Christmas Eve. The preacher brings Luke’s story into the excitement of a family service and later into the reverence of candlelit worship full of people distracted by kids, plans, phones, hopes and griefs. Granted, audiences are always mixed, emotions often high. Yet Christmas Eve heightens the intensity, energy, and disparities gathered in congregations on this night, underlined by every commercial and artistic institution in our culture.
Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth is a story told quietly on earth, even as the energy and joy come from the heavens. The story is told in two distinct sections: 2:1-7 and 2:8-14 with a kind of coda of responses in 15-20. All these parts are important for the Christmas story. Let’s unwrap them.
The first section plunges us into the political realities of the world into which Jesus was born. Four times in the first five verses we hear the word “register” (apographein). “All the world must be registered” (verse 1) according to Caesar Augustus. Whether or not this is historically accurate as to date and breadth is less important than that it is the first line in the story of Jesus’ birth as Luke tells it. Joseph, Mary and Jesus are subject to Caesar Augustus. At great inconvenience they “go up” to Bethlehem (there is no mention of a donkey for the very pregnant Mary) because they must.
Because Luke reminds us that Bethlehem is a city of David and Joseph of the house of David, we look for a second story, God’s story, interwoven with Caesar’s power right from the start (see 1:32, 68-69). Even the little detail that Jesus is wrapped in swaddling cloths suggests that simple beginnings cannot separate a king from a peasant baby. See Wisdom 7:4-6. From the might of Caesar to command the whole world, to the swaddling of a newborn in a room shared with the household’s animals, Luke leads us into a world, our world, where we discern God’s power at work to keep all the promises cherished by Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79).
In part two, the scene shifts to outlying fields where shepherds are watching their flocks during the night. Here, apart from kings and governors, apart even from the devout Mary who had received the promise of a child to sit on David’s throne, came brilliant, enveloping light. One angel with a clear message followed by a chorus of these messengers from God, just blows the shepherds right out of the fields. There is light to lighten their darkness (see also 1:79; 2:32) indeed.1
Let me offer a quick word about both shepherds and about verse 14b. Shepherds were not as scorned or feared as many have thought.2 They were indeed among the “lowly” (1:52), but in their diligent work modeled the way of God (and other Greco-Roman gods) with God’s people. On an ordinary night in a darkness that we electrified people can scarcely imagine, they were brought from enormous fear to the joy promised by angels. This is a significant dynamic in Luke’s story thus far: see 1;14, 28, 47, 58, and 24:36 and 53. Could this move be fruitfully explored in a year that includes everything from wildfires to all the losses and repercussions of Covid-19 to the frantic fear during the Afghanistan pullout?
Let it be said clearly this night. Heaven and earth meet in obscure places, not in the halls of power. Shepherds and angels. A birth in the city of King David, but far from a royal residence. And that birth, that joy is for all people, just as the census was said to have been. In verse 14a, “peace (good will) among those with whom God favors” is not a phrase designed to limit God’s favor and peace to a few. We human creatures, along with God’s other creatures, have been favored. The light came in those dark fields and that dim room in Bethlehem because God longs, has always longed, for us to know and love God.
The responses of both the shepherds and Mary to that good news, however imperfectly they may have perceived it, are worth noting, not least because they end the text. They will be the last words your congregation hears (if you read verses 15-20). Mary “pondered.” She had received a direct call from Gabriel, affirmed by the Holy Spirit through Elizabeth, her cousin. She has the promised child in her arms and hears again from shepherds that he is the Messiah and Lord (rather than Augustus Caesar whose claim to be Lord and Savior is well documented in the ancient world3). She held/treasured all this in her heart and pondered, wondering what it would all mean. She will wonder again after finding her son in the Temple as he amazed the teachers gathered around. Mary is there as Jesus’ life unfolds and she continues to try to fathom the connections of her boy with the promises of God. Some of us do the same. It is one of the roles of our gathered congregations as well.
The shepherds put things together well enough to become jubilant. They’re promised a baby, they see a baby, and they recognize that the rest of what they have been told is true. Here he is, the One whom God has sent to show God’s favor. Some of us do the same. It is another role of our gathered congregations. There’s a new world coming! And that’s good news for the people in our story. Maybe the Caesars of the world won’t understand how it is good news for them. Maybe it requires remembering and pondering or a sudden experience of brilliant light and angels to know good news. Perhaps one must first recognize the limits of human power over “all people.”
Here Luke shows us the first steps in a long journey of trusting that God’s favor is for all people and that there are signs, even in our own darkness.
A “zealous” God.
Isaiah 9:2-7 (1-6 in the Hebrew) paints a picture of God’s zealousness, which results in the zealousness of God’s people. We take our lead from the final sentence of this reading, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” Two things in particular are at issue here; what does the word “zeal” mean, and what is the “this” that the Lord will do?
