From all appearances, it would seem that John knows next to nothing about angels or shepherds, stars or magi.
Goodness, he doesn’t appear even to know the name of Jesus’ mother! Why, then, this particular reading as an option for Christmas Day? Because it captures the heart, meaning, and benefits of the Christmas story in a nutshell.
John knows he is playing for high stakes. After all, think of the chutzpah it takes to begin your gospel by repeating the opening line of Scripture itself! Like the author of Genesis, John too is talking about creation, God’s new creation in Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
Exploring the Story To get at the significance of John’s poetic witness to the Word, we might be well served by employing some of the questions of journalism, sometimes known as the “five W’s.”
What? That is, what’s happening? Jesus, according to John, has been a part of creation from the very beginning. What occurs now is that God’s eternal Word — God’s Reason, Order, and very Being — is coming down to earth to take on human flesh. This is the not first time God has “gotten involved” in human history, of course. God has been at work in the world through covenant, law, judges, kings, and prophets. Yet now God is getting more personally involved, as the very Word of God takes on human flesh and dwells — literally, “tabernacles” — with us in our own human form.
Why? Because the world that has fallen into darkness needs light! And so God comes prepared to struggle, light against darkness, day against night. That struggle is captured in the future perfect of John’s grammatical construction, rendering verse 5: “The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Who? Or, better, who is affected by this? All of us, as new creation means new possibility for everyone! Even though many, including many who were close to him, did not recognize in Jesus what God was accomplishing, all those who do recognize and receive him are invited to become God’s own children. Note the freedom John imbues this invitation with: Children born not of blood (we will not be subject to the frailties of human flesh forever), or of the will of the flesh (we are more than our desires), or of the will of humans (we will not always be subject to whim and will of others). Rather, we are children of God, restored to God’s intention in creation.
Where and when? Not just in a manger long ago, but here, today, now! Perhaps this is why John gives such scant attention to the details of Jesus’ birth. He is, ultimately more interested in our birth, our new birth as children of God. According to John, that is, Christmas is not really Jesus’ birthday at all; rather, it is ours. Christmas is, that is, the day we celebrate our birth as children of God, the keeping of all God’s promises, and the beginning of the restoration of all creation.
Singing Praise to the Word John may not know much about the details of the Christmas story, but he does know about the heart and soul of the Incarnation: that because Jesus, the very embodiment of God’s grace (verse 16) takes on human flesh we are granted the chance to know the unknowable God (verse 18) and recognize ourselves as those children beloved of God. This is the gift of Christmas, a new identity, a new opportunity, a new humanity, all through God in Christ. This is the gift of Christmas, and it deserves our full attention on this day and, indeed, throughout the year.
John’s prologue is, in many ways, a hymn to the Word, the Word that created in the beginning, created again in Jesus, and still creates when anyone receives Jesus in faith. This passage is packed with meaning and metaphor, and perhaps can best be understood less as doctrine and more as poetic testimony to the light, life, and living Word of God. We might therefore take a clue from John not only about what to preach on Christmas day, but also how. That is, given the “high mass” feel of many of our Christmas Eve services, we have an opportunity today to contemplate more quietly the profound mystery of the Incarnation, the doctrine at the heart of Christmas and to which John gives poetic witness.
Perhaps, in this regard, a short sermon is best, surrounded by the carols of Christmas that give voice, as John does, to the mystery and grace of God’s revelation. In particular, carols like “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Love Came Down at Christmas,” “Cold December Flies Away,” and “Lo, How a Rose is Blooming” can accompany some of the more familiar Christmas carols and accent our reflection on all that God has accomplished through Christ. However you choose to celebrate this day and preach this passage, however, know that Christ came for you, for you and all of us, that we might have life…and have it abundantly. Blessed Christmas.
Last night’s Old Testament lesson came from First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) that covers roughly the 40-year period of the latter half of the Eighth century.
We now jump to Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) which is situated in Judah after 537 BCE, that is, after the fall of Babylon. In the context of the realities of both hope and disappointment upon the return from the Babylonian Exile, chapter 62 looks toward the restoration of Jerusalem.
