The image of the angel appearing in the fields with all the glory to announce the birth of the Messiah stood out to me and stayed with me. The story brought great joy every time I heard it, but it also struck me as surprising. I would have expected such a grand announcement accompanied by all the pomp to occur in a royal palace far away from the fields.
Luke informs readers that the shepherds in the field were terrified when the angel appeared to them. The Greek phrase Luke uses literally means, “They were afraid with great fear.” It sounds somewhat redundant, but Luke is really driving home the point that the whole encounter was extremely terrifying to those shepherds. It is the unexpected and supernatural nature of the encounter that is especially unsettling to them. Surprisingly, the shepherds seem to get over their fear fairly quickly and decide to take a trip to Bethlehem to see the newborn child.
The angelic announcement contains key words such as “good news,” “savior,” and “Lord.” All of those were terms that were used and popularized by the Roman Empire. But there is a qualitative difference in how Luke employs them in this text. The good news in the context of the Roman Empire was meant almost always for the elite few, but the angelic announcement makes it clear that this good news would bring joy to all people.
The story of the angelic announcement comes immediately after Luke’s account of Augustus Caesar issuing a decree that census be taken. Everyone in the Roman Empire was required to participate in the census, but from an imperial point of view, only the elite few were entitled to joy, respect, and dignity. Within this political context, the promise of good news bringing joy to all the people is significant.
The shepherds are also told that the savior has been born to them. The dative preposition humin is translated as “to you” but, within the context, more accurately means “for you.” Soteyr, the Greek word for “savior,” was used by the Roman Empire to refer to the emperor. Whereas the soteyr of the Roman Empire, the emperor, consistently worked for those at the top, this soteyr was born for, and for the benefit of, shepherds and others like them.
The angelic announcement opens up the possibility of a very different reality for shepherds than what they had been subjected to. Could this really be true? Would such a reality actually materialize? They are about to travel to Bethlehem to find out. Impressively, the shepherds quickly move from a state of fear to an ability, or at least a willingness, to envision a different reality than their current situation, both for themselves and for others like them.
There are two key parts to the song that the heavenly host sings so spontaneously: “Glory to God in heaven” and “peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.” The two parts are paralleled and placed right next to each other. There is significance to that placement. Coupling that promise about peace with glory to God suggests that the two aspects are interlinked. That is, God is glorified as much as there is peace on earth for those whom God favors.
So far, in Luke’s narrative we have seen who the recipients of God’s favor are. It is people like Mary and the shepherds. We will notice again in subsequent Lukan sections, such as the Nazareth episode and the Beatitudes, that it is the powerless and the underprivileged who will receive God’s favor and peace.
The word “peace” was popular in the Roman imperial lexicon. Pax Romana (Roman peace) was about ensuring peace for those at the top, oftentimes by subjecting those at the margins to excessive violence. The Roman Empire did not see peace at the top and violence at the margins as paradoxical realities but as complementary components. That is, from their perspective, the only way to ensure peace at the top was by subjecting those at the margins to excessive violence. An extension of that approach and worldview is that it was acceptable to subject those at the bottom to unimaginable violence in order to ensure that those at the top could enjoy uninterrupted peace.
It is not too different from modern contexts where some individuals and communities are subjected to excessive violence on the pretext of ensuring that privileged communities can lead peaceful lives. But here is the angel, proclaiming peace precisely to those at the bottom of the Roman Empire.
Later in this section, Luke talks about how the shepherds glorified and praised God. Unlike the Roman emperor, who was keen to impress those at the top, this Lord will seek glory from those who did not seem to matter to those in power.
The shepherds made haste to visit the Christ child and celebrate his arrival. The Christ child whom the shepherds celebrated challenged the ethos and power of the empire that privileged a few at the expense of the many powerless. In this season of Advent and Christmas, we too eagerly anticipate and welcome the Christ child. We joyfully celebrate the Christ child who brought, and continues to bring, joy to all people.
Advent and Christmas are seasons of hope amid fear and despair. The arrival of new life in Christ imbues us with hope and reminds us that life triumphs in the midst of death and death-dealing structures of the empire.
But the child comes in many forms. And we are reminded in this holy season that every child, when nurtured with Christ-consciousness, can be empowered to dismantle the power of the empire. As we make careful preparations for the arrival of the Christ child and joyfully make many accommodations to our lives in order to welcome him, we are called to welcome all children with similar joy, eagerness, and anticipation.
