Ask any parent or grandparent about the birth of a new baby and they typically can describe the event in great detail.
I have been regaled with these stories too many times to count. Some birth stories get a lot more press than others, including the birth of Prince George in the UK. It seems people wanted to know every detail. But for many births we know very little.
As the mother of an adopted child from Russia, all I have is the police report that was made when my son was abandoned at the hospital in Yekaterinburg hours after his birth. The story told by his birthmother is in the report and gives me a glimpse into the story of his birth. It makes me a little sad, but also makes me feel extremely blessed every time I think of it.
Birth stories are often extremely powerful. They can immediately bring us back to a joyous moment, they can sadly remind us of some couple’s struggles with infertility, they can stir our imaginations of children hoped for, and they can make us aware of the difficult origin circumstances some folks had to overcome in their lives.
As most birth stories begin, the storyteller sets the stage. They describe the setting and the situation into which the child was born. They bring us into the realities of the event. In Luke we are told of the reason the family travelled so late in Mary’s pregnancy. We are brought into the place of the birth and why the location of his birth came about (verses 1-7). In Luke, this birth story follows the story of John’s birth, told in a similar fashion (1:57-80). These are joyous events, but also miraculous in so many ways.
The birth story of Jesus comes in three parts: the birth (verses 1-7), the proclamation of the birth to the shepherds (verses 8-20), and the circumcision and naming (verse 21). This is similar to the threefold structure of John’s birth story. In many ancient and modern stories we might very well see the same structure: the birth; the announcement of the birth to others; and the circumcision and naming of boys, the naming of girls and uncircumcised males, dedication or infant baptism. But we, as Christians, despite the similarities of stories, believe that the birth of Jesus was different from all births before or since. This is the birth story of all birth stories, because this is the birth story of the Messiah, the Son of God.
The historical accuracy of the story is debated due to questions regarding the census dates as described by Luke, but nonetheless, Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem for the birth according to Matthew, Mark and Luke.1 The power of the story comes in its humbleness — a babe born in a stable or cave, wrapped in simple clothes, and laid to rest in an animal trough (verse 7).
The birth story is one of simplicity; the first ones told of the birth of the Messiah are shepherds out in the fields (verses 8-12). This is who Luke tells us learned of the event before all others. This is a stunning fact. It parallels a connection to the marginalized, the lowly, and the common and often unacceptable people of first century Judea that will be present throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. It reminds us that these are the very people who Jesus will invite to be part of the Kingdom of God. These are the very people Jesus wants at a banquet of the Kingdom of God (14:13, 21).2 What a glimpse into his future life this birth story provides. And what a life he will lead.
But for now he is a tiny baby with a birth story that is uniquely powerful in its simplicity. He is the son of God, but he is also the child of a young mother spent from labor and the son of a carpenter possibly unsure of how he will parent this newborn child.
Many new parents have fears and dreams for their newborns. Many worry about how their children’s lives will turn out and if they will be happy. Some are confronted with a child’s illness from the outset, while others will deal with significant health concerns for their children later on in life. Some will be close to their children and some will never learn to relate. Many will face tough teenage and young adult years. Many will watch their children thrive and succeed. Some have had many complications in completing adoptions processes. Many will just try to survive the pain of a child they will never get to raise themselves.
My mother told me, shortly after adopting my son, that all I can do is my best and then leave the rest to God and the lessons I taught him in the years he is in my care. I imagine that is part of what Mary is feeling. She is exhausted but happy. She is concerned but hopeful. And she knows that God has a role in her son’s life unlike anything the world had seen or heard of before.
This is, after all, Christmas Eve and we should all be happy now, right? But that is not true for all who will hear you preach this night. In preaching this text, the sermon should be sensitive to the various realities of birth stories, childbirth and infertility, and child-rearing. Extoling the joys of parenting in the message may bring significant pain to some of your listeners. The preacher should also be aware that for many the holidays are not a very joyous time. Being delicate in regard to the realities of your context will be key.
Preaching a text about the birth of the hope of the world — a baby wrapped in simple cloths and laid in a manger — can offer an entry point into these varied situations. It is, after all, the birth story of all birth stories.
1 Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 34-35.
2 Craddock, Luke, 36.
The NORAD website allows you to track Santa’s progress across the world on Christmas Eve.
As the earth spins, the swath of perpetual shadow from the sun moves over all of the earth’s countries and people. But “the land of deep darkness” in Isaiah 9:2 does not refer to night.
“Darkness” is not a daily or even yearly phase in a routine cycle. The land of deep darkness cannot be penetrated by an annual ritual. In Isaiah, the land of deep darkness bespeaks a period of history marked by political oppression. People buckle under a nation-wide yoke. Multiples of lives lived in gloom and anguish are perceived together by Isaiah.
