The nativity story is so familiar that it is almost rote at this point. We read the story. We sing the story. We watch our littles pretend to be sheep, shepherds, and stars.
I find it easy, maybe comforting even, to imagine the nativity events that Luke describes as tranquil: a beaming new mother and father admiring their sleeping infant while stable animals sleep around them. A silent night, indeed.
Yet, for those there, this was a world changing event.
Beyond being a new mother with a whole new set of responsibilities, Mary had the added burden of knowing her son was called to be an heir to King David (1:32). What could that mean when King Herod is already on the throne and the Emperor reigns supreme?
Joseph knew the child wasn’t his own; Luke has no account of an angel explaining the situation to him. How much faith would it require to believe Mary’s account of things? What if people found out he was not Jesus’ father? His decision to raise Jesus as his own was not so simple.
Perhaps the shepherds expected a messiah1, but did they expect this messiah to enter the scene this way on this night? And why on earth would the birth announcement of a king be made to shepherds on the midnight shift?
The birth of Jesus, as Luke tells it, has a lot of distinguishing features. There’s the emphasis on Mary and Elizabeth’s experiences over those of Joseph and Zechariah. Jesus is born in a stable and sleeps in an animal’s feeding trough. It is shepherds who first learn of Jesus, not Magi bearing costly gifts. Mary’s spontaneous song identifies the ways that God is working on behalf of the low-status and materially bereft. In fact, most biblical scholars agree that Luke emphasizes Jesus’ humble beginnings and actions on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
With all of this emphasis on low-status people and the humble elements of Jesus’ birth, it is easy to overlook the political dimensions Luke incorporates. Consider the angel’s announcement to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you 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” (2:10-11).
Luke uses language to describe Jesus that imperial propaganda applied to Caesar Augustus:
“It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus:
‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him,’ which Asia resolved in Smyrna”
This inscription (emphasis mine), written when Augustus was an adult commemorating his birthday, references the birth of Augustus Caesar as the beginning of a new era in which there will be peace and prosperity. Augustus, himself a god, is said to be a savior sent by Providence whose birth was the beginning of good news. The words for savior (soter) and good news (euangelion) are the same words used in Luke when the angel reports the birth of Jesus to the shepherds.
Further, this inscription makes the claim that Augustus was sent to end war. After the announcement to the shepherds, multiple angels appear saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (2:14). Not only is the advent of the savior Jesus good news, Luke claims that God is the one who brings peace. These claims are in stark contrast with the claims of Rome and the emperor.
In our American context the notion of Jesus as king is a spiritualized metaphor devoid of much of its political emphasis. But in the ancient world, a king held real power for real people. A king’s choices had impacts on food distribution, health, wealth distribution, and more.
Augustus claims to have brought peace and to be a great benefactor to all humankind. Yet wealth distribution in the empire was inequitable; while about 3% controlled 90%+ of the empire’s wealth, most people hovered around or below subsistence level.2 The empire taxed its people extensively. Taxes were paid in kind, and a small farm could be taxed as much as 75% of its yield, depending upon how corrupt the individual tax collectors were. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) was the result of violent subjugation, not radical inclusion. Augustus’ rule often benefited the few at the expense of the many.
Jesus, heir of David, is a different kind of king altogether. His birth announcement is delivered to shepherds in the middle of the night. Without coercion, his peace will come to those who accept his teaching and follow God. His work will be known not through self-serving monuments and inscriptions, but through relationships. His cohort is made up of poor laborers and women. His work will be among the poor, the outcast, the impaired, and the exploited. He will remember the forgotten and bring them into his community.
The silent night that I often imagine in my idyllic version of the nativity is too tame for what was unleashed that night in Bethlehem. God broke into the world in a brand new way. A king was born whose rule benefited the broken, brokenhearted, and bereft. This is the good news of a savior indeed.
It is quite fitting to preach on this text on Christmas day.1
The mood is cheerful; there is talk of feasting and drinking wine and praising the Lord (Isaiah 62:9). All and all a joyful celebration that lines up well with Christmas festivities all around the world that involve sumptuous food, family and friends, and Christmas Carols resounding with the words: “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee;” and “Joy to the World, the Lord Has Come.” For as Isaiah 62:11 proclaims: The Divine Word has reached to the far ends of the earth.
