Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

“Blow out the candles,” declared the old evangelist, “the sun is up!”

December 25, 2008

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Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20

“Blow out the candles,” declared the old evangelist, “the sun is up!”

How Will He Govern?

Christmas Day may be the only worship many people attend, and reading all twenty verses of “The Christmas Gospel” is a good idea anyway. Remembering the glow of Christmas Eve, we sing:

“When Christmas morn is dawning, I wish that I could be
There by the manger cradle God’s Son, new born to see.”1

This is the point. Touched by the story of how he was born, yearning to trust God’s promises fulfilled in his birth, our quest is now urgent to know what Jesus means. His titles, announced by the angels (2:11), are all scriptural and Jewish: Savior, Messiah, and Lord. With the Greeks in John’s gospel (12:21), “We wish to see Jesus!” Against broader backdrop of the Roman order, the public impact of Jesus’ roles emerges in broad daylight. As in a season when our nation awaits the inauguration of a new president, the whole world sharply watches Jesus for signs of how he will govern.

“Messiah” is the Hebrew version of the Greek word christos, “anointed one,” and “Jesus Christ” will almost become a proper name for Jesus of Nazareth. “Jesus Messiah” would be a stunning translation, keeping Jesus’ followers alert to God’s worldly reign. Study Bibles will note “the Christ” as an alternative translation, but the royal, Davidic promise of God’s Messiah is correctly sounded in the NRSV. The Greek and Roman rulers probably regarded “anointed kings” as peculiar to the Eastern regions, but they did not miss the divine claim.

“Lord” is a pervasive scriptural title for Israel’s God with a history of challenge to the Baals who were the lord rulers and deities of the ancient near east. In and beyond the era of the neo-Babylonian and Greek empires, God’s self-declarations as Lord and Savior in Isaiah’s prophetic speech sounded a protest to all rulers: “I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…I, I am the Lord and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses” (Isaiah 43:3, 11-13; see also Isaiah 45:21).

Luke is the only synoptic evangelist to ascribe the title “Savior” to Jesus (see also 1:47, speaking of God; Acts 5:31; 13:23 and John 4:42). The title is public, more than personal. The promise in the angel’s announcement of Jesus the Savior is a declaration of God’s kingdom come to earth, not first about how we are saved from the world for heaven. The script for the divine drama remains Isaiah’s prophetic program, as Jesus’ inaugural address in Nazareth reveals (Luke 4:14-30; Isaiah 58 and 61).

The opening verses of Luke 2 are essential to the impact of these titles. Jesus’ birth is linked with Caesar Augustus’ “decree” for the registration of “all the world.” “Augustus” is itself an epithet for Octavian whom the Roman Senate declared to be “the August One,” worthy of divine favor and human adulation. Luke also mentions Quirinius in this chapter, then places John and Jesus in the context of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Herod Antipas (3:1). Roman rule and occupation are present in the whole Luke-Acts narrative. On trial before the Procurator Festus and the client king Agrippa, Paul testifies, “”The king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am sure none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

Octavian’s reign was heralded in decrees, ceremonies, and monuments throughout the empire. One inscription from Priene, probably written before the time of Jesus’ birth, testifies to Augustus as the Savior filled with a hero’s soul, never to be surpassed: “the birthday of this God is for the world the beginning of the Gospel-festivals celebrated in his honor.” “Caesar is Lord!” was official political theology throughout the empire. For their part, however, the first Christians declared “Jesus is Lord!” And in Luke’s Gospel, God’s Messiah, Savior, and Lord is born in Octavian’s time in a Bethlehem sheepfold.

Christmas Day is a time to announce God’s kingdom embodied in Jesus. Jesus is the answer to our prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, now and in the age to come. All who wish to see Jesus may now learn how his dominion will alter the world and their lives.

Caesar Augustus was heralded as the ideal for a rule of peace through strength. Later generations remembered Rome’s “Golden Age” with awe, but Augustus and his successors were also more brutal because of their claims to divine authority. The wisdom and integrity of every political system and its leaders are important to the world and its peoples, but the kingdom of God will not come with any new administration.

Born in the midst of human systems of virtue and hypocrisy, Jesus did not merely set a higher moral standard or frame a political ideal. Jesus enacted the merciful peace God had in mind for the world all along and disclosed the future of God’s ultimate reign. “We speak God’s wisdom,” declared the Apostle Paul, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8).

In Bethlehem we see Jesus, God in the flesh. In Galilee we see Jesus inaugurating God’s reign. In Jerusalem, we see Christ crucified and raised to give all the peoples of the world the gift of reconciliation to one another, the world, and God. And on Pentecost, we see the exalted Messiah, Lord, and Savior empowering mortal apostolic witnesses like us. This is how Jesus governs until God’s kingdom is ultimately disclosed.

1Elisabeth Ehrenborg-Posse, “When Christmas Morn is Dawning,” in Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978,) #59.