Lectionary Commentaries for December 25, 2015
Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)
Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20
Ronald J. Allen
Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks
At first glance this seems a strange text for this high celebration of the church — the birth of our Savior.
Scholars describe it as a poem that celebrates the vindication of Jerusalem (Zion by another name) and the restoration that followed the return of the people from exile. But the tone of the opening verses of this pericope seems somewhat lacking in celebrative expression. Instead the text seems to offer a lament for an unfulfilled promise, rather that an acknowledgement of the fulfillment of a salvific promise. This text is attributed to the writer dubbed “Third Isaiah” by First Testament scholars, and it is believed to represent in part their disappointment that the promise and hope offered to a people in exile, starting with the announcement of good news (Isaiah 40) had not come to fruition. As such, this text is the cry of a people who have been left out from experiencing the promises that had brought great hope to a people in the midst of despair. They are still longing for the future glory that accompanies restoration and is the fulfillment of hope. But for them, their hope is not yet realized, theirs is hope unborn.
But this is Christmas day; Christ is born. The Savior of the world has come, so what need is there for “sentinels” to keep watch over the situation of God’s people and bring their situation to God’s attention. As Christians, on this day especially, we celebrate in faith that God has sent Jesus as Savior in answer to the spoken and unspoken cries of the people. Thus Isaiah’s poem speaks volume on this day of hope fulfilled in the birth of the baby Jesus to groups and individuals who also find themselves outside of the prosperity that seems to epitomize so much of the society. People of color, the poor, the immigrants, the homeless, the unemployed and under-employed, single parents, undocumented workers, are but a few of the groups to whom this text speaks a much-needed word of promise. Many stand forlorn outside the gates of prosperity touted by too many modern-day preachers. Worse still, they accept the blame heaped on them for not being worthy enough to experience the boundless grace of God. They stand outside the walls that have been constructed to keep them from claiming their share of the divine largesse that is available and free to all. And instead of joyful praise to God, who has already brought them the salvation they need, they are lost in the darkness of doubt and fear, and they are deaf to the eternal promises of the Holy One.
It is a sad fact that Christmas day is marked by a high incidence of suicides. Perhaps the light that we celebrate that has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ is too bright and rather than dispel the darkness, serves only to make blaringly visible the sadness and pain that defines life for some. Children look forward to receiving gifts to warm their hearts, but for many not only are there no gifts, but there is no warmth anywhere and they shiver in the cold both physically and otherwise as they are the unceasing victims of oppression and injustice.
At a time in these United States where many find it easy to blame the “foreigners” for the economic ills that plague all but the very wealthy in society, this text presents a somewhat troublesome idea that seems to speak against their inclusion in the saving promise of God. It is too easy to misunderstand the prophet’s assurance that:
I (God) will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored.
Misinterpretation of this text may cause some preachers to use it to support the exclusion of groups that have already been marginalized. However, the opposite is true insofar as the historic meaning of this text has been understood. The prophetic community of Third Isaiah had been prevented from participating in the post-exilic prosperity by the priestly order and these words of promise are intended to be representative of full inclusion of all people in the divine promise.
The church as representative of the beloved community is called to full inclusion of all persons regardless of whatever aspect of their identity makes them foreign or causes them to be considered “other.” The message from the preacher of this text cannot be simply in praise of the fulfillment of this promise, of the glorious birth of the Savior of the world. There must be affirmation of the universality of that divine gift. The preacher must offer the assurance that God is indeed a present help to all in need; that the challenges of all people in this present world is as much of concern to God as was the pains and hardship encountered by the people of Israel in exile and as the post-exilic society.
On this day, we celebrate the good news of a savior to whom there is no “other.” The church is called to live in the faith of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfilment of God’s grace-filled promise. It is through this child, the incarnate word that salvation comes. Through the salvation he offers, all may experience the redemption that makes them “The Holy People.” Regardless of the situation that confronts us in the world, through the promised salvation, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the child of Bethlehem, the text offers the assurance that salvation has come. It is Christmas Day and all can celebrate the salvation of God for the whole world.
Commentary on Psalm 97
The first line of Psalm 97 marks it as one of several “enthronement psalms” found in the Psalter (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).
These psalms typically feature the phrase “The Lord is king,” sometimes translated “The Lord reigns” or “The Lord has become king” (93:1; 95:3; 96:10; 98:6; 99:1; cf. 47:7-8).
These different translations reflect alternate views about the original cultic background of these texts. Many scholars think the enthronement psalms belonged to an annual festival that reaffirmed Yahweh’s kingship over the world. Unfortunately, only the psalms remain to provide a witness to such a festival, so the specific liturgical details are difficult to pin down.
