Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is beautiful in its humane simplicity.
Who can forget it? The story unfolds in three clear episodes. We sympathize with Joseph and (especially) pregnant Mary, as they make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Mary delivers her first-born son in the lowliest of conditions. We delight in the shepherds and get to share in the angel’s joyful “birth announcement” of the Messiah. Finally, we get to accompany the shepherds to the manger, where they share the remarkable birth announcement to the amazement of all. These are indeed words that we, like Mary, treasure in our hearts.
For all of its simplicity, we must not miss the story’s theological depth, which often lies just below the surface but emerges with some study. It is striking how an event of secular history becomes (providentially) the occasion for the fulfillment of God’s promises. The historical problems regarding the decree of Caesar Augustus and the census of Quirinius are well known (see the commentaries). Putting that problem aside, we note that this decree brings it about that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Although Luke does not mention it, he surely knows that for the early Christians Jesus’ birth (allegedly) in the “city of David” was viewed as a fulfillment of prophecy (cf. Matthew 2:5-6; John 7:42).
It is probably no accident when Luke tells us that Jesus was born under Caesar Augustus, or that his decree applied to the “whole world.” These data highlight the world-wide significance of Jesus’ birth (contrast the birth of John in 1:57-58, which also happened under Augustus, but which is not given the same significance). The famous Priene inscription (ca. 9 BC), often cited in this connection, speaks of Augustus’s birth as of the birth of a “god” and as the gift of divine providence, who sent him as a “savior,” to bring peace (an end of war). His birthday was “the beginning of good news for the world that came because of him.” Augustus was called “Son of God” in inscriptions and papyri. Yet the angel in our story will declare that the good news (euaggelizomai) is the birth of the Messiah, the Son of God Jesus (1:32). This Messiah will bring ultimate salvation: the forgiveness of sins for all people and deliverance from eternal death. Even if Luke did not know the Priene inscription specifically, it is difficult to imagine that he was unaware of the ideas it contained. Jesus’ birth counters the suggestion that the world’s hopes might lie in the hands of the rulers of this age. The world’s hopes lie in him.
Just as Jesus is born in humble circumstances, so the first to hear the good news of his birth are lowly shepherds: Jesus came for such humble folk as these (Luke 4:18). That the shepherds were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth because the manger in which he was born was theirs is a charming though unprovable thought.1 In any case, the angel tells the shepherds that they will see a sign confirming the birth of the Messiah: an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. With this mention of a “sign” Luke picks up a motif from the Old Testament, where God or a prophet announces a sign that will confirm the truth of some act or promise of God (e.g., Exodus 3:12; 1 Samuel 2:34; 10:1; Isaiah 37:30; 38:7). One thinks here particularly of Isaiah 7:14, which Luke perhaps had in mind, where the birth of a child, Immanuel (cf. Matthew 1:23), will become a sign that the threat from Aram and Israel facing King Ahaz will soon be over; for by the time that the child is old enough to decide good and bad, the enemies will be destroyed. There is, however, a striking difference. In Isaiah the sign of the child points beyond itself to a future event. In our text the sign points to the incredible fact that this child, lying in the manger, is already the “Lord Messiah” (he does not have to await the resurrection to be recognized as such; cf. Acts 2:36). The “sign” of the infant points to nothing except to himself! And perhaps this is the point that Luke wants to make: the Messiah of Israel does not make his appearance in visible might, but in the form of a humble, vulnerable babe. That this child is (already!) Messiah is surely a cause for wonder (Luke 2:18).
This Messiah, in agreement with his humble origins, will be a friend of the poor (4:18; 6:20; 7:22). The “improbability” of this infant Messiah will become a main theme of his life. Ultimately, he will become a “sign” that is spoken against (2:34): his life’s direction will tend towards rejection (4:29) and ultimately towards a cross. For those who seek signs of legitimacy, that cross will be a scandal (1 Corinthians 1:22-23), a cause for falling and stumbling (Luke 2:34; Romans 9:33). But for those who believe in him, that same cross will become a rock of salvation (Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11-12; Romans 9:33; 10:11). In Jesus’ death, as in his birth, the providential God will bring about his good will through those who believe that they are merely carrying out acts of everyday governance (Acts 3:11-26; 5:30-32).
