Christmas Eve & Christmas Day (24-25 December 2018)

December 24, 2018 | by Robert Gnuse

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Isaiah 9:2-7 Psalm 96 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Isaiah 9:2-7

This oracle may have been provided by Isaiah early in the reign of king Hezekiah of Judah (early eighth century BCE), perhaps at his coronation. The expressions, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” were very similar to language used at the coronation of a pharaoh in Egypt. One suspects that the country of Judah, with its proximity to Egypt, may have used such language in its own court rituals for the coronation of a king. The subsequent reference to the “throne of David and his kingdom” reinforces this possible explanation. It is an intriguing theory, and if correct, would imply that these were well known terms with a great deal of sacred meaning attached to them in Judah.

Hezekiah is recalled by the Deuteronomistic History in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings as one of the two really good kings who followed David in ruling the southern kingdom of Judah. The other was Josiah around 620 BCE. The biblical historians lauded their devotion to Yahweh and their apparent exclusive worship of Yahweh in an age when kings and people in ancient Israel often worshipped a number of other gods in addition to the national god, Yahweh. (It is always good, they thought, to diversify your divine stock portfolio.) Hezekiah was also recalled as heeding the words of the prophet Isaiah. Their story is recalled not only in 2 Kings 18-20, but also in Isaiah 36-39, the apparent conclusion to First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39).

This oracle thus has an emotional memory connected to it. Not only a possible coronation formula used over the years, it also has a special connection to the Isaiah-Hezekiah relationship. Hezekiah was recalled as a good king, as the books of 2 Kings and Isaiah portray him. The narrative about the Assyrian Crisis of 701 BCE in which Jerusalem was delivered from the threat of an Assyrian army recalls the vindication of the hopeful vision of Isaiah and portrays Hezekiah as blessed by Yahweh in this political crisis. It is no wonder that Christians seized upon this oracle and saw it as speaking again to yet another and even greater king, Jesus. (Handel, of course, made the words immortal in his great musical piece, Messiah.)

The beginning of the oracle speaks of “people who walked in darkness” and most likely refers to Israelites who lived in the north under Assyrian rule when Hezekiah became king in 715 BCE. They hoped that Hezekiah would liberate them. Though it did not happen under Hezekiah, Jews would remember this oracle and hope for the liberation of all Jews someday.

Liberation came with Jesus, but not in the way that many expected—a military empire. With Jesus came spiritual liberation for more than just Jews; liberation was for all people for all the ages. The early Jewish Christians sensed the dramatic and ironic fulfillment of this great vision of hope and connected its meaning and fulfillment to Jesus.

The oracle thus spoke to many people over the years, from eighth century BCE Jews to ancient Christians, and ultimately to us today. Like so many oracles, the deep meaning of the message is eternal, but the various understandings of the message for the different audiences evolved over the years. This is so often how God works. A prophetic word is spoken, which can have many meanings through the ages, but it continues to speak of the presence and salvation of God to every generation. We celebrate the ultimate culmination of the oracle with the birth of Jesus and realize that once again this Christmas, the oracle speaks abiding hope to us. Jesus is in our midst, Jesus is in us, “we have seen a great light.”

Titus 2:11-14

This pastoral letter may have been written between 80-90 CE, or perhaps between 120-140 CE in the opinion of some scholars. Though addressed by Paul to Titus, who apparently is a bishop, it may be that the letter is written by Titus, as if to say, this is what Paul would say to me if he were alive today. (That assumes 80-90 CE as the date for the letter.) The letter provides “pastoral” advice to Titus as to how to engage in mission and ministry in the church.

This little section is like a song of praise in the letter. “We wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior,” says the text, words appropriate for the celebration of Christmas. While the rest of the world may not have considered the birth of a little baby in Judea as a significant event, those who have faith, see in this baby the powerful God of the universe coming down in humble human form. In the humility and simplicity of a baby we observe the manifest glory of our awesome God entering our world to affirm our human existence.

We celebrate the glory of God in the presence of the little baby who came into our midst, and the ultimate manifestations of that glory in the many ways we experience God in our everyday lives and in the life our of worshiping community. The author of Titus may be envisioning the final judgment to come at the end of time, whenever or whatever that might be. We, however, can broaden his focus and say that the “manifestation of the glory of our great God” has happened many times in Christian history and will continue to happen again. We can look forward to the coming year and the ways in which the glory of God will be manifest among us.

God, with an infinite sense of humor, manifests divine glory in the small simple form of a baby on that first Christmas and all subsequent Christmas celebrations. That small baby then was ignored by virtually everyone in the Roman empire. The same God may be manifest to us and in our lives in similar small and subtle ways in this coming year. We must have the eyes of faith not only to see that first coming of God, but also the repeated comings of God to us.

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

If you walked into the homes of many Christians in a former generation, you might have discovered an open Bible sitting on the piano, or the mantle of the fireplace, or some special display table. It would be permanently cracked open to Luke 2. As a display Bible, the rest of the pages might never have been turned. But the choice of Luke 2 as the display text in the most elegant Bible you can locate in your home was testimony to the significance of the passage in the hearts and minds of Christians in that former generation. (Nowadays, it is increasingly hard to locate a Bible in the home of many parishioners.)

