While John 1:1-14 is the appointed Gospel lesson for Christmas Day (Proper III), I prefer to preach on the first 18 verses.1
The Prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus. The themes we have come to know for Christmas preaching are certainly present in how John begins his gospel. A preacher could focus on any of the themes outlined below to create a meaningful Christmas sermon.
Christmas as the rebirth of God
The first verse of John 1 is deceptively complex. “In the beginning” should stir up biblical resonances, particularly that what follows will have something to do with creation. The next verses (1:2-4) secure Jesus’ role as creator with God. Furthermore, God has chosen to recreate God’s very self in Jesus. God has been reborn into the world, now as God’s creating Word in the flesh. The threefold claim, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” reveals the origin of Jesus, his relationship with God, and his identity as God.
Christmas as the light shining in the darkness
Verse 5 has been a topic of ongoing debate for Johannine scholars with regard to pinpointing the moment of the incarnation, either here or in John 1:14, “the Word became flesh.” The fact that the incarnation of God is first presented as light shining in darkness evokes the creation story in Genesis. The verb “overcome” can be translated “grasp” or “seize,” and has connotations of “comprehending.” Festivals of light are essential in the darkest days of the year and so Christmas originated as a celebration that could rival Saturnalia (See Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History). A preacher might explore the importance of light, for Christmas, for our lives.
Christmas as witnessing to the light
The introduction of John in the next verses, not the Baptist but the Witness, is a rather strange interlude in this cosmic birth story. What is John doing here anyway? Commentators explain away John’s presence as a later interpolation that does not belong in such a majestic narration of Jesus’ origins and identity. Yet the presence of John here, particularly for our Christmas preaching, suggests that a critical response to Christmas is witness. Christmas is not over when the trees are put out to the curb. Christmas is just getting started for those who confess Jesus as God who has become flesh.
Christmas is Jesus as a child and is who we are
John 1:9-13 suggest that just as Jesus is a child of God, so are we. Jesus as a baby cannot devolve into sentimentality but has everything to do with its promise for us. To be a child of God is a literal claim for the Fourth Gospel. This Gospel imagines that every single aspect of the parent–child relationship is operative in our relationship with God. Everything a child needs from a parent, for survival, protection, to be sustained and nurtured, to grow and mature is what God provides. Preach the promise of Christmas that puts us in the manger with Jesus and helps us sense the dependence of Jesus as that which we have on God.
Christmas is the word became flesh
“The Word became flesh” states most clearly the theological promise of John. This primordial Word, which was in the beginning with God, a partner in creation, in relationship with God and who is God, has now become human. While the NRSV translates the verse, “and lived among us” the verb here is skenoo, “to tent” or “to tabernacle.” Most readers of the Gospel of John will be familiar with the translation “and dwelt among us.” The verb can also be translated, “took up residence” and thus Peterson’s The Message, “moved into the neighborhood.”
The dwelling of God is a deeply intimate, personal claim and assumes God’s commitment to and continuity with God’s people. Moreover, in the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, now God not only goes where God’s people go, but is who they are.
Christmas is grace upon grace
“From his fullness” (John 1:16) has the sense of the “sum total,” “complete,” and can also connote “superabundance.” The word “grace” is used only four times in the Gospel of John (1:14, 16, 17) and only in the Prologue. Once the Word becomes flesh, grace is then incarnated in the rest of the Gospel. That is, the entirety of the Gospel will show what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like. This is Christmas preaching. For John, God in becoming flesh in Jesus has committed God’s self not only to revealing what God’s grace looks like, but that God wants to know it and feel it as well.
A few Christmas sermon possibilities.
1. This commentary was adapted from one first published on this site on Jan. 4, 2015. It is also featured in the new ebook, “Preaching Year A with Anna Carter Florence,” which is available for download from Luther Seminary.
The text from Second Isaiah follows closely on Christmas Eve’s reading from First Isaiah though historically they are situated far apart.1
As mentioned in an earlier commentary, Second Isaiah is prophesying the return to Jerusalem out of the Babylonian exile. The people are waiting — waiting for the messenger who announces the return of the Lord, for when the Lord returns to Zion then the people too will follow. But as long as the Lord abandons Zion, the people as well will remain in exile. Returning to life is completely dependent on God’s own choice to return, to return to Zion, and to return to the people.
