Lectionary Commentaries for December 25, 2013
Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Richard Swanson

This scene opens with Roman trumpets blaring an imperial order coming from Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

All the world jumps and runs to be enrolled. This is the impact of Roman domination. One man, one Roman man, can (as long as he is Caesar Augustus) issue an order and throw the world into motion.

Since all the characters in the foreground of the story are Jews, it is important to notice that Jews are a subjugated people in this narrative world, subject to the whims and rages of both the distant Roman rulers and the (all too) close Roman army. That’s how life is in the outlying provinces, where order is maintained at any cost, and tribute is exacted for the good of the Roman home provinces. 

If you begin reading Luke’s story in chapter 2 you see clearly the impact of Rome’s domination of the known world. If you begin reading in chapter 2 you see that Rome controls everything. 

But there is a long chapter, some eighty verses, in fact, that stirs the story into motion before Caesar Augustus ever gets to order anything, and if you only begin reading in chapter 2, you miss this. In fact, you misunderstand the entire story. 

Luke’s story starts, not in Caesar’s palace screaming with military trumpets, but in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, that quiet, dark, Jewish place at the symbolic center of the Jerusalem Temple (and thus the center of the entire universe). It starts, not with the Governor of Syria, but with an old priest who is married to an old woman of the priestly tribe of Aaron, an old priest who encounters an angel while carrying out his part in bringing the world into balance by performing Temple service. From the start of Luke’s story, one thing is clear: it may be a Roman world, but it is a Jewish universe, no matter what Caesar Augustus thinks. 

There is more here. Gabriel is not done. He appears next to a young Jewish woman who is courageous enough to talk back to an angel, courageous enough also to accept an untimely pregnancy even though it could result in an honor killing. Why does Mary accept this hazardous mission? The storyteller has Mary sing her reasoning: this is a key step in God’s project to turn the world right-side-up, to bring down the powerful from their thrones and to raise up the oppressed, to feed the hungry with the good things of Creation and to send the overstuffed rich empty away, to help the Jewish people and to remember promises made all the way back to Abraham. Caesar may be issuing orders, but God is keeping promises. That is more important.

There is even more going on. When Mary accepts her role, she begins by running to the hill country of Judea, to the shelter of Elizabeth’s house (Zechariah is there too, but he is silent). That keeps the narrative neat, all the characters interlocking nicely, but it does something even more important. The storyteller (through the voice of the angel) tells us that Elizabeth is Mary’s kinswoman.

Though the exact relationship is not specified, this naming of kinship raises the possibility that Mary, like her kinswoman Elizabeth, is a daughter of Aaron, a member of a priestly family. And since priestly families appear to have been endogamous (marrying only within the clan), this raises the possibility that Joseph, too, is an Aaronide, a relative of priests. More importantly, this means that Jesus, identified by Gabriel as the one who will be given the throne of “his father, David,” is also of the family of Aaron. The messiah, in this story, is woven into both the priesthood and the kingship, the two traditional organs of ancient Jewish society that were charged with balancing and protecting the world. 

And most important of all, the first chapter of Luke’s story makes it clear that this is a story about the power of family. When Mary faces danger, she goes to family and is sheltered. That’s what family does. 

And when Caesar seeks to demonstrate his power and dominate his world, all he actually does is reunite families in their home territory. When Mary and Joseph, along with the rest of the world, are ordered back to their towns, they are linked with family and sheltered. That’s what family always does, at least when it works the way it should.

That’s why it is important to note that, although the NRSV translates the place where there was no room (kataluma) as “inn” in 2:7, we should read the word differently. In Luke 22:11 the NRSV translates the same word as the “guest room” where Jesus will eat the Passover with his disciples. We should read both of these rooms as guest rooms. 

Mary and Joseph (and Jesus) are sheltered with the animals, not because all the motels were full and they were alone and friendless, but because the fact that the family guest room was already full does not mean that family members would be turned away. Quite the contrary. In the narrative world opened to us by the storyteller, family will always provide shelter and support. That’s why Mary and Joseph were not concerned twelve years later when they were returning from their annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem: they supposed, for an entire day, that Jesus was in the group of travelers. With family. That’s why, at the very end of Luke’s story, the daughters of Jerusalem come out to mourn for their brother, Jesus, as Rome leads him out to his execution. That also is what family does.

Something interesting happens next. Jesus is born, surrounded by the family of David, his father, in Bethlehem. An angel appears to shepherds in the fields, guarding their flocks. The angel says that a baby is born “to you.” The angel could just as easily have said that a baby was born to Mary, or (if that were too anachronistically individualistic), the angel could have said that the baby was born to the family of David. 

