Lectionary Commentaries for December 24, 2016
Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord
Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7
Terence E. Fretheim
Isaiah 9:1 is not a part of the lectionary text, but helps put this Christmas Eve text in historical and literary context.1
This not altogether clear verse provides a transition between the darkness and gloom of 8:22 and the light and hope of 9:2-7.
The southern kingdom Judah had been threatened by a coalition from Syria and the northern kingdom (Israel). Judah’s king Ahaz, disregarding the counsel of Isaiah (see Isaiah 7:1-17; 8:4-8), had called on Assyria for help (see 2 Kings 16:1-20). The Assyrians under Tiglath-pileser III devastated Syria and the northern part of Israel (“Galilee”) in 733 BCE and sent many people into exile (see 2 Kings 15:29); in the process Judah became Assyria’s vassal. This threatening time constitutes the basic historical setting for the Isaiah 9:2-7 text. Contrasting images help shape the word delivered to Israel: darkness to light, death to life, anguish to hope.
Basically, Isaiah 9:2-7 consists of a song of praise and thanksgiving for what God has done (verses 2-6 are basically in the past tense). Note that these words are addressed to God (the “you” of verses 3-4), spoken by the prophet for the people (he is included among the “us” of verse 6). Verse 7 is in the future tense. The confidence related to the future is grounded in the divine action of the past.
Initially, a contrast is made between the gloomy past and the light-filled future that has already dawned (verse 2) and then the effects of God’s action are stated: the nation is thriving and the people are rejoicing (verse 3). The people’s joy is compared to the time of a successful harvest and the defeat of an enemy (with the dividing of the spoils).
The reasons for this transformed situation are stated with a threefold use of the word “for” (verses 4, 5, 6). Verse 4 recalls God’s breaking of the burden/yoke that had been laid upon the people (think of slavery). The event is compared to the unlikely defeat of Midian under Gideon (see Judges 6:2-6; 7:1-28). Verse 5 specifies the results of the victory in verse 4. The trampling boots of the enemy warriors and the bloody garments of their victims–instruments of war and their bloody effects–will be burned. These are images of the destruction of Israel’s enemies; they will be no more.
The effects of verses 4-5–God’s salvation!–are stated in socio-political-military terms. God’s will for justice and peace among the people is herein realized. These wide-ranging effects of God’s saving actions in and through the military-political sphere should not be reduced to a spiritual dimension. What modern parallels might be cited in, say, the practice of justice and socio-political activity? God works in and through agents from various spheres of the social fabric and all dimensions of life are positively affected. The result is called salvation.
It can be helpful to compare these acts of God’s salvation with the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt (see “salvation” in Exodus 15:2). One might compare the multi-dimensional nature of God’s salvation here with the salvation language of the Gospels, which includes Jesus’ bodily healing and, in the end, the resurrection of the body. God’s salvation is a “full-bodied” experience–not unlike the best of red wines (see Isaiah 25:6)!
Verse 6 gives still another reason: a baby boy has been born (“It’s a boy”!). The birth of the child was promised in 7:14 as a sign of great things to come (Immanuel). His birth indicates that a new day has dawned (see also 9:4-5 as the fulfillment of 7:16). The earlier promise of God has come to birth. At this point the phrases “for us” and “to us” come to the fore (echoing the “with us” of 7:14). God has acted, not in general, but “for us”! The “birth” of the child may refer to the accession of the king to the throne (see Psalm 2:7), but the birth image remains important independently of royal imagery.
Who is this boy? The complex language of verse 6 has occasioned much reflection. Most interpreters see the use of royal motifs, perhaps even a ritual for the enthronement of a new Davidic king. He is usually identified with Hezekiah, on whom Isaiah 36-39 will focus (see 2 Kings 18:5-7 for a strongly positive evaluation of him). That such a reign is in mind may be seen in “the throne of David and his kingdom.” The four “throne names” in verse 6 are comparable to those given Egyptian pharaohs upon their enthronement. Without going into detail, they have the sense of: a discerning guide through the wilderness of life; an earthly representative of divine rule (not that the king is actually God–see the images in royal Psalm 45; see Immanuel); a parental presence that will assure ongoing care; a bringer of peace (note the word “prince,” not king).
Christians have, of course, seen the birth of Jesus through the lens provided by this language. But the song of thanksgiving context of these verses for already experienced salvation suggests that the answer to the question of the identity of the boy is more complex than any simple identification. It seems likely that, in view of continued failure on the part of Israel’s kings, the royal imagery used for the Davidic monarchy was applied to a coming king. At the same time, King Hezekiah provided a foretaste of this coming king in a way that no other Davidic ruler did. This text then becomes a song of thanksgiving for the anticipated rule of this coming prince who will rule as God himself rules.