Echoing Handel’s Messiah, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” (see also Isaiah 40:9),” we hear the good news proclaimed in Isaiah 62: 11: “See, your salvation comes: his reward is with him, and his recompense before him!” The Gospel texts, centuries later would understand this message in terms of the birth of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth we are celebrating today.
Isaiah 62:6-12, speaks about restoration, about redemption, about salvation. The images used to describe this joyful change in Judah’s circumstances are of homecoming, of God preparing the way for the people, of building a highway for them to go home after being for so long in exile in Babylon (see also Isaiah 40). And it speaks of a change in name.
The city Jerusalem will now be called Dirusha, or as the NRSV translates it, “Sought out.” She will be “a City Not Forsaken,” a sharp contrast with the memory of seeing people violently being forced out of the city. The new name directly addresses people’s experience of being abandoned by God as evident in the heart-wrenching cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This haunting lament that also would be on Jesus’ lips on the cross also captured the people’s experience during the terrible time of the Babylonian invasion and Exile.
However, in this remarkable text is transformation. The people will no longer be rejected; the sinful, despised people that had suffered greatly by the hand of the Babylonian Empire, but now they will be the Holy People of God, who have been rescued and redeemed by God. Truly a situation worthy of praise that resounds throughout this chapter and a message that would have been greatly comforting to a people desperately in need of salvation.
These words “in need of salvation” open up though a crucial aspect that is important for preaching on this text on Christmas day. One should not overlook the fact that this text is directed to a people who had lived through some very dark times. Evidence of this is in the first verses of this pericope reflecting the reality of persistent prayer, of the people pleading with God to save them (verses 6-7), to change their situation of pain, suffering and oppression associated with living under imperial rule in addition to recovering from the terrible trauma of seeing your city going up in flames.
Signs of this time of suffering is also evident in verse 8 in which God swears there will be no more famine caused by enemy invasion. The food and wine they worked so hard to produce will not be devoured by either the enemy forces ravaging their food supplies, or burning down all of the fields and crops in terms of the enemy’s scorched-earth policy.
These painful memories of dark times simmering beneath the hopeful message of a joyful deliverance and restoration remind us as preachers today of the dark side of Christmas. So often our preaching is saccharine sweet in a Hallmark card way that only focuses on the message of happiness and joy and light that marks this Christmas season. However, as we are preaching, we should remember that in our congregations there are many people who do not always feel so happy at this time of year. There are empty places at the holiday table, with loved ones being far away or who have passed away — some perhaps even in this past year. Many people may be feeling lonely and quite despondent, and the holiday cheer according to which everyone seems happy but me, makes everything seems worse.
In preaching, it is important not only to focus on the light of Christmas but to show how the light breaks into the darkness when preaching on this text. Karl Rahner has written profoundly on the birth of Christ: “Christmas is more than a bit of cheerful mood … The important figure in the holy night is the child, the one child, the Son of God, and his birth. Christmas means that he has come. He has made the night bright. He has turned the night of our darkness, our incomprehensible night, into Christmas. The terrible night of our anxiety and helplessness is now a holy night. That is what Christmas tells us”2
This message ought to inform all of our Christmas preaching and aligns well with Isaiah as a preacher of hope amidst dark times. The prophet’s hopeful message of deliverance and salvation occurs when everything is still pretty much in shambles. And yet Isaiah’s words that attest to “Vision over Visibility” to quote one of U2’s songs, draw our attention to the small acts of liberation in the here and now, as evident in the reassembly of the community, the sharing of a meal, the laughter where there had been tears, the candles lighting up the darkness, which are exemplified in the sound of the bells ringing in Christmas.
In theological terms, one can thus talk about the already and the not yet of liberation, in which the small signs of festivity and a return of joy and communion point to a time in which we might expect the ultimate restoration of all things that are broken.
Christianity is, in many ways, a faith built on paradoxes.1
Old and New Testaments alike bear witness to a God characterized by both mercy and justice, both grace and truth (John 1:14). This God we worship is both One and Three, both transcendent and immanent—and this God teaches us that power and victory come through weakness and submission (Philippians 2:5-11), that the last will be first (Mark 10:31), and those who seek greatness should become servants (Matthew 20:25-28).
Reading Psalm 97 at Christmas reminds us of these paradoxes. Today we gather with shepherds around the manger where a young, displaced mother has laid her new baby boy, and we celebrate the fact that “God with us” means we have an intercessor who has experienced all our vulnerabilities, fears, and hurts. Today, we also rejoice with all creation that this powerless infant reigns as God of the universe. On Christmas Day, Psalm 97 gives us an opportunity to place the Nativity in its larger theological context and revel in one of the central paradoxes of our faith.
