Luke’s narrative moves to invite us to recognize that the breathtaking account of the birth of Christ cannot be contained in a twenty-minute children’s pageant.1
Grander than “once upon a time” the opening words “In those days” bring notice of a forthcoming rehearsal of a community’s memories, experiences, and hope. Setting aside expectations of a modern historical account, we can acknowledge the dramatic effect presented by the writer’s continued transposing of expectations. What scholars have labored over as a historical quandary proves to offer a pivotal dramatic move. The scene is set in Galilee, against both Rome and Jerusalem, the civic centers of both Gentile and Jew.
That the writer has spent so many words on this problematic census causes us to miss the poetic economy of his simple announcement of Jesus birth. Firstborn — fulfills prophecy, confirms Mary’s announcement and claims the one thing Joseph has to offer — the first son’s birthright as a member of the house of David. Our narrative imaginations must be converted to recognize the power of this brevity.
Tying the birth of John to Jesus, we experience the intimacy of the family and community celebrating John’s birth. Comparisons to the universal and cosmic responses to Jesus’ birth by angels and shepherds signal that redemption is not merely for one ethnic group, but for all creation.
The writer has neither wasted words nor gotten sidelined by a random vantage point, instead drawing together the political context with the promise of Israel’s deity. What first-century hearers might have failed to notice as sacred confession would be recognizable as societal conflict. This astonishing announcement of the arrival of prosperity is not made to the governor or the Emperor, but to peasant shepherds; not to elected officials, but hired hands. Then, as now, the broadcast of this birth turns civic contracts on their heads. The tension is especially relevant in this extended political campaigning season.
The Governor’s census locates the birth in Bethlehem. Rather than a demonstration of Quirinius’ control, Luke narrates this as the achievement of God’s promise from Micah 5:2. All the echoes of politics and religious culture merge as the listener negotiates the promise of good news between the Greco-Roman world’s imperial cult and the Isianic vision of the coming of the Lord to bring salvation and establish his dominion of peace.
In a time of political posturing and an inequitable economic system, the gravitas of the impending promise is laid against the existing chaos. How pervasive is the peace promised? Who will receive its benefits? Does this program allow for limited participation or an entirely new experience of goodwill by all? Luke blurs the holy with what is ordinarily human, to announce the presence of God with us. As we prepare to tell the story again, consider not only the ancient textual criticisms or familiar myth. Explore also its theo-political dimensions as a living and active drama which narrates us into God’s panorama of peace.
Roman orators and poets would announce the arrival of peace at the birth of the one who will be the next emperor. Luke tells us God shows up in the ordinary and the heaven’s respond in a chorus of awe. Mere shepherds take notice, as if gazing upon a bush that burns without being consumed. The declaration that is heard glorifies God and promises what God does for us to bring peace.
What God does “for us” always arises out of a covenant to be “with us” always. God with us is not a political promise to provide “for” a balanced budget over the next decade. God is with us in the present now: “with” those in poverty, the forgotten, and oppressed. Like the shepherds, we are witnesses to the presence of God among us.
And when we see what God is doing, as reflections of the divine image, we are to go and likewise do. Luke prepares us for such corresponding behavior by demonstrating the hopes of Israel in the drama of the birth of John and Jesus. Having already narrated parallels between the births of John and Jesus, Luke’s presentation continues to highlight the inclusive nature of the divine promise that extends goodwill to all. With this narrative move, Luke exposes John’s ministry as focused on Israel while Jesus’ ministry fulfills Israel’s universal purpose.
Israel’s God promises and delivers peace to the entire world, not merely the elite inhabitants of Caesar’s government. The pattern here is seen between the wandering outcasts and the homebound census travelers — unnamed shepherds, and Joseph and Mary, natives of Bethlehem — Rome’s resident aliens. Within the framework of the narrative, this peculiarity prepares for its corollary in the ensuing journey of Joseph to Bethlehem and the latter journey(s) of Jesus.
