Lectionary Commentaries for December 24, 2023
Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Timothy L. Adkins-Jones

I’m sure that I’m not alone in my enjoyment of the pageantry and drama of the Nativity. I’ve seen more productions of the birth narrative than I care to count over the years, but every time it brings me so much joy. A few years ago, our church produced Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, and my wife and I had a ball portraying Mary and Joseph. The congregation got a kick out of seeing the pastor run around frantically looking for a place for the baby to be born, aided in realism by the fact that my wife was about eight months pregnant with our youngest daughter! It was a joyous and dramatic event, one that fits in the tried-and-true tradition of nativity productions that emphasize the urgency of Mary’s delivery. 

While this makes for great church productions, it also strongly influences how we understand this story, casting a shadow of burden and anxiety on a story that might better be understood as a blessed occasion of provision. For all the fun that comes from frantically finding a place for the First Family to rest, a closer look at the text not only contradicts this reading but also provides a way for a different theological understanding of what takes place.

When we understand this nativity story as a burden, we rob the sense of wonder and excitement in the text. Could it be that being a part of the census was a blessing? Does any good come out of the census—especially because the census established Joseph as being from the line of David? There is not only a sense of belonging but of status and blessing from claiming such a revered heritage. 

Could the journey itself have been a blessing? I might not suggest that traveling the ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been a breeze for Mary and Joseph as Mary was with child, but might the idea of being home and among family have been a gift when considering the impending birth? Could being near family, who presumably might be more understanding of a pregnant betrothed Mary have brought some relief for the couple in the last days of her pregnancy? 

I would encourage preachers to continue to imagine what blessings might have come from the census, from gathering there at home. There seems to be a rich and somewhat untapped well of blessings in the arrival of that baby when we take away the manufactured urgency and rush of their arrival.

Blessings of the manger

In the drama of the birth, much is made of the manger’s filth and, when coupled with the lack of “room in the inn,” a presumed lack of provision for the Savior. And while there is much to say about the earthiness of the incarnation as initiated in the manger, a closer reading of the story in the context of ancient Near Eastern housing traditions offers us a pathway to a more blessed view of the manger. 

First, there was not the rush that we associate with the birth. Verse 6 says that “while they were there,” Mary was ready to give birth, which should be read as “while they had already been settled there,” as opposed to “as soon as they got there Mary’s water broke and she had to be rushed to a place to give birth!” Furthermore, that manger was likely not as off and distanced from the rest of the family as is often portrayed. When we strip our assumptions about a “mean innkeeper” who wouldn’t allow Jesus into a motel, we recognize that Jesus was placed in the manger, most likely on the floor in the family room, and that the reason Jesus was born in the family room and placed in a manger is because there was no room in the guest room upstairs.  

It reminds me of the stories of babies being placed in dresser drawers that served as cradles. They were safe, secure, and near someone watching over the child. What if this placing in the manger isn’t a sign of lack but a sign of provision? How might we preach this story if instead of emphasizing what wasn’t available for the First Family as Jesus was about to be born, we instead magnify the ways that they were provided for? Instead of the manger being a burden, how might being in the manger, on the floor in the family room when the guest room wasn’t available, be a sign of God’s provision? Is not having a familiar place among loving people a sign of God’s grace and provision?

Blessings of the sign

There wasn’t a lot there, but his birth was more normal than we might often account for. And theologically, this is fertile ground. Jesus was born like every other peasant boy in a home surrounded by family. Even the signs were mundane but were gifts themselves! 

When we take the manger for what it was, a hole on the ground of the family room, we can begin to see the blessings of it: the symbolism of the Bread of Life being born in Bethlehem, the city of bread, in something that is used to feed. In the manger there is provision. There is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. A baby symbolizes newness and purity. Swaddling clothes are a wonderful symbol of protection and comfort. Preachers may be able to say a lot about protection and the gift of swaddling clothes if they’ve ever had any experience swaddling or watching a baby be swaddled. It’s rough! But it provides protection and comfort for the baby. 