Psalm 97, an “enthronement” or “Yahweh is king” psalm, is part of the collection of Psalms 93-100 that reflects a major theme in Book IV of the Psalter: no matter what seems to be going wrong in the world, we can have confidence that God reigns over all. Most of the “Yahweh is king” psalms, including Psalm 97, begin with the proclamation “Yahweh is king!” or “Yahweh reigns!” These psalms may have been read each year at the temple as part of a fall festival in which the people would dramatically reenact and celebrate Yahweh’s enthronement.2 The vivid language and imagery certainly lends itself to community performance—whether in the Second Temple period of Israel or in a twenty-first century church.
The “Yahweh is king” psalms highlight different aspects of Yahweh’s reign and its practical implications for our lives. The Psalter largely took shape during a time when Israel held little to no political power. Psalm 97’s prompt to confess that “Yahweh is king” is not the triumphant shout of privileged movers-and-shakers. Instead, it represents a desperate cry of hope for those who look around and see the effects of human injustice and evil intentions. In particular, Psalm 97 encourages those who read it to remember that God is the only true hope we have: the idols and false gods we build up for ourselves—whether in the form of golden calves or political parties or personal accomplishments—are powerless to bring real justice, reconciliation, wholeness, peace, and joy.
Psalm 97 unfolds in three sections. As the psalm unfolds, the psalmist slowly builds up a picture of Yahweh’s character: powerful (verses 3-5) and glorious (verse 6) and exalted (verse 9), but also righteous and just (verses 2, 8) and concerned for the vulnerable (verse 10).
The first stanza (verses 1-6) describes a “theophany,” an appearance of God to humanity—all humanity, as the psalmist emphasizes by saying “the many coastlands” will be glad (verse 1) and “all the peoples behold his glory” (verse 6). The imagery of dark storm clouds, fire, lightning, and earthquakes is standard language for describing times when God appears physically (compare with Exodus 19-20, Deuteronomy 5, and Psalm 18). These are dramatic, terrifying occurrences, and they stand in sharp contrast to the physical appearance of God in Christ. When Yahweh appears in Psalm 97, the whole earth shifts in response; when Jesus appears in Bethlehem, most people remain unaware that something radical has happened.
The second stanza (verses 7-9) spells out what Yahweh’s reign means for worship. Yahweh does not share the throne. Originally written in a polytheistic context, verses 7-9 proclaim that the gods of the nations surrounding (and even dominating!) Israel were nothing compared to Yahweh. At a time when a god’s power was judged by the military and economic status of its worshippers, Psalm 97 makes the bold declaration that no matter how strong a human king might seem, he’s a shameful fool if he bases his strength on “worthless idols” rather than the true God. Ultimately, everyone—even the false gods of Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the twenty-first century—will bow down before Yahweh, the bringer of justice (verses 6a, 8b).
The final stanza (verses 10-12) describes what implications Yahweh’s reign has for the lives of worshippers. Yahweh brings justice and righteousness to a world characterized by false justice (verses 8b, 10b), so Yahweh’s worshippers should also seek justice and righteousness in the world (verse 10a). This call to “hate evil” and the assurance that Yahweh will “guard” and “rescue” those who do so (verse 10b) acknowledges that the world is not yet at peace, but it also confidently assures us that the same God whose glorious throne is hidden by clouds and fire reaches down to care for “the upright in heart” (verse 11). In Psalm 97, divine judgment merits rejoicing because it means the restoration of justice in the world (verse 12).3
Psalm 97 and Christmas
Psalm 97 puts flesh on the bones of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds that the birth of Jesus would be “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). This psalm gives us a picture of who this glorious “God in the highest heaven” really is and how God’s work will bring peace on earth (Luke 2:14). And it confronts us with the paradoxical truth that the mighty God of Psalm 97 is the same God-child “lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16): “Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name!”
I have argued in the previous commentary that the Pastoral Epistles weave together clear, practical, instructional injunctions addressed to specific members of the communities and general kerygmatic theological comments. Here we have another example: in this case, the theological focus is on a balance between “good works” and the gratuitous action of the Divine. The author here relies on the topos of “grace” that activates righteousness in the believer and makes an heir of eternal life. The chapter starts with general instructions for community members to be obedient and submissive to the civil authorities. The clarity of the instructions leaves little room for ambiguity: the author is invested in creating a communal dynamic at peace with its cultural surroundings. I have also argued that such new development in Christianity is likely due to the institutionalization process: as the church moves from charismatic modes of authority to institutional ones, leadership is likely concerned with reinforcing inward strength by not conflicting with their surroundings.