The ancient story Luke recorded is dramatized in the church’s witness today. The church can be invited to understand that our celebrating the birth of Jesus in this global seasonal holiday extends the drama narrated by Luke.
1. This commentary was first published on this site on Dec. 25, 2011.
It is quite fitting to preach on this text on Christmas day.
The mood is cheerful; there is talk of feasting and drinking wine and praising the Lord (Isaiah 62:9). All and all a joyful celebration that lines up well with Christmas festivities all around the world that involve sumptuous food, family and friends, and Christmas Carols resounding with the words: “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee;” and “Joy to the World, the Lord Has Come.” For as Isaiah 62:11 proclaims: The Divine Word has reached to the far ends of the earth.
Echoing Handel’s Messiah, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” (see also Isaiah 40:9),” we hear the good news proclaimed in Isaiah 62: 11: “See, your salvation comes: his reward is with him, and his recompense before him!” The Gospel texts, centuries later would understand this message in terms of the birth of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth we are celebrating today.
Isaiah 62:6-12, speaks about restoration, about redemption, about salvation. The images used to describe this joyful change in Judah’s circumstances are of homecoming, of God preparing the way for the people, of building a highway for them to go home after being for so long in exile in Babylon (see also Isaiah 40). And it speaks of a change in name.
The city Jerusalem will now be called Dirusha, or as the NRSV translates it, “Sought out.” She will be “a City Not Forsaken,” a sharp contrast with the memory of seeing people violently being forced out of the city. The new name directly addresses people’s experience of being abandoned by God as evident in the heart-wrenching cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This haunting lament that also would be on Jesus’ lips on the cross also captured the people’s experience during the terrible time of the Babylonian invasion and Exile.
However, in this remarkable text is transformation. The people will no longer be rejected; the sinful, despised people that had suffered greatly by the hand of the Babylonian Empire, but now they will be the Holy People of God, who have been rescued and redeemed by God. Truly a situation worthy of praise that resounds throughout this chapter and a message that would have been greatly comforting to a people desperately in need of salvation.
These words “in need of salvation” open up though a crucial aspect that is important for preaching on this text on Christmas day. One should not overlook the fact that this text is directed to a people who had lived through some very dark times. Evidence of this is in the first verses of this pericope reflecting the reality of persistent prayer, of the people pleading with God to save them (verses 6-7), to change their situation of pain, suffering and oppression associated with living under imperial rule in addition to recovering from the terrible trauma of seeing your city going up in flames.
Signs of this time of suffering is also evident in verse 8 in which God swears there will be no more famine caused by enemy invasion. The food and wine they worked so hard to produce will not be devoured by either the enemy forces ravaging their food supplies, or burning down all of the fields and crops in terms of the enemy’s scorched-earth policy.
These painful memories of dark times simmering beneath the hopeful message of a joyful deliverance and restoration remind us as preachers today of the dark side of Christmas. So often our preaching is saccharine sweet in a Hallmark card way that only focuses on the message of happiness and joy and light that marks this Christmas season. However, as we are preaching, we should remember that in our congregations there are many people who do not always feel so happy at this time of year. There are empty places at the holiday table, with loved ones being far away or who have passed away — some perhaps even in this past year. Many people may be feeling lonely and quite despondent, and the holiday cheer according to which everyone seems happy but me, makes everything seems worse.
In preaching, it is important not only to focus on the light of Christmas but to show how the light breaks into the darkness when preaching on this text. Karl Rahner has written profoundly on the birth of Christ: “Christmas is more than a bit of cheerful mood … The important figure in the holy night is the child, the one child, the Son of God, and his birth. Christmas means that he has come. He has made the night bright. He has turned the night of our darkness, our incomprehensible night, into Christmas. The terrible night of our anxiety and helplessness is now a holy night. That is what Christmas tells us”1
This message ought to inform all of our Christmas preaching and aligns well with Isaiah as a preacher of hope amidst dark times. The prophet’s hopeful message of deliverance and salvation occurs when everything is still pretty much in shambles. And yet Isaiah’s words that attest to “Vision over Visibility” to quote one of U2’s songs, draw our attention to the small acts of liberation in the here and now, as evident in the reassembly of the community, the sharing of a meal, the laughter where there had been tears, the candles lighting up the darkness, which are exemplified in the sound of the bells ringing in Christmas.