To preach on this text on Christmas Day would read chapter 62 in its entirety. The first five verses set the stage for hearing the promises in the rest of the chapter. These verses express God’s love for the city even though the present state of Zion is nothing like what was expected upon the return to God’s holy city and holy land. Verse 1 looks forward to verse 6. The watchmen posted in Jerusalem reinforce the fact that silence is no longer possible when it comes to the vindication of God’s holy city. Moreover, the sentinels will even remind God of God’s promises of the redemption of Jerusalem to “proclaim to the ends of the earth” (verse 11). The announcement of Zion’s salvation cannot be kept quiet.
Terms symbolizing light in the darkness (“dawn,” “burning torch”) call to mind the theme of light and darkness from last night’s reading from Isaiah. Verse 2 is also a critical verse against which to hear the rest of the chapter. Zion will be given a new name, no longer “Forsaken” or “Desolate,” but “My Delight Is in Her” and “Married.” “Forsaken” and “Desolate” are the terms used to describe Jerusalem’s future in the face of Assyrian conquest, the fall of the southern kingdom and Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and the Babylonia captivity (6:11-12).
The new names given to Jerusalem indicate God’s extraordinary love for God’s people and God’s desire for a union, or, for that matter, a reunion, that is described with the very intimate metaphor of marriage. Moreover, the chapter ends with the promise of more new names to follow, “Holy People,” the “Redeemed of the Lord,” “Sought Out,” “City Not Forsaken.” One direction for preaching this passage from Isaiah on Christmas Day would take its cue from the text itself and imagine what it means to be renamed: to move from “Forsaken” to Holy People,” from “Desolate” to “Sought Out” made possible for us by the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
62:11 is the most likely reason why this lesson is always the Old Testament reading for this day. “See, your salvation comes,” is rendered, “behold, your savior comes,” in the Septuagint. While we cannot help but hear this announcement on Christmas Day as referring to Jesus, we are reminded in the context of Isaiah, here and throughout the entirety of its witness, that God is a God of salvation. The Message translates this verse, “Look! Your savior comes, ready to do what he said he’d do, prepared to complete what he promised.”
On Christmas Day, when the preacher wonders what on earth can be added to the story of the night before, Third Isaiah can provide several avenues by which to imagine our reaction and response to this good news. Isaiah calls for a “silence-breaking.” How can we conceivably continue on as if nothing has happened? Will we allow the events of these last days to fall again to the backdrop of our lives?
To celebrate Christmas every year is not just about remembrance — it is about resolution — a resolve not to keep silent about the good news of the fulfillment of God’s promises. There is also the sense that God needs our response and resolution, not only for the sake of “the nations,” but also for God’s sake. Why does God need reminding that no rest is possible until Jerusalem is established and renowned throughout the earth? No rest for the wicked, as they say?
Perhaps there is a pointed reminder here of the mutuality of relationship. They, God and God’s people, have been through a lot. In this reestablishment of their union, it may be important to call to mind that relationships are about reciprocity. To what extent does even God need reminders of what and who God has promised to be? As we leave the manger behind, sometimes all too quickly, we are reminded that God becoming human commits God to mutuality, reciprocity, and relationship –hallmarks of the incarnation– and commits us to the same.
Imagine Psalm 97 as the psalmist’s Christmas sermon.
It is full of proclamations about the Lord’s identity and deeds and about creation’s response to such identity and deeds. There is even a concluding call for the hearers to join in rejoicing and giving thanks. The hearers of this sermon (you and me) will walk away with nothing less than a powerful vision of who God is and what God can and does do. Hopefully, this vision will stir us to rejoice and give thanks. Your Christmas sermon would do well to create the same for your hearers.
Let us look more closely at the various homiletical genres evident in the psalm. First, the declarations of the Lord’s identity as king (verse 1). Technically speaking, like the psalm for Christmas Eve (Psalm 96), this is one of eight “Yahweh is King” psalms in the psalter (93-100) that were likely composed for use at festivals in order to celebrate the righteous reign of the Lord. We have become so accustomed to hearing about kingship in church that we forget its political overtones. Kings are secular rulers. What does it say that our Lord is a king? Despite the tendency to romanticize the baby Jesus at this time of year, the political nuances are not to be missed; especially in the Lukan narrative. Celebrating the birth of a royal son would not be unheard of in times and places of monarchy, for the people would know the newborn would one day be the king. But what does it mean for this tiny one, Jesus, to be the king, not only in the future, but now? Even more, what does it mean that a great king comes from such a humble beginning? Royalty generally emerges from a certain pedigree which this newborn does not seem to have; that is, until one recognizes in him the presence of the divine. Now that is an unmatchable pedigree.
