Lectionary Commentaries for December 24, 2020
Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Melinda Quivik

The story of the census, the angels, and the manger is so familiar that it may be a struggle to notice what it does not tell us.

The preacher may find significant clues to how this story feeds faith in what the story does not tell us. Taking in any oh-so-familiar scripture calls for a few mental and spiritual gymnastics to see and hear it anew. To avoid a rehash of what is already known, the preacher wants to dig deep enough to find what will help us shudder with love on this most holy night.

With each possible answer, each thread that pulls you to a new insight, keep asking Why is that?

  • What prompted Caesar Augustus to order a census?
  • Why is there no room at the inn?
  • How far away from the manger are the shepherds?
  • Do the sheep see and hear the angels?
  • What is the “glory” of the Lord?
  • What is it about the angels that terrifies the shepherds?
  • How do the shepherds find the little family?

Even if we are still unable to gather in person in December 2020 because of the devastating virus, this story means to pull us together. Like the shepherds in the field, terrified at a strange reality that suddenly appears before them, this story beckons us to hasten to the new thing, marvel at a homeless little family, see God’s love for everyone because of this baby in the manger, and be transformed.

The context of this story is not unfamiliar to us: the power emanating from Caesar’s throne, the requirement to obey the law no matter what it is, the inability of the infrastructure to handle the crowds (the inn could never be big enough), and the exigencies of pregnancy despite the circumstances. Some physical realities are going to happen within us without regard to what is going on outside of us. A woman who has come to term will need a place to deliver her child.

And then there is the child: silent, lying in a feed trough, unable to help himself, certainly not an “influencer.” Jesus is just there, born into a world unaware of him except for some sheepherders (and possibly their sheep), in the same way a virus comes into our midst silently, invisibly. And yet Jesus comes to heal and teach, not to divide us. The virus has crept between us, made us sick and afraid. Every Christmas Eve is the time to tell the story, hear the angels, see the shepherds, ponder with Mary, and be filled with joy over the infinite mystery that God-with-us, Emmanu-el, is born, because it means to assure us that it is into our insecure and troubled live that Jesus comes again and again.

Christmas—the Nativity, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—means to amaze us. Not only is the announcement of the birth celestial, but because of the manger’s lowliness its power is its contrast to the triumphant mythic terms that people had come to expect about Roman rulers. The Messiah is born not as an obvious king. We learn about this momentous event through shepherds with whom we can identify because, like us, they are ordinary workers. Along with the shepherds who are minding those for whom they have responsibilities (their sheep), God confronts us with a proclamation that is both terrifying and wondrous. That multitude of angels, the heavenly host, filled the sky and overwhelmed all sensibilities while also relieving the shepherds of their fear.

This story, at bottom, exemplifies the mystery of a world in which we have been called to move toward one another rather than build walls. We have been called to accept both our terror and our joy because all of it is known to God. We are rightfully awed by the prospect of promised peace and harmony because around us we do not see the path to that longed-for place. The vision has to come from outside our own sensibilities; it comes from angels who are messengers of the Author of creation.

One puzzle in this text, despite all the aspects of the story that elude our understanding, stands out as a continuing thorn: to whom is this child really born? The angels tell the shepherds that the Messiah is born “for all people.” The heavenly host says that peace on earth is for “those whom [God] favors.” Let this question invite both inclusivity and exclusivity in the way of all biblical ambiguity. Who is the savior saving? “To you is born this day…” How does the Holy Spirit transcend our closed-in hearts and minds? “Do not be afraid…”

The answers to our questions about this most holy birth are found in the story we hear on Christmas Eve whether we come to worship with families or alone or with friends, whether we are hungry because we come early before the feast or full because we come at midnight after much feasting. We come to hear the songs that take us back into the Christmases we have known throughout our lives, the tunes that remind us of our parents or the people who befriended us, the rituals of dressing up, opening presents, giving gifts, and gazing at brilliant decorations—or having had none of those things in our formative years while yearning for them.

We come for the savior who is in the manger. There, Jesus is swaddled in warmth, in the safety his parents provide. Because of Jesus’ newborn fragility, he is dependent on those who care for him. He becomes emblematic of us all—infant, young adult, middle aged, or elderly—who need the care of family and neighbor and to be swaddled by the love of God, whether or not we know it.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

The prophet Isaiah composes a coronation hymn for a not yet fully-grown King. These familiar verses are a royal hymn of thanksgiving addressed to Yahweh for the growing reign of the “Prince of Peace.”