Verse 7 makes a specific move to the future. Note that his authority will “grow”; it is not fully mature to begin with, but will not diminish. The theme of endless peace, justice, and righteousness anticipates the creation-wide, egalitarian rule specified more closely in Isaiah 11:1-9; Psalm 72:1; and Ezekiel 37:24-28. This future is possible because of what God has done and will do–the “zeal” of the Lord, that is, the passionate and unfailing commitment of God to work toward this future.
1 This commentary was originally published on the site on December 24, 2009.
Commentary on Psalm 96
The Lord is king!1
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 Lord is king” (93:1)
- “For the Lord is a great God, a great king” (95:3)
- “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” (96:10)
- “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice” (97:1)
- “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble” (99:1)
- “God has gone up with a shout … God is the king” (47:5-7)
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.
1 This commentary was published on the site on December 24, 2014.
Commentary on Titus 2:11-14
This passage stands out as a theological gem in the midst of the moral exhortations of Titus.1
Along with 3:4-7, it provides theological momentum for the letter’s ethical instruction.
Between Two Epiphanies
Titus presents God’s unfolding plan of salvation in terms of two appearances of Jesus, two epiphanies or manifestations of God’s presence. “For the grace of God has appeared (epephan), bringing salvation to all” (2:11). Jesus’ first appearance manifested God’s grace, and his second coming will manifest God’s glory, for “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation (epiphaneian) of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2:13).
In speaking of Jesus’ first appearance, Titus likely refers to the whole of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, rather than his actual birth in Bethlehem. Yet the connection with Jesus’ birth will be inescapable in a Christmas Eve service, and is certainly worth exploring. Jesus manifests God’s grace to us in a most astounding way, precisely by the humility in which he first makes himself known to us — as a vulnerable infant born to peasant parents, lying in a manger far from the comforts of home.
Jesus’ birth is an appropriate preface to the life he lives — a life on the margins as a wandering preacher and healer, a friend of sinners, suspect in the eyes of the religious and political establishments. His birth is also appropriate to the kind of death he dies — outside the holy city, a humiliating, shameful death reserved for rebels and slaves. Jesus manifests God’s grace in the most unexpected ways, even in bearing shame and suffering on our behalf. For “he it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own” (2:14).
Jesus’ first epiphany — his life, death, and resurrection — inaugurated a new age, bringing the hope of salvation to all. This salvation will be fully realized when he comes again in glory as “our great God and Savior” (2:13). Until then, we live between two epiphanies, in hope and expectation.
The hope and expectation in which we live are not idle or passive. Jesus gave himself for us in order to redeem us from iniquity and make us his own people “who are zealous for good deeds” (11:14). The salvation he brings is not only about forgiveness, but also about transformation. As recipients of God’s grace, we are empowered to live in a new way. The grace of God is “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:12). The Greek word for training (paideuousa), associated with the instruction and discipline of children, suggests that transformation does not happen overnight, but is a long, painstaking process as we grow into maturity.
Examples of the “impiety and worldly passions” we are to renounce are described in 3:3: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.” Sounds like a pathetic way to live, does it not? Where do such “worldly passions” still enslave us today? In the contempt and divisiveness that dominate our political discourse? In the constant lure of consumption and acquisition? In the desire for power and control over others? In the fear that drives us to demonize those who differ from us?
In stark contrast to being driven by worldly passions, we are to live lives that are “self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:12). What this kind of life might look like is described in 3:1-2. It is to “be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.”
In the verses preceding 2:11-14, Titus has spelled out the kind of character and behavior expected of elders and bishops (1:5-9), older men (2:2), older women (2:3), young women (2:4-5), young men (2:6-8), and slaves (2:9-10). These exhortations reflect the values of Hellenistic moral philosophy. The instructions to young women, for instance, describe the behavior expected of the ideal Roman wife. The point of living this way is summed up in 2:5: “so that the word of God may not be discredited.”
The author is concerned that good order and good conduct in the household reflect well upon the Christian community and its message. This does not mean that 21st century Christians need to replicate the social structures of the first or second century. Yet we need always be concerned about how our words and actions reflect on the church and either help or hinder our God-given mission. Quarreling, divisiveness, and judgmental attitudes, for instance, have done much to damage our credibility and obscure the gospel.
Our relationships with one another, with the communities in which we live, and with the world should reflect the love of God in Jesus Christ, “who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (2:14). How welcome our witness might be when we live out our identity as people belonging to Christ — when, for instance, we are ready for every good work, speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, and show gentleness and courtesy to everyone (3:1-2).
