For years I have wondered whether the Christmas Eve sermon is of any consequence.
I suspected preachers are better off reading or telling Luke’s account of the Nativity of our Lord really well, and allowing the carols, the candles, and Christ incarnate in bread and wine to proclaim the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Then I was invited to offer this reflection. Since I am not scheduled to preach on Christmas Eve, I asked myself what I wanted to hear. I find myself hungering for a word that will startle me in the same way the angel’s announcement startled the shepherds. As a listener, I determined that the Christmas Eve sermon is only of any consequence if it is more consequential than “sleep in heavenly peace” because “Christ the Savior is born.”
So what is such a word? I’ve heard preachers justifiably bash economically powerful celebrations of Christmas. Indeed, Luke acknowledges and then turns away from the structures of political power — Augustus and Quirinius. We are proud to proclaim that emperors, governments, laws, and world orders are trumped by and rendered servants of God’s saving purpose.
But there is more. Reading the Christmas story in context, I realized that Luke nods in the direction of and turns away from religious as well as political power — the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:2). The word of God didn’t go to church. The angel’s announcement of the fulfillment of prophecy goes not to the Temple but to shepherds living in the fields, and the word of God came to John not in his father Zechariah’s office in the Temple but out in the wilderness.
So I imagine hearing the startling word that, if we want to experience the newborn Christ, and we take Luke’s account seriously, the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church, because Jesus is being born where people need him most.
So, I imagine the preacher inviting us to spend Christmas Eve — physically or spiritually — neither in the glow of a tree-lit sanctuary nor the sentimentality of carols and candles nor the warmth of the family hearth, but in the fields of the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, or in our own painful places of spiritual wilderness, because God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming there. God brings great joy to those who need it most there. And God does even more.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:8-9). We for whom the church holds a central place sometimes look upon the shepherds as “outsiders.” I’ve portrayed the shepherds as desperate to hear and receive and own the Christmas Gospel.
By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation.
I have come to regard God sending angels to shepherds as bigger than reaching out to outsiders. Spend enough time in the field, shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we stop caring that we are outsiders. We give up trying to get inside religion, or even on God, to get on with life. But God does not give up on us. God sends angels to people who have given up on God. How would you respond to God sending angels to you when you’d given up on God? Like the shepherds, I’d be terrified.
But in Jesus, God comes in a way that is far from frightening. Jesus comes vulnerably, helplessly, as “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (2:12). Jesus is born like any other baby, except Jesus is born on the road and laid in a feeding trough. No magi at this manger scene. Jesus is born among the lowly and the poor.
And Luke gives no hint that Jesus is anything special: there is no angel over the stable because the angels are over in the field with the shepherds. In fact, Mary and Joseph only hear of angelic activity because the shepherds tell them. Could it be that we who feel responsible for giving birth to the Christ child or to Christmas or to Christmas worship will receive the good news of great joy not from angelic inspiration but from someone sent to us from out in the field?
Yes, the babe born at Bethlehem is about more than reaching out to outsiders. Jesus is born to those who have been outside so long that they have given up on God. We remember the so-called penitent thief, to whom Jesus promised, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” But Jesus also hung with and died with the criminal who kept deriding him (Luke 23:39-43).
Hearing this as I sit in church on Christmas Eve is good news to me because I know and love people who have been outside so long they have given up on God. I know people so down and blue this Christmas that they cannot come to worship. And I suspect your hearers do as well. I suspect that the startling news that, while I sit in worship, God is sending angels out into the fields with good news of great joy, and Jesus is being born among people who have given up on him, will inspire me to sing of joy coming to the world and to sleep in heavenly peace.
On Christmas Eve, and probably before it, many hear Isaiah 9 and Isaiah 11 echoed in songs.
The images of these two texts have infiltrated deeper levels of our memory, even spilling over into more culturally popular Christmas songs that have little to do, at times, with the feast of Christmas itself. The foremost challenge for preachers incorporating this text into the message of Christmas (and its relationship to the other readings for this occasion) is to recognize and value the complexity of its place in Hebrew scripture. Of course, even that task is far from simple!
