Christmas may be one of the most difficult days on which to preach during the entire liturgical year.
It is not that the texts are themselves complicated; it is that everyone has heard the Lukan Christmas story. Those who regularly attend worship will be familiar with the texts leading up to this pericope, while those whose only exposure to Scripture is Christmas may not have the context of the story or know how the gospel continues. So, preachers could consider themselves between a rock and a hard place—how not to sound repetitive to the regular worshipers while proclaiming the entirety of the gospel to those who only hear Scripture annually.
One reason that the preacher should not succumb to such anxiety is to remember that the sermon is not the only time the gospel is proclaimed during the Christmas liturgy. The treasury of Christmas hymns with recognizable tunes are full of poetic words that assist in proclaiming the gospel. The prayers—Prayer of the Day, Intercessions, Eucharistic Prayer—connect to the themes of the ‘with-ness’ of God in the humblest of circumstances. This repetition is important, and St. Ambrose (original author of the Christmas hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come”) reminds us that repetition is central to the Christmas story:
See how divine care adds faith. An angel tells Mary (see Luke 1:26-49), an angel tells Joseph (see Matthew 1:20 and following), an angel tells the shepherds. It does not suffice that a messenger is sent once. For every word stands with two or three witnesses.1
So, as the angels said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid!”
In continuing the theme of the infancy narrative, God delivers a message through angels to the lowly. While current culture views the shepherds as quaint and hardworking, the ancient near east would have seem them as outcasts. Here again Luke provides a coupling of opposites (like in the Magnificat): the Savior and Messiah is revealed to those who would never be allowed to come in proximity to royalty. Also, the shepherding image from the Psalms directly connects them to the Davidic line of Jesus.
What the angel proclaims is the “good news”—the evangelion—the very gospel that the preacher proclaims on this day. Yet, the angel does not restrict this gospel to the shepherds. Rather, it is for “all the people.” The “with-ness” that God reveals to Mary and the shepherds is the “with-ness” for all creation.
As if one angel was not enough, an entire gathering appears and proclaims God’s glory. The Gloria in excelsis is the shortest of Luke’s canticles, which is later expanded in the fourth century and included in Morning Prayer, and then later is added to the Eucharistic liturgy. This short canticle also contains couplets to describe the relationship between the divine and the human: glory and peace, highest heaven and earth, God and among people (NRSV alternate translation).
The shepherds do not question what they saw and heard, and go to Bethlehem to experience what they were told. The “with-ness” proclaimed to them leads them to witness God’s full revelation in the birth of Jesus.
The angel’s message to the shepherds is that the birth happens “today”—it is happening right now! As in Luke 1, here again Luke is specific about the when and where, highlighting that these are concrete events that have importance in the lives of real people. The church has continued to emphasize “today” in the historic Prayers of the Day (Collects), which speaks to this specific day as the one in which God reveals God’s self. Our annual festival of Jesus’ birth is not something that remains in the past upon which we can fondly think about, nor is it something that we pull into the present as some sort of reenactment. Rather, our remembering (anamnesis in Greek) is about a continuous reality, one that did not stop over 2000 years ago but continues to be ongoing. As the final stanza of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” states, “O holy child of Bethlehem … be born in us today … abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”
The extra-canonical Protoevangelium of James fills in some of the missing details and has been the source for artistic depictions of the first Christmas. Early Christians were told that the manger was a cave (18:1), which further highlights the humble and dirty circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. This text also introduces the character of Salome the midwife, whose exclamation at the sight of the birth in words reminiscent of both Mary and later Simeon (19:2). Salome was not permitted to see the birth take place but instead was overshadowed with a cloud, using language reminiscent of God’s revelation at the Transfiguration (see Luke 9:34-35). Luke also uses overshadowed to describe God’s power to Mary at the Annunciation (see Gospel for Fourth Sunday of Advent).
The shepherds, just like the angel and Elizabeth before them, reveal to Mary what God has promised. They leave changed by what they had witnessed, and thus become witnesses for others. The “with-ness” that God has revealed pushes the shepherds to proclaim this “with-ness” to all they encounter. Their actions of “glorifying and praising God” mirror the glory and praise that had been proclaimed to them by the angels. The angels have completed their task—three times as St. Ambrose wrote—and have returned from where they came. They are no longer needed as heavenly messengers, for the gospel has become incarnate in Christ Jesus, the good news enfleshed and with us in our own witnesses to the amazing work of God.