Recently I was listening to a program from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The host asked the radio audience: Do you listen to the news, and what do you think of it? One person wrote in to say something to the effect: “It seems that we hear only bad news, which induces fear. We need to hear good news. How different our days might be if we heard more good news!” The angel says: “Do not fear. Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.” The Christmas story is a story of a Lord who is pleased to be born among the humble, even as he is humble and blesses the humble; of a God who keeps promises; and of a God who is in control of history, even when we cannot see it or when it is hard to believe. With such a God on our side, we do not need to fear. With the shepherds we may praise and glorify God for the gift of his Son (Luke 2:20).
1 J. Jeremias, “poimen, etc.” (shepherd, etc.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 6.491.
Children, especially new children, are often a cause for joy.
This was certainly the case for the author of Isaiah 9:1-7 [Hebrew 8:23-9:6]: “For a child has been born to us, a son given to us” (v. 6, NRSV). But before the joy of birth was the darkness of judgment. Formerly, Yhwh had afflicted the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time, he will make glorious “way of the sea,” the land beyond the Jordan, and “Galilee of the nations” (v. 1 NRSV). These cryptic descriptions refer to 8th century Assyrian imperial incursions into Israel, which ultimately resulted in the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BCE. The nature of the Hebrew verbs in this oracle, however, do not allow us to determine if the oracle given is about the future or past. Be that as it may, this text either anticipates or reflects upon a significant moment in Israel’s history, when it stood between judgment and salvation, oppression and freedom, darkness and light. And at the center of it all is a child. But what child is this?
In order to answer this question, we need to know a little more about this remarkable oracle that describes the in-breaking of light into dark places and of dawn into the heart of a long and shadowy night (Isaiah 9:1). Whatever this new work of salvation is, it will result in the magnification of the nation, waves of joy, and the kind of celebration that come from success at harvest time and victory on the battlefield (v. 2).
Isaiah 9:4-6 give three reasons for this influx of joy: First, the “yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” has been broken “as on the day of Midian.” The image of an animal wearing a yoke utilizes a common metaphor for the subjugation of one nation by another, often with the requirement of tribute (see Jeremiah 27). To pull the yoke for another king is to serve as his vassal. The rod in this case refers generally to authority and power, even military power, and often occurs in First Isaiah with reference to Assyria (Isaiah 10:5, 15, 24). Liberation from empire — the Assyrian empire in particular — is what is at stake in this oracle. Although we often feel uncomfortable mixing “faith and politics” in the pulpit, this distinction was entirely unknown to Israel’s prophets.
Second, the oracle makes the bold declaration that war will come to an end — at least this war will — and a new age of peace will ensue. In celebration of this new era, the old garments of war — boots for trampling and clothing stained with blood — are incinerated (Isaiah 9:5).
Finally, and climactically, joy erupts because a “child has been born for us, a son given to us.” But this is no ordinary child. “Authority” or “dominion” will be upon his shoulders, and he has a series of exalted titles: “A mighty God who plans wonders” (my translation), “everlasting father,” (NRSV), “peaceable ruler” (TNK). It is not at all unusual for a person’s name to be a sentence: Elijah (Yahweh is my God), Isaiah (Yhwh saves), etc. These titles are best understood as elements of the royal titulary. It is important to note that, within the larger cultural context, these titles do not actually describe the ruler himself (i.e., the child) but rather the deity who has placed the ruler on the throne. This interpretation of course stands in significant tension with traditional Christian interpretation, which has attributed such titles to Jesus.
So what child is this? The “child” described in Isaiah 9 is likely Hezekiah son of Ahaz (727 BCE-698 BCE), one of the very few royal heroes of Kings, who receives rare praise from the book’s deuteronomistic editors: “He [Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3). Hezekiah’s reign is described in 2 Kings 18-20. He receives even higher praise in the Chronicler’s parallel version (see 2 Chronicles 29-32), where he is depicted as both a new David and a new Solomon.1
Significantly, Hezekiah’s reign also plays an important role near the end of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39). Contrary to his father Ahaz who trusted in foreign assistance from the Assyrians rather than Yhwh (see Isaiah 7:10-17), Hezekiah is the paragon of faith and faithfulness. When Sennacherib’s armies threatened Jerusalem, Hezekiah trusted in Yhwh’s faithfulness and his power to save the city from Assyrian aggression (Isaiah 37). Hezekiah’s greatness, then, is not in his ability to bear the load of authority or to create an era of “peace” with his own hands. Rather, his greatness lies in his willingness to trust in God who can bring about these things, on earth as it is in heaven, and even we might add in a place as contentious as Jerusalem.