The light that shines on the people is a once-in-a-life-time salvation event for the entire collective. So what about Christmas? Can Christmas slough off the individual chimneys of Santa’s annual gifts and take on the once-in-a-life-time challenges we face as we look with Christ at a world filled with historical oppressions?
Isaiah 9:2-7 is an accession oracle for a new king. The festive spirit at the beginning of the oracle celebrates the end of Assyrian oppression and the destruction of enemies in war. These conditions make possible the coronation of a native king in Judah.
In the ancient Near East, a royal birth was always an occasion for celebration and renewal. However, Isaiah’s is a native movement celebrating a unique and politically propitious moment in their history. The sense of renewal was no doubt compounded by the infancy of the new ruler, who could be groomed to embody the high hopes of Judeans. The titles in verse 6 form almost a curriculum in royal Judean values. These attributes equip the new king for his responsibility to oversee a just and righteous kingdom.
Within his curriculum, the new king will be groomed as the “prince of peace.” His peace-curriculum will include training in how to bring completeness, wellbeing, and welfare to his people. Peace (shalom) is a societal concept, one that binds people together in a life of hopeful prosperity. The Assyrian yoke had destroyed this kind of peace.
I don’t think people appreciate the warfare out of which Isaiah’s oracles grew. Even the lectionary text points to its significance. Verse 5 promises that “all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel.” The tone of celebration when the people see the “great light” is analogous to “people [who] exult when dividing plunder” (verse 3).
It was more than a century of almost incessant violence. The prose introduction in 9:1 sets this oracle in between two phases of warfare and political ruin for Israel, Judah’s neighbor in the north. The “former time” refers to local wars over the contested land between Israel and Syria. In the “latter time,” the same disputed lands were forcefully seized and made provinces of the Assyrian empire.
Throughout both of these periods of warfare, Judah was sporadically brought into the fray. The royal figure in Isaiah 9 is usually thought to be Hezekiah (715-687 BCE), whose royal predecessor (Ahaz) willingly formed an alliance with Assyria. This brought Judah into the Assyrian military-economic system, which Isaiah refers to as the “yoke of their burden” (verse 4).
A “yoke” was one of the most common ways for expansionist kingdoms to describe their relationship of power and oppression to the lands they take under their system. Numerous Assyrian royal inscriptions brag about the number of provinces under the yoke of the king. It is a triumphalist term to describe Assyrian domination.
Though war is always filled with death and destruction, the “latter time” or the second phase of violence was more insidious than the first. The Assyrians did not just fight wars. They used war to maintain the system of tribute. The Assyrian vassals/provinces had two choices: (1) devout obedience to Assyria’s heavy, erratic, and threatening economic program or (2) revolt against the vastly more powerful military-economic dominance of Assyria. Either way, the Assyrians yoked their vassals in a system that usurped wealth and exerted power through the terror of war.
An earlier reference to darkness in the immediate context of our passage brings greater understanding to the degraded conditions of everyday life in Judah while under the Assyrian yoke. Isaiah 8:19-22 describes one man’s search for some advice or clarity from divine spirits. No doubt, his life in a society yoked to the Assyrians left him without his farm or with his vines stripped of fruit. His turn to necromancy brings only “distress and darkness with no daybreaks” (verse 22). His necromancy and its consequences serve as a negative example for everyone living under the yoke.
Isaiah uses this one man’s experience as a proxy for the darkness that sets in over everyone. Because of the plural address in verse 19, we are led to imagine a land filled with people like him on restless and frustrated searches, searches perhaps pragmatic, perhaps spiritual, but no doubt driven by the difficult conditions of life. Whether he looks up or down, darkness is the only reality he can see (8:22). This dark shadow falls over everyone living in the “land in straits” (verse 23). Everyone suffers a degraded existence on the underside of the Assyrian yoke.
Isaiah is doing some profound thinking with this man’s experience. Reflecting on how the yoke and the land in straits affects the human condition, Isaiah states, “he will go about wretched and hungry; and when he is hungry, he shall rage and revolt against his king and his divine beings” (verse 21). Poverty and hunger change a person. Hunger breeds rage. The eyes see red.
The impoverished life under the yoke breeds a hermeneutic of revolt. Coupled with rage, Isaiah diagnoses a problem he sees in society: that people revolt against proxy culprits. People under the yoke misinterpret the forces at work in their lives, through bad information, ignorance, or impatience. To be clear, Isaiah sees life under the yoke as a network of injustice that creates enemies among neighbors, catalyzes conflict instead of cooperation, and intensifies boundaries that separate difference. Life under the yoke has everyone seeing red.
While he hopes that the one everyday man will be able to overcome his hermeneutic of revolt, Isaiah’s message of salvation is broader sweeping than this. Isaiah’s real solution lies in a society greatly transformed. The prophet shows what it could mean for everyone if the yoke that makes hungry were broken.