What does it mean if we view the incarnation, the nativity, as a time of blessed protection and provision instead of lack? Our viewpoint affects what we’re getting ready for. If the gift of Christ’s return is viewed through the prism of lack, then we are getting ready for lack, and while it is noble to be excited for that, honestly, no one is quite that excited for lack. But what if we viewed the return, the breaking into this world, through the lens of abundance? How might that affect our view of salvation? Of the birth narrative? Of Christ’s return? If we read it without judgment for the poor, there is dignity in the manger.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

Anathea Portier-Young

A royal birth heralds liberation. This new beginning marks an end to domination and war. Justice takes the place of subjugation. Where shoulders once bowed low beneath the conqueror’s yoke, the shoulder now proudly bears the insignia of righteous rule.

These reversals are improbable. From the standpoint of the prophet Isaiah, the oppressor is the mighty empire of Assyria. In simple geopolitical terms, Judah had little hope of throwing off their yoke. Improbable odds are the meaning of “the day of Midian” (Isaiah 9:4). 

The book of Judges tells the story of this day, said to have taken place in the era that preceded Israel’s monarchy. According to Judges, for a period of seven years, the Midianites invaded and harassed the people of Israel, destroying their harvests and laying waste to their land (Judges 6:1-5). 

In response to Israel’s prayers, God raised up Gideon as their deliverer (Judges 6:6-16). A host of Midianites too numerous to count spread like locusts across the valley (7:12). God promised Gideon victory over them, but wanted to ensure that the Israelites would not take credit for it, that it would instead redound to God’s glory (7:2). For this reason God instructed Gideon to approach the Midianite camp with only 300 warriors (7:6-8). The warriors did not even fight on that day: they blew trumpets, broke jars, and cried out, while their enemies set upon one another and fled (7:20-22). 

The cultural memory of this miraculous victory testified to God’s power to deliver God’s people no matter the circumstances. 

Centuries later, Isaiah described the condition of the people of Judah as darkness. In the book of Isaiah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, darkness can symbolize conditions of captivity and imprisonment (for example, Isaiah 42:7; 49:9). Prisoners are described as “sitting” or “dwelling” in darkness and shadow (Isaiah 42:7; Psalm 107:10, 14). To sit or dwell in darkness also may symbolize humiliation (Isaiah 47:5) and even death (Psalm 143:3; Lamentations 3:6; see also Luke 1:79). The people of Judah had been brought low. Cast down into darkness (see also Micah 7:8), they were as prisoners in their own land. Even if they possessed strength to stand and walk, still they would stumble, because they could not see. 

Threefold poetic parallelism further characterizes the people’s condition: they were subject to the yoke, the bar, and the rod (Isaiah 9:4). Their very bodies have been bent and beaten. For the people stumbling, battered, and on the edge of death, a light shines (Isaiah 9:2). The road forward, the path to freedom, and the way to God become clear. And against all odds, God shatters the yoke that oppressed them and the rod that beat them. 

Their hope for the future crystallizes in the form of a tiny child (Isaiah 9:6), a royal messiah, anointed king, from the line of David (9:7). And with his birth returns the expectation of justice (9:7). This birth enables the community to come together once more, to reap the fruit of their labors, to celebrate what they have accomplished, and to give thanks for what earth and God have provided for their sustenance (9:3). Harvest happens in peacetime, not in wartime. The boots of warriors had trampled their land. Wounds of battle left their garments stained in blood. As flames devour these accoutrements of war, the people welcome in an era of peace (9:5).

The poem thematizes this word “peace,” in Hebrew shālôm, by means of a repetition that marks it as a key feature of the kingdom this child will inaugurate (Isaiah 9:6, 7). It also holds an emphatic position in the child-king’s titles. He is Wonder, Counselor, God-Warrior, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. Each of these titles highlights a different aspect of his royal role and rule. In each instance, the title of the king demonstrates the close relationship between king and deity; the king helps to make manifest the deity’s power and providence on earth.