First, as to the Lord’s “zeal.” Zeal, Hebrew qinʾa, most often has to do with jealousy or envy, at least in the negative sense. In Isaiah 11 jealousy is in parallel with hostility, taken as two motivations that are comparably hurtful:
The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim (Isaiah 11:13).
It seems that qinʾa is, as often as not, dangerous.
This is even the case when, according to Ecclesiastes, our envy or rivalry with others spurs us to achieve more, “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another” (Ecclesiastes 4:4); this too, it seems, is “vanity and a chasing after wind.”
But there seems to be something different going on in the case of Isaiah 9:2-7. Here, the qinʾa of the Lord is an impassioning passion; in a good way.
Second, then, we take this sense of a positive zealousness from the “this” that the Lord will do. Working back from that final sentence we have the description of the promised child, so familiar and dear this time of year; he is the Wonderful Counselor, Wonderful God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (verse 6). This child brings with his birth the promise of the end to war; war-gear and the bloodied garments of war will burn, and the power of the oppressor will be lifted (verses 4-5). Skipping back past verse 3 for a moment, we have the promise of light in the face of darkness; the people who sat in darkness, who live in the land of “deep darkness” or the “land of the shadow of death” (verse 2; ṣalmawet, see also Psalm 23:4). The result of this promise of light in even the deepest and deadliest of darkness, the end of oppression and warfare, all made possible by the One Who Is to Come, accomplishes the “this” that is the heart and soul of this text:
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder (verse 3)
Joy / rejoicing / joy brings about the people’s exulting, celebrating exuberantly, their joy overflowing. I have put those three words, joy / rejoice / joy together because these are all base on the same Hebrew word (śimḥā / śāmǝḥû / śimḥā). Joy is, literally, multiplied in this verse: joy increased, leads to re-joy-cing, like those filled with joy. All of which leads to an exultant joy.
Moreover, the “exulting” of the people is described metaphorically: their joy will be like it is, “as people exult when dividing plunder.” Note that this metaphor is the answer to real oppression and war. Further war, further taking of plunder, further bloodshed, is not the answer to war, plundering, and bloodshed. The answer to all of this is joy, expressed in the face of it, because of the promise. Only peace can avenge violence. Only mercy can disarm wrath. Only love can answer hate. Only life can defeat death. And it is the qinʾa of the Lord that will do this.
In Isaiah as a whole this seems to be the result of the Lord’s qinʾa; the Lord’s qinʾa leads to a reversal of fortunes, in unexpected and joy-inspiring ways.
In chapter 26 the song that will be sung in the Promised Land will celebrate the promise that God will restore the people:
“O Lord, your hand is lifted up,
but they do not see it.
Let them see your zeal for your people, and be ashamed” (26:11).
In response to King Hezekiah’s prayer that the invading Assyrians be turned away, God answers Hezekiah’s prayer, saying, “concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it” (Isaiah 37:33). This will be prevented because, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 37:32; see also the parallel story in 2 Kings 19:31, the only other two places this phrase occurs).
Again, in Isaiah 42:13, in between one stanza of the Servant Song (42:1-9) and the promise of restoration in Isaiah 43, the zealousness of the Lord is called upon joyously because,
The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury (qinʾâ);
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes. (In this same vein see also Isaiah 59:17.)
God’s zealous love for God’s people is meant to inspire a similar, responsive love from God’s people. In response to injustice or violence, or any form of “darkness” visited upon God’s people, we too are called to qinʾa; not jealousy, or envy, or even “fury,” but a passion that brings, embodies, and invites joy.
And it begins with the birth of a child.
Let’s face it, this night belongs to the newborn Jesus, Mary and Joseph, along with shepherds, a chorus of angels and some sheep and cattle.1
It is a celebration of the birth of Jesus and a time when the church gathers to hear the familiar story and to sing Christmas carols with family and friends. It is one of the highlights of the church year.
To write about another text seems an effort in futility. All other texts will play supporting roles this night. But there is no more appropriate text to aid in telling the story than Psalm 96. The psalm is one of the Yahweh-melek psalms which praise God as King (Psalm 93, 94-99). It is embedded in our carols; “Joy to the world, the LORD has come,” “Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to All from Heaven’s all-gracious King,” “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds and angels sing.” Tonight the carols proclaim the same story as the angels—the baby is not ordinary, but is indeed King and Creator of All.”
Psalm 96 is exuberant praise of the King and Creator. Its focus is worship, and the call is for the whole world, the earth and all that is in it, and the heavens to sing the praises of the LORD. It opens with a call to “sing a new song” and this night calls for a new song, for God has sent the Son to live among us and show us the way to salvation and a righteous life. Tonight once again, God has a new song for an old people, another chance to start over and hear the amazing stories of this One. The response to that new song is to join in the celebration offered by God to the world (verses 1-3).
