Christmas Day – December 25, 2014
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Isaiah 52.7-10||Psalm 98||Hebrews 1.1-4||John 1.1-14|
By David J. Lull
“What God has done and is doing in the world for all peoples” is the theme for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!
Can Bible commentators, or preachers, say anything new about Christmas? Perhaps not. Maybe they don’t need to try (or should not try). We could just invite people to celebrate the birth of Jesus and repeat the Christian affirmation: “This is the Messiah, Savior of the world!” God knows the world needs saving, perhaps more today than ever! And we need to find good news to celebrate when the news is so full of bad news! Many Christians who know that Jesus is the reason for the season will find joy in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth long ago and let the baby Jesus fill their hearts with peace, hope, and love. And well they should!
I am reluctant to suggest another approach this High Holy Day, but I will anyway. As I do, I remember the warning with which Krister Stendahl (Swedish Lutheran Bishop and Harvard New Testament scholar) began his 1983 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, to the effect that High Holy Days are not for preaching morals. They are for boldly proclaiming and festively celebrating the marvelous acts of God! I would add a bit of hyperbole: the High Holy Day of Christmas is first about God and secondarily (but importantly) about Jesus! [Compare Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), vol. 12:24.]
What I mean is evident in the lectionary readings for Christmas Day:
- Isa 52.7-10 proclaims the reign of God, who had returned to Zion, comforted and redeemed God’s people, by showing “all the nations” God’s “holy arm,” as that of a mighty warrior, revealing God’s salvation to “all the ends of the earth.”
- Psalm 98, which echoes Isaiah, calls the people to a grand celebration of the “marvelous things” the Lord has done with God’s“right hand” and “holy arm”: namely, “victory,” in full view of “the nations,” indeed, to “all the ends of the earth,” showing God’s“steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.”
- Heb 1.1-4 begins with “God spoke long ago” through prophets, but “in these last days” through “a Son,” through whom Godcreated “the worlds” and who “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (NRSV).
- John 1.1-14 recasts Gen 1.1-3 (“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, … God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”) in the form of a poetic narrative of God’s divine Word, which “became flesh and took up residence among us.”
Christmas is a time to remind Christians—both those who are old-timers and those who are new to the Christian faith—that Christian faith is about faith in what God has done in and through Jesus. Or, to put it the other way around, it is about faith in Jesus’ witness to the realityof God in words and deeds. On the High Holy Day of Christmas, the focus of proclamation should be on what God says in and through “a Son.”
Isaiah 52.7-10 (the message of Psalm 98 is essentially the same):
For the prophets and for ancient Israel in general, God is revealed through persons and in historical events. They interpreted historical events as “acts of God.”
Textual note #1: The “messenger” announcing “salvation” is Zion/Jerusalem (compare Isa 52.9 and 40.9). After the Judeans’ return from their Babylonian captivity (in 6th century bce), Jerusalem itself, still lying in ruins, cries out, “Your God reigns!” Of course, this is the poetic imagination of the post-exilic prophet, writing in the name of Isaiah, so that the prophet also is the “messenger” with the “beautiful feet.” Christians, reading this text on Christmas Day, will assume that the “messenger” with the “beautiful feet” is Jesus, who proclaimed to Judeans under Roman occupation, “Your God reigns!” For the Apostle Paul, the “messengers” with “beautiful feet” were missionaries carrying the gospel of God’s salvation first to Israelites, and then to gentiles (Rom 10.15).
Textual note #2: The baring of God’s “holy arm” symbolizes the revelation of God’s power (also see Psalm 98): that is, that “Your God reigns!” This proclamation contrasts with the Babylonians’ conquest of Jerusalem and the exile of Judeans, and consequently God’s absence from Zion. With the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, the city, the Judeans, and the prophet proclaim, “The Lord has returned to Zion!” That means that, for the Judeans who had been in exile for the better part of the 6th century bce, “salvation” and “redemption” were geo-political realities. Cyrus, the Persian king, liberated the Judeans, enabled them to return from Babylon to Judea, and helped them rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Because God’s salvation of Israel came through Cyrus, Isaiah called this Persian king God’s “anointed”—in Hebrew, “messiah”; in Greek, “Christ” (45.1)! This non-Israelite king brought an end to God’s punishment for the Judeans’ unfaithful actions that led to their exile (namely, entering into foreign alliances with Assyrians and Egypt, and revolting against Babylon). Cyrus thereby restored God’s honor and the honor of Israel before “all the nations” and “all the ends of the earth,” who would now see God’s salvation of Israel.