First Isaiah dates from the eighth century BCE. As prophecy, it speaks to a situation of disarray. The northern kingdom has been subjected to Assyrian rule. This will soon be the fate of the southern kingdom as well. The “original” Isaiah warns King Hezekiah of this fate: it is not enough to say that the people are a covenant people, for they have broken the covenant.
Hope and comfort are still part of these chapters though they must be carefully defined! Tradition and the liturgy have turned Isaiah 9 into a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. The text however speaks of a different irruption into the history of God’s people. Isaiah 9 (as well as Isaiah 11) is most likely incorporating language from liturgical texts stemming from the coronation of a king, either hymns or perhaps descriptions of the rites.
The ritual progression moves from thanksgiving to ritual acts (acts of destruction, burning and subsequent enthronement) to blessing (see M.B. Crook, Journal of Biblical Literature 68). Whichever king is being enthroned, though intriguing to debate, is perhaps not as pertinent for our current concern. The point is that the people have lived in political darkness, either through oppression from a foreign power or through the idol worship (trusting powers other than God) and untrustworthy behavior of their own rulers. Hope is placed in a new king; though as we will see, this new king is not to be equated with God. Isaiah is here reflecting on the character of kingship from within the Hebrew liturgical tradition.
The child king is not the one who brought about the celebrated freedom. This is God’s own action. It is God who is the cause of the rejoicing; God who has given bountifully; and God who has broken the oppressor’s rod. All of this action is comparable to the day of Midian. This reference alone confirms that the actor in these verses is God’s self (and not the king). At Midian, Gideon was commanded by God to send away all the troops except for three hundred so that it would be clear that the victory was God’s.
What is the king’s role? The king remains the sign of God’s initiative (and a particularly powerful sign as the king, in the text, is a child). The king witnesses to God’s plan, not his own. Psalm 96 (also assigned for Christmas Eve) picks up on the fact that God alone is the one acting: “Ascribe to the Lord honor and power / tremble before the Lord all the earth.”
In verse 5, the old is destroyed. All the signs of the old, of the darkness, of faithlessness — the boots and the garments rolled in blood — are ritually burned. This burning happens before the coming and enthronement of the king. The king, this child, is now given the ritual markings: the cloak of power, of authority, of government is placed on his shoulders. The metaphor of “something” resting on the king’s shoulder is intriguing. We envision the mantle of office, the garment signifying authority. A monarch is wrapped in a cloak.
Again, the emphasis is upon something external that is placed upon the king. The yoke of the oppressor has been broken. But now, a new yoke is placed on the king (and subsequently on the people): the yoke of God’s reign, power, and authority, on the people. This child-king represents God’s claim on the people. This yoke is God’s judgment of the world with righteousness and the people with truth. The king is subject to this judgment as well, and at all times.
What is the meaning of these wonderful names? Names now ascribed (apparently) to the king? Or are they ascribed to the king? Another issue of translation arises here as these verses could also being referring these names to God (the king cries out God’s name: Wonderful Counselor … ). In fact, in other places of Scripture where these names arise, God is clearly the reference. These names denote the majesty and magnificence of God’s presence, as it is known among the people. God is the one who makes wonderful decisions, who alone is the mighty one, who alone is father, giving shalom, that is all blessings both physical and spiritual.
Though the Christian tradition has clearly seen the Messiah announced in this text, it is worthy to note the distinctions made within the text between the king and God. The king, the ideal ruler, is one who points to God and who brings the people under God’s government and authority. The king is also subject to that power. The Christian tradition now states something radically new in its use of Isaiah 9. The one born unto us is God’s very self.
This “king” is no longer merely pointing to God but is God, even if unrecognized among us. Perhaps the reference to a “child” here takes on particular significance. The child is not simply an off-shoot (by blood) of the tree of Jesse, but stands to remind us that this God who comes into the world remains always an unrecognized, dismissed, powerless (in the eyes of the world) God.
One final comment — a lectionary “tid-bit.” Over the next couple of weeks leading from Christmas to Epiphany, the three readings from Isaiah come from all three sections of “Isaiah” — First Isaiah, Second Isaiah, and Third Isaiah. All three readings speak out of vastly different contexts. Attentiveness to those contexts (judgment, exile, promise) can impact preaching as we move from Christmas (God’s unrecognized entry into the world in judgment and mercy) to Epiphany (God’s revelation to all the world).
