The Challenge of Familiarity
Christmas familiarity — fragrance, family, and feasts.
We know this holiday — with its expectations and its disappointments; its promise and its heritage; its memory and its mystery. And so the season of anticipation is crowded with assumption, one being the anticipation of hearing an old story retold.
This holiday familiarity is a particular problem for preachers. We must keep in mind that for some, the Christmas story has been regularly heard since childhood. And yet, these annual rehearsals have failed to reveal to contemporary audiences the jarring display of ancient culture the episode describes. Familiarity makes it difficult to convey the simple ironies, as we hold to the legends conveyed in church pageants that weave the presence of Matthew’s kings with Luke’s shepherds; gallivant the young couple through Bethlehem counting no-vacancy signs on non-existent hotels; and dismiss the political critique inherent in the writer’s historical setting. The text’s surprise is its relevance in political mayhem rather than the mere ritual of myth. Herein lies the preacher’s challenge.
Many sermons, having considered the behind the text controversy raised by dating the census, miss the sociological and cultural insinuations scripted in the narrative. For early readers of Luke, this reference to a particular census acknowledged, not a calendar date, but the cultural discriminations. Undoubtedly, first-century hearers would notice the political implications inherent in this acknowledgement of the governor of Syria and the ruler of the Empire. The census, itself a penetrating symbol of Roman power, serves as a reminder of the subordination required of Israel as a conquered people. More than an imposed inconvenience, the census signifies the alien rule compromising fidelity to Yahweh. But Luke the historian is no less Luke the theologian.
Unlike Matthew’s gospel Luke’s gospel pauses, not over the sound-bite teachings of Jesus but, on the dramatic encounters that are had with Mary’s firstborn. The writer here rehearses the life of a historical person whose life had historical significance. Luke is not positing his narrative to provide a specific date in history, but to register the discrimination experienced by Jews under Roman rule.
Today’s sermons should similarly take advantage of the counter-cultural message of the sacred story. The Divine Son is not Augustus, but Jesus. The charity for which Augustus has been celebrated is announced as the astonishing character of Yahweh and Yahweh’s son, calling into question virtues previously attributed to the Emperor. The peace of God presupposes the peace of Rome, deeming the government’s programs of freedom, security, and welfare woefully deficient.
Joseph and Mary, along with the others who traveled that season were not participants in an inflated economy on a shopping spree. The census accounted for the people’s wealth not for the spending power of their credit limits, but the taxing of persons and property. This return to home bears the weight of tax season, not Black Friday. And so, the inconvenience of the government is countered by the comforting hospitality of the village.
Familiarity with the traditional tales makes it hard to reconstruct the first century context. Interjecting commercial lodging practices into the ancient culture obscures the narrative parallels in the story. The young couple’s arrival in Bethlehem brings them not to a stranger’s business, but a relative’s home. To turn away a descendent of David in the city of his home would be unimaginable. Considering the importance of hospitality for traditional Middle Eastern villages invites the preacher to convey the design of homes where animals are literally brought inside in the evening. Simple village homes in Palestine would not have the luxury of storehouses (as noted in Luke 12:13-21) nor contemporary barns.
With all the visitors in town for the census, the home’s guest room would have already been occupied, and in hospitality, not banishment, the young couple was instead extended a warm place to safely spend the night. (The writer will replay this image in Luke 13:10-17, where Jesus compares healing the bent over women as an ‘untying’ on the Sabbath, just as his opponents would untie their ox or donkey from the manger in their house to take it outside and water it. Consider also the prophet’s rooftop chamber mentioned in 1 Kings 17:19.) The young couple is not abandoned and alone, but experience the joy of their firstborn in the company of family and loved ones.
Verse 6 need not suggest a 911 call while traveling an unfamiliar highway. Instead, it highlights that during the stay, the child was born. Joseph and Mary experience the wonder of new birth while among family. Though the urgency conveyed in the familiar birth myth has given us a dramatic moment, the cultural reality may indeed be closer to our own holiday gatherings — the aroma of shared meals; the attitudes of in-laws and siblings; the assembling at table in the homes of our childhood.
Additionally, this residential space brings congruence to the hospitality experienced by the shepherds, who find not the classism of a royal rejection, but a baby — wrapped simply, just as they did with their newly born — in an ordinary peasant home. The honor of the entire community is on display with the arrival of the shepherds, who no doubt feared what they would encounter on their quest to see a baby of such promise. The shepherd’s praise for the peace promised is confirmed in the hospitality on hand — not the status quo of the government nor the Emperor’s luxury, but the attention and care women would give a mother giving birth in a small village where family have gathered from afar.
