From Luke’s theological-narrative point of view, Luke 2:1-20 is a single unit.
The lectionary divides the text into two parts — one for Nativity of Jesus: Proper 1 (Christmas Day 1) (Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]) and one for the Nativity of Jesus: Proper 2 (Christmas Day 2) (Luke 2: 1-7 [8-20]). In a congregation that has a service on Christmas Eve but not Christmas Day, the preacher could deal with the whole of Luke 2:1-20.
If a congregation has distinct services that on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the preacher could emphasize the lectionary texts for each service. The preacher might leave the congregation hanging at the end of the Christmas Eve sermon with the promise of resolution on Christmas Day. Or in the case of two services the preacher could start with Luke 2:1-20 and pick up different emphases in the same text for two quite different sermons.
Multiple dynamics are at work in the Christmas listening community. Many people bring a Norman Rockwell perspective to Christmas services, especially around family. One of my childhood friends describes Christmas Eve as “magic.”
However some folk are in worship to get parents off their backs. Resentment is their middle name. Others come confused or in grief. What to do when income is small and debt large? How to move forward after divorce? Still others struggle with racism, poverty, social inequity, and ecological crisis.
The reading from Luke offers a preacher a starting point for interpreting the divine presence and purposes in ways that are appropriate to the season and to the different places from which people enter the sermon. Some folk need assurance more than they need to be challenged. Others need to think beyond the glow of children singing in robes in candlelight to children who are hungry, exploited, homeless, and violated.
Some Christians continue an older view that the references in Luke 2:1-8 to the Emperor (Caesar) Augustus, Quirinius and the registration, indicate Luke’s interest as an historian. In this view, Luke locates the story of Jesus at a specific moment in history, perhaps to stress the veracity of the story.
Over the last generation, however, many scholars have come to regard Luke less as an historian simply recording facts and more as a theological interpreter who seeks to persuade readers that through Jesus, God signals the beginning of a process to end the present evil age and replace it with the realm of God. The former is a time idolatry, Satan, demons, injustice, exploitation, oppression, slavery, sickness, violence, and death, whereas the latter is a new world of true worship, justice, mutual support, freedom, health, and eternal life.
The Roman imperial system was one of the dominating realities of the Mediterranean world. From Luke’s point of view, Rome epitomized much of the brokenness of the old age, especially its idolatry, exploitation, oppression, and violence.
The references to the Emperor Augustus, to Quirinius, and to the registration call to the listener’s mind the brokenness of the present world. Luke does not say directly, “I want you to compare the values and behaviors of the old age — especially as represented by Rome — with those God, Jesus, and the realm of God, and to want to be part of the movement towards the latter.”
Luke uses the details of 2:1-7 to prompt the listener to compare and contrast the values, practices, and methods of the realm with those of Rome, and to want to choose the former. The dream comes about by radically different means than Roman rule. Whereas Rome operates through “shock and awe,” brute power, God works through understated means. The story alerts listeners to look for how God continues to work through such means in their (our) worlds.
The “registration” symbolizes life in the Roman Empire. The registration refers to Rome enrolling residents for the purpose of taxation. In a bitter irony, by paying taxes to Rome, the residents of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee would pay for the oppression and violence visited upon them by Rome. A preacher might help the congregation identity similar realities in our world.
Whereas in the upper levels of the Roman imperial world, the birth of a (potentially) significant person was often heralded with great fanfare, the birth of Jesus takes place in an ordinary house in an ordinary town. Jesus was born not in Rome or Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, a modest community. These details signify the nature of the renewal taking place in out of the way places. The birth and ministry of Jesus begin outside the formal power structures of Rome and Jerusalem, thus prompting the listener to look for people, ideas, groups, and movements in out-of-the-way places that point to the values and practices of the realm.
Being pregnant without the benefit of a finalized marriage left Mary and Joseph in an awkward position. The preacher might help the congregation name individuals and communities in awkward circumstances today but through whom God works.
When Luke says, “There was no place for them in the inn,” ancient listeners would hear more than, “All the hotel rooms were full.” Luke recollects a space that could be rented to guests in many houses. Such houses were small and often designed for animals on the lower level and people on the upper level. So many people were in Bethlehem for the registration (so vast was the extent of Rome’s oppressive power) that the feeding-trough (manger) on the first floor was the last space in such a house for infant Jesus. Preachers often raise the question, “Is there room in your inn (or guest room) for Jesus?” A more fruitful question might be, “How can we — and our world — make room for the Jesus and the realm?”
Luke 2:1-8, then, offers both assurance and invitation (challenge). It assures us that God is already at work to remake the world as a realm of blessing for all through Jesus and it prompts us to look for unlikely means through whom God may be present. The passage invites we who wrap ourselves blankets of comfortable familiarity that seldom looks beyond our own families or welfare to enlarge our vision of God’s purposes, and to join God in the movement to a renewed world.