In theological terms, one can thus talk about the already and the not yet of liberation, in which the small signs of festivity and a return of joy and communion point to a time in which we might expect the ultimate restoration of all things that are broken.
1 Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, 19-20
On Christmas Day, when families in pajamas unwrap gifts under their trees, monks in monasteries all around the world rise to chant Psalm 97.1
This psalm might even be recited in a few churches (those that utilize all the lections), and perhaps even heard by the handful of the zealous who leave the presents behind to show up for worship.
We have a little cluster of Psalms (93 through 99) whose primary theme is “The Lord reigns! The Lord is King!” Worshippers in ancient Israel must have had considerable hutzpah to travel for miles in caravans over rocky, dangerous terrain to press with the crowd into the temple to shout “The Lord is King!” History seemed not to be on their Lord’s side, as all the vast territories, tax revenues and military victories were concentrated in the hands of the gods of Babylon, or Egypt, or Greece, or Rome, or any of a long parade of the truly high and mighty.
On the first Christmas Day, it was the mighty Caesar Augustus who reigned; the angels didn’t sing loudly enough for the echoes to reach his palace in Rome. The shepherds heard the “heavens proclaiming his righteousness” (97:6) — but they were more startled than moved to deep faith.
The God of the Psalmist and the shepherds (whose ‘name’ was ‘Yahweh’) must have seemed like the weakling on the playground of bigger, more impressive deities (like Marduk or Ea of the mighty Babylonians, or Osiris or Horus of the wealthy Egyptians). All other gods could boast of military triumphs, vast hordes of gold, shinier cultic objects; if success was the measure, the gods of the Assyrians or the Phoenicians or just about anybody else had superior reasons to elicit praise from their subjects. Psalm 97:1 says “Let the earth rejoice” — but I imagine the rest of the earth smirked, chuckled in ridicule, when Israel gathered to sing that Israel’s Lord was King.
Why this foolishness in Israel? Was it lunacy or a profound faith that could stand boldly in the face of being small, puny, a laughingstock, and still affirm that “Our Lord is King! — and yours isn’t”? Did they understand the true nature of the true God? I suspect they did, although it was when Jesus arrived that the world was treated to the ultimate display of exactly what a King looks like.
Jesus lay in a manger instead of a palace. Instead of issuing edicts, Jesus simply let out a cry only his mother could hear. Jesus surrounded himself with poor clueless fishermen instead of slick bureaucrats. Jesus recruited an army of grateful lepers instead of well-drilled regiments. Jesus rode a wobbly donkey instead of a sprightly stallion. Jesus assumed a cross instead of a throne, and a crown of thorns, not gold and jewels.
Laugh out loud when the Wise Men tell King Herod, “We have come to worship the king” (Matthew 2:2) — a rather rude affront to the guy sitting in the palace. Furrow your brow when Pontius Pilate snidely asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” (John 18:37). He commands no regiments, he calls down no heavenly power to defend himself, he says not a single word. In his entourage were not senators and oligarchs, but lepers, prostitutes, the unlettered, the nobodies. At a crossroads he hangs on an olive shaft, a placard of mockery posted above his head in multiple languages so all can chuckle, or scratch their heads in wonder, or perhaps even believe. Let earth receive her king.