Textual note #3: The historical particularity of this geo-political “salvation” for ancient Israel is a challenge for Christian preachers. On the one hand, we need to deal with the difference between ancient and modern Israel. For Jewish and Christian Zionists, the continuity between ancient and modern Israel is direct and unbroken. Jewish and Christian Zionists see in the creation of the modern state of Israel “the return of the Lord to Zion.” However, Palestinian Christians and Muslims, together with their supporters around the world, see in the creation of the modern state of Israel the actions of diaspora Jews in alliance with imperial powers (at first Great Britain and France and then the United States). From their point of view, imperial powers have once again made exiles of the indigenous people of this land.
The other challenge that this text poses for Christian preachers today is similar to the first one. The prophet’s words are, in the first instance, for ancient Israel after the end of the Babylonian exile. The Apostle Paul transfers them to ancient Israel at the time of the spread of the gospel of Christ (Rom 10.15). If it is fair to ask whether or how the prophet’s words speak to the modern Israelis about “the return of the Lord to Zion,” it is also fair to ask what message, if any, they authorize Christian preachers to proclaim to non-Israelite Christians today on Christmas Day.
Of course, one answer is that they authorize proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills the prophet’s words first meant for ancient Israel. This proclamation has traditionally erased the ancient prophet’s original geo-political understanding of salvation and redemption and replaced it with a “merely” religious message about God’s forgiveness of sins by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The ancient prophet particularized Israel’s sins (namely, entering into foreign alliances with Assyrians and Egypt, and revolting against Babylon) and God’s forgiveness (namely, liberation from Babylonian captivity, return to Judea, and rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, all by God’s grace through Cyrus, the Persian king). Christian appropriation of the prophet’s words universalized them: “Zion” becomes a metaphor for the world, “Jerusalem’s ruins” become everyone’s lives ruined by sin, and “God’s salvation” becomes God’s timeless, all-merciful character. Redemption becomes liberation from guilt and, with it, the feeling of dread. That message has been a powerful one throughout the history of Christian preaching.
As an alternative, it is possible, in proclamation on Christmas Day, to appropriate the political character of the prophet’s words. The words “Your God reigns!” speak to the oppressed, whoever they are, whenever God’s “holy arm” sets them free from their oppression. As in the liberation of the exiled Judeans, God’s “holy arm” worked through the Persian King Cyrus, so also today God’s liberating, “holy arm” works through anyone whom God calls to the task. Every home, city, refugee camp lying in ruins at the hands of oppressors will sing for joy whenever God comforts them and redeems them through anyone whom God calls to the task.
Let us praise God for calling a gentile, the Persian king, to be the messiah who saved exiled Judeans. Let us praise God for calling messengers who proclaim God’s reign to oppressors and the oppressed. Let us praise God every Christmas Day for saving, not only sinners, but also those who are sinned against!
Psalm 98: The message of this psalm is essentially the same as Isa 52.7-10.
The traditional Christmas Day proclamation identifies Jesus as the Isaianic “messenger” with “beautiful feet.” The epistle reading for Christmas Day describes this “messenger” as “a son” who was active in the creation and rule of the universe, made “purification for sin,” and took a seat “at the right hand” of God. In Hebrews, God is known through prophets from “long ago” to “these last days,” when “a son” made God known. Nevertheless, Heb 1.1-4 is less about who the “son” is (later identified as Jesus) than about the person’s status and title (“a son”).
These verses comprise a single sentence, strung together by adverbial participles. Two finite verbs (“God has spoken” in v. 2 and “a Son took a seat” in v. 3) mark the main parts of this introduction (“exordium”) to Hebrews. My translation below shows the logical connection of the participial phrases to the main verbs.
Although long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many fragments and by many means through the prophets, 2 in these last days God has spoken to us through a Son, whom God made heir of all things—through whom God also created the spheres that make up the world—3 who, because he is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of the reality of God, and because he sustains all things by his powerful word and he had made purification for sins, he took a seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 so that he became as much superior to angels as he has inherited a name more excellent than theirs.
In v. 2, the phrase “a Son” is in contrast to prophets (v. 1) and angels (v. 4). The reference is not to an indefinite “son”—an unknown “son” or one “son” among many. Neither is the focus on the identity of “a son.” (The identity of “a son” does not come until 2.9.) Rather, its focus is on the status and reality of one who bears the title “son.” Unlike prophet and angel, “son” is a kinship term. The following seven descriptions of this “son” express the kinship relationship between God and this “son.”