Familiar anticipation paralleled with political critique and simple hospitality. We know this holiday. May those who venture to hear its familiar story, experience the astonishment of knowing its promise of joy, comfort and peace.
For historical backgrounds that may underlie this complex passage, please see the entries by Terence Fretheim (Christmas 2009) and Karoline Lewis (Christmas 2010).
This commentary will explore the interpretive history leading to its presence at this powerful moment of the Christian year.
The libretto to Handel’s Messiah was composed in 1741 by the English landowner Charles Jennens, a patron of the arts interested in messianism. This work has deeply influenced modern hearing of Isaiah 9 and other Old Testament passages, passages originally intended to speak not about Jesus but about realities and hopes in the prophets’ own days. Messiah is arranged to tell a story not actually reflected in either the Old or the New Testaments: after a bass recitative of Isaiah 60:2-3 (“For darkness shall cover the earth….”), Isaiah 9:2 responds (“the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”), followed by the well-known chorus “for unto us a child is born….” This directly precedes the soprano recitative about the shepherds (Luke 2:8-13) and the chorus “Glory to God in the highest” (verse 14).
Long before Messiah, Isaiah 9:2-7’s relationship to the gospel story was already complex and fascinating. The verse that invariably calls Christmas to modern minds, “for unto us a child is born” is never invoked by New Testament writers. In fact, when Matthew quotes from Isaiah 9:1-2, he correlates it not with Jesus’ birth, but with the beginning of his public preaching (Matthew 4:13-16).
The Septuagint translation of this passage may help explain the differences between its role in early Christian reflection and its later Christological use. Early Gentile Christians had little or no access to the version of Isaiah 9 so well known today, because the Greek read very differently. Divergences are vast in verses 4-5, which in LXX concern not war but economic exploitation. More importantly, verse 6 does not conclude with a series of royal names (“Wonderful Counselor,” etc.), but with only one, followed by further comment: “and his name is called Angelos (angel; messenger) of Great Counsel, for I will bring peace to the princes, peace and health to him.”
At that time the status of Jesus in relation to God was being debated, as the first chapter of Hebrews attests. Some did consider Jesus an angel. No first-century Christian text that employs Isaiah 9:6 in this debate has survived, but in the early second century Justin Martyr is found discussing Jesus’ teaching role in this way: “By calling him [Christ] ‘the Angel of great counsel,’ did not Isaiah predict that Christ would be a teacher of those truths that he expounded when he came upon this earth?” (Dialogue with Trypho 76). John Chrysostom similarly, in the fourth century, read Jesus as called “Angel of Great Counsel, God the Strong, the Mighty One” (Against the Anomobans 5:15).
John’s contemporary Jerome, drawing attention to the discrepancy between Hebrew and Greek renderings, suggested that the LXX translator, “terrified by the majesty of these names, did not dare to say of a child that he must be called God and so forth.” He insisted that the first four words should each stand on its own: not “wonderful counselor” but “wonderful, counselor”; not “mighty God,” but “God, mighty” (Commentary on Isaiah 3.9.16-17). For many centuries the two traditions, the one from the Greek and the other from the Hebrew, lived on side by side.
It’s not hard to understand the LXX translator’s struggles with this passage. Its relationship to its context is fairly opaque; its historical setting subject to considerable disagreement, and its internal flow difficult to follow. Moreover, the significance and punctuation of the throne names in verse 6 are debated, as Jerome’s discussion and the following translations show:
“Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (KJV). “The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler” (Tanakh) “Planner of wonders; God the war hero is Father forever; prince of well-being” (W. L. Holladay). “One who plans a wonder is the warrior God; the father forever is a commander who brings peace” (John Goldingay).
Most scholars agree that the passage once celebrated a descendant of David and future king. Debate continues over whether the poem once proclaimed the birth of a future king or his ascension to the throne, and whether this was a traditional formulation or was composed in relation to a particular king such as Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. Scholars also differ over whether the names refer to the child himself or to God. Christological readings from at least the time of Jerome view them as characterizing the one named. But other sons’ names in preceding chapters (Isaiah 7:3, “a remnant will return”; 7:14, “God is with us”; 8:3, “spoil is hurrying; plunder is hastening”) do not characterize the children, but the times surrounding their births. The configuration of these other names is part of what leads some to see in these phrases sentences describing God.
So how can this passage serve Christmas with integrity today? Given the holiday setting, ancient Judah’s kings probably won’t be the focal point of worship. Yet Isaiah raises themes worth exploring alongside of Luke. The most obvious are darkness and light, concern for the lowly among powerful empires, joyful hope heralded by birth, and the expectation of peace — all striking features of both Luke’s narrative and Isaiah’s song.