The text sets up a classic scenario. From the battlefield, a messenger is sent to announce that victory has been won. The watchmen are straining to see the one who is coming and find out the news. In this case they sing the news of victory for all to hear. Despite this seemingly straightforward progression of events, upon closer look, we discover several surprises in the story.
Not only is a messenger coming to announce a victory from the battlefield, but God’s self is coming in triumph. The Lord returns! The battlefield is not just any confrontation between two armies but the field of history itself in which God is triumphant, for it is not only Jerusalem that is redeemed but also all the nations. Finally, the watchmen watching for the messenger cannot contain themselves! Even before the messenger arrives they recognize the news and sing it out!
The news is stated in cosmic terms: “Your God reigns!” Once again, we encounter the realignment of all earthly power and authority. The victory that is proclaimed does not belong to this or that king, to this or that country, to this or that ideology, but to God alone. Psalm 97, one of the psalms appointed for Christmas Day, also echoes this theme in song.
“The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” Psalm 98, the psalm coupled with this reading, proclaims the power of God’s holy arm. “The Lord has made known his victory!” Again, we pick up on the cosmic proportions of this victory, of God’s return. God comes as the ultimate judge, judging all the earth, the whole world with righteousness.
The “watchers” know of this wondrous news as they see the feet of the messenger running towards them. The “feet” is here used figuratively: beautiful refers not to the feet but to the entire messenger/message. This good news of peace is beautiful. It comes running to greet the oppressed. It is an embodied peace! The message is beautiful because it is for all creation. Zion and the towns of Judah constitute the watchmen. They hear and are glad because the Lord who reigns is the Lord who comes to deliver from oppression and from the wicked. The Lord who reigns is God over all gods, over all those forces, powers, idols, and obsessions that enslave the people. The message is peace, good news, and salvation.
As mentioned, the text gestures beyond its historical confines. This peace and good news and salvation are not simply for the exiles in Babylon. This deliverance is not only for the people of Israel and Judah but also for all the earth. God has acted for a particular people, for a particular city, for Jerusalem but the entire world and all people are brought into the vision and actualization of this deliverance.
The victory is a cosmic victory. The victory is peace but a peace that is more than simply an end to war. This peace is for all. It is a cosmic peace. War is now over, once and for all. This is the good news. All reasons for battle, all reasons for warfare, all reasons for hatred, pride, self-justification are eliminated.
All people, all creation is pulled into this salvific act. The good news that is announced, the peace and salvation given to all reaches beyond all the limits we may wish to place on it. Even the broken down walls, the ruins of Jerusalem are called into song. This shalom is a shalom for all creation and for culture and for expressions of human life; the city, for example, with all of its structures is called into this shalom.
We have come full circle. From the words of the prophet that begin Second Isaiah (Comfort! Comfort!) to this victory celebration in which comfort is clearly defined as God’s own coming, God’s engagement with God’s people, the text pulls us all out of ourselves and into song.
The watchmen cannot refrain from singing with joy. And their singing calls forth singing from all the ends of the earth. Joy is rooted in what God does. This is the source of all our singing. What God does cannot be reduced to an idea, a concept, an abstraction or a program. What God does bursts the walls of our isolation. Singing, this essential activity of any proclamation, brings that which identifies us most individually — our voice — and mixes it with many other voices. Our voices brought together now redefine who we are as recipients of the wonderful good news brought by the messenger.
This joy does not ignore the historical context. The singing arises out of great anxiety — a battle has been engaged, death is confronted. Today, we as well are keenly aware of the “battles” around us, the many places of death that the celebration of Christmas Day does not do away with. In fact, as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children. It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.
1. This commentary was first published on this site on Dec. 25, 2012.
The Christmas season always seems like a time to sing the good old songs.1
Each year I have sung the carols and even played them on a trombone alongside a Salvation Army bell ringer in order to help raise money for the poor. Most popular of all these carols is “Joy to the World,” which Isaac Watts based on the psalm for today, Psalm 98.
