Lectionary Commentaries for December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

David Tiede

Preaching on Christmas Eve is an exercise in strong, gentle truth.

Luke’s literary masterpiece is “the Christmas Gospel” even in secular minds and hearts far from God. The children, candlelight, and carols reach into lives troubled with pain and despair, offering the incredible promise of hope to people who may show up only once a year.

How can this promise be trusted in a world that is lonely and unforgiving? Herod’s murderous response in Matthew to Jesus’ birth may be more credible to people hardened by harsh political realities, ancient and modern. But the wonder of the Christmas Gospel is not mere sentiment. “Silent Night, Holy Night” is a testimony to a divine mercy ready to pay the price of rejection and death. The little town of Bethlehem lies still before our eyes, but as he wrote the hymn, Philip Brooks knew: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” How can the strong, gentle truth be told?

Luke’s narrative invites a calm, slow telling. The lectionary considers splitting portions between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Why hurry the greatest story ever told? Read all twenty verses twice! In preparing to preach, read all of chapters 1 and 2 in Luke to notice for yourself the rich parallels between the annunciations, births, and childhoods of John the Baptizer and Jesus. Then read 1 Samuel 1-2 and remember the remarkable childhood of Samuel, the prophet, who anointed King David of Bethlehem. Luke’s narrative is a sequel in an ancient scriptural story, now with you, as God’s bard, telling it forward. The enduring truth of Jesus’ story is grounded in Israel’s past.

Many families read the story of Jesus’ birth in their Christmas rituals at home. Some still think only the King James Version has the real Christmas Gospel, and they may be partly right. Luke’s literary style was actually antiquated in the first century, because the evangelist was imitating the prose of Israel’s more ancient scriptures. “And it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” More modern translations, if they are good, will also communicate the profound assurance that Jesus’ birth marks God’s entry into the long flow of human history: good, bad, and indifferent.

And probably by the time Luke composed this narrative, the question of God’s role in history was agonizing in Israel and dismal in the Roman Empire.

In the Roman realm, the golden age of Caesar Augustus had become a betrayed promise, filled with increasingly oppressive claims for the divinity of Caligula or Nero, then caught in the brutal struggles for imperial power closing the silver age at the end of the first century CE. Plutarch’s dialogue “On the Delay of Divine Vengeance” announced that only public repentance could avert the consequences of Roman decadence. Meanwhile, when the Roman legions besieged Jerusalem, burned the temple, and decimated the population, faithful Jewish groups throughout the empire in turn wondered, “What sin has brought this upon us? Have God’s promises failed?”

Within Luke’s rich story of Jesus and the apostolic movement, the Christmas Gospel testifies confidently to God’s fidelity and announces God’s reign. Luke’s narrative is thoroughly scriptural. Even the angels speak “Biblish.” Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem among shepherds because God chose David from a sheepfold to rule (Psalm 78:70-71). The miraculous “sign” of the infant (Luke 2:12, 15-16) is a reenactment of God’s prophetic promise from another troubled time in Israel’s history (Isaiah 7:14: see a direct use of the Greek version of the Isaiah prophecy in Matthew 1:22-23). All the titles for this new born king (Luke 2:11) are scriptural: “Savior,” “Messiah,” and “Lord.” Appearances to the contrary, Jesus’ birth means God’s rule on earth is gathering strength.

In a traditional Cameroon carol, the choir repeatedly asks, “Why did he come?” The wonder of Christmas is both that Jesus embodies God’s reign among mortals and why God’s presence among us is good news. Martin Luther’s classic Christmas hymn also catches this gentle truth, which he took straight from the song of the heavenly host:

“From heav’n above to earth I come
To bring good news to ev’ry one!
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To all the world, and gladly sing.”
In Jesus, God inaugurated his reign among us because we need it.
Let the preaching begin! But let it be gentle because even the truth can hurt.1

Yes, the armies of heaven break forth in song, and the shepherds tell everyone, prompting amazement. Maybe it is easier for the angels. They know the holy splendor of God’s rule in heaven. Perhaps the shepherds could receive the news of God’s reign with pure hearts. Jesus will later thank God (Luke 10:21) for having “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants.” The simplicity of the first public witnesses is a wonder. Jesus’ apostles have surprising credentials: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24).

Mary teaches the gentle truth of this story. Earlier she received Gabriel’s remarkable announcement of her pregnancy with wonder (1:34: “How can this be?”) and in trust (1:37: “Let it be!”). Her “magnificat” (1:46-55) measured the full impact of God’s reign on the proud and powerful. Now (2:19) preaching without speaking, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” And almost immediately (2:35), Simeon will warn her that “a sword will pierce your own soul too!”

Luke’s Christmas Gospel invites treasuring the words, awe at the splendor of God’s faithfulness, and wonder about where it will lead for “all the world.” The gentle truth invites all who see and hear to return for Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. God’s drama is just beginning to unfold.

