Lectionary Commentaries for December 24, 2019
Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder

Jesus is born among animals.

Donkeys and cows witness the birth of the Lamb of God. Angels proclaim. Shepherds shudder. Still four-legged creatures welcome the One who would walk so intimately with humanity. 

I do not profess to be a scholar of animal studies. I am not even a pet owner. Yet, that the nativity scene is nestled in straw and cattle feed is compelling. In contrast to a “Highly Exalted” emperor named Augustus, for that is what his name really means, is a baby dwelling with lowly animals. This is not to imply or suggest that animals are not worth human care and compassion. Nor does this essay posit a “low” designation as paralleling that which is expendable. Perchance Luke’s Jesus is so in touch with the least that he comes to be with all of creation—humans and animals. 

Jesus does not enter the world on palatial grounds. He is almost on the ground as feeding troughs provided easily access to its intended. That which is high will be soon brought low. That which is born low will become the paradigm of exaltation. Animals from below and angels from on high both pay homage to the babe born to Mary and Joseph.

In a literary move that highlights existential reversal, the Gospel of Luke disrobes imperialistic culture through One who is “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). Luke sets the birth of Jesus during a period of registration for taxation. The author’s dating is amiss in that Quirinius’ registration did not occur until 6-7 CE. Jesus was born 3-4 BCE. However, the point is it situates Jesus in an environment where people are decentered and dehumanized due to Pax Romana (the so-called peace of Roman). In a setting where those on top control what persons on the bottoms can and cannot do, Luke’s context was more akin to a pseudo-Peace of Rome.

The writer in this passage continues an examination of colonial-laden class conundrum. Mary, a teenager from Nazareth, is the human conduit through whom deliverance comes. This is a herculean task for someone of such humble beginnings. Mary is not a descendant of any Davidic great line of ancestors. She is not the wife of an esteemed husband like her cousin Elizabeth. To push more, she is not even married. Mary is a pregnant adolescent traveling with her fiancé. 

She is at risk as a girl. She is socially in harm’s way because she lacks legal male covering. She faces physical detriment as one daring to give birth in the first century. Mary goes with Joseph to be counted—to be counted in the census, not to be counted as an animal, but as a human. Nevertheless, even animals glance upon the Holy One.

The shepherds also speak to the class conflict evident in Luke’s birth narrative. The first to witness the entrance of the Messiah are professionally acquainted with sheep messiness. Shepherds were deemed unclean and of ill-repute. To society they were dirty physically and morally. However, to challenge status norms, the Gospel of Luke records smelly shepherds as the official beneficiaries of the Good News. 

The word about Jesus does not come to the emperor initially, but to persons most harmed by an imperial taxation system. In Bethlehem, the Son of the Most High is born to a girl of a low stature, in a lowly place, surrounded by barn animals with persons in a lowly profession as witnesses. How ironic that an angel tells the shepherds to seek the baby in Bethlehem, the city of David. This is a locale named for the great king who began his life as a lowly shepherd.1 Does it get any lower than this?

Luke’s birth account continues its high-low-highest dance in that it ends in exaltation. A multitude of heavenly hosts join an angel in offering the highest praise to God as shepherds watch. The story moves from a single angel conversing with earthly shepherds to several from the heavenly realm worshiping for all the world to see. The heavenly hosts add exponential divine value to what their fellow celestial being has heralded. There is a geographical shift in that the earth now witnesses heaven in action. As Jesus makes his entrance on earth, heaven reveals itself more so as the holy habitation of the God who sent Jesus. 

What began with Jesus born in a manger full of animals climaxes into a majestic celebration of the Messiah.


1 Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “The Gospel of Luke,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 162.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

Rachel Wrenn

The words of Isaiah 9, immortalized by the great George Frideric Handel, are linked forever for most Americans to the holiday of Christmas.

But the theme of great light and Wonderful Counselor carry resonances that reverberate throughout Israelite history, in ways that can deepen the impact of these words for all hearers on December 24th.