The first (v. 2b) is about the “son” as “heir,” who inherits “all things” that belonged to God. God will put all things “under the feet” of the “son” (see 2.8).
The second (v. 2c) is about the role of the “son” in God’s work of creation. The author of Hebrews (or the source behind it) draws on Jewish Wisdom theology in ascribing to the “son” the role of Sophia in the creation of the universe.
The third (v. 3a) is about the “son’s” reality. Like Sophia, the “son” reflects and represents the very reality of God. Among the author’s proof-texts for these claims about the “son” is Psalm 45.6 (LXX 44.7), which the author introduces as something God said about the “son”: “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever, the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.” The “son” is not just divine; the “son” is “God” (!), even though the author distinguishes between the “son” and God.
The fourth (v. 3b) is about the role of the “son” as the one who upholds and rules the universe “through his powerful word”—the same “word” through which God, with the “son,” created the universe. The power of the “son” to create the universe is the same as the power to sustain and rule the universe (compare 2.8-9).
Up to this point, the author has focused on the pre-incarnate activity of the “son.” The fifth description (v. 3c) introduces the incarnate activity of the “son.” Here the focus is on the “son’s” act of making “purification for sins”—that is, the “son’s death” (compare 2.9). Later, the author will emphasize the “son’s” role as the final “high priest” who makes “purification for sins,” once and for all, through the singular, non-repeatable act of dying for the benefit of everyone (chapters 9-10).
The sixth description (v. 3d) is about the exaltation of the “son” to a seat “at the right hand of the Majesty on High,” a circumlocution for God (compare Psa 110.1). Noteworthy is the absence of a reference to resurrection, to which the only reference in Hebrews is 13.20. The reason for this “omission” is that the author has described the “son” in three periods: pre-incarnation, incarnation, and post-incarnation. The latter is a return to the “son’s” pre-incarnation reality as God’s co-creator and ruler of the universe (compare Phil 2.6-11).
The first five descriptions explain the reason why the “son” had a right to a seat “at the right hand” of God (compare “therefore” in Phil 2.9). The seventh and final description (v. 4) is the point to which this poetic string of characteristics of the “son” have been leading. All six add up to the unsurpassable superiority of the “son” to prophets and angels. The author supports this point with a series of proof-texts (vv. 5-12).
I am a great lover of the mountains, oceans, rivers and lakes, and the marvelous creatures that walk, swim, and fly above these beautiful landscapes. I look at them and marvel at God’s artistry. I also see in them God’s tender care for every living and non-living thing! But, would I with reason alone? Would I without the religious tradition that has formed my view of the world? Others who have grown up in other “wisdom” traditions might ask the same question. Would any of us “know God” if it weren’t for the traditions that formed our views of the world? I believe we would, at a deep, pre-reflective level of our subconscious feelings. At a more reflective level, one tradition or another (or several) has formed our “knowledge” of God.
All Christmas Day texts point to persons through whom people have encountered God. Isaiah focuses on geo-political events at the center of which were the actions of Cyrus, the Persian king, which revealed God’s salvation which, by implication, consisted of God’s reconciliation with God’s unfaithful people. Hebrews highlights the action of “a son” who, before becoming a person, was God’s agent of creation and ruler of the universe, but as a person made “purification from sin.” Like Hebrews, the Gospel for Christmas Day focuses on God’s appearance in Jesus. Jesus embodies and is God’s Word. Both Hebrews and John make us aware that God spoke through other messengers. Both also make it clear that what is distinctive about Jesus is not his message but who he is: the Word of God, full of grace and truth, and, in that sense, God’s “son.” In the past, God’s “Word” had brought life and enlightenment, and its light always overcame darkness. Now, in Jesus, God’s “Word” brings life and enlightenment in abundance, and God’s light shines spectacularly in the darkness!
Teaching seminary students to read John 1.1-18 in Greek, I always asked them to wrestle with the third person singular masculine pronouns. Most would immediately identify “him” and, therefore, “the Word” beginning with v. 1, with Jesus, which spoils the surprise in v. 14: namely, that “the Word” becomes Jesus through incarnation. I also required that they interpret the past tense in v. 9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming [Ἦν … ἐρχόμενον] into the world.” In Greek, one of the uses of this periphrastic imperfect is to signify the constant, habitual, or customary action of “the true light” from “the beginning” up to, and including, its incarnation in Jesus. Jesus bears decisive witness to the same divine “Word” and “true light” that had come into the world through messengers before Jesus.