The call to sing is followed by the reason for our praise, and it is centered in God as the Creator of all. Christmas Eve is not often a time when God as the Creator is praised. Yet, the wonder of creation is on full display: the animals in the stable, the stars in the sky, the baby, the new parents. They all testify to the wonderous creation of our Lord which surrounds us every day. This baby and its new family are not tucked away in a bedroom in a house of servants and stuff, but in the world where creation and its gifts surround the child. The next seven verses are calls to praise that move through that very creation.
Verses 7-9 focus on the “families of the peoples.” Here there is no division into denominations, or cultures, or political parties. We are families of peoples, related by the Creator who we are called to praise. The psalm calls us to declare the Lord’s attributes on which the world is founded: glory and strength. It calls all to worship and together bring offerings and enter God’s presence. It is the call to worship as announced by the angels. The shepherds follow from their fields to the stable. These shepherds represent all the families of peoples as they bow before the baby.
In verse 10, the nations are called to declare “the Lord is king.” It is easy to pass over this verse, but if you look at it, it is radical theology. From the moment this baby draws a breath and even before the angels sing, this baby is seen as a threat by those currently holding power. Encapsulated in verse 10 is all the reasons that this baby’s story will pass through Golgotha. Rome will tolerate no other king and a message of “judging all of the people with equity” will not be well received by those in Judah who see themselves as superior to others and more deserving of God’s favor. Jesus’s message will shake the foundations of power. The nations here are called to set aside their own visions of power and praise the one who is truly King. It is a vision that we are still waiting to fulfill.
Verses 11-12 adds creation to the chorus: the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the fields and all that is in them and the trees will all sing to the Lord of all. By verse 12 everyone, every principality, every tree and bird and fish and flower are called into a loud chorus of praise for their Creator and King. It is on this night, that just for a few moments, we can almost believe this is possible. Imagine all the world engaged in nothing but praise!
The psalm ends with the reason for all of this praise and jubilation; the Lord “is coming to judge the earth.” So often God’s judgment is seen as a way to vindicate some and destroy others, in other words, an instrument of power. But here in this psalm, we praise God because God will judge the world with righteousness and the people with truth. The King has come and now is time to raise voice and instrument and tree and stars an flowers and sheep to sing, and sing, and sing “Joy to the world; the Lord has come!”
The Apostle Paul, writing to his partner and co-worker Titus (2 Corinthians 8:23), expresses here the extraordinary good news about the salvation of God. All that comes next hangs on this statement: this salvation has been presented to us through the appearing (or epiphany) of the “grace of God.” The salvation of God is entirely a grace gift. Everything that we might wish to include in a message of salvation—particularly at Christmas—is embraced by the free gift of God.
A visible presence
And then we note that the grace of God has “appeared.” Paul here utilizes a term that is filled with resonant meanings. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures we read that God appeared to Jacob (using the same term found in Titus 2:11) when he was fleeing from his brother Esau. And also the familiar words of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:25), “May the Lord make His face appear (or shine) upon you.” The point being that the grace of God is a visible presence.
Additionally, we can note that the “appearance” of the grace of God is a term associated with imperial kings—think of the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanies who tormented the Jews in 167 BC, or the appearance of triumphant Roman Emperors. These “epiphanies” were impressive, spectacular events, evoking awe, wonder, and even worship. So too, most assuredly, the appearance of the grace of God.
Salvation to all
The appearance of the grace of God brings salvation to all. There is a glorious inclusivity about the salvation of God that comes by his grace, which Paul notes as, no doubt, he reflects upon his own ministry. Paul recognizes that people are included whom he perhaps would have excluded and sidelined, but God includes.
Training for godliness
However, Paul makes clear that the gift of salvation is to “train” us. We need to see this training as educating us or disciplining us—that is, helping us to live the life intended by God for us. We are to renounce “impiety and worldly passions” and live towards godliness. In the ancient Roman world “impiety”could mean improper attitudes towards the Emperor, a lack of respect and honor. But here Paul subverts the imperial idea and seems to be suggesting that we should give up impiety towards God. So often, we may feel challenged about needing to be committed to political parties, Prime Ministers, or Presidents, but here we are challenged that this devotion is in fact impiety, which we need to renounce.
The “godliness” we are to live towards comes only as we renounce impiety. We are to be self-controlled, to act justly (upright), and reflect the character of God. There may be echoes here of Micah 6:8, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Waiting for the manifestation of God’s love
All the while we wait. We wait for the manifestation or epiphany of the glory of God in Jesus Christ. The glory of God, familiar to us through passages such as Isaiah 6, or the Transfiguration passage in the synoptic Gospels. The glory of God is the character of God made visible. And, we might be encouraged through this passage to see that the appearance of the character of God comes as we are trained, disciplined, and day-by-day transformed to reflect the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The final affirmation in our verses concerned the giving of the Lord Jesus Christ to redeem us from iniquity—literally “lawlessness.” God’s law is founded upon the character of God and is encapsulated in the love of God. Additionally, as we live lives that reflect the character of God we are purified from sin, and increasingly zealous for good deeds of love.