So many choices!1
For Christmas Day in any of the years of the lectionary cycle, a preacher can turn to three sets of assigned readings. The preacher can choose Luke’s familiar passage about the census and the shepherds, or John’s complex poem about the word becoming flesh. Why should a preacher turn to a confusing prophecy from the closing chapters of Isaiah, the authorship of which has created controversy for centuries?
If a preacher feels guilty about neglecting the Old Testament and decides to make that up, why not choose Isaiah 9, one of the alternate readings for the day. The movement in that passage is clear: from darkness to light. Isaiah 9 gives us joy, the breaking of the bar of oppression, the destruction of the boots of violence and the affirmation of the leadership of a child. What case can be made for Isaiah 62:6-12?
Before you flip away, hear me out. Yes, the lectionary committee cuts the chapter in half and asks the preacher to begin in the middle. Yes, the movement from verse 5 to verse 6 is a jump in subject matter and metaphor. Yes, the sentinels on the walls of Jerusalem make for a confusing picture. Does the prophet mean heavenly beings who can make enough noise to gain God’s attention? Are they simply regular sentinels? Why bother figuring it out, when the scholars aren’t even sure?
This beautiful poem speaks to a sense of frustration, of impatience, even of anger. Christmas day gives the contemporary church a chance to celebrate and decorate. We love the beauty, the hymns, the children in their costumes. Inevitably, however, we face the reality that Christmas day doesn’t really change anything. War, crime, violence, hatred, and political dysfunction continue unabated, no matter how movingly we sing “Joy to the World.” Christmas day becomes merely an escape, a brief oasis in the midst of the world’s agony, indifference and cruelty.
Preachers can speak an honest word from this text. Beyond just the “Blue Christmas” phenomenon, which realizes that Christmas can bring deep grief to the surface, the birth of Jesus began a process that Christians believe will end in God’s ultimate triumph. Christians continue to wait, not only for the full realization of hope, but signs of progress.
If scholars are correct (very likely) that this part of Isaiah expresses the emotions of God’s people over the shortcomings of the return from exile, then the prophet foreshadowed our emotions over the persistence of evil in God’s good creation. The prophet who wrote Isaiah 40-55 promised the dispirited people return from exile. The people lived into the fulfillment of that promise.
The wonder of reestablishing the community soon morphed into more troubles: infighting, slow progress, and dealing with Persian politics. Even though we have trouble sifting through the exact meaning of all of the prophet’s words, the emotion comes through clearly. The people feel caught between faith and trust in God and the demoralizing effects of persistent waiting.
The reading for today begins with the prophet announcing that he will post “sentinels” on the walls of Jerusalem. The image immediately captures the attention of the reader. Sentinels typically warn the inhabitants within the walls of an approaching attack. They make noise only if they detect danger. Isaiah’s sentinels never shut up! They make noise to remind God of the situation of the people. They protest so loudly that the Lord cannot rest. The sentinels make such a racket that the Lord cannot relax.
The Lord cannot shut off the sound of the sentinels until the people receive justice. The prophet chooses as shorthand for justice fulfillment in work. Those who harvest the grain and grapes shall enjoy the fruit of their labor. They shall not work for the luxury of others. This example stands in for injustice in all of its forms. Part of what the sentinels cry out for is fairness, in work and other areas of life.
Even though the prophet wrote after the return from exile, the prophecy ends with a renewed call to prepare to return. In an echo of Isaiah 40:3, the people begin to prepare to go back to Jerusalem. Perhaps the end of the poem seeks to recapture the excitement of the prophet known as II Isaiah, who inspired the people to take on the task of relocating and starting the mission all over again.
Intriguing possibilities for preaching emerge from this passage. Instead of using the same, familiar texts for Christmas day, the preacher can proclaim from this prophet an understanding of the relationship between God and people that congregations may find stimulating. God has promised that through Israel and Jesus a new thing will emerge, an experience of healing and redemption. That experience remains unrealized.
In the prophet’s creative, unexpected metaphors, the anguish of the people matters to God. Christmas, the birth of the Messiah, initiated a process that should result in peace and joy. The prophet not only gives the church permission to lament the agony of continuing to wait, but proclaims that the laments actually affect God.