This pericope continues with the previous text’s emphasis on “good works.” There is a pacifying drive designed against tendencies to entertain quarrels and controversies about the law. It is not clear what the author might mean by law or genealogies, but most likely, the text seeks to thwart internecine fights that would raise suspicions among outsiders. If this were the case, the proselytizing efforts of the community would be curtailed. We perceive how Christian identity has shifted from an anti-cultural leaning to an assimilationist tendency. Therefore, we can see how, at least, the Pauline corpus moves from a certain unawareness about boundary limits to a very clear emphasis on inside/outside borders.
Here I would like to briefly zoom in on a concept often neglected in theological reflection, both as it appears in the New Testament and subsequent exegesis. What does it actually mean to be an “heir”? More specifically, what does it mean to use “heir” as a theological concept rather than a legal one? In its literal sense, to be an heir involves being entitled to someone else’s assets, usually one’s progenitor, although not exclusively. Inheritance laws regulate, distinctly in different places and times, who, where, when, what, and why someone becomes heir. In the Roman world, it was usually the first-born male who was entitled to his father’s possessions, but all kinds of possessions were contemplated. The idea is that wealth remains in the family. It is also this reason, property management, which explains why laws about marriage were codified in detail.
In the New Testament the notion of inheritance is both important and secondary. In the Gospels, it only appears in the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:38; Mark 12:7; Luke 20:14). Here the evangelists establish a contrast between the landlord’s slaves and the true heir to make the point that condemnation of those who do not recognize the new covenant are doomed. By way of analogy, one could say that the parables identify the heir’s son with Jesus, sent by his father. The gospels do not explicitly equate Jesus as the heir of God, but through this parable, one could make the theological argument that given that Jesus is the son of God, he is also his heir.
In Paul, the “heir” topic comes in Romans 4 when Paul argues that Abraham becomes an heir not through the Law but through righteousness. Most notably, the notion of inheritance plays a crucial role in Galatians 4 where Paul equates the figure of the believer to a son (and not a slave) who inherits his father’s property. Here Paul makes it clear that enslavement precludes inheritance, although the meaning of both terms depends on whether we understand them literally or metaphorically (see my commentary on Romans 4). In Hebrews, “heir” is applied to Christ, as God’s heir (Hebrews 1:2) but also to Noah (Hebrews 11:7) and to the heirs of the promise in (Hebrews 6:17). James (2:5) mentions the poor as the heirs of the kingdom.
The notion of inheritance, as Carolyn Hodge has powerfully argued1, relies on the flexibility of native conceptions of family: on the one hand, inheritance relied on blood-based genealogies. On the other hand, the notion of “fictive kinship” stretched to show how supposedly biologically-based notions could become metaphors with real-life implications. It is such flexibility that allows Paul to graft non-Jewish Jesus believers onto Abraham’s promise.
This same principle about fictive kinship operates in Titus 3:7. The text does not clarify exactly what the believer becomes heir of: “according to the hope of eternal life,” what is it that the believer inherits? The promise? A role in the covenant? Eternal life? The kingdom? All of these are possible interpretations but the text leaves us with no definite answer. Instead, I would suggest, contemporary believers should be more attuned to underlying assumptions of such concepts, particularly in a text where enslavement figures so prominently.
At the literal level, “inheritance” affects slaves and free citizens very differently. Slaves cannot inherit anything but enslavement itself. This is not to say that slaves did not inherit the kingdom in the author’s mind. To the contrary, the New Testament is unequivocal about slaves’ participation in God’s salvation. The theological argument about inheritance relies on two assumptions: first, the argument works because the concept is both literal and metaphorical. Put differently, to be an “heir” in theological terms means that, through reference to “fictive” kinship, we become inheritors of a divine promise. Second, the argument presumes the notion of the free citizen with property and citizenship. This clarification is important because preachers/theologians have tended to portray early Christianity as an inclusive movement invested in erasing class and gender differences. In this case, Titus operates at the theological level (“we might have a part in the heritage, the hope of eternal life” 3:7), but it is incumbent upon us to remember that the figure of the slave, the one who cannot inherit, stays in the background.