Is it too idealistic to think that Christmas Eve is one of those times when so many of us (if not all) are ready and willing to do what this psalm exhorts us to do?
Sing to the Lord, bless his name, tell of his salvation, ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name, bring an offering, worship the Lord. That is precisely the atmosphere on Christmas Eve, isn’t it? At least, that is the atmosphere we want to create. The psalmist has put words to our deep desires.
Even the motivation for these actions is made clear as the psalmist gives us reason for wanting to sing, bless, tell, ascribe, and worship. This is, in fact, a good cue for the preacher. Remind us why, on this holiest of nights, we have this urge to sing to the Lord. Clarify for us why we gather to worship the babe born in Bethlehem. Give us words for the reason we are so full of gratefulness. Letting the words of the psalmist guide you, you discover, first, the Lord has done marvelous works for us. Like what? Tell us. What are those marvelous works of the Lord you have seen in and around your community?
Next, the Lord is great and is to be praised and revered above all other gods. What could this mean on a night like tonight? Who would ever think of revering any other god but the one true, incarnate Lord whose birth we have been waiting to celebrate? You know better than I do what, for your congregation, is competing for reverence; yes, even on this holy night. However, none of these competitors, not one, can hold a candle to what God Immanuel has done and is doing. He is the one, true Lord who, unlike all the other gods, made the heavens. Yes, the God whom we worship this evening made the heavens. Made them! The competition shrivels at the thought of it.
Perhaps you noticed what I have been doing. I have been telling you of the Lord’s salvation, declaring his glory. In like manner, do this psalm for your hearers. Once you get going, my guess is it will be difficult to stop.
Technically speaking, Psalm 96 is one of eight “YHWH is King” psalms (Psalms 93-100 – next week we will encounter another). Since these psalms were likely composed for use at festivals, it is appropriate we encounter them at Christmas. Psalm 96 contains three parts comprised of calls to praise God followed by motivation for praise. Note that the imperatives in the first part of the psalm are verbs of speaking, that is, verbal verbs (sing, tell, declare). The verbs in the latter part of the psalm are verbs of worship, that is, kinesthetic verbs (ascribe, bring an offering, come into the courts, worship). In other words, eventually, our whole beings will be involved.
Whether or not this text is addressed explicitly in your sermon, the psalm nudges you toward creating a time of worship which is both verbal and kinesthetic. You may have visitors who, along with the rest of us, have a sense of wonder this night, but are only ready to put their heads in, and then maybe their right hand. By the end of worship, how might they too put their whole selves in? (In congregations I attend, generally we do not get to the, “And shake it all about.” Pardon the hokey moment.)
Not only does the psalmist call our whole beings, voice and body alike, to praise, but the whole creation joins in declaring praises to God and worshiping God. Actually the psalm begins with this invitation for all of creation to rejoice, “O sing to the Lord a new song, all the earth.” But, like I did when I first read this psalm (even though I have heard it a hundred times), you may have missed it. “Sing to the Lord all the earth!” Not just the earth’s left boot (Italy) or palm (Michigan), but the whole of creation will sing. Imagine the chorus comprised of the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that fills the sea, the field, all the crops, cattle in the field, the trees. Help those who are gathered hear creation’s verbal declarations (the bellows and the creaks) and see their kinesthetic acts of praise (bending with the wind, growing with the sunshine). This psalm is a call to proclamation and praise for all the world/all of creation.
Not even the word, judgment, in the psalm can jar us this night. The angels’ advice in Luke 2, “Do not be afraid,” is well-justified, for this newborn will judge the world with righteousness. He will judge the peoples with his truth; not a truth, or our truth, but with his truth. Oh, to be judged so fairly.
What the psalmist does not know is that we are not apt to declare, “He is coming.” Instead, on this holiest of nights, we will declare, “He is here!”
I once heard a colleague joke about a possible slogan for his denomination: “God is nice. We should be nice too.”
His was not the only Christian group, forged in the fires of spiritual renewal and social revolution that over time became comfortable with easy platitudes for decent living. God’s word became one good source for morality among many, which seemed to command especially those morals espoused by respectable society. Charity, especially around the holidays, was great, but one didn’t need to trouble with real equity.