“Great light” is actually a theme continued from the chapters before. In Isaiah 7, God offers to all of Israel a prophetic sign of peace in the face of imminent political disaster from conquering nations. This sign is the birth and name of an actual child, Immanuel, Hebrew for “God-Is-With-Us.” This child is meant to be a physical sign of God’s intimate presence and a theological assurance that no disaster will befall Jerusalem. But the frightened and faithless king ultimately rejects it, and with it, God’s saving help. Then we learn in Isaiah 8:19-20 that the people are instead rousing dead spirits to ask them for help.

The people and the king have literally rejected God’s offer of life in favor of the dead. And God has had it.

The one who does this, God states, will look up to heaven or down to earth, “but will see only distress and darkness, gloom and anguish; into thick darkness, they will be thrust” (Isaiah 8:22). Isaiah 8 seems determined to shove any hope of redemption into the dimmest corner of possibility.

But then, two verses later — floodlights: “The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). The nation which caused divine revulsion in Isaiah 8 is showered with joy — big joy — REALLY big joy — in Isaiah 9:2. Joy as at a successful harvest, joy as at heaps of plunder, joy, we hear in verse 3, as at freedom from the oppressors of Midian.

Now Midian is a reference which means nothing to us, but it would have meant something special to the Israelites. Midian was the national and religious equivalent of something like Independence Day and the Emancipation Proclamation rolled into one. Judges 6 narrates the oppression of the Israelites by surrounding nation-states, described poetically in Isaiah 9 as a yoke on their back, a bar on their shoulders, a rod of an oppressor. Judges 7 describes the battle that changes all of that.

A warrior named Gideon (think a kind of Israelite amalgamation of Frederick Douglass and George Washington) rallies 32,000 of Israel’s troops to fight the nation-states which have been oppressing Israel — Midian most of all. God promises Gideon that they will win the day, but also informs him that it must be abundantly clear that the victory is God’s and God’s alone. So, three different times, God makes Gideon winnow down the troops. Ultimately, all that remains of the original 32,000 are 300 fighters. That night, Gideon gives each soldier a horn, a jar, and a covered torch. They surround the enemy camp, and then simultaneously blow their horns, break their jars, and uncover their torches, so that it seems that the Israelites are bringing a seriously coordinated attack. The Midianites, in short, lose it. They panic, and in their disarray, end up fighting and killing each other, handing the victory to Israel and to God. The day of Midian was a day of salvation in a most decisive fashion.

In Isaiah 9, the people stumbling about in deep darkness are now delivered as on one of Israel’s greatest victories. But note carefully verse 6: it is no Frederick Douglass orator or George Washington commander who brings this triumph about. Instead it is a child, born to a people, with authority — not oppression — resting on his shoulders. More, it is a child who has been named not Great Warrior, but Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The day of Midian is flipped on its head. The authority of this child shall grow not in conquest but in endless peace, established and upheld with justice and with righteousness, from this time on and forevermore.

This child — Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz — will enter into a theologically failed and chaotic kingdom and turn it on its head. (Remember, Ahaz refused to rely on God’s help but reached out to oppressive political empires instead — see my earlier commentary on Isaiah 7 for Dec. 22nd). And Hezekiah does lead in marvelously faithful ways, trusting in God’s salvation even as Jerusalem is surrounded and besieged by King Sennacherib of the empire of Assyria — surrounded and besieged, but not taken. And it is the word of God from Isaiah son of Amoz which steels the king’s nerves long enough to see God’s deliverance of Jerusalem (see Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 18-19).

But while the prophetic oracle of Isaiah 9 may begin with King Hezekiah, it does not end there. Peace prevailed during Hezekiah’s time, but disaster loomed, and indeed, later struck with a vengeance. Over the centuries, empires came and went (Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome), but their oppressive practices remained the same, up to and including empires of today. So as Christians, we read this text on Christmas in defiance of the decrees of Emperors, past, present, and future. We read this text in rejection of those who seek to count, to categorize, to control, in the vein of Emperor Augustus. We read this text in the hope of a child, a child who will take our days of Midian and turn them on their heads; a child who will break the oppressive bars of terrorists and of tyrants; a child who will rule with justice and righteousness from this time on and forevermore.


