For centuries the narrative of the Nativity of Jesus has been spiritualized and read literarily.
In fact, the Nativity of Jesus has political and economic dimensions, which have been ignored. From the evangelist Luke’s perspective, Jesus’ birth is regarded more highly than the birth of Emperor Augustus. Jesus’ birth challenges the authority of Augustus and his imperial power. I will pay attention to four essential terms in the Nativity of Jesus that carry political and economic meaning: The census, good news, salvation, and peace.
Emperor Augustus ordered that all the world should be registered. This census was associated with counting not only people but also their properties for taxation and social control. Emperor Augustus used the census as an instrument of his imperial rule and domination. Census was used to benefit the Emperor and the elites at the account of the poor. Accordingly, census became a sign of oppression and exploitation. Jesus was born in a moment when the Jews were oppressed and marginalized. Joseph and Mary could not avoid the order. They left Nazareth in Galilee to go to Bethlehem in Judea to register their names and properties. Jesus was born in a manger because his birth signifies solidarity with the poor against Rome imperialism.
The message of the angels to the shepherds put Jesus’ authority over Augustus. The evangelist Luke compares the Nativity of Jesus with Augustus’. The angels declare that Jesus’ birth brings good news to people. “Good news: This term often denoted the empire’s benefits such as an emperor’s birth, military conquest, or accession to power.”1 Augustus’ birth brings good news to people and benefits all humanity by ending war.2 His birth is considered the beginning of everything. Augustus was considered a divine being and priest with high office.3 His birth should be understood as both a political and religious phenomenon. Luke presents Jesus as a divine being, and his birth is the start of the good news. Consequently, The Nativity of Jesus holds political and religious meaning.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of King David, to emphasize that he is the new King. His birth threatens Augustus and his imperial policy. No one should be considered a king without the Emperor’s permission. The evangelist Luke introduces Jesus as a Savior. The title “savior” was commonly used for the Roman emperor. Augustus earned this title because he ended the civil war and had set all things in order. Salvation has a political dimension for the Romans and the Jews. The Romans understand salvation to mean security and deliverance from all their enemies. The Jews had a similar understanding of salvation.4 Jesus’ act of salvation is for everybody, unlike Augustus’ salvation that aims to protect the elites.
The angels declare that the Nativity of Jesus brings peace on earth. The concept of peace is fundamental for the Roman imperial rule. Emperor Augustus was the one who brought Roman peace (Pax Romana), which means security or stability. The Romans highly valued the Pax Romana because Augustus achieved it after a long and turbulent period. However, the Pax Romana is imperial peace. It favors the elites and oppresses the disadvantaged and marginalized people.
The evangelist, Luke, presents Jesus as the new King who will bring peace on earth and to all people. Jesus’ peace is inclusive, not exclusive. Luke talks about the heavenly peace that will resist the imperial and unjust peace. Emperor Augustus enforces the Pax Romana through military invasion and violence. Unlike Augustus, Jesus’ peace does not come through violence and oppression but through non-violent resistance. The Nativity of Jesus Christ challenges Roman imperialism. His birth teaches us that God does not distance Godself from the suffering of the marginalized. Luke writes his gospel to encourage Christians to engage in nonviolent resistance against the Roman Empire.
Preachers can relate the Nativity of Jesus and his message to our context. The economy of the world is in support of a small group, the elites. Underprivileged communities experience violence on a daily basis. Violence can take many forms such as lack of access to good quality of health care, education, and food. The Nativity of Jesus invites us to engage in nonviolent resistance against the imperial power of our day that dehumanizes the marginalized. Promises of salvation and bringing the good news to the marginalized in our community begins when we advocate for them. Declaring the good news starts with challenging the systematic sin that prevents the disadvantaged from improving their lot.
So many choices!
For Christmas Day in any of the years of the lectionary cycle, a preacher can turn to three sets of assigned readings. The preacher can choose Luke’s familiar passage about the census and the shepherds, or John’s complex poem about the word becoming flesh. Why should a preacher turn to a confusing prophecy from the closing chapters of Isaiah, the authorship of which has created controversy for centuries?
If a preacher feels guilty about neglecting the Old Testament and decides to make that up, why not choose Isaiah 9, one of the alternate readings for the day. The movement in that passage is clear: from darkness to light. Isaiah 9 gives us joy, the breaking of the bar of oppression, the destruction of the boots of violence and the affirmation of the leadership of a child. What case can be made for Isaiah 62:6-12?