The propensity of too many preachers is to take a hop, skip, and jump over the challenges that underlie this text and go directly to the salvific reality of Jesus the Christ.
However, especially as all around us in society and in our US culture there are the chaos and destructive results of racism, sexism, violence, war, and poverty, to name a few, we need to spend a little time looking at the conditions that have made this ancient oracle words of hope and a promise of celebration for all time.
The territories of Zebulum and Naphtali (verse 1) had experienced the devastation of the advancing Assyrian army, the direct result of their decision to trust human allies rather than divine promises. The people had been betrayed by the idolatry of their ruling monarch, King Ahaz, which put them directly in the path of God’s anger, and divine retribution came at the hands of the Assyrian war machine. They were a people caught in the throes of destroyed lives and abject suffering, and in great need of a word of hope.
The opening lines of the text juxtapose their present reality of pain and anguish with a future hope of joy and celebration. It is a proclamation that speaks of a reversal of fortune that is of divine origin. Shining light will dispel the deep darkness that has overshadowed the land; a decimated people will see their generations increase; the weight of oppression that they have been carrying will be lifted permanently, and all signs of the death caused by invading armies will disappear. In its place will be new birth; new opportunity for fullness of life, the penultimate monarch with the purity of a child shall lead the people in the ways of peace and justice.
It is timely and welcome news to a beleaguered people and the prophet offers it in the assurance that the God who has again and again saved God’s chosen ones will do so again. He offers this assurance despite the fact that again and again the self same chosen people have walked away from God and betrayed the divine covenant. Poetic language aptly describes the authority, peace, and justice that is attributed to the rule of the Davidic monarch, as well as the exigencies that it has evidenced over time. Righteousness is linked to the one named as the bringer of peace, a quality sorely lacking in society and the lives of the people then and now. It is the much-needed salvation that the people have longed for and its assurance is founded on a reliable source: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
Isaiah, who has previously warned the Israelite monarchy of the dangers of trusting in earthly kings for their protection and provision, reminds the people of Judah that only by looking to the divine, the God of their ancestors, can the people be guaranteed the salvation they need to have the fullness of life for which they yearn. And it is the same guarantee upon which the lives of God’s people in this present age is based. The situation of Christians and the need for assurance is the same in this time as it was when the prophet Isaiah spoke these words.
The invading army that has overrun the people of God, that has brought destruction and despair, has come in the form of racism and segregation; poverty and homelessness; unemployment and violence; and the myriad ills of society that are fueled by greed and humanity’s commitment to seeking their own gain and indulging in their own pleasures at the expense of others and the environment. Even the celebration of Christmas and its connection with the birth of the Christ child has spawned ever-increasing ways of advancing human greed and exploitation of the weak by the strong.
The reality that confronts the preacher in this season of light is that the darkness of the world’s ills is all around us. Nevertheless the text directs the preacher to claim again the hope that emanates from the light of the world that shines in every time and place. Isaiah’s oracle of divine grace speaks of freedom from every form of bondage and is the epitome of good news to suffering humanity in every age and to every tribe and nation. While the text does not refer to Jesus as the source of this good news, as Christians we grab hold of the promise of Isaiah’s prophecy and claim its benefit as our own.
The child whose birth we will celebrate in a few hours is of divine nature and comes among us with the gift of grace that is a guarantee of justice for the downtrodden. Through his birth the marginalized claim their rightful place in the household of God and all are free to live lives of wholeness. At a time when the evidence of the hegemony of the world’s systems seems to deny the humanity of the poor, the text reminds us of the assurance of grace that is part and parcel of God’s sovereignty. It reminds us of the salvation that has become the right of each person born in the image of God. The message of this text that the preacher can offer with integrity is good news that speaks of God’s active, transformative presence in both individual and corporate lives.
God has established a salvific presence among fallen, sinful, oppressed humanity that transcends time. The prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but the message of hope is still needed in this and every age of human existence. The familiarity of the text yet offers an opportunity to make new the message of redemption and release that has come with the birth of Christ. The prophecy fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, is still awaiting total acceptance by all people, and we need to hear it as we work to bring to fruition the kingdom of God on earth.
God’s rule extends to everyone, everywhere, and for all time.
This is the remarkable claim of Psalm 96 as it summons the entire world to acknowledge the reign of God.
In the ancient Near East, many kings made similarly comprehensive claims about the extent of their own rule. Indeed, it was a common feature of ancient Near Eastern kingship to dedicate vast resources to expanding the king’s political influence as far as possible. Kings would routinely embark on military adventures, conquering smaller states and installing vassal kings and princes who would be loyal to the empire. These states, thus aligned with the empire, would pay tribute, emptying out their coffers to support the king’s quest for world domination.