Commentary on Psalm 96

Rolf Jacobson

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.

Second Reading

Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

Mary Foskett

As Christians around the world prepare each year to celebrate the birth of Jesus, many are welcoming the familiar rhythms of the liturgical year, the reappearance of annual traditions, and the singing of hymns that signal the arrival of the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

Observing the liturgical calendar is both a means of practicing the traditions of the faith and a reminder that we always live in what theologians call the “now” and the “not yet.” Christ has come and is yet coming again. For millennia, the church worldwide has proclaimed and been shaped by these twin convictions. The transformation to which the church bears witness and that it seeks to embody occurs in this third space, between the “now” and the “not yet.”

The Letter to Titus speaks from the ancient past to the deep longing that emerges from living in the period between the first and future coming of Christ. As is the case with 1 and 2 Timothy, which together with Titus constitute the Pastoral Letters, the authorship of this letter remains uncertain. Whether or not it was written by Paul, the letter expresses both love and concern for Titus and his community. It understands that like all Christians before and since, the community is living in the time between Christ’s first appearance and the future “manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). After focusing first on how Christ served as the full manifestation (epiphaneia) of God’s grace, the letter speaks to how Jesus “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). Thus the writer deftly ties the theological claim that Jesus made visible God’s grace with the image of Jesus as the model for right behavior.

This comprehensive picture of the role and purpose of Jesus is central to the lectionary passage for December 24, the Nativity of Our Lord, for it provides the foundation for what the writer exhorts Titus to do. After outlining a set of moral instructions for various groups in Titus’ community (the older men, Titus 2:2; older and younger women, 2:3-5; younger men, 2:6-8; and slaves, 2:9-10), the writer proceeds to explain why he has done so. He writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (2:11). It is because salvation is intended for all—both those inside and outside of the community of faith—that the writer’s moral instruction coheres with Hellenistic social convention at the time. For example, the letter’s instructions align with the moral ideals associated with the exemplary household, which was considered the building block of Hellenistic society. The letter is clearly concerned with the community’s conduct that can be observed by those outside of it. Although the writer’s interest may be due, in part, to protecting the community from suspicion, the letter is also invested in the persuasive power of the community’s witness to outsiders. The community is to embody the grace of God that Christ has made known and live out the example that he has provided for them.

The conventional values that the letter upholds would have come as no surprise to either Titus’s community or those outside of it. The innovation of the exhortation here in chapter 2 is not its end, but the means by which such ideals are to be lived out. In the period of waiting for Christ’s return, it is nothing less than God’s grace that is “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (Titus 2:12). The interim period is a time for being trained in the example of Jesus.

Lest readers think that because his instruction coheres with moral ideals espoused in the broader culture, that the writer’s exhortation must have no teeth, the letter proceeds to name the passions of the present age that run counter to its teaching. Recalling the qualities that characterized their lives before their transformation and renewal by the Holy Spirit, he writes that “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” (Titus 3:3). Life lived in Christian community is to serve as a visible contrast to the former ways. In addition, with the letter’s focus on internal division, the writer draws an even sharper contrast to the doing of good works which “are excellent and profitable to everyone” and “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (3:9).

The letter’s focus on transformation, paired with the conviction that the interim period between the first and future coming of Christ is a time of training for the Christian community can be a welcome word at Christmas. We are, of course, surrounded by ample evidence in our world of how much is in need of transformation. From environmental degradation to military conflicts to injustice around the world and so much more, we see at Christmas, as we see throughout the year, how much is unchanged. Perhaps more to the point, though, the letter asks us to look at the places in our own lives and church communities that remain unchanged. In North America and Europe, church attendance continues to steadily decline and polls show how public trust in organized religion is dropping. With its focus on matters internal to the Christian community and on what outsiders see in those who profess to follow Christ, the Letter to Titus challenges us to look within. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus and look forward to his future coming, the letter reminds us that this interim time is our training ground. May “those who have come to believe in God … be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8).