Before you flip away, hear me out. Yes, the lectionary committee cuts the chapter in half and asks the preacher to begin in the middle. Yes, the movement from verse 5 to verse 6 is a jump in subject matter and metaphor. Yes, the sentinels on the walls of Jerusalem make for a confusing picture. Does the prophet mean heavenly beings who can make enough noise to gain God’s attention? Are they simply regular sentinels? Why bother figuring it out, when the scholars aren’t even sure?
This beautiful poem speaks to a sense of frustration, of impatience, even of anger. Christmas day gives the contemporary church a chance to celebrate and decorate. We love the beauty, the hymns, the children in their costumes. Inevitably, however, we face the reality that Christmas day doesn’t really change anything. War, crime, violence, hatred, and political dysfunction continue unabated, no matter how movingly we sing “Joy to the World.” Christmas day becomes merely an escape, a brief oasis in the midst of the world’s agony, indifference and cruelty.
Preachers can speak an honest word from this text. Beyond just the “Blue Christmas” phenomenon, which realizes that Christmas can bring deep grief to the surface, the birth of Jesus began a process that Christians believe will end in God’s ultimate triumph. Christians continue to wait, not only for the full realization of hope, but signs of progress.
If scholars are correct (very likely) that this part of Isaiah expresses the emotions of God’s people over the shortcomings of the return from exile, then the prophet foreshadowed our emotions over the persistence of evil in God’s good creation. The prophet who wrote Isaiah 40-55 promised the dispirited people return from exile. The people lived into the fulfillment of that promise.
The wonder of reestablishing the community soon morphed into more troubles: infighting, slow progress, and dealing with Persian politics. Even though we have trouble sifting through the exact meaning of all of the prophet’s words, the emotion comes through clearly. The people feel caught between faith and trust in God and the demoralizing effects of persistent waiting.
The reading for today begins with the prophet announcing that he will post “sentinels” on the walls of Jerusalem. The image immediately captures the attention of the reader. Sentinels typically warn the inhabitants within the walls of an approaching attack. They make noise only if they detect danger. Isaiah’s sentinels never shut up! They make noise to remind God of the situation of the people. They protest so loudly that the Lord cannot rest. The sentinels make such a racket that the Lord cannot relax.
The Lord cannot shut off the sound of the sentinels until the people receive justice. The prophet chooses as shorthand for justice fulfillment in work. Those who harvest the grain and grapes shall enjoy the fruit of their labor. They shall not work for the luxury of others. This example stands in for injustice in all of its forms. Part of what the sentinels cry out for is fairness, in work and other areas of life.
Even though the prophet wrote after the return from exile, the prophecy ends with a renewed call to prepare to return. In an echo of Isaiah 40:3, the people begin to prepare to go back to Jerusalem. Perhaps the end of the poem seeks to recapture the excitement of the prophet known as II Isaiah, who inspired the people to take on the task of relocating and starting the mission all over again.
Intriguing possibilities for preaching emerge from this passage. Instead of using the same, familiar texts for Christmas day, the preacher can proclaim from this prophet an understanding of the relationship between God and people that congregations may find stimulating. God has promised that through Israel and Jesus a new thing will emerge, an experience of healing and redemption. That experience remains unrealized.
In the prophet’s creative, unexpected metaphors, the anguish of the people matters to God. Christmas, the birth of the Messiah, initiated a process that should result in peace and joy. The prophet not only gives the church permission to lament the agony of continuing to wait, but proclaims that the laments actually affect God.
God cannot rest because God’s people continue to suffer. If the church feels powerless against evil, if the church laments exploitation of workers (verses 8-9), if the church loses patience that the birth of the Messiah seems to make no difference in the world, the prophet encourages lamentation over the frustration. Yet, the passage ends in hope.
The frustration now will give way to the joy of salvation. Those who have felt abandoned will know community and relationship with God. The passage enables the experience for Christmas of lamenting the continuing frustration of waiting, while continuing to trust in God’s promises for justice, joy and peace.
Christianity is, in many ways, a faith built on paradoxes.
Old and New Testaments alike bear witness to a God characterized by both mercy and justice, both grace and truth (John 1:14). This God we worship is both One and Three, both transcendent and immanent — and this God teaches us that power and victory come through weakness and submission (Philippians 2:5-11), that the last will be first (Mark 10:31), and those who seek greatness should become servants (Matthew 20:25-28).