The song arises out of turbulence. Chapter 8 describes a time of trouble when God was silent and reality was violent. And so, the drama is all the more heightened for this prophetic poem as it pierces the silence in song:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep
on them light has shined…

It is clear in the address of this poem who caused the shift in reality: Yahweh caused it. The prophet speaks, “You (Yahweh) have increased its joy” (verse 3). There are a mix of tenses in the Hebrew in this passage.1 Verses 2-5 speak of past events, the exception being the final clause of verse 5, “shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” The tools for war have all been gathered. Now it is time to set them aflame as the nation sings and dances to worship Yahweh. Yahweh has released the nation from militaristic and political dangers. The people will rejoice. Verse 7 then looks further into the future. Because of these concrete acts of freedom, a new just reign is at hand.

But Yahweh is not the one causing the liberative activity solo. Yahweh has a partner in the plan to restore the nation. Verse six is where we discover the identity of the partner in Yahweh’s transformative activity described in verses 2-5: a child who will one day be king has been born. Part of the hymn is the joyful birth announcement of this child prince. Isaiah celebrates and orchestrates the celebration of his people. For as this child grows, so too will a reign of justice and peace for all.

I saw the sign

This child is a sign from Yahweh. For the prophet Isaiah, it is specifically a sign that the dynasty of King David (now a distant memory for the no longer united kingdom) will continue (verse 7). If you preached Sunday about 2 Samuel, be sure to highlight this thread of covenant and promise. And so, for the Israelites, the birth of this crown prince is also a sign of God’s promise being true, even when for a while it seemed that God had turned away. Finally, the birth of this child prince is a sign of hope for a weary nation. Such a sign is not without impact. The people now have grounds for confidence to stand on as they await the fullness of God’s future.

What I always find interesting when I hear this prophet poem is that the joy surrounds a child prince. Not a King fully grown, but a weak, defenseless human child. This coincides with other moments in Isaiah, such as chapter 61, when a just reign and way of being as a nation are established by the vulnerable and those whom society once viewed as the lowest of the low.

Is it any wonder that Isaiah 9 appears on this day? Is it any wonder that the first sermon Jesus, child now fully grown, preached in his synagogue was based on the words of Isaiah? Isaiah and the author of Luke’s gospel in particular both envision that God’s will for peace and justice are born in the vulnerable flesh of a baby.

Christmas in the midst of the eighth chapter

So, it is fitting to bring this poetic birth announcement into worship on Christmas Eve. Mary bursts into song when she learns of the child growing within her, already alive but not yet fully grown. This is where Christians live out there days, in between the already and the not yet. Finding hope in the memory of God’s past events while we look forward to the promise of eternal peace coming to fruition.

It is especially fitting to bring this poetic birth announcement into worship on this particular Christmas Eve 2020. We have lived and are living the eighth chapter of Isaiah. God has seemed silent and distant for many during this pandemic. Others have heard the roar of God in wildfires and hurricanes. For centuries, black and brown Christians have endured silence and violence from the White church. Where is hope?

We need the poetry of God’s embodied promise to pierce the silence of despair.

Most of our fondest memories of this night involve song, not sermon, the poetry of the rituals we embody, not prose. How will we midwife our songs of joy to the world under masks, behind screens, spaced apart in usually full sanctuaries, or spaced out in the all-too familiar walls of our homes?

Biblical scholar Gene M. Tucker’s words are right on point:

Do images such as these have any power?
Deliberation, planning, and hard work are required.
But images, like ideas and commitments, fuel the imagination,
which stimulates planning and action.
Such a day of peace and justice as envisioned in this text may never come,
but it certainly will not if there is no image drawing people toward it.2

Blessings to the preachers and liturgists imaging and imagining this hymn for a weary world this year. Trust that hope can and will be born. For hope already has been born. This is Isaiah’s song and Mary’s. His name shall be Jesus, Messiah, Prince of Peace, Mother Hen, the Christ. And his Kin-dom of perpetual peace will come (look closely and you may glimpse how it already has).


  1. Tucker, Gene M. “The Book of Isaiah1-39: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Introduction to Prophetic Literature, Isaiah-Ezekiel, Volume VI. Nashville: Abingdon Press (2001).
  2. Tucker, 2001.