A significant wing of modern scholarship has charged the letter to Titus with a similar watering down of the gospel. After the passion exhibited by Jesus and Paul, the letter to Titus, so the argument goes, succumbs to the fears of persecution and, in response, tailors Christianity to match the status quo, urging slaves to “be submissive to their masters” (2:9) and the congregation “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle” (3:2). While interpreters must wrestle with ugly elements of Greco-Roman society that rear their head in the letter, this perception of Titus as a document that bends its knee to society skips over portions of the letter where the letter calls for divinely inspired zeal. Verses 11 through 14 are just such one of those portions.
Grace Appeared Verses 11 through 14 comprise only one sentence in the original language of the letter, which in its most simple form reads, “The grace of God appeared.” Everything else hangs on this statement — a structural signpost indicating this passage emphasizes not human effort but God’s empowering grace.
Saying that the grace of God appeared highlights one of Titus’ distinguishing features. The word translated as appear (epiphanies in Greek) occurs three times in this small letter (twice in this passage), comprising almost a third of its occurrences in the entire New Testament. Greek kings utilized the language of epiphany to describe their military might (think of Antichus IV Epiphanes who subjugated Israel in 167 BC), and Israel’s Scriptures in Greek use the term to describe God’s revelatory appearances that bring aid to his people (Genesis 35:70; Deuteronomy 33:2).
Titus follows this tradition of Israel, claiming that God’s grace has appeared (2:11) and that Jesus will appear (2:13). When they do, God’s grace brings salvation, instruction (2:12), and life (2:12b) to sustain God’s people until Jesus himself appears (3:13). The revelation of God’s gracious salvation initiates, upholds, and culminates rightly ordered human existence.
What should I do? The Presbyterian professor who patiently taught me to see the powerful work of God in Scripture probably tired of my incessant revival-tradition, free will, Baptist question, “Yes, but where is the human response?” The human response is usually there, as it is in this passage, but good interpretation involves getting the emphasis on the right syllable.
When God’s grace appears to all people, its teaching brings forth three related actions. First, those who respond to its instruction reject the godlessness and lust of the society around them. This would have been a tall order on the island of Crete, the location of Titus (1:5), and an area that had a reputation for deception, greed, and lack of morality. Hence, the letter recognizes that the morals of the kingdoms around the audience may not line up with the principles of God’s kingdom.
Second, God’s graces inspire a certain kind of living, namely wise, righteous, and godly living. The recipients of the letter should not only reject negative ways of life, but should also embody positive ones. Finally, in order to know what to reject and what to embrace, people must keep their vision focused in the right direction. They should eagerly await the return of Jesus Christ. His coming appearance provides their hope as God’s grace provides their guide.
Jesus is Great! Having provided a brief sketch of what life might look like in the present time, once the author gets back to Jesus, he just can’t keep his quill from exploding all over the papyrus. The appearing of Jesus is the blessed hope and the revelation of glory of our great God and Savior. Interpreters debate whether the author equates Jesus Christ with the glory of God or with God himself, but in either case Jesus’ appearing will be a marvelous event. The eager anticipation of his salvific return rests in what he has already done to save humanity. He gave himself for them so that he might take them out of lawlessness and make them pure. The precise ways in which the author wants his audience to live — to reject negative habits and to embrace positive ones –have already been made possible by the self-giving of Jesus.
Be Zealous Because Jesus redeemed us from lawlessness, the letter says, and established us as his own pure people, we can do good works. This admonition avoids an easy call to “Be nice” in a way that society would approve in two respects. First, the text says that Jesus’ redemption empowers his people to be zealous for good works. At times that zeal might take us out of our comfort zones or make others uncomfortable. The following verse urges Titus to teach these things with authority, letting no one despise him. Paul must have known that his teachings were going to cause waves in some sectors of the congregation and of society.
Second, the call to good works is not a platitude because it is not about us being good with God there only as ancillary help, but about God, through Jesus, empowering us to be zealous. The power source comes from God’s grace, not us pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.
Living zealously, wisely, righteously, godly, and expectantly may, in some situations, appear as gentleness and align with the general mores of the wider society. At other times, however, that way of life may manifest as boldness and challenge to the narrative of the good life the present culture embraces. Those of us who are looking forward to Jesus’ appearing need his powerful salvation and grace — and not just our own effort — to know the difference.