Demonstrations of subjugation and loyalty to the empire would take the form of processions, elaborate rituals in which people from far away would bring exotic and precious materials as tribute to the king in his capital city. Such a parade of people and wealth appears in the famous reliefs at the Persian capital city of Persepolis. (You can take a virtual tour of the Persepolis palaces.)
Judahites and Israelites were very familiar with such rituals since they were often among the train of those bearing gifts to foreign kings. Israelite and Judahite kings tried to manage the constantly shifting political sands by sending out more and more tribute. In fact, visitors to the British museum can actually see an Israelite king kneeling before the Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III as he brings his tribute of silver, gold, tin and weapons. This scene is just one of countless episodes of Israel and Judah bearing tribute to the imperial forces of the ancient Near East.
It is just such tribute scenes that the Hebrew psalmist describes in vv. 7-8. However, now the king is neither Shalmaneser III in Mesopotamia nor Darius in Persia. In fact, the psalm claims that the king of all the world is not a person at all. Yahweh is king. This is a radical statement on it its own, but even more so given the history of Yahweh’s people, who were constantly overcome by vastly more powerful kings.
A worldwide call to praise
In Psalm 96, the entire world is the audience of a stirring call to praise Yahweh as king. The psalm begins with a string of imperative verbs: “sing” (vv. 1-2), “bless” (v. 2), “tell” (v. 2), and “declare” (v. 3). Grammatically, the subject of all these verbs is “you” (plural). The psalmist is essentially saying: “Hey! All of you out there, sing! (vv. 1, 3) And don’t ever stop! (v. 2)”
Having summoned the nations (vv. 1-3), the psalmist then provides the reasons for the nations to praise (vv. 4-6). The rationale for praise begins with the claim that Yahweh is more powerful than all other gods (v. 4). Again, the political overtones of such a claim should not be missed. In the context of the ancient world, conflicts between cities, regions, and people-groups were often understood as conflicts between their respective gods. The struggle between the Neo-Assyrians gods, for example, and Yahweh, the God of Israel and Judah, would have had a clear outcome given the disparity of territory and military might. Yahweh would be understood to have lost when Israel and Judah were conquered. But the psalm makes the opposite claim: Yahweh wins, despite any evidence to the contrary.
On the heels of this surprising affirmation, the psalm suddenly changes tactics in v. 5. It moves from the claim that Yahweh is more powerful than all the other gods, to argue that, in fact, there are no other gods. They are just idols! The psalmist skillfully uses rhyme and alliteration to underline the futility of all competing claims to divine authority. All the “gods of the people” ’elohe ha‘ammim are worthless things ’elilim. This simple, pithy phrase then sets up the fundamental claim of the psalm: Yahweh alone is the creator of the world (v. 5). And since Yahweh alone created the world, all praise should be directly solely to Yahweh.
This affirmation spurs the psalmist back into the mode of praise, so another string of imperative verbs breaks out in vv. 7-9. The frequently appearing word “ascribe” in vv. 7-8 is the NRSV’s translation of the Hebrew verb habu. “Ascribe” in English is not a word that most people use very often. It’s rather stilted. But the Hebrew here means, quite simply, “give!”
The rhetoric of “giving” glory, bringing offerings and coming into Yahweh’s courts (vv. 7-8) all evoke the Near Eastern practice of the procession of tribute before a supreme king. The psalmist is, in fact, calling the entire world to step into a long parade of people winding toward God’s throne. They bear gifts, and in doing so, acknowledge God’s utter superiority.
A king like no other
The final section of the psalm describes the nature of God’s kingship. Here we see the differences between the empires of the day and God’s kingdom. As we noted already, the reign of Yahweh is not the reign of a human but that of a god. This divine power is not directed at subjugation and exploitation of the earth’s population (as is always the practice of empires). But just the opposite, the reign of God brings equity (v. 10), truth, and righteousness (v. 11) to all peoples.
Moreover, the earth itself responds to the reign of God. We have ample evidence from history that the great empires of the past abused the resources of the natural world just as readily as they abused human communities in the endless quest for power. Of course, empires still function in this way today.
Yet the psalm presents a different way by which the king of the world relates to the earth. The realization of God’s justice in the world means that the earth’s systems are stabilized: “the world is firmly established, it shall never be moved” (v. 10). Exploitation and disorder are no longer the means to power. And creation itself responds to this cosmic stability by echoing praise. Sounding along with the chorus of the nations, we now hear that the sky, the land, the oceans, the forests also anticipate God’s righteous rule.
Psalm 96 challenges us to see kingship, that is, power, differently. The psalm challenged the dominant modes of authority in the ancient world, establishing Yahweh as king over and against all human and divine claimants to that title. The birth of Jesus the Christ renews that challenge. It brings to our lips a new song (v. 1) about God’s reign of justice for everyone, everywhere, and for all time.