Psalm 98 calls for a new psalm! Since that call for something new is often sounded (Psalm 96:1, 33:3, 40:3; 144:9; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10) the point appears to be an important one. We could imagine that a good number of Old Testament people must have wanted to hang onto the “good old songs.” But there was also a group who must have said, “We need to hear something fresh, new, and contemporary, so that we can hold on to the young people.” And I did hear something new and fresh this year out on a football field in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Some Background: The Enthronement Psalms
Psalm 98 is one of seven psalms in the Bible that were used at a festival to celebrate God as King: 47; 93; 95; 96; 97; 98; 99. Many of these psalms contain the cry, “The Lord is king” (see 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). These enthronement psalms, as they are called, are not to be confused with royal psalms, which are associated with events in the life of the king (Psalms 2; 18; 20; 21; 45; 72; 89; 101; 110; 132; 144). To put it another way, in the enthronement psalms God is the king. In the royal psalms, the king is the king.
The heading “A Psalm” designates this as a musical piece suitable for use in worship. The psalm itself calls for instrumental accompaniment, with both stringed (verse 5) and brass instruments (verse 6). The psalm divides into three parts: Praise to the Lord because of mighty deeds in the past (verses 1-3), praise to the Lord the ruling King in the present (verses 4-6), and a call to nature also to praise the Lord who will come in the future to set things right in the world (verses 7-9).
What’s It All About? (verses 1-3)
The gathered people of God are invited to sing a new song because the Lord “has done marvelous things.” Biblical religion is a historical religion. This means that God has been acting through major events in the lives of God’s people, like the exodus, the wandering in the wilderness and the conquest of Canaan (psalms like 136). Note that the word translated “victory” in the NRSV comes up three times in this first section. The Hebrew word is yeshuah, which can have the sense as “rescue, salvation” as well as “victory.” It appears that this saving event was of such significance that the whole world knew about it (verse 3).
But the word can also be used as the basis for a proper name. The Old Testament name “Joshua” and the New Testament name “Jesus” are both derived from yeshuah. The Gospel of Matthew says that the angel said to Mary, “Y ou are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And salvation, yeshuah, is what Christmas is all about.
This section of the psalm also contains another of the great Old Testament words providing a reason for praising God in the present. Here the lyricist celebrates God’s “steadfast love” or hesed. This refers to God’s unmerited and faithful love for God’s people. Psalm 136 repeats the word as a refrain some 26 times: “for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever.”
That’s the word that comes up in the New Testament as grace, or in Greek, agape.
A Planet Full of Praisers! (verses 4-6)
This section indicates who is called upon to praise the Lord for the Lord’s marvelous deeds. The psalmist thinks big. We ought to think of one of the photos of the whole earth taken from the Hubble space station. The writer calls for praises to go out — from the entire earth! Stringed instruments (the lyre) as well as wind instruments (trumpets, horns) are to be used.
Now for the new setting of an old Christmas song, as I alluded to earlier. On a cold Saturday evening in November 2012, my wife and I went to a football game at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The highlight of the game was the 500 piece marching band of which our granddaughter is a member. After selections by Shostakovich, Stravinsky and others, they closed with Tschesnekoff’s “Salvation is Created,” with all 500 musicians spread across the football field, sounding at full volume. The words, translated from the Russian, bring a marvelous Christmas message:
Salvation is created, in midst of the earth O God, our God, Alleluia
“This,” I thought, as I stood in that cold stadium, “is what the psalm and what Christmas is all about!”
Let Heaven and Nature Sing (verse 7-9)
This final section of the psalm again indicates who should join in praising the Lord. The circle of the writer’s imagination gets bigger and bigger. Here not only all the people on the planet are to praise God, but also the seas, the fish and the humpback whales (Psalm 8:8; 104:25). All are invited to give a cheer — for God! And the hills are alive with the sound of music, and applause for the coming of the Lord.
The Italians have a fine word indicating what Psalm 98 is all about. It was Pope John XXIII who called the church to the task of aggiornamento — new songs, a continued updating of old traditions to meet the needs and tastes of a new generation.
We are called to do no less. Christmas Day is a time to sing the old beloved carols — but also to throw in a few newer songs, maybe even a Christmas message from a 500-piece marching band! Who knows what aggiornamento could look like? We are promised that a great day is coming, when the Lord will come to straighten everything out in our tired, war-torn, and warming world. And all creatures, humans, hills, mountains and marching bands are invited to join in a mighty hallelujah!
Many religious and ethnic communities have intricate celebrations for the declaration of a new family member’s name.1
Even for those who do not have such rituals, deciding upon and revealing the name of one’s child remains one of the most important moments in the process of becoming a parent. Hebrews 1, especially when it serves as the text for Christmas day, allows readers to listen in on God’s announcement of the name of his Son.