Isaiah 62:6–12 is a text written in the wake of military and societal defeat. Even though the defeat likely happened at some remove from the poem’s composition, the shame associated with defeat haunts lines like “I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored” (verse 8). Even more dramatically, in an earlier section of the poem the author claims, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate” (verse 4). Alienation from labor, land, and dignity resulted in a gaping rift. At its core, this poem acknowledges its audience’s pain and urges them to consider that they are living in a pivotal moment, when the old was giving way to the new.
But what is the nature of that change? Who is involved? And when will it happen? Those are the kinds of questions that human beings often ask when they realize that the ground is shifting. We want to know the “who, what, when, where, and why” answers—and we want to know them now.
This section of Isaiah 62 begins with an invitation to agency. The prophet claims that “I” (Yhwh) have posted “guardians” (also translated as watchmen, sentinels, et cetera) on Jerusalem’s walls day and night. They have an unusual task. Rather than watching out for enemies and threats, their job is to remind Yhwh (verse 6) and “give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth” (verse 7). Like the widow in Luke 18, these guardians were called to pester Yhwh until fulfillment was granted.
At issue is not that Yhwh is forgetful or lazy but rather that the faithful are invited to merge their persistence with God’s own and to keep the needs of the people perpetually in God’s presence—the one place where they could be definitively and effectively addressed. The long vigil of the “guardians” bears witness to Yhwh’s deep and persistent commitment to restore Jerusalem:
For Zion’s sake I [Yhwh] will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch (verse 1).
The poet is fixated on convincing his audience that Yhwh was committed to a bright future for Jerusalem and that they should be as well. Along similar lines Yhwh also calls to make preparations for dramatic changes:
Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way [panu dereck] for the people; build up, build up the highway [hameseelah], clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples (verse 10).
The language of these verses intentionally echoes the more widely known 40:3:
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way [panu dereck] of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway [meseelah] for our God.
In addition to these lexical connections, both texts also address an unnamed group of people—likely the text’s audience itself. The author(s) hoped to convince their readers/listeners that God was on the move and working for their good. These intentional, intra-Isaianic echoes suggest that the revelation and salvation of God in Isaiah 62 is a continuation of God’s restorative work in Isaiah 40.
Yhwh chooses not to undertake this act of salvation alone. The poem seeks to enlist others whose persistence and faithfulness were to mirror God’s own. Both divine and human agency were to play a role in the birthing of this new future. While this claim might cause some contemporary readers to shift uncomfortably in their chairs, it may just be that a sense of agency in the wake of historical trauma was exactly what was needed for this deeply disempowered audience.
The poem offers its audience a way to participate in Yhwh’s restoration of Jerusalem, but the author also leaves one with the impression that this gleaming new future might take time to emerge—how long, nobody knows. The guardians were, after all, to be on Jerusalem’s walls “day and night,” offering Yhwh no rest until the work was done (verses 6–7). The audience existed within a season of transition between defeat and restoration, but without any clear sense of when the page would be fully turned.
And this is where the prophet’s audacious poetry makes a pragmatic concession to the traumatized world of his audience. He promises them a new world, but on an uncertain timeline. The audience had something to do and to cultivate, but it wouldn’t bear immediate fruit.
The fact that there would be a delay between the promise and its realization also rings true to the modern Christian ear. In fact, this is the theological space Christians more frequently occupy. It is the very reason we continue to pray “Thy kingdom come” when we gather together. To speak plainly, we pray for it because it hasn’t happened yet—at least not in an ultimate way. Desolation, forsakenness, defeat, savagery, and trauma continue to ravage this world day in and day out, seemingly without any end in sight. God’s redemptive work is often hidden and elusive. It can be perceived, however, in the persistence of God’s people as we patiently and prayerfully clear a path for God’s arrival.
The first line of Psalm 97 marks it as one of several “enthronement psalms” found in the Psalter (Psalms 47, 93, 95-99).1
These psalms typically feature the phrase “The Lord is king,” sometimes translated “The Lord reigns” or “The Lord has become king” (93:1; 95:3; 96:10; 98:6; 99:1; cf. 47:7-8).
These different translations reflect alternate views about the original cultic background of these texts. Many scholars think the enthronement psalms belonged to an annual festival that reaffirmed Yahweh’s kingship over the world. Unfortunately, only the psalms remain to provide a witness to such a festival, so the specific liturgical details are difficult to pin down.