A consistent theme in Isaiah is leaders’ responsibility for justice and righteousness, internal security for meek and lowly as well as external security for the kingdom overall. “Prince of Peace” refers not simply to warm fuzzy feelings radiating to souls from God, but to an active, muscular, real-life peace, maintained by protecting weak from strong. Other passages in Isaiah describe the just ruler as “a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land” (Isaiah 32:2), allowing for wolf to live with lamb, leopard with kid, lion and calf together, a place made safe for the young of every species (Isaiah 11:6-9). This hope is renewed among candle and song each Christmas, renewed to ignite human priorities all through the year.
Psalm 96 is one of five psalms in Book Four of the Psalter that are classified as Enthronement Psalms, psalms that celebrate the reign of God as king over all creation.
God as king is a prevalent theme in Christian worship. We offer prayers to God the king; hymns about God as king ring in our ears: “Come Thou Almighty King,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “O Worship the King,” and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor, to Thee Redeemer King.” What exactly do we mean when we sing the words of the hymns and pronounce the benedictive words, “O God, our redeemer and king”?
The major lectionary reading for this Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost does not actually contain the words, “God is king.” That pronouncement comes in verse 10. Thus we may read verses 1-9 of Psalm 96 as introductory words, words inviting all nations and all peoples to look in wonder at the God of Israel (verses 3, 7). In verse 1, the whole earth is called to “sing a new song.” The phrase “new song” occurs as well in Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 98:1; 144:9; and 149:1. Samuel Terrien, in The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary, maintains that in each instance the phrase “new song” does not indicate a song sung to a tune that has never been heard before, but rather refers to the beginning of a new era, a new epoch in history (p. 924).
In the case of Psalm 96, the “new song” refers to the reign of God, rather than a king of the line of David, as sovereign over Israel and the whole earth. Some historical and canonical background is helpful at this point.
The Historical Background: In the Ancient Near East, people gained protection, livelihood, prosperity, and justice by giving allegiance to the king who ruled over a particular city or district. Being subject to the ruler guaranteed safety and way of life. If you traveled outside your own city or district, you were immediately at the mercy of a different ruler, one who may not look favorably upon you. Such was life for the people of Old Testament times.
When the Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses and settled in the Promised Land, one of the first issues that surfaced was that of leadership. In the book of Judges, we read about the struggles of the newly-settled Israelites to claim the land. The book closes with the words, “In that day, there was no king in Israel; everyone person did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
In 1 Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and demand, “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (verse 5). When Samuel prayed to God, God answered with these words: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (verse 7). Samuel anointed Saul and then David, and we read in the book of Kings about the reigns of the kings of the Davidic dynasty. They were a rather mixed bag of the good and the bad: Solomon, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Josiah.
When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the Hebrew people captive, such a protected and guaranteed life disappeared. Israel no longer had their own king — their own protector. They were subjects of a foreign king. And even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they were still subjects of foreign rulers — the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Try to imagine the fear, the questions, the searching. Who would protect the Hebrew people, guarantee their livelihood and survival as individuals and as a people, and who would administer justice?
The Canonical Background: The book of Psalms relates the story of the life of ancient Israel from the time of the kingship of David (Books 1 and 2: Psalms 1-72); through the reign of Solomon, the divided kingdom, and the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon (Book 3: Psalms 73-89); to the exile in Babylon (Book 4: Psalms 90-106); and finally the return from exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Book 5: Psalms 107-150).
Five Enthronement Psalms appear in a cluster in the middle of Book 4, whose setting — according to the canonical background outlined above — is the exile in Babylon. Davidic kingship was no more; a foreign king reigned as sovereign. What did that mean for the exiled Israelites? Would they simply be absorbed into the vast Babylonian empire? Or could they find a way to maintain their identity as the people of Yahweh, their God? Recall the words of 1 Samuel 8, in which God says to Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” In these new circumstances, it seems, the only option was to accept God as king; not a human being.
Why? An interesting aspect of the Enthronement Psalms is their incorporation of what scholars call “creation language.” Verse 5 of Psalm 96 says, “For all the gods of the people are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” In Psalm 95:4, we read, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” And Psalm 97:6 says, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness.” God the creation has full claim to the throne as sovereign over all.
How? Without a human king to guarantee protection, livelihood, prosperity, and justice for the people of Israel, how would such care be provided? How does God — the God of the heavens and the earth — reign in the midst of this messiness called the present reality? The answer is what some scholars describe as a “democratization” of kingship, when the people of God join together to bring about the reign of God on the earth — what Jesus continually referred to as “the kingdom of God.”