Like the day of Midian, the king’s status as “Wonder” testifies to divine miraculous power and capacity for the unexpected and unprecedented (see also Isaiah 25:1; 29:14). God worked a wonder to enable Sarah to conceive her child, Isaac (Genesis 18:14). God worked signs and wonders to free God’s people from slavery in Egypt (for example, Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 4:34). These wonders made possible the people’s future.

The child’s title “Counselor” underscores the divine gift of wisdom that will guide his plans for nation and people (see also Isaiah 11:2). Earlier in the book of Isaiah, this role of counselor is critical for ensuring that Jerusalem is a city of justice and faithfulness (1:26).

“God-Warrior” or “Mighty God” calls attention to God’s own role in protecting God’s people, fighting on their behalf as on the day of Midian. Indeed, at Isaiah 10:21, it is God’s own title (see also Isaiah 42:13). While it seemingly elevates the king’s political and military authority to a divine level, it might better be viewed as a delegated or representative role, whereby the king functions as an agent of God’s deliverance and salvation on earth.

The child is also named “Everlasting Father.” “Father” is an odd thing to call a child. It likens the king’s leadership over the nation to leadership over a family and household (see also Isaiah 22:21). The eternal character of this relationship links the child across time to every king that has preceded him on the throne of David and to all who will follow him. An eternal father implies children in perpetuity. The title thus promises that the people will continue to flourish through the centuries.

The final, climactic title, “Prince of Peace,” does more than herald the cessation of war. “Peace,” or shālôm, also means wholeness, health, and well-being. This is the telos. The child’s rule is for the purpose of the people’s flourishing. Peace will be brought about not through conquest, but through just polity and the practices of righteousness.

The guarantor of this future is none other than God (Isaiah 9:7).  




Commentary on Psalm 96

Rolf Jacobson

The Lord is king!1

One of the most consistent, counter-cultural, and evangelical messages of the Bible is that the Lord reigns as king, the crucified-and-resurrected Christ is king — of our lives, of God’s church, of the world, of history, of the universe. Which means, of course, that we are not. You are not. I am not. No president, emperor, general, CEO, governor, or tyrant is. God is king.

This message is found throughout the Bible. The poetic creation lyrics that can be found in the Bible’s earliest poetry testify that the Lord reigns. The story of the Exodus bears witness to Israel’s confession that the Lord—not Pharaoh—is true God. And the First Commandment means that Israel is to have the Lord as king, rather than any human king (see 1 Samuel 8:7). The prophets prior to the exile and during the exile—Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and “Second Isaiah”—proclaimed that the Lord is king of Judah and of history—the emperors of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia … not so much. They may think they are kings and rule history, but really they are just little surfers riding the front edge of the wave of history, which is being propelled by the Lord.

Although it seems fairly unlikely that very many Christian preachers—if any—will preach on Psalm 96 on Christmas Eve, read this commentary on Psalm 96 as context for your sermon preparation this Christmas.

The Lord’s enthronement: an annual celebration?

Psalm 96 is part of a group of psalms that for the last 100 years or so have been called the “Enthronement Psalms”—Psalms 47, 93, 95, 96, 97, 99. Not to be confused with the so-called “Royal Psalms,” a group of eclectic psalm forms each of which deals with the human, Davidic kings, the Enthronement Psalms are all hymns of praise that celebrate the universal kingship of God.

Each of the Enthronement Psalms contains the phrase “The Lord is king” (Yahweh mā-lāḵ), or a near equivalent of that phrase:

  • “The Lord is king” (93:1)
  • “For the Lord is a great God, a great king” (95:3)
  • “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’” (96:10)
  • “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice” (97:1)
  • “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble” (99:1)
  • “God has gone up with a shout … God is the king” (47:5-7)

The idea of labeling this group of psalms “Enthronement Psalms” was proposed by the great Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel. Mowinckel argued that each year at a special New Year’s/harvest festival, the Lord was ceremonially enthroned as King—not just as Israel’s King, but as the universal King.

