Of all the lections assigned to me by WorkingPreacher.org, this, by far, is the hardest.
After three false starts, all scrapped, I’m tempted to concede defeat. I can’t, because you, dear preachers, haven’t that luxury.
We know the difficulties. Luke 2:1-20 is among the most familiar in scripture. What can one say that does not shrivel into cliché? Since 1965 this text’s most memorable preacher may be Linus van Pelt, trailing his blanket into a spotlight, center stage, in A Charlie Brown Christmas. All he did was recite it. “That’s what Christmas is all about.”
Of one thing I’m sure: To lose oneself on Christmas Day in exegetical minutiae is to deliver a sermon dead on arrival. With the commentators you can fret over the historicity of the reported census (Luke 2:1-3). You can throw your listeners a dozen facts about first-century shepherds. Within minutes an already exhausted congregation will have fallen fast asleep. The result: betrayal of a text that is the ultimate wake-up call.
In my view four angles on this lection drive to the matter’s heart. Do with them as you will.
BOOM! Not only one angel but an entire celestial chorus electrifies the night sky before a handful of outliers (2:9-14) who know nothing of what happened in Luke 1:5-80. The difference is that between a lonely candle in the dark and a light that blows out the motherboard of Consolidated Edison. God has decided to invade our tired, banal lives with a vision and message so spectacular as to be incredible — unless, like those shepherds, we are ready to seize and believe it (2:15-20).
What is the message? This is the birthday of “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” All the ascriptions Caesar made of himself are bogus. For that matter, many of the attributes of God himself — “Savior” (Isaiah 43:3; Hosea 13:4), “the Lord” (Psalm 30:4; 135:1) — are now, by God’s own decree, concentrated in a single newborn, whose only power at this moment is to suck his mother’s breast, mewl, pee, and puke. Mary and Joseph make no claims of their child. They say nothing at all. The shepherds reveal to the parents, and to anyone else whose paths they cross, just what God revealed to them (Luke 2:16-18). Take a step back and consider how preposterous all this is.
The thread interweaving everything is God’s mystery. Don’t try to solve it. Today, please proclaim it.
“Behold, your salvation comes.” (Isaiah 62.11)
Christmas Day is the prefect context to explore the proclamation of the mystery of the incarnation within the rich language of Isaiah, considered by many in the early church to be the fifth gospel.1
If Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) with its rich texture of creation and redemption as well as the mysterious beauty of its Servant Songs is the exilic theologian then this pericope echoes from the quill of Deutero-Isaiah’s student proclaiming into the midst of a post-exilic reality. Perhaps at the unresolved nexus of disorientation and promise, of expectation and reality, Trito-Isaiah (for lack of a hipper name!) is proclaiming God’s transforming care to a disoriented people in need of reorientation. One might consider Trito-Isaiah the close-but-not-quite theologian.
The pericope for Christmas Day comes as the conclusion to a larger section (Isaiah 60-62). The opening two verses set this tone:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. (Isaiah 60.1-2, Revised Standard Version)
Notice how the first verse uses perfect verb tenses and the second verse shifts to future tense.2 This illustrates the duality within which these returnees are living and breathing and trying to sort out reality. It’s both already and not yet.
Fast forward to our Nativity pericope, the final half of Isaiah 62. It takes a little patience to sort out the vision here, but it is worth the effort.
“Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night they shall never be silent. You who remind the Lord take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth.” (Isaiah 62.6-7, New Revised Standard Version)
Already aware that the text is working with an already-not-yet sense of God’s activity in time, we are faced with the challenge of discerning just who is speaking here: the prophet or the Lord. Arguments have been made for both. I want to suggest that we lean into this being the Lord speaking. Notice the dynamic: Jerusalem is established and God will establish it. More interesting is that God has been faithful to God’s people and God is called to be faithful. These sentinels are guards or watch-folk, and yet their duty is not to simply observe. They are proclaimers. Heralds. Prophets. Preachers. Stewards of the Word of God called by God to continually remind God of who God is. Chew on that for a while.
An aspect of this proclamation of a reminder to God of who God is comes in verses 8-9, wherein the Lord is reminded of God’s relationship with God’s people. You shan’t be enslaved any longer. And the vision bears some resemblance to a party — perhaps a Eucharistic party. The grain and the wine that the people cultivate, harvest, and vint is for a party in the holy courts of Yhwh (see also verse 9b). Take a drink of that.
The movement throughout the whole pericope from the perpetually preaching sentinels to the end is that the people hear of God’s salvation. This is the text’s inertia. Notice the language:
“‘See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” (Isaiah 62.11b)
And the reason for the party?
The movement of Yhwh toward Yhwh’s people is one of reconciliation. In the midst of the disorientation of return, God promises salvation. In fact, salvation is Yhwh Yhwhself. Within the narrative crossroads of disorientation and return, Yhwh promises Yhwhself to the people together with reward and amends.
