Lectionary Commentaries for December 25, 2008
Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20

David Tiede

“Blow out the candles,” declared the old evangelist, “the sun is up!”

How Will He Govern?

Christmas Day may be the only worship many people attend, and reading all twenty verses of “The Christmas Gospel” is a good idea anyway. Remembering the glow of Christmas Eve, we sing:

“When Christmas morn is dawning, I wish that I could be
There by the manger cradle God’s Son, new born to see.”1

This is the point. Touched by the story of how he was born, yearning to trust God’s promises fulfilled in his birth, our quest is now urgent to know what Jesus means. His titles, announced by the angels (2:11), are all scriptural and Jewish: Savior, Messiah, and Lord. With the Greeks in John’s gospel (12:21), “We wish to see Jesus!” Against broader backdrop of the Roman order, the public impact of Jesus’ roles emerges in broad daylight. As in a season when our nation awaits the inauguration of a new president, the whole world sharply watches Jesus for signs of how he will govern.

“Messiah” is the Hebrew version of the Greek word christos, “anointed one,” and “Jesus Christ” will almost become a proper name for Jesus of Nazareth. “Jesus Messiah” would be a stunning translation, keeping Jesus’ followers alert to God’s worldly reign. Study Bibles will note “the Christ” as an alternative translation, but the royal, Davidic promise of God’s Messiah is correctly sounded in the NRSV. The Greek and Roman rulers probably regarded “anointed kings” as peculiar to the Eastern regions, but they did not miss the divine claim.

“Lord” is a pervasive scriptural title for Israel’s God with a history of challenge to the Baals who were the lord rulers and deities of the ancient near east. In and beyond the era of the neo-Babylonian and Greek empires, God’s self-declarations as Lord and Savior in Isaiah’s prophetic speech sounded a protest to all rulers: “I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…I, I am the Lord and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses” (Isaiah 43:3, 11-13; see also Isaiah 45:21).

Luke is the only synoptic evangelist to ascribe the title “Savior” to Jesus (see also 1:47, speaking of God; Acts 5:31; 13:23 and John 4:42). The title is public, more than personal. The promise in the angel’s announcement of Jesus the Savior is a declaration of God’s kingdom come to earth, not first about how we are saved from the world for heaven. The script for the divine drama remains Isaiah’s prophetic program, as Jesus’ inaugural address in Nazareth reveals (Luke 4:14-30; Isaiah 58 and 61).

The opening verses of Luke 2 are essential to the impact of these titles. Jesus’ birth is linked with Caesar Augustus’ “decree” for the registration of “all the world.” “Augustus” is itself an epithet for Octavian whom the Roman Senate declared to be “the August One,” worthy of divine favor and human adulation. Luke also mentions Quirinius in this chapter, then places John and Jesus in the context of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Herod Antipas (3:1). Roman rule and occupation are present in the whole Luke-Acts narrative. On trial before the Procurator Festus and the client king Agrippa, Paul testifies, “”The king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am sure none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

Octavian’s reign was heralded in decrees, ceremonies, and monuments throughout the empire. One inscription from Priene, probably written before the time of Jesus’ birth, testifies to Augustus as the Savior filled with a hero’s soul, never to be surpassed: “the birthday of this God is for the world the beginning of the Gospel-festivals celebrated in his honor.” “Caesar is Lord!” was official political theology throughout the empire. For their part, however, the first Christians declared “Jesus is Lord!” And in Luke’s Gospel, God’s Messiah, Savior, and Lord is born in Octavian’s time in a Bethlehem sheepfold.

Christmas Day is a time to announce God’s kingdom embodied in Jesus. Jesus is the answer to our prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, now and in the age to come. All who wish to see Jesus may now learn how his dominion will alter the world and their lives.

Caesar Augustus was heralded as the ideal for a rule of peace through strength. Later generations remembered Rome’s “Golden Age” with awe, but Augustus and his successors were also more brutal because of their claims to divine authority. The wisdom and integrity of every political system and its leaders are important to the world and its peoples, but the kingdom of God will not come with any new administration.

Born in the midst of human systems of virtue and hypocrisy, Jesus did not merely set a higher moral standard or frame a political ideal. Jesus enacted the merciful peace God had in mind for the world all along and disclosed the future of God’s ultimate reign. “We speak God’s wisdom,” declared the Apostle Paul, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8).

In Bethlehem we see Jesus, God in the flesh. In Galilee we see Jesus inaugurating God’s reign. In Jerusalem, we see Christ crucified and raised to give all the peoples of the world the gift of reconciliation to one another, the world, and God. And on Pentecost, we see the exalted Messiah, Lord, and Savior empowering mortal apostolic witnesses like us. This is how Jesus governs until God’s kingdom is ultimately disclosed.

1Elisabeth Ehrenborg-Posse, “When Christmas Morn is Dawning,” in Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978,) #59.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

Mark Throntveit

Isaiah 62:6-12 is the first reading assigned for Christmas Day.