1 See Mark A. Throntveit, “The Relationship of Hezekiah to David and Solomon in the Books of Chronicles,” in The Chronicler as Theologian: Essays in Honor of Ralph W. Klein (ed. M. Patrick Graham, Steven L. McKenzie, and Gary N. Knoppers; JSOTSup 371; London: T&T Clark, 2003), 105-121.
The Lord is king!
One of the most consistent, counter-cultural, and evangelical messages of the Bible is that the Lord reigns as king, the crucified-and-resurrected Christ is king — of our lives, of God’s church, of the world, of history, of the universe. Which means, of course, that we are not. You are not. I am not. No president, emperor, general, CEO, governor, or tyrant is. God is king.
This message is found throughout the Bible. The poetic creation lyrics that can be found in the Bible’s earliest poetry testify that the Lord reigns. The story of the Exodus bears witness to Israel’s confession that the Lord — not Pharaoh — is true God. And the First Commandment means that Israel is to have the Lord as king, rather than any human king (see 1 Samuel 8:7). The prophets prior to the exile and during the exile — Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and “Second Isaiah” — proclaimed that the Lord is king of Judah and of history — the emperors of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia … not so much. They may think they are kings and rule history, but really they are just little surfers riding the front edge of the wave of history, which is being propelled by the Lord.
Although it seems fairly unlikely that very many Christian preachers — if any — will preach on Psalm 96 on Christmas Eve, read this commentary on Psalm 96 as context for your sermon preparation this Christmas.
The Lord’s enthronement: an annual celebration?
Psalm 96 is part of a group of psalms that for the last 100 years or so have been called the “Enthronement Psalms” — Psalms 47, 93, 95, 96, 97, 99. Not to be confused with the so-called “Royal Psalms,” a group of eclectic psalm forms each of which deals with the human, Davidic kings, the Enthronement Psalms are all hymns of praise that celebrate the universal kingship of God.
Each of the Enthronement Psalms contains the phrase “The Lord is king” (???? ???), or a near equivalent of that phrase:
The idea of labeling this group of psalms “Enthronement Psalms” was proposed by the great Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel. Mowinckel argued that each year at a special New Year’s/harvest festival, the Lord was ceremonially enthroned as King — not just as Israel’s King, but as the universal King.
As part of the enthronement festival, the shout was made, “The Lord has become King!” Mowinckel made the analogy to Christian Easter worship services, at which worshippers proclaim in liturgy and song, “Christ is risen!”
“In the poet’s imagination,” writes Mowinkcel, “this enthronement of Yahweh is an event which has just taken place, and the hymn of praise is sung to acclaim the new king.”
He continues, this witness is that “Yahweh is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”
For many years Mowinckel’s proposal was widely accepted. For many reasons, most of which are not germane here, most psalms scholars today no longer accept Mowinckel’s historical reconstruction of a new year’s festival.
But this much, at least, we can learn from Mowinckel’s sensitive theological imagination. In our worship, just as in ancient Israel’s worship, we bear witness to not simply to who God was for the early church or to what Jesus did in the past. Rather, in our worship Christmas is “an event which has just taken place, and the hymn of praise is sung to acclaim the new king.” Like Mowinckel, we believe Christ “is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”
The Lord’s Incarnation: an annual witness
Christians celebrate Christmas annually into order to proclaim and observe — in the deepest darkness of winter (in the northern hemisphere anyway) that Christ the Light came into the world in the flesh. Christmas is our annual celebration of the Incarnation.
As part of our annual liturgical rhythm we await (liturgically at any rate) with longing, expectancy, and hope. . . the birth of the Savior. And on Christmas Eve and Day we sing as if Christ really were just now, right here, born.