But the angel says that the baby is born “to you.” Interpreters often leap ahead to the idea that it is the “savior” who is born “to you.” That works fine, but the storyteller emphasizes the birth, not the soteriology at this point. The good news is the news of a birth, and the baby is born to a family.

Even the shepherds are part of the family. Having heard the family news, the shepherds go to welcome the baby and to congratulate the parents. When they arrive, they participate in the family ritual of forecasting the future artistic and intellectual accomplishments of the baby, only they have more to go on than most visitors. They are not limited to noticing that he looks just like Uncle Oscar or has a pianist’s hands. They have the word of an army of angels, singing in the night, so they report that. That is what family does. Mary, we are told, reflects on all of this, treasuring everything that had been said. This is what mothers do. 

By the way, don’t stop reading this story when the Revised Common Lectionary stops at verse 20. Read also verse 21, because in that verse Jesus’ family names him and circumcises him. This is what Jewish families do, and this is a very Jewish family. 

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

Ingrid Lilly

The wedding metaphor that sets up our passage in Isaiah 62 is probably the reason it was chosen to serve as a Christmas text.

God comes to marry his city. Christian tradition tends to read here a metaphor of Christ’s marriage with the church. “See, your salvation comes” (verse 11).

Striking then, on the day of Jesus’ birth, we do not read one iota about the bridegroom. There is certainly no infant. There is not even a royal figure. Instead, Isaiah 62:6-12 focuses on the city of God, over whom the bridegroom rejoices and takes delight (62:5). And why not focus on the city that God yearns to save? Why not focus on the transformation of war-torn urban destitution? Why not focus on the industriousness of a city in recovery as it builds highways that salvation may enter its gates?

The City of God and Mortal Peace

Isaiah’s hopes for urban salvation are set in the streets of a devastated Jerusalem. Isaiah 62 was written during a time when this urban utopia seemed possible, during the restoration period in Judah.

To get at Isaiah’s vision for the city, I want to lift up some ideas presented in Augustine’s City of God. Although addressing paganism and early church in the Roman Empire, City of God serves as a powerful para-text for Isaiah’s redeemed city. Augustine explores the corporate life of the church through appeal to both the heavenly and earthly cities, which both cultivate, in his words, “inevitably a social life” (XIX:17).

These remarkable basic metaphors cast the heavenly city as a corporate pilgrimage through the streets of the earthly city. Remarkably, the earthly city is a necessary ally in the goal of establishing mortal peace. For Augustine, the Christian pilgrimage requires mortal peace. Further, mortal peace in the earthly city is necessary unto itself.

Jesus sought mortal peace in the earthly city. As an incarnated savior with a mortal life devoted to healing and human relations, Jesus, Augustine, and, as we will see, Isaiah 62 turn our attention to an often neglected aspect of the life of the church: its corporate mission to serve the earthly city on behalf of mortal peace.

Building the City of God

Isaiah 62 is replete with an impractical goodness that can only stem from God’s activity. Several proclamations celebrate the supernatural transformation of the urban-scape. Best captured by the verses of renaming (verses 4, 12), the people receive a new identity as the “Redeemed of the Lord.” However, this transformation in identity corresponds with a far more mundane and practical description of the city of God.

In three short phases of activity, the city goes from ruin to being redeemed. It is these more practical aspects of building the city of God to which our Christmas attention can turn. Phase one involves the work of memory-makers (verses 6-7). Phase two sets the city on a course for mortal peace (verses 8-9). Phase three outlines a blue print for inclusivity in the city of God (verse 10).

In verses 6-7, we meet the memory-makers whose primary task is to set the heavenly city back on its feet. The passage opens with a description of the watchmen on the walls (verses 6-7), our first indication of the city of God’s urban personnel. A watchman or sentinel usually refers to a Hebrew prophet, one who is called to provide visions concerning imminent safety or threat to the people in the city.

Here, the prophets have a slightly different task which takes two surprising turns. First, their job is not to look towards the threat or safety on the current horizon, but to look back in time. They are given a title, mazkirim, which literally means the ones who cause to remember and which may refer to an official role, perhaps through writing or record-keeping. They are tasked with bringing memories alive.