Despite their obscure origins, the enthronement psalms bear a rich theological witness as they explore the implications of Yahweh’s ultimate authority. The first half of Psalm 97 describes how nature reacts to God’s power (vv. 1-6a). The second half of the psalm (vv. 6b-12) portrays the human reaction. In sum, the psalm shows how the advent of Yahweh’s kingdom elicits a worldwide response.
Yahweh’s cosmic Kingship
In v. 1 the psalmist calls “the earth” to respond to God’s rule with joy (v. 1a). Hebrew cosmology understood “the earth” to be a body of land bounded by oceans. Thus the call for the “many coastlands” to join in happy praise (v. 1b) reinforces the idea of the vastness of the earth and the full extent of its happiness. God’s rule enlivens all the land, to every shoreline, in every direction.
The psalm then describes the thick clouds that both obscure the divine presence and represent God’s power in the world (v. 2). Though shrouded in clouds and darkness, God’s throne in the celestial realm is nevertheless firmly established on the twin principles of divine rule: righteousness and justice (v. 2).
Such a pairing occurs at numerous points throughout the Psalter (e.g., Psalms 33:5; 72:1, 2; 89:14; 99:4). We might understand righteousness as the state of being in right relationships, while justice is the process by which such relationships are restored and maintained. Together, righteousness and justice characterize God’s nature even as they describe God’s plan for the human community to live together. God’s justice is embodied through the fire (v. 3) and lightning (v. 4), which illuminate the darkness and obliterate those who might challenge God’s rule.
Such an awesome display of divine power actually reshapes the world. Verses 4-5 describe the effects of sudden, dramatic earthquakes (v. 4b) and the slow process of erosion (the mountains melting like wax, v. 5a). In the poetic language of the psalm, all of these earth-changing processes are focused into a single and eternal moment of Yahweh’s self-revelation.
Yahweh as King of Kings
Verse 6 functions as a hinge between the two halves of the poem. The first line summarizes the response of the cosmos to its king, with heaven proclaiming Yahweh’s righteousness. The second part of v. 6 shifts the focus to the human community: “all the peoples” now reflect God’s power.
The advent of the king reveals the truth about the political and religious structures of power. The polemic against idols and other gods found in vv. 7-9 is, at its core, a statement that God’s power is more effective than any other. False powers will fail. God alone reigns as king. Since God has established the cosmic order, only God can bring about order and right relationships within the realm human affairs.
Emphasizing the singularity of divine power creates a sense of solidarity among those who earnestly seek to be faithful to God. As there is one God, those who preserve God’s order in the world are drawn into one community. This community is solidified through corporate praise, which actualizes the power of God. Praise reveals God’s power just as God’s power could be seen in all the mighty forces of nature: earth and clouds, light and darkness (vv. 1-6a).
Yahweh Most High
In the vertical social structure of the ancient world, height means might. Huge temples showed the power of the gods worshipped there. High fortified towers signaled a king’s control over vast territories. Colossal statuary of the king and the gods showed how their power could overwhelm all others. So for the text to claim that God is “most high over all the earth” (v. 9) attests God’s size, power, and position with respect to all others. Nothing surpasses God. In fact, no image created by humans can come close to representing God’s supremacy (cf. v. 7).
Yet this highly exalted divine king is not occupied solely with the affairs of heaven. Instead, the Most High reaches down from the heavenly throne to preserve and protect the community of faithful. The final verses of the psalm relate God’s deep engagement in human lives. God intervenes to bring about salvation and establish justice (v. 10). God gladdens and illuminates (v. 11, cf. v. 4). God brings joy to the world as earth receives her king.
An Enthronement Psalm and the Nativity
Indeed, all affirmations of Yahweh’s kingship take on a new significance in the season of Christmas. In Psalm 97, God’s self-revelation as king prompts the entire world to respond. The human community longs to experience God’s saving power (v. 10). They yearn for the justice and right relationship that provide the very foundation of God’s throne (v. 2).
God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ redefines authority and power. As king, Jesus reveals love as the truest power, a force for justice and righteousness. When Christians hear the psalm’s affirmation that “the Lord is king,” they can draw connections between the kingship of Yahweh and the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Psalm 97 derives from an ancient enthronement ritual, a celebration the advent of Yahweh’s kingship. For Christians today, the feast of Christmas reframes this ancient liturgy. Psalm 97 can herald the birth of a heavenly king who is the realization of God’s justice and righteousness in the world.