This is not individual salvation. This is a collective political vision for an entire people, rescued from the oppressive Assyrian yoke of usurpation, domination, and the fear of terror. The politics of oppression will be broken. The economics of usurpation will no longer warp the world. Adopting Isaiah’s royal vision, those schooled in peace will knit the fabric of society back together so that hunger and rage and revolt are quelled.
The people who walked in darknessHave seen a great lightThose who lived in a land of deep darknessOn them light has shined.
Somewhere in the list of top ten things preaching professors say to students stand the requests to “be specific,” “be concrete.”
Psalm 96 is chock full of imperatives to laud, praise, extol, bless (thank), and worship God, but curiously stingy with concrete, specific reasons why.
Imperatives outweigh indicatives by about six to one! But careful reading can discern the reasons; they boil down to these: God made the heavens and is surrounded by beautiful majesty; and God has firmly established the world and is coming to judge the earth and its peoples with equity and truth.
The psalm is organized around two cycles each of which begins with a series of those lavish imperatives balanced by terse descriptions of God’s praiseworthiness. The first cycle (verses 1-6) focuses on distinguishing God from idols by affirming that the power to create belongs to God alone. As James Mays puts it, the question being answered in the royal theology psalms is, “which God is over all others.”
Not only does God alone create, God’s creative power is accompanied by the sure marks of God’s “style”: honor, majesty, strength, and beauty. Idols create nothing and whatever “style” they possess they borrow from the hands or imaginations that fashion them. The Christmas use of this portion of the psalm might invite the preacher to consider what Jesus teaches about God’s “style” and how our typical notions of divine honor, majesty, strength, and beauty are turned inside out by all that unfolds in Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, and death.
The second cycle (verses 7-13) focuses on God’s provision of a stable, reliable home and of God’s inevitable justice. The former takes away our anxiety (notice it is humans who tremble here, not the earth!); the latter promises that our hope for God’s reign will be vindicated. This section of the psalm also contains some awesome anthropomorphizing of natural elements: fields exulting, seas roaring, earth rejoicing, and forests singing!
The psalm promises that God shall reign; the challenge for the preacher is to connect the dots. To what in our story or in our world can we point that proves God’s capacity to rule and judge with righteousness and truth? Where in our world are the signs that our vindication is breaking through?
As a response the first reading from Isaiah 9, Psalm 96 is somewhat oblique. True, both passages touch themes of ruling and justice, but where the psalm focuses on the aural (singing and praising), the first lesson is visual (darkness, light, and shining). In addition, Isaiah walks us through the specific history of Israel’s oppression into a promised liberation; the sphere of the psalm is more general (even cosmic) and cultic.
Psalm 96 begins with an imperative that has made its way onto refrigerator magnets and inspirational posters: “sing to the Lord a new song.” The power of a new song is that it re-articulates the attributes of God, setting God apart from the idol-gods of each new context and season.
So could there be a more ironic liturgical setting for Psalm 96 than Christmas in North America? In most communities “new songs” on Christmas Eve might show up in the choir anthem, but the rest of the night is given over to carols and hymns known by heart. What a shame for this psalm to be one more act of nostalgia — one more artifact of someone else’s long ago encounter with inspiring awe.
When I’m sitting in the pew on Christmas Eve I frankly do not expect the psalm to eclipse Isaiah or Luke. But our world seems anything but stable and solid and the idols of the world effectively, if falsely, claim their own honor, majesty, strength, and beauty. I am unmoved by the psalmist’s imperatives and am left cold by the psalm’s boilerplate ascriptions. I long to be encountered by specific and concrete instances of God’s action (as the psalmist was) so that I can obey the imperative anew!
If you’re going to preach on the psalm on Christmas Eve, don’t talk about the imperatives by exegeting the thrill that called forth this old song from the ancient psalmist, rather follow the imperative yourself and inspire us to “sing a new song”! Recount the praiseworthiness of God — the creator baby of Incarnation — especially through the concrete ways God has surrounded our community with Jesus-style majesty, strength, beauty, and justice.
If you must, give a shout out to the manger and Egypt and Pentecost and God’s deeds of old, but then give us our own list of artifacts and events! Recount God’s actions in this community over the last year or ten … inspire us to sing our own new song.
During his long tenure at Harvard Divinity School, Krister Stendahl (d. 2008) would occasionally hand out his “Ten Commandments for Biblical Preaching.”
Number Ten on that list was, “No moral lessons on high holy days.” This is an appropriate perspective to have in mind as one approaches the second lessons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (Nativity of Our Lord I & II) both of which come from the Letter to Titus. Titus, though the shortest of the Pastoral Epistles, is still a letter full of moral counsel with regard to proper Christian conduct within the church (1:5-9), the family (2:1-10), and the state (3:1-3).
