When I served a two-point rural parish, we held the Christmas Eve service in one church and Christmas Day in the other.1
I loved the change in tenor as we moved from the hoopla and mystery of the Eve with emotions running high in the darkness of night to a more normal-feeling worship in late morning Christmas Day. It seemed as if we had concluded a long and brilliant novel that came to a climax on the Eve and returned to earth again (the denouement in literary terms) on Christmas Day. Everyone was more subdued. The pressure was off. Christmas Day was a big sigh.
And yet, the Gospel reading for the Nativity of Our Lord III, Christmas Day, contains all of the most difficult theological assertions Christians ever hear. John 1:1-14 asks us to believe in the unbelievable notion that God became human. More than that, it says that Jesus existed before time began, before anything was anywhere. Jesus was “in the beginning … ” and we don’t know when that was or where or how time began except for the faith that God created with breath and love.
This short passage assures the unity of all things, but it also introduces the idea that disunity exists in the midst of unity. Unity and disunity are, so to speak, hand-in-glove—paradoxes locked together.
We sing this paradox in hymns like “Holy God, Holy and Glorious” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #637). Here are verses 4 and 5 which sing of wisdom as folly and living by dying:
Holy God, holy and only wise, wisdom of great price, you choose the way of folly: God the crucified, and we behold your wisdom.
Holy God, holy and living one, life that never ends, you show your love by dying, dying for your friends, and we behold you living.
Paradox names the conundrum of the incarnation. The risen one is the crux of the trinity by the birth of the divine as flesh and blood.
A translation from The Inclusive Bible2 emphasizes the conjunction of the one who was born of Mary and the Word: “The Word was present to God from the beginning.” (John 1:2) “Through the Word all things came into being … ” (John 1:3) “Though the Word came to its own realm, the Word’s own people didn’t accept it.” (John 1:6) Instead of referring to the Word as the man Jesus, using the male pronoun (in both NRSV and Inclusive translations, “Word” is from the Greek logos), this language engages our imaginations with the expansive “truly divine” side of Jesus’ identity.
The incarnation is the stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23) because it is inconceivable that the infinite can be contained by the finite. How can stars fit in a quart jar? Dear Martin Luther helps us to see the inhabitation John’s prologue announces:
God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it. He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attended clearly and mightily in Holy Writ … For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, over a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? … His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself; yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it.3
In the Isaiah reading and in Hebrews, this huge dichotomy—God-beyond and God-within—is stressed. Both truths are key assertions at Christmas because, as we celebrate one part of the majesty of Christ on this day—the birth—we cannot fathom its importance without its inconceivable enormity.
The primary message of these texts on this day when much of the world is glowing (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear) is the incredible end to dualism. God has inhabited our Earth, our flesh. We have cause to look around us with awe. We have reason to be flattened with admiration for the creator when we simply stand in the rain or bite into a carrot or hold someone’s hand. It is all miracle — not only that we are here to behold this marvel but that God’s own presence attends our every breath.
How might we, then, treat each other differently? How might we comprehend the value of trees and minerals and water? What laws might we impose on ourselves to do honor to our awe of Earth and the universe? What limits might we want to make on our human greed in gratitude for God’s unthinkable self-giving?
The text from Second Isaiah follows closely on Christmas Eve’s reading from First Isaiah though historically they are situated far apart.1
As mentioned in an earlier commentary, Second Isaiah is prophesying the return to Jerusalem out of the Babylonian exile. The people are waiting—waiting for the messenger who announces the return of the Lord, for when the Lord returns to Zion then the people too will follow. But as long as the Lord abandons Zion, the people as well will remain in exile. Returning to life is completely dependent on God’s own choice to return, to return to Zion, and to return to the people.
The text sets up a classic scenario. From the battlefield, a messenger is sent to announce that victory has been won. The watchmen are straining to see the one who is coming and find out the news. In this case they sing the news of victory for all to hear. Despite this seemingly straightforward progression of events, upon closer look, we discover several surprises in the story.
Not only is a messenger coming to announce a victory from the battlefield, but God’s self is coming in triumph. The Lord returns! The battlefield is not just any confrontation between two armies but the field of history itself in which God is triumphant, for it is not only Jerusalem that is redeemed but also all the nations. Finally, the watchmen watching for the messenger cannot contain themselves! Even before the messenger arrives they recognize the news and sing it out!
The news is stated in cosmic terms: “Your God reigns!” Once again, we encounter the realignment of all earthly power and authority. The victory that is proclaimed does not belong to this or that king, to this or that country, to this or that ideology, but to God alone. Psalm 97, one of the psalms appointed for Christmas Day, also echoes this theme in song.
“The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” Psalm 98, the psalm coupled with this reading, proclaims the power of God’s holy arm. “The Lord has made known his victory!” Again, we pick up on the cosmic proportions of this victory, of God’s return. God comes as the ultimate judge, judging all the earth, the whole world with righteousness.
The “watchers” know of this wondrous news as they see the feet of the messenger running towards them. The “feet” is here used figuratively: beautiful refers not to the feet but to the entire messenger/message. This good news of peace is beautiful. It comes running to greet the oppressed. It is an embodied peace! The message is beautiful because it is for all creation. Zion and the towns of Judah constitute the watchmen. They hear and are glad because the Lord who reigns is the Lord who comes to deliver from oppression and from the wicked. The Lord who reigns is God over all gods, over all those forces, powers, idols, and obsessions that enslave the people. The message is peace, good news, and salvation.
As mentioned, the text gestures beyond its historical confines. This peace and good news and salvation are not simply for the exiles in Babylon. This deliverance is not only for the people of Israel and Judah but also for all the earth. God has acted for a particular people, for a particular city, for Jerusalem but the entire world and all people are brought into the vision and actualization of this deliverance.