Christians who strive for power in America or any other place on earth misconstrue the heart of our faith. We are historically wary of power: when J.R.R. Tolkien told his scintillating stories of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, and their quest not to possess the ring of power but to destroy it, he articulated in fable form the essence of Christianity, which is not about us wielding power; we yield to the power of God, which is itself a small, paradoxical power, the power of humble service.
Or perhaps wisdom intuits that with our God, we glimpse a very different, and much better type of royalty. “The word of the cross is folly to the perishing, but to us being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Want to see power? Watch Jesus touch the untouchables, or wash the feet of those who would gladly have washed his. Watch Jesus surrender his very life, so powerful was his love. Watch Jesus forgive the very people who just spat on him and drove nails into his flesh. Watch Jesus breathe his last — and then quite fantastically show up three days later. “The Lord is King! Let the earth rejoice.”
The world still mockingly laughs — or yawns. But we know, and we pray, and praise the Lord who is king. “Let the earth rejoice”: we pray that they will, and until they do, we rejoice for them, on their behalf, raising a chorus of “Joy to the world; let earth receive her King” on behalf of those who are tone deaf, who have not yet grasped the true nature of power and the wonder of love become flesh.
1. Commentary first published on December 25, 2013.
Most preachers who encounter this text will do so on Christmas morning itself.
If that’s true, then the preacher and the hearers are coming to this passage at a strange moment in the struggle between secular and religious Christmas. As people awaken early to open gifts in their pajamas, it can seem like Santa has finally triumphed. But any family that leaves the warmth of their home to venture out to Church on the morning of the Nativity bears witness in their bodies that it is Christ who is victorious, this day and all days.
This year, Christmas Day is actually a Sunday, so perhaps there will be a few more congregants than usual, but in any case, the faithful (or faith seekers) who arrive this morning will appreciate a solidly Christian message.
Christ’s presence and saving action
“But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us” this excerpt begins. The use of the word “But” suggests that this passage is in contrast to whatever came before. In this case, it’s in contrast to the list of sins in the unread verse 3. What makes the difference is the appearance of God’s loving-kindness. Read on Christmas Day, a connection between God’s loving-kindness and the arrival of the Christ Child is easy to make.
And when he appears, he saves us. Of course, that is the point of all this, isn’t it? The Incarnation is the first act in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It’s already amazing, and worthy of praise that God would come to humanity at all, let alone live and die as one of us to save us from sin and death. This baby, helpless now in a manger, is the same one who will die helpless on a Cross to show us all what true power is. The Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery are two ends of the single story of God’s sheer love in Jesus.
This passage continues by affirming that the saving act of Christ is not a result of anything we have done, or could do. Indeed, there is no work or righteousness that causes our salvation. Instead our salvation is a consequence of God’s mercy. Just as Christ’s presence in our world is a gift, so is the salvation he brings. This salvation comes to us “through the water of rebirth and renewal but he Holy Spirit.” This reference to baptism is an invitation to the preacher and the congregation to extend the story of Jesus past the moment of his birth into the lives of today’s faithful followers.
At the end of a busy Holiday season, this reminder of our Baptism can be a moment of centering in our faith, and a reminder of the way that God’s salvation is always an invitation to rebirth and renewal. The turning of the calendar year is often thought of as an opportunity to get a new start, but the Christian life is one of continually beginning again through perpetual conversion and renewal of life through the indwelling of the Spirit.
The Gift of the Spirit
In baptism, God bestows upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is no stingy or reluctant gift, either. Paul reminds Titus that this gift is poured out on us “richly.” It is an abundant sharing in God’s life and love of the world. One that will inevitably and irrevocably alter our lives, and through us, the entire world.
The Holy Spirit continues to accompany us all along the journey of our redeemed lives. This justification, which comes to us by grace, is only the beginning. Far from being an end in itself, it is the process by which we are always becoming the people God is calling us to be, “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
The truest gift of the Christmas season is God’s gift of Jesus Christ to the world, and through him, the Holy Spirit which animates our lives and brings us salvation and eternal life.