Reading Psalm 97 at Christmas reminds us of these paradoxes. Today we gather with shepherds around the manger where a young, displaced mother has laid her new baby boy, and we celebrate the fact that “God with us” means we have an intercessor who has experienced all our vulnerabilities, fears, and hurts. Today, we also rejoice with all creation that this powerless infant reigns as God of the universe. On Christmas Day, Psalm 97 gives us an opportunity to place the Nativity in its larger theological context and revel in one of the central paradoxes of our faith.
Psalm 97, an “enthronement” or “Yahweh is king” psalm, is part of the collection of Psalms 93-100 that reflects a major theme in Book IV of the Psalter: no matter what seems to be going wrong in the world, we can have confidence that God reigns over all. Most of the “Yahweh is king” psalms, including Psalm 97, begin with the proclamation “Yahweh is king!” or “Yahweh reigns!” These psalms may have been read each year at the temple as part of a fall festival in which the people would dramatically reenact and celebrate Yahweh’s enthronement.1 The vivid language and imagery certainly lends itself to community performance — whether in the Second Temple period of Israel or in a twenty-first century church.
The “Yahweh is king” psalms highlight different aspects of Yahweh’s reign and its practical implications for our lives. The Psalter largely took shape during a time when Israel held little to no political power. Psalm 97’s prompt to confess that “Yahweh is king” is not the triumphant shout of privileged movers-and-shakers. Instead, it represents a desperate cry of hope for those who look around and see the effects of human injustice and evil intentions. In particular, Psalm 97 encourages those who read it to remember that God is the only true hope we have: the idols and false gods we build up for ourselves — whether in the form of golden calves or political parties or personal accomplishments — are powerless to bring real justice, reconciliation, wholeness, peace, and joy.
Psalm 97 unfolds in three sections. As the psalm unfolds, the psalmist slowly builds up a picture of Yahweh’s character: powerful (verses 3-5) and glorious (verse 6) and exalted (verse 9), but also righteous and just (verses 2, 8) and concerned for the vulnerable (verse 10).
The first stanza (verses 1-6) describes a “theophany,” an appearance of God to humanity — all humanity, as the psalmist emphasizes by saying “the many coastlands” will be glad (verse 1) and “all the peoples behold his glory” (verse 6). The imagery of dark storm clouds, fire, lightning, and earthquakes is standard language for describing times when God appears physically (compare with Exodus 19-20, Deuteronomy 5, and Psalm 18). These are dramatic, terrifying occurrences, and they stand in sharp contrast to the physical appearance of God in Christ. When Yahweh appears in Psalm 97, the whole earth shifts in response; when Jesus appears in Bethlehem, most people remain unaware that something radical has happened.
The second stanza (verses 7-9) spells out what Yahweh’s reign means for worship. Yahweh does not share the throne. Originally written in a polytheistic context, verses 7-9 proclaim that the gods of the nations surrounding (and even dominating!) Israel were nothing compared to Yahweh. At a time when a god’s power was judged by the military and economic status of its worshippers, Psalm 97 makes the bold declaration that no matter how strong a human king might seem, he’s a shameful fool if he bases his strength on “worthless idols” rather than the true God. Ultimately, everyone — even the false gods of Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the twenty-first century — will bow down before Yahweh, the bringer of justice (verses 6a, 8b).
The final stanza (verses 10-12) describes what implications Yahweh’s reign has for the lives of worshippers. Yahweh brings justice and righteousness to a world characterized by false justice (verses 8b, 10b), so Yahweh’s worshippers should also seek justice and righteousness in the world (verse 10a). This call to “hate evil” and the assurance that Yahweh will “guard” and “rescue” those who do so (verse 10b) acknowledges that the world is not yet at peace, but it also confidently assures us that the same God whose glorious throne is hidden by clouds and fire reaches down to care for “the upright in heart” (verse 11). In Psalm 97, divine judgment merits rejoicing because it means the restoration of justice in the world (verse 12).2
Psalm 97 and Christmas
Psalm 97 puts flesh on the bones of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds that the birth of Jesus would be “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). This psalm gives us a picture of who this glorious “God in the highest heaven” really is and how God’s work will bring peace on earth (Luke 2:14). And it confronts us with the paradoxical truth that the mighty God of Psalm 97 is the same God-child “lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16): “Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!”