The second surprising turn captures the increasing notion that prophets could sway the powers they consult. Here we do not find an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God of philosophy whose ways are eternal and only people need nudging. On the contrary, in the city of God recovering from destruction, it is God who needs reminding. The NRSV provides the best translation for verse 6c: “you [watchmen] who remind the Lord.” When followed by verse 7, “and give him no rest” it is clear that the 24/7 persistence of the mazkirim is directed at God, calling God back to the city.

The memory-makers are squeaky wheels, calling out from the walls of the city in persistent re-narrations of the past. They strive to awaken God in the face of urban destruction. They struggle against the memory-destroying work of warfare. The memory-makers “take no rest” in demanding that a memory-soaked God embrace his city once again.

I can imagine the preacher taking on the role of the memory-maker. For people considering a life in the city of God, it could be powerful to look up to the walls and hear the preacher’s incessant and insistent demands on God that he wake up to a new narration of the past on behalf of their present.

The second phase of practical matters turns our attention to the plight of the earth-weary. Verses 8-9 introduce the farmers who live on the outskirts of the city, who grow grapes and grain around Jerusalem. In Isaiah’s vision for the city of God, these farmers will enjoy the fruits of their own labor. Here, we begin to see the promise of mortal peace for the earthly city because the vision reverses a dire hardship inherent in the ancient experiences of labor.

For a few centuries, Jerusalem’s surrounding farmland was prime real estate in several systems of economic oppression. In periods of war, unprotected field crops became the provisions for enemy troops. The siege warfare of the Assyrians and Babylonians sometimes lasted for multiple-year periods. Jerusalem’s walls protected the water and food storage inside the city, but the surrounding farmers, if they survived, would certainly have been placed into subscription to grow food for their enemies.

Even in periods of relative peace, the Assyrian system of taxation and tribute levied a huge burden on regional farmers. So whether during periods of active war or during the long decades of imperial usurpation, farmers had long been denied the full harvest of their labor.

The mortal peace of the farmer is of primary concern to the city of God. The worker who grieved the usurpation of his life and labor by an economic and martial system of oppression has become an integral part of the Isaianic vision. To draw on the language of Augustine with our glance towards today, we are talking about workers who suffer from oppressive economic practices.

For Augustine, the heavenly city looks to and supports those earthly systems aimed at supporting the peace of the worker (see XIX:17). For Isaiah, we can go one step further. The city of God must promote the mortal peace of the worker. The peace of the heavenly city is not possible without a system of mortal peace for those laborers in and surrounding the city.

In the Gates of the City of God

Augustine’s notion that the heavenly city is less like a civic institution and more like a corporate pilgrimage works well with the famous words of verse 10. “Prepare the way.” “Build it up.” “Clear it of stones.” Taking a tip from urban planning, the city of God must build a transportation infrastructure. Isaiah 62:10 opens up the gates of the city to forge pathways to God.

Verse 10 is not a plan for missionary work. No one is commissioned to go out to the nations to bring good news of God. In fact, the clear indication in the passage is that the goal of outward-facing activity is mortal peace, restoring farmers to the dignity of their work. Verse 10 is also not a call for toleration. The gates are not opened so that people can stand awkwardly beside each other in silent judgment.

Toleration always implies disapproval. When, as we are saying, “the life of the city is inevitably a social life,” disapproval is bound to breed tension and disdain. Instead, verse 10 offers a shining model for inclusivity. Isaiah 62:10 describes how to prepare a processional way to the sanctuary for full inclusion in its spiritual life.

The city of God must “prepare the way for the people.” It’s time to get down to work. Make the city accessible. Build up the roads for all manners of pilgrims. Identify the obstacles and remove them. Why might outsiders miss your gates on their weary road? Clear those paths. Make ready a processional way for people to stream into the city.

For Augustine, the city of God is like a collective pilgrimage set against the backdrop of an earthly city. In the Isaianic vision, the city promotes mortal peace and inclusivity.

While this Heavenly City, therefore, is on pilgrimage in this world, she calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages. She takes no account of any differences in customs, laws, and institutions, by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved — not that she annuls or abolishes any of these, rather, she maintains them and follows them, for whatever divergences there are among the diverse nations, those institutions have one single aim — earthly peace” (City of God, XIX:17).


Commentary on Psalm 97

James Howell

On Christmas Day, when families in pajamas unwrap gifts under their trees, monks in monasteries all around the world rise to chant Psalm 97. 

This psalm might even be recited in a few churches (those that utilize all the lections), and perhaps even heard by the handful of the zealous who leave the presents behind to show up for worship.