1Martin Luther, “From Heaven Above,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ed. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Minneapolis; Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #268.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

Mark Throntveit

Isaiah 9:2-7 has been chosen for Christmas Eve because of its the theme of light shining in the darkness (v. 2) and its reference to a child “born for us” who will usher in justice and righteousness “from this time forward and for evermore” (v. 7).

In addition, the angelic announcement in Luke 2:11 may be an allusion to verse 6. The significance of this passage in traditional Christian theology has been immortalized in the words of “For Unto Us a Child is Born” in Handel’s Messiah.

Upon consulting the commentaries, however, the would-be preacher is dismayed to learn that this consummate Christmas passage is anything but. One searches in vain for a New Testament reference to these verses, that is, apart from Matthew 4:15-16 which cites verses 1b-2 to explain why godless (“goyische”) Galilee became the launching pad for Jesus’ ministry. The glorious announcement of verses 6-7, the heart of Handel’s Messiah, alas, enjoys no echo in the New Testament.

Rather, the background to our text is found in Isaiah 7:1-9:7. In 734-732 BCE, facing attack from Israel and Syria, Ahaz, the king of Judah, considered enlisting the aid of Assyria. While this would neutralize the threats of his northern neighbors, it would also require entering into alliance with the “Evil Empire” of the day. What should Ahaz do? Isaiah urged Ahaz to stand firm in faith, trust in God, and refuse coalitions with other countries whether it be Syria, Israel or Assyria (Isaiah 7:3-9), thus reassuring the king that God would provide all the protection required and that the birth of a child would serve as a sign of this (Isaiah 7:10-17). Our text announces that significant birth.

In the final form of the book of Isaiah, the material is concentrically arranged: three reasons for the people’s joy (C, X, C’; vv. 4-6) form a core framed by poetic descriptions of that joy and the reign of the “child” (B, B’; vv. 2-3, 7a). This poetic material is enclosed by a narrative introduction and conclusion that credit the people’s deliverance to Yahweh (A, A’; vv. 1, 7b):

A Narrative intro: “Yahweh” brings judgment and deliverance (v. 1)
B Poetic description of increased joy; “multiplied” (rabah, vv. 2-3)
C Reason 1: Oppression broken; “his shoulders” (shikmo, v. 4)
X Reason 2: Weapons destroyed (v. 5)
C’ Reason 3: A child has been born; “his shoulders” (shikmo, v. 6)
B’ Poetic description of the reign; “grow continually” (rabah, v. 7a)
A’ Narrative conclusion: Yahweh will do this (v. 7b)

Thus, verse 1 (A) serves as a narrative introduction. The phrase “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” refers to the region of Israel overrun by Tiglath-Pilesar III and annexed as the Assyrian province of Galilee. Whether or not this is the original setting for the oracle in verses 2-7 is a topic that is vigorously debated. Of interest to us is the implied subject of the verbs “brought into contempt” and “will make glorious”; the “he” is none other than Yahweh! This reminder of divine activity is echoed in the assurance of the narrative conclusion (A’) where it is emphatically stated that “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (v. 7b). The dramatic effect of this intentional delay is striking and forms a suitable theological inclusio for the passage as a whole.

The first section of the hymn (vv. 2-3) modulates into a poetic description of the joy that the people have received (or “will receive,” the verb tense is disputed; B). The contrasts initiated in the introduction (“former time/latter time”) continue here: two descriptions of darkness contrasted with light and resulting in increased joy likened to the delight experienced at the harvest or following victory in war. “You have multiplied” (hirbiyta, v.3) echoes the obscure “grow continually” (lemarbeh, where the “m” is the final form of the letter!) in verse 7a through their derivation from the root rabah, linking B and B’ and framing the central section of the hymn.

The central section of the hymn (vv. 4-6) consists of three reasons for the joy just described, each of which begins with the word “for” (ki).

  • First, the people will be delivered through an act of divine power, just as God had defeated the Midianites in the time of Gideon (Judges 6:1–8:28). In the final form of the book of Isaiah, this is a promised deliverance from the Assyrians (see v. 1). This oppression is depicted as a “bar across (his) shoulders” (shikmo, v. 4). The reappearance of “(his) shoulders” in verse 6 ties the C and C’ sections together.
  • Second, the burning of all the boots and garments of war signals the dramatic end of hostilities (v. 5).
  • Third, the most important reason for the joy of the people emerges in the announcement of the birth of a child upon whose “shoulders” (shikmo v. 6, compare v. 4) will rest the divine authority.

In preaching this text, one should not be put off by the lack of explicit “fulfillment” in the New Testament. Isaiah 7:1–9:7 relates God’s coming to us in the birth of a child who will become a sign of God’s presence among us (“Immanuel: God with us”). Historically, this may have been Hezekiah. When the New Testament points to Jesus as this child (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14) or when Handel declares the same with regard to Isaiah 9:6, they are expressing their belief that Jesus is the fulfillment of this divine intention. Isaiah was not looking forward to Jesus; how could the birth of Jesus be a sign to Ahaz? Matthew and Handel mean to say that this is the way God acts–through things as simple as the birth of a child–this is how God fulfills his gracious purpose for us. As Isaiah says, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this!” (9:7b).

