The temptation is to do too much rather than too little on Christmas Eve.
For many, there is the feeling that preachers are the bringers of magic from the first century into the twenty-first. People who may not come the rest of the year will somehow find their way into the church building on Christmas Eve. Some of us may tell ourselves if we put enough into our sermons for today and tonight, perhaps these folks will come back sooner than next Christmas Eve. The risk we face is an attempt to fit a year’s worth of hope and wonder at this Good News into a single night.
The narrative of the shepherds has a lot to teach us. We hear of them only in Luke’s Gospel and only in the second chapter. They come into the narrative and then are never heard from again. Except for every single year on Christmas Eve. The shepherds are the first people to hear the Good News. They are prominent in many sermons, whether because they are associated with the lowly, the outcast, and the marginalized, or because they give us hope (or both!).
If the first preachers of Jesus’s birth were not immediately met with incredulity and scorn, there is hope for the rest of us who tell the story of Jesus’s nativity year after year. If the shepherds can come into the narrative once and the tradition of their message extend outward through time, culture, and space, perhaps those who find their way into church only on Christmas Eve will do the same. Enlivened by the message of Jesus’s birth and welcomed to the Nativity, the shepherds’ place is crucial to the story.
But what is the story we will tell? François Bovon gets it right, I think: “The episode of the shepherds attempts less to prove something than to bear witness to a heavenly revelation.”1 Our stories, rather than prove that the wonder of the shepherds during the first century extends to the twenty-first, is to bear witness to the wonder of Jesus’s Nativity. Part of the problem with this witness is it provides more avenues than can be pursued; the text is filled with possible questions and wonderings.
We could ask: Why was there no room for Joseph and Mary in Joseph’s hometown? In a society that valued hospitality and in which the family unit was the bedrock of economy, identity, and empire, it is peculiar that there would be no room for Joseph and Mary with his extended family in Bethlehem. Had they heard rumors of Mary’s premarital pregnancy and not wanted to be considered a party to her circumstances? Had there been divisions generations-long that nobody could quite remember but that nevertheless remained? While Joseph and Mary may not have been welcomed among extended family, their family extended beyond the reach of biology, as some of the families worshipping in our communities tonight will as well.
We could ask: Who is this God who shows up in a helpless infant yet sends a heavenly army at the announcement of Jesus’s birth? The angels tell the shepherds to not be afraid, a command that has been heard a few times already in Luke, in the announcement of the birth of John to Zechariah (1:13) and the birth of Jesus to Mary (1:30). Zechariah and the shepherds respond to messenger of God with great fear. The irony is that the messenger brings news of joy and of God’s presence in powerlessness.2 The military imagery of the stratias (armies, Luke 2:13) seems excessive for a baby — especially for a baby whose birth mentions no midwife, no help, and no biological family outside its mother and her betrothed to welcome its arrival.3
We could ask: Why does God declare victory through the heavenly messengers at the beginning of the story? Luke is evidently not very good at keeping secrets, because the Gospel reveals that peace has been achieved not through Jesus’s death and resurrection, but through Jesus’s birth: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to humanity (anthropois) — the object of God’s favor” (2:14). Jesus’s Nativity is God’s statement of victory, and it is a victory that announces God’s delight in humanity. On Christmas Eve, God draws near and takes joy in the intimacy of the moment that divine and human scream to clear their lungs.
In the end, the best a preacher can do on Christmas Eve is to bear witness to the unimaginable and invite all who will listen into the absurd wonder of the moment. It is enough. For all of the preacher’s preparation and potential hopes and fears this night, preachers are not the bringers of the magic or wonder, but witnesses of the mystery of God’s incarnation — along with the shepherds and all of creation.
In 1863, Prussian military analysts described war as defined by the presence of uncertainty, writing, “three quarters of the factors on which action in war are based are wrapped in a fog of more or less uncertainty.”1
The fog of war, so to speak, makes it near impossible to see the final endgame, and therefore predict the shape of the final outcome. Within the fog, the future remains uncertain. Directions and decisions are made cautiously, so as not to arouse the surveillance of the enemy. What can you do within the fog but wait, watch, and listen? What respite do we have but to pray for light to burn off the fog?
Isaiah’s prophecy begins with an image of darkness. A nation, its leaders, its people, and its armies have lived in the fog. The feeling that accompanies the coming light is a triumphant shout. Isaiah then describes the feelings of the breaking dawn with images of war victory. Plunder laid before the victor, broken yokes and rods of previous enemies, the boots and garments of the casualties burned in a pyre. The initial verses paint a swaggering picture of victory. The war has been won. The conquered have become the conquering, adding to their nation. Territory lost has been won back. Victory tastes sweet.
But then the war song is interrupted by a strange word: child. “For a child has been born for us.” (record scratch) Children don’t belong in our war songs. The darkness is supposed to be lifted by the light of the glimmering army. War songs are for courageous heroes who display their strength in battle. Battles aren’t for infants.