God cannot rest because God’s people continue to suffer. If the church feels powerless against evil, if the church laments exploitation of workers (verses 8-9), if the church loses patience that the birth of the Messiah seems to make no difference in the world, the prophet encourages lamentation over the frustration. Yet, the passage ends in hope.
The frustration now will give way to the joy of salvation. Those who have felt abandoned will know community and relationship with God. The passage enables the experience for Christmas of lamenting the continuing frustration of waiting, while continuing to trust in God’s promises for justice, joy and peace.
“The Lord is king … most high … exalted” — a perfect proclamation for Christmas.1
This reality is a matter of rejoicing. Psalm 97 begins and ends with rejoicing. In verse 1 all the earth is enjoined to rejoice, and in verse 12 the righteous receive the same imperative. And in the middle of the psalm (verse 8) the towns of Judah rejoice. As always with Hebrew poetry, the repetition and the ways thing begin and end remind us of what is important. Rejoicing rings and resonates as the church sings on Christmas.
And the crucial reason for the rejoicing is contained in the proclamation that “the LORD is king.”
Indeed, for many scholars, this is the central affirmation, the central metaphor of the entire psalter. For the problem of the world can be, and most often is expressed as, a two-pronged problem:
Who is in charge?
The LORD. In Hebrew, the phrase translated “The LORD is king” is more verbal than this NRSV translation suggests. The phrase is Yahweh malak, “the Lord reigns,” which uses the verb, mlk, that comes from the noun, melek, which means “king.” So the proclamation is literally that the LORD reigns; the LORD is in charge, and this is very good news indeed. In Psalm 97, the ruling of LORD stands in contrast to the lowliness of other gods who simply “bow down” before the LORD who is “exalted” far above them (verse 7 and 9).
How does the LORD rule?
Describing and praising the way that the LORD rules is the particular concern of Psalm 97.
Interestingly God’s reign begins by being obscured: “clouds and thick darkness are all around God.” These are then followed by fire, lightning, and mountains melting like wax (verses 2-5). Here is the familiar language of theophany, the language most often used when God appears. We are reminded specifically of the LORD’s appearance at the giving of the law on Sinai where there is thunder and lightning, thick cloud, fire, and smoke (see Exodus 19:16-18).
The darkness and fire of theophany serve as both warning and protection from coming too close. But I confess to hearing something even deeper in this language. The true nature of divine rule is often, like all divine truth, hidden or obscured. In our Christian theology of the cross, truth is often hidden beneath its opposite. The final revelation of kingship which begins this Christmas day in a manger ends, for Christians, with Jesus wearing a crown of thorns on the cross when once again darkness appears and the earth shakes (see Matthew 27:45-51).
In Psalm 97, the major way to recognize the reign of God is found in the second half of verse 2 in which the psalmist proclaims that God’s throne is founded on “righteousness” and “justice.” This is how God rules. God’s sovereignty is marked by these two things. This way of ruling cuts through the clouds and the darkness as the LORD sits enthroned in the midst of theophany. In fact, “righteousness” and “justice” here partake of the metaphor of the heavenly hosts carrying the throne of God into the temple. They become the hosts of heaven on which the LORD sits enthroned.
That righteousness is the central means by which the LORD rules is apparent once again through repetition. Righteousness is emphasized not only in verse 2 but also in verse 6 where the heavens proclaim God’s righteousness, in verse 11 where light (breaking through the darkness of verse 2) dawns for the righteous, and finally in verse 12 where it is made clear that those who are called on to rejoice in the Lord are indeed the righteous.
This is good news for God’s people, for Zion. They know the true God, and how the LORD rules. And they know as well that this good news comes with a set of expectations. To be faithful to this Lord means not only that they worship the Lord alone, forsaking idols and other worthless gods. It also means, as is made clear in verse 10, that they participate in God’s righteousness and justice by hating evil. To be faithful to God is to hate evil. This expectation is expressed in Psalm 97 not as a demand but rather as a promise. God “loves those who hate evil.” Those who hate evil are God’s faithful whose lives are guarded by God. God rescues the ones who hate evil from the very hand of the wicked.
As a result, the light, the very light that breaks through the darkness, dawns for the righteous. Here is cause for true rejoicing and praise. The Lord reigns and sits enthroned on a foundation of righteousness and justice. For this reality of the LORD as the ruler of all the earth and for this way that the LORD reigns through righteousness and justice, the psalmist enjoins us to give thanks.
On Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of God’s promised Savior in the world.1
But what exactly is this salvation that Jesus brings? What difference does it make in our daily lives?