In addition, I would ask them to consider the significance of different interpretations of the last phrase in 1.1 (καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος = “and the Word was God,” according to all traditional translations). At issue is that this Greek noun θεὸς without a definite article placed before the verb could be definite (“the God” or, less pedantically, simply “God”), indefinite (“a god”), or qualitative (“divine,” in the sense of having the same nature as God). Because the Greek allows all three interpretations, we need to test each option in context of 1.1-18. In 1.1-2, the phrases “the Word / ‘he’ was with God” implies a relationship, which makes simple identity (“the Word was God”) difficult. Later Trinitarian doctrine affirmed that God the Word is one/in union with and of the same nature as God the Father; nevertheless, that also implies a relationship between two “persons.” In 1.18, this relationship is described as physically intimate and emotionally affectionate (“at the Father’s side” / “in the Father’s bosom,” which the NRSV rightly translates as “near to the Father’s heart”), which seems to imply two distinct “persons.” In addition, 1.18 affirms that the one “in the Father’s bosom” / “near the Father’s heart” has made God known. Again, that would seem to imply two “persons.”
One possible resolution of this issue is to read John 1.1-5 as a recasting of Gen 1.1-3. “The Word” is God’s “speech,” which began the creation of the world. God’s creative speech revealed the reality of God as the creator of light and life. So now, God’s speech reveals God in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus Christ.
The poetic introduction (“exordium”) to the Gospel begins with God’s primordial “Word” (vv. 1-5). A prose parenthesis about John the Baptist (vv. 6-8) interrupts the poem. When it resumes in v. 9, it switches from the primordial divine Word to “the true light that enlightens all people” (see “the Light for all people” in v. 5, before the parenthetical break). Thereafter, the pronouns seem to refer to “the true Light.” In v. 14, the poet returns to the divine Word, implying the identification of “the true Light” and “the Word.” I see here a movement from the primordial divine Word as God’s agent in the creation of the universe (vv. 1-3), to God’s Word enlightening all people through messengers down through the ages, culminating in its incarnation in Jesus (vv. 4-14), who, however, is not named until v. 18.
What does it mean to say that the primordial divine Word became incarnate in Jesus? For one thing, it is not a statement of Jesus’ metaphysical uniqueness. That is the mistake of the early church’s Christological and Trinitarian dogmas—or of their misinterpretation. In the verses right before the statement about incarnation, and leading up to it, we read that everyone who receives/believes in the Light/Word become “children of God,…born, not from parental descent, nor from sexual desire, nor from a man or husband’s desire, but from God” (vv. 12-13). Every believer, like Jesus, is “born…from God,” a child in whom the divine Light/Word resides in the flesh! That is, the divine Light/Word plays a key role in the formation of every believer. The uniqueness that we claim for Jesus is that his words and deeds conform perfectly to the divine Light/Word. Believers, on the other hand, do not always conform their words and deeds to the divine Light/Word.
Because of that difference, proclamation on Christmas Day should be about what God has done and continues to do in, with, and through Jesus. It could include the witness others bear to what God is doing in the world insofar as their witness conforms to Jesus’decisive witness. What is that witness? It is to God’s creative gift of life and light: abundant life for everyone, and light that defeats darkness in everyone’s mind and heart.
For those of you who wish to consult study Bibles, I recommend the following:
- The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, ed. Walter J. Harrelson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).
- HarperCollins Study Bible: NRSV with the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books, Revised & Updated Edition, ed. Harold W. Attridge et al. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006).
- The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Isaiah 52.7-10, I recommend the following:
- The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 6:453-57.
- Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, eds. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page, and Matthew J. M. Coomber (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 710-14.
- The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992 [I had no access to the 1998 expanded edition]), 166-68.
- NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Isaiah+57:7 (or BibleWorks)
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Psalm 98, I recommend the following:
- The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:1071-73.
- Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, eds. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page, and Matthew J. M. Coomber (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 576-79.
- Marti J. Steussy, Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 166-68.
- The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992 [I had no access to the 1998 expanded edition]), 137-44.
- NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Psalms+98 (or BibleWorks)
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Hebrews 1.1-4, I recommend the following:
- Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 35-48.
- The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 12:21-24.
- Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 627-29.
- NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Hebrews+1 (or BibleWorks).
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on John 1.1-14, I recommend the following:
- The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 9:215-26.
- Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 269-71.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible, 29 (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 1-37.
- NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/John+1 (or BibleWorks).
David J. Lull, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature. As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.