If you are a process theologian, who speaks of the presence of God throughout human existence, and in the very nitty-gritty of much of human life, you cannot find a better text than the infancy narrative of Luke 2. For here is the story of God coming into our world as a helpless baby with a poor carpenter father, a teenage mother, and bedraggled poor peasant shepherds.

This beautiful Christmas text locates the birth of that little baby in the concrete history of the age, Augustus is Caesar and Quirinius is the governor of Syria (perhaps a military governor or civilian governor, depending on the date you give to the birth of Jesus). Both were powerful Roman rulers in an age of empire, wherein so many people were slaves or servile to the imperial rule of Rome. Neither man would give a damn about a little baby born in some obscure part of their overweening empire. It was an age of violence, wealth, oppression, indifference to the weak and poor, with the glorification of the rich, the powerful, and the beautiful. (It was kinda like nowadays, only a little worse. Well, it may be worse today in much of Asia and Africa.)

While the rich lounged in purple robes in their palaces, God snuck in through a small door into Bethlehem. While tyrants raged and wreaked havoc upon the poor and the oppressed, God snuck in through a small door into a stable. When the Jews anticipated a powerful messiah who would lead them into battle victoriously against the Romans, God snuck into the loving arms of a young teenage girl named Mary (who probably was shamed for being pregnant out of wedlock, the price you pay for being the “mother of God”). People look to the skies for the dramatic appearance of God, but God sneaks in behind you in the form of a crawling baby. God still does that today. This is how God enters into the process of the world, our human existence, and our everyday lives.

The little baby had an audience—poor, mangy shepherds, who probably smelled like their sheep. Kings sat in their palaces sated with wine, food, and sex, but the shepherds were on their knees in the wet grass and straw around the manger. Guess who God choose!

The angels sang their songs to the shepherds. I can imagine the angels complaining. “We’ve practiced this music for thousands of years, and the only people to hear it will be poor, dirty, uneducated shepherds.” God said, “Don’t worry, I will have Luke write it down.”

It is interesting to notice how much of the language about Jesus elsewhere in the biblical text is taken from the imperial cult of Caesar, which extols this Roman tyrant as a divine being. (Of course, that is the rhetoric designed to make people obey him.) Now in the gospels that imperial language describes a poor little Jewish baby born into dire poverty.

God has a great sense of humor. If God wanted a successful ministry, God should have been born in a palace, God should have been a great Greek philosopher, God should have been in Rome, the center of the empire, or God should have chosen an age with television, news media, tweet and twitter, for that would have gotten the message out sooner. But God . . . chose the violent, dirty first century CE, chose the bedraggled and conquered Jews in a distant corner of the Roman Empire, a poor little carpenter, a helpless young teenage girl, and a dirty stable and straw. God certainly should have started out life as a grown up, because most babies in human history and our world today die. They die before they even have a chance. God stacked the odds against himself/herself, perhaps to prove the power and the validity of the message. This is divine humor. This is also a divine statement about God’s solidarity with the poor and the weak.

Our God enters into the human process dramatically, our God enters the world and wallows in the most difficult of human existence, ultimately dying one of the most degrading deaths in human history. Can we talk any more dramatically about God being involved in the human process?

As we celebrate this Christmas in our warm homes and first world country, let us reflect upon how the God of the universe becomes part of our human existence. God comes in and enters places we would not think of, for that is the ultimate statement of grace and affirmation of human existence. God will enter our lives again and again. Beware, you never know how this God, with a divine sense of humor, may enter your life.

Psalm 96

This grand little Psalm is a great hymn of praise by which to laud God in the flesh, God in the form of a baby, the God who confounds all human logic by being born poor, helpless, and probably rather dirty in all that straw. This is the supreme God of the universe, who is lord over all the other gods. (I am not so sure that verse 6 actually denies their existence by simply saying that they are idols.) At any rate, this God is the most powerful deity in the divine realm by far. The nations, the heavens, the seas, the trees, all sing the praise of God. Mighty and majestic God truly describes this deity. One can especially envision the heavenly host singing this anthem of praise throughout all time and eternity.

So God decides to become a human being, a baby. He decides to become a baby in poor dirty country to struggling parents under the rule of an oppressive empire. I suspect that the angels had a fit. They tried to talk him into fifth century BCE Greece or maybe twenty-first century America. God held firm with the choice. God probably told the angels, “Stop acting in such excited fashion, quit fluttering around my throne—you’re getting feathers all over the floor, and furthermore you are going to sing at the event of my birth. Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Melissa, Tiffany, be quiet!,” says God. Praise to this powerful God who deigns to act in such a way. The angels dutifully memorize their sheet music. We sing Psalm 96 with them.

Robert Gnuse (Ph.D., M.A., 1978-80, Vanderbilt; M.Div., S.T.M., 1974-75, Concordia Seminary in Exile) teaches Old Testament at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he is the James C. Carter, S.J./Chase Bank Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. He also serves as part-time pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  in Marrero, LA (since 1989).