The second lesson for Christmas Eve directly follows such advice, as does the corresponding lesson for Christmas Day. Thus both lessons refer back to ethical counsel that is not included in the public readings (Christmas Eve’s lesson begins with the conjunction “for”/gar; Christmas Day’s text begins with the conjunction “but when”/hote de). It is as though the editors of the RCL took Stendahl’s advice to heart: “No moral lessons on high holy days!”
The preacher, however, will want to read the sections that precede the assigned readings in order to have the wider context of the Christmas lessons in mind. A basic Pauline notion is being articulated here in Titus — the Incarnation has transformed everything. That includes not only the way one thinks (Romans 12:2) but also how one might actually relate to God and God’s good creation, which of course includes one’s neighbor. In other words, God’s favor (charis) is experienced as a transforming power. As Titus 2:13 puts it (using the adjective soterios), God has manifested a “saving grace” in Christ.
The texts from Titus chosen for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day represent the theological highpoints of the Letter to Titus. They are densely packed summaries of the gospel of the incarnation expressed in finely tuned poetic language that articulate a high Christology and the universal soteriological reach (“for all,” 2:11) of God’s grace in the Christ event.
The terminology is similar in both texts, grounded in the classic Pastoral Epistles’ emphasis on the “appearance” or “manifestation” of God’s grace (cf. 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 1:9-10, 4:1, 8). The Greek verb translated as “appeared” at 2:11 and 3:4 is epiphaino, from which our English cognate “epiphany” comes. In these specific verbal usages, the reference is to the “first” appearance of Christ in the flesh. The nominal form (epiphaneia) also is in evidence at 2:13 (translated in the NRSV as “manifestation”), which refers to the “2nd” coming of Christ. By means of this *epiphan word group, the strong continuity between the first and the second “manifestations” of Christ is highlighted by the author of Titus.
Though the apocalyptic bent of some forms of North American Christianity might be centered in speculative projections of a violent second adventus of Christ, it is good to remember that the early church was confident that the grace of God was the foundation of both epiphanies. The major difference between the two, this text suggests, is that in the final manifestation of Christ will be one that reveals God’s very glory (doxa; 2:13). That is, in the final epiphany, all of creation will recognize the grace of God as first revealed in the Christ child. “Now,” in the interim between the two epiphanies, it is only by faith (Titus 1:1) that the abundant grace of God is discerned.
The transformation in Christ referred to above is the focus of verse 12. Much has been made in the commentary literature about how the author is evoking common tropes of Hellenistic moral discourse. This includes the terminology for “instruction” (from the Greek tradition of paideia) and the listing of three of the four cardinal virtues of Hellenistic culture (“self control,” “righteousness,” “piety”; absent is “courage”). These virtues are drawn off against “worldly passions” (kosmikas epithymias).
As often pointed out, the virtues are all encompassing in that they focus on self (“self-control”), one’s relations with others (“righteousness”), and with God (“godliness,” i.e., one’s reverence toward God). It is important to note, however, that this language does not simply imitate the ethical mores of Imperial Rome. The virtues are “Christian” in that they are set within the narrative of the Incarnation, a narrative that begins with the birth to Mary, stretches through the public ministry of Jesus, his crucifixion (by the “rulers of this age,” cf. 1 Corinthians 2:8), resurrection and enthronement at the right hand of God. So, Christian “self-control” (sophrosyne), for example, rather than reflecting an accommodation to wider public moral standards, actually trains (or “instructs”) one to resist the values of Empire.
Christian “self-control” is radical in that it recognizes the dangers to self and society (and to one’s relationship with God!) of the “worldly desires” and mores into which one is socialized by the larger public discourse. In antiquity, such a discourse, for instance, priviledged the few with scarce goods at the expense of the many. The narrative of the Incarnation, on the contrary, assured all of access to the abundant good gifts and favor (charis) of a merciful and generous God. What is more radical than “moderation” and “self-control,” one might observe, in a world gone mad with desire for power, money, and prestige?
The syntax of the phrase in verse 13 is much reviewed in the commentary literature. It is brought over into English in the NRSV as “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The punctuation in the NRSV suggests that “Jesus Christ” is in apposition to something that precedes the comma. But what? Are we to identify “Jesus Christ” as (a) “our great God and Savior” or (b) “the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior”? That is, is Jesus identified as “God” in this text? If so, it is a supposedly rare occurrence in the New Testament (but cf. Romans 9:5; John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Hebrews 1:8ff; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20).
The confession “Jesus is Lord” (kyrios Iesous) — the actual worship paid to Jesus by the early church, as well as the co-enthronement vision of Psalm 110:1 (the most often cited Old Testament text in the New) — suggests that such a designation of divinity was less problematic for many early Christians than it has been for some New Testament scholars in the modern period. It is appropriate that on this high holy day, one that celebrates the mystery of God’s Incarnation, that we give thanks for the first epiphany “while we wait the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.