Yet, in Isaiah’s song, the victory is won not by military might, or the ingenious strategy of the generals. The fog is lifted by the creation of life, not by its destruction. Peace rests on the shoulders of a small child. Authority over the great nation is reserved for the young one.
On the eve of Christmastide, Isaiah’s prophecy prepares our imaginations for what has traditionally been a season of inversion. In his great book, Sacred Folly, Max Harris describes how the European church used the Christmas season to actively subvert the hierarchies of the church and its surrounding cultures. In medieval France, four feast days in the Christmas season were reserved to celebrate the priests and the choir. On the fourth of these days, the feast of the circumcision, the lowest of the recognized orders, the sub-deacons, were given permission to lead services.
In the 12th century, the Bishop of Sully heard of the sub-deacon services and expressly prohibited “rhythmic poetry, impersonations, and ‘strange lights.’” Perhaps more telling, he also forbade the order from singing the Magnificat more than five times.2 Apparently, Mary’s song of inversion (“he has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble”) was being sung so many times by the sub-deacons that the bishop felt the need to limit the singing. The sub-deacons, it seems, were leaning into the season ushered in by Isaiah. They were training their imaginations to see and express the ways in which God calls us to something besides the status quo.
To change our practices, we have to change our expectations. So, Isaiah’s prophecy begins the Christmas season by encouraging our imaginations to seek out ways to invert our expectations. This child being born is helpless, yet all authority rests upon his shoulders. This child hasn’t reached puberty, but he is the father of nations. This child wails for his mother’s breast but is the prince of peace.
In Isaiah’s passage, we get some of the initial glimpses of what salvation will look like in God’s world. It looks like peace. For a nation struggling to maintain boundaries, dominate vassal states, and secure borders, Isaiah’s prophecy seems naive. Leaders struggling with consequential geo-political conflict tell us that the security we enjoy is best won through dominance. The world tells us to put our hope in mutually assured destruction. Peace is only possible because we can assure the world that our missiles will launch before theirs land. Strength keeps the world in check, sacrifice secures peace, and spilled blood is the only message that your enemy will hear.
But Isaiah inverts the logic of the God of war. Peace, it seems, rises up as an alternative to the conflict. Blood doesn’t buy peace, blood buys more blood. As Christmas approaches, Isaiah is asking us to look someplace else for our salvation. Find another route besides the demonic price of violence. Look instead to the child. During the Christmas season, Isaiah’s vision takes on deeper significance as we see the child as a sacrificial decision of God.
Before the sacrifice of the cross that will come a few decades later, God first humbles God’s self to become helpless. As an infant, God is dependent, fragile, and needy. God becomes what we are in order that we might become more than conquerors, we might become peacemakers.
1.Carl Von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, Book 1, Chapter 3.
2. Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2011), 90.
Let’s face it, this night belongs to the newborn Jesus, Mary and Joseph, along with shepherds, a chorus of angels and some sheep and cattle.
It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus and a time when the church gathers to hear the familiar story and to sing Christmas carols with family and friends. It is one of the highlights of the church year.
To write about another text seems an effort in futility. All other texts will play supporting roles this night. But there is no more appropriate text to aid in telling the story than Psalm 96. The psalm is one of the Yahweh-melek psalms which praise God as King (Psalm 93, 94-99). It is embedded in our carols; “Joy to the world, the LORD has come,” “Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to All from Heaven’s all-gracious King,” “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds and angels sing.” Tonight the carols proclaim the same story as the angels — the baby is not ordinary, but is indeed King and Creator of All.”
Psalm 96 is exuberant praise of the King and Creator. Its focus is worship, and the call is for the whole world, the earth and all that is in it, and the heavens to sing the praises of the LORD. It opens with a call to “sing a new song” and this night calls for a new song, for God has sent the Son to live among us and show us the way to salvation and a righteous life. Tonight once again, God has a new song for an old people, another chance to start over and hear the amazing stories of this One. The response to that new song is to join in the celebration offered by God to the world (verses 1-3).
The call to sing is followed by the reason for our praise, and it is centered in God as the Creator of all. Christmas Eve is not often a time when God as the Creator is praised. Yet, the wonder of creation is on full display: the animals in the stable, the stars in the sky, the baby, the new parents. They all testify to the wonderous creation of our Lord which surrounds us every day. This baby and its new family are not tucked away in a bedroom in a house of servants and stuff, but in the world where creation and its gifts surround the child. The next seven verses are calls to praise that move through that very creation.
Verses 7-9 focus on the “families of the peoples.” Here there is no division into denominations, or cultures, or political parties. We are families of peoples, related by the Creator who we are called to praise. The psalm calls us to declare the Lord’s attributes on which the world is founded: glory and strength. It calls all to worship and together bring offerings and enter God’s presence. It is the call to worship as announced by the angels. The shepherds follow from their fields to the stable. These shepherds represent all the families of peoples as they bow before the baby.