Each person must consciously strive to be fully human, human in the way that God created them to be — in rightness and faithfulness to the human community. Each person much strive to create a world in which all are cared for, provided for, lifted up, satisfied, and have an opportunity to be all that God created them to be.
And how does the kingdom of God come about? By each of us who acknowledge God as sovereign in our lives becoming the arms and legs and voice and conscience of God in our world. We are the arms and legs and voice and conscience of God on this earth — the embodiment of the kingdom of God.
A daunting task? Yes. Can it be any other way? No. God is in control over this place we call home, this earth. But God has being and substance in those of us who proclaim God as sovereign in our lives.
This passage stands out as a theological gem in the midst of the moral exhortations of Titus.
Along with 3:4-7, it provides theological momentum for the letter’s ethical instruction.
Between Two Epiphanies
Titus presents God’s unfolding plan of salvation in terms of two appearances of Jesus, two epiphanies or manifestations of God’s presence. “For the grace of God has appeared (epephan), bringing salvation to all” (2:11). Jesus’ first appearance manifested God’s grace, and his second coming will manifest God’s glory, for “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation (epiphaneian) of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2:13).
In speaking of Jesus’ first appearance, Titus likely refers to the whole of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, rather than his actual birth in Bethlehem. Yet the connection with Jesus’ birth will be inescapable in a Christmas Eve service, and is certainly worth exploring. Jesus manifests God’s grace to us in a most astounding way, precisely by the humility in which he first makes himself known to us — as a vulnerable infant born to peasant parents, lying in a manger far from the comforts of home.
Jesus’ birth is an appropriate preface to the life he lives — a life on the margins as a wandering preacher and healer, a friend of sinners, suspect in the eyes of the religious and political establishments. His birth is also appropriate to the kind of death he dies — outside the holy city, a humiliating, shameful death reserved for rebels and slaves. Jesus manifests God’s grace in the most unexpected ways, even in bearing shame and suffering on our behalf. For “he it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own” (2:14).
Jesus’ first epiphany — his life, death, and resurrection — inaugurated a new age, bringing the hope of salvation to all. This salvation will be fully realized when he comes again in glory as “our great God and Savior” (2:13). Until then, we live between two epiphanies, in hope and expectation.
The hope and expectation in which we live are not idle or passive. Jesus gave himself for us in order to redeem us from iniquity and make us his own people “who are zealous for good deeds” (11:14). The salvation he brings is not only about forgiveness, but also about transformation. As recipients of God’s grace, we are empowered to live in a new way. The grace of God is “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:12). The Greek word for training (paideuousa), associated with the instruction and discipline of children, suggests that transformation does not happen overnight, but is a long, painstaking process as we grow into maturity.
Examples of the “impiety and worldly passions” we are to renounce are described in 3:3: “For 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.” Sounds like a pathetic way to live, does it not? Where do such “worldly passions” still enslave us today? In the contempt and divisiveness that dominate our political discourse? In the constant lure of consumption and acquisition? In the desire for power and control over others? In the fear that drives us to demonize those who differ from us?
In stark contrast to being driven by worldly passions, we are to live lives that are “self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:12). What this kind of life might look like is described in 3:1-2. It is to “be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.”
In the verses preceding 2:11-14, Titus has spelled out the kind of character and behavior expected of elders and bishops (1:5-9), older men (2:2), older women (2:3), young women (2:4-5), young men (2:6-8), and slaves (2:9-10). These exhortations reflect the values of Hellenistic moral philosophy. The instructions to young women, for instance, describe the behavior expected of the ideal Roman wife. The point of living this way is summed up in 2:5: “so that the word of God may not be discredited.”
The author is concerned that good order and good conduct in the household reflect well upon the Christian community and its message. This does not mean that 21st century Christians need to replicate the social structures of the first or second century. Yet we need always be concerned about how our words and actions reflect on the church and either help or hinder our God-given mission. Quarreling, divisiveness, and judgmental attitudes, for instance, have done much to damage our credibility and obscure the gospel.
Our relationships with one another, with the communities in which we live, and with the world should reflect the love of God in Jesus Christ, “who 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). How welcome our witness might be when we live out our identity as people belonging to Christ — when, for instance, we are ready for every good work, speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, and show gentleness and courtesy to everyone (3:1-2).
We are still “in training,” of course; our transformation is still a work in progress. It can only come from the one who enters into our humanity in humility and love. Truly the grace of God has appeared in him, bringing salvation to all. He has come to make us his people — a transformed people zealous for good deeds — not only in this season of holiday cheer, but year-round, day in and day out, year after year, “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2:13).