Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

Of all the lections assigned to me by, this, by far, is the hardest.

Madonna and Child
"Madonna and Child," Sadao Watanabe. Used by permission from the artist. Image © 1979 by Sadao Watanabe.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

December 25, 2017

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

Of all the lections assigned to me by, this, by far, is the hardest.

After three false starts, all scrapped, I’m tempted to concede defeat. I can’t, because you, dear preachers, haven’t that luxury.

We know the difficulties. Luke 2:1-20 is among the most familiar in scripture. What can one say that does not shrivel into cliché? Since 1965 this text’s most memorable preacher may be Linus van Pelt, trailing his blanket into a spotlight, center stage, in A Charlie Brown Christmas. All he did was recite it. “That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Of one thing I’m sure: To lose oneself on Christmas Day in exegetical minutiae is to deliver a sermon dead on arrival. With the commentators you can fret over the historicity of the reported census (Luke 2:1-3). You can throw your listeners a dozen facts about first-century shepherds. Within minutes an already exhausted congregation will have fallen fast asleep. The result: betrayal of a text that is the ultimate wake-up call.

In my view four angles on this lection drive to the matter’s heart. Do with them as you will.

  1. As Luke has structured it, this story is a cymbal-crash. Almighty God explodes this world’s mundanity. The fields outside Bethlehem (Luke 2:4) might as well be Dullsville, U.S.A. Herding (2:8) is tedious. Registering taxpayers (2:1-3) is dreary. Fully booked guest rooms are monotonous (2:7). Before her pregnancy an angel visited Mary (1:26-38), but Gabriel never showed up when she gave birth. Forget the Renaissance paintings and Hallmark cards: a feeding trough for a cradle (2:7), amid mule turds, is not the stuff of romance.

BOOM! Not only one angel but an entire celestial chorus electrifies the night sky before a handful of outliers (2:9-14) who know nothing of what happened in Luke 1:5-80. The difference is that between a lonely candle in the dark and a light that blows out the motherboard of Consolidated Edison. God has decided to invade our tired, banal lives with a vision and message so spectacular as to be incredible — unless, like those shepherds, we are ready to seize and believe it (2:15-20).

  1. None of this makes logical sense. The heavenly host did not appear outside Caesar’s palace (the real one, not the Vegas hustle-house) or Governor Quirinius’s mansion (Luke 2:1-2). The news is delivered to a bunch of nobodies like us. “I am bringing you good news” (2:10). “To you is born this day” (2:11). “This will be a sign for you: You will find” (2:12). This message comes to us.

What is the message? This is the birthday of “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” All the ascriptions Caesar made of himself are bogus. For that matter, many of the attributes of God himself — “Savior” (Isaiah 43:3; Hosea 13:4), “the Lord” (Psalm 30:4; 135:1) — are now, by God’s own decree, concentrated in a single newborn, whose only power at this moment is to suck his mother’s breast, mewl, pee, and puke. Mary and Joseph make no claims of their child. They say nothing at all. The shepherds reveal to the parents, and to anyone else whose paths they cross, just what God revealed to them (Luke 2:16-18). Take a step back and consider how preposterous all this is.

  1. God’s news is incomprehensibly good: “great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). This day there is not one shred of judgment, wrath, anger, or punishment — for us or anyone else. Do we want freedom from that which shackles us? This day, and all the days to come, it is ours for the asking. Do we really want peace? This day, and all the days that follow, God’s peace — whole, sound, irrepressible, permanent — is available “on earth to those whom he favors” or “who know God’s good pleasure” (2:14). That promise carries more than one connotation: God has chosen those with the capacity to embrace his goodness to receive it.
  2. God does not force us to yield. God grants us freedom to respond. In these few verses we witness a remarkable variety of responses:
  • Terror when standing before God’s sheer radiance (Luke 2:9). An angel allays the fear (2:10), but ridding it is hard. When the curtain is pulled back to reveal a platoon of angels in front of us, the sight is unnerving. Who knew that God lives so close to us?
  • Outbursts of praise: “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Luke 2:14). That is the angelic response. The Revelation to John (4:8) reminds us that the angels hymn God’s majesty nonstop day and night. The shepherds in Luke 2:20 have learned the music and continue to sing it.
  • Stimulus to witness: “Let’s go and see” (Luke 2:15). “They made [it] known” (2:17).
  • Amazement (Luke 2:18) is a predictable yet complex reaction. As Luke reminds us elsewhere, it may lead to no firm conclusion: “Today we’ve seen some strange things” (5:26). Some are amazed and baffled (4:36). Some are amazed and judgmental (11:38). Others are astounded by God’s greatness (9:43). Still others are amazed, and then turn violent (4:22-30). Even young Jesus’ “father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him” (2:33): an astonishment that will cross over to anxious reprimand (2:48).
  • Acceptance with deep pondering: “Mary stored up all these things, tossing and turning them over in her heart” (my translation of Luke 2:19). This, perhaps, is the most intriguing response. Of all this story’s figures, Mary has received more inside information (1:26-45) and has burst into song at the wonder of it (1:46-55). Even she cannot take it all in. A few days later, while in the temple (2:21, 27), old Simeon will give her more to mull: by her child “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (2:35).

The thread interweaving everything is God’s mystery. Don’t try to solve it. Today, please proclaim it.