In verse 10, the nations are called to declare “the Lord is king.” It is easy to pass over this verse, but if you look at it, it is radical theology. From the moment this baby draws a breath and even before the angels sing, this baby is seen as a threat by those currently holding power. Encapsulated in verse 10 is all the reasons that this baby’s story will pass through Golgotha. Rome will tolerate no other king and a message of “judging all of the people with equity” will not be well received by those in Judah who see themselves as superior to others and more deserving of God’s favor. Jesus’s message will shake the foundations of power. The nations here are called to set aside their own visions of power and praise the one who is truly King. It is a vision that we are still waiting to fulfill.
Verses 11-12 adds creation to the chorus: the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the fields and all that is in them and the trees will all sing to the Lord of all. By verse 12 everyone, every principality, every tree and bird and fish and flower are called into a loud chorus of praise for their Creator and King. It is on this night, that just for a few moments, we can almost believe this is possible. Imagine all the world engaged in nothing but praise!
The psalm ends with the reason for all of this praise and jubilation; the Lord “is coming to judge the earth.” So often God’s judgment is seen as a way to vindicate some and destroy others, in other words, an instrument of power. But here in this psalm, we praise God because God will judge the world with righteousness and the people with truth. The King has come and now is time to raise voice and instrument and tree and stars an flowers and sheep to sing, and sing, and sing “Joy to the world; the Lord has come!”
The passage taken from Titus in the lectionary today does not relate the storied details so familiar to us from Luke’s Nativity account.
Nonetheless, it stirs in our imagination images of Jesus suffering and death on the cross and of His glorious return at the consummation of human history. In this respect, the letter to Titus rightly shifts our focus to what Jesus’ coming among us as a human really means. After all, the birth of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas was an important and beautiful event of great significance for the whole world. It marked the beginning of the reversal of the state of bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21) and the relief of the” groaning in labor pains” of the whole of creation (Romans 8:22). We all participate in that. As such, the feast we celebrate today looks ahead to the culmination of Jesus’ work of redemption on the cross and even farther ahead to the restoration of the right order in the universe that sin had scrambled into disarray.
This is not to say that the birth and earthly life of Jesus were irrelevant in themselves. The letter to Titus underlines their significance as the manifestation in our space and time context of God’s favor. The life and teaching of Jesus were and continue to be instructional to us.
The “grace of God” at one time might have been a theological concept that people of faith perceived as they reflected on the fortunes of their personal lives and those of the community of believers in Israel. From this perception, they, with the help of prophets and other spokespersons for God, could assess their lives and gauge both the integrity of their actions and the authenticity of their faith in God. With Jesus taking on the flesh of human existence, the choice between good and evil became starkly clear.
By Jesus’ words and the model of His life, He taught those who would listen to reflect on the worldly passions leading us to a preoccupation with self-interested desires. His followers learned to reject passion in favor of self-control and to choose God’s ways over those of the world. Jesus’ teaching and our adoption of issues into our zeal for good deeds. We have been released from the grip of iniquity and been made pure by Jesus, who “gave Himself for us.” This is what completed the meaning of the birth of Jesus.
While the Gospel of Matthew’s Nativity account describes the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi, the letter to Titus invites us to appreciate the gifts given to us by Jesus as He took up our human life and pursued the task given Him by the Father to its completion on the cross. The followers of Jesus not only are enabled by Him to do good deeds but to do so with zeal and intense eagerness. Their lives are radically changed because of their purification by Jesus of their base and wanton passions. This also orients their hope to the second and final manifestation of Jesus in glory.
William Butler Yeats’ poem The Magi suggests a wonderment similar to that of the letter to Titus. In imagining a painting, he sees the Magi as observers of Jesus on Calvary, now helmeted rather than crowned. They are thrust back in time from the unfathomable “turbulence” of the cross to reconsider what they saw at Jesus’ birth. There it was “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”
The inclusion of the passion of Jesus into the recollection of his Nativity is not new with the letter to Titus but is suggested by both Luke and Matthew in their familiar accounts of Jesus’ birth. Matthew narrates the narrow escape of Jesus from the murderous plot of Herod by the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. This account shocks the gospel audience into the realization that Jesus’ life was beset by opponents from its very beginning and that the opponents would one day accomplish their designs and cut short His earthly life.
Luke, too, looks ahead to the Last Supper with its anticipation of the betrayal and death of Jesus by noting the lack of space in the “inn” (Luke 2:7). The word for inn is the same that he uses in 22:11 for the “guest room” where Jesus would celebrate the Passover supper. Conflict is also intimated in Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus was “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” Outright opposition against Him will be Jesus’ destiny as a “sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34). Again, the peaceful night of Jesus’ birth finds murderous hostility lurking in its shadows. The letter to Titus brings that danger into the light of Jesus’ Messianic work and salvific death on the cross.
The birth of Jesus remains a mystery for us. The mystery of the godhead appearing in the fragile infant, of a Messiah whose victory over evil is won by the brutal death on the cross, and of a heavenly Lord whose glorious reappearance His followers await in hope.