We have a little cluster of Psalms (93 through 99) whose primary theme is “The Lord reigns! The Lord is King!” Worshippers in ancient Israel must have had considerable hutzpah to travel for miles in caravans over rocky, dangerous terrain to press with the crowd into the temple to shout “The Lord is King!” History seemed not to be on their Lord’s side, as all the vast territories, tax revenues and military victories were concentrated in the hands of the gods of Babylon, or Egypt, or Greece, or Rome, or any of a long parade of the truly high and mighty.

On the first Christmas Day, it was the mighty Caesar Augustus who reigned; the angels didn’t sing loudly enough for the echoes to reach his palace in Rome. The shepherds heard the “heavens proclaiming his righteousness” (97:6) — but they were more startled than moved to deep faith.

The God of the Psalmist and the shepherds (whose ‘name’ was ‘Yahweh’) must have seemed like the weakling on the playground of bigger, more impressive deities (like Marduk or Ea of the mighty Babylonians, or Osiris or Horus of the wealthy Egyptians). All other gods could boast of military triumphs, vast hordes of gold, shinier cultic objects; if success was the measure, the gods of the Assyrians or the Phoenicians or just about anybody else had superior reasons to elicit praise from their subjects. Psalm 97:1 says “Let the earth rejoice” — but I imagine the rest of the earth smirked, chuckled in ridicule, when Israel gathered to sing that Israel’s Lord was King.

Why this foolishness in Israel? Was it lunacy or a profound faith that could stand boldly in the face of being small, puny, a laughingstock, and still affirm that “Our Lord is King! — and yours isn’t”? Did they understand the true nature of the true God? I suspect they did, although it was when Jesus arrived that the world was treated to the ultimate display of exactly what a King looks like.

Jesus lay in a manger instead of a palace. Instead of issuing edicts, Jesus simply let out a cry only his mother could hear. Jesus surrounded himself with poor clueless fishermen instead of slick bureaucrats. Jesus recruited an army of grateful lepers instead of well-drilled regiments. Jesus rode a wobbly donkey instead of a sprightly stallion. Jesus assumed a cross instead of a throne, and a crown of thorns, not gold and jewels.

Laugh out loud when the Wise Men tell King Herod, “We have come to worship the king” (Matthew 2:2) — a rather rude affront to the guy sitting in the palace. Furrow your brow when Pontius Pilate snidely asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” (John 18:37). He commands no regiments, he calls down no heavenly power to defend himself, he says not a single word. In his entourage were not senators and oligarchs, but lepers, prostitutes, the unlettered, the nobodies. At a crossroads he hangs on an olive shaft, a placard of mockery posted above his head in multiple languages so all can chuckle, or scratch their heads in wonder, or perhaps even believe. Let earth receive her king.

Christians who strive for power in America or any other place on earth misconstrue the heart of our faith. We are historically wary of power: when J.R.R. Tolkien told his scintillating stories of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, and their quest not to possess the ring of power but to destroy it, he articulated in fable form the essence of Christianity, which is not about us wielding power; we yield to the power of God, which is itself a small, paradoxical power, the power of humble service.

Or perhaps wisdom intuits that with our God, we glimpse a very different, and much better type of royalty. “The word of the cross is folly to the perishing, but to us being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Want to see power? Watch Jesus touch the untouchables, or wash the feet of those who would gladly have washed his. Watch Jesus surrender his very life, so powerful was his love. Watch Jesus forgive the very people who just spat on him and drove nails into his flesh. Watch Jesus breathe his last — and then quite fantastically show up three days later.  “The Lord is King! Let the earth rejoice.”

The world still mockingly laughs — or yawns. But we know, and we pray, and praise the Lord who is king. “Let the earth rejoice”: we pray that they will, and until they do, we rejoice for them, on their behalf, raising a chorus of “Joy to the world; let earth receive her King” on behalf of those who are tone deaf, who have not yet grasped the true nature of power and the wonder of love become flesh.

Second Reading

Commentary on Titus 3:4-7

Erik Heen

The second lesson for today, from Titus 3:4-7, is closely related to the second lesson appointed for Christmas Eve (Titus 2:11-14).

It is, in a sense, a continuation of that text’s reflection over the first and second “epiphanies” of Christ (the Greek verb translated as “appeared” at 2:11 and 3:4 is epiphaino from which the English cognate “epiphany” comes).

These “manifestations” or “appearances” of Christ — one hidden in the flesh in the Incarnation (i.e., discerned only by faith); one promised in glory (to be experienced by all creation) — reveal the transforming, saving power and scope of God’s grace (2:11; 3:7). It is God’s grace/favor that underlies both manifestations and provides the continuity between the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the parousia of the glorified Christ.