The victory is a cosmic victory. The victory is peace but a peace that is more than simply an end to war. This peace is for all. It is a cosmic peace. War is now over, once and for all. This is the good news. All reasons for battle, all reasons for warfare, all reasons for hatred, pride, self-justification are eliminated.
All people, all creation is pulled into this salvific act. The good news that is announced, the peace and salvation given to all reaches beyond all the limits we may wish to place on it. Even the broken down walls, the ruins of Jerusalem are called into song. This shalom is a shalom for all creation and for culture and for expressions of human life; the city, for example, with all of its structures is called into this shalom.
We have come full circle. From the words of the prophet that begin Second Isaiah (Comfort! Comfort!) to this victory celebration in which comfort is clearly defined as God’s own coming, God’s engagement with God’s people, the text pulls us all out of ourselves and into song.
The watchmen cannot refrain from singing with joy. And their singing calls forth singing from all the ends of the earth. Joy is rooted in what God does. This is the source of all our singing. What God does cannot be reduced to an idea, a concept, an abstraction or a program. What God does bursts the walls of our isolation. Singing, this essential activity of any proclamation, brings that which identifies us most individually—our voice—and mixes it with many other voices. Our voices brought together now redefine who we are as recipients of the wonderful good news brought by the messenger.
This joy does not ignore the historical context. The singing arises out of great anxiety—a battle has been engaged, death is confronted. Today, we as well are keenly aware of the “battles” around us, the many places of death that the celebration of Christmas Day does not do away with. In fact, as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children. It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.
1. This commentary was first published on this site on Dec. 25, 2012.
People experience the Christmas season differently.1
For some, it means joyous celebrations with family and friends. For others, it’s a time when the loss of loved ones, financial hardships, and battles with depression or loneliness become even more painful. And the cultural ritual of heightened consumerism, from Thanksgiving through the New Year, may leave some feeling stressed out and empty, wondering if there is something more to life than pursuing a good deal on a big screen television by shoving other customers out of the way.
In such situations, reconnecting with the “big picture” of life can make a difference. Hebrews 1:1–4 helps us do just this.
These opening verses of Hebrews, which itself functions as a homily, remind the Christian audience of what they already know. Apparently of Jewish background, hearers would know that God spoke to their forebears by the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). They would also be aware that their identity as Christians stems from God reaching out to them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s own Son (verses 2–4). But it seems that they needed to connect with these truths once again — perhaps even to be jolted by them in the midst of their ordinary routines, as the cosmic scope of the passage suggests.
Why would they need this?
While we do not know the precise identity of the intended recipients of Hebrews, the text indicates that they had suffered for following Jesus. They were exposed to public abuse and persecution, and even joyfully accepted the plundering of their possessions (Hebrews 10:32–34). They have struggled with sin (12:4), and can expect more trials to come (12:7).
Another threat came not from external persecution, but rather from discouragement and weariness on the journey of faith (for example 2:3; 12:12), and a lack of proper growth (5:11–6:2). The author likens the audience’s pilgrimage to the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness (3:1–4:11). Though the Israelites had seen God’s marvels that freed them from captivity in Egypt, the trials of the wilderness hardened their hearts. They doubted God’s promises, and ultimately, their generation was prevented from entering the Promised Land (see also Numbers 14). The author warns the audience of Hebrews not to let the same happen to them, losing confidence and disobeying God when the goal of their faith seems far away.
Whether enduring trials or spiritual apathy, Hebrews 1:1–4 speaks powerful truth to people who might benefit from seeing beyond themselves and their current circumstances. For example:
Hebrews 1:1–2 shows God’s initiative across the centuries to speak with people. Such communication is key to establishing and maintaining relationship. God reaches out to us again and again, despite our wavering faith.
Through the prophets and Scriptures, God promised humanity a Messiah. God fulfilled this promise, and by exalting Jesus from death to God’s own presence as “heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2), God also fulfilled the promise that an heir of David would inherit the nations (Psalm 2:8). This God can be trusted to follow through on the promises that God’s people are still waiting to be fulfilled.
Temptations to go our own way instead of the way of Jesus and the cross still loom, but Jesus, both high priest and ultimate sacrifice, has purified us from sin once for all (Hebrews 1:3; 7:26–28). Since Jesus lived not only as divine but also as fully human, he sympathizes with out weaknesses, so that we can boldly approach him for help in our times of need (4:14–16). He continues to sustain all things (1:3).
Jesus’s perfect obedience to God on earth, even during suffering, makes him our forerunner (Hebrews 2:10; 6:19–20) who helps us persevere in the goal of eternal salvation (5:8–9). The one through whom God created the universe (1:2) is both the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We can look to Jesus in the midst of joy and hardship (2:10; 12:1–2).
Human capacity to understand God is limited, but Hebrews 1:1–4 gives us a glimpse of God’s glory by lifting our minds from the mundane to where Christ shares in God’s own life, exalted above the angels. This Christ is the same Jesus who lived on earth as a human being, revealing to us the very being of God (1:3a). This extraordinary God is the same one who meets us in our very ordinary lives.
How such insights might be applied in a sermon depends on the audience.
Unlike Christians in many parts of the world, I venture to say that, generally speaking, the more pressing issue for Christians in the United States is spiritual complacency, rather than persecution for our faith. Our lives may be comfortable enough on the whole that we do not feel an urgency about clinging to God’s promises in Scripture and sharing them with others. Church may feel like just another part of the weekly routine, and perhaps even like an unwelcome interruption to our hectic Christmas schedules of shopping, cookie baking, and family gatherings. Maybe we should invite the disruptive vision of Hebrews 1:1-4 into our lives, letting it remind us that the source and goal of our lives is the eternal God it presents.