Take all that is above and hold it in tension with the Nativity of Our Lord, specifically Christmas Day. The focus is decidedly and appropriately Christological. A robust Christology necessitates reckoning with the reality that the Triune God is Triune prior to the incarnation with the incarnation being the realization in time and space of eternal fullness of God’s deep commitment to God’s creation. Something so unfathomable is made fathomable in Jesus. The cross is foreshadowed in the paradoxical entry of the Eternal Word, in, by, and through whom the cosmos comes to be, the vulnerability of an infant.
With the angelic host singing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth…” (Luke 2.14), keep in mind the Lord’s promise and call to the sentinels, “… all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest…” (Isaiah 62.6b) Of this Luther comments and helpfully so:
This is a call to recall the Lord, to call Him to memory, to preach about Christ. You know the way Scripture speaks. To recall is not to remember in private but to proclaim in public, to call to mind, to praise, and to give thanks. This continues. As long as the promise is in force, nothing is proclaimed in the church but that Jesus Christ is preached and taught.3
Take heart, preachers, Christ is with you and would have himself be proclaimed as life, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption.
Knowing that salvation has come in Jesus Christ, we proclaim: “See, your salvation comes.”
1. See also John F.A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1996.
2. The Masoretic Text has perfect tense verbs in v.1 and imperfect in v.2, which the Septuagint interprets as perfect and future respectively.
3. Martin Luther, Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (Hilton C. Oswald, ed; Luther’s Works 17; St. Louis: Concordia, 1972) 347.
“The Lord is king … most high…exalted” — a perfect proclamation for Christmas.
This reality is a matter of rejoicing. Psalm 97 begins and ends with rejoicing. In verse 1 all the earth is enjoined to rejoice, and in verse 12 the righteous receive the same imperative. And in the middle of the psalm (verse 8) the towns of Judah rejoice. As always with Hebrew poetry, the repetition and the ways thing begin and end remind us of what is important. Rejoicing rings and resonates as the church sings on Christmas.
And the crucial reason for the rejoicing is contained in the proclamation that “the LORD is king.”
Indeed, for many scholars, this is the central affirmation, the central metaphor of the entire psalter. For the problem of the world can be, and most often is expressed as, a two-pronged problem:
Who is in charge?
The LORD. In Hebrew, the phrase translated “The LORD is king” is more verbal than this NRSV translation suggests. The phrase is Yahweh malak, “the Lord reigns,” which uses the verb, mlk, that comes from the noun, melek, which means “king.” So the proclamation is literally that the LORD reigns; the LORD is in charge, and this is very good news indeed. In Psalm 97, the ruling of LORD stands in contrast to the lowliness of other gods who simply “bow down” before the LORD who is “exalted” far above them (verse 7 and 9).
How does the LORD rule?
Describing and praising the way that the LORD rules is the particular concern of Psalm 97.
Interestingly God’s reign begins by being obscured: “clouds and thick darkness are all around God.” These are then followed by fire, lightning, and mountains melting like wax (verses 2-5). Here is the familiar language of theophany, the language most often used when God appears. We are reminded specifically of the LORD’s appearance at the giving of the law on Sinai where there is thunder and lightning, thick cloud, fire, and smoke (see Exodus 19:16-18).
The darkness and fire of theophany serve as both warning and protection from coming too close. But I confess to hearing something even deeper in this language. The true nature of divine rule is often, like all divine truth, hidden or obscured. In our Christian theology of the cross, truth is often hidden beneath its opposite. The final revelation of kingship which begins this Christmas day in a manger ends, for Christians, with Jesus wearing a crown of thorns on the cross when once again darkness appears and the earth shakes (see Matthew 27:45-51).
In Psalm 97, the major way to recognize the reign of God is found in the second half of verse 2 in which the psalmist proclaims that God’s throne is founded on “righteousness” and “justice.” This is how God rules. God’s sovereignty is marked by these two things. This way of ruling cuts through the clouds and the darkness as the LORD sits enthroned in the midst of theophany. In fact, “righteousness” and “justice” here partake of the metaphor of the heavenly hosts carrying the throne of God into the temple. They become the hosts of heaven on which the LORD sits enthroned.
That righteousness is the central means by which the LORD rules is apparent once again through repetition. Righteousness is emphasized not only in verse 2 but also in verse 6 where the heavens proclaim God’s righteousness, in verse 11 where light (breaking through the darkness of verse 2) dawns for the righteous, and finally in verse 12 where it is made clear that those who are called on to rejoice in the Lord are indeed the righteous.
This is good news for God’s people, for Zion. They know the true God, and how the LORD rules. And they know as well that this good news comes with a set of expectations. To be faithful to this Lord means not only that they worship the Lord alone, forsaking idols and other worthless gods. It also means, as is made clear in verse 10, that they participate in God’s righteousness and justice by hating evil. To be faithful to God is to hate evil. This expectation is expressed in Psalm 97 not as a demand but rather as a promise. God “loves those who hate evil.” Those who hate evil are God’s faithful whose lives are guarded by God. God rescues the ones who hate evil from the very hand of the wicked.