The formal, high poetic style of today’s text (one long sentence in Greek) is recognized by the editors of the Greek text (NA27) who have set it off as indented stanzas. Many New Testament scholars have proposed that it is a liturgical fragment from the early church, perhaps used in the context of the sacrament of baptismal regeneration. The Greek language choices are intriguing, as is the high Christology the passage assumes within an implicit Trinitarian framework.

Stunning is the characterization of the primary attributes of God revealed in Christ — “goodness” (chrestotes; “kindness” in NIV and NET), “loving kindness” (philanthropia; lit. “love of humanity”), and “mercy” (eleos). In short, God — in God’s innermost heart — is a God of tenderhearted mercy who deeply loves and cares about humanity. This is not a platonic love, but one that has been enfleshed, manifested in Jesus.

Jesus, then, is God’s very reaching out to a world exhausted by its suffering, its experience of sin and death, its primal separation from life and goodness and health (see Titus 3:3: “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”).

The God revealed in Christ, the text tells us, is a “savior” (soter, verse 4), that is, one who continues to rescue (esosen, verse 5) the world through the eschatological “pouring out” (see Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:16-21; also Ezekiel 36:18, 25-27) of the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that is concretely experienced through a “washing” (loutron; lit. “bath,” cf. Ephesians 5:26) that effects both “rebirth”/regeneration (palingenesia; “new birth” in NET) and “renewal” (anakainoseos).

The grace/favor (charis) of God given in and through Christ, then, is nothing short of the gift of new life — actually, eternal life (verse 7) — to those who are living in the realm of death. That is something to celebrate on Christmas!

Palingenesia, the Greek compound (palin = “again” and genesis = “birth/origin”) found in verse 5, is translated simply “rebirth” in the NRSV. It occurs only one other time in the NT canon (Matthew 19:28) where it refers to the renewal of the world experienced in the messianic age (“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal (palingenesia) of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’”).

From a NT canonical perspective, this suggests that the breaking in of the Kingdom of God into this world through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and the baptismal regeneration of individuals involve the very same saving grace of God. Those who are baptized are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, the firstfuit of the regeneration of all things (Romans 6:3-4; 8:19-23). As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The one made new by the “bath” in Christ is, then, also pulled into the ongoing work of Christ in the Kingdom of God. The two cannot be separated. The common element — the Holy Spirit — is the eschatological gift that leverages the new age by means of the incarnate Body of Christ and confirms the incorporation of the individual into that body through the waters of baptism.

Is baptism, then, the only way one enters the Kingdom of God? So as not to limit the saving activity of God, one might say that though one might encounter the Kingdom of God through a variety of means of grace (e.g., preaching; witnessing to the power of the gospel in acts of kindness; even through dialogue with the wholly “other”), one can be assured of one’s entrance through the sacramental act of baptism. Here, again, one notes the cooperative working of the triadic interrelationships of God (creator), Christ (redeemer), Holy Spirit (renewer) to restore God’s intent for humanity (eternal life) that is evident in the text.

This text also represents one of the clearest articulations in the New Testament of the early church’s understanding that one’s justification/salvation is wholly dependent upon God’s mercy and grace. The notion that “works of righteousness” (ergon, ton en dikaiosune ha epoiesamen hemeis) might somehow “save” one is dismissed out of hand. Note that the phrase in this text is “works of righteousness” not the more common Pauline “works of the law” (cf. Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16).

This seems to move the “justification/righteousness” language out of its particularly Jewish context to make a larger soteriological statement. In the matter of the salvation of all (2:11), the initiative always lies with God. As creation is totally dependent upon the creative activity of the creator, so too is “re-creation” (palingenesia). Given the need of creation for salvation (note again v. 3), its manifestation in Christ can only be an expression of God’s mercy (verse 5) experienced as grace (verse 7).

The text closes out by introducing the metaphor of “inheritance” through language that speaks of becoming “heirs (kleronomoi) according to the hope of eternal life.” Such language has deep resonances with other texts that describe the inheritance that flows to the people of God through Abraham and his heir, Christ (e.g., Galatians 3:16; Romans 4:16).

At the same time, the New Testament’s classic “already/not yet” eschatological perspective on the salvation won in Christ is given its due. An heir is assured of an inheritance that still awaits its full realization in an otherwise indeterminate future. It is the certainty of the inheritance that allows the heir to navigate that which is uncertain with some boldness and, perhaps, even with the unmeasured joy of anticipation.