Like the Isaiah 9:2-7 reading assigned for Christmas Eve, the commentaries, appropriately, see little connection between this particular proclamation of salvation and the birth of Jesus. Rather, our passage concerns Zion, the name of the hill upon which the city of Jerusalem is located, and anticipates the ultimate restoration of the city which will be called “The Holy People,” “The Redeemed of the LORD,” “Sought Out,” and “A City Not Forsaken.” How such an “Old Testament” text speaks to us on Christmas Day, however, will emerge from a consideration of the wider context.

The book of Isaiah consists of three sections that contain oracles from three prophets addressing different historical periods and concerns yet connected in their belief in the future exaltation of Zion, of which our text is a prime example.

  • First Isaiah, or Isaiah of Jerusalem (traditionally Isaiah 1-39; more probably Isaiah 1-23; 28-33) confronted the people of the city from 742 through at least 701 BCE with the message that though Jerusalem and the Davidic monarchy surely will experience judgment for their sin, both the city and the dynasty will never be utterly destroyed. Thus, there is always hope for Zion.
  • Second Isaiah (traditionally Isaiah 40-55; more probably Isaiah 34-35; 40-55; and the historical narratives of 36-39) assured the exiles in Babylon about 540 BCE that God had not abandoned them and soon would lead them home to a restored Zion.
  • Third Isaiah (traditionally Isaiah 55-66; more probably Isaiah 24-27; 56-66) addressed the people of Jerusalem after 537 BCE following their return from Babylonian exile. The glorious restoration of the city announced by Second Isaiah was quite different from the ruined walls, destroyed temple, and chaotic situation the people experienced upon their return. These shocking conditions led to feelings of hopelessness and despair−feelings that Third Isaiah was quick to address. Our passage is part of the focal point of this section of the book.

There have been several attempts to discern a “chiastic” structuring of the major part of “Third Isaiah” in the final form of the book. They tend to be excessively complex and have been properly criticized (usually by others who then proceed to offer their own literary architectures!). There are, however, basic themes that do seem to fall into a concentric pattern: 

A 56:1-8 Foreign worshipers
B 56:9-59:15a Ethical righteousness
C 59:15b-21 Divine Warrior
D 60–62 Eschatological hope
C’ 63:1-6 Divine Warrior
B’ 63:7-66:17 Ethical righteousness
A’ 66:18-24 Foreign worshipers

As can be seen, chapters 60-62 appear at the center of Third Isaiah. They portray Jerusalem as a bereaved woman who will be restored as a home for the righteous exiles returned to their homeland and to communion with their God. Scholars are generally agreed that these three chapters, bound together by the theme of the restoration of Zion, each present a lament with a corresponding response. The laments arise out of the people’s despair at the deplorable conditions in Jerusalem upon their return and the tardiness of God’s fulfillment of the glorious promises made in Second Isaiah.

Thus, an anonymous prophet (Third Isaiah?) resolves to pray unceasingly for Zion until the city is fully vindicated and exalted in the eyes of the Gentiles (vv. 1-2a). As an indication of this new status, God will give the city, lovingly held as a diadem, a new name (v. 2b-3). Once called “Forsaken” (or “Abandoned”) and “Desolate,” Jerusalem will now be called “My Delight is in Her” and “Married” (v. 4). Second Isaiah had assured Israel that God had not divorced her (Isaiah 50:1-3), though there was abandonment of Israel by her husband, Yahweh (see Isaiah 49:14; 54:6-7; 60:15, all azab, as here) −a “trial separation” as it were! But now Yahweh (“your builder,” see Psalm 147:2; and the similar, “For your Maker is your husband” Isaiah 54:5) will (re)marry Jerusalem (vv. 4-5).

Furthermore, in our assigned text, the prophet has posted sentinels on the city walls who will also pray unceasingly for Zion (v. 6). Their task is to pester God “all day and all night.” They are to “give him (God) no rest” until the restoration of the city is complete (v. 7)! This audacious claim is based upon God’s promise, which is repeated (for God’s benefit?) in verses 8-9.

Curiously, an unidentified group (though possibly “the end[s] of the earth”) is urged to prepare the way for the return of God’s people in language reminiscent of Isaiah 40:3-5, 10, yet another indication of the prophet’s confidence in the ultimate fulfillment of the divine promise (v. 10).

“See, your salvation comes,” verse 11 proclaims. Indeed, the Septuagint (LXX), Syriac, Vulgate, and Targum all read “Savior” (soter) for “salvation.” Whether “salvation” or “savior” is correct, for Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ this day, there can be only one reading of Isaiah’s message. While the prophet was the first to catch a glimpse of a resplendently restored Zion in verses 1-5, joined by the sentinels in verses 6-7; following Yahweh’s sworn promise to the present inhabitants of Jerusalem in verses 8-9, it is “the end(s) of the earth” who are finally to announce to Zion the coming of deliverance (v. 11). In this way, Third Isaiah has transformed Second Isaiah’s message of the impending return of the exiles from Babylon into a message of the utter restoration of Jerusalem at the end of time by applying it to a new situation. In the same way, we, too, are charged with announcing the arrival of God’s eschatological salvation in Jesus, the Christ, on this the celebration of his birth.