Commentary on Psalm 96

Diane Jacobson

Psalm 96 is a psalm of pure exultation, so very appropriate for Christmas Eve.1

We are enjoined, indeed the whole earth is enjoined, to sing a new song to the Lord. The waiting is over … sing a new song. And if this very old song is not sung as a new song on this occasion, we miss the spirit that is at the heart of the psalm.

So, we might well ask, how shall we sing a new song? In many ways Psalm 96 provides for us a model of how to praise. We sense this in the expansive use of imperative verbs throughout the psalm. And we are helped in understanding this model by James Mays who, in his book on the theology of psalms,2 invites us to see the fundamental purpose of praise in the psalter as threefold:

  • doxological,
  • confessional, and
  • evangelical

We see these three purposes clearly at work in Psalm 96

Praise is doxological

Doxology is present whenever the Lord is glorified. Psalm 96 begins with doxology, and praise is present everywhere. Throughout the psalm the LORD is the singular object of praise. The first three verses direct us to sing to the Lord … bless the name of the Lord … declare the glory of the Lord. Indeed three times in this short psalm (verses 3, 7, and 8), we are told to declare God’s glory (kebod in Hebrew, doxa in Greek). The name of the LORD is repeated 11 times. And then in verse 9 we are told to “worship” the Lord, the central work of doxology.

Praise is confessional

As with all psalms of praise, Psalm 96 confesses who God is and what God has done. We pray the psalms not only for praise but also that we might better know God.

The content of any psalm’s confession is often found in those verses or clauses that begin with the conjunction “for” or “because.” These verses offer up the reasons we are called upon to render praise. We might call these “key” clauses because in Hebrew this conjunction is ki.

Verses 4 and 5 both begin with “for … ki”. Verse 4 tells us that we worship the Lord because the Lord is great. But the single world “great” is not sufficient. The reason is expanded. The Lord is greater than other gods. In fact, those gods are not gods at all. Those gods are idols. The Lord made the heavens. There is almost always a narrative aspect to confession. Confession often recalls other parts of the biblical story or, in this case, the prophets or other psalms.

Confession is also present in verse 10 in what we are invited to say among the nations.

“The world is firmly established,” tying the creation of the earth to the creation of the heavens in verse 5. Creation is here and elsewhere not only a statement about the cosmic past, it is a promise for the present and the future … “it shall never be moved!” Confession moves in the direction of promise. And part of the promise is, surprisingly, that judgment is not a threat, as we so often hear it, but rather, good news. This reality of the psalms came as a great surprise to C.S. Lewis in his “Reflection on the Psalms.”3 The final verse 13 echoes the promise of judgment. Judgment rises from equity, fairness, righteousness, truth, and justice. This positive judgment is what we experience in the coming of the Lord—in the psalms, at Easter, and incarnationally at Christmas.

Praise is evangelical

Psalmic praise serves as proclamation of and witness to the good news of God.

When we name the tradition and the “Good News” (the Gospel or evangel) into our lives and into the lives of those around us, our praise is evangelical.

Look carefully again at the grammar of the verbs in Psalm 96. The numerous imperatives are addressed to the faithful, instructing them to proclaim the reality of God to others. And who are these faithful who are instructed to give praise? In verse 1 and again in verse 9, they are “all the earth.” We rightly assume that this refers to all the people of the earth as it does in verse 7, “O families of the earth.” The very use of the word “families” rather than “nations” lends a positive assessment to all the peoples of the earth. Notably the very ones who are called to praise are also, as the “nations” and “peoples,” the recipients of the words (see verses 3, 5, 10).

But most wonderfully in Psalm 96, “all the earth” is not limited to humanity. In verses 11-12 the Lord who made the heavens and the earth instructs the very creation to offer praise. Not only the general heaven and earth, but also the very sea is invited to roar. And this roaring is heard not as threat to God but rather as praise.4

And then, for good measure, the field is invited to exult. The ordered praise of cultivation. But just as the heaven and earth are joined by the chaotic sea, so also the cultivated field is joined by the wild trees of the forest. The praise of the Lord knows no boundaries!

All are part of God’s good work and all are invited to sing praises. This Good News insures that praise is not limited or confined to either the human or the orderly. A new song indeed!


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2017.
  2. See chapter 4 “Praise is Fitting: The Psalms as Instruction in Praise” in James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 61-71.
  3. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 9-10.
  4. William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox), 128-129.

Second Reading

Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

Jennifer Vija Pietz

Godliness and good works are probably not the topics that most preachers would choose for a Christmas sermon.1

Yet, an exhortation to these is what the Second Lesson from Titus 2:11–14 gives us in part, while the entire letter to Titus does so more fully.