As part of the enthronement festival, the shout was made, “The Lord has become King!” Mowinckel made the analogy to Christian Easter worship services, at which worshippers proclaim in liturgy and song, “Christ is risen!”

“In the poet’s imagination,” writes Mowinkcel, “this enthronement of Yahweh is an event which has just taken place, and the hymn of praise is sung to acclaim the new king.”

He continues, this witness is that “Yahweh is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”

For many years Mowinckel’s proposal was widely accepted. For many reasons, most of which are not germane here, most psalms scholars today no longer accept Mowinckel’s historical reconstruction of a new year’s festival.

But this much, at least, we can learn from Mowinckel’s sensitive theological imagination. In our worship, just as in ancient Israel’s worship, we bear witness to not simply to who God was for the early church or to what Jesus did in the past. Rather, in our worship Christmas is “an event which has just taken place, and the hymn of praise is sung to acclaim the new king.” Like Mowinckel, we believe Christ “is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”

The Lord’s Incarnation: an annual witness

Christians celebrate Christmas annually into order to proclaim and observe—in the deepest darkness of winter (in the northern hemisphere anyway) that Christ the Light came into the world in the flesh. Christmas is our annual celebration of the Incarnation.

As part of our annual liturgical rhythm we await (liturgically at any rate) with longing, expectancy, and hope. . . the birth of the Savior. And on Christmas Eve and Day we sing as if Christ really were just now, right here, born.

Consider these lyrics:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king …
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn king;

With angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
All my heart again rejoices
As I hear, far and near,
Sweetest angel voices;
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing,
Till the air everywhere
Now with joy is ringing.
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from your holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth,
Jesus, Lord, as your birth.

Notice especially the present-tense language of our Christmas songs: “Christ is born”; “radiant beams from your holy face … Jesus, Lord, at your birth”; “Christ is born in Bethlehem”; “the Lord is come!”

These examples could be multiplied many times over. But the point is made clear in these few examples: In our annual Christmas worship, Christ “is ever anew witnessed as ‘coming,’ ‘revealing himself,’ and doing works of salvation on earth.”

As mentioned at the start of this commentary, it is very unlikely many, or any, preachers will preach on Psalm 96 on Christmas Eve.

But let this commentary provide a context that frames the importance of what you and your worshipers do on Christmas. You bear witness in the midst of a physically and spiritually dark creation, that Christ the light still entries into our world—and the darkness cannot overcome it.

In your preaching, the coming, revealing, salvation-bringing Christ is born again today.

Second Reading

Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

Jimmy Hoke

The lectionary selects this excerpt from Titus because its language fits into the theological message of incarnation that Christians begin to celebrate with Jesus’ nativity on Christmas Eve. “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all” (2:11) is language we commonly use to open Christmas Eve services. However, when we pay attention to the language throughout this passage and consider its context, we discover ways to approach Titus’ rhetorical use of the appearance of God’s salvation with reverent suspicion. 

Context matters

First, an important and quick reminder about the letter to Titus in general: Though the author claims to be Paul, it is abundantly clear that Paul did not write this letter. Another writer used Paul’s name and reputation to make an argument about the church in the second century (circa 120 C.E.): what it should believe and how it should be structured. 

Whereas Paul speaks of his audiences as loosely structured “assemblies” meeting in houses, the author of Titus presents a firm vision of a structured “church” with clear rules and hierarchies. Their presentation closely aligns their vision of the church with the sociopolitical hierarchy of the Roman Empire. In contrast to competing visions of the Jesus movement (as seen in noncanonical sources like the Acts of Thecla), the letter of Titus desires a church that is socially acceptable and upwardly mobile.