1John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

Second Reading

Commentary on Titus 3:4-7

Michael Joseph Brown

Today’s passage is an example of testimony.

Beginning with the verse immediately preceding our text (3:3), this lectionary text speaks of the state of the reader, with respect to salvation, before and after becoming a Christian. However this is not what makes it a testimony. It is a testimony because the author includes himself in this discussion. When compared with similar passages (e.g., Romans 6:17-23; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Colossians 3:7-8), a similar train of thought is readily apparent. This presentation of one’s past before becoming a Christian (e.g., statements like “we were” or “you were”), followed by a description of his or her conditions as a Christian (e.g., “he saved us”), was a common topic of early Christian preaching. The turning point was described in one of two ways, either from the standpoint of evangelization or from the history of salvation. If from evangelization, the conversion was stressed. If from the history of salvation, the appearance of Christ was the central focus. This passage is an example of the latter.

Titus 3:8, “the saying is sure,” underscores this section as derived from prior Christian tradition. The manner in which 3:3-7 is introduced indicates quite clearly that the author is not saying something new, but is passing on what he had received. This explains why the author makes no attempt to integrate or make consistent his use of terms. For example, “grace” in 2:11 means a divine power, whereas in 3:7 it means an act of God through Jesus Christ. Likewise, “bringing salvation” in 2:11 refers to the power of grace. “He saved” in 3:5 refers to salvation through baptism. It is most likely because these expressions are so common to the Christian lexicon that we do not easily recognize their variations.

Christmas is a time for testimony firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. When we celebrate the Nativity, we remember what the birth of Jesus meant for the world (on a cosmic scale) and means for us individually and collectively. Out of this comes our testimony. “But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared,” proclaims the author, “he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (3:4-5). This testimony, now a part of our Christian heritage, becomes our testimony as we appropriate the significance of God’s appearance in the birth of Jesus.

The power of traditions is that they are not static. Each experience is both familiar and new. Traditions provide us with an opportunity to further define (or even redefine!) who we are. Imagine what our lives would be like if Thanksgiving was a never-ending repetition, an authentic expression of the movie Groundhog Day or the musical Brigadoon. The same food. The same conversations. The same people at the very same points in their lives. It would be boredom at the very least and tragic despair when fully realized. Life without a future is no real life at all. The power of our tradition is that the new builds upon and enhances the past experience. This is an idea the author points to when he speaks of “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (3:5).

The language of rebirth found in 3:5 is similar to that of Romans 6:4 and John 3:3. It is an understanding related to the image of baptism as death or burial. In fact, the expression “water of rebirth” (literally “bath of rebirth”) was a very common reference to baptism at the time of the writing of Titus. And, although ritual bathing was not unknown to Judaism, there is no real analogy with its usage here. Ancient bathing practices frequently involved effusion (i.e., pouring water) or effusion with partial immersion. This has led some to argue that the mode of early Christian baptism had to be effusion (e.g., “this Spirit he poured out on us richly”). Although persuasive, this is not the only possibility. The truth is that “baptism” and its verb baptizō are technical terms, meaning they are used in a specific sense or manner that does not necessarily correspond to their literal definitions. In fact, the word “baptism” is only found in Christian writings from the ancient world. Baptizō means “to dip” or “immerse.” Many believe this is what happened when people were baptized. Yet, no New Testament writer ever describes in detail−or gives us the mechanics−of how baptism was performed. For example, Romans 6:3-6 invokes the image of dying and rising. But in discussions of this, we often overlook a couple key elements.

First, Paul is writing to Christians, persons who have already been baptized, about how they should have understood their baptisms. This description tells us very little, if anything, about how they were baptized or what they thought it meant. If they did not already think the way he did, Paul wants to persuade them that baptism is best understood in this manner.

Second, baptism is described in Romans as a metaphorical reenactment of the crucifixion and resurrection. If we as readers understand that he does not mean that individuals are literally crucified and resurrected, then must it follow that the metaphorical act of dying and rising needs to be performed literally?

In this passage from Titus, the author uses the image of bathing and the language of pouring to describe baptism, a metaphor somewhat different from the one we encounter in Romans 6. In other words, New Testament writers give us metaphors about baptism, but they do not appear interested in describing the mechanics of it. Consequently, we must be careful not to push the language too far.

Nevertheless, baptism is a tradition that functions as a vehicle for our testimony. Our repeated experience of it−through witness or remembrance−defines and redefines who we are. Like a good Christmas celebration, our participation in the tradition becomes our ongoing testimony as we remember who we were in light of who we are now.