Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

Preaching on Christmas Eve is an exercise in strong, gentle truth.

December 24, 2008

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

Preaching on Christmas Eve is an exercise in strong, gentle truth.

Luke’s literary masterpiece is “the Christmas Gospel” even in secular minds and hearts far from God. The children, candlelight, and carols reach into lives troubled with pain and despair, offering the incredible promise of hope to people who may show up only once a year.

How can this promise be trusted in a world that is lonely and unforgiving? Herod’s murderous response in Matthew to Jesus’ birth may be more credible to people hardened by harsh political realities, ancient and modern. But the wonder of the Christmas Gospel is not mere sentiment. “Silent Night, Holy Night” is a testimony to a divine mercy ready to pay the price of rejection and death. The little town of Bethlehem lies still before our eyes, but as he wrote the hymn, Philip Brooks knew: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” How can the strong, gentle truth be told?

Luke’s narrative invites a calm, slow telling. The lectionary considers splitting portions between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Why hurry the greatest story ever told? Read all twenty verses twice! In preparing to preach, read all of chapters 1 and 2 in Luke to notice for yourself the rich parallels between the annunciations, births, and childhoods of John the Baptizer and Jesus. Then read 1 Samuel 1-2 and remember the remarkable childhood of Samuel, the prophet, who anointed King David of Bethlehem. Luke’s narrative is a sequel in an ancient scriptural story, now with you, as God’s bard, telling it forward. The enduring truth of Jesus’ story is grounded in Israel’s past.

Many families read the story of Jesus’ birth in their Christmas rituals at home. Some still think only the King James Version has the real Christmas Gospel, and they may be partly right. Luke’s literary style was actually antiquated in the first century, because the evangelist was imitating the prose of Israel’s more ancient scriptures. “And it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” More modern translations, if they are good, will also communicate the profound assurance that Jesus’ birth marks God’s entry into the long flow of human history: good, bad, and indifferent.

And probably by the time Luke composed this narrative, the question of God’s role in history was agonizing in Israel and dismal in the Roman Empire.

In the Roman realm, the golden age of Caesar Augustus had become a betrayed promise, filled with increasingly oppressive claims for the divinity of Caligula or Nero, then caught in the brutal struggles for imperial power closing the silver age at the end of the first century CE. Plutarch’s dialogue “On the Delay of Divine Vengeance” announced that only public repentance could avert the consequences of Roman decadence. Meanwhile, when the Roman legions besieged Jerusalem, burned the temple, and decimated the population, faithful Jewish groups throughout the empire in turn wondered, “What sin has brought this upon us? Have God’s promises failed?”

Within Luke’s rich story of Jesus and the apostolic movement, the Christmas Gospel testifies confidently to God’s fidelity and announces God’s reign. Luke’s narrative is thoroughly scriptural. Even the angels speak “Biblish.” Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem among shepherds because God chose David from a sheepfold to rule (Psalm 78:70-71). The miraculous “sign” of the infant (Luke 2:12, 15-16) is a reenactment of God’s prophetic promise from another troubled time in Israel’s history (Isaiah 7:14: see a direct use of the Greek version of the Isaiah prophecy in Matthew 1:22-23). All the titles for this new born king (Luke 2:11) are scriptural: “Savior,” “Messiah,” and “Lord.” Appearances to the contrary, Jesus’ birth means God’s rule on earth is gathering strength.

In a traditional Cameroon carol, the choir repeatedly asks, “Why did he come?” The wonder of Christmas is both that Jesus embodies God’s reign among mortals and why God’s presence among us is good news. Martin Luther’s classic Christmas hymn also catches this gentle truth, which he took straight from the song of the heavenly host:

“From heav’n above to earth I come
To bring good news to ev’ry one!
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To all the world, and gladly sing.”
In Jesus, God inaugurated his reign among us because we need it.
Let the preaching begin! But let it be gentle because even the truth can hurt.1

Yes, the armies of heaven break forth in song, and the shepherds tell everyone, prompting amazement. Maybe it is easier for the angels. They know the holy splendor of God’s rule in heaven. Perhaps the shepherds could receive the news of God’s reign with pure hearts. Jesus will later thank God (Luke 10:21) for having “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants.” The simplicity of the first public witnesses is a wonder. Jesus’ apostles have surprising credentials: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24).

Mary teaches the gentle truth of this story. Earlier she received Gabriel’s remarkable announcement of her pregnancy with wonder (1:34: “How can this be?”) and in trust (1:37: “Let it be!”). Her “magnificat” (1:46-55) measured the full impact of God’s reign on the proud and powerful. Now (2:19) preaching without speaking, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” And almost immediately (2:35), Simeon will warn her that “a sword will pierce your own soul too!”

Luke’s Christmas Gospel invites treasuring the words, awe at the splendor of God’s faithfulness, and wonder about where it will lead for “all the world.” The gentle truth invites all who see and hear to return for Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. God’s drama is just beginning to unfold.

1Martin Luther, “From Heaven Above,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ed. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Minneapolis; Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #268.