As a result, the light, the very light that breaks through the darkness, dawns for the righteous. Here is cause for true rejoicing and praise. The Lord reigns and sits enthroned on a foundation of righteousness and justice. For this reality of the LORD as the ruler of all the earth and for this way that the LORD reigns through righteousness and justice, the psalmist enjoins us to give thanks.
On Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of God’s promised Savior in the world.
But what exactly is this salvation that Jesus brings? What difference does it make in our daily lives?
Christmas is a great time to flesh out such a message, both for the long-time attendees in the pews and the many visitors that only attend church on holidays. Salvation is such a foundational and familiar pillar of Christianity that at times, I believe, we as preachers may unintentionally gloss over the richness of this life-changing reality.
Titus 3:4–7 succinctly encapsulates this richness, and is a great resource for preaching.
Along with Titus 2:11–14, Titus 3:4–7 provides a theological motive for the letter’s exhortations for Christians to live as upright citizens and household members. When read in the context of the preceding verses, this passage makes it clear that the self-serving behavior Christians are to reject actually characterized their own lives before Christ saved them. Paul also includes himself in the indictment that “we ourselves” were disobedient, slaves to passions and pleasure, and downright hateful of one another (Titus 3:3). This is a sketch of the worst inclinations of humanity when left to its own devices.
So, what changed for Paul, the believers on Crete, and Christians today? Jesus appeared and saved them.
The details of why and how this salvation occurs centers on God’s character and actions. God’s own kindness and love for humanity manifested in Jesus, who came into the world (Titus 3:4; see also 2:11). Titus 3:5 makes it very clear that Jesus saved people not because of any righteous works they had done, but (the Greek alla marks a sharp contrast) because of God’s own mercy and compassion (eleos).
This is an important point. If people can do something to earn God’s favor, then it ceases to be a gift (Titus 3:7, charis) that reflects God’s generosity and concern for all people. And it certainly would not solve the main problem addressed in Titus of people not behaving humanely with one another. Indeed, gaining salvation by working harder than others would become yet another platform from which to degrade others, who seem less advanced in their efforts toward godliness.
Rebirth by the Holy Spirit
Instead, Titus 3:5–6 states that God brings salvation to people through the work of the Holy Spirit, who is poured out richly through Jesus Christ. The Spirit renews people, giving them a “washing of rebirth” (verse 5b; New Revised Standard Version: “water of rebirth”). This seems to be a clear reference to baptism, in which the old person, enslaved to desires and pleasures (verse 3), dies with Christ so that a new person emerges, empowered to love God and others (see also Romans 6:1–11).
The imagery of new birth here is powerful, especially at Christmas, when we remember that Jesus the Savior came to earth as a baby. A new birth means a new beginning. Washing and renewal indicates that the past does not determine our present or future. God’s Spirit working salvation in our lives brings the possibility of real change.
What does Jesus save people from? Although the text does not explicitly spell this out, the context of Titus 3:1–7 implies that it is, at least in part, the vain and destructive way of life described in verse 3. God’s love for people is too great to allow them to continually tear each other down, to live self-centered lives that lack true meaning. Christ’s gift of salvation gives us a new start and the power to live as healthy, social human beings. Mention of the Savior redeeming humanity from all lawlessness or iniquity in Titus 2:14 also implies that forgiveness of sins is part of salvation.
This message can bring hope to those who struggle with addiction, are suffering the effects of broken relationships, or are having a hard time forgiving themselves for past mistakes. The text does not say that the Spirit guarantees an instant remedy to all one’s problems, or that humans play no part in living in accordance with the salvation God gave them as a gift. As long as we are in this world, we will continue to struggle with the tendencies of the old self, which is why Paul needs to remind believers in Crete of who they are because of what Christ did for them.
But this text also indicates that the Spirit’s work in believers does bring real transformation in the present. This should not be minimized: our sins are forgiven now; we are no longer slaves to self-seeking and destructive desires; we can love each other better, even if still imperfectly. If this were not the case, Paul would have no basis upon which to encourage such changed attitudes and behavior.
The eschatological dimension of the text captures the already-not-yet nature of God’s salvation. While the past tense use of the verb “save” (esosen) in verse 5 indicates the completed nature of the salvation Christ brought to humanity, verse 7 clarifies that we still hope for its fullness as eternal life. This hope of sharing fully in the life of the triune God grounds our lives of good works and loving one another now. As we celebrate Jesus’s birth as our own new birth, we also wait expectantly for the Spirit’s work to grow us into the fullness of God’s promises to us as heirs, together with Christ (see also Romans 8:15–17, 24–25). Our lives with God have a present and a future.
Divine salvation is meant to transform people in such a way that their lives reflect something of the character of the loving and merciful God that gifted it to humanity in Jesus Christ.