God Spoke The poetically beautiful first sentence of the Epistle to the Hebrews (yes, all four verses comprise only one sentence!) proclaims the magnificence of the Son of God in incomparably majestic prose. The sentence tells his story from time immemorial before the creation of the world up to his present reign during the time of the author.
Beginning with a series of words with a “p” sound (a technique that revealed the author’s rhetorical finesse), the author contrasts God’s speech through the prophets and God’s speech through a Son. Through the prophets God spoke in a variety of ways long ago to the ancestors. Through the Son, God has spoken in one single medium in recent times to the audience themselves. In the midst of this contrast, however, the author shows a similarity between the two events. In both instances, it is God who is doing the speaking. Although God is doing something new in the Son, his action in Jesus Christ gives evidence of the consistency of his character as revealed through his interactions with the people of Israel.
The Story of the Son Once the author introduces the Son, he appends a series of phrases (seven of them) to describe the Son. First, the author proclaims that God has appointed him as heir; just what one would expect a father to do for his son. The striking thing about Jesus’ inheritance is that it is completely comprehensive. He is heir of all things! When one is the Son of God supreme this incomparable inheritance makes sense.
Second, not only does Jesus stand to inherit all things, he also had a hand in creating them. The author doesn’t go into much detail here, but it is clear that he believed that Jesus participated in the creation of the world. Added to that, the author claims that he shines forth the glory of God and gives an image of God’s being; just as the imprint left by a stamp reflects the stamp itself.
Finally, Jesus upholds all things. He was there at the beginning of creation, will inherit all things at the end, and presently upholds all things (check out similar language in the first chapter of Colossians). The author of Hebrews will return to this idea near the end of the letter where he claims that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). Jesus interacts with creation in these exalted ways because he shares the radiance and even very being of God.
In the middle of verse 3, the author shifts perspective from the expansive to the particular. The Son also made purification for sins, the first allusion to Hebrews’ extensive discussion of Jesus’ priestly offering. After he did so, he sat down at the right hand of God, a place of honor second only to God himself. In this location, it is very clear that Jesus is better than even the angels. In the ontological hierarchy of the ancient world, the only thing more exalted than angels was God himself. If Jesus is right next to God, then he is above the angels, a powerful claim to make for a human man. He earns this place above the angels, the author says, because he has inherited a better name than the name the angels have.
What’s His Name? If Jesus is better than the angels because of the name he has inherited, many interpreters assume that name must be “Son.” They have good reason for doing so. Right after making the statement about his inherited name in verse 4, the author presents two verses from Israel’s Scriptures that God has spoken to his Son. In the first, from Psalm 2:7, God declares, “You are My Son; Today I have begotten You” (NASB). In the original language, “Son” is the very first word in God’s statement.
The second citation from 2 Samuel 7:14 conveys a similar idea. God says, “I will be a father to him, and he will be a Son to me” (NASB). The angels do many important things for God, but God never ordains them as his sons. Hence, the argument goes, the name “Son” makes Jesus better than the angels.
On the other hand, there are a few places in the Old Testament where angels themselves are referred to as sons of God (e. g. Genesis 6:2; Deuteronomy 32:8, 43; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psalm 29:1; 82:6; 89:7). Moreover, several interpreters of Hebrews have wondered if “Son” is really a name. Richard Bauckham cogently argues the point, “…the Son is the one who inherits the name from his father, not what he inherits. What he inherits must be something that belongs to his Father, whereas ‘Son’ is uniquely the Son’s title.”2 If the name “Son” wouldn’t adequately distinguish Jesus from the angels, and if “Son” really isn’t a name but a title, what could his better name be?
In the following verses of Hebrews 1, the author allows his readers to hear the voice of God speaking a series of Scriptures to Jesus. He commands the angels to worship him, declares that his throne is eternal, asserts that Jesus will endure forever, and invites Jesus to sit at his right hand until all his enemies are placed under his feet. Twice during this speech, God addresses Jesus directly and he employs two different names: God (theos) and Lord (kurios), the same names which Scriptures use for God himself.
It seems then, that Jesus, as the Son of God, inherits the name of his Father, just as our sons and daughters inherit our family names. Since God is known as theos kurios his Son bears the same name. The author of Hebrews allows us to hear God announcing his name. The awesome thing Christmas celebrates is that the little baby born in a simple village as a displaced peasant bears the very name of God.
2. Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 239.