Luke’s narrative moves to invite us to recognize that the breathtaking account of the birth of Christ cannot be contained in a twenty-minute children’s pageant.
Grander than “once upon a time” the opening words “In those days” bring notice of a forthcoming rehearsal of a community’s memories, experiences, and hope. Setting aside expectations of a modern historical account, we can acknowledge the dramatic effect presented by the writer’s continued transposing of expectations. What scholars have labored over as a historical quandary proves to offer a pivotal dramatic move. The scene is set in Galilee, against both Rome and Jerusalem, the civic centers of both Gentile and Jew.
That the writer has spent so many words on this problematic census causes us to miss the poetic economy of his simple announcement of Jesus birth. Firstborn — fulfills prophecy, confirms Mary’s announcement and claims the one thing Joseph has to offer — the first son’s birthright as a member of the house of David. Our narrative imaginations must be converted to recognize the power of this brevity.
Tying the birth of John to Jesus, we experience the intimacy of the family and community celebrating John’s birth. Comparisons to the universal and cosmic responses to Jesus’ birth by angels and shepherds signal that redemption is not merely for one ethnic group, but for all creation.
The writer has neither wasted words nor gotten sidelined by a random vantage point, instead drawing together the political context with the promise of Israel’s deity. What first-century hearers might have failed to notice as sacred confession would be recognizable as societal conflict. This astonishing announcement of the arrival of prosperity is not made to the governor or the Emperor, but to peasant shepherds; not to elected officials, but hired hands. Then, as now, the broadcast of this birth turns civic contracts on their heads. The tension is especially relevant in this extended political campaigning season.
The Governor’s census locates the birth in Bethlehem. Rather than a demonstration of Quirinius’ control, Luke narrates this as the achievement of God’s promise from Micah 5:2. All the echoes of politics and religious culture merge as the listener negotiates the promise of good news between the Greco-Roman world’s imperial cult and the Isianic vision of the coming of the Lord to bring salvation and establish his dominion of peace.
In a time of political posturing and an inequitable economic system, the gravitas of the impending promise is laid against the existing chaos. How pervasive is the peace promised? Who will receive its benefits? Does this program allow for limited participation or an entirely new experience of goodwill by all? Luke blurs the holy with what is ordinarily human, to announce the presence of God with us. As we prepare to tell the story again, consider not only the ancient textual criticisms or familiar myth. Explore also its theo-political dimensions as a living and active drama which narrates us into God’s panorama of peace.
Roman orators and poets would announce the arrival of peace at the birth of the one who will be the next emperor. Luke tells us God shows up in the ordinary and the heaven’s respond in a chorus of awe. Mere shepherds take notice, as if gazing upon a bush that burns without being consumed. The declaration that is heard glorifies God and promises what God does for us to bring peace.
What God does “for us” always arises out of a covenant to be “with us” always. God with us is not a political promise to provide “for” a balanced budget over the next decade. God is with us in the present now: “with” those in poverty, the forgotten, and oppressed. Like the shepherds, we are witnesses to the presence of God among us.
And when we see what God is doing, as reflections of the divine image, we are to go and likewise do. Luke prepares us for such corresponding behavior by demonstrating the hopes of Israel in the drama of the birth of John and Jesus. Having already narrated parallels between the births of John and Jesus, Luke’s presentation continues to highlight the inclusive nature of the divine promise that extends goodwill to all. With this narrative move, Luke exposes John’s ministry as focused on Israel while Jesus’ ministry fulfills Israel’s universal purpose.
Israel’s God promises and delivers peace to the entire world, not merely the elite inhabitants of Caesar’s government. The pattern here is seen between the wandering outcasts and the homebound census travelers — unnamed shepherds, and Joseph and Mary, natives of Bethlehem — Rome’s resident aliens. Within the framework of the narrative, this peculiarity prepares for its corollary in the ensuing journey of Joseph to Bethlehem and the latter journey(s) of Jesus.
The ancient story Luke recorded is dramatized in the church’s witness today. The church can be invited to understand that our celebrating the birth of Jesus in this global seasonal holiday extends the drama narrated by Luke.