The reference to Jesus’ appearance in the flesh, which accords with the feast of Christmas that we celebrate today, is embedded in a series of moral instructions.
The letter to Titus here appears to be using a baptismal exhortation as it continues the moral advice that began in the previous chapter. In this, the letter draws out for us the consequences of Jesus’ appearance on earth and His salvific work on our behalf. It is striking that at the head of this section the letter calls for subjection to earthly rulers and authorities. This is good advice for a small community without legal standing and social clout.
For different reasons today, the advice still has pertinence as Christians in the United States strive to reform and improve our society from within. To be sure, the letter’s reference to Jesus’ birth highlights His embodiment of the widely prized virtue of “loving kindness” (Titus 3:4) or philanthropy (love of humanity).
Greco-Roman society of the day symbolized the virtue with the figure of a shepherd caring for his sheep. The Christian community readily applied the virtue and its image to Jesus, both literarily in the four gospels as well as in statuary, sarcophagus reliefs, catacomb paintings, and decorative domestic mosaics from the earliest times on. The shepherd image naturally flowed into the image of the sheep. From there, with reference to the sacrificed lamb on the eve of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and the lamb whose sacrifice bore aware the sins of the people in Isaiah 53. The letter to Titus alludes to the latter when it mentions our being “justified” by our “savior” Jesus (3:5-6).
The second virtue of God that Jesus embodied in coming among us is “goodness” or “generosity,” a term often applied to describe benevolent monarchs. Thus, while the letter calls for subjection to earthly rulers, it contrasts those rulers with the diving ruler whose true benevolent action brought a total transformation for wayward humanity.
The waywardness, specified in verses 2 and 3, was universal and rooted in ignorance (“led astray”). It issued in a slavery to our baser selves. Replacing the malicious actions of the previous state, Jesus’ appearance saved us out of slavery and renewed us. It is now possible for us to be “obedient” and “ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). The letter focuses on the contrast in fact between the actions issuing from “passions and pleasures” and those made possible by the renewal and rebirth through the baptismal water by the Holy Spirit.
The ancient calumny against Christians was that they were “haters of the human race, just the opposite of philanthropy. This charge was cooked up against them because they kept apart from the polytheistic rituals, the gladiatorial games, and even military service, choosing to worship by themselves in private. The anti-Christian calumny today rests on Christian opposition to other social practices in society at large that Christians denounce such as abortion, promiscuity, economic disparity and exploitation. In either context, the letter to Titus declares the truth that Jesus’ generous, loving kindness enlivens the life and actions of His followers.
The Holy Spirit brings forth the enlivening in the water of baptism that brings rebirth and renewal to the faithful baptized. Thus the birth of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas looks ahead to our own birth in the Holy Spirit. Our celebration of Christmas recalls Jesus’ taking on humanity and at the same time it points to our taking on divinity in the Holy Spirit that is “poured out on us” (Titus 3:6).
We are brought out of the condition of slavery to sin and are established as children of God and “heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). The reference to eternal life thrusts our vision backward to the origins of our faith and forward to where the salvation won by Jesus is designed to lead us as heirs. St. Paul speaks of all the Gentiles as descendants of Abraham, heirs of the justification of their ancestor of the faith and recipients of the blessing of the Covenant (Galatians 3:6-9). There we are reminded that it was Abraham’s belief that brought him the righteousness of God (Galatians 3:6). So too here, in the letter to Titus, righteousness come to us through the “mercy” and “grace” of Jesus and not by “works of righteousness: (3:5-7).
As the letter to Titus insists, the salvific work of Jesus has made us “ready for every good work” (3:1). In saying this, the letter echoes Paul who at the close of the letter to the Galatians encourages them not to “grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” (6:7-10). Paul reflects Jesus’ own words in the gospel, such as those in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus makes inheritance of the kingdom continent on acts of generosity and compassion. Deeds, therefore, matter, as the letter to Titus insists. While they don’t make us righteous, they show us to be the people whom God has blessed and made worthy of His covenantal promises.
Our celebration of Jesus’ birth stretches our vision to the past event of Abraham’s faith and reception of the promise of blessing for him and his heirs, us included. The celebration also turns our view forward in time to Jesus’ death on the cross which won us a place in the family of Abraham and a share in the promised blessing. Finally, we gaze even further into the future where all who participate in an earthly life of virtuous action will share in the eternal life of heaven.