This text should carry a warning statement for those of us who dare to preach from it.
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!
Isaiah 9:1 is not a part of the lectionary text, but helps put this Christmas Eve text in historical and literary context.
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.
Although the organizers of the lectionary have selected this passage from The Letter of Paul to Titus (the formal title for this writing) for use on Christmas Eve, in order to appreciate the text effectively, we must take account of the verses in their literary context before we can appreciate how they are being used in the lectionary in relation to Christmas Eve.
In the context of The Letter to Titus, Titus 2:11-14 is both preceded (2:1-10) and followed (2:15-3:2) by instruction regarding exhortation of various groups in the life of early Christian congregations.
Titus 2:1-10 offers a series of admonitions concerning “sound instruction” or “healthy teaching.” The exhortations are aimed at older men, older women, young women, younger men, Titus himself, and slaves. Verse 11 begins with the Greek word gar, which is usually translated “for”–indicating the explanation of the cause (“for” could be understood as “because”) of such instructions as are delineated in verses 1-10 of Titus 2.
In other words, verses 11-14 explain why the exhortations that are given in verses 1-10 are valid. Thus, Titus 2:11-14 itself is explanatory in nature and didactic in tone. Finally, the following verses, Titus 2:15-3:2, present Paul admonishing Titus to declare, exhort, reprove, and remind the congregants of both the substance of 2:11-14 and further moral obligations for which they are responsible.
All of this material is presented as coming from Paul, who is at Nicopolis or about to be there. Paul seems to be able to move about freely, so that he is not in jail. In this letter he is seen writing to Titus whom he left behind earlier on Crete for the purpose of continued evangelization of the inhabitants of Crete. Paul’s purpose is clear: He writes to inform and direct Titus in his work. Paul also bids Titus to come to him at Nicopolis should that be possible. Unfortunately we know nothing about this time in Paul’s life, nor do we know anything about the original work of the apostle and his colleagues on Crete.
Before looking at the passage in general, there is one interpretive detail that demands attention. In verse 13, the Greek text may be translated/interpreted in two distinct ways. Literally, the last phrase of the verse says (in a completely wooden translation), “the appearance of the glory of the great God and savior of us Jesus Christ.” The text may be rendered into sensible English as either (1) “the glory of the great God and our savior Jesus Christ” or (2) “the glory of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ.” Simply stated, does the text refer to Jesus Christ as God? (Actually, still other renderings and understandings of the text are possible, but they are not very likely.) Interpreters are divided on this matter. Because of the ambiguity of the Greek grammar, one cannot simply depend on the syntax to give an answer to this vexing question. Consultation of two or three full-blown critical commentaries is essentially necessary for full comprehension and resolution of this matter.
However one resolves the matter of whether verse 13 refers to Jesus Christ as God, there are other elements in the passage that are relevant for the use of the verses on Christmas Eve. First, this passage tells us that God’s grace appeared (in Jesus Christ) for the salvation of all humanity. This statement is not meant to give information about matters like whether or not we should conclude that the New Testament teaches universalism. Rather, the text tells us of the general purpose of the appearance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ: God acted in Jesus Christ for the salvation of humankind. This work has already been done, though on Christmas Eve we celebrated with great anticipation the realization of God’s work.
The text also tells us that the appearance of God’s grace has observable effects on human life. Verse 12 informs us of the focus of God’s saving grace:
In turn, our text tells us that we renounce “impiety and worldly lust” in order that “we might live moderately, uprightly, and devoutly” at the present time. Those who experience God’s grace in their lives experience a moral transformation. Indeed, these manners of living are the positive dimensions of God’s grace touching our lives. Some commentators refer to these characteristics of Christian life as “cardinal virtues.” It is also helpful to notice that these virtues go against the negative qualities that were to be renounced by believers.
We learn that believers now await a “blessed hope”–namely, the appearance (the further appearance, or more plainly, the coming) of Jesus Christ in God’s glory. In this respect, Jesus Christ is referred to as “savior.” The words “savior” and “salvation” are related in Greek. Thus, to call Jesus Christ the “savior” of believers is to recognize that he achieved salvation, that is, deliverance or liberation from the powers and effects of sin. As such, it is the work of God in Jesus Christ that makes possible the renunciation of that which is bad and the embracing of that which is good. Believers “await” this liberation in its full form, though we already experience deliverance in many ways.
Finally, Jesus Christ is remembered as the one “who gave himself in our behalf, in order that he might redeem us from all wickedness and purify for himself a people of his own, enthusiasts for good works/deeds.” Seeing who he was informs us of who he will be when believers encounter him at his awaited appearance–the one coming is the one who has already come!