This overview is important for approaching 2:11–14. Titus’ discussion of God’s grace and salvation occurs between two sets of moral exhortations that the author frames theologically as “sound doctrine” (2:1). Repeating Roman household codes, this doctrine mostly involves telling women and enslaved people “to be submissive” to their husbands and enslavers, respectively (2:3–10). The lectionary passage is immediately followed by a command for everyone to be obedient and “subject to rulers and authorities” and to avoid a long list of vices that were considered immoral by most Romans, including “various passions and pleasures” (likely referring to queerer practices). 

Despite how Titus’ language fits with our incarnational theology, we cannot ignore this rhetorical context. These troubling theological exhortations frame how God’s grace appears. Titus’ understanding of incarnation is inseparable from his hierarchical and socially acceptable vision for the church.

The author makes this connection clear in 2:12: “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.” Roman moralists similarly encouraged those final three virtues of moderation, justness, and piety. This makes them characteristic of elite and upwardly mobile behavior in the “present age.” The phrase “worldly passions” (kosmikas epithumias) could also be translated “worldly desires”: Roman imperial morality believed that “real” men moderated their bodily desires (in other words, the virtue “self-control”). This proved their virtuous ability to govern and rule the empire.

The term “worldly passions” carries sexualized and racialized connotations. When moralists (Roman and biblical) speak of “passions” and “desires,” they almost always emphasize sexual behavior. “Improper” or “immoral” passions involve everything that does not emphasize the power and control of Roman men, including most homoerotic behavior and any form of intercourse that appeared to empower women or enslaved people. 

These sexualized passions were racialized because Roman men propagated the idea that “worldly passions” thrived among foreigners: the inhabitants of the nations they would go on to conquer. According to Rome, conquest brought Roman sexual morality to these many nations. (Europeans did the same thing to justify the colonization of Africa, the Americas, and Asia.)

When the author of Titus celebrates the “blessed hope” that the appearance of God’s salvation brings, he gives theological rationale that continues the argument he made in 2:1–11. The appearance of God’s salvation makes moral living more urgent: Jesus Christ appeared and “gave himself” to “redeem us from all iniquity” and cleanse people to become “zealous for good deeds” (see 2:14). For Titus, God’s salvation makes space for moral purity in the present. Therefore, just as they required a church structure that reflected Rome’s sociopolitical hierarchy, the author demands moral living in these Roman terms. 

Cautious incarnation

Awareness of this rhetoric invites us to be reverently suspicious of Titus. We see how salvation theology justifies racialized and sexualized moral hierarchies that justifies the conquest and oppression of different people. This empowers us to name the ways these theologies continue to oppress marginalized people in the church and in the world. It is possible that a few congregations may be hungry for a sermon that digs into and denounces these theological injustices we see in this text, though I suspect that is rare on Christmas Eve!

But this context informs a cautious approach to Titus. It helps us speak responsibly and meaningfully about Jesus’ incarnation for all people—starting with the most marginalized, now and then. How Jesus saves matters. We might reframe a liturgical or homiletical approach to Titus to instead emphasize a Jesus and a salvation that became worldly and passionate. Instead of rejecting the “immorality” that was thrust upon marginalized populations in the Roman Empire (as Titus 2:11–14 does), we could celebrate the appearance of God who made us passionate in the same way they made their Child passionate when taking human form.

This approach remembers the women and enslaved folks whom Titus attempts to silence and keep down. Titus’ argument is rhetorical: he makes it because many second-century Christians disagreed and dissented—and there is ample evidence they did so and continued to do so long after Titus was canonized. If women and enslaved folks demanded leadership roles and freedom from the church, they or others may have resisted the colonizing demands of Roman moral purity. Reverent suspicion toward Titus gives flesh to these other voices and views, placing them alongside Christ as a living incarnation of God’s promises for justice.