To be sure, the psalmist did not write with the babe born in Bethlehem in mind; the psalmist knew nothing about the incarnation. But we do, and it is an interesting move to allow scripture to interpret scripture by reading the divine birth through the lens of this psalm. We discover the distinctiveness of this king’s reign. Surely the psalmist intends to show this as blessings of the people who behold his glory are contrasted with those who worship other images. The Lord’s reign is so superior that even other gods bow down before him (verse 7).
Once the Lord’s identity is established in the psalm, his works are affirmed. In verse 10 we find out that the Lord guards the lives of his faithful and rescues them from the hand of the wicked. What a comforting combination. Without having to exhort the hearers directly to hate evil or be faithful, my sense is we have a desire to do and be so given that this one will be present to guard and rescue us. Even more, for the righteous and upright there is joy and light (verse 11). It is worth considering how your sermon’s claims about who God is might push your hearers to respond in such a way, even without you having to say so directly. The psalmist gives us this intriguing homiletical clue.
The psalmist also declares creation’s response to the Lord’s identity and deeds. In fact, the move in the psalm is from the whole of creation to people (contrast this with the psalm for Christmas Eve, Psalm 96, in which the move was from the people to creation). Typical for “Yahweh as King” psalms, there is created a vision of all elements of creation rejoicing in their own way; earth, coastlands, clouds, “lightning,” mountains, and the heavens all have an active role in responding to this great one. (Note that “earth/all the earth” is in no less than four verses: 1, 4, 5, and 9.) Some of the images are reminiscent of theophanies in the Hebrew Scriptures: clouds surrounding him and fire going before him consuming adversaries all around him. One is reminded of the words in Exodus, “And the LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (13:21). The heat from the Lord is so intense even the mountains, the epitome of stability, melt like wax.
Curiously, even the Lord’s judgment produces joy and gladness (verse 8). Of course, this is for those who have utter trust and faith in this one, who know that the Lord is justified and fair in his judging. The Lord’s faithful judgment as king as that which produces not fear but rejoicing is evident in other “Yahweh as King” psalms (see last week’s commentary on Psalm 96).
Note the direct speech toward the Lord in the middle of this psalm. This is no ordinary, extraordinary king for not only is the Lord a powerful and great king, but he is a king to whom we are invited to speak directly. The psalmist models this for us. Might there be a place for such prayerful speech to God in your sermon?
Finally, at the end of the psalm the psalmist turns directly to his hearers and summons them to rejoice. There is certainly enough evidence to justify this call. Take the psalmist’s cue and invite your hearers to rejoice and give thanks to God’s holy name, Immanuel. If members of your congregation were to leave Christmas Day worship with such a clear sense of who God is and what God does as a righteous king, and with the recognition that this affects all creation, and with a deep desire and commitment to rejoice, your homiletical mission will be accomplished.
The Letter to Titus gives us none of Christmas’s usual fare.
It mentions neither Mary, Joseph, angels, nor shepherds. But it can take us into the Incarnation by another route. It prompts us to view Christmas in light of the larger salvation story in which it appears. It also offers a description of the God we meet in the manger in Bethlehem.
The language of this passage is dense, offering a number of foundational and profound theological statements. Probably the author of Titus took these sentences from an early Christian hymn or existing liturgical formula (maybe a baptismal liturgy); the string of theological assertions concludes with an endorsement of what precedes it: “the saying is sure” (Titus 3:8a).
These claims about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, baptism, eternal life, and more are important for the articulation of Christian doctrine. Still, preachers are wise to remember that explaining doctrine is one of the most effective ways of killing a sermon. On Christmas Day, a sermon about doctrine will come across as well as socks and underwear under the tree–stuff we need, but not all that exciting or imaginative. The theological mysteries embedded in Christmas and Incarnation can work their magic just fine when pastors think better of using the pulpit to speculate about the inner life of the Trinity.