Despite their obscure origins, the enthronement psalms bear a rich theological witness as they explore the implications of Yahweh’s ultimate authority. The first half of Psalm 97 describes how nature reacts to God’s power (vv. 1-6a). The second half of the psalm (vv. 6b-12) portrays the human reaction. In sum, the psalm shows how the advent of Yahweh’s kingdom elicits a worldwide response.
Yahweh’s cosmic Kingship
In v. 1 the psalmist calls “the earth” to respond to God’s rule with joy (v. 1a). Hebrew cosmology understood “the earth” to be a body of land bounded by oceans. Thus the call for the “many coastlands” to join in happy praise (v. 1b) reinforces the idea of the vastness of the earth and the full extent of its happiness. God’s rule enlivens all the land, to every shoreline, in every direction.
The psalm then describes the thick clouds that both obscure the divine presence and represent God’s power in the world (v. 2). Though shrouded in clouds and darkness, God’s throne in the celestial realm is nevertheless firmly established on the twin principles of divine rule: righteousness and justice (v. 2).
Such a pairing occurs at numerous points throughout the Psalter (e.g., Psalms 33:5; 72:1, 2; 89:14; 99:4). We might understand righteousness as the state of being in right relationships, while justice is the process by which such relationships are restored and maintained. Together, righteousness and justice characterize God’s nature even as they describe God’s plan for the human community to live together. God’s justice is embodied through the fire (v. 3) and lightning (v. 4), which illuminate the darkness and obliterate those who might challenge God’s rule.
Such an awesome display of divine power actually reshapes the world. Verses 4-5 describe the effects of sudden, dramatic earthquakes (v. 4b) and the slow process of erosion (the mountains melting like wax, v. 5a). In the poetic language of the psalm, all of these earth-changing processes are focused into a single and eternal moment of Yahweh’s self-revelation.
Yahweh as King of Kings
Verse 6 functions as a hinge between the two halves of the poem. The first line summarizes the response of the cosmos to its king, with heaven proclaiming Yahweh’s righteousness. The second part of v. 6 shifts the focus to the human community: “all the peoples” now reflect God’s power.
The advent of the king reveals the truth about the political and religious structures of power. The polemic against idols and other gods found in vv. 7-9 is, at its core, a statement that God’s power is more effective than any other. False powers will fail. God alone reigns as king. Since God has established the cosmic order, only God can bring about order and right relationships within the realm human affairs.
Emphasizing the singularity of divine power creates a sense of solidarity among those who earnestly seek to be faithful to God. As there is one God, those who preserve God’s order in the world are drawn into one community. This community is solidified through corporate praise, which actualizes the power of God. Praise reveals God’s power just as God’s power could be seen in all the mighty forces of nature: earth and clouds, light and darkness (vv. 1-6a).
Yahweh Most High
In the vertical social structure of the ancient world, height means might. Huge temples showed the power of the gods worshipped there. High fortified towers signaled a king’s control over vast territories. Colossal statuary of the king and the gods showed how their power could overwhelm all others. So for the text to claim that God is “most high over all the earth” (v. 9) attests God’s size, power, and position with respect to all others. Nothing surpasses God. In fact, no image created by humans can come close to representing God’s supremacy (cf. v. 7).
Yet this highly exalted divine king is not occupied solely with the affairs of heaven. Instead, the Most High reaches down from the heavenly throne to preserve and protect the community of faithful. The final verses of the psalm relate God’s deep engagement in human lives. God intervenes to bring about salvation and establish justice (v. 10). God gladdens and illuminates (v. 11, cf. v. 4). God brings joy to the world as earth receives her king.
An Enthronement Psalm and the Nativity
Indeed, all affirmations of Yahweh’s kingship take on a new significance in the season of Christmas. In Psalm 97, God’s self-revelation as king prompts the entire world to respond. The human community longs to experience God’s saving power (v. 10). They yearn for the justice and right relationship that provide the very foundation of God’s throne (v. 2).
God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ redefines authority and power. As king, Jesus reveals love as the truest power, a force for justice and righteousness. When Christians hear the psalm’s affirmation that “the Lord is king,” they can draw connections between the kingship of Yahweh and the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Psalm 97 derives from an ancient enthronement ritual, a celebration the advent of Yahweh’s kingship. For Christians today, the feast of Christmas reframes this ancient liturgy. Psalm 97 can herald the birth of a heavenly king who is the realization of God’s justice and righteousness in the world.