Second Reading

Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

Michael Joseph Brown

“Sing a new world into being. Sound a bold and hopeful theme. Find a tune for silent yearnings. Lend your voice and dare to dream,” begins a hymn by Mary Louise Bringle.

The hymn ends with the declaration, “Sing a new world into being: live the promise you believe!” If today’s epistle text were a hymn, it might begin, “Live a new world into being.” The emphasis is clearly and squarely on living into the grace of God that brings salvation.

Why should we as Christians live any differently than anyone else? What is the motivation? This is at the heart of this week’s lectionary reading. After several verses that outline relationships in the household (2:2-10), this section provides the basis for such counsel. While modern Christians may dispute the specifics of the “rules” the author outlines for older men, older women, young women, and slaves; the rationale for such regulations is a response to “the grace of God…bringing salvation to all” (2:11).

Rooting specific Christian behaviors, like household management and temperance, in the lofty ideals of “grace” and “salvation” may seem odd to some, but it is an age old practice. Although this practice likely began before the apostle Paul, he is the first New Testament writer to use the gospel as a motivation for behavior. He provided a theological foundation for this pattern of argumentation, and it had its aftereffects. At times, for example, individuals have confused historically-situated “rules” that are subject to change with an ageless rationale for invoking them. In this case, the grace of salvation results in living “lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:12). Many have noted that what is presented here as the content of the Christian life is almost identical with the ideal of Greek ethics. Courage (andreia) is the only one missing (though, in truth, andreia appears nowhere in the New Testament.) Such discussions can seem overly academic. Why does or should it matter that a verse like this coincides with something found in Greek thought? Foremost, because it indicates to us that although we live in a world in need of redemption, it does not mean there is nothing irredeemable already in it.

The relationship between Christianity and culture has been at the center of a debate going back to its inception. There were many then, as there are many now, who rejected any perceived influence of non-Christian culture into our religion and its practices. As Tertullian of Carthage famously quipped, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Similar statements are made by many in our own day. Among African-Americans, for example, there has been an ongoing concern over the celebration of Kwanzaa. This week-long holiday commemorating seven communitarian values embraced across Africa is meant to affirm the goodness of the pre-Christian (or non-Christian) heritage of those of African descent. Yet, precisely because it uplifts something non-Christian, segments of the African-American Christian community have denounced Kwanzaa. By contrast, New Testament scholar, Brad Braxton, commented on the controversy, “[In] some Christian congregations, Kwanzaa and Christmas are now celebrated simultaneously as a way of saying that there is something unique and powerful about African-American Christian heritage. Such people affirm that they are not just Christians, but they are African-American Christians. Such people also affirm that they are not just African-American, but they are African-American Christians.”1  Something similar can be said for most ethnic groups. The blending of the old and the new, the Christian and the non-Christian, affirming the non-Christian by appeal to the Christian, is something that has transpired from the beginning.

The celebration of Christmas reminds us of this gracious act of God. The mystery of the incarnation affirms the innate goodness of God’s creation. It is a divine wager of sorts, an expression of God’s desire to be in right relationship with humanity and all creation. And as with any wager, there is an interim period between placing the bet and its payoff. Statements like “in the present age” and “while we wait” point to this period of expectation (2:12, 13). Living between the first coming and the second coming, the gospel challenges Christians to live lives responsive to the gracious act of God. We often forget that “grace” and “gift” are rooted in the same terminology. A gift is a gift because it is given without a guarantee of an appropriate response. It is influential (another use of charis in Greek) rather than coercive.

By contrast, a wage is payment rendered for services performed. Paul presents this idea forcefully in Romans 6:23 where he says, “For the wages [opsōnia] of sin is death, but the free gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Here he picks up on a statement made earlier in 4:4, “Now to one who works, wages [misthos] are not reckoned as a gift [charin] but as something due.” Although the precise terms for wages differ in Greek, the sentiment is singularly focused: what God has done in Christ is not a response to or in expectation of services performed (payment due), but rather a gift that should stimulate an appropriate response.

Consequently, what the Titus passage tells us is that God acted by giving us a gift in Jesus Christ, “bringing salvation to all,” and that the appropriate response to such an act is “to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:11, 12). Like that magical moment on Christmas morning, a gift elicits not only joy from the recipient, but influences some sort of response as well. In this case, the passage reminds us that we have it in our capacity to respond appropriately by drawing upon and improving what is already in and around us. Our gift back to God is an expression of our distinctive character as individuals located in a particular time and place. Drawing upon the best we have to offer, we live a new world into being.

1Brad Ronnell Braxton, “The Role of Ethnicity in the Social Location of 1 Corinthians 7:17-24,” Yet with a Steady Beat: Contemporary U.S. Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation (ed. Randall C. Bailey; SemeiaSt; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 32.