We are still “in training,” of course; our transformation is still a work in progress. It can only come from the one who enters into our humanity in humility and love. Truly the grace of God has appeared in him, bringing salvation to all. He has come to make us his people — a transformed people zealous for good deeds — not only in this season of holiday cheer, but year-round, day in and day out, year after year, “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2:13).
1. This commentary was first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2011.
This text should carry a warning statement for those of us who dare to preach from it.1
The difficulty comes from the fact that this passage is one of the most familiar in all of scripture. So many know it, but so few actually know what it contains. Furthermore, most of the folks who come to worship and encounter this text already have in mind the blur of texts that we present in the Christmas play. To collide with this text and only this text will be an unexpected moment of gospel delight.
The first five verses set forth a historical background. This fits one of the stated purposes of this Gospel writer to “set an orderly account” (1:3). The problem is that the many difficulties with the historical reliability of these details make them disorderly. This should not be seen as a problem for Christmas Eve, however. The greater purpose of this first section is to point out the secular surroundings of this birth narrative.
A birth that can be most easily remembered in connection with a tax census–the counting of one person among hundreds of thousands–is initially represented simply as the birth of someone’s first born son. God may be breaking into the world, but there is no way to know that from the introductory verses. It may be important in our preaching to let that moment of revelation be delayed also.
Verses six and seven contain perhaps the most restrained, bare-boned birth narrative in all of history: “it happened while they were there that her term was up and the days were completed for her to deliver. She delivered her son, the firstborn. And she wrapped him up and placed him in a feed trough because there was no place of lodging for them anywhere else.”
It may be significant on this night to remind ourselves of what these verses tell us and what they don’t. There are details that must be important or Luke would not have included them in this bare-bones account. Take time to note these details in preparation for the preaching moment. Note also what is not in the text that we so often read into it (no snowy winter, no animals overlooking the baby’s crib, not even a stable, no innkeeper crying out “no room”).
Amidst all the excitement, excess, pageantry, and parading of people on Christmas Eve, we could not, at this point in the narrative, present a more contrasting humble and private event. This is not something to write home about. This is not a memorable event. It is, rather, a simple, straightforward, plain, account of a baby boy born in very humble surroundings. The child’s name is not even given.
Verses 8-14 do ramp up the excitement a bit. The news is delivered beyond the meager “birthing room.” To shepherds! The shepherds are in the region surrounding Bethlehem at night presumably doing what shepherds do–taking care of the sheep.
Making a somewhat spectacular appearance to the shepherds is an angel/messenger doing what an angel does–delivering a message. At the appearance of the angel, the shepherds respond with fear. The Greek at the end of the verse states this quite emphatically by using both the verb and the noun forms of the word translated in most versions as “fear.” This verse bears a second look.
The word translated as “fear” could also be translated as “reverence” or “respect.” In this sense, it has to do with “fear” of or “respect” of the deity. After all, this was an angel of the Lord. The angel’s response does not have to be read as: “Stop being afraid.” It may very well have the sense of “Stop reverencing me and listen to this message–it is not about me; something far greater has happened.”
This is a particularly rich way to approach the text when juxtaposed against the humble birth narrative which precedes this section. The angelic proclamation is where the “fanfare” seems to be. A heavenly chorus eventually sings to shepherds. That is the way we like Christmas Eve. But the initial angel says: “It is not about the side show or the way the message comes. It is the message itself.”
In order to validate the message, the messenger/angel then refers back to the details “we” have from verses six and seven and gives the shepherds permission to go find this infant for themselves.
Now the real show begins with the unexpected army of heavenly beings who are speaking a grand doxology to God and proclaiming peace in God’s name. No wonder we light candles and raise them in hymnic praise on Christmas Eve–the precedent was set, so to speak, on the shepherds’ fields so long ago.
I noted that there was no mention in the birth narrative proper (verses 6-7) of the name of the child. The child is named by the angel–Savior, Christ the Lord. Moreover, it is consistent with the child’s humble birth surroundings that these names are first given not to the highest strata of society but to common shepherds.
Though Luke’s Gospel sets this scene by dropping names of some of the best known people of the day (Emperor Augustus and Quirinius), the characters in this narrative are Mary and Joseph (an engaged, pregnant couple), homeless shepherds who lived in fields, an angel/messenger and a chorus of angels, and a newborn baby.
God was ready to enter the world and God did so in a most unconventional way. What a moment of gospel delight we can offer on Christmas Eve!
1. This commentary was first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2009.