Consider these lyrics:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king … Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn king;
With angelic hosts proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” All my heart again rejoices As I hear, far and near, Sweetest angel voices; “Christ is born,” their choirs are singing, Till the air everywhere Now with joy is ringing. Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light Radiant beams from your holy face, With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at your birth, Jesus, Lord, as your birth.
Notice especially the present-tense language of our Christmas songs: “Christ is born”; “radiant beams from your holy face … Jesus, Lord, at your birth”; “Christ is born in Bethlehem”; “the Lord is come!”
These examples could be multiplied many times over. But the point is made clear in these few examples: In our annual Christmas worship, Christ “is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”
As mentioned at the start of this commentary, it is very unlikely many, or any, preachers will preach on Psalm 96 on Christmas Eve.
But let this commentary provide a context that frames the importance of what you and your worshipers do on Christmas. You bear witness in the midst of a physically and spiritually dark creation, that Christ the light still entries into our world — and the darkness cannot overcome it.
In your preaching, the coming, revealing, salvation-bringing Christ is born again today.
The opening of this portion of Paul’s brief letter to his assistant Titus might be described as the Christmas message in one sentence, or perhaps the Christmas Tweet, “the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11).
We gather together on this evening to celebrate God’s love, God’s gift, and God’s grace in the coming of Jesus. It was Jesus, as Paul reminds Titus, who “gave himself for us that he might redeem us” (Titus 2:14). These four verses are not only the Christmas message; they are the entire message of the Gospel. The birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus are summed up in one word: grace.
Paul is writing to his faithful companion, Titus, reminding him that there is still work to do on the island of Crete. Paul left Titus behind in order to continue his journey, “I left you behind … you should put in order what remained to be done” (Titus 1:5).
I can only imagine that this letter was and still is not too popular with Christians on the island of Crete. After all, Paul seems to agree with a local “prophet” who believes that Cretans “are always liars, vicious, brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). That is not necessarily an approach that will endear him to his readers. Paul does not save his insulting remarks only for the residents of Crete. Later in the letter he writes that Titus is to tell women to be “submissive to their husbands” (Titus 2:5) and slaves “to be submissive to their masters” (Titus 2:9). I think we now know why the letter to Titus does not necessarily make it in the “top 10” list of favored scripture passages.
After charging Titus with appointing elders and bishops for the churches in Crete, Paul describes, at length, the qualities and characteristics those leaders must possess. Paul then describes the lives that all Christians must live and what they are to do. Paul addresses everyone: older men, older women, young women, younger men, and slaves. Paul reminds Titus that he is to “Declare theses things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you” (Titus 2:15). All that Titus says and does is under the full authority of Paul.
In the midst of these detailed instructions and descriptions of the faithful Christian life we find Paul’s wonderful reminder of what God has done for us, this evening’s appointed text. Paul wants Titus, in fact, wants us to remember why we should live this kind of life. The grace of God, namely, Jesus Christ, has appeared. And we must also note to whom Jesus has appeared. It was not just to a chosen view. No, Jesus appeared to and brought salvation to all; as the heavenly messenger declared, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
Paul declares not only the good news of the incarnation, he also proclaims the message of the cross, Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us” (Titus 2:14). And finally, he reminds us that the story is not over. We are not only looking back to what God did in Bethlehem and Golgotha, “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory” (Titus 2:13). We are awaiting the second coming that has been a recurring theme throughout the Advent readings.
Central to this reading is the proclamation that those of us who rejoice in God’s gift already received, and who await the return “of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13), are to live lives that reflect that gift. Paul is very clear what we are to do and not to do. We are to live moderate sensible lives. We are to live just and upright lives. We are to live godly lives as we wait for the day of glory.
While the focus of everyone on this “silent night” will be the birth of our savior, I wonder if the opening of this letter and Paul’s challenge to Titus might not be a beautiful reminder to us all? Paul left Titus behind to complete his work; did Jesus leave us behind to complete his work? Is our call this Christmas Eve, “to put in order what remained to be done” (Titus 1:5)? Jesus came to bring justice and peace; we are here to continue his mission bringing to all, friends and strangers alike, the loving grace of God.