This excerpt from Titus blends the Christmas language of incarnation (“the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” 3:4) with baptismal language (“through the water of birth and renewal,” 3:5). Some scholars suggest that Titus 3:4–7 originally comes from an ancient Christian baptismal liturgy that the author quotes. Though they cannot confirm this, the suggestion is quite plausible and helps make sense of the shift from moral commands in 3:1–3 and 3:8–11 to this theological liturgy. (Paul also does this several times in his authentic letters, including the baptismal formula in Galatians 3:28 and the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:6–11.)
Engaging with this text on Christmas opens us to the diverse perspectives that shape our liturgies, which can help us embody Christ’s light and love in the world.
First, an important and quick reminder about the letter to Titus: 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 context helps us appreciate the rhetorical framing of 3:4–7 within Titus’ argument. The author inserts this liturgy amid a series of moral commands to the letter’s audience.
The passage immediately follows the author’s commands to be submissive and obedient to (Roman) rulers (3:1) and to avoid certain vices. The vices listed in 3:3 echo the longer string of vices that Paul applies to Gentiles in Romans 1:29–31. Both vice lists repeat racialized Roman morality, which attributed these vices to the inhabitants of the non-Roman nations that Rome conquered and ruled.
The passage is followed by more commands in Titus 3:8–11, which emphasize not being dissentious or quarrelsome (3:9) and encourage the audience to stop associating with anyone who “causes divisions” (3:10) because they are “perverted and sinful” (3:11). This moral guidance is part of the author’s overall project of shaping the church in a particular sociopolitical direction: one that is united around a moral hierarchy that reflects Roman imperial custom.
This direction influences the author’s theology. Differing from other early Christian baptismal liturgies (for example, Galatians 3:28), Titus’ liturgy connects salvation to baptism. Salvation, for the author of Titus, is something that has already been completed—whereas for earlier writers like Paul, salvation is collective and will not be complete until the future coming (parousia) of God’s justice. For Titus, moral living is prerequisite for salvation; for Paul and others, moral living is a joyous response to God’s promise to save all people. For Titus, baptism marks salvation. Therefore, Titus demands that their baptized audience must live morally under the terms set by the author (and Rome) in the rest of the letter.
As 3:4–7 is a liturgical insert in a theological argument, we need to be cautious about excerpting it without seeing this wider context. It connects salvation and baptism in ways that theologically support particular ways of living at the expense of others. It theologically renders dissenters, rebels, and marginalized, conquered peoples as unworthy of salvation because of their purportedly inherent immorality.
Making space for additional perspectives with liturgy
Could there be value to the liturgical words expressed in this passage beyond how Titus uses it? How might we reclaim that value while celebrating Christ’s coming into the world?
There are other voices and perspectives around this passage and letter. The author makes their argument because other Christians dissented. Titus uses this theological appeal to baptismal salvation to quarrel with them and support his vision for the church. If we accept the suggestion that 3:4–7 could have been a commonly used liturgy among second-century Christians, then we have some of those different voices embedded in the letter itself! When pastors refer to scripture or a hymn in sermons, it is often because those words have meaning and authority to the folks assembled to listen. The author of Titus draws from this liturgy because it was familiar and had value to the audience they are trying to persuade.
This recognition helps us look critically at how Titus uses 3:4–7 and ask why and how its theological words inspired others—especially folks who disagreed with the author.
Perhaps they emphasized the “loving kindness” of God’s salvation that brought them “rebirth and renewal” through the pouring out of water during their baptism. For some early Christian women leaders, baptism marked a calling to leadership and living that visibly unsettled Rome’s sociopolitical hierarchy. Some of those leaders could have interpreted this liturgy very differently from Titus, in ways that profoundly validated their calling and ministry in the church. If some of the audience loved this liturgy and strongly disagreed with the author’s moral commands, they might have interrupted the letter’s reader and vocally contested using these beloved words for this purpose.
As Christians celebrate the salvation that Jesus’ incarnation promises this Christmas, engaging with Titus 3:4–7 invites us to celebrate the many perspectives that different people hold dear to their theologies, past and present. Like choirs of angels singing descants in exaltation, we do not have to use liturgy to quell dissent: we can use it to sing in harmonious discord that includes and embraces difference and dissent. Whether preaching on Titus or using 3:4–7 in part of a Christmas liturgy, it is possible to proclaim it in ways that give voice to the many dissenting ways people make meaning with it.