But none of this means that Titus 3:4-7 has nothing to offer a Christmas sermon. Far from it! The passage resonates with a number of ideas that the setting–Jesus’ Nativity–propels to the foreground. Here are three to consider.
Tidings of Goodness and Loving Kindness For one thing, the Letter to Titus describes the coming of Jesus with powerful, evocative language. Not just his birth, but his whole life is described as an epiphany in 3:4 (epiphaino, translated as “appeared” in the NRSV). (For more on the significance of epiphany language in the Pastoral Epistles, see my commentary for Christmas Eve on Titus 2:11-14.) This means that God shows up in Jesus. Jesus manifests God, specifically “the goodness and loving kindness of God,” according to 3:4.
As many commentaries on Titus note with ample detail, the words goodness and loving kindness (chrestotes and philanthropia in Greek) appear together many times in ancient Greek literature, in both Jewish texts and others from the Greco-Roman world. They describe virtuous action among human beings, but they also characterize God’s activity toward humanity. How do we know that God meets us with goodness and loving kindness? We see it clearly in Jesus, who is “God our Savior.”
We’ve come a long way, then, from earlier in Advent when John the Baptizer’s searing calls for repentance may have left us wondering about God’s disposition toward humanity. God sounded a little harsher then. But a God of goodness and loving kindness does not necessarily cancel out a God who comes bearing a winnowing fork. Instead, the goodness and loving kindness we see in Jesus qualifies our understanding of the judgment that John (and Jesus) talk about in the Gospels. The face of divine judgment actually offers us reassurance and comfort, when we understand that judgment is a function of God’s compassion.
Theology for Exhortation A second point derives from understanding the reason why this passage makes the claims it does. In the Letter to Titus, exhortations about how believers should conduct themselves usually precede explanations of the theological basis for living in such a way. Consequently, the lofty theological assertions in 3:4-7 do not stand alone; they serve as the ground for Christian living, as it is discussed in 2:15-3:3. The context, then, in which this reading sits, is an appeal for readers to be at peace with others. The author points attention to God’s salvific mercy, precisely so that this mercy will inspire Christians to live charitably toward other people (see especially 3:1-3).
At Christmastime, then, these verses might prompt preachers to help congregations reflect on the kind of living that the Incarnation might inspire. Instead of using a sermon to describe what Christmas is supposed to be about, consider this question: what is celebrating Christmas supposed to do for Christian communities? Of course, observing Christmas leads us to worship God–no unimportant thing. Christmas also instructs us about God and the nature of our salvation. Perhaps our celebrations should also drive us toward greater goodness and loving kindness toward others–all others. We do this, not because the Letter to Titus says to watch out if we don’t. We do it because irreproachable behavior toward others embodies the qualities of God that are on display in the story of Jesus–beginning at his birth and extending throughout his whole life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus’ Birth, Our Rebirth Finally, the grand theological summary offered in this passage reminds us that we approach Christmas from a variety of perspectives. Walking through Advent, experiencing Christmas in a liturgical setting, and reading the Infancy Narratives in Matthew or Luke often impress upon us the wonder, fragility, and promise associated with Jesus’ Nativity. From another angle, looking back at Christmas from our post-Easter perspective, Jesus’ birth accumulates meaning generated by the whole scope of the Christian message. This perspective allows us to see things beyond the manger, things like the gift of the Holy Spirit, the hope of our resurrection, and our adoption into God’s family as heirs. Considering Titus on Christmas Day directs our vision along this latter perspective.
Following this perspective, preachers may choose to grasp onto one or two specific themes from Titus 3:4-7 and help a congregation see how such themes shape the perspective we take on Christmas. One especially fruitful theme comes from verse 5, where the author refers to baptism and speaks of “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” In Jesus’ birth we glimpse the promise of our rebirth. In the wonder of God made flesh, we imagine what God might yet make of us. In the coming of a baby appointed to save the whole world, we discover more than hope that things might turn out better for the world in some awaited future. We dare to trust God’s promise that we will participate in such a future.