The context of Titus

Paul (or, as scholarly debate suggests, someone writing in the tradition of Paul) writes this letter to Titus, charging him with organizing and teaching a relatively new church on Crete (Titus 1:4–5; 2:1). It details how church leaders and members of Christian households are to behave: as self-controlled, moderate, honest, and especially as full of good works (Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14).

Such basic directives were necessary because of an apparent lack of human decency in the culture (for example Titus 1:12), from which church members came. The situation was complicated by false teachings that affected some Christians (Titus 1:9–16). Some of the letter’s instructions are not uniquely Christian, but rather are based on existing Greco-Roman household codes (for example Titus 2:1–10). The letter thus encourages Christian households to adhere to this accepted structure in order to contribute to the stabilization of society.2

If one were to stop reading Titus at 2:10, it might seem that the establishment of the gospel in Crete merely aimed to instill in believers basic ethics, and to conform the church to an ideal Greco-Roman social order. Is this a domestication of the gospel that should be resisted rather than preached, especially when social structures tend to deviate from the gospel of life and freedom (for example Titus 2:9)? Does the message of Christmas, when we celebrate the arrival of God’s promised Messiah, boil down to “be good,” like children hoping that Santa brings them what they ask for in return?

God’s grace has appeared: Titus 2:11–14

Titus 2:11–14 is one of two key pronouncements (along with Titus 3:3–7) that provide theological grounding for all of the letter’s practical exhortations. The “for” (gar) that begins verse 11 indicates that what follows is explanatory of all that preceded. Simply put, Christians should live in right relationship with each other and society because God’s grace, or gift (charis), has already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, bringing salvation for all (understanding soterios, “bringing salvation,” in verse 11 as linked with soter, “Savior,” in verse 13; see also Titus 3:4). The latter is the good news commonly preached on Christmas.

But the text doesn’t stop there.

Paul tells us that the manifestation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is both something that has already occurred (verse 11, epiphaino, past tense), and a future hope (verse 13, epiphaneia), which shapes believers’ lives in the present. Verse 12 indicates that God’s grace is actively educating or disciplining (paideuo) Christians to be who they were created and redeemed to be (see also Titus 2:14). Having renounced ungodliness or impiety (verse 12, asebeia), Christians are to journey toward godliness (verse 12, eusebos; the noun is eusebeia): a reverent devotion to God that involves both an internal conviction and behavior appropriate to such a conviction.3 Christians are to turn from worldly passions—the human tendency toward arrogance, aggression, and self-serving actions— and embrace the self-control and just treatment of others that are true expressions of the gracious and self-sacrificing God whom they profess.

Verse 14 clarifies that this is not a matter of trying to adhere to a general moral code on our own strength; Titus is not an ancient self-help manual. It instead proclaims that Jesus Christ has already given his life in order to set us free from our lawlessness (anomia), in which we opposed God’s purposes, and to purify us in a way that adherence to external commands alone cannot do (see also Titus 1:14). Christians are to be zealous for good deeds as a living, grateful expression of who they already are by divine grace: part of God’s chosen people (Titus 2:14; see also Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6).

To exhort Christians to godliness and good works is to encourage them to daily live out the good news of the Savior’s appearance in the world. The gift of God is intended—at least on one level—to make us good citizens of the world, capable of respectful, meaningful relationships with one another. This may not seem all that radical; we may prefer the drama of angelic choirs and the visible glory of the Lord that the Gospel text in Luke 2 describes.

But a look at the news on any given day reveals that basic human civility often is lacking today, just as it apparently was in ancient Crete. We tend to distance ourselves from, and even demonize, those whose political views and lifestyles are different than our own. Reports of sexual harassment and assault that were systemically tolerated continue to surface. Bullying drives people to despair. The rise of road rage suggests a tendency to see other people merely as obstacles to reaching our own goals.

In this context, the call of Christians to be good members of society is radical, and expresses the transformative nature of the gospel. God’s grace and our professed piety manifest in renouncing our self-centered ways, and in loving our families, neighbors, and even our enemies. Our lives are to reflect to all people that sound Christian teaching has taken root in our lives (Titus 2:10), and that God empowers us to live in a way that we could not on our own.

And that’s good news.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2017.
  2. Luke Timothy Johnson, Letters to Paul’s Delegates: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus; The New Testament in Context (Valley Forge, PA, 1996), 229–236.
  3. I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 142.