The comments for Nativity of Jesus: Proper 1 (December 24, 2015) suggest that the preacher could draw on Luke 2:1-20 as the whole preaching text if the congregation has just one service — either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
If the congregation has a service Christmas Eve and a different service Christmas Day, the preacher might follow the lectionary divisions for Proper 1 and Proper 2.
These comments on Luke 2:8-20 continue the contrast, developed in connection with Proper 1 (December 24, 2015) between the present, broken age (in which Caesar rules) and the realm of God which turns toward final and full manifestation in the life, death, resurrection, of Jesus, and continuing power of the realm through the Holy Spirit.
In 2:8-20 Luke pictures God sending the news of the birth and meaning of Jesus to shepherds. Preachers can have a lot of fun describing eight year old shepherds in the Christmas pageant in ill-fitting bathrobes smelling of too much bleach.
Shepherding was central to ancient economy. People in Mediterranean society used nearly every part of the animal — meat, milk, hide/hair, even dung.
However, the lives of shepherds in the ancient world were often difficult. Shepherds frequently lived alone for long periods of time. They were often on the move, taking the flock from pasture to pasture. The weather could be uncomfortable with heat, cold, drought, rain, or lightning. Wild animals could be threatening. Some shepherds owned their own flocks, but many were hired hands who were neglected or exploited by the (often absentee) owners. Shepherds could be rough and even anti-social. Hireling shepherds sometimes had reputations for cheating their owners. Jacob, for instance, stole the best sheep from Laban’s flocks (Genesis 30:25-43).
Moreover, the Roman Empire assumed a rigid class pyramid in which people in the upper classes had incredible benefits in comparison to the lower strata, where the shepherds were located.
For Luke, the lives of the shepherds epitomize human existence in the present, broken age. God sends the news of the birth of Jesus (and the turn towards the final coming of the realm) to shepherds before anyone else to impress upon the Lukan community that the realm is indeed good news for all people, and not just the upper social strata.
A polemic against Rome is in the background. Romans sometimes used the term “good news” (Greek: euangelion, sometimes translated “gospel”) in association with imperial figures and with the decrees of the Emperor. Roman imperialists often employed the titles “savior” and “lord” (ruler) to Caesar. Luke wants the listening community to compare and contrast Jesus with Caesar, and the realm of God with the Roman Empire. Which one offers the better news, the better salvation, the better rule?
If the announcement is, are the shepherds “terrified” when the angel comes and the heavens are flooded with mega-watt light? Jewish tradition sometimes associated such light with theophany. Fear is often an initial response to mysterium tremendum. Moreover, many people expected the transition from this world to the next to occur through an apocalypse, accompanied by such dramatic cosmic displays. The apocalypse would also include a judgement. If the shepherds had engaged in unethical behavior, they might have thought they were about to face the final judgment.
A transforming Lukan theme occurs when the angel announces the “good news … for all people.” Luke viewed the ministries of Jesus and the church as means through which God would bless gentiles, and thereby keep the promise God had made to Sarah and Abraham to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). Furthermore, Luke’s “all” includes all social classes and all other forms of distinction in human community. All who repent, are baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, can join the movement to the realm (Acts 2:38; 10:34-11:18).
Occasional preachers speak in caricature of the third gospel as the book for the poor oppressed, and of Jesus seeking to reverse the social order. But a closer reading reveals that in the Gospel and the Acts, Jesus and the church welcome people of means (and all others) who repent, are baptized, and manifest the Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit includes putting one’s material resources in service to the realm. Luke does favor one group at the expense of others but offers the realm to all.
Luke assures listeners that this message is not just the fantasy of a single angel with an overactive imagination. Luke fills the sky with an angel chorus that makes the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound like a children’s ensemble. In contrast to the inequities and violence of life in the Roman Empire, God promises peace, which here is a synonym for the realm of God.
The angel points to an underwhelming sign that the last great renewal is underway: The shepherds will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth much like any other child, and lying in a feeding trough. For Luke, the way of the realm is not always through dramatic demonstrations (such as the technicolor angels) but often comes in subtle ways.
A preacher might identify points at which the experience of today’s nativity congregation is similar to, and different from, the shepherds. For individuals and communities who are at places similar to the shepherds, the Nativity sermon could offer assurance that God through the Spirit continues to move towards the hope of the realm. Some folk today are in personal or social circumstances more like those who benefitted from the Roman Empire, especially (though by no means exclusively) the wealthy. In the latter case, the sermon might offer Christmas repentance as the first step towards joining the movement to the world signaled by the child wrapped in bands and lying in a feeding trough.