paul is the servant of God, called to deliver this message, even though he is “the least of all saints,” now in prison. God is using him to share the message: that through the church the wisdom of God may be made known to all people, even rulers, even powers in the heavens. Believers have access to God and confidence in faith because of Jesus Christ, who came for all people.
Matthew 2:1-12 contains the story of the visit of the magi. While sometimes this passage is included at Christmas with Luke’s story of the Nativity, and the magi are often included with shepherds and angels in our nativity creche’s, they are quite different stories. The magi, also known as astrologers, probably from Persia though it is uncertain where they came from, arrived in Jerusalem expecting to find a king there since that was where the royal palace was located. Instead have found Herod, a puppet king for Rome. The scribes look and find a passage in Micah 5:2 about a new king coming from Bethlehem, the city of David, to shepherd Israel. Micah was writing about Hezekiah, the new king of Judah in his time, who would prevent the Assyrian Empire from taking control of Judah. But here, the scribes have interpreted Micah to be about a Davidic king for their time. Herod sends the magi to go to Bethlehem, with the orders to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the new king is, so he can go visit him. The magi do go and find the child in Bethlehem with Mary his mother (Joseph is not mentioned at this point!). They pay him homage, offering him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod (as an angel warns Joseph in a dream right after this story about Herod’s intentions), and return home another way. Note that in verse 2, in most translations the magi ask, “Where has been born the king of the Jews?” Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: A Multi Gospel Single-Year Lectionary, Year W in her translation on page 35 uses the term Judeans instead of Jews. This is a better translation because Herod was in charge of the Roman province of Judea, and it would make sense to be frightened of a new king of your province, rather than a new king of a people who are scattered throughout the Roman empire.
The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the Genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17. The genealogy is actually of Joseph, not of Jesus born of Mary. Nonetheless, the genealogy shows that it was brave women like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, whose reputations were trashed by others, who boldly claimed God’s promises for themselves, and so it is with Mary, whom Joseph marries, who boldly accepts what God offers her in becoming the mother of the Savior. Joseph, in the line of David, called by God to serve the people, serves the people by taking Mary as his wife.
Psalm 132:11-12 contains the promise of God to David, that one of his descendants shall sit on the throne, if they keep God’s covenants and decrees. This is the hope that the psalmists and prophets carried forth into the hope of a new king that would lead as David led, and later, after the return from exile, in the hope of a Messiah, one who would save the people.
This is the first day of the new year, a year in which we enter with honest skepticism after the last three. Our expectations are greatly tempered, yet we wonder if God might surprise us. Are we, like those in the first-century Roman province of Judea, desperate enough to hope that the system might change? Are we open to being shown a new way from someone outside of our normal social circles? Are we simply trying to find the goodness here and now, like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes? In this new year, can we live more deeply into Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, knowing that when we care for the most vulnerable among us, we care for Christ? Where will we find the good news? What path may lead us forward?
Call to Worship
This is the first day of the new year,
Let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the time God calls us to rise up,
Let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the world God needs us to love,
Let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the day that our God has made,
Let us rejoice and be glad!
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Ancient of Days, from the first moment of creation until now, You have made all things new. We confess that we dwell on our past far too much, reliving memories, and wishing we could do things differently. As we move forward in this new year, may we be inspired to let go of what holds us back, whether its nostalgia, or fear, or our skepticism. May we embrace the wisdom of our ancestors and live with our past, not as a burden to carry, but as a treasure that continues to reveal new lessons and understandings. May we deepen our relationships with one another and with You, working to live into Your reign on earth as it is in heaven. To You, our Wise God and our Savior, we give over our lives and ask for Your Spirit’s leading into this new year. Amen.
We have been made a little lower than divine, with the wisdom and knowledge to care for the earth and one another. May we live into God’s intention for our lives. In wisdom, may we forgive one another as we are forgiven. May we extend grace and mercy as God has shown us grace and mercy. May we work to heal and restore as God continues to bring healing and restoration in our lives. May we love one another as Christ has loved us. In this new year, may we set this intention: to live into Christ’s way, truth, and life. Amen.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty! We praise You on this first day of the new year, where possibilities are endless. Help us not to get bogged down in expectations that disappoint and resolutions that fail, but instead, set our hearts on You, living into Your intention for our lives. May we seek Your wisdom in new ways this year. May we grow closer to You through spiritual practice, whether reading more of the Holy Scriptures, spending time in prayer or in Your glorious creation, caring for the earth as well as our bodies, spending time in silence—whatever we do, may we do so with the intention of knowing You more deeply in our lives, as Your intention for us is to have life abundantly in You. We thank You, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Arise, Shine! Star of Wonder, Star of Night, lead us with hope and peace, guiding us in Your ways of love and justice. May we welcome the strangers, learn from outsiders, receive Your unexpected gifts in the hospitality and blessings of others. May Your love continue to be revealed to us in this season, especially in unexpected ways, for You are the God of Mystery, continuing to reveal to us what has been hidden until now: Your wondrous, incredible love for us, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Star Words is an option to give each person a star with a word written on it, as a way of guiding people with an intention into the new year. Another way to do this is to give people a star to write their own word and ask what word is speaking to their heart, giving some examples. A third way might be to ask them what is one word they have for the church in the coming year, and invite people to write on their star, and create a star banner with everyone’s stars. One year I found wooden star ornaments online and had everyone use a permanent colored pen to write their word on the star and hang it on an Epiphany tree (a small fake tree) that we kept in our foyer as a reminder of carrying our light out into the world.