Christmas is a great time to flesh out such a message, both for the long-time attendees in the pews and the many visitors that only attend church on holidays. Salvation is such a foundational and familiar pillar of Christianity that at times, I believe, we as preachers may unintentionally gloss over the richness of this life-changing reality.
Titus 3:4–7 succinctly encapsulates this richness, and is a great resource for preaching.
Along with Titus 2:11–14, Titus 3:4–7 provides a theological motive for the letter’s exhortations for Christians to live as upright citizens and household members. When read in the context of the preceding verses, this passage makes it clear that the self-serving behavior Christians are to reject actually characterized their own lives before Christ saved them. Paul also includes himself in the indictment that “we ourselves” were disobedient, slaves to passions and pleasure, and downright hateful of one another (Titus 3:3). This is a sketch of the worst inclinations of humanity when left to its own devices.
So, what changed for Paul, the believers on Crete, and Christians today? Jesus appeared and saved them.
The details of why and how this salvation occurs centers on God’s character and actions. God’s own kindness and love for humanity manifested in Jesus, who came into the world (Titus 3:4; see also 2:11). Titus 3:5 makes it very clear that Jesus saved people not because of any righteous works they had done, but (the Greek alla marks a sharp contrast) because of God’s own mercy and compassion (eleos).
This is an important point. If people can do something to earn God’s favor, then it ceases to be a gift (Titus 3:7, charis) that reflects God’s generosity and concern for all people. And it certainly would not solve the main problem addressed in Titus of people not behaving humanely with one another. Indeed, gaining salvation by working harder than others would become yet another platform from which to degrade others, who seem less advanced in their efforts toward godliness.
Rebirth by the Holy Spirit
Instead, Titus 3:5–6 states that God brings salvation to people through the work of the Holy Spirit, who is poured out richly through Jesus Christ. The Spirit renews people, giving them a “washing of rebirth” (verse 5b; New Revised Standard Version: “water of rebirth”). This seems to be a clear reference to baptism, in which the old person, enslaved to desires and pleasures (verse 3), dies with Christ so that a new person emerges, empowered to love God and others (see also Romans 6:1–11).
The imagery of new birth here is powerful, especially at Christmas, when we remember that Jesus the Savior came to earth as a baby. A new birth means a new beginning. Washing and renewal indicates that the past does not determine our present or future. God’s Spirit working salvation in our lives brings the possibility of real change.
What does Jesus save people from? Although the text does not explicitly spell this out, the context of Titus 3:1–7 implies that it is, at least in part, the vain and destructive way of life described in verse 3. God’s love for people is too great to allow them to continually tear each other down, to live self-centered lives that lack true meaning. Christ’s gift of salvation gives us a new start and the power to live as healthy, social human beings. Mention of the Savior redeeming humanity from all lawlessness or iniquity in Titus 2:14 also implies that forgiveness of sins is part of salvation.
This message can bring hope to those who struggle with addiction, are suffering the effects of broken relationships, or are having a hard time forgiving themselves for past mistakes. The text does not say that the Spirit guarantees an instant remedy to all one’s problems, or that humans play no part in living in accordance with the salvation God gave them as a gift. As long as we are in this world, we will continue to struggle with the tendencies of the old self, which is why Paul needs to remind believers in Crete of who they are because of what Christ did for them.
But this text also indicates that the Spirit’s work in believers does bring real transformation in the present. This should not be minimized: our sins are forgiven now; we are no longer slaves to self-seeking and destructive desires; we can love each other better, even if still imperfectly. If this were not the case, Paul would have no basis upon which to encourage such changed attitudes and behavior.
The eschatological dimension of the text captures the already-not-yet nature of God’s salvation. While the past tense use of the verb “save” (esosen) in verse 5 indicates the completed nature of the salvation Christ brought to humanity, verse 7 clarifies that we still hope for its fullness as eternal life. This hope of sharing fully in the life of the triune God grounds our lives of good works and loving one another now. As we celebrate Jesus’s birth as our own new birth, we also wait expectantly for the Spirit’s work to grow us into the fullness of God’s promises to us as heirs, together with Christ (see also Romans 8:15–17, 24–25). Our lives with God have a present and a future.
Divine salvation is meant to transform people in such a way that their lives reflect something of the character of the loving and merciful God that gifted it to humanity in Jesus Christ.