Isaiah 62:6-12 is the Proper 2 Old Testament Christmas reading every year.
Paired with Luke 2, however, it doesn’t attract much attention. Indeed, it seems an odd Christmas reading, with no baby, no mother, shepherds, or magi. It’s not about Bethlehem but Jerusalem, a city Luke hasn’t even mentioned yet. Yet one detail stands out repeatedly in Luke 2, bringing the two passages together, a detail so familiar we know it by heart: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (verse 7, King James Version); “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (verse 12); “the babe lying in a manger” (verse 16).
If it weren’t so familiar, this thrice-told manger would be startling. Lofty words had heralded Jesus’ birth in Luke’s story for over a year: Gabriel’s to the priest Zechariah, then to Mary; Elizabeth’s words, followed by Mary’s, followed by Zechariah’s. And finally the angel speaks again in the shepherd’s field. Each time, the message floats gently on clouds of abstract nouns: joy, good news, kingdom, Son of God, savior, mercy, salvation, covenant, oath, holiness, righteousness, forgiveness, peace, Messiah.
But the message lands on earth with a resounding thud. After proclaiming good news of great joy for all, news of a savior, a Messiah, the angel drops all abstraction and instructs puzzled shepherds to seek one of many swaddled newborns but — hurtling past the common to the rude — lying in a feeding trough. Salvation is a great vision; reality is material; it is rough, unsanitary. This nursery would never suit the paper’s home-of-the-week montage, though it could be exploited by a heart-wrenching expose on homelessness.
For this passage’s setting in Isaiah overall, see the discussion of Isaiah 61:10-62:3 on January 1. Like Luke’s story, Isaiah 62:6-12 holds heavenly vision in earthen vessels, celebrating divine glory found in the material, the tangible, the all-too-measurable. Jerusalem’s reality in this prophet’s time was anything but “renowned throughout the earth.” It is doubtful, in fact, that the city even had walls for sentinels to stand upon. Lamentations 2:8 describes God’s having destroyed them in the Babylonian war, and verse 18 envisions the broken walls themselves crying out. Isaiah 54:12 promises God will rebuild Jerusalem’s walls out of precious stones. Isaiah 60:10 proclaims, again, that they will be built.
But long after reconstruction supposedly began, Nehemiah heard the walls were still, shamefully, broken (Nehemiah 1:3), and set out to get the job done with sweat and setback and sheer perseverance. So this prophet’s words could mean one of two less-than-literal things: first, the preposition ‘al, which is usually translated “on” or “upon,” might here mean “about” or “concerning”: “concerning your walls, Jerusalem, I have set watchmen” to remind God to get moving on this long-promised restoration project. The other possibility is that it does mean “on your walls,” but that the walls are figurative. In either case, the “watchmen” too are probably figurative: not guards, but praying prophets.
Even the mention of walls, then, spotlights security that isn’t yet secure. Some real walls would be nice. When basic safety is attended to, loftier things such as salvation, justice, and peace can be pondered. But first we need a door we can lock at night. Ideals are mediated to humans through the material world, through what is mundane, through what is even crude or rude. This same intertwining of the heavenly and earthly continues in verse 8. “The Lord has sworn,” used to precede grand futures and big gifts, descendants, fruitful land, kingdom, victory (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:10; Psalm 132:11).
What God swears by is also huge — God’s right hand and mighty arm (Psalm 89:13; Isaiah 51:9). But now it comes down to this: the food you grew, you will eat; it won’t be taken from you. In an unprotected city familiar with taxation and invasion, where even God threatened to take the food away (Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 28:31-34; Isaiah 1:19-20), where many starved during and after the siege (Lamentations 1:11, 19; 2:19-20; 4:4, 9-10), this is big. In fact, Micah’s vision of world peace culminates in everyone sitting unafraid under their own vines and fig trees (4:4). So there is a deep relationship between basic food security and the loftier ideals the prophet proclaims. Some real food would be nice.
Transportation infrastructure comes up next. This is a touchy subject where I live, where in twenty years of repeated promises, a bridge over a major river on a busy interstate has not materialized, while in the meantime another highway bridge has broken and closed. The discussion in verses 10-11 of preparing the way, building a highway, and God coming with reward and recompense echoes and recasts Isaiah 40:3, 4, and 10, and it will be echoed and recast again in the gospels, beginning with Zechariah’s words in Luke 1:76, where it is fully spiritualized. In Isaiah these roads are only part metaphor. God can come and go any way God pleases and needs no road, but the Judeans returning to Zion do need infrastructure, as do all those foreigners who will do business with Zion, come to worship there, and help make it renowned throughout the earth, sought out, a city unforsaken.
It is in these substantive realities, the basics of shelter and sustenance, trade and transportation, that all that is glorious is both conceived and born. For many years I have taken groups to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and all that Christians now call the “Holy Land.” Expectations always soar, and the real world of airports, highways, falafel, and dust often disappoint those hoping to float along the heavenly city’s golden streets. The Church of the Nativity is dark and rough, the shushing and herding priests too harsh, and the fourteen-point star marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth a replica, its predecessor stolen in 1847, igniting the Crimean War. Yet this-worldly salvation consists in these rough things — shelter, food, roads, clothing, and a quiet corner, however rude, to lie down, to sleep, to dream.
Psalm 97 is one of only seven psalms in the book of Psalms that is classified as an enthronement psalm (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).
These psalms are distinguished from the royal psalms (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, 144) in that the subject matter of the royal psalms is the human king of Israel while the enthronement psalms celebrate God as sovereign over all. Why an enthronement psalm as the reading for Christmas day? This commentator asked herself that very question. The answer was not long in coming.
First, some Old Testament background is helpful. Imagine a world in which government by democracy was completely unheard of. In the Ancient Near East, the only government that people knew was kingship. The king of a city or district guaranteed safety and way of life for those who swore allegiance. 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. The book of Judges, which narrates the people’s struggle to occupy the Promised Land, 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: “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. The people of Israel no longer had a king — a 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.
The hope for a new king of the line of David was an ever-present issue for the people of postexilic Israel. Zerubbabel presented a short-lived hope in the sixth century (Haggai 2:23; Zechariah 4:9-10); the Hasmoneans established an independent Jewish state in 141 BCE, but it was dismantled by the Roman army in 63 BCE. What now?
Let us back up a bit and consider the words of the Enthronement psalms. The book of Psalms relates the story 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).
All but one of the enthronement psalms in the Psalter 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? In these new circumstances, it seems, the only option was to accept God as king; not a human being.
Thus, the psalmists devised songs to celebrate God as sovereign over, not just Israel, but all creation. Psalm 97 incorporates virtually all of the themes of the enthronement psalms: God as creator (verses 1-6; see also Psalms 93:1, 3-4; 95:4-5; 98:7-9); God as the god above all other or false gods (verses 7, 9; see also Psalms 95:3; 96:4-5); and God as the holy one who dwells in Zion and protects and judges the people (verses 8, 10-12; see also 96:6-9; 99:2-4).
And so that brings us back to Christmas. The New Testament gives us two accounts of the birth of Jesus. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is born in the stable of an inn with shepherds in attendance; in the gospel of Matthew, wise men from the east travel to worship him as a king. In both stories, Jesus’ birth is seen as a turning point, a new beginning for, first, the Jewish people, and, then for all humanity. A long-hoped-for king of the line of David, one who could lead the children of Israel into a new Promised Land.
The prophet Isaiah spoke words of encouragement nearly half a millennium before the birth of Jesus — words not initially about Jesus (most likely about Hezekiah), but timeless words that spoke of a future in which the faithful would know victory and find hope in “a child [who] has been born to us, a son [who has] been given to us” (Isaiah 9:7). Isaiah’s words, in the context of seventh-century BCE Jerusalem, were not about the Jesus of the first-century CE. They spoke words of hope to the people of Jerusalem in their own day and time — but, and that is the beauty of the words of the prophets, they also spoke words of hope to the people of first-century Jerusalem.
And, so, “a child has been born to us,” a child who would rule as king over a people who had, for centuries, sought a king who would be a savior (a messiah). And the role of the king? Jesus, the king, was — according to the ancient Near Eastern standards of kingship — to provide justice, equity, protection, a place to live, care for those less able to care for themselves, and insight into the proper worship of the one true God. I don’t know about you, but I think Jesus did a pretty good job as king . . .
Titus 3:4-7 is the second theological gem of this letter, along with 2:11-14.
Both texts are rich in theological language, leading many interpreters to surmise that they are creedal or liturgical in origin. Indeed, 3:4-7 may very well derive from an ancient baptismal liturgy.
God’s Goodness and Loving Kindness
Titus speaks of Jesus as the epiphany or manifestation of God’s gracious presence: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared (epephan), he saved us…” (3:4-5a). Goodness and loving kindness (philanthrὁpia) were attributes commonly ascribed to the ideal Hellenistic ruler. God, the ruler of heaven and earth, displays these attributes far beyond the capacity of any human ruler, taking the initiative to save us, “not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy” (3:5).
In speaking of God our Savior appearing among us, the author likely refers to the whole of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection rather than to his birth in Bethlehem. Yet in the context of Christmas Day worship, associations with Jesus’ birth will come to the fore. The Gospel text for the day, John 1:1-14, speaks of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. Indeed, Jesus is God’s grace and truth in the flesh, the very embodiment of God’s goodness and loving kindness. As Martin Luther put it in a Christmas Day sermon, “How could God have shown his goodness in a more sublime manner than by humbling himself to partake of flesh and blood?”1
God’s initiative to save us is a pure gift of God’s mercy. It is in no way dependent on “any works of righteousness that we [have] done.” The author of Titus spends a good deal of ink on appropriate behavior, to be sure, but this follows from what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. We are saved from iniquity in order to be a people belonging to Christ, zealous for good deeds (2:14).
Water of Rebirth
Baptism is central to Titus’ understanding of our salvation. God saved us “through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (3:5). The Greek word for “rebirth” (paliggenesia) was used by Jews to speak of the renewing of the world in the time of the Messiah. Here God’s cosmic act of renewal in the Messiah becomes intensely personal for each person baptized. In baptism, the same Spirit who renews the face of the earth is “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (3:6).
Perhaps we do not usually think of Christmas as a time to focus on baptism, but this text suggests connections between the incarnation and our rebirth through water and the Spirit (cf. John 1:12-13). Luther draws a similar connection between Christ’s birth and our spiritual rebirth in a Christmas Day sermon:
We see here how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ.2
God saved us through water and the Spirit “so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:7). Reborn in Christ, we are heirs with him to all that God has promised. We live in the hope of eternal life, looking forward to the renewal of all creation.
So Now What?
On Christmas Day, thoughts of worshipers can begin to turn all too quickly to cleaning up after the festivities and going back to the daily grind. What difference does Christmas make in the “real world”?
After the soaring theological language of 3:4-7, the author of Titus returns to ethical instruction concerning everyday matters. Believers are to “devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8). On the other hand, they are to “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (3:9).
Verse 9 reflects the author’s concern about false teachers who confuse believers and waste time and energy on things that do not benefit anyone (cf. 1:10-16). They are missing the point entirely! We have been saved not to simmer in dissension or to obsess about trivial matters, but to work for the good of our neighbors. We have been reborn so that we might devote ourselves to good works which are “excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8).
The day after Christmas, it may very well appear that nothing has changed in the world. But with the eyes of faith, we know that “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior has appeared,” and nothing can ever be the same. In Christ Jesus, God has set about redeeming and renewing the entire creation, beginning with each one of us. Through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, we daily die to sin and rise again to new life with Christ. We have a purpose — to live as Christ’s own people, devoting ourselves to what is “excellent and profitable” for our neighbors in this world that God so loves.
1A sermon by Martin Luther, from his Wartburg Church Postil, 1